Tony Smith is a full-on Utah diver duck hunting freak, targeting canvasbacks, blue-bills and other diver ducks in Utah’s Great Salt Lake Basin. In this episode of Duck Season Somewhere, he describes becoming a diver specialist in Utah, sago pondweed importance, his home-made canvasback decoy spread, and why one canvasback decoy is a particularly special tribute to the older brother that introduced him to duck hunting.
Hunting Canvasbacks, Blue-bills and Other Diver Ducks in Utah with Tony Smith, Diver Freak
Ramsey Russell: This is Ramsey Russell GetDucks.com, where it’s Duck Season Somewhere, and I just got back from Utah. I just got back from the Great Basin of Utah, and it was utterly amazing. Tremendous duck hunting history. The last three days I was there, I was on the lake, and I was hunting a totally different habitat. We were chasing, specifically, canvasbacks and other divers. Today’s guest is Tony Smith, born and raised in that part of the world. If y’all keep up with him on social media, you know that he is a passionate diver hunter. Tony, how are you doing today?
Tony Smith: Doing pretty dang good. How about yourself, Ramsey?
Ramsey Russell: I’m doing good, and I’ll be honest with you, I’m kind of glad to be home, on one end. Because y’all got some weather since I left, did you not?
Utah Diver Duck Hunting The Great Salt Lake Basin
Tony Smith: Oh yeah. So, what was it when you were here, almost 60° for the high and about 41° for the low? And now we’re down to about 7° for low and 26° for the high. We froze up pretty dang quick.
Ramsey Russell: Well the whole Great Salt Lake Basin hasn’t frozen up yet, has it?
Tony Smith: Well, the Great Salt Lake is salty enough, it doesn’t freeze. But all our fresh water, the shallow stuff—when I say shallow, I mean three feet or less—got an inch of ice on it. But the cool thing is, there’s enough ducks and swans in right now that they’re going to keep those open holes open up in the refuge, in the closed areas. And it’s supposed to get back up to almost 60° this weekend, with the lows of 33°. So it’s going to open back up, and we’ll continue to have a lot of good shoots from here on out.
Ramsey Russell: Tony, what amazed me about hunting out there with y’all in Utah is it’s some of those beautiful country I’ve ever hunted. Every morning that I hunted out there in that part of the world, when the sun rose, and I could see those purple mountains and that blue water and all that swamp grass out there, I just realized it was one of most beautiful places I’ve ever hunted. But at all times—hunting with you, hunting with you and Kevin, hunting with you and your son—hunting at times where I could look and know that, within ten or fifteen miles, I had hunted previously across the same body of water. Where I go out with one guy, we’re shooting teal. And then I go over here, fifteen miles, and I’m shooting mallards and gadwalls coming into little ponds. But where we were, there was a lot of divers. I never will forget those flocks of cans in the morning that were coming off. Big flocks of canvasbacks, huge flocks of blue-bills. What was the difference? I know with all that territory we could have hunted, I hunted parts I didn’t see what I saw, hunting with you. What was going on? As a diver hunter, what are you looking for – sago pondweed and what else? What has got you in that area? What’s got those ducks in that area? What’s different about it?
Tony Smith: Okay, well, let me start off first by telling you: that spot we hunted, I have shot blue-bills there, but the canvasbacks typically don’t go through there. That’s just not a canvasback spot. But everything lined up this year, and the best way I can describe it is—let’s say you’re goose hunting in fields, right? You have one field to the east that’s all corn, cut corn. The middle field’s nothing but dirt, and then the field to the west has cut corn. And, just so happens, you only have permission to hunt the dirt field. What are you doing? You’re running traffic, right? Where we were, yeah, thickest Sago (Sago pondweed) known to man, you’re getting a lot of pressure.
Binoculars an important waterfowl hunting tool
I wish more waterfowlers learned that your best friend is a pair of binoculars. If you have a good pair of glasses—and they don’t even have to be expensive glass—but if you’ve got a good pair of glass and you know what the birds you’re chasing look like and play, that’s your best bet, right there. – Tony Smith, Diver Freak
But to the south, and to the north, you got ponds that are rest areas. So the ducks are bouncing from rest area to rest area. I haven’t been out there. You can’t get close to them, so it’s hard to tell if they’ve eaten themselves out. But they bounce out, come and feed on that Sago pondweed, go over to the other pond, roost for the rest of the day, and come out. So that’s why they were there. But finding them is the easy part, and I wish more waterfowlers learned that your best friend is a pair of binoculars. If you have a good pair of glasses—and they don’t even have to be expensive glass—but if you’ve got a good pair of glass and you know what the birds you’re chasing look like and play, that’s your best bet, right there. And that’s what I do.
Ramsey Russell: Well, it’s funny you say that, because something I really remember about sharing a blind with you for three days, or three mornings, was your using binoculars. I carry a coffee thermos and a coffee cup, my shotgun shells. And you carry everything, but you also got a pair of binoculars. And I really remember, the morning that we shared a blind with Rich Buse and those boys—you were to my left, and I’d look over to you, and when there wasn’t the action going on, you were glassing. I’d look to my right, when no action was going on, he was glassing. Always glassing. Always looking for ducks through binoculars. That’s not something we really do back home a lot. But I noticed y’all two doing that a whole lot.
Tony Smith: Well, if you’ve noticed, where we hunt, it’s big, big water but it’s shallow, right? We’re hunting anywhere from six inches to two-and-a-half feet. But it’s big water, and you can see four miles this way, five miles that way. So, basically, when we think we have the X, we’re hunting. But while we’re hunting, we’re still fricking scouting for the next day, if there’s a better spot.
Ramsey Russell: Find the center of the X.
Tony Smith: Yeah, that’s what I was doing. As you can tell, sometimes the grass isn’t always greener. Because on that last day, we went down to where all the birds were, and they decided to do the opposite. But it’s nice to scout.
Duck Recipe: Tony Smith’s Canvasback with Mushroom Gravy
Ramsey Russell: We had a great shoot. That’s the day we encountered some Greater Scaup, and did get a canvasback, and shot some mallards. But that was just that day. It really wasn’t a lot of ducks in the air. It’s like it was quiet, and they weren’t trafficking like they had been. But the first couple of days were truly spectacular. To see that many canvasbacks, to get to go that part of the world and hunt with y’all and see that. And that’s a whole different ball game than hunting mallard or hunting teal. Just the whole production.
Sago pondweed an important duck food
Ramsey Russell: Now, tell me about this, because you already mentioned Sago pondweed. How important is sago pondweed to your hunting and to hunting up in that part of the world?
Tony Smith: It’s probably 95% of the hunt that makes it important, is the Sago pondwood. But in years that we have droughts, and then they fill all these ponds up—after the growing season, let’s say October 1st, they start filling them up—you’ll get your ducks, but we don’t have the numbers, and they’re not in the area. They’re wherever the Sago pondweed is.
So, the federal refuge, they had some work they needed to do to it, for the last two years. And one of the big giant closed areas—I think I told you like twenty square miles, don’t hold me to it, but it’s pretty close to that—will hold anywhere from 100,000 to 200,000 ducks on it, and probably 3,000 geese. More, depending. But the last two years, it’s been dry. That whole area’s been void, even though we had some Sago pondweed in the area we hunted. The birds aren’t resting, they’re not coming in there to feed, primarily on Sago pondweed. So, last year was really tough. But, generally, when we have Sago pondweed, the birds are in. And sometimes you feel like the Pied Piper because it’s so easy.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, that Sago pondweed. I also had Utah waterfowl biologist Rich Hansen on here, I interviewed him previously, and he was really giving me the lowdown, from a biological perspective, of that Sago pondweed. And he pulled some sago pondweed up and was showing me how you got this tuber in the bottom, and you got this algae-looking plant coming up. And how some of the dabblers will eat parts of it, how some of the divers will eat some of it, and how the swans will dive all the way under and pull up the sago pondweed tuber and eat it. The entire waterfowl spectrum utilized that Sago pondweed, and how it gets invertebrates. So, different times of year, when they really need to eat bugs instead of plant, they’ve got it. The way I understood it was, the most important waterfowl food source in the Great Salt Lake Basin was Sago pondweed. Especially if you’re a diver hunter. And I never will forget, we came out that first morning, and we’re running in your boat. And you had your head lamp on, your front light on, and it’s like, oh, my gosh, it’s like we were just going through solid Sago pondweed. There was so much of sago pondweed floating in the water!
Tony Smith: Yeah, more like a green shag carpet!
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, all of that sago pondweed was like green shag carpet, is exactly what it was like. It was amazing, especially having been just 10 miles away where the water was extremely shadow and there was nothing. There was no Sago pondweed, it was all bulrush or something. It was incredible.
Hand-crafted Canvasback Decoy Spread
Ramsey Russell: Change of subject, so, one of the most interesting things to me was your decoy spread. It was a massive decoy spread, and I know you said it was just a small spread. But it was a pretty impressive spread of decoys you put out, and I really appreciated the fact that they weren’t just store-bought decoys. You had hand-made those. Can you speak a little bit about that?
Tony Smith: Yeah. I’m a pretty crafty guy. I did wood flooring for twenty years, and I paid attention to detail. And after duck hunting with all these plastics all these years—nothing’s wrong with them, but I just felt like I needed to do something different to make what I was doing just a little step above what I had been doing, right? So, I got social media, saw some guys carving decoys. I liked that. Tried my hand at it and carved a couple of big, solid blocks of wood till I had a toothpick, and I wasn’t too happy about that.
Then I came across the guy who made some decoys, making silicone molds and foam. So, got with him, and he was nice enough to send me all the pictures and step by step, where to buy it, how to do it. So, I carved a few decoys, and just started making them. At first, I really thought, “Wow, I’m going to save some money on this.” But to be honest with you, for what I spent on the hundred canvasback decoys I have, I could have probably bought twenty to forty dozen plastics! But after the first mold I made, I made another, and I got a little bit better at it. It’s just nice to look at something that you made and designed. And to throw decoy birds into it, it just kind of blows your mind. Like, wow, I made that. That’s pretty cool.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve carved a few decoys, cork decoys. Nothing as big and nice as what we hunted over with you. But, to me, it adds such a huge personal element to killing birds over something you made with your own hands. And, boy, you made a ton of them. I thought, with how big the necks were, and how they stood out there in the water, I really enjoyed hunting over them. I would say we hunted over, what, about five dozen canvasback decoys when I was there? It seemed like a big spread because those canvasback decoys were so oversized. God, I’d have said it covered an acre of water! But how big will it get, at times? How big a spread will you put? Because you’re tolling on birds on a big body of water.
Tony Smith: The first and third day we hunted, I believe I had probably four-and-a-half dozen canvasback decoys out there. So it was close to sixty decoys. But when we got two boats together, and 7 guys, I think we probably had close to ten dozen Cans, four dozen bluebills, and probably five dozen puddle ducks. And you see them driving around in the boat. You’re driving through that open water, and you’re kicking diver flocks up from anywhere from 500 to 2,000 ducks. So, sometimes, when you can stick out like a sore thumb, it’s a good thing.
Ramsey Russell: It pulled them in. I noticed a lot of those flocks, even if they had no intention of coming in, they would swing over. They would veer off their trajectory to swing down and give those decoys a look. They paid rent if they did that. We had a great shoot that day. That was unbelievable, to be honest with you. Unbelievable.
Tony Smith: Well, like you’re talking about my decoys, I make my canvasbacks a little bit bigger. And, boy, those things stick out like a sore thumb. Birds see them for miles, and we weren’t in the right spot for shooting pintails, but I was two days ago. And when those pintails see those Can decoys, it’s just a straight line right to them. It’s pretty neat.
Ramsey Russell: It’s all that white. They just can’t stand it, can they?
Tony Smith: That’s right.
A Passion For Hunting Diver Ducks
Ramsey Russell: With all the options that you’ve got out there at your disposal—puddle ducks, teal, mallard, pintail, gadwall—how did you end up developing such a diver freak passion for shooting those divers like that?
Tony Smith: Well, I’ll tell you, it’s a long story, but I’ll sum it up pretty short. So I got into waterfowling because my brother hunted with my uncle, and I loved it. But, unfortunately, my uncle moved away. My brother joined the army about the year I could start hunting. I had a guy take me under his wing. He had two daughters. They didn’t hunt. So he took me all the time, and I hunted with him every weekend religiously. And we shot nothing but puddlers. And one day, this duck flew by and I go, “What the hell was that?” He goes, “Oh, that’s a bufflehead, don’t worry about it.” I’m like, “Well, I want one.” So I hunted that pond with him for, I think it was three days straight, and that thing finally came close enough I shot it. First diver. Thought it was the neatest thing in the world. Couldn’t understand why he didn’t shoot them.
Well, we only talked much about it, hunted for a few years. He moved away. In the first year, I think I was eighteen years old, and I was just duck hunting on my own. I was driving down the road during pheasant season. These pheasants ran across the road. I stopped, let my dog out. Pheasants jumped away ahead of me, up along the river, and I walked up to the river and a flock of goldeneyes come flying by. And I think I shot one or two out of it and had to get them. And I thought, “Well, that’s neat.” And then I saw a canvasback fly up the river, and down, and some redheads. So, I went home and took my old Flambeau mallard and painted him to goldeneyes and just started hunting divers. And for me, I like every duck. I’m like you. I like every duck. But something about targeting pocahrds or divers—my heart probably palpitates more than it should, and that’s just the direction I go. Because I like that feeling, every time I see one setting its wings and coming in.
Ramsey Russell: I am like you. I do, too. I do, too.
Tony Smith: There’s a lot of people in the hunting industry—not just the industry, but just waterfowl hunters—that have the assumption, “Oh, divers are dumb. They’re stupid. They’re easy.” Well, yes and no. I think mallards are too, especially if you’re hunting them in a dry cornfield here in Utah. But they all can be hard under certain circumstances, and to stay on canvasbacks all season long—that’s what I like to do—it’s not easy. You got to do a lot of work because they’re not in the exact same place every single day of the season, and you got to follow them. And then you might have to follow canvasbacks five miles and scout for three days until you finally find a couple of flocks of them. Like, okay, well, now I can go shoot them, and shoot them up. They don’t come back, you got to go scout again, and might be ten miles somewhere else. So that’s why I like doing it. So it’s more of a cat and mouse game for me.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a dang good answer because, talking about those divers coming in, that’s one thing I loved about hunting with you, Tony. We were brothers from a different mother when it came to a duck coming in. We really enjoyed it. I do remember strapping a couple of shovelers. Only ones that got close enough to kill when I was hunting with pass.
Special Canvasback Decoy
In his final couple weeks, he asked me and the family members—he wanted to get cremated—and he said, “Tony, I want you to do some special things with me.”
Ramsey Russell: You mentioned that your brother got you into duck hunting and you told me a little bit about that story, when I was hunting with you. And there was a certain decoy. I was in the boat—you were out and kind of pulling the boat around, putting out decoys, that morning—and I was pulling those canvasback, your homemade decoys, out of the sack. And I handed you one, and his head was pointed 180° to the left, perfectly to the left. And when I handed it to you, you said, “Yeah, that’s my brother’s decoy.” And we talked about it a little bit later.
I remember, every morning, that it’d get daylight and I’d look out at the decoys. That special canvasback decoy, I could always spot him. It didn’t matter how many decoys we had out, I could always spot that decoy because his head was perfectly to the left, and none other of them were. It was always just right there, right in front of the boat. Can you talk a little bit about your brother getting you into hunting, and stuff like that, and how y’all hunted together and saw some of them areas? And what led to that particular decoy?
Tony Smith: After my brother got back from the army, I was old enough to hunt but I was still in junior high. So my mom would let him take me out of school and go hunting with him, and he always made it about me and taught me everything. Showed me everything. And he liked shooting mallards and teal.
Ramsey Russell: How old was he, and how old were you, approximately, about this time we’re talking in the story? You were about twelve or thirteen?
Tony Smith: Yeah, it might’ve been closer to fourteen. He was twenty. He is six years older than me. So he had a good job, worked four days on, four days off, and he always took me hunting. He showed me everywhere he hunted. He had an airboat. We did all sorts of stuff together. And, from what I remember, it was the first year they came out with neoprene waders. He bought me a pair, and I thought I was the coolest kid on the street. I didn’t have to pull my pants off anymore and wade out in the water, freeze my butt off. But the truth of the story is, I about died a couple of times because those stocking foots were so cold. I thought my feet were going to fall off. But, still, I could go retrieve birds without getting wet. So he taught me a lot. And he’d always sit on my right side, and birds would swing to the right side. He swung right and I on the left.
Ramsey Russell: He was left-handed and you were right-handed?
Tony Smith: Put it this way, out of the couple thousand birds we shot together, not once did he ever say I shot down his bird, or I did that to him, because my birds were always on my side, and his birds were always on his side, every time. So it’s pretty neat. I don’t get to hunt with a lot of left-handers, so it was pretty cool.
Tony Smith: We hunted a lot together, and he came down with esophageal cancer. And it was a stage four terminal, nothing they could do. And at that time—I don’t mind giving a shoutout because Avery was pretty big at the time—and I had a friend who worked for them named Josh Noble. He made a phone call to Tony Vandemore, and they actually got us out there on a spring hunt. It was me and my brother’s last hunt together. And it was pretty neat. He was probably on his tenth chemo, just sicker than a dog, and we got out there. He wasn’t in good shape, but we got him out there. And the sun came up, and right when the sun came up, we probably had 2,000 snows circle around us. And he was over there—you got to imagine, he’s like 38 now, a 38 year old guy—giggling like he was three years old. I’ll never, ever forget that, and I’ll be in debt to those guys for hooking us up. I got some pretty neat pictures of it.
But anyway, he ended up, in his final couple weeks, he asked me and the family members—he wanted to get cremated—and he said, “Tony, I want you to do some special things with me.” And we had talked about it over the years. “Oh, if I ever die, put me in shells and shoot me.” Do this, do that. So I did put him in some shells. In fact, the first time I shot one of his shells, that had his ashes in it, I shot a goose in Long Island, New York, ended up being banded, I think in Nova Scotia, or something like that. So to me, that was a sign. Like, “Hey, little brother, you’re doing me right.” So as I got going on these decoys, something kept telling me, “You need to put a quarter-pound of your brother in one of these things.” I can’t, I don’t know if I want to do that. Such a huge burden to have that and take care of it. Then I thought, well, if you knew my brother—his nickname was Crash. So he wants me to do it. So I put them in there, and every time I hunt canvasbacks that decoy goes with me, and he’s usually my twenty yard marker, straight out front. And he’s not hard to miss because he’s looking over his left shoulder.
Something kept telling me, “You need to put a quarter-pound of your brother in one of these things.” I can’t, I don’t know if I want to do that. Such a huge burden to have that and take care of it. Then I thought, well, if you knew my brother—his nickname was Crash. So he wants me to do it. So I put them in there, and every time I hunt canvasbacks that decoy goes with me, and he’s usually my twenty-yard marker, straight out front. And he’s not hard to miss because he’s looking over his left shoulder.
Ramsey Russell: He’s right there with you, isn’t he?
Tony Smith: Yes, he is.
Ramsey Russell: That’s as fine a hunting story as I’ve ever heard. I posted a picture of you holding that decoy—and you told that story also, in a little video clip—on social media, and it blew up. It really resonated with a lot of people. Because, Tony, there were days we went out, hunted. We shot our limits of canvasbacks, we shot our bluebills, we shot some odd ducks, stuff like that. Come out with a heavy strap. That last day—we knew practically every boat within earshot, and we talked to them, and nobody really did anything more than average. And that’s just what you get. Sometimes chicken salad, sometimes chicken shit. But to me, it’s so much more than just the ducks swinging on a strap. And I hear this and see this a lot, and I really appreciate you sharing that with people. It’s more, to me, about the where and the who of duck hunting. Because on the days that you ain’t going to shoot a duck, that’s just what you got, man, and you might as well make the most of it.
Tony Smith: Yeah, exactly.
Thoughts About Future of Utah Duck Hunting
Ramsey Russell: In all your story, out there in that part of the world, what would be your thoughts—in terms of what you would hope for the future of hunting, or the future of duck hunting in Utah—is there something important along those lines to you, just a message or a thought, that you like the idea of? And there’s no right or wrong answer. I’m just curious what your take on hunting out there would be.
Tony Smith: Well, you know, you’re a different person than you were when you were 18. You’re a different person when you’re 28. You’re a different person when you’re 38. In my teens and twenties, I was tight-lipped. I didn’t want to tell anybody where I was duck hunting. I didn’t want to help anybody because I was afraid that it was going to take away from my experience out hunting ducks, right? And then, started getting in my thirties. I started hunting with people. I’m learning things, and they’re asking me things, and you know what? Look, number one, I like pulling the trigger on ducks. I like that. That’s why I’m there. I’m not there for the sunrise, sunset. I enjoy it, and I love it, but I’m there to pull the trigger. That’s the bottom line. But for me, right now—that being number one—number two is taking as many people out, that I can take out, and get them introduced to duck hunting. Trying to teach them some etiquette, how to act. We’ve all acted like assholes from time to time. But now it’s just like, be kind. And if someone wants to go out, take them out. If they burn you once—fine, let them burn you once, but don’t let them burn you twice.
You met Carson over at our house. He’s friends with my boy. Well, after you came there, that lit a fire under him. He’s like, “Well, are you going to take me out?” I’m like, “Well, I’ll take you out Sunday. I guarantee you’ll shoot at some birds, but I can’t tell you how many you’re going to shoot at.” And he shot his first canvasbacks, his first pintail, his first bufflehead. All the way home, I think he called probably twelve to fifteen people that he knows and was just going off. How wonderful it was, and he shot canvasbacks and pintail and buffleheads. And everyone he called, called him a liar. “No, there’s no way you shot two canvasbacks by yourself.” And he’s got pictures to prove it. But to see that fire lit in him, and him bugging me every day now, asking when we’re going to go again, I take some pride in that. Because I must have done something right that day, that that kid wants to start waterfowling.
Ramsey Russell: I saw the picture of him and your boy smiling, and I could see in his smile. He is hooked through the roof of the mouth. He is a duck hunter now. There’s no doubt about that. He’s a duck hunter. And he’s a good kid, they both were, he and Stone were such good kids. I could tell how important it was—getting to hunt with Stone, he got to take a day off school and share a blind with him—how important it was for him to share a blind with you, and how important it was to you to share blind with him. I don’t know a better place to get to know people. Man, Tony, hunting canvasbacks with you—hunting in Utah in general—but the days I spent with you, I met a lot of people. We hunted with Kevin Booth, we hunted with Jimmy, we hunted with Tommy. There was a bunch of folks I met there at the ramp and everywhere else, and everybody was just such good people. And, really, just sitting in a duck blind, I got to visit with them. I got to listen to their stories, and I love that part of it.
Tony Smith: Well, and I don’t know if you noticed this, but when you were there—every morning we launched, and every evening we came back in—I could never be more proud to be a Utah waterfowler. Everyone that we ran into, that wasn’t even with us, took the time to talk to us and was just salt of the earth people. I was so proud that people are just that awesome around here, and I hope it continues that way, and I hope it spreads.
Ramsey Russell: I hope it does, too. Because you hear all these stories about fistfights at a boat ramp and all that bull, tires cut in Arkansas. Man, I went to Utah and I would say that it’s the friendliest duck hunters I’ve ever met. And it is public land. Oh, shoot, Rich told me what percent of land out there was public, and it was astounding how much public land there is out there. But everybody got along. And it was that way every boat ramp I went to. “Hey, how are you doing? What’s going on? Where’d you hunt? What’d you kill?” To me it was like stepping on the set of Mayberry, or something. It really was. Because everybody was just friendly and cheerful and talkative about what they’d hunted and all that good stuff. Man, Tony, I told you when I left, the next time you see me I’ll probably be driving a U-Haul, saying “Howdy, neighbor!” I loved it out there, brother.
Tony Smith: And I’m okay with that. That’ll just be a few ducks less for me to shoot, but I’m okay with it.
Ramsey Russell: But we’ll have a good time. Tony, I appreciate your time tonight. I appreciate your time. I appreciate your sharing diver hunting in Utah with us. Guys, check it out @TonySmith3115 on Instagram. Thank y’all for listening to Duck Season Somewhere podcast.