Hunting Big-Water Diving Ducks

By Brian Lovett

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hunter holding up a dead duck

Big-water diving ducks—canvasbacks, redheads, bluebills, ringnecks, buffleheads, goldeneyes and others—evoke a deep passion in devotees. And it’s easy to see why. These colorful, lightning-fast birds provide challenging wing-shooting and, contrary to conventional wisdom, great table fare. The big-water game might seem daunting at first, but it’s fairly straightforward. Here’s how to get started.

The Diver Difference

Although divers look much like their puddle-duck cousins, they’re built for big water, obtaining food by diving below the surface rather than tipping up and dipping their bills in shallow areas. Divers’ legs are farther back on their bodies, and their feet are generally larger than those of dabbling ducks. As a result, they don’t walk well on land and, with the exception of ringnecks, must run across the water before taking flight. Divers also sit lower on the water than puddle ducks.

duck decoys floating on the mississippi river

During migration, diving ducks congregate on lakes, rivers, reservoirs, open marshes, big sloughs and even the Great Lakes. Typically, these environments share two elements: large areas of open water where divers can loaf and roost undisturbed, and good submergent food sources, such as mollusks, crustaceans, other invertebrates, aquatic vegetation or even fish. Food sources vary by region. On the Mississippi River, for example, birds gorge on wild celery. On prairie sloughs, divers feast on scuds (freshwater shrimp), and throughout the Midwest, they focus on zebra mussels.


Hunting big water presents many challenges, as divers often avoid or stop short of shorelines or even islands, preferring open water. Wind helps considerably, as it usually prompts divers to move and seek relatively calm areas along leeward shores. Hunting islands or points that jut into open water can put you closer to birds. Also, remember this trick: Divers prefer to fly over water instead of land, so setting up along “funnels,” such as channels between sloughs or otherwise narrow bands of water, can lead birds to your decoys. Where legal, some hunters use layout boats to set up in open water, hoping to catch divers flying from roosting areas to feeding zones, or vice versa.

Diver hunting is a decoy game. You’re trying to attract ducks across vast areas of water, and big spreads provide visibility. Further, divers typically raft en masse during migration, so big spreads mimic reality.

duck decoys floating on the lake michigan

Decoy selection for diver hunting need not be complicated, as most divers will decoy well to canvasback or bluebill decoys. Goldeneyes—typically the latest migrating diver—are the exception and decoy best to their own kind. Whatever decoys you choose, make sure they have lots of white, as that stands out at a distance and boosts attraction. Depending on the situation, you’ll want lots of fakes. For walk-in hunts at prairie sloughs, you can get away with a couple of dozen blocks. For shore hunts on big rivers or lakes, you might need 100 or even twice that. Some folks use individually rigged decoys, but that requires tons of time and effort during setup and pickup. Many diver geeks gang-rig their blocks, attaching a dozen or more decoys via short leaders to a large mother line and then anchoring the line on both ends with heavy weights.

Shape can be critically important with diver spreads. Unlike puddle ducks, divers love to fly over their own kind on approach. That’s why classic spreads such as the J-hook work well. Generally, it’s best to place a large mass of decoys slightly upwind of your hide and then run a tail downwind to act almost like a landing strip. Birds typically follow the tail to the kill hole or at least pass over the main body of decoys. Always run the tail on the inside, closest to your boat or blind. During calm days, spread decoys out to mimic a lazy, contented raft of birds. And if possible, always configure your spread so birds can see some open water upwind on approach. Divers often shy away from finishing when looking at land instead of water.

Choose The Right Payload

Selecting the right shotshells for divers can be somewhat confusing, as the birds fly fast and are amazingly tough. Larger pellets help patterns buck the wind and provide solid downrange energy. However, you also want multiple hits to anchor divers so they can’t dive to escape. Generally, steel loads with Nos. 2 or 3 shot, with muzzle velocities of 1,300 to 1,500 fps, work best. Bismuth loads with No. 3 or 4 shot, traveling at about 1,350 to 1,450 fps, perform well. Experienced diver hunters also carry some loads with finer shot to dispatch cripples. Steel loads of Nos. 4 to 6 shot, or bismuth shells with Nos. 5 to 7 shot, provide dense patterns and facilitate head shots to finish wounded birds. Don’t be shy about shooting cripples, either. If a downed bird pops its head up, shoot it. Even wounded birds can dive great distances and stay underwater for long periods to escape.

opened Black Cloud box sitting on a edge of a duck blind

If big-water diver hunting sounds like a lot of specialized work, you’re right. But when the wind howls and surf spray stings your face, you’ll realize its primal appeal. That’s why some folks prefer the allure of black-and-white birds even more than that of green-headed ducks.