Hail to the king!

“What kind of duck is that?” I said half to my ten year old self and half to my grandfather who was working on a carpentry project in the corner of his pine scented workshop.  He took a quick glance over his shoulder to look at the painting, and said “Canvasback…Tough birds to bring down”.  He promptly wentback to his work, but I was immediately immersed into the framed display.   Large maroon heads with a distinct broad crestatop a black bill drew my gaze first, followed by electric white of the belly with broad gray wings set for a landing over tranquildecoys.   I still recall thinking, wow, that is such a majestic bird.  Little did I know at the time that this was indeed the King of ducks, a desired and revered species that is the gold standard for many waterfowlers.

Over the years I’ve always yearned for a sight of the mythical duck in my hometown in central Minnesota.  I’ve witnessedalmost every species that is native to the area, but a Canvasback was never to be spotted.  It wasn’t until five years ago that I even had a chance.  Deciding to take a day off of work, and hunt for divers with my lab Penny, I needed to watch a sunrise alone on the lake.  We harvested a few ring-necks and mallards earlier in the morning, but I elected to stay longer and enjoy my time off.  Stretching my legs after the morning sit, a rhythmic whoosh filled my ears.  I stood paralyzed as a large shadow flew directly over my primitive blind.  Slowly grabbing my shotgun, I crouched to get ready for a shot.  As my eyes edged upward, I held my breath as a lone drake canvasback hovered over my diver blocks.   In disbelief, I took a second longer than I should have and the drake started to dash upward.   I fired one shot and the drake was sent quickly down to the water. However, I hadn’t a moment to celebrate as the mighty bird gained his balance, and began to swim away.  Quickly launching two water volleys tobring him down, I stood stunned as he seemed impervious to my shot.  I promptly sent Penny after him, but she was quickly outpaced by the masterly swimming of the old drake.  I rushed to launch my boat and set quickly to paddling. Every ounce of my muscle was working overtime, straining to gain ground in this noble race.  As I pulled my twelve-gauge upward for one more desperate chance, the drake set his wings, and exploded off the water into flight.  Absolutely aghast, I pulled Penny into the boat and exhaustedly headed home.

Ever since that moment, I’ve waited for my chance to meet the King again.  I’ve pushed my endeavors to western Minnesota and North Dakota, picking up two hens along the way.  It wasn’t until this year, that I was able to get another chance at the king.

A multitude of black silhouettes continued to fall like raindrops from buzzing clouds above.  I stood on the breezy shoreline a half mile away in awe.  Small slices of wind grabbing at my nose, and crossing my arms to stay warm.  “I think we have our spot for the morning” I commented to my friend Jeff. Jeff stood five yards away in the same entranced stare, unable to take his gaze from the hundreds of mallards putting down on the west end of the lake.  As Buffleheads buzzed around the edges of the lake, as we loaded into my truck, and made our preparations for the morning.

Picking our spot at a central point protruding from bottom of the lake, we instantly knew that the wind forecast was wrong.  A forecasted southerly wind was scant to be felt, as the northwest wind blew in our faces.  We decided to stay put, and hope that our decoy placement would work.  Over the course of the morning, a few mallards paid us a brief visit out of shooting range, but it was the divers that wanted to take up residence in our homely spread.  Goldeneyes, Buffleheads, and Scaupdecoyed easily into our spread, and the action was fierce.   

Sitting and having a chat after the barrage of birds had quieted down, a whish of wings beat ferociously in front of us.  From west to east they surged. Majestic and sturdy, ten canvasbacks skirted the edge of our spread and sailed past.  My friend and I huddled in awe and silence, praying that they would return.  It was a minute later that they returned, still just out of shooting range, and flew past once more.  My hands began to sweat, and I was afraid that we had missed our opportunity.   Every passing second felt like an eternity, and I began to doubt we would ever see them again.  Then, I saw it.  Emerging from the west the lead drake led the group from the adjoining tree line, closer to the shore and hovering two feet off the water.   They moved in close, and slowed down just enough for a shot.  “Take em!” Iroared.  We both sprang into action, we both took the lead drakeand he tumbled over and over again on the water.  Instinctively, I swung to the right, and hit the last drake of the flock.  I stood stunned in disbelief, as these two beautiful drakes lay motionless on the water.  

I’ve definitely celebrated after harvesting a duck before, but this was different. A rush of pure excitement flooded my body, and all I could say was “Finally!” Packing up the decoys, you couldn’t have wiped the smile off of my face with a bulldozer. I had finally harvested my drake canvasback, and it happened to be a double.

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