You can hunt ducks anywhere you find water, from tiny ponds to big-water impoundments to sprawling coastal sounds, but some of the most appealing waters to my mind are small to medium-sized inland rivers. These waters twist and wind their way throughout North America in a vast, vein-like network and are often neglected by those seeking bigger, more accessible traditional waterfowling areas.
These flowages are appealing for many reasons. They’re found throughout the country, usually just a short drive from home. They don’t require guides, expensive leases or elaborate equipment to hunt. And when ponds and marshes freeze up, currents keep rivers open longer, drawing huge numbers of birds. But one of the most appealing things about river duck hunting is simply the rich variety of sport you can experience.
Here’s a look at a few diverse ways to enjoy our country’s river duck bonanza.
I like to use this tactic on small to medium rivers that have brush along the shore for cover or elevated banks so you can sneak in for a close shot. It’s effective early in the season, when birds haven’t been pressured much. But it’s also productive late in the season when ducks become more wary and float-hunting close enough for a shot becomes difficult. Another good time to jump-shoot birds is when rivers are low from a scarcity of rain and you’ll scrape too many rocks on the bottom, scaring birds out of range.
This tactic can also be employed in conjunction with float-hunting. If you spot a flock of ducks far ahead from your boat but there’s no cover for a direct approach, pull off to shore and send one hunter on a cautious, circular stalk so he comes in slightly downstream from the birds. When he steps out and shoots, they’ll usually fly upstream past the other hunter, giving him a shot, too.
Rather than simply trying to walk along the river and flush the quarry, always listen and scout ahead with binoculars when jump-shooting. You might hear ducks chattering or squealing or see ripples in the water that give away their location. Then you can plan a looping stalk that takes you right in below them for the flush.
If you don’t see birds, walk upstream slowly, 20 to 60 feet back from shore, sometimes hunching over if cover is sparse. Vary how close you stay to the edge depending on the amount of brushy vegetation and how elevated the bank is. If two hunters are present, the second one should hunt at a 45-degree angle ahead and 25 to 50 feet farther from shore. If birds flush, he can step quickly up and fire as they fly upstream. But it’s the hunter near the water’s edge who should flush all the ducks.
Constantly monitor the cover as you sneak along, sometimes moving up to the river’s edge, other times hanging further back if there’s little vegetation and the banks are low. Be especially alert near logjams, eddies and bends in the river — all prime river duck hangouts. Use an improved cylinder or modified choke, size 4 to 6 shot.
Be sure to have a plan for how you’ll retrieve fallen birds. Hopefully you have a retriever that will stay back behind you but bring in fallen ducks. If not, you can pack a telescopic fishing rod with a weighted treble hook lure to snatch the birds. Optionally, you can simply wear waders and retrieve the birds, or carry waders in a daypack for when you need them.
This is one of the most aesthetically rewarding hunts imaginable. Instead of watching one scene from a blind all day, you’re floating downstream, seeing new vistas at every turn, encountering wildlife of all kinds. You’re alternately wrapped up in the beauty and serenity of the river, and thrilled when the mood is punctured by the raucous flushing of a squealing woodie or flock of mallards scrambling to accelerate above the water, challenging your shooting skills.
Plan on floating a stretch of 4 to 8 miles for a half-day trip, 6 to 10 for a full-day outing. The exact distance will depend on the speed of the current. Avoid waters with treacherous rapids and try to find ones with lots of bends and some deadfalls or brush along the shore to hold the ducks.
Johnboats and canoes can both be used. Canoes are easier to steer and paddle and present a smaller silhouette to the birds; johnboats are more stable and roomy. Whichever you choose, camouflage it with some netting and even tie or wire some branches and brush on the bow. ABS or fiberglass canoes are quieter than aluminum ones, but you can tape foam on gunnels and put some outdoor carpeting in the bottom of metal johnboats and canoes to dampen the noise.
For safety, only the bow hunter shoots at ducks flushing downstream. The stern hunter’s gun should be unloaded or at least have the safety on and be pointed away from the bow hunter. He should only shoot at ducks that fly back upstream or maybe bag a squirrel in a shoreline tree if you want to include them in the hunt.
The key to floating up on ducks is being extremely quiet, moving little and presenting a nonthreatening, small silhouette to ducks, as if you were a floating log or debris. Keep the boat pointed straight and wear full camouflage, with a face mask or paints.
Use the scull-stroke as you paddle the boat so you don’t lift the paddle out of the water. After a stroke, turn the paddle blade parallel to the canoe and bring it forward submerged in the water for another stroke.
On small rivers you might be able to float in the middle and shoot at ducks on both sides. Generally, though, one side of the flowage is going to have better cover, and it’s best to hug that shoreline.
Be ready for ducks where feeder streams enter the river. Also be especially alert at the inside corner on bends. Ducks will often hang in the eddy there and flush the instant you float into view. The bow hunter must be ready, because the birds will be out of range within seconds. Modified is the best choke choice unless the river is very small with lots of cover that lets you get real close. Go with improved cylinder in that case, shot size 2 to 6.
Also watch for sloughs and temporary backwaters off the main river. You might have to get out and sneak on foot to reach them, but often these secluded spots teem with ducks just 20 or 30 yards off the main flow. Look for them especially after heavy rains flood low surrounding areas bordering the river.
After you’ve floated a river a few times, you’ll learn where the likely spots are to flush birds and where these backwater sloughs are found. Your success rate will improve dramatically in follow-up floats and subsequent seasons.
One morning I decided on the spur of the moment to hunt a small spot on a river bend where the water had flooded over into a low area in a field. I found only four mallard decoys in the truck — but that was enough.
I tossed them out and hunkered back against a deadfall with some camo netting. Soon scattered flocks began circling, setting their wings and gliding confidently into my tiny spread. Though I missed my share, soon I was wading in to gather up a lone black duck to add to the mallards by my side and complete my limit.
If the riverbank is poor for stalking and birds seem ultra-wary and hard to float up on, don’t fight it. Settle back and take them the traditional way—setting out decoys and calling the quarry. The key to success with this tactic is knowing where and when to use it.
The best locations are larger rivers and areas that have healthy duck populations. You need enough fowl flying that a few will pass by, see your decoys and hopefully settle in to join them. Late in the season is a particularly good time to try decoying, when birds are wary and hard to float up close to. But you can also use it in early fall with good results. The prime periods are just after dawn and shortly before dusk, when ducks are flying back and forth between feeding and resting areas. During stormy weather, though, hunting can be good all day.
Often the best approach is to use it in conjunction with either jump-shooting and float-hunting — or both. Set out decoys and hunt a spot right at dawn, then float hunt if you haven’t limited out. Or float hunt a stretch, stop to sneak up on a few birds you see far ahead, and finish out the day by setting out decoys late in the afternoon when you come to an area where you’ve seen good flight activity in the past.
Top spots to decoy include points, backwater sloughs, riffles, eddies, islands or long straight stretches where the birds fly up and down the river. You can set up a portable blind, but often there’s enough shoreline brush or maybe a logjam or rocks you can hunker next to. A modified or improved/modified choke in a double is best with size 2 to 6 shot.
Set out six to 10 mallard or mixed species decoys, and by all means break out the call when you see ducks to help lure them in and add to the thrill of the hunt. There’s no finer way to finish off a mixed-bag river hunt than luring in a pair of mallards right at dusk, dropping the greenhead and letting the hen fly on to cap off an outing that combined floating, stalking and decoying.
That’s about as richly rewarding of a hunting day as any waterfowler could ask for.