Last December I blew my chance to kill a canvasback by not swinging through on the single volunteer that flashed past our decoy spread off Walpole Island, in Michigan’s Lake St. Clair. Having never shot a “can,” I had no idea that they flew so fast and were that hard to hit.
Due to the canvasback’s relative scarcity, since the 1930s the US Fish and Wildlife Service has fluctuated between relaxing and tightening hunting restrictions, closing the season in Michigan in the early ’60s when I began hunting ducks. Curbed opportunity has only added to a 21st Century mystique of what early waterfowlers called the “king of ducks” and the “aristocracy of Duck-dom” because of their delicacy on the table. While traveling in Europe, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) missed eating roasted canvasback so much that he included them in his list of favored American fare.
By 1889 delectability and the species’ increasing scarcity prompted fancy restaurants in New York and other Eastern cities to pay up to $7 (about $32 today) for a brace of Lake Erie canvasbacks, spurring market hunters to continue killing them by the thousands. Commercial gunning, unrestricted sport hunting and the pollution of once-pristine waters that supported wild celery, eelgrass and other preferred foods that contributed to the birds’ flavor came close to wiping them out.
November 8, 1862, is the first entry in the logbook of America’s longest-running set of duck hunting records for the venerable Winous Point Shooting Club, on Lake Erie. That day 10 hunters killed 117 ducks, including 76 canvasbacks: “the best day’s bag of the year.” The can harvest at the club eventually fell from an annual average of 2,000 to 50 in five of the six years from 1886 to 1891. And for the next 108 years the average take of only five canvasbacks included its smaller-but-similar-looking cousin, the redhead.
Canvasbacks inhabit all four North American flyways and breed from Alaska throughout the prairie pothole region of Western Canada and the US. Migrants prefer big, open waters, especially those along the Mississippi River, the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay. Cans will never return to the numbers of yore, but they are making a comeback. During the 2020–’21 season, American hunters harvested about 160,000 and Canadians shot 5,000 more.
Look for relaxed bag limits this year—probably two birds daily in the US and perhaps six in Canada. (No wonder some American duck hunters cross the border . . . .)
No other duck is so steeped in legend and lore. Supposedly, 19th Century railway shippers wrote “canvas back” on the tarps used to mass bundle the birds for travel, hence the moniker. What I do know is that I hope to shoot my first-ever canvasback this fall. To me, the bird is the holy grail of waterfowl.