How to Hunt Big Bluebill Flocks on Open Water

Scaup Blue Bill Duck
Pretty Boy: A drake lesser scaup in full plumage.Donald M. Jones

Bluebills, also known as scaup, are found across the country’s flyways, and in settings ranging from shallow-water rivers to the Great Lakes to marine environments. This bird’s haunts include some of the most inhospitable and dangerous waters in North America. Here’s how to hunt them successfully.

The Duck

Two subspecies of scaup exist in the U.S., both predominantly black and white from bill to tail. They can be difficult to tell apart, particularly in flight, but there are differences. The larger of the two at 20 to 22 inches, the greater scaup is white from its shoulders to the tips of the primary and secondary feathers. The lesser, 16 to 18 inches, is white only to the midpoint of the wing. In the right light, the ­greater’s head glows with a green iridescence, whereas the lesser’s shines a dark purple. Both have heavy blue bills, but the greater’s black tip is broad, while the lesser’s is narrow and slightly hooked. Hens of both subspecies range from brown to grayish brown, with the same wide heavy bill and white facial patch at the base.

Their diet depends greatly on location, but fingernail clams, aquatic insects, crustaceans, wild celery, eelgrass, and salicornia are universally favored. Scaup are widely distributed and can be found in varying numbers from the mouth of the Columbia River to the Chesapeake Bay.

The Tactics

Ninety-five percent of waterfowlers targeting scaup do so in an open-water environment, typically from a seaworthy mobile boat blind or a low-profile one- or two-man layout boat. Preferred waters aren’t necessarily deep (roosting waters may be an exception), although bluebills are capable of diving to 30 feet or more in search of shellfish. Scaup have traditionally been hunted from stationary (permanent) box-style blinds along the east coast, most notably in Chesapeake Bay, positioned in areas of predictable high bird numbers. Some geographic dry-land features, such as points pushing out into open water or narrow belts between deep-water roosts and food sources, can lend themselves to shore-based opportunities.

Scaup Blue Bill Duck Flying
Incoming: Bluebills decoy into the wind but frequently commit low and fast.Dean Pearson

The Spread

On the water, a flock of bluebills is known as a raft and can number into the hundreds of individuals. Due to this gregarious tendency, scaup are often gunned over spreads of 50 to 200 or more decoys. Such mega spreads help attract attention in the open-water setting preferred by these divers, as does the commonplace usage of mostly white drake-only rigs.

Like puddlers, bluebills decoy into the wind. Hunters will typically first position the layout boat or note the location of the gunning platform and set the spread slightly downwind, leaving runways that serve both as boat travel routes and bird funnels. Although a portion of the spread will often be rigged in a classic anchor-and-line style, dedicated bluebill hunters commonly employ gang rigs, clipping a dozen or more decoys on a single mother line anchored at both ends. This allows for rapid deployment and pickup of the large spreads used.

The Gear

Aside from the boats and piles of decoys, bluebill fanatics generally pack a 12-gauge loaded with No. 2 steel or No. 4 nontoxic shot. Scaup are tough customers, particularly in the late season when they're heavily feathered and muscled. Small shot has no place here, save for a handful of No. 5 or 6 steel swatter loads designed to subdue cripples. Calling with a diver model such as Haydel's DC-14 Diver can bring birds into range. Some hunters use black goose flags to attract a flock's attention at a distance.