The lower Great Lakes region funnels diver ducks from across North America, and Lake St. Clair’s Mitchell’s Bay is at the epicentre of this annual fall frenzy. While shallow in comparison to the Great Lakes, this is big-water hunting and the conditions can be harsh. That’s why I was glad to be with Captain Chris “Benny” Benn of Crooked Hook Charters for this mid-November outing. As Benn set out decoys from his comfortable 21-foot custom-made boat, divers whizzed through the cattails behind us and the sun prepared to break the horizon.
While plump, orange-footed northern mallards were on the menu, this trip was about targeting diver ducks; primarily bluebill, redheads, and canvasbacks. Unlike their green-headed cousins, divers can be distinguished by wings that are set further back on their body and smoky black feet. They can dive deep under water for their food and humble the best wing shooters.
As the first bluebill ripped overhead, the salvo of shots wasn’t much more than a salute. A second bird, moments later, proved as impossible as the first. The third was the charm, and when another swung wide and committed to an approach, my barrel straightened itself out and an easy shot toppled the drake bluebill. We were on the board and the fun was just getting started.
Standard operating procedure
Benn typically takes four or five hunters out for half-day hunts and has overnight accommodations for travelling groups. Although divers can be hunted from shore, it’s typically best to get into deeper water. A big comfortable boat blind is my favourite way to hunt divers as it enables us to stand and shoot, with ample room to mount our guns. It also allows for the camaraderie that makes duck hunting one of my favourite pastimes. The added security of a large and seaworthy vessel is a bonus.
While divers typically offer a few windows of aggressive shooting throughout the day, nothing makes a hunt better than wild winds with a bit of weather mixed in. Benn has the equipment to handle these conditions, which is the only safe way to do it.
Deep water spreads also require gang lines, and Benn expertly set out a mix of mallard and diver blocks while avoiding a decoy-chord-wrapped propeller with his great boat-handling skills.
Part of the hunt
Failure to completely dispatch a tough drake redhead offered us our first, but not last, cripple chase of the hunt. A diver cripple chase is like a hunt unto itself. Able to dive deep and cover extensive ground on a single breath, wounded birds can vanish underwater and reappear a good distance away, but only for an instant. We chased the downed bird across the small bay and into the next before ultimately dispatching him. Making an honest effort to retrieve downed birds isn’t just right, it’s the law.
As the hunt progressed, we got a little more selective in hopes of bagging canvasbacks and redheads. We managed a few of each, but were a limit short, so we returned to Mitchell’s Bay for lunch, warmed up at Benn’s cottage, and then headed back on the water to try and round out our limit.
It was a bluebird day, which wasn’t ideal for finishing ducks. We got a good bit of shooting in during the evening hunt, but most of it was overhead at fast flyers. It was a challenge, but I stoned a very nice bonus black duck as night approached.
The sheer number of birds we saw was incredible. Timed right, Lake St. Clair can be one of the premier destinations for divers in North America.
Getting there: From Hwy 401, take Hwy 40 northwest to Countryview Line. Head west on Countryview to Bear Line. Turn right and follow to Bay Line. Turn left and follow into Mitchell’s Bay.
Cost: Half-day hunts are $150 each for up to four. Extra $25 a head up to 8. Full-day hunts and large groups can be accommodated upon request.
Originally published in the Fall 2019 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine