HUNT THE PUD­DLE DIVER

YOU DON’T NEED TO BE EQUIPPED FOR THE BIG WA­TER TO HAVE A BLAST HUNT­ING RINGBILLS BY TOM CAR­PEN­TER

Outdoor Life - - BOW HUNTING INSIDER -

Ten­der boats. Lay­out skiffs. Big wa­ter. Hun­dreds of de­coys. It takes a ton of equip­ment and in­tense ef­fort to suc­cess­fully hunt the div­ing ducks of sport­ing leg­end, right?

Not when you tar­get ringbills. Of all the div­ing ducks, ringbills (also called ring-necked ducks or black­jacks) have the strong­est affin­ity for small wa­ter. In fact, hunt­ing ringbills of­ten looks more like pud­dle-duck hunt­ing than diver hunt­ing.

Suc­cess on these fast­fly­ing divers starts with un­der­stand­ing their habi­tat pref­er­ences, then ad­just­ing your setup ac­cord­ingly. MEET THE PUD­DLE DIVER

The ring­bill is a first cousin to the blue­bill but has a blacker back and whiter belly, yel­low eyes, and a dis­tinc­tive slate-gray bill edged in white and adorned with a white ring. Hens have a brown back and white belly, and a white bill ring as well.

Ringbills be­have more like pud­dle ducks than divers, feed­ing on tu­bers, seeds, leaves, and plants in 1 to 3 feet of wa­ter. That’s deeper than mal­lards, and shal­lower than blue­bills and red­heads. This in-be­tween niche brings ringbills into range— both eco­nomic and shot­gun—of the av­er­age duck hunter with only waders, de­coys, and a small boat at his dis­posal.

Ringbills push south ahead of the big rafts of other div­ing ducks. These small-wa­ter birds ar­rive well be­fore north­ern mal­lards, when the weather is just start­ing to get a lit­tle raw and au­tumn’s leaves are just be­gin­ning to drop, but well be­fore small wa­ter freezes up. Ringbills don’t like icy con­di­tions. Most of these birds mi­grate to the Gulf Coast, most no­tably in Florida.

Find ringbills on marshes, swamps, bogs, sloughs, ponds, and back­woods pot­holes. Think wood duck habi­tat. Ringbills are com­fort­able around tim­ber be­cause they nest near shal­low bo­real wa­ters. But you’ll find ringbills in open coun­try, too. Each year I shoot them from piner­immed wet­lands in Wis­con­sin and Min­nesota, and in cat­taillined pud­dles in the Dako­tas.

THE SETUP

Ring­bill se­tups should be pretty sim­ple. Start with a half dozen mal­lard de­coys, be­cause ringbills feel right at home with greenheads. Then add diver de­coys—18 or so is plenty. Ring­bill de­coys are best, but blue­bills work fine too; it’s the vis­i­bil­ity of the drake’s white that you’re af­ter. If you don’t want to in­vest in a spread of 18 new diver dekes, sim­ply buy some used mal­lard de­coys (check Craigslist for deals) and paint them matte black with white sides.

Set up with the wind at your back, a knot of mal­lards in front, and a V of diver de­coys ex­tend­ing out and invit­ing ducks into the pocket. If the wind is com­ing from the side, shorten your pat­tern to a C and ro­tate it so the open­ing of the C faces down­wind.

Mal­lard calls will get ringbills’ at­ten­tion, but let the de­coys do most of the work. You can also growl or purr lightly on a diver call (there are a va­ri­ety on the mar­ket) if you feel com­pelled to call the ducks in.

Heavy loads packed with size No. 2 or No. 3 steel are about right. Ringbills are on the small side, but they are densely feath­ered and carry a thick layer of greasy fat un­der the skin. These speedy fliers can be tough to drop, and you don’t want crip­pled birds div­ing to es­cape.

Once in hand, a drake ring­bill ri­vals any other diver for good looks, and is equally de­light­ful to eat.

A trio of ringbills flushes from a small cat­tail marsh.

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