Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
Swift of wing and unique in profile, the regal canvasback is duck hunting‘s greatest treasure. No species is more thrilling to observe. No species is more thrilling to hunt. No species provides finer dining. It’s little wonder that the mighty ‘can has enjoyed a long term standing as the King of Ducks.
Long Live The King
“We offer no apology for thus elevating the lordly canvasback to a classical role, for among duck-minded people he has long been the ‘gold standard’ against which all lesser fry are weighed and measured.”
Iowa born conservationist, Aldo Leopold, 1944
With less than seven days remaining in this year’s duck season, the last day of November provided a perfect backdrop for pursuing the mighty canvasback — the legendary King of Ducks. Although more than two hours remained until daybreak, the season’s first significant snowstorm was already creating a Christmas globe atmosphere across most of Northern Iowa. Selecting a cove along a somewhat protected stretch of shoreline, my son Matt and I had soon tossed out a respectable spread of decoys with a strong representation of the species we most desired.
As legal shooting time finally arrived, the wind and snow began to increase with equal intensity. Although the ground was still too warm for much of the snow to stick, it was likely that three or four inches of the white stuff had already fallen. We were both even more anxious than usual for ducks to appear. Free time was limited and today’s hunt would be short. Success would have to come quickly. We got our wish when the first duck soon appeared without warning; a lone canvasback coming out of the squall and boring straight into the teeth of the storm. Unfortunately, it looked as if the duck was going to pass wide of our spread, well beyond range. But then, at the last second, the bird spotted our canvasback look-alikes and made an abrupt change in direction.
As the speeding duck arrived at the edge of the decoys, I urged Matt to shoot. He immediately obliged and Matt’s big Lab, Max, made the retrieve. As the dog delivered the bird to hand a few moments later, it seemed incredible that the first duck of the day had been the one we had most hoped to see.
The snow continued to increase in volume until visibility was reduced to the point that much of the surrounding real estate was obscured. As the hunt progressed, I watched as Matt collected two more “lesser fry” with two more shells. As Max swam in with his third duck of the morning, it was hard to tell who was more delighted with the wintery weather – him or us.
The next web-foot caught everyone – including the dog — completely off guard. The duck was a huge bull canvasback that had burned us from behind; traveling with the wind at a velocity that must have approached the sound barrier. But as the fowl rocketed past our location, we could clearly see it cock its head to inspect the spread, a behavior that when it comes to canvasbacks, is always a good sign. Sure enough, just before the drake disappeared back into the smother, the bird executed an abrupt U-turn and came smoking back to the decoys.
Arriving at our bobbing replicas, the big duck stood on its tail, dropped the flaps and lowered its oversized gray-webbed landing gear. At a distance of 15 yards or less, I could assess every detail of the bird’s sculpted profile. It was an incredible scene; a chestnut headed, end-of-the-season drake canvasback hanging a foot above the decoys while etched against the magnificent whiteness of the building storm. A painting come to life, it was a waterfowlers’ dream come true if ever there was. Matt urged me shoot. I immediately obliged. Raising the shotgun in a single fluid motion, I deftly covered the duck and fired.
At the sound of the gun, the duck was supposed to fall to the water. Instead, the next thing I saw was the big drake pouring on the coals in an all out effort to vacate the county. With no excuse and clean as a whistle, I had missed the chip shot of a lifetime. With the drake rapidly picking up speed, there was no time to lament. Covering the duck again, I redeemed myself with the second barrel. Max hit the water with gusto, the wind hurtling the freezing spray horizontally downwind. Gently holding the slain canvasback in his mouth, the dog returned to our hide with his head held high.
I might be mistaken, but I think that even Labrador retrievers can sense when they’re dealing with the King of Ducks. Long live the King!