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For winter thrills, go on a diver duck hunt

PHOTO COURTESY OF MARTY LIESEGANG - A duck boat Duck hunting used to be something people did between salmon and elk seasons. It was not extremely popular. 

But that is changing quickly. It is becoming very popular, thanks to shows like A&E’s Duck Dynasty. These shows — much like most of the programs on the sporting channels — are all about puddle ducks, especially mallards. 

This story, however, revolves around diver duck hunting, something very few people set up for on purpose. Sure, some guys will shoot an occasional blue-billed or ring-necked duck as it buzzes their mallard blocks. But, on this particular day, we were targeting divers on purpose. 

After getting a text explaining that my hunting partner’s alarm didn’t go off and that he was running late, I backed down the ramp in the inky darkness, by myself, attempting to launch the 14-foot TDB Classic. It took some doing in the dark, but I managed to get the boat in the water.   

I got out to unhook the little duck boat and was immediately greeted by a pelting rain. Rough weather — a good sign the tough little ducks would be on the move today. The cold rain almost made me wish I would have slept in, but this was to be our first diver hunt of the year, something I had been looking forward to. 

Hunting divers can be an absolute blast. When they decoy, it is fast and furious. It seems as if they don’t even slow down before landing. When you stand to shoot, diver ducks don’t flare like puddle ducks; they merely change direction at Mach speed.  

After some trial and error the Honda motor sputtered to life and we motored away from the dock. Following an uneventful river ride, the big boat was anchored and I paddled out to set the long lines of decoys from the paddle boat, which would also be used later as our big water retriever. 

It wasn’t long before the first birds appeared. A trio of blue-bills buzzed the decoys just off the water. Not a shot was fired, as luck would have it neither of us were ready yet. 

As we huddled over our first cups of coffee, a single bird was spotted in the distance flying very close to the water. It was a diver. As the golden eye followed the long line towards the boat, I rose and cleanly folded the bird at about 5 yards. I paddled out and plucked the bird from the fast-moving current. 

I couldn’t help but admire the beautiful black and white feathers of this mature drake. As the day progressed, more and more birds began moving upriver past our decoys. Some birds payed absolutely no attention to our decoys, while others came right in. 

The unique thing about diver hunting is that it really doesn’t require calling. So we were able to have coffee and conversation while enjoying the beauty of the river and, of course, shooting some ducks. 

Out of nowhere a large flock of blue-bills buzzed the decoys, landed above us and began swimming in. When they were in range, we rose as they tried to take flight and we knocked down three. Two of them floated belly up in the decoys while the third started swimming downriver. 

As fast as I could, I climbed overboard into the little layout boat and began paddling after the duck. Chasing it down wasn’t that bad, but it was a struggle getting back to the boat. The wind had picked up, and as I paddled, water crashed over the front of the boat. I paddled as hard as I could toward the shore, trying to get out of the current. 

It was at this point I thought, this is kinda crazy, but it sure is fun. 

Birds continued to decoy well throughout the morning and we managed to pick up a few more. We probably missed almost as many as we hit; they are fast little ducks after all. We finished the day with nine birds, including a golden-eyed hen with a rare variant bill color, at least according to Google. Her bill was half-orange, half-black and definitely the coolest duck of the year. So far, at least. 

No matter the number, we had a blast. Hunting divers is one of my favorite winter activities. Rough water or not, the river is where you will find me on most of my days off.

HUNTING

• 2016 regulations are out and its time to start thinking of where to apply again this year

• Duck season ends at the end of January

• Some cow elk hunts are set to get under way

• A third period of goose hunting will take bird hunters to the end of February

FISHING

• Winter steelhead was good until the rains, but will be again when high water drops. Look to Gnat Creek to be the first in shape

• Never too early to think about springers, preliminary reports point to another strong run in 2016

Marty Liesegang lives in St. Helens and is the owner of Jackpot Market in Scappoose. He contributes an occasional outdoor column for the Spotlight.