Sleet, riding 30 knot winds on the teeth of a cracking nor’wester, slams against the windows of Byrd High School’s gym. My buddy Scott looks up from his studious attempt at a foul shot, glances at the window – then at me, and utters three words that will blow my skull for the rest of my life: “Duck hunting time!”
“Alright”, I think, “What the heck. I killed my first deer four years ago and already have two fine turkey beards hanging on the wall. I’m game – I think…”
Four of us slip away from last-hour P.E. class only a little early. Home to gear up, then rendezvous at Scott’s house. A cramped, thrill-a-minute drive in his Volkswagen over ice-glazed roads gets us to the marina on Cross Lake just before 4 PM. A pounding ride in a 14-foot johnboat takes us across the open waters of the lake to his father’s blind with its seasonally permanent spread of almost 250 decoys, now bouncing and jerking wildly at their tethers. Scott maneuvers the boat through the blind’s brush and into the stall, ties it off, and we climb the rough-hewn ladder into the shooting box, two of us on each end of the blind.
As we shiver in the frigid gale, I am informed that the more miserable the weather is, the better it is for duck hunting. “Then this must be fantastic!” I think. But only one bird decoys – a drake ringneck duck that bores through my friends’ barrages but drops to a No. 8 high-house shot for me. One shot, one duck – “Nothing to this…” Except for the fact that that one duck and the conditions under which it was taken aroused my fervor more than the previous five years of deer and turkey hunting experiences ever had!
For a present that Christmas I received a dozen decoys, then a dozen more for my birthday in July. Then an abbreviated season – in combination with a flaming romance that took all of Scott’s “extra time” – forced me to do it on my own.
On a day made for duck hunting I located an abandoned, brushless, elevated box-blind in a slough off of Wallace Lake’s channel, set my decoys all around it, and tied off the rented johnboat to it. Then I climbed precariously to a point inside the rotting timbers and tried my best to look like a dead tree-branch. The ducks were almost convinced, approaching to within maximum range before flaring off. Three hours and a box-and-a-half of shells later (That after gaining Class B status on the skeet range!), I had one wood duck, one ringneck, and a very bad attitude.
With spring came graduation. My parents’ gift to me was an 11-foot duckboat; my present to myself was 18 of Herter’s wonderful Model 50 decoys – 12 bluebills and 6 mallards. My spread, as well as my conviction, was growing.
Back from college on Thanksgiving break, Scott (His romantic fire still burning but not quite as hotly.) and I made a hunt from his father’s new blind on Wallace Lake – a “Big-lake Hilton” model with all the comforts of home built in a small brake of cypresses on the edge of a shallow slough. Though better camouflaged than other blinds in the area, it still looked pretty obvious, but 300 decoys bobbed invitingly in the north breeze, and the flight ducks came – gadwalls mostly. My shooting was only a little better, as the birds worked just to the edge of the vast spread.
During the next few days, while alone in my duckboat, I explored some secluded sloughs a mile or so east of Scott’s father’s blind. One of them – a small open pocket in the trees – was literally carpeted with wood ducks and ringnecks, and there I made a discovery that would have a distinct affect on almost all of my future duck-hunting endeavors.
After setting my spread over the entire pocket, leaving an opening in the center for incoming birds to target, I shoved the boat into a thick accumulation of low-profile brush and close-knit cypresses and lay down in it, my head resting on a cushion and about eye-level with the cockpit’s splash-rail. With nothing in my “blind” more than a foot above the water’s surface, and with the three empty burlap decoy-sacks laid across the end of the boat nearest the decoys to break its outline, the ducks came better than I had ever experienced. My shooting improved noticeably!
For three seasons I hunted that pocket – no real blind, no supplementary cover except for the decoy sacks, and only one moderate case of dampness-induced pneumonia. And for the most part I enjoyed very good shooting, even on days when the “Hiltons” remained silent.
Being a staunch Southern traditionalist – even at such an early age – as well as a duck-hunting fanatic, I received another hunting-associated present for my 21st birthday: a 12-gauge Beretta double, 30-inch barrels, modified and full – a fowling piece. I suggested it because I felt a duck hunter should shoot a double; the reason I began to hit better with it was probably because the twin barrels provided a wider sighting plane for my already weak vision. I also began using a handload consisting of 1 1/8-ounces of low-powered sixes – much less conducive to flinch-caused misses than the short-mag loads I had been using previously.
Barbara – my wife of less than a year – and I moved to the lower Mississippi River Delta during the summer of 1968. Shortly thereafter I purchased a dozen Herter’s Model 50 pintails to augment my spread. As opening day approached, my blind – low and insignificant-looking in the spartina grass at the edge of a small, weedy pond in the nearby marsh – and my confidence in the new shotgun and handloads convinced me that everything was shaping up for the pinnacle of my duck-hunting experiences.
In the dark I paddled across the canal and into the marsh, then followed a small, winding cut to my pond. At least, I thought it was my pond – I couldn’t find the blind!
Daybreak. With the first distant shots, the marsh around me erupts in flapping, quacking, and whistling bedlam. Desperate new, lest I miss out on the hottest hour of the day, I search. Finally, I find its remains – stubble, all that is left after supper for a pack of ravaging nutrias.
Now in full light and with ducks pitching in all around me, I know I must revert to my “lay-out” technique. I set the spread in a fishhook pattern with the tapering shank downwind and a mass of decoys in the bend, push the duckboat into a tiny opening in the grass and well back from the edge of the pond, and lay down in it. And within a half-hour I limit on a pintail and two teal. Who needs a blind?
I hunted the grass in that marsh successfully for three seasons, taking frequent limits of teal and gadwalls. Pintails, however, were scarce, and I had become almost obsessed with their pursuit.
On a mid-autumn fishing trip into a freshwater marsh down Tante Phine Pass, a friend and I stumbled onto what must have been a significant percentage of the continental population of the long white necks. With the vegetation – duck potato – still standing during the season’s first split, the lay-out tactic in conjunction with a large log that had washed ashore at the edge of a pond again proved effective. But between splits the winter die-off occurred, and on opening day of the late season I was greeted with wide open water and bare mud-flats. I didn’t get a shot, and it finally became clear that if I was going to consistently shoot pintails, my no-blind freelancing days were over.
Having always had a tendency to slightly “over-engineer” my outdoor projects, my idea for the first blind met the same fate. Concealment of any type in the now barren marsh had to require a very low profile. Therefore the ideal set-up should be sub-surface. However, the nature of the local goop does not does not allow the creation of a standard pit-blind. If I could manage to sink a 55-gallon drum, though, hunt out of it in chest waders, and carry just enough brush to break the boat’s outline, maybe…
On my next sortie into pintail country such a drum and a shovel accompanied my normal hunting gear. I had cut out one end of the drum, along with a slot in one side for sitting in, and had punched several holes in its bottom to allow it to sink. Upon reaching my desired location I was first confronted with the difficulty of standing upright in the bottomless ooze in order to dig the hole – which almost instantly filled itself back in. Finally I removed enough of the slop to set the drum – which refused to sink. After two hours of physical exertion unparalleled in my entire life, I abandoned the project, brushed my boat rather than the drum, lay out in it, and shortly had my limit of pintails.
So my immediate problem seemed to be rather easily remedied by just carrying along enough brush on each hunt to adequately conceal the boat. I remained low and had the ability to set up on winds of any direction. The ducks suffered – until Allain, an old college buddy, returned from overseas duty with the navy. He was almost – but not quite – as nuts about duck hunting as I was. And he was hot to hunt ‘em.
Due to the addition of his 220 pounds to the duckboat, our initial hunt together down Tante Phine required first setting the spread, then cutting brush on a nearby island, then returning to the decoys and blinding the boat. Shooting was awkward, but the combination of low visibility and a pretty stiff breeze made for a fair day.
By the next morning wave-action from the wind-driven rising tide had washed away most of the previous day’s concealment, so the same procedure had to be followed. Bright sunlight and the relatively meager amount of brush that we could carry made for a tough hunt; most of the interested birds flared away out of range, and the tight confines of the duckboat were good only for leg cramps. Some changes were definitely in order.
Blind idea #2 became a rare show of brilliance combined with a little luck in finding the near-perfect spot for it. A small pond lay in the marsh just to the north of the large bay between Tiger and Tante Phine Passes. With only a little difficulty I transported a 4-foot-square oak pallet to the pond on a high-tide day and secured it with two 8-foot lengths of 1-inch galvanized pipe. Then, with only me in the boat, I cut plenty of brush much greater in length than before, most of which was jammed into the mud to prevent the high-tide waves from washing it away. Soon I had a low, roomy, almost natural-looking blind with a solid floor and a pair of cinder blocks to sit on, the top of my head then being less than two feet above the surrounding mud-flat.
For six years – with only a few nutria-supper disasters – Allain and I pounded ‘em from my pallet-blind. The shots were typically easy, mostly on totally-duped widgeons and pintails hovering over the decoys. But on infrequent occasions – just often enough to shift my “engineering” tendencies into gear – the birds would make a high pass over the spread and alight in the open waters of the bay that lay before us. There they would pull any newcomers away from our spread. Something had to be done about that.
The bay is only a little deeper than the pond, but it gets very choppy when the wind blows, especially on high tides – no way to create a lay-out set-up there. And a platform blind, built high enough to prevent wave-driven destruction, would stand out like a lighthouse. Maybe a floating blind would work – something like some of those I had seen on the lakes around Shreveport…
At work on my production platform in Black Bay I come across some 15-foot lengths of 2×12-inch creosoted planks that had been intended for a project that was never done. A pair of those, secured with piling bolts, just might make a pontoon – if it would float. I procure four on speculation, ship them to the dock on a work boat, and transfer them home on my bassboat’s trailer.
The blind is created and prefabricated in the yard. Uprights, cross-beams, and spuds are cut from lightweight galvanized pipe and assembled, as is the chicken-wire that covers the whole thing in order to hold the brush. On the lawn it looks fantastic.
I time its launching with the highest tide during the week prior to the opening of the season’s first split – absolutely essential for crossing the shallow bay in my bassboat with it. The boat is then launched and left at the little back-down ramp behind the Venice refinery, and I return to the house to load the disassembled blind onto the trailer and then return to the ramp. There I re-assemble it on the ramp, tie the boat onto it, and with an enormous amount of spectator interest, I pull it slowly into the water. It floats!
Away from the ramp now, I maneuver the bassboat inside it, tie off on opposing uprights, and make the slow journey down the passes and across the bay without incident. Upon reaching my spot I back out of the blind and set it in place with spuds on either end, secure in the knowledge that it will easily rise and fall with the tide. Then I gather an immense load of brush and thread it all through the chicken wire, leaving two holes in the top of it for us to come up shooting. Then, standing off a ways, I marvel at my creation.
Allain appears, unknowing of my engineering masterpiece, for supper on the eve of opening day, a tradition that includes staying up too late as we reminisce past hunts and speculate on future ones. A short nap, then it’s time.
Low tide in the morning requires paddling the duckboat to the blind. As we near it the bay’s surface seems to lift into the lightening eastern sky behind it – man, we are going to massacre ‘em!
Allain is duly impressed with my accomplishment, equally so with the results of two days of hunting from it – fine times even though we are confronted with relatively clear, warm weather and light winds. Then a hard norther screams across the Delta, and throughout the next work-week I wonder how my masterpiece is faring.
The tide is still well below normal from the persistent offshore blow, and the blind’s “pontoons” are resting in the mud, during my third hunt from it – another very good one. But between that one and the next, a strong southerly pushes the water back inshore, way above normal, and I arrive to find that the waves have beaten the sides of my blind into shambles. The pontoons had not relinquished their hold on bottom as the water rose.
The short but sweet life of “Pete’s Perfect Floating Duck-Blind” occurred in 1976. It may be significant that my creation was the last “permanent” hide that I built for hunting the Delta. Shortly afterward I bought a 13-foot aluminum canoe – much more roomy and almost as low as the duckboat – painted it camouflage, and reverted to my lay-out tactics (Or “low-sit” tactics when two of us hunted from it).
The marsh creating my pintail heaven that was the site of the pallet blind and the floating blind down Tante Phine Pass has long been eroded away. Other spots have since come and gone – real sweet-spots during the high-limit days that gave up the long white necks in almost embarrassing numbers. Many of those hunts were hard ones, pushing a boatload of decoys and brush through the mud on low tides to reach a long point or a shallow pocket in a bay’s shoreline. Many of them were also easy hunts, when all I had to do was paddle to a patch of flooded grass, set my spread around it, shove the canoe into it, lay down, and pick the drakes. But most were good hunts, made that much better by maintaining as low and as natural a hide as I could, allowing the birds to work close – unaware – cupped wings and coming – feet down – now…
(Game & Fish Publications 11-1992)
Playing it Safe
Louisiana’s coastal duck hunting is great sport, but if you don’t think about what you are doing – or trying to do, it can kill you.
When I supervised drilling and workover rigs for the late Gulf Oil Co., I had a work philosophy that turned out to be hard to beat: “Staying out of trouble is a lot better than getting out of it!” By holding to that belief I made the company a lot of money, and in over 10 years of my holding that position only one person on my rig was seriously injured – and that was because of some idiot-stunt performed by someone else. I wish I could say I have always adhered to that belief in my duck hunting endeavors.
Duck hunting is fraught with perils simply because of its design: cold weather and water. Those are ends that can kill you. The means leading to those ends are often not so well defined, and if you hunt often enough, sooner or later you will be confronted with one or more of them. Every season many of us are, and every season those means lead to the ends of a few of us. They once got me real, real close to my end.
November 10, 1973 – opening day of the first split – a traditional hunt that my good friend, Allain, and I shared for well over a decade.
A strong norther has just blown through, and at launching time we discover that its 40-knot blasts have already driven the tide well below normal. But we make the short run from Tidewater down Tante Phine Pass without incident, anchor the bass-boat in the sheltered water of the little canal, launch and load the duck-boat, and begin the half-mile paddle across the shallow bay to my blind.
The bay is now less than a foot deep, and even in the exposed waters of the long north/south “neck” on its western edge, the gale-driven waves are small and of no concern. We reach the protected water under the lee of the bay’s north shoreline, soon gain the mouth of the small tidal cut, and finally reach the opening in the duck potatoes which is my pond.
The setting there looked ideal during my pre-season scouting and blind-building trips. The deep water of the cut which almost bisected the pond on a north/south line offered easy access, even on low tides, to my blind which was set on the cut’s northwest point. Widgeon grass grew profusely on the flats adjacent to the cut to supplement the surrounding potatoes as duck-protein. Feed and sheltered water for the birds, along with as easy a set-up as it gets in the coastal marshes, promised great hunts. But this morning is extreme. The widgeon grass now lies matted in maybe two inches of water, and the tide is still losing. It’s going to be a tough hunt.
We set the decoys in a horseshoe, one of its legs in the cut, the opening between them in front of the blind, and the other leg on the flats. There is not enough water now to float the boat, so I must get out and push it across the bottomless goop – the real Louisiana gumbo – to finish setting the spread and then regain the deeper water of the cut. There I re-board, and we paddle to the blind.
Low, scudding clouds – the remainder of the thick overcast created by last-night’s front – give way to a bright sunrise. With that the sky takes on another burden – ducks, and a few come. But by eight o’clock the decoys in the spread’s right leg are canted awkwardly on the grassy mud. Even those along the edge of the cut now move only with the strongest of the wind’s gusts – still reaching 40 and more. We have taken seven birds; now the morning flight is over, and our spread offers little promise for any further shots – and there is no way we can pick up the decoys and head home. So we wait…
At eleven o’clock a film of water begins to creep across the mud. By one the tide has risen enough to float the boat, but it still takes an hour to pick up the spread: 40 of my beloved Herter’s decoys, their fresh paint now covered with mud and caked grass. The air temperature is still in the 40’s, but we have built up a sweat by the exertion.
The tide is rising hard against us now as we paddle down the cut, but we lose the force of that flow as we turn at the cut’s mouth and head west – under the lee of the north bank. Then we enter the “neck” with the wind hard on our starboard, the tide hard on our port, and into a maelstrom. The waves, churning now from the increased water depth and the confluence of tide and wind, seem to come from all directions at once, beating and breaking against the sides of the duck-boat. Spray flies unceasingly as we continue on. We are taking water.
Tack right; head straight into it! Too late – a hundred yards from the haven of the canal we go down.
In an instant we are on bottom, kneeling in our paddling positions neck-deep in the turmoil – in insulated coveralls and chest waders. Decoys, cushions, and ducks pop up all around us, then are driven away by the gale. The fingers of panic clutch at my stomach – we must re-float the boat; there is no chance of wading across the bottomless mud to shore.
Getting out of the duck-boat is horribly difficult, as our now full waders prevent any agile movement. But we finally manage, immediately sinking up to our knees in the mud as we stand, water above our waists. Shotguns and paddles are stuck upright into the soft bottom, and the few remaining decoys are secured to them. All of the ducks – and the cushions – are gone.
We raise the boat – one of us on each end, flip it upside down, and lift it above the water’s surface to drain it. Its additional weight immediately pushes me two feet deeper into the mud. Again with the water at my chin, and unable to move my legs, panic threatens, but the boat floats. Its displacement now prevents me from sinking further into the mud. Allain manages to climb aboard where he rids himself of the burden of his waders. I finally succeed in breaking myself free from the suction of the muck, but I am unable to get back aboard, so I begin the long, arduous task of pushing the boat to the bank.
My waders are still full of water, and I am near exhaustion from my battle with the mud, so it takes half an hour to cross the remainder of the neck. But the boat floats higher now without my weight – and that of the lost decoys, and the waves slap harmlessly against it. At last there is firm bottom where I can get my footing, sit on the boat’s small deck, and remove my boots – and give thanks that our losses were limited only to seven wasted ducks, 20 irreplaceable decoys, and a couple of cushions.
What happened? Three things: ignorance, over-confidence, and over-loading. Let’s look at over-loading first.
In retrospect that was a common practice: Allain’s and my combined weight was around 400 pounds, and my 40 decoys added about 100 pounds more. Then there were the guns, shells, waders, and coats – at least 50 more pounds, and all in a low-slung 11-foot boat which was designed to float low in the water in the first place. We got away with it for so long because our previous hunts had been in shallow, protected water, and in truth they were nothing but an accident waiting for a time to happen. Are yours?
Our ignorance was not knowing the tide could rise so hard and so high against such a strong offshore wind. Well, we learned it quickly that day – something never to be forgotten! If you ever experience such an event and are in a slightly over-loaded pirogue, don’t be over-confident that you can safely traverse the maelstrom. Take the long way around – like we should have – keeping to protected water.
Accidents will happen, especially in an endeavor so full of potential perils as duck hunting is. Nevertheless, there are ways to minimize their impacts.
An old friend of mine, now deceased, fell out of his air-boat one cold morning while returning from a hunt on the edge of the same bay where my near-disaster occurred. However, he was always home before 10AM, and a good friend of his knew the location of his blind and the route he took to and from it. By noon the ole boy’s wife began to worry and phoned the friend, who immediately began a rescue effort along the “trail” from the back-down ramp to the blind-site. He found the hunter – a rather overweight person with limited mobility – out in the middle of the bay, his legs stuck in the mud and the water at his chest. After a few days had passed we all laughed about it; put yourself in his place and think how scary it must have been!
There is a lesson in that incident that could save your cold wet butt, and it applies not only to the possibility of falling out of your boat but also being stranded in your blind by a hard-falling tide created by a very strong norther. First of all, with either your wife or someone close, establish the position of your blind or blinds. These days that is easily accomplished with a GPS unit; leave the coordinates written on a “post-it” sticker on the refrigerator door.
The name and location of your launch-site should also be written on the sticker, as well as any major bayou, canal, or pass you use to go at least part-way to your blind. Rescuers can establish a trail of sorts from that information which will greatly reduce the area to be searched.
Finally, set a time you intend to return and a time for action: for instance “I’ll be back by eleven; if you haven’t heard from me by one, call the coast guard”. And set and abide by those times for each hunt – less chance for confusion that way. If you have problems sticking by them, a pocket-sized cellular phone will save your wife a lot of unnecessary worrying.
The potential for trouble on a coastal duck hunt increases exponentially with the severity of the weather. I might add that if you are confronted with some really bad stuff after staying up most of the night playing bu-ray and soaking up one too many, you are just asking for it. Clear thinking will not only often get you out of trouble, but it will help keep you out of it. Yeah, I know, at many hunting camps all-night poker and potable anti-freeze are traditions, and I confess to having been there/done that myself on occasion. That aside, get some sleep, and if you must imbibe, do so after the hunt – or after you have returned home.
The point is, if you awaken to a frigid northern gale, and if the weather service has issued a freeze warning, you would be wise to consider whether or not a hunt is worth the risk, taking into account the distance to the blind, the type of water you must cross to reach it, and the likelihood of becoming stranded there. Having any kind of trouble in weather much less severe than the Christmas freezes of 1983 and 1989 can lead to fatal consequences real quick; being macho and trying to hunt in those conditions is a great way to get your name in the local newspaper – in the obituary column!
I quit that kind of foolishness a long time ago, realizing that northern gales and the very high barometric pressure brought about by freezing weather along the coast results in a notable absence of water in the duck ponds. Decoys don’t look very enticing when they are sitting awkwardly on the mud, the exertion from pushing my canoe through it to and from my blind in the icy weather led to a couple of bouts with pneumonia, and besides all that, once a duck has found some sheltered water with a little food nearby in that kind of weather, he will stay put. With one or two exceptions, braving freezing gales to hunt coastal ducks has not led to much success for me. Think about the pros and cons before you try it.
I have much preferred days in the 60’s with a moderate southeasterly breeze and partly cloudy skies, and I have consistently had much better hunting on them. But even they are beset with potential peril: fog. Fog may be simply a minor inconvenience if you only have to paddle a short distance through the marsh from your camp to your blind, and it can lead to some great shooting if there are enough hunters moving around the area to flush the birds off the water, but if you must run along or cross a major waterway, it can be deadly. It seems like every year we lose one or two hunters to it; a while back we lost five in one incident. Getting caught in it is one thing, and the solutions should be carefully weighed – for instance, if you are caught at Pass a l’Outre and have been camping out for a couple of days, stay put until it lifts; heading out in it is 24-carat idiocy.
Yeah, I’ve been there/done that too, even to the extent of closely following a radar-equipped crew-boat across the river from the Jump to Baptiste Collette (A solution you might consider for returning to the ramp, not for leaving it!), and every time I did so it scared the pee out of me! Fortunately, the Good Lord apparently had another time set up to call me, and I now do my utmost to ensure that will occur at another place – somewhere not on a fog-encased major waterway! Am I getting chicken – becoming overly cautious as I get older? You damned well better believe it! Keep testing your luck with the fog, and sooner or later it will run out. And yes, it can happen to you! Next time it’s foggy and you are at the ramp, wondering if you should head out, compare your life’s worth to that of a handful of ducks…
If you own a shell bucket, you should consider keeping a “possibles bag” in it: raincoat, flashlight, a pint of water, a couple of cans of vienna sausages, and a box or two of kitchen matches. A small cell-phone would be a fine addition, along with an extra set of batteries for it. Leave the potable anti-freeze at the camp – contrary to some opinions, it will only make you colder, and it will affect your judgement; you’ll need all your physical and mental abilities should trouble rear its ugly head.
You may have noticed a conspicuous absence of firearm safety in these lines. That was intentional; I try to make myself believe that all duck hunters use extreme caution in handling their shotguns and don’t need reminding. But an event which took place during my college years demands I stress one point: if you must get out of your boat to push it – whether to reach or leave your blind or to retrieve a duck – unload that shotgun! A guy I once knew didn’t; he pushed his boat into an unseen stump, his gun slipped off a seat, fell to the floor, went off, and the shot hit him just above the heart at a range of about four feet. He died very quickly.
Duck hunting along our coast is too great a sport for you to worry about its potential perils, but you should realize they are there. Just take some simple precautions and think about what you are about to do – and about staying out of trouble rather than having to get out of it – and you will safely enjoy the rest of this season and many more to come.
(Game & Fish Publications 1-2000)
The Divers of December
If you have never heard it, it’s a sound that will stir your duck-hunter’s soul. It is a rush, sort of like someone exhaling a long sigh – or a strong breeze passing through a thick stand of pine trees. Most often you will hear it on a cold, bleak morning, plainly audible over the low whistle of a breaking norther. It is the sound of many short, rapidly-beating wings – the sound of a flight of diving ducks arriving from some place far to the north. And it is a sound that promises the cold barrels of your side-by-side will become quite hot very shortly – provided, of course, you are prepared for the newcomers.
I have heard that wonderful, spine-tingling sound countless times on such diverse waters as the Red River, Wallace Lake, Caddo, Bistineau, the bar pits off Two O’Clock Bayou in the West Atchafalaya Floodway, and in the Mississippi River Delta. It has emanated from huge flocks of scaup, tightly-grouped wads of ringnecks, and long, wavering skeins of redheads and canvasbacks, and each time it announced the onset of great sport.
That “sport” is entirely different from duping a pair of circling drake pintails with soft, seductive whistles, and it is far from trying to convince a flock of mallards there is good company feeding happily beneath the canopy of flooded pin oaks. With divers things happen fast – startlingly fast once a flock of them decide your decoy spread is where they want to be and right now. They come in low, quick, always into the teeth of
the wind, and if you miss your shot they will leave even quicker, leaving you either stuttering for some frail excuse or slack-jawed in total amazement. How could you have missed?!
It’s real easy!
A high-school buddy and his father once maintained a “Wallace Lake Hilton” type of blind on the west end of the lake. It was usually complemented with 150 or more decoys, roughly half puddlers and half divers. One raw December morning that spread sucked in a newly-arrived flight of at least 100 scaup, and I’ll guarantee that in a small space over the diver decoys there was more duck-meat than air! Nevertheless, we fired six shots at them point blank and set up perfectly, and nary a feather fell. Strange how we remember things like that…
But this is about how to shoot divers (arguably the sportiest of ducks as well as some of the tastiest), not how to miss them. And it all centers around making them come to you, not blazing away at them “on the pass”.
Unlike successfully hunting puddle ducks – which almost always demands setting up your blind and decoy spread in an area where there is duck-protein quite nearby, divers are often drawn simply to the company of their own kind. This is especially true with new arrivals. Perhaps the sight of a concentration of look-alikes implies to them that food is nearby. Whatever the case, if you know of a body of water which has historically held these birds, then you can set up on it just about anywhere and expect good sport.
This is advantageous in that it allows you to use the best natural cover the area provides for your blind-site. A good blind – one that blends in with its surroundings – is the first requirement for consistently successful diver hunting. Contrary to some opinions, divers are not dumb (Teal are dumb!), and something that appears out of place will often cause them to veer away from their approach to your decoys. Still, that doesn’t mean you have to construct a “Hilton” in order to enjoy the best hunting.
One of the all-time best ways of shooting diving ducks was from a craft called a “sink box”. Its cockpit – just large enough for two gunners to lay down in – was almost entirely submerged, and it was kept afloat by wide decks which were flush with the water’s surface. Silhouette decoys were fastened to the decks, and a small splash-rail around the edge of the cockpit kept the waves from splashing inside – sometimes. It was not a place for the faint-hearted, but when surrounded by 100 or more decoys, it simply could not be detected by approaching divers.
Sink boxes were so effective that back in 1936, I believe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service passed regulations prohibiting their use. However, “laying out” in a low-slung duckboat is quite legal and I’d imagine a lot more comfortable. Admittedly, it is not a very effective practice for wide-open water (though I have enjoyed a few days of excellent sport while anchored thusly and surrounded by my decoys). However, even a single cypress tree – especially one having knees around it base which can be entered in the boat – can greatly enhance its potential.
In a duckboat the drill is quite simple, though it should be done in an area which is somewhat sheltered from wind-driven waves. Set your decoys in a fish-hook pattern so that the gape of the hook – the “landing zone” – will be directly off your boat’s bow. Then paddle into the knees – or, better yet, several trees in a tightly-knit group – and secure the boat, ensuring there is enough room beneath the overhanging branches for you to sit up to shoot. Lay the empty decoy sacks across the end of the boat facing the decoys, lie down on your back with your head resting on a cushion placed against the cockpit’s combing, and get ready to come up shooting!
There is a lot of water across our state where that technique will work wonders. Nevertheless, it becomes rather painful as one grows older, and if you hunt with a friend – or a dog – it’s next to impossible. Still, you can “ad lib” for divers, especially along the coast, by hiding in your boat in a small stand of various grasses found in large bodies of open water.
The key here is to prevent disturbing the natural appearance of the grass as much as possible; in other words, do not drag your boat across the grass! Before you set your spread, scout the downwind edge of the “island” to locate a small cut or opening in it which will allow the passage of your boat into the grass to a point where it will be hidden. Then set your spread – again in a long-shank fish-hook with the gape opposite your blind-site.
If the water in the cut or opening is shallow (or almost non-existent, as it can become on low tides), you may have difficulty entering and exiting the blind-site. If you must get out of your boat and push it to do so, do it from the bow or stern, not from the sides. That way you won’t be mashing down grass you will need for cover near the boat.
On that note, while you are sitting on either a boat-seat or a shell bucket, the grass should be high enough to demand you look through it as birds approach, yet not so high that you can’t shoot over it. If you must make some alterations, do not bend over the grass; cut it and either stick it up in the mud beside you or lay it out of sight beside the boat. This is especially important when hiding in a stand of roseau cane – and remembering that a small stand of roseaus is always better than a big stand when it comes to hunting divers.
If you choose to build a permanent blind – anywhere in the state where it is allowed – be sure to cover it with vegetation which is predominant nearby. Also, it is usually best to build it as low as is feasible, though if a small brake of cypresses seems made to order for constructing a “Hilton”, you can use the branches well up the trees’ trunks for overhead cover.
I have had the fortune – and the misfortune – of hunting out of several of that type of blind. If you are not familiar with them, they are basically an elevated rectangular plywood box. The floor is high enough off the water to allow the boat to be hidden beneath it. A ladder from the “boat-hide” leads to an opening in the floor at the rear of the box, and the rear three-quarters of the top of the box is covered, leaving an open shooting area at the front. In north Louisiana all of it is usually covered with willow branches, and when it is built in a small, thick brake of cypresses it is very effective – and quite comfortable. However, if it is built on pilings driven into the lake-bottom out in open water, it looks just like a duck-blind, and if you hunt from one on a day that does not coincide with the arrival of a flight, things usually get mighty boring in a hurry. I know!
A flight of new arrivals is what every dedicated diving-duck hunter hopes to encounter. These birds are unfamiliar with the area, tired, hungry, and seeking company – and yes, no matter what species they are, at this time they can appear to be just about as dumb as dirt. On the other hand, let them settle in and get oriented for a few days, and if you want to enjoy the great sport they can offer, then your blind – and your decoys – had better be up to snuff!
I got into some very “oriented” scaup and ringnecks back in the early 1960’s. A friend from church allowed me to hunt from his blind on Caddo Lake just west of the LA. 1 bridge. That year a severe cold front froze the entire lake, save for that area, which was warmed by the discharge water from a nearby plant. Just about every duck in northwestern Louisiana had retreated to that pocket, and after a couple of days they knew every square inch of it!
My friend’s blind was a masterpiece, built “Mini-Hilton” style among a small brake of tightly-grouped cypresses. The shooting box faced south across open water; the boat-hide was beneath and behind it and well hidden. When viewed from the south, you could hardly tell it was there.
We hunted the third and fourth days of the freeze, having to break ice along the shorelines in order to gain open water so we could paddle to the blind, then standing in ankle-deep snow while we hunted. The birds were awfully wary, but with a little coaxing – soft, gutteral growls on our duck calls – they would come. And they came. It was glorious – and the result of a great blind and decoy spread.
And that brings up one of my favorite topics pertaining to hunting divers: decoys. For sure, on a day when a flight hits a north Louisiana lake – any lake, for that matter – a spread of mallards will attract enough of them to make for a good hunt. Likewise, along the coast when the high tide pushed by a strong southerly drives them from the big bays into the marsh, you won’t be able to keep them out of your pintail decoys with a stick! But for consistently good hunting, you must “match the hatch”.
Without a doubt the best diver decoys I have ever hunted over are Herter’s Model 50’s. They are hard-plastic, heavy, heavily-weighted, ride low in the water, and do not bob and dip excessively in rough weather. In other words, they look and act just like the real thing. They are also no longer made, having been discontinued many years ago because manufacturing costs got so high that few people were willing to pay the price. The few that I have are priceless to me.
Herter’s is now defunct, and decent diver decoys are scarce to come by. They are also pretty expensive, especially when you consider more is always better. Still, ringneck, redhead, and canvasback blocks are offered by Avery (Green Head Gear) and/or Final Approach, and other manufacturers sell scaup decoys. In any case, if you decide to build a spread of diver decoys, forget those that are light in weight, come equipped with “aqua keels”, and have a high profile.
The best way to rig them is as follows. Always tie the line to the eye beneath the decoy’s head. Use at least five feet more line than is required to reach bottom in deep water – say, over 10 feet, a bit less “scope” when it’s shallower, and use 6 to 8-ounce lead strips for weight. Those allow you to wind excess line around them when you hunt over shallower water, and they can be wrapped around the decoys’ necks to prevent them from causing damage to the decoys during transportation.
I prefer to set mine in the aforementioned “long-shank fish-hook” pattern with a pair of oversized models at the eye of the hook and the great majority of them – along with a dozen or so coot decoys (Poule d’eau in local patois.) – in the hook’s bend. If there is a decent chance for a mallard, pintail, or gadwall to fly by, a half-dozen decoys depicting them should be placed just outside of the start of the hook’s bend. Two dozen diver decoys, a dozen poule d’eaus, and a half-dozen mallards make a fine spread in all but the most heavily-hunted areas.
Along the Louisiana coast most hunters target puddle ducks and don’t bother with diver decoys, taking those birds only when – and if – they decide they want the company of pintails. That’s fine, but 6 or 8 diver decoys added to the spread can make a big difference.
Brent Ballay – a long-time hunting and fishing buddy – and I once made a December hunt on a friend’s lease south of Venice. The lease was in an area normally well populated with pintails but not much else other than redheads and canvasbacks. Before the hunt Brent mentioned having a bit of trouble bagging anything other than his single pintail – the limit at the time. He also mentioned seeing lots of very skittish cans and redheads.
On the rising tide that afternoon, we hid in a small stand of bullrushes along the edge of a big bay, eight of my diver decoys sitting in a tight group on the right side of the pintail spread. Our two drake pintails came early and easy, then there was nothing – well, nothing but big divers that came to those eight decoys like they were joining a family reunion. We each got our can, and Brent also got a redhead. I have no doubt we’d have returned to the marina that night with only two ducks had we not set out those diver decoys!
I highly recommend that practice, no matter where you hunt. If any are around, some will come see – a dozen good decoys added to your puddler spread is enough for most occasions. Then, with proper blinding, your shots will be easier and more likely to be fatal. On the other hand, if you knock one down and it as much as wiggles, blast it again! Wounded divers have a disheartening tendency to become lost, and that is a terrible waste.
Sure don’t want that!
(Game & Fish Publications 12-1999)