Recounting memories of bluebills, cans, redheads and more
Last week, I reminisced about my favorite encounters with common puddle ducks. But seeing as I'm a big-water diver geek, I probably have more memories involving diving ducks. Here are my favorites.
As young hunters, my buddies and I would often look at the bluebills we had shot and discuss how some of them might be greaters. They weren't. The first greater scaup I ever shot bombed over my decoys 24 years ago and struck me like a thunderbolt. I took him with a good crossing shot and admired the plump bull for several minutes after the dog retrieved it. The bird's size and striking white primary wing feathers left no doubt about its identity. I realized then that it's impossible to confuse a greater with a lesser.
Bluebills are my favorite duck. Many hunts stand out, but one November escapade eclipses them all. A buddy and I set out a four-line spread at noon, expecting a massive wind change and approaching front to stir up birds. We hit it perfectly, and for the next three hours, uncountable numbers of 'bills strafed our spread. We shot terribly, but finally put 11 in the blind (the limit was six per day then). As closing time neared, one more bird streaked across the decoys, and my buddy shot it with his final shell to complete our limit.
During my first semester of college, I considered school to be more important than duck hunting. (Don't worry — that affliction didn't last.) Still, my dad drove up one afternoon and insisted we hunt a local lake. Soon after we set up, a little duck landed outside our decoys. After a second, it flushed, and I shot it. Dad informed me it was a ringneck. That drake was my first diving duck, and it ruined me for life.
I don't have to think back far for this memory. This hunt occurred in South Dakota in October 2019. Redheads were everywhere. In fact, my friends and I joked that if there were 700,000 redheads in North America that year, 699,500 of them were in northeastern South Dakota. We shot plenty. But what struck me was watching squadron after squadron of those agile yet stocky birds swoop down on approach and then hit the afterburners as they climbed toward the sky.
I remember many special cans, including my first one and a big bull that now hangs on my wall. But I revisit my favorite sight every autumn on the Mississippi River. During late October and November, tens of thousands of canvasbacks pour off a refuge every morning and raft in open water. Whether my buddy and I shoot any or get skunked, it's always the same: The sight makes me feel as though everything's OK in the duck world.
These neat little ducks don't possess many sporting qualities. They'd rather swim or dive from danger. Even when they fly, it's typically in a straight line, albeit swiftly. But years ago, when tens of thousands of ruddies used the big lake we hunted, my friends and I sometimes couldn't help ourselves. In fact, one warm October morning, we took 10 prime drake ruddies. Nowadays, ruddies get a pass, but I'll never forget lining up those rotund little drakes for a photo after that hunt.
Some guys don't like buffies, but I don't get it. They're fast, beautiful and, when prepared correctly, taste good. My favorite surf-dove encounter occurred some 20 years ago during a windy late-October morning. Two buds and I had filled up on bluebills and buffleheads the previous day, and I had returned for more. An hour after sunrise, a massive flock of buffleheads decoyed perfectly. I rose to shoot, and several birds hit the waves after the first volley. I quickly reloaded to fire at ducks skittering across the water to escape. When I finally lowered my gun, five buffleheads — my daily limit that year — floated belly-up on the lake. Incidentally, my first legitimate triple also involved buffleheads. Maybe that's why I like them so much: I can actually hit them.
To me, every drake goldeneye is a reward for seeing the season through to its bitter end, often enduring sub-Arctic conditions to cross the finish line. Yet goldeneye No. 1 always sticks out. On the season's final day, my friend and I skipped college classes to jump-shoot ducks along a wave-swept shoreline. As we sneaked around some rocks, several odd-looking ducks flushed. Only after killing a big drake did I realize they were goldeneyes. Trouble arose, however, when high winds pushed the duck south in deep water. We had no dogs then and could only watch the beautiful drake drift out of sight. The lake froze that night, and I never recovered the bird — a solemn lesson about being able to retrieve what you shoot.