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Divers

Article By 
Craig Bihrle

Few experiences in waterfowl hunting are as exciting as canvasbacks locked in on diver decoys. This year, hunters can take two canvasbacks daily.

Nowadays, the duck of choice in North Dakota is the mallard, with everything else a distant second, but that wasn’t always the case.

Perhaps about 125 years ago and counting, when the state was just becoming a state, it was often diver ducks that captured the fancy of gentlemen waterfowlers who packed passenger trains coming from the east in October.

In the 21st century, the odd diver specialist – odd meaning out of the ordinary, but not an oddball – is presented with a wealth of options in North Dakota, without much bother from competition.

In North Dakota in late October, says Mike Szymanski, the State Game and Fish Department’s migratory game bird biologist, “you get a huge push of scaup (lesser scaup or bluebills) that come through … maybe half the scaup in North America are in North Dakota at one time.”

But it’s not a very long time, and unfortunately, the same weather that funnels scaup into North Dakota from northern nesting grounds is also the same weather that prompts canvasbacks to head toward their primary coastal wintering areas. “The thing is, most cans leave by the end of the third week in October … and the scaup really don’t get here until about that time,” noted Mike Johnson, the Game and Fish Department’s game management supervisor. “Redheads are kind of here the whole time.”

 

Put another way, for anyone who wants a good chance at a variety of diver species, the time between mid-October and Halloween is the open window, give or take a few days depending on annual weather.

And while the stereotypical diver diehard has a big boat for big water and a lot of decoys, such equipment is not always requisite to a successful diver hunt. Scaup are looking for amphipods (freshwater shrimp), Szymanski said, which they can find in fairly small marshes as well as large lakes.

Some days, Szymanski added, you don’t even need decoys or a boat if you can find a pass or route between marshes where divers are trading back and forth.

The eastern Dakotas are an important breeding ground for the continent’s redhead population. In a given year, up to one-third of North America’s redheads nest in this region, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics.

Lesser scaup or bluebills are widely abundant during a North Dakota fall, but not many hunters pursue them.

Most hunters who have spent fall mornings on a North Dakota duck marsh know the sound of canvasbacks splitting the still air, like jet-fighters f ying high above in formation.

Divers, Dabblers and Distinctions

The four species that comprise more than 95 percent of the diver harvest during a North Dakota fall include lesser scaup, redheads, canvasbacks and ring-necked ducks (ringbills). The average take in the years from 1999-2012, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service statistics, looks like this:

 

SPECIES AVERAGE ND HARVEST
1999-2012
Lesser Scaup 20,000
Redhead 17,600
Ring-necked Duck 7,400
Canvasback 6,000

The puddle duck or dabbler side looks like this:

SPECIES AVERAGE ND HARVEST
1999-2012
Mallards 194,000
Gadwall 81,500
Blue-winged Teal 29,000
Green-winged Teal 22,400
Shoveler 21,400
Wigeon 20,900
Pintail 18,000
 

One qualifier to these statistics is that all of the primary diver species except ring-necked ducks have had restrictive daily limits in most years since 1999, when the scaup limit went from six to three. The canvasback limit was consistently one per day (with sometimes a shortened season), and two for redheads, during the same time.

The only dabbler with major restrictions was pintail, which has had at times a daily limit of one or two, and shortened seasons as well in some years. The daily limit for mallards stayed consistently at five, with six daily for the other dabbler species.  

A Different Look in 2013

This year, for the first time in decades, the canvasback daily limit in North Dakota is two – instead of one, or a closed season altogether. While that might not equate to a substantially greater interest in canvasback hunting or harvest, both Johnson and Szymanski think it could lead to a greater interest in diver duck hunting in general.

“With the new regulations,” Szymanski said, “it’s not so much that hunters can shoot two canvasbacks, but now they don’t have to worry about shooting more than one.”

This year, for the first time in a long time, no duck species in North Dakota has a daily limit of one. And with diver ducks, that’s a significant issue, as differentiating between species on the wing is sometimes difficult, even for experienced hunters.

Johnson says the canvasback daily limit increase may not create much new interest, as in hunters switching their focus to divers, but it will take the pressure off duck hunters who are out there anyway and maybe were holding off from shooting divers. “Having two is just one of those things that helps hunters,” Johnson said. “They don’t have to be quite as careful when they’re out hunting, although cans are one of the ducks that are more easily identified.”

Migration Changes

North Dakota’s diver migration pattern has changed somewhat in the past 20 years, particularly for scaup. The eastern third of the state was once the primary corridor, with Devils Lake as the centerpiece. Scaup eat amphipods and Devils Lake is known for its abundant supply of them.

Johnson once did an aerial count of scaup on Devils Lake in the early 1980s and estimated a minimum of 175,000 birds. Today, he thinks it was probably closer to a half-million birds. “They were spread across the entire lake, from one end to the other,” he remembered.

Redheads are the second-most harvested diver duck in North Dakota.

Scaup still frequent Devils Lake, but they are much more spread out during their migration. Since the current wet cycle began in 1993, there is a lot more deep water in eastern and central North Dakota where scaup and other divers can find food and rest.

On the other hand, Johnson says that some of that influx of water over the last 20 years has actually hurt some traditional diver lakes, making them deep enough to support fish like perch, which also eat the amphipods, leaving less food for the ducks.

Some historic canvasback staging and breeding marshes have also expanded to a point where favored food such as sago pondweed has flooded out. “When we got all that water back in 1993,” Johnson said, “it raised the water level in a lot of those lakes in Kidder, Wells and Stutsman counties that had sago. There used to be some real traditional sago lakes over there that had canvasbacks and swans on them, and the birds are not there any more.”

 

Another migration change over the past two decades is that more scaup are stopping to nest in North Dakota than was historically the case. Johnson attributes that to Conservation Reserve Program grasslands in prairie pothole country. Scaup primarily nest in grass surrounding good wetland complexes, and apparently found good conditions in North Dakota in recent years.

For instance, from 2001 through 2010, North Dakota averaged nearly 350,000 scaup, according to the Game and Fish Department’s spring survey. That’s more than double the average for the 1990s and 1980s, and several times higher than the 1970s and earlier.

What that means for hunters, Johnson said, is that North Dakota has a lot more scaup in the state early in the season than was previously the case.

Canvasbacks are sometimes attracted by hunters with floating mallard decoys, but to increase your odds, add some diver decoys to your spread.

Redhead numbers have also increased dramatically in the Game and Fish breeding duck survey since the early 1990s, while canvasback numbers are up slightly. From  2001-2010, redheads averaged about 200,000 breeding birds a year, while canvasbacks averaged about 46,000.

With continental populations of redheads and canvasbacks at or close to all-time highs at some point in the last 10 years, and scaup making a modest comeback after a long-term downward trend that started in the 1980s, it’s not a stretch to assume that diver duck hunters might follow that same comeback trail.

But such is not the case.

“I know lots of duck hunters today who not only don’t own big spreads of diver duck decoys and duck boats, they don’t even own chest waders,” says John Devney, Bismarck, who is vice president of U.S. policy for Delta Waterfowl, and an avid diver hunter. “There’s been a massive shift with waterfowl hunting in the last 15 years or so.”

Some of that might have to do with a significant reduction in the scaup limit that started in 1999. Some of it could relate to the advent of motorized spinning-wing duck decoys and quality layout blinds that made field hunting for ducks a more popular, comfortable and productive option than it once was.

 

“I think there’s at least a generation of duck hunters in North Dakota, including the nonresidents who come to North Dakota, who haven’t come to appreciate the duck hunting opportunities that we have here,” Devney said. “It’s a resource that probably doesn’t get the attention that it deserves.”