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How To Hunt Small Water Divers

Great Diver Hunting isn't Just for the Big Lakes and Rivers

How To Hunt Small Water Divers
(Photo courtesy of WILDFOWL Magazine)

Rich Shannon and I hadn’t spoken in probably half an hour. We were both mesmerized by the portrait of colors unfolding before us. It was dumbfounding. The setting sun shone like a massive golden spotlight on the foliage on the far side of the lake, reflecting in the shimmering water.  

Then, a noise reverberated across the lake, breaking the silence. It resembled a jet turbine revving for take-off. But we were hundreds of miles from any airport. The echo amplified in intensity. Rich, a relatively novice duck hunter, asked what it was.

There wasn’t time for an explanation. “Grab your gun!” I told him. I knew the sound well—the shrill whoosh that air makes when screaming across feathers.

The flock of a dozen and a half ringnecks made a wide sashay along the far shoreline and then came boring in like a squadron of jet fighters on a strafing mission.  Rich and I rose in unison and emptied our guns. We didn’t touch a feather. The blackjacks wheeled and continued down the channel, connecting to the next lake in the chain. There wasn’t time to lament our poor shooting. The next flight was locked up, diving straight into our decoys. This time, three ringbills laid belly up in the decoys with their feet clawing for air after the barrage. My yellow Lab, Buckshot, made short work of the retrieves just in time before the next flight arrived. The shooting was frantic for 45 minutes before I announced the end of shooting time.

A bufflehead duck decoy.
(Photo courtesy of WILDFOWL Magazine.)

Diving ducks are associated with big water. They’re commonly thought of as frequenting Great Lakes shorelines, bays and estuaries, expansive lakes and reservoirs—and oceans. Waterfowlers target them with boat blinds, layout rigs, and massive spreads of decoys. But many waterfowlers don’t realize a significant portion of these same ducks regularly frequent smaller inland lakes during the migration. The draw is food and shelter. Few hunters associate diving ducks and small inland lakes. They’re missing out.

Looking Inland

“The reason you see so many diving ducks using inland lakes is they’re more fertile than the big lakes,” explained Kali Rush, Ducks Unlimited Regional Biologist for the Great Lakes Initiative. “There’s a big difference between the ducks you’ll see using smaller inland lakes in Minnesota versus Michigan because of Minnesota’s proximity to the prairies.” Michigan and Wisconsin benefit from the Great Lakes, which are a massive draw for diving ducks, especially those that nest in the northern boreal forest of Canada.

“Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan are similar in that they are located in the upper half of eco-regions,” Rush said. “The regions are divided between the Prairie Hardwood and Boreal Hardwood Transitions.” Laymen typically refer to this as the division between the southern beech/maple and northern coniferous forests. The lakes in the southern region tend to be shallower, more naturally fertile, or eutrophic. Lakes, especially smaller lakes, found in the northern portions of these states tend to be clearer, colder, and deeper with very low nutrient levels, termed oligotrophic. Lakes with moderate nutrient levels are referred to as mesotrophic.

Finding Food

“Diving ducks are not picky about what they eat,” suggested Rush. “Aquatic vegetation that flourishes in the shallows that produce a good seed head is prime diving duck cuisine.” The ducks focus on the seed head versus the actual vegetation because they’re nutrient-rich. They also love the tubers. Minnesota is legendary for its expansive wild rice beds and ringnecks. Lakes in the other Great Lakes states produce similar scenarios. Michigan’s Houghton Lake once boasted expansive wild rice beds, but a combination of high-water levels and noxious weed treatments have eliminated them.  

Diving ducks don’t care if the menu is either good or bad weeds, either. The distinction is mainly whether the vegetation is native or invasive. Native vegetation, like members of the genus Potomogeton, is a favorite of diving ducks along with native species like Richardson’s pondweed, American pondweed, duck potato or arrowhead, and large-leaf pondweed. Coontail, Elodea, and Northern milfoil are native species easily recognizable by waterfowlers who also fish and are sought out by divers. Invasive exotics, like Eurasian Milfoil and Curly Leaf Pondweed, are less desirable by wildlife managers, but diving ducks could care less. Lakes with a diversity of aquatic vegetation are most desirable and utilized by diving ducks, especially when present in copious amounts.

So, how does one go about actually hunting these small bodies of water? Once you've decided to pull away from the massive lakes and you and your friends have decided to take a look at what the smaller water has in store, what then?

Find the Birds!

Scouting is paramount when waterfowling, but it’s especially important when hunting small lakes. Small-water divers are often a here-today, gone-tomorrow proposition. Divers typically hop from one lake to another ahead of freeze-up. “Migration is highly weather dependent. Waterfowl tend to move through small lakes more quickly in the spring as they head north to their breeding areas. During the fall, you’ll see more divers in coastal emergent marshes, especially when the weather on the Great Lakes is too rough. All species have different migration patterns. Some are pretty consistent, some species will search for open water and move just far enough south to escape the ice (e.g., mallards). Waterfowl are looking for carbohydrates to fuel their migration, so they’re looking for shallow lakes and emergent wetlands with vegetation,” said Rush. 

Hunter in a layout boat.
(Photo courtesy of WILDFOWL Magazine.)

During the peak of the fall migration, there can be a steady influx of birds. Ringnecks are generally the first divers to show up, followed by bluebills and redheads with buffleheads and goldeneyes hanging on until the bitter end. Everything is subject to change, however. Last year, I shot a goldeneye on opening day in early October. 

Recommended


If the small lake you hunt isn’t far from a significant body of water, then nasty, windy days can be stellar. Birds don’t like getting jostled and bounced around on big waves and will pile into inland lakes for shelter and food. Strong north winds usually spur migrations, and hunting can be consistently good for a week or more when this happens. 

Last season, I visited a local lake to scout. I saw a few scattered flocks of buffleheads, but nothing to get too excited about. I went to the other side, near a local park where I rarely see many birds.  I put the binoculars to my face and was shocked. There was a flock of 500 divers at most 50 yards from shore. They were spending more time underwater than above. It was a mix of a few cans, redheads, bluebills, ringnecks, and butterballs. I couldn’t go that afternoon or the next day, so it was two days before I could hunt. Unfortunately, the birds were gone. Such are the ways of small water.

Blind Up

Boat blinds give you plenty of flexibility. You can quickly launch on any lake you find ducks. A boat allows you to position where conditions are favorable, ducks are congregated and take advantage of favorable winds. You can outfit the boat with a commercially made blind or construct one of your own. A Deirks anchor release makes getting an anchor up and down easy and quick. Having a second anchor on the stern is advantageous to keep the boat parallel to the decoys. I had a grassed pontoon boat, the ultimate small water diver rig. We could anchor anywhere and look like any other island in the eyes of transient divers. The pontoon was comfortable to hunt out of, and the stable platform made setting a spread of decoys easy. 

Hunters in a boat blind.
(Photo courtesy of WILDFOWL Magazine.)

You don’t need a massive spread of decoys for small-water divers. My typical spread consisted of two dozen redheads and cans. Half of those were sleepers. I use another two dozen bluebills and a half dozen drake buffleheads to create a J-hook. The reds and cans were on mother lines. I’d set a long 150- to 200-foot line leading into the spread and another short line next to it to bulk up the spread. The bluebills were on individual lines, and those were used to create the hook. At the end of the J, I’d put the drake butterballs for visibility because buffleheads love landing with their own kind. The boat could be positioned parallel to the hook or alongside the mother lines, depending on the wind and how the birds work. 

My friend who used to guide diver hunters on Lake St. Clair was a big fan of 7-1/2 shot for divers when lead was legal. He reasoned that a dense pattern that could penetrate thick feathers was best. Nowadays, that means number 4 steel or number 5 shot in non-toxic loads. Having some number 7 steel in your shell loops is always good to anchor wounded birds quickly. If a crippled diver surfaces once, you might get him. Let him do that twice, and he’s likely gone. Modified chokes work well with the fine shot. 

I asked a friend and avid waterfowler, Shawn Stahl if he hunted divers on small lakes. “I don’t. I just built a duck boat a couple of years ago to hunt water. Trying to be different. We hunt bigger bodies of water,” he said. Stahl’s reply is typical of most waterfowlers who target divers. That means even more opportunities for those who have discovered small-water divers.  

(This article originally appeared in the November 2023 edition of WILDFOWL Magazine)




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