Target acquired: Everything you need to know to hunt canvasbacks
By M.D. Johnson
A duck hunter may, over time, forget his first job. His first car. His first pair of Chuck Taylor Hi-Top tennis shoes. Hell, he may forget his first girl. What he won’t forget is his first canvasback.
In the waterfowler’s world, few, if any, trophies hold such a lofty position as does the King. Old Mister ’Can. His realm is the great wide open, and we ’fowlers are but his subjects. Here’s how to play the canvasback’s Game of Thrones.
He’s big. He’s brutish. He’s ruggedly handsome. If Clint Eastwood were a duck, he’d be a drake canvasback. Yeah, they’re both that cool. But the ’can, at one time, had a very uncertain future. Hunted almost into non-existence by commercial gunners during the early part of the 20th century, the canvasback was granted a pardon via the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. Over the next several decades, ’can populations experienced radical ups and downs, with daily bag limits being one some years, and none the next.
Today, as they have been for the past couple seasons, ’can numbers are experiencing a gentle upswing. As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has allowed some flyways to offer ’fowlers up to two canvasbacks in their daily bag.
Visually, the drake ’can, with his crimson head, high sloping forehead, black chest with white underbelly, gray/silver back and swept wings is, even to the drake redhead, unmistakable. A wonderful soft brown all over, the hen can, and often is, confused with the hen redhead, but shares the drake’s wedge-shaped sloping bill. Flight is strong and direct, with flocks often forming a distinctive V pattern high overhead.
In most parts of the country, it’s a relatively simple matter to shoot a mallard. Or a gray duck. Or a Canada goose. But the truth is, and with very few exceptions, one doesn’t just walk out the door saying, “I’m gonna go down to the pond and hunt canvasbacks.”
Most ’cans are shot over very specific spreads; big water, dozens and dozens of decoys and specialized boat-blinds or, for the traditionalist, flat-on-your-back layout boats tendered by large, high-sided rough water motorized skiffs. Oh, a puddle duck hunt can result in a canvasback gracing the strap; however, that’s known as luck rather than intent.
Those who hunt canvasbacks have the proper gear, as outlined above. Those who wish for a bull to put atop the mantle, but don’t care to make a career out of chasing the King, typically opt for a guided hunt. ’Can hotspots include the Chesapeake Bay, the Columbia River in Eastern Washington, Devil’s Lake in North Dakota and, in Canada, Manitoba’s Delta Marsh.
A typical ’can spread on a place like the Mississippi will consist of roughly 100 floaters; the majority being white-sided drakes for visibility purposes. A “blob” of 75 to mimic actively feeding birds is set close, on the upwind side of the blind. Then a 20-yard landing hole, followed by two lines leading downwind.
’Cans approaching from downwind see the blob, hit the lines and work it into the zone. On a place like the Delta Marsh, two dozen drakes set randomly — think “blob” — can be the hot ticket. Commonly found in rafts (flocks) of 1,000 or more individuals, canvasback spreads are usually a thing of numbers.
Don’t underestimate what’s needed to hunt canvasbacks. Late-season prime drakes are strong, heavily muscled and well-feathered. This is no time to go cheap. A 12-bore throwing 1-1/4 ounces of a quality non-toxic (e.g., Hevi-Shot), or at the very least, the 50/50 mix of steel and tungsten in Hevi-Metal, in #3, will get the job done; that is, if you do yours.