Big river hunters must learn to set up in just the right locations according to weather conditions and other factors in order to be successful.
Big-river duck hunters are a different breed. Two McNuggets short of a Happy Meal, a friend of ours likes to say. It’s tough hunting, perhaps the toughest there is, both in ducks bagged and effort expended.
Still, big-river duck hunting draws a devoted cadre of fans. Why? We asked outdoor writer and long-time big-river waterfowler Jim Spencer of Calico Rock, Ark., to find out. The information he provided can help you find great hunting on rivers near home.
“One reason I like hunting big rivers is because there are times when they provide the best hunting there is,” Spencer said. “When water elsewhere is frozen, for example, I head straight to a river because the moving water there stays open and attracts ducks when sloughs, prairies and shallow waters are iced up. That concentrates ducks in a smaller area, and hunting can be spectacular.
“I like the grab-bag aspect of it, too,” Spencer said. “There are more than just mallards to shoot. There are gadwalls, scaup, pintails and all the divers. You never know what you’ll shoot at next, and that adds to the fun.”
Big-river hunting requires specialized skills, starting with the ability to locate hunting areas with concentrations of ducks.
“Where you hunt depends a great deal on weather conditions,” said Spencer. “If a blue norther’ passes through with a calm, cold high-pressure system behind it, look for hunting areas close to current, because that’s where open water will be. If it’s rainy and windy, look for sheltered places where ducks find protection from the elements. Hunt on the lee side of islands or behind dikes or levees. If the weather’s too frigid, and it’s raining and windy, too, then just stay home.”
Spencer believes in the efficacy of large decoy spreads when hunting big rivers. “In timber, you hardly need decoys,” he said, “because when you see ducks, they’re in working or shooting range. Big water is different; you might see a flock of ducks two miles away, and they must be able to spot your spread. You need a visual attractor, and the more decoys you’ve got, the better your visual attraction is. Take as many decoys as your boat can hold, but no less than three or four dozen.”
Hunting big rivers often results in a mixed bag of diving and dabbling ducks.
Most hunters using large decoy spreads leave a pocket of open water in the spread to encourage the ducks to land there. “You want an open spot in your decoys within gun range,” Spencer noted. “Set the decoys close together around the open spot when the wind is blowing. Set them more loosely in calm weather.”
In some situations, unless a hunter is a good caller, he’s better off letting the decoys do the work. But that doesn’t often hold true on big rivers where good, loud calling is necessary.
“Forget the feeding call,” Spencer said, “because river ducks are resting, not feeding. The highball is all that’s needed, and make it loud.”
Spencer usually hunts from a camouflaged boat. “Most of my hunting is boat stuff,” he said, “because it’s difficult to find a place on shore to set up a blind. I usually hunt from a boat that’s hidden in some bushes or other cover. A 14- to 16-foot wide-bottomed boat is ideal. It needs to be adequately powered but not overpowered; 25- to 35-horsepower is about right.”
Safety is the most important consideration when hunting big-river ducks. The sport is inherently dangerous. Safely practiced, river hunting presents no problem, but there’s little room for error.
“You have several factors working against you,” Spencer said. “One is the sheer big-water aspect. You often encounter big wave action or other problems absent in rice fields or timber. And the wind really cuts into you out there, so it’s always better to be overdressed than underdressed. You can always pull something off.”
Spencer noted each passenger should wear a personal flotation device, and the boat operator should wear a kill switch to stop the engine if he falls or is thrown overboard. When boating before dawn, run slowly, always watching for other boats and obstacles like wing dikes and sandbars. The motor and batteries should be in tip-top shape, but carry paddles for each hunter. Carry a waterproof fire-starting kit and some high-energy emergency foods like chocolate bars. And always file a trip plan with a friend or relative. Let them know where you’re going and when you plan to return. Then, if you get stranded, someone knows where to start searching.
If you measure success by the number of ducks killed, big-river duck hunting probably isn’t for you. But there are many positive aspects to this arduous sport. Wind, spray and open space are heady wine for duck hunters. You’re out there alone, without competition. You see wild places and wild things — eagles, geese, the occasional deer, and, if you’re lucky, ducks. Lots of ducks. But that plays second fiddle to just being there.
“A big river has a way of making a man in an open boat feel very small and vulnerable,” Jim Spencer concluded. “That’s a good thing to be reminded of every once in a while.”
photos/captions courtesy of Keith Sutton