Cans are the king of ducks, prized on restaurant menus long ago, back when market hunting was allowed and hadn’t yet wreaked its near-final destruction of duck populations. Canvasbacks are big birds, weighing as much as 3½ pounds, and their diet of wild celery, wapato (duck potato) and sago makes them fat and tasty.
The daily limit for cans is one in California. My honey hole was 135 minutes from my house and cost me $47 in gas round-trip. Part of the draw, of course, was also hunting with my buddy Charlie. And if I really wanted a limit, I could choose to target buffleheads and ruddy ducks, which I did one day, but when I was dressing the birds, inhaling the aroma, I concluded I would not do that again.
And while I usually came home with a canvasback, it was one hunt in particular that made all the effort, gas and time worth it – it was one of my best days of hunting ever.
It was a bright, cold day in the middle of a California cold snap, which means the temperature was dipping below freezing each night. Charlie and I decided to start late, because nothing was flying early anyway. He knew exactly where he wanted to go, but as we were paddling our kayaks out, a motorboat sped past us to that very spot.
So we paddled the opposite direction, to a place where we’d seen cans hanging out before. You can spot them a mile away – big bright spots of white on the water, easy to distinguish even among buffleheads because they were like planets in a night sky, the buffies like little stars.
We set up two lines of five or six can decoys each, making sure they all faced the same direction because apparently, that’s important to cans. Then we tucked back into hiding, Charlie under the shade of a tree, me hidden in a cluster of tules, with a ghillie jacket and camo netting erasing the outline of me and my boat.
It wasn’t long before the ruddies moved in among us. Live decoys! I must’ve been parked over something really yummy, because one particular fat ruddy hen set up about five feet from the tip of my boat, and she spent a good 20 minutes there diving, surfacing, looking around to make sure everything was cool, then diving again.
Every time she surfaced, she looked my direction, but never spotted any danger. My grin, thankfully, was invisible under my mask.
More ruddies kept moving across the water in front of me, and finally one brought a hen canvasback with it. I’d prefer a drake, and usually did get drakes on these hunts, but I didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. When the can dived, I sat up in my boat, and when she surfaced, surprise! Boom, splash, done.
That hen ruddy that had been in front of my boat had been in a dive when I fired my gun, and when she surfaced and saw that the lump in front of her had been me, the look on her face was priceless: I’m outta here!
I paddled back over to Charlie and we sat under the shade of that tree, talking softly, watching as the ruddies began filing back in, the memory of my gunshot fading quickly.
Unexpectedly, a pair of mallards – a rarity in this spot – dropped in a visit, and I found myself with a greenhead in my bag. The ruddies evacuated, but began returning within 10 minutes.
Then another mallard came in – holy crap! This one was Charlie’s, and we were both laughing with surprise and delight at our good fortune. But when I paddled out to pick it up for him, I saw black feet and realized we’d both gotten it wrong: This was a drake canvasback. A fattie!
Now we were both limited, and while we might see another mallard, we knew chances were slim. But the hunting had been so good that we decided to sit tight.
As we continued talking softly, the ruddies returned, and soon after that a beautiful drake canvasback came diving in at light speed. Charlie and I looked at each other with wide eyes and grins as the can splashed down, started swimming around our decoys, then took his place at the end of the line (seriously!), tucked his bill under his wing and went to sleep.
They just poured in after that, most swimming around, many diving for yummy treats, some getting in line with the decoys, others taking a nap in any sunny spot on the water. We had easily a dozen cans 15 yards in front of us, and who knows how many nearby but out of sight.
We couldn’t fire a shot, of course, and nor were we even tempted. But it was every bit as thrilling as having a flock of mallards cupped and committed, if not more, because our concealment had given us front-row seats to a sight seldom seen. Hell, backstage passes!
Eventually, we had to move on. There was another spot where we might get a shot at mallards just before sunset, and we needed to move there before the magic hour arrived.
We paddled out from under the shade of that tree, and all the canvasbacks and ruddies in front of us exploded, flying off in all directions. The show was over.
We didn’t get any more ducks that day, but it didn’t matter: We were giddy with delight, still savoring the privilege we had enjoyed that afternoon. The ducks in our bag were wonderful, but not the most important thing. It was the part of the hunt unspoiled by shotgun blasts that we had enjoyed the most.
Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at www.hollyheyser.com.