How to hunt small water divers

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 fascinated by the color portrait that unfolded before us. It was mind-boggling. The setting sun shone like a huge golden spotlight on the foliage on the other side of the lake and reflected in the sparkling water.

Then a sound echoed across the lake, breaking the silence. It looked like a jet turbine turning for takeoff. But we were hundreds of miles from any airport. The echo increased in intensity. Rich, a relatively novice duck hunter, asked what it was.

There was no time for explanation. “Get your gun!” I told him. I knew the sound well: the shrill whir air makes as it screams over feathers.

The herd of twelve and a half collars made a wide sash along the distant coastline and then came in like a squadron of fighter jets on a strafing mission. Rich and I stood up at the same time and emptied our guns. We didn’t touch a feather. The blackjacks turned and continued down the channel, connecting to the next lake in the chain. There was no time to lament our poor shooting. The next flight locked up and dove straight into our decoys. This time, three ringbirds lay belly up in the decoys, their feet clawing for air after the barrage. My yellow Lab, Buckshot, made short work of the pick-up, just in time before the next flight arrived. The shooting was hectic for 45 minutes before I announced the end of shooting time.


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

Diving ducks are associated with big water. They are widely believed to frequent the Great Lakes coastlines, bays and estuaries, vast lakes and reservoirs – and oceans. Waterfowl target them with boat blinds, layout rigs and massive amounts of decoys. But many waterfowl do not realize that a significant portion of the same ducks regularly visit smaller inland lakes during migration. The draw is food and shelter. Few hunters associate diving ducks with small inland lakes. They’re missing something.

Looking inland

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

“Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan are similar in that they are in the top half of the ecoregions,” Rush said. “The regions are divided between the Prairie Hardwood and Boreal Hardwood transitions.” Lay people usually call this the division between the southern beech/maple forests and the northern coniferous forests. The lakes in the southern region tend to be shallower, naturally more fertile, or eutrophic. Lakes, especially smaller lakes, found in the northern parts of these states tend to be clearer, colder and deeper with very low nutrient levels, known as oligotrophic. Lakes with moderate nutrient levels are called mesotrophic.


Finding food

“Diving ducks aren’t picky about what they eat,” Rush suggested. “Aquatic vegetation that thrives in the shallows and produces good seed heads is the best cuisine for diving ducks.” The ducks focus on the seed head versus the actual vegetation because they are rich in nutrients. They also love the tubers. Minnesota is legendary for its vast wild rice beds and ringnecks. Lakes in the other Great Lakes states produce similar scenarios. Michigan’s Houghton Lake once had extensive wild rice fields, but a combination of high water levels and noxious weed treatments have eliminated them.

Diving ducks also don’t care whether the menu contains good or bad weeds. The distinction mainly lies in whether the vegetation is native or invasive. Native vegetation, such as members of the genus Potomogeton, is a favorite of diving ducks, along with native species such as Richardson’s pondweed, American pondweed, duck potato or arrowhead, and bigleaf pondweed. Coontail, Elodea and Northern Yarrow are native species easily recognized by waterfowl who also fish and sought by divers. Invasive exotic species, such as Eurasian yarrow and Curly Leaf Pondweed, are less desirable by wildlife managers, but diving ducks could care less. Lakes with a diversity of aquatic plants are most desirable and used by diving ducks, especially when present in large quantities.

So, how do you actually proceed on these small bodies of water? Once you’ve decided to move away from the huge lakes and you and your friends have decided to see what the smaller bodies of water have in store, what then?

Find the birds!

Scouting is paramount in waterfowling, but it is especially important when hunting small lakes. Small water divers are often a today and tomorrow proposition. Divers typically jump from one lake to another before it freezes over. “Migration is highly weather dependent. Waterfowl tend to move more quickly through small lakes in the spring as they migrate north to their breeding grounds. During the fall, you’ll see more divers in emerging coastal marshes, especially when the weather on the Great Lakes is too rough. All species have different migration patterns. Some are quite consistent, some species seek out 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 are looking for shallow lakes and emerging wetlands with vegetation,” Rush said.

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

During the peak of 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 sticking around until the bitter end. However, everything is subject to change. Last year I shot a goldeneye on opening day in early October.

If the small lake you hunt is not far from a large body of water, nasty, windy days can be great. Birds do not like being pushed and bounced on large waves and will congregate in inland lakes for shelter and food. Strong northerly winds usually encourage migrations, and hunting in this case can be consistently good for a week or more.

Last season I visited a local lake to explore. I saw a few scattered flocks of buffalo heads, 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 herd of 500 divers within 50 meters of the shore. They spent 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 had disappeared. These are the ways of small water.

Blindly up

Boat sun protection gives you a lot of flexibility. You can quickly launch on any lake where you encounter ducks. With a boat you can position yourself where conditions are favorable, ducks congregate and take advantage of favorable winds. You can equip the boat with a commercially available roller blind, or build one yourself. With a Deirks anchor release you can raise and lower an anchor easily and quickly. Having a second anchor at the stern is beneficial for keeping the boat parallel to the decoys. I had a grass pontoon boat, the ultimate rig for little water divers. We could anchor anywhere and look like any other island to casual divers. The pontoon was comfortable to hunt from, and the stable platform made placing an array of decoys easy.

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

You don’t need a huge amount of decoys for small water divers. My typical spread consisted of twenty redheads and cans. Half of them were sleepers. I use another two dozen bluebills and half a dozen drake buffleheads to make a J hook. The reds and cans were on maternal lines. I had set out a long line of 45 to 60 yards leading to the spread and another short line next to it to widen the spread. The bluebills were on separate lines and those were used to make the hook. At the end of the J I would place the drake butterballs for visibility because buffleheads like to land with their own kind. The boat can be placed parallel to the hook or along the mother lines depending on the wind and how the birds are working.

My friend, who guided dive 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. Today that means number 4 steel or number 5 shot in non-toxic charges. It’s always good to have some number 7 steel in your shell loops to quickly anchor injured birds. If a crippled diver ever surfaces, you might be able to catch him. If he does that twice, he’s probably 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 built a duck boat a few years ago to hunt water. Trying to be different. We hunt larger bodies of water,” he said. Stahl’s answer is typical of most waterfowlers who target divers. That means even more options for those who have discovered small water divers.

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

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