Canvasback Skies

Written by Dan Donarski, a noted professional outdoor and travel journalist. 

Michigan is the Mecca of mid-west waterfowling. The dabblers are found on just about any puddle, but its the state's vast big water resources that really shine. These big waters attract thousands of divers. Its the weather that gets these birds moving. 

Its no secret that hunters and anglers plan their outings around the weather forecast. Clouds or sun, high or low pressure , blustery or calm, warm or cold all have a place in the decision making process. Its also no secret that moon phase plays with a fish's attitude, and deer as well as some birds seem to be affected as well. 

All things being equal in the duck hunting world, all we ask for are canvasback skies. These canvasback skies can be both felt as well as seen. 

Beautiful skiesCanvasback skies start with the clouds. Generally of the low level variety they scud their way across the sky carried by a good stiff breeze. Color matters here, too. Under canvasback skies these low clouds are as grey as the old mare, almost black. The clouds don't cover the entire sky, either. They come in very distinct puffs ranging in size from small to thunderstorm large. 

And, above these grey clouds brilliant white clouds billow above. Not horse-mane styled, rather larger, and brighter forms of their lower, and darker brothers. 

These clouds don't cover the entire sky either, at least not all the time. Every now and again deep blue sky struggles through. Often like waves coming to meet the shore, the blue marches in step with the clouds. Dark-- white blue. Dark white blue. Waves crashing on the shore. The clouds march across the sky. 

In these clouds moisture is stored to the bursting point. When it is cold enough, as it was last Sunday and again on Tuesday evening, the bursting point is exceeded and snow squalls dump large white, wet flakes on the landscape. Some hold to the reeds, and most hold on to the boat and the decoys. Rain, too, can fall, and when it does it comes in buckets, as it did when the blue skies and the sun tried to rule the skies in an exceptionally wide band of clear skies. 

Soon, though, the band is closed and the rain changes to snow once again. 

Days like this often start with a flash of orange cotton candy skies as the sun creeps between the blankets of clouds. Then the clouds completely take over until mid-day when the wave-like mix of grey, white and blue begins. Finally, just before sunset and lasting for a half hour beyond, the bands of open sky go from their defined blue to silver to cobalt. This change happens fast. What was blue just a moment before becomes silver for an instant and then a scarce moment later cobalt. And then complete black. Not lingering, not questionable, it is a quick and certain change. 

The wet and cold conditions keep most hunters off the water. Watching football or something equally passive, they wait the storm out. Others, the somewhat touched few make haste for the marshes along the big water. These few know that this is moving weather, duck moving weather. 

Starting in the northern prairies of Canada and the Dakotas the storm sends resident birds and migrants scurrying with the wind. Catching the breeze they sail the skies on their journey to more hospitable resting and feeding grounds, to the next big water that holds food and protection. 

The touched waterfowlers, like the birds, search out the same thing. These few know that the wing of the storm will be brutal in comfort but bountiful in birds. They know that the spectacle of full-force migration will be in progress. Whether they get any shooting or not, they simply can't miss it. They know that it something truly special. 

Give me these, these canvasback skies. 

You know what I mean if you've a waterfowler of the big waters and have ever seen this duck, the king of skies, rip out of the heavens in fast rhythmic flashes of black and white pasted against the blue sky on the wing of a storm. You know what I mean if you've ever witnessed these canvasbacks wave-hopping on a storm-tossed lake or big river looking for shelter.  

Fast and furious they fly onward, their feet and wing tips barely keeping off the deck of the water. Juking and jiving they dance on the wind, and in your mind. 

Hot Spots 

For all practical purposes, diver hunting means big water, either very large lakes including, of course, The Great Lakes, as well as rivers like the St. Marys and the Detroit. 

The best place to find migration information is from the DNRE. You won't find this on the internet like you can fishing reports. The best advice is to call the local field office in the area you wish to hunt. 

Now, specific waters to look to in the Upper Peninsula include Big Bay de Noc, including all of the Garden Peninsula, west of Manistique. Little Bay de Noc on the southwest end of the Stonington Peninsula, the entire St. Marys River from Sugar Island down to and including Drummond Island, and Keweenaw Bay in the L'Anse area. 

In the Lower Peninsula look to Saginaw Bay, particularly the Thumb shorelines, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie in the Monroe area. Grand Traverse Bay and Little Traverse Bay get their fair share of divers on the west side of the state. Don't neglect the big drowned river-mouth lakes either, as when Lake Michigan gets feisty the birds seek refuge there.