Welcome to the Duck Lore Breakdown, an article series that will correspond to each episode of Duck Lore. In these articles, we’re going a layer deeper than the show, and we’ll go through the weather and hunt conditions, the target species and their environment, as well as episode-specific gear that was used and the technology of some of that gear.
The Target Species For our trip to the Upper Peninsula, we targeted all species of pochard ducks. Pochards are members of the tribe Aythyini, a group of freshwater diving ducks. These ducks are found worldwide and all share a similar look: the drakes are generally black, gray, red, and white, and the hens are plain brown.
In North America, pochards include scaup, redheads, canvasbacks, and ring-necked ducks. They tend to winter in shallow bays where they can dive for their food, which includes a smorgasbord of vegetation, invertebrates, and fish. These bays can be either saltwater or freshwater. Of the pochards, canvasbacks are historically known as the best table fare, thanks to their preferred diet of wild celery. Redheads are also known to be good eating, specifically in places where they mostly consume vegetation. On this hunt, we’re targeting redheads and scaup.
The Status of the Migration We “missed” the migration in Michigan. Typically, you want to hunt an area right when fresh ducks enter it. While there were a lot of redheads and scaup in the one bay we hunted, they were the only main roost of ducks in the area and they’d been there for a few weeks. These 10,000 or so ducks were stale and heavily hunted, and the bulk of the migration hadn’t arrived yet. This made for less-than-ideal hunting.
Weather Conditions Wind: NNE @10-15 mph Sunny High temp: 52 Low temp: 32
Sean’s Hunt Notes On the first morning we scouted with Dylan. It was sunny and mild with a gentle north wind to start the day—not exactly the October cold front I was hoping for. About 30 minutes into our scout, we found a massive flock of redheads and bluebills. It’s hard to know how many birds there were, but 10,000 seemed like the guaranteed minimum.
Rather than waste the rest of the day, we set up our spread where we flushed this giant raft of birds. The raft moved about half a mile away and sat back down. Steve got the first crack at hunting.
We sat all day, and Steve managed one white-wing scoter. The redheads and bluebills collectively stayed in their large raft.
Weather Conditions Wind: ESE @ 8-15 mph Cloudy High Temp: 50 Low Temp: 32
Sean’s Hunt Notes We scouted yesterday evening and found a pretty good spot near the bridge. There weren’t nearly as many birds as there were at the start of the day, but these birds were more active and split up into small flocks—which is usually a good sign. Steve jumped in the boat again today. I really wanted him to get a redhead or a bluebill.
Only a few hours into the hunt, Steve had a nice handful of long-tails and white-wing scoters in the bag. This was Steve’s second hunt ever in a layout boat and he shot incredibly well. I enjoyed watching from the tender boat as much as I would have from the layout boat. The action was slow but steady and something was always happening. As the day went on, the wind started to pick up and we had to end the hunt because of a wind advisory. My turn would have to wait until the next day.
Weather Conditions Wind: S @ 5-10 mph Cloudy High Temp: 60 Low Temp: 42
Sean’s Hunt Notes Sometimes things absolutely refuse to go your way. It’s the harsh reality of chasing the pursuits we love. Today exemplified this universal truth. I started the day in the boat in a new area on Lake Superior. But when I say nothing happened, I really mean nothing happened. We saw almost no ducks, which felt like a rarity for the area and time of year. We had to make lemonade out of lemons somehow so we left partway through the morning to scout.
Weather Conditions Wind: NE @ 10-15 mph Cloudy High Temp: 51 Low Temp: 43
Sean’s Hunt Notes Today, we went back to the bridge near where Steve had success on day two. The wind was blowing pretty hard and the sky was gray and cloudy. My hopes of getting any redheads and bluebills were dwindling, but some long-tailed ducks and white-wing scoters were still a possibility. We had to reset the layout boat several times as the strong wind and waves kept bumping my anchor free. Once we had the setup dialed in, it wasn’t long until I got my first ever long-tailed duck.
Long-tailed ducks can dive up to 200 feet deep. They use their wings as paddles, unlike most ducks that just use their feet to propel themselves. But seeing my first long-tailed duck in hand made it all the more impressive that such a small bird could dive to such depths and endure such conditions.
I learned a lot about the Great Lakes and the birds that live there on this hunt, and today was a day I’ll never forget. I shot my first white-winged scoter and long-tailed ducks while rolling in the waves of Lake Huron with the camaraderie of two men I’m lucky to call my friends.
The Gear Breakdown
Layout Addictions Aluminum Layout Boat The layout boat we used on this hunt was comfortable, light, and easy to deploy. Historically, most layout boats are fiberglass, which are much heavier and harder to deal with. By the end of the hunt, Steve and I were both talking about our need to buy one of these bad boys.
First Lite Clothing: Waterproof, Windproof, and Durable A fundamental part of duck and goose hunting is spending a lot of time in harsh weather around water, so it’s no surprise that waterfowlers need the most waterproof, windproof, and durable garments available. Recognizing that, First Lite has developed a new 4.5-layer shell fabric that will serve as the backbone of their waterfowl line. It is some heavy-duty stuff to say the least.
The two outermost layers of the fabric create a durable barrier that’s designed to repel water and moisture, while the two and a half layers closer to your skin are designed to expel water. These bottom layers wick sweat and vapor away from your body towards the outer layers of the shell. While older traditional material packages would’ve felt clammy in a wet metal boat, this gear was comfortable enough to hunt in all day. You really test the ability of your gear to repel water and maintain breathability when laying in a metal layout boat with waves constantly splashing you.
Federal Premium Bismuth This hunt turned out to be a sea duck hunt, shooting mostly long-tailed ducks and white-wing scoters. Both duck breeds are incredible divers with thick layers of fat and feathers. If they aren’t dead when they hit the water, you best keep shooting until they are if you ever want to get them in hand. But shooting bismuth #3 shot with a Flitestopper wad helps carry the energy you need in a good tight pattern. If you watch closely, you’ll see our patterns were great for finishing shots on the water.
Fishing Net One easy way to keep yourself dry when you’re picking up birds is to use a fishing net. They also come in handy when the wind is blowing the boat around and it’s hard to pull right up to a downed duck.
Weatherby Element with Extended Choke At this point I was a month and a half into my hunting season, and this shotgun had been through the ringer. It was impossible to keep it dry in these waves, but it didn’t seem to matter. The Weatherby Element is up for it all. It cycled great and shot true.
Deep-V Big Water Boat as Tender Boat The boat we used on this trip was not a “normal” duck boat. While a lot of duck boats are built for shallow-water performance, my duck boat would have been useless on this hunt. We needed to handle big waves without any concern for safety. My recommendation would be to use your walleye fishing boat before your duck boat—if you’re lucky enough to have both.
Vortex Razor 10x42 I spent a surprising amount of time using my binoculars on this hunt, both for scouting and hunting. It’s hard to see the rafts rolling in the waves without a set of binoculars, and they’re also necessary for watching other hunters from the tender boat.
Diver Decoys It’s not super important to have ultra-realistic decoys for diver hunting. The most important part is that they float and have lots of contrast. I’ve seen plenty of fellow waterfowlers just paint milk jugs black and white.
Sponge This sounds so simple, but you must remove some water from the bottom of the layout boat somehow. A sponge is an easy tool to stash and works shockingly well for its low hardware store price.