Juke and Jive – Duck Season

With autumn storms starting to form in the Canadian prairies, ducks will be on the move, and so will waterfowlers in Michigan. Saginaw Bay, Lake St. Clair, Drummond Island, the Les Cheneaux’s– all these will bring the ducks in, and the duck hunters will smile through frozen moustaches and frozen cheeks.

First off, it is not a “jute” box, it’s a juke box, and jiving is what you do when the music is being played. It is also what the diver ducks are said to do when they come winging in low, just off the wave tops, as they swing into cover, and hopefully, your decoys.

Flocks of dozens, hundreds at times, ply the big water. In fact, groups of thousands will “raft up” far offshore when the weather is fair and the waves light. When the weather kicks they break up into smaller groups, of dozens, maybe more, and head towards the shelter of inshore bays. It is truly a performance to see the rafts split up and juke and jive their way towards the cover of shore.

It is no secret that I’m a diver man.  While mallards and wood ducks, teal and widgeon may hold your fancy, they don’t exactly hold mine.  Don’t get me wrong, if they offer themselves up to the blast of my 12 gauge so much the better, but it is the redheads, canvasbacks, bluebills, goldeneyes and buffleheads that capture my fancy.

Maybe it’s because I relate to the mallards I see. I mean, after seeing countless folks feed these greenheads a steady diet of french fries all summer long they kind of lose their mystique. Meanwhile, way up north and out west, on the prairie potholes and big water marshes the divers have been kept wild.  In their mosquito-plagued home no tourist ever sets foot. A starving grad-student maybe, but certainly no french fry toting bird feeder.

When hunting these divers, weather is the primary consideration. If it’s bright and sunny, or even dull grey, as long as there is little to no wind you should think highly of switching over to perch fishing. But, when the hawk is on the wing, when the wind blows spindrift off the wave tops and stings your cheeks, then by God, head for the marshes. The divers will on the wing, too.

Take last year for instance. Cold, heavy winds blew across the river and pelted the outer islands around Drummond along the river. Quickly, plans were made. A meeting time set. Decoys gathered. An honest to God diver duck day with diver duck weather. One of the first of the season.

Motoring across the shallow bay to the island blind we were somewhat sheltered from the heavy wind.  Rolling waves pushed against the bow and sent spray into our faces and down our collars.  By God, we were in heaven, there were sure to be divers on the wing this day.

We set the decoys quickly, in two groups, with an opening for any birds to get sucked into.  The island blind sat facing the teeth of the wind. We tried to sit there but the waves and wind were too strong for the decoy anchors. The west wind created a calm pocket just around the point and it was here where we decided to reset.

No blind here, but plenty of shore line cover would hide us well enough. We scrunched deeper into our parkas and waited.

Off to the east a group of divers banked hard off of a point. Not at all interested, they continued to the opposite side of the island, well out of range. Buffleheads are like that. As unsociable as a debutante towards the gardener’s son they are.

Just before quitting time, a lone ringneck came into the blocks and landed. My partner that day is a true sportsman, as he didn’t “Arkansas” the bird. Rather he waited for it to get up before his gun sounded, and missed, three times. I, on the other hand, didn’t even have my gun near me as I was, well, busy.

So on this diver day of promise we ate feathers.

The next afternoon I went out alone to set up where the buffles had flown the day before. The trouble is that the buffleheads were already there. Setting up the decoys didn’t bother them. Then again, even when they were startled by a passing boat they didn’t fly my way, not even close. Outside of a pair of ringnecks that I farmed quite miserably, these were the only birds that I saw, even on another perfect diver day.

I had enough, and was ready to “cry uncle” when another diver man called that evening. “Dan,” said Chuck, “I know the wind is down and will still be down in the morning.  I know the sun is going to be bright. I know the birds aren’t going to fly. But why don’t we go out anyway and watch the sunrise.”

Why not. Besides, Chuck and I had been trying to hook up together on a hunt for the past three years, and now was as good a time as any.

We set the decoys a full hour before sunrise. In no wind. In no waves. Under star lit skies. Yup, this was going to be a diver day alright. Not.

Funny thing though. Birds started to fly. Gun blasts echoed from deep inside the marsh. And wouldn’t you know it, birds were coming into the decoys. Sure, they were only mergansers, which we let land and fly away unharmed. But they came in nonetheless and on a day like today we took our victories anyway we could.

And then, while discussing the finer points of high balls and feeding chuckles a group of buffleheads came screaming into the decoys, almost catching us unaware. Chuck said “Take’m” and our guns emptied quickly. Chuck’s double barrel dropped two, my pump dropped three.

One of the birds was a beautiful full dressed drake. In his black and white formal tuxedo dress with a hat of iridescent green and purple he looked mighty fine. We were diver men again, diver men of the first order. And on the most unlikely of days.

Right now, as I write this, there is a storm brewing in Manitoba, a major storm. There’s the promise of cold and snow, and brisk winds. According to the weather folks it’s the first major one of the season. It’s time to load the duck boat, the birds are coming.

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.