“Get down!” warned my hunting buddy Rollie Beisswenger. “Cans on the right!” Instinctively, I ducked my head, then peeked out from beneath the bill of my cap. I could see four bulls and three hens coming in fast and low from the east, their streamlined profiles silhouetted against grey, scudding clouds. As the birds crossed in front of us—not circling into the decoys, but just cruising past for a look—Rollie and I rose in unison. A swing and…a miss. Well, several misses actually.
That’s canvasbacks for you.
Despite their large size, these birds have an uncanny knack for escaping detection until the last moment. And by that point, most attempts at knocking them out of the air prove futile. This near invincibility is just part of what makes the canvasback the undisputed king of ducks. Also adding to the allure is the fact they’re by far the least populous duck species counted in the annual breeding ground survey, which doesn’t include the eiders, ruddy ducks and a handful of others. In 2012,for example, the census counted 760,000 cans compared with 10.6 million mallards. Even the redhead, the canvasback’s closest kin, topped 1.27 million birds. Part of the reason for the low population can be traced back to habitat alteration and 19th-century market hunting, when the birds were the favoured target of gunners supplying the finest restaurants.
Yet despite the relative paucity of canvasbacks, or perhaps in part because of it, the duck-hunting fraternity continues to hold the bird in high esteem, considering it the ultimate prize. Again, though, I suppose this is in large measure because the canvasback is such an exciting and challenging species to hunt. And as true vegetarians of the duck world, they have sweet, succulent flesh. Want to hold court with the king of ducks? Here’s what you need to know about his highness.
Establishing a blind close to preferred feeding areas means adapting to whatever natural cover exists. Nearby points of land or islands are ideal spots to build blinds, as solid ground makes for a safer, more stable shooting platform. Where there’s no nearby terra firma, you’ll have to shoot from a boat. In this case, pull your boat into the cover of emergent vegetation, such as stands of bulrush. If there’s no natural cover, you’ll need to use a layout boat or erect blinds on your anchored boat.
As with creating blinds to hunt other diving ducks, you don’t need the same concealment for canvasbacks as you do for field hunting mallards or geese. Rather, it’s location that is paramount, and beyond that, you just need enough cover to mask your movement.
While they prefer small permanent wetlands as breeding habitat, canvasbacks are found almost exclusively on large waterbodies during the fall, building fat reserves for their annual migration. With their brawny, wedge-shaped bills, bull necks and disproportionately large feet, cans are designed with a single purpose in mind—to dive up to 10 metres to dig out the tubers of aquatic vegetation, such as sago pondweed and wild celery.
Hunting cans out on the big water where their aquatic salad bars are found is not for those looking to simply collect a couple of ducks for the stew pot. Accessing them on their traditional fall staging wetlands, such as Lake Erie, Ontario’s Lake St. Clair and Manitoba’s famous Delta Marsh, typically requires hunters to have boats, motors, large decoy spreads, capable retrievers and a near-unending supply of patience, perseverance and shotgun shells. Occasionally, these ducks can be hunted from points accessed over land, but that’s the exception.
Scouting is as important for hunting canvasbacks as it is for waterfowl traditionally hunted in fields—you need to identify where on the vast wetlands the large beds of sago or wild celery are located. Once you’ve pinpointed specific sites, you can usually hunt them season after season. Don’t get overly confident, however, since the locations of prime beds can change some years due to varying water levels or other environmental factors.
While I carry a diving duck call, or often mimic a bull can’s purr with my voice, I can’t claim to having ever called in cans that would have otherwise slid on past. They’re much less vocal than dabbling ducks, and I simply haven’t benefited from calling them.
If there’s a prettier sight in waterfowling than a flight of canvasbacks banking hard to follow a long line of decoys, I’ve not seen it. Decoy spreads for cans are not complicated, with the traditional fish hook, or J-pattern, having stood the test of time. Just make sure the shank of the hook extends directly downwind, with the bend in the hook slightly upwind of your blind. This ensures the landing area is within shooting range. Alternatively, some hunters prefer a V-pattern—two long strings of blocks angling downwind with the apex slightly upwind of your blind.
Like many hunters, I like to run my blocks on long lines, often extending them 150 to 250 metres downwind, with the decoys spaced five to 10 metres apart. My long lines are 50-metre lengths of heavy, marine-grade cord weighted with lead-filled soup cans on each end. I attach the individual blocks on metre-long standard decoy line secured to the long line with what are commonly referred to as halibut or swordfish clips. These clips are easy to manage in the coldest weather, even when you’re wearing heavy mittens. The beauty of the short lines on my decoys is that they seldom get tangled in the bag; as for my long line and weights, I keep them coiled uniformly in a five-gallon bucket. Canvasbacks, like most diving ducks, seem to prefer the company of their own kind. For that reason, I exclusively run diver spreads, though my blocks are an even mix of canvasback and scaup. Divers key in on the dark/light contrast of these decoys—standard mallard decoys, which are more uniformly coloured, just don’t work as well. Experience has taught me that five to six dozen decoys is about right. I use three dozen on my long lines, with another two to three dozen forming the bend. I then scatter a couple of handfuls around the landing area. For those who want to use fewer decoys, try the old hole-in-the-wall spread: two clumps of decoys on either side of your blind, with a landing zone in between.
I prefer a quartering offshore wind, or even wind blowing parallel to my blind. Unlike shooting dabblers or geese, where a wind at your back is ideal, canvasbacks have a habit of banking away when they approach land in a headwind, generally well before reaching shotgun range.
When compared with decoying geese or dabbling ducks, diving ducks take gunning to a whole other level. And if scaup are characterized as squadrons of fighter jets buzzing through your spread at every conceivable angle, canvasbacks are more akin to stealth bombers flying in disciplined formation. Generally exhibiting a stable flight pattern, cans often approach in straight lines or Vs, with all the birds flying at the same elevation, their wing beats rapid and shallow.
It’s this relative lack of motion compared with other ducks, in fact, that makes cans so darn difficult to pick up, especially against a dull sky or grey water. And when you finally do see them, they appear to be easy targets, especially since they’re the largest of our common ducks. But nothing could be further from the truth—I’ve seen countless misses on what appeared to be easy shots, including a fair share of my own. The problem is, canvasbacks also happen to be the fastest duck on the wing, having been clocked at upwards of 110 kilometres an hour. And with their impressive size, they often seem much closer than they really are, tricking hunters into shooting before they’re in range. Put both those factors together and you’ve got a recipe that ammunition manufacturers love and gunners loathe. Most dedicated canvasback hunters take a best guess at the appropriate lead, then double it and squeeze the trigger. To help gauge distances, it’s imperative to have a marker decoy in your spread at a specific distance from your blind.
I exclusively shoot three-inch loads for cans, usually with #2 or #3 shot, through a modified choke. With this combination, I’m pretty confident shooting out to 45 metres. Fat bull canvasbacks, or silverbacks as they’re reverently called, don’t succumb as easily as barnyard mallards, and often a second or third shot is needed to anchor them. If you tumble one and it lands head up, sportsmanship dictates that you immediately shoot it on the water—wait even a second or two and you risk it diving and resurfacing well out of gun range. Even a good dog will struggle to track down a wingtipped canvasback, so it pays to be ready to launch your boat in pursuit if need be.
The one final thing to keep in mind when it comes to hunting canvasbacks is that there are no certainties. But when things do go right, when the wind is just so and your blocks are riding low and true on a slowly rolling lake, a small flight might just swing through for a look. And if you’re lucky, and you get your barrel moving quickly out in front of the lead bird, maybe you’ll splash a single, or perhaps a double. More often than not, however, the birds will bank hard on the wind, pushing for the safety of open water, and your shot, if you get one off, will sail harmlessly by. That’s canvasbacks for you.