Photography courtesy of Lowell Washburn, all rights reserved.
“Have you thus sat on a snowy day and squinted through the white curtain
at those mail-carrying bluebills? Until you have courted bluebills in the snow, you have not tasted of the purer delights of waterfowling.” Gordon MacQuarrie November, 1937
Although I love all types of waterfowl hunting, I especially love hunting that group of ducks collectively known as divers — those compact short winged species who make their living by diving deep below the surface to gather the roots, shoots and seeds of submergent aquatic plant life.
When the season’s first winter storm system — Winter Storm Astro — rolled into Iowa last week, the words of Gordon MacQuarrie seemed to come to life as massive flocks of bluebills began swarming into the state. For those hunting in the northern tiers, it was easily the best migration of scaup since the early 1980s.
Most birds arrived on the storm’s leading edge and the first two flocks into the decoys easily contained over 100 ducks each. During the storm’s second day, heavy snow squalls were added to the high winds, making the scene even more dramatic and exciting as flocks would suddenly appear ‘out of the snow’. The largest flock of birds we had work the decoys must have contained more than 500 ducks — no exaggeration. By then, the white capped waves had become so high that the birds couldn’t decide if they wanted to land or just keep going. Meanwhile, as they circled back and forth, more and more bunches arrived to join the swirling mass — a rather bizarre scenario that is much more typical for puddle ducks than divers. Within a couple of minutes, the milling flock had become so immense that the same bunch of divers was simultaneously working our decoys as well as the decoy spread of some guys located a couple hundred yards down the shoreline. In more than a half century of duck hunting, it was one of the most incredible things I’ve seen.
So how many ducks did we manage to bag? Well, we didn’t shoot any out of that bunch. Neither did the hunters down the line. As we discovered later, both parties had been so completely mesmerized by the event that no one in either group had fired. Didn’t matter though, as the day progressed everyone got plenty of shooting.
The lake is frozen now. The divers are gone for another year. But one thing is certain, this year’s brief but spectacular waterfowl migration was definitely one for the record book.