According to the latest US Fish & Wildlife Service pond counts, most duck species are up from last year, and the fall flight is expected to be another large one. Some species like scaup and pintail remain below the long-term average (-33 percent and -19 percent, respectively), but most other species are showing improvement.

Possibly the best news to come out of the survey is that the canvasback is at record-high numbers. Estimates show that the can is up 25 percent from 2006 and 53 percent higher than the long-term average from 1955-2006.

The story of King Can is a remarkable one. From barely sustainable breeding populations in the 1920s to record high numbers in 2007, even if you have never seen or harvested a can, you can rejoice that this duck is on the rebound.

Mississippi has taken the opportunity offered by the USFWS to double the bag limit on canvasbacks; hunters will have a two-bird limit for the 2007-08 waterfowl season.

The Mississippi canvasback season has fluctuated over the last 20 years. It was closed completely from the '87-'88 through '93-'94 seasons, open through the' 00-'01 season, a partial season (season within a season) in '01-'02, closed again in '02-'03, partial season again until the '06-'07 season when there was a full 60-day season on cans.

Very few hunters in Mississippi have seen a canvasback over their decoy spread, and even fewer have killed one. Most Mississippi hunters don't frequent areas that canvasbacks favor, so it stands to reason that very few birds are taken on the traditional flooded timber or rice field hunts in the state.

Probably the major contributor to light canvasback harvests is that Mississippi waterfowlers are generally not interested in hunting divers. When you mention diving ducks down South, you usually are met with scowling faces and muffled snickers by the tried-and-true mallard purists. "If it ain't green, it ain't a duck" is the motto of most Mississippi hunters.

Canvasback history

At the turn of the 20th century, the canvasback was prized table fare in major cities along the East Coast. Commercial hunters boated up to rafts of cans and other divers, and shot through them with large, bow-mounted guns. These weapons were sometimes nothing more than horizontally mounted pipes, several inches in diameter, filled with up to a pound of shot. Too large to handle, the guns were mounted on the boats, or punts, hence the name "punt guns."

The hunter, lying prone in the boat, slipped to within shooting range of great numbers of these birds, and pulled the trigger. Dozens, if not hundreds, of ducks were then picked up and sold in the cities as food.

The canvasback was among the most favored of wild birds on the market, thus it made the most money for the "market hunter." During the height of the market-hunting days, a pair of canvasbacks could bring as much as $12 - huge money 100 years ago.

With the establishment of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, market hunting was banned in the U.S., but canvasback numbers continued to decline. In a press release issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in October 1936, the nation learned that the season for canvasbacks and redheads had been closed for the first time.

"So popular was the hunting of these ducks that the decrease in their numbers throughout their breeding areas in the North Central States began as early as in the '50s and '60s," says the press release, referencing canvasback declines in the 1850s and 1860s.

Drought and drainage of prairie potholes in the nesting grounds was one major factor in the continued canvasback decline, as was the loss of wild celery beds in traditional feeding areas. Wild celery was one of the most-favored foods by canvasbacks, and its decline in northern and eastern waters was thought to be due to pollution and turbidity of the shallow bays, where it grew in abundance.

Canvasback numbers continued to decline throughout the 1950s, '60s and '70s due to continued losses of wild celery and sago pondweed in the traditional canvasback wintering areas along the East Coast. As a result, studies indicated that winter distribution of canvasbacks shifted from freshwater areas traditionally rich in underwater plants like wild celery to brackish water areas that held large numbers of shellfish (Perry and Uhler, 1988).

Wintering areas

The traditional migration routes show the major flyway leaving Central Canada and Prairie U.S. and heading southeast toward the Chesapeake Bay area of Maryland and Virginia, while another major route heads due south toward Texas. Catahoula Lake in Louisiana is a very important wintering area for the big birds.

A lesser route extends westward toward the Pacific Coast; San Francisco Bay and parts of Utah are listed as major wintering areas there. One thing is certain in all of the traditional canvasback breeding and wintering areas - extreme habitat changes have caused the mighty can to search for alternate wintering grounds.

Habitat loss in Texas and along the Gulf Coast may have played a major role in why we are seeing more canvasbacks in Mississippi. Couple that with the fact that in the early 1970s, the catfish industry was growing rapidly in the Mississippi Delta and the shallow ponds provided an alternate wintering area for these birds.

Where to find them

Out of 77 hunters polled who had either encountered or harvested a canvasback in the Magnolia State, 44 percent had done so on Delta catfish ponds. Twelve percent reported cans on the Mississippi River and connected oxbows, 9 percent on the four north-Mississippi flood-control reservoirs (Arkabutla, Enid, Sardis and Grenada), 6 percent along the Gulf Coast and 2 percent on Ross Barnett. Another 24 percent reported seeing or taking cans in other parts of the state, including the Tenn-Tom waterway, Delta rice fields and combinations of several areas across the state.

According to hunters, most Mississippi canvasbacks were taken on Delta catfish ponds. As Delta duck hunting seems to grow in popularity, so does the hunting of diving ducks on fish ponds. Ten- to 20-acre impoundments with adequate cover on surrounding levees provide even the novice hunter with reasonable odds for gunning down a can. A simple decoy spread of a couple-dozen puddler dekes and a comfortable back rest is about all you need.

Establishing a working-relationship with a local farmer is the best way to gain access. However, bad times have come upon the Delta catfish industry, and many ponds are now dry and planted in row crops or grown up in willows. Existing farms will probably welcome hunters willing to pay for a day's hunt, or to lease the hunting rights for an entire season.

Going "public" may be the most hassle-free way to hunt cans in Mississippi. The second- and third-best areas, according to polled hunters, are along the Mississippi River and on the "Big Four" North Mississippi flood-control reservoirs (FCRs).

The Mississippi River offers unprecedented hunting for mallards and geese to a myriad of divers not found in other parts of the state. Access can be gained from several boat ramps on the main channel or connected oxbows.

These connected oxbows will rise and fall with the river, so knowing at what water level you can access the main channel through the runouts is helpful. Even when the water levels are too low to access the river, excellent hunting can be found on these oxbows that range from 2,000 to 5,000 acres each.

Extra caution should be used when the water levels are rising or falling several inches per day. Obstacles like sand bars and rock dikes easily avoided in the morning can be impassable in the evening when the river is dropping quickly.

Probably the most important thing to remember on the Mississippi is that tugs with barges have the right-of-way and can't stop or change course to avoid you even if they tried.

Hunting the North Mississippi FCRs is a bit trickier due to the low water levels maintained by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers throughout the winter months. These lakes are drawn down to pre-determined levels during the winter to accommodate spring floods. Not all of the public access ramps are in the water during duck season, and vast mud flats in the exposed lake bottom can make navigation and hunting difficult. Excellent hunting can be had by those willing to go the extra mile to get to the ducks utilizing the safety of these hard-to-reach areas.

Seeking out cans on the coast may be another option for Mississippi hunters. Johnny Rutherford from Bay St. Louis has hunted cans and other divers on the coast for several years.

"Most hunts consist of pooling our decoys together in order to mass a big diver spread out near the mouth of the Pearl River," he said. "The more the decoys, the better the shooting."

The secret to success, according to Rutherford, is the number of decoys. Calling is done by grunting into a regular duck call, and the hunters simply hunker down in the marsh grass.

"The spreads usually consist of any decoys we can find, mostly old puddle-duck decoys converted over to dos gris (scaup) and redheads, but the secret's in the numbers - at least a hundred is standard protocol."

Hunting tactics

Hunting cans in Mississippi can be as easy or as difficult as you make it. A spread of several dozen diver dekes, clipped together on a long-line and arranged in a "J" or fish-hook pattern will work nicely. Arrange the decoys so that you are either broadside the long arm of the "J" for a left-right shot, or vice-versa, or with the bottom of the "J" pointed into the wind while you look downwind.

The birds will usually fly along the narrow line of single-file decoys and land in the pocket or hook of the spread. Just remember that they land into the wind 99 percent of the time, so you should position the pocket on the upwind side of the spread.

Hunters can also use the standard "U" shape decoy spread that is popular when hunting puddle ducks. Arrange the decoys along the shoreline so that the majority of the blocks are in two groups to the left and right of the blind with an open landing zone directly in front of the shooters. Put the farthest decoy no more than 30 yards, so that you can make a clean shot on any bird that should happen to land on the outer fringes of the spread.

A low-profile layout boat will help hide you on the open water, but be cautious when the big water is extra choppy. Hunting from pop-up boat blinds along tree lines on oxbow lakes can also be successful, but larger decoy spreads may be needed to draw the birds closer for a shot in this instance.

Identifying the canvasback can be relatively easy if you observe the birds closely. Males and females have the characteristic "ski jump" black bill that slopes gradually from the top of the head - a feature unique only to the can.

A bull can looks like an Oreo with a blood-red eye, maroon head and black bill. Drakes have a large, crimson-colored head and neck, followed by a black strip on the upper back and the posterior portion of the lower breast. A whitish-grey back and belly is behind the black front, and the anterior section of the body is also black.

Females are similar to other diving-duck hens with their brown heads, but the sloping black bill is a key identifier. Their backs are not as white as the drakes', but more of a dirty grey.

The canvasback is probably the largest duck you will encounter in the Mississippi Flyway, so use nothing smaller than No. 2 shot and magnum loads. It is best to let them get inside the 30-yard ring, or let them land and jump them before shooting. Canvasbacks are big, hardy birds, and it will take a good lick to put one down. A crippled can will cover a lot of ground very quickly, so be prepared to make the retrieve immediately.