Hunting diver ducks is one of the most exhilarating types of hunting that comes each year. With frigid temperatures (both water and air) and fast working birds, it gets my heart pumping just thinking about the dodgy shenanigans. Sure, my family and friends think I’m absolutely crazy and often worry about my safety, especially when I go it alone. I usually rebut their concern with an invitation to join me, but my offer is often refused with quick concession.
Here in Minnesota we usually see the first of the diving ducks around the 3rd weekend in October, but they don’t usually adorn our skies in full mass until the 2nd or 3rd week in November. Their bulldog companies of 15-20 are easy to spot for eyes that have only witnessed singles and pairs of wood ducks and mallards for over a month. I often ponder how many millions of them make it down to Louisiana and Texas each year, as I watch flocks of hundreds fly sky high over our lakes with no intention of stopping over.
Fortunately for me, I’ve got three crazy comrades that enjoy chasing these birds just as much as I do. My friend Sean DeCent has joined my obsession with acquiring large quantities of decoys and tactical long lines. It makes hunting together a little more time consuming, as it usually takes the better part of an hour to wrap and stow the obnoxious amount of gear. My Brother Jase has taken after hunting canvasbacks and ring necks on Lake Christina, with his fourteen foot fishing boat and my Grandpa’s old foam decoys. However, my buddy Jeff Westgard has taken a different approach. With a style reminiscent of the old-time duck hunters, he honors the slough with the most functional gear that will pack into his twelve foot low-profile sneak boat. This makes him the perfect scout with the ability to travel quickly, silently, and semi-unseen.
It was Jeff that had called me in the first week in November with uncontained excitement in his voice. “There are 25-30 goldeneyes out on Lake Putter!” With the Indian summer that we had recently experienced in Minnesota (it had been 70 degrees the week before), I was more than a little skeptical. I had half the mind to ask him if he was sure they were goldeneyes, and not the numerous coots that we had seen on Lake Putter a few weeks before. He expanded on his original story of how he had seen two goldeneyes skirt his spread, and plopped down 50 yards to the northeast. More and more goldeneyes joined their brethren until they had reached a sizable raft.
A quick ode to the Common Goldeneye
Although bountiful for some to hunt around coastal waters, these birds have been hard to target in Minnesota. They usually appear just as our lakes are freezing over, which gives us only a handful of days to pursue them. Contrary to most ducks, I often hear Goldeneyes before I see them. They have a distinct wing-whistle vibrato which turns my eyes to the skies when they approach. I like to refer to Goldeneyes as the test-pilot duck. If you are lucky enough to witness their crazy midair loop-d-loops and jet-fighter 4-G turns you’d understand. They’re strong on the wing, and their compact frame makes them seemingly impervious to steel shot.
It’s no secret to any of my friends that I’ve been aiming for a goldeneye drake for years. I’ve been close, oh so close, so many times. From packing up my decoys too soon, to taking ill-timed shots at these bird bullets, the inkling that I would never bag a trophy bird was tugging at my heart-strings. I checked with my wife Emily if I could chase these gold-eyed scoundrels in the morning. Per usual, she half rolled her eyes, accepted, and the table was set.
I met Jeff at Lake Putter at 5 a.m., and we discussed our battle plan. With an easterly wind, we would set up on the NW corner of the north island. A small stretch of water ran 100 yards to the northern shore, and with the wind blowing at 10-15 mph we decided the birds might want some shelter.
Jeff is always amazed at the amount of decoys that I’m able to procure from my 12’ carstens bluebill. Four dozen diver decoys, a diver spinner, and two higdon pulsators emerged from my boat, as well as my yellow lab Penny. Making quick work of it, we set a long line of bluebills and ring necks in the direction of the wind, and placed our six goldeneye decoys closer to our position with a bluebill mojo in the center. We decided if there were any puddle ducks around, we would set 6-10 avian-x surface feeders off to the right-shallow, and Jeff’s mallard spinner in the middle.
With our decoys placed in the darkness, we sipped coffee and traded stories from our current hunting season. It was 15 minutes after legal shooting time that we realized we were supposed to be hunting. This epiphany came in the form of a streaking white and black blur that scooted across our spread. “Goldeneye”, I whispered to Jeff.
As the sun rose further in the sky, the lake started to wake up. A drake mallard scanned our spread from 30 yards up, quacking ever so often for a friendly response. We contemplated shooting this gorgeous greenhead, but resolved that the distance was an ethical issue. As we spoke more about sales events that Jeff was working towards in January, two beautiful drake goldeneyes twirled in from the left and set their wings on fast approach to the decoys. The tailing goldeneye swung further to our right, and took its sweet time to enter the spread. It was in this instant that I shouldered my Beretta and shouted “Take em!” to Jeff. Jeff made a punishing shot from his Franchi, and his bird fell dead to rights. My shot took the goldeneye from an inch off the water, and the bull quickly dove. I waited five agonizing seconds and its white and black profile emerged from the depths. One more well-aimed shot and my trophy lay tranquil on the water.
“Penny!” I called for the retrieve, and the saucy vixen answered. She grabbed the closest goldeneye and beautifully delivered my prize to hand. I sent her again to fetch the duck that Jeff had downed. By this time it had drifted 50-75 yards to the north, and Penny couldn’t mark it visually. I took two steps out beyond the cattails and gave her a good hand line. After swimming for two seconds she finally caught sight and beelined towards the drake. When she returned, my mood was nothing but electric. There was no hiding the rush I was feeling in that moment. I kept on saying “I can’t believe it!” and “finally!” We sat admiring our new prizes for the better part of ten minutes, inattentive to our surroundings. The colors of these birds were bewitching to our eyes. Jet black and brilliant white feather contrast, an iridescent green head, and a royal gold eye.
We continued the hunt for another 45 minutes and witnessed 20 other goldeneyes raft in the same location Jeff had observed 2-3 days prior. We took an oath to hunt that northeast point before the end of the season, but the wintery north winds blew and ice covered Lake Putter before we had a chance.
To have a beautiful drake goldeneye in my hand was a very exhilarating experience in my hunting career, but what made it even better was the shared experience with a close friend (who is admittedly almost as crazy about diver hunting than I am).