A sneaky approach
By: Jeff Helsdon
This traditional tactic is just the ticket to fool late-season diver ducks
When stake blinds, boat blinds, and layouts fail, the old sneak boat will prevail."
Although Don Millar's rhyme might oversimplify one of the most effective methods to shoot late-season divers, it shouldn't be disregarded. Sneak-boat shooting works, even when ducks are wise to most other blinds and layout boats.
Sneak-boating involves laying out a large number of diver decoys and then anchoring your boat far upwind. A sneak boat needs a screen - hence screening, another term for this method of hunting - to hide the hunter from the ducks. When birds land in the decoys, the anchor rope is released and the wind is used to take this boat into the spread and within shooting range. The hunter then drops the screen and shoots.
I saw the effectiveness of this technique last fall with Millar's boat and guide Glen Rohrer. When I arrived at Millar's home and the headquarters of his Coletta Bay Guides service, overlooking famed waterfowling hot spot Long Point Bay on Lake Erie, he informed me that the forecast didn't look promising. To a waterfowler, this means weather not conducive to getting ducks to fly. In this case, it meant no wind. While calm conditions could make it tough to get ducks, this would be a good test of the effectiveness of sneak-boat shooting. One nice thing about this method is you set up in daylight. In fact, Millar said it could be dangerous to set up in the dark.
Rohrer and I headed out of the Port Rowan docks on a grey November day and aimed for the head of Long Point Bay. Along the way, we saw hundreds of bluebills. My hopes were raised by knowing there were ducks in the area. Now, all we had to do was get them in the air.
As I helped Rohrer put out decoys, he explained they were set in four lines of 10 to 15 birds each. On the upwind side, 18 singles serve as stoppers. These decoys bring birds in and help retain them as the shooter in the boat approaches. Setting the decoys in lines allows the boat to manoeuvre in the set with less chance of becoming tangled. The rig Rohrer uses has decoys in each line fastened together on a single line with an anchor at each end.
Decoys are set facing into the wind. Redhead decoys are in the back, canvasbacks in the middle, and bluebills at the front. The placement of the decoys takes into account the characteristics of their real counterparts. Rohrer's experience reveals bluebills don't hold as well as redheads.
After setting up the decoys, we anchored upwind. Rohrer attached a float to the anchor rope so he could set the boat adrift with a minimum of fuss and easily return to the anchor.
The distance between where the boat is anchored and the decoys varies between 100 and 200 yards, dependent on weather. "Sometimes you will find the birds are spooky and have to move back," Rohrer said. "Sometimes, when it's really brisk, you can get closer."
Waiting them out
With little wind that day, we anchored closer to 200 yards from the set. Soon, ducks were working the decoys. The first pair continued on their way, but the next two set down.
Rohrer set the boat adrift and paddled it closer to the ducks. On a blustery day, he uses the paddle like a tiller as the wind pushes the boat. As we approached the birds, my heart raced when the ducks started to move slowly towards the outer edge of the decoys. When we were in range, Rohrer gave the word. I dropped the screen and shot as a pair of ruddy ducks took flight. My second shot connected and I had my first duck.
We ended up with three ruddies and a bufflehead, and I missed a chance at a pair of bluebills. Although this wasn't an astounding bag, it was still rewarding, considering the calm conditions and the fact we heard very little shooting from the minimum of a couple dozen hunters within earshot. I wasn't being picky, but Rohrer pointed out that binoculars are important if a hunter is targeting only certain species of ducks.
On better days, Millar has used the technique to take limits of bluebills, canvasbacks, and redheads. In fact, on one hunt, he even had a redhead sit tight long enough for the boat to bump it.
A history lesson
Back at Millar's after the hunt - and following subsequent conversations with other authorities on sneak-boat shooting - I learned the history of the technique. No one knows for sure, though, when it made its debut in Ontario.
Waterfowling historian Paul Brisco of London, who has a book in progress about the historic 19th-century waterfowling clubs of the Great Lakes, has discovered that similar hunting techniques were once popular on Lake St. Clair and in Hamilton Bay. In Hamilton Bay, "screen shooting," as the technique is known there, became popular along the beach in the late 1800s. When the wind was blowing offshore, shooters lined the beach. They used the wind at their backs, along with a little sculling and pushing off bottom, to propel towards their decoys. Their boats had screens in front - usually made of reeds. The popularity of the technique lasted 50 to 60 years into the 1940s when laws restricted shooting in the bay.
On Lake St. Clair, waterfowlers called a similar technique drift- or sneak shooting. With no offshore winds, the technique is similar to what Millar uses on Long Point Bay, with the boat anchored upwind until ducks set in the decoys. The paddles traditionally used on Lake St. Clair were broader than those used on Hamilton Bay.
Hamilton and Lake St. Clair boats looked similar, Brisco says, except the latter were generally larger. Both wooden boats had closed bows. Sneaking was once popular enough that it spawned boat makers such as Weir Boat Works and Morris Boat Works of Hamilton and Frank DeRoevan of Wallaceburg. Many boat manufacturers were also decoy carvers.
The boat Millar uses traces its roots back to Lake St. Clair. Purchased used in 1960, it's a wooden lapstrake, 17.5 feet in length and painted grey. In recent years, he had a coat of fibreglass applied to the boat to preserve it and foam blown in for flotation. It's heavy, but very stable in the water.
Wallaceburg resident William Henderson started sneak shooting on St. Clair in 1945. He recalls it was much more popular then. "All the old-timers did was sneak shooting," he said. "The older guys are gone by the wayside and the younger ones haven't picked it up." The one exception is Henderson's grandson, also named William, who is carrying on the family heritage.
Many who know a little about waterfowling craft might associate the famed Barnegat Bay sneak box with this technique. Although this New Jersey boat might work for sneaking, it was developed for general waterfowl hunting and received its name when the camouflaged boat was used to approach ducks in the marsh.
High-quality decoys have historically been important to sneak shooting and are still crucial equipment. "The ducks have to be comfortable enough in the decoys that they stay there while you screen," Brisco said. Most decoys are made to attract birds for hunters to shoot flying over the spread or just before landing, he adds. A screening decoy, on the other hand, must let the birds feel safe enough for the five or more minutes it could take the hunter to get within shooting range.
"Plastic decoys don't work as well; they bob around," Millar explained. "They don't look as effective when there's a chop on the water, and that's when you want to hunt diver ducks." He prefers custom-made high-density foam decoys. Wooden decoys also work well.
For the hunter wanting to try sneak-boat shooting, the easiest option is to book a hunt with Millar. The experience comes complete with a nostalgic sneak boat and quality decoys. The technique, however, can be applied to many other boats, if a screen is inserted in the front. While Millar says using a less-stable craft for late-season divers can be dangerous, intrepid waterfowlers can pick and choose their days to try sneaking. Many years ago, my first - and unsuccessful - experience with sneak hunting was in a canoe with a screen in the front and using plastic decoys.
Noise can be a problem, though, and Millar advises against using aluminum boats. "Aluminum would be too noisy and the bang, bang, bang of water against the side of the boat would kick the birds out," he said.
Millar believes the demise of sneaking started when the limit was reduced on canvasbacks and redheads. The technique is unlikely to become hugely popular again, but it's a part of Ontario waterfowling history and will be around for a few years to come, as the Hendersons, Millar, and others continue to use it.