Chris Kolbert: Canvasback makes remarkable comeback

Canvasback ducks.

A bright afternoon sun reflected off the water as I motored across a shallow slough toward a weed-choked point along the Mississippi river bottom. Small flocks of ringneck ducks passed overhead and hundreds of coots skittered across the water just off the bow of the boat.

Bluebird days like this, especially in early November, are usually reserved for hunting whitetails—not ducks. Ask an old duck hunter and he’ll likely tell you that when the sky is clear, waterfowl generally fly high and safely out of range of a 12 gauge.

But that didn’t matter to me. After spending much of October in a deer stand, it was time to switch gears and relax in a duck blind—whether I was successful or not.

As I concentrated on reaching the point, dodging weed patches and submerged stumps while the boat sliced through the water, I almost didn’t see a flock of nearly fifty canvasbacks lift out of the slough and fly toward a small patch of rushes just off shore. The regal birds were hiding within a raft of several hundred coots, a survival tactic that I’ve watched them use quite often.

Over the drone of the motor, I heard a shot as a hunter standing in the rushes dropped one of the big ducks into the water.


Known as the king of ducks, the great birds are prized for their beautiful plumage and they make great table fare. Once decimated by market hunters in the 1800s and early 1900s, canvasback populations have waxed and waned over time while hunting seasons have been restricted and even closed due to low numbers.

When I began hunting ducks in the 1970s, canvasbacks, otherwise known as "cans", were strictly off limits. Back then, shooting a bull can, a name that duck hunters use for the males, was a good way to earn a ticket and a heavy fine from the local game warden.

Only in recent years have the populations flourished to the point where harvesting of a limited number of canvasbacks is acceptable. Population estimates have put the 2011 level at close to 700,000 birds, up nearly 16% from 2010. In Minnesota, the bag limit for canvasbacks is now one bird per day.

When I reached the point, I quickly tossed out a spread of decoys and tucked the boat into the rushes. Small flocks of cans, gadwalls, ringnecks, and mallards streaked by just out of range.

I pulled a classic wooden duck call from under my jacket and put it to my lips. But the birds clearly weren’t interested in the decoys or my calling. I realized this wasn’t going to be easy.

A flock of cans raced by, just outside of my decoys, and I swung on a big bull and shot. Over the years, I’ve come up with plenty of excuses for missing and have never been too proud to use them.

On this occasion, I led the bird by several feet but never touched a feather. At top speeds of 70 miles per hour, canvasbacks are one of the fastest ducks on the planet. But that excuse was no consolation for Sandy, my yellow lab, as she turned her head and gave me an evil look.

The old dog began to whine anxiously for a chance to retrieve something. "Not this time" I muttered to myself as she settled back down to wait for another chance.


But it would be a long time before she got that chance. A small pile of empty shotgun shells accumulated on the bottom of the boat as flock after flock passed by, nearly all of them on the edge of shotgun range.

Finally, as the sun was beginning to fall behind the bluffs, one last flock of canvasbacks raced over the decoys. I swung on a bull can and this time, it tumbled into the water.

On my command, Sandy leaped from the boat and swam toward the downed bird. At ten years old, her eyes aren’t as good as they used to be and I walked out to direct her toward the duck.

When she finally dropped the bird into my hand, I got the feeling that I was holding a piece of history. From near decimation to a sustainable and huntable population, the canvasback is a great example of the success of modern conservation practices.

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