Focus on decoy placement and boat position.
I saw them coming from 300 yards away. Actually, I had been watching the pair of hunters parked near the shoreline for much of the morning.
"Those all yours?" the camo-clad fellow in the stern queried in disbelief as his buddy cut the engine to an idle. "Man, it must take you forever to pick up."
I nodded, peering proudly out over my bobbing flotilla of diver fakes.
"It's worth the effort," I replied.
"We couldn't get anything to decoy," the outboard operator admitted. "You're lucky. You have the hotspot today."
He was correct -- I had the hotspot. But my success stemmed from more than luck.
Through reading, studying decoy diagrams, watching birds and experiencing many trial-and-error hunts, I have figured out a pattern to consistently shoot diving ducks on smaller, shallow lakes with emergent weed cover.
My Rig and Spread
I hunt from a 15-foot-long, modified-V hulled johnboat powered by a 15-horsepower short-shaft outboard motor. To be honest, I often wish I had a 25 hp, but the 15 is enough motor to get me everywhere I've ever needed to go. My boat is a standard john without a middle bench. I installed a plywood floor, which makes a stable shooting platform for the bar stools I hunt from after raising the sides of my scissors-style boat blind. Fully enclosed by woven mats of cattails, my boat blends well with most types of emergent cover on the lakes I hunt.
As much as I've adapted my boat to hunt divers, the key to killing the diver big six -- bluebills, ring-necked ducks, redheads, canvasbacks, goldeneyes and buffleheads -- is decoys.
Now, diving ducks are typically not the most wary of fowl, but on most days, they won't just pitch perfectly into a half-dozen mallard decoys, either. And simply adding a dozen bluebills to a puddle duck set doesn't always get the job done.
To kill bluebills, redheads and canvasbacks, you need to set a spread focused on diving ducks. My diver rig consists of 30 bluebills, 12 magnum redheads, 12 cans, 12 ringers and four buffleheads. On big water, 70 decoys is a small spread. But on lakes of a few hundred acres, my diver set draws ducks beautifully.
Decoy numbers alone are important, but the arrangement enhances the power of a diver spread.
I prefer to run a portion of my decoys on longlines. I have four 90-foot lines, and run a dozen decoys on each one. Longlines serve me well when hunting solo, especially if the wind is howling as I'm picking up. More importantly, the lines allow me to space decoys neatly. I prefer to have about five feet between decoys.
Typically, I start setting with my canvasback line. I run the line 15 yards out from the cover where I intend to park the boat, with the closest decoy about 10 yards downwind.
Next, I run a string of bluebills a few yards outside of the canvasback line, again starting it about 10 yards downwind. I'll run another dozen bluebills on a line just outside of it.
Then, I set my redheads as the outside line, this time starting the first block 20 yards downwind to give my spread a tail. I place the redheads farthest out simply because they are my largest decoys.
With the longlines in place, I often decide to add to my redhead tail by tossing a few single-dropper-rigged bluebills on the downwind end. If you do this, make sure your tail singles don't wad up, but rather just act as an extension of your longest string. A little bunch of decoys way out encourages singles and pairs to land with them. The goal is to get the ducks to dash all of the way up the line to the head of the spread.
After I'm satisfied with my line placement and tail, I motor to the upwind (front) of my spread. There, I begin pitching single decoys to complete a hook or an L-shape. I want the single decoys to be unevenly spaced and tighter than the decoys on my lines. I'm trying to emulate a group of divers that have found the feed.
I have used this configuration ever since the morning I watched a mixed group of redheads, ringers and bluebills feed for an hour. The actively diving birds moved into a tight group, while the content birds spread out in a loose line nearby. My other important observation: Every time more divers joined the flock, they always landed toward the head of the chow line.
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Wind and Boat Position
Wind direction dictates which corner of the weeds to park my boat, as well as where to place the decoys. And you want to position your boat on a corner, not in the middle of a large expanse of weeds. Divers are open-water ducks, so they generally stay away from larger emergent weedbeds. They navigate the edges, and they fly low. If you are in the middle of the weedbed, you might have ducks 20 yards away behind you and never be able to see them to shoot.
Most of the lakes I hunt have decent cattail stands, cane beds or wild rice plants growing well away from shore. I like to be as far out into the lake as possible, unless an island or other obstruction creates a flight funnel. The best weed beds are just large enough to hide my boat and are fully surrounded by 100 yards of open water in every direction.
I want the ducks to decoy across the length of the boat so all shooters have a crossing target for as long as possible. On their final approach, diving ducks almost always land directly into the wind. I park the boat parallel to the strings of decoys.
A super important point: I always position my decoys so incoming ducks are attempting to land while facing open water. If the ducks are facing the weeds hiding the boat on their final swing, they often veer at the far end of the string or land short of the decoys.
Sometimes, I vary the decoy placement strategy described earlier. For hunts in light or changing winds, I often connect two of my longlines to create a much longer tail. My goal is to collect and guide ducks that might be inclined to circle a bit farther out on still d
I also make adjustments based on the species I expect to encounter. On canvasback flight days, I'll usually incorporate the can line into my tail. If goldeneyes are present in large numbers, I tend to place my black-and-white bufflehead decoys far to one side, separating them from the rest of the spread by 20 yards or so. In my experience, goldeneyes won't run my diver gauntlet, but they are often willing to strafe a side of it, usually within gunning range. Of the diver species I typically hunt, goldeneyes and buffleheads show the most preference to land with their own kind.
At times, I will pitch a dozen or more mallards out of the wind around the corner and tight to the weeds. Ironically, I have found that most of the decoying mallards come up the diver line just like bluebills and redheads. Teal, especially migrating greenwings, readily decoy to my diver rig, and I've dropped my share of gadwalls next to my redhead and canvasback fakes, too.
I've tried running an X pattern, and it can be excellent, but I tend to use it only when hunting from a small weedbed where hunters can shoot in every direction. Normally, my goal is to direct the ducks to approach and try to land in one specific area. An X encourages several different landing approaches. With a larger boat and more hunters, that becomes more desirable than in my two-man diver operation.
For diving duck success on small lakes, I park my boat on the edge of a weedbed as far into the lake as possible, set up decoys to emulate a feeding flock of 70 divers and place the spread to land the ducks into the wind while facing open water.
If the diver flight is in, you'll be in the divers.
Paul Wait is editor of Wildfowl.