Northwest Passage

Lower Columbia River endures nature's complete weather package

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Photo © Steven Bristol

by Gary Koehler

Black Labs are underfoot. The head count is four, which qualifies as a herd in just about any duck camp. We have retreated indoors, and there is only so much space available around the wooden rocking chair in front of the brick fireplace. Moreover, the canine throng is becoming increasingly restless. Tails are thumping, ears are flapping, wet noses are nuzzling, and paws the size of catcher's mitts are scratching at the floor.

After I make the mistake of rubbing one dog's chin, the other three take note and are now maneuvering broad shoulders into narrow spaces to receive similar attention. The close quarters help remind us that wood smoke spiked with 300 pounds of damp retrievers creates a unique aroma. But two hands are not nearly enough to accommodate the herd's cumulative pleas. This post-hunt bonding could turn into a free-for-all.

"Now you've done it," says Don Guthrie from across the room. "They're never going to leave you alone."

Chaos is averted and order restored when host John Affolter sends Sage, Simon, and Roxy outside to their assigned quarters. Harley, the current resident, flops onto his bed under the picture window. 

"They know they're not supposed to be in here," says Affolter, "but, hold that door open too long, and they will be. Every time."

Guilty as charged: the Lab pack trailed me into the cabin. How was I to know? And who can blame the dogs? This is northwest Oregon. Rain doused us again today. And hail. The wind blew. The nearby Columbia River went from near-flat, to choppy, to rolling. That's the way the game is routinely played on these formidable waters. Hunters and their dogs endure nature's entire package. This is no place for the weak of heart, the wimp, nor the fool. Two-legged or four-legged. Those sorts will never last. Not here. Not for long.

"I've seen guys go out there in little boats, and I know they don't know any better, but, really, it's not the thing to do here," says Affolter, who tests these waters at least four days a week. "It can get really rough. And it can be dangerous. Duck hunters have died on that river."
Affolter is well acquainted with the fickle, and sometimes treacherous, moods of the lower Columbia. He has been hunting waterfowl here since the mid-1960s. And he has been marooned more than once on the islands near Brownsmead, upriver from historic Astoria, where explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark once camped.

"You've got to constantly keep track of the tides," Guthrie says, "or else you might get stuck where you don't want to be for hours. Or overnight. There's nothing you can do when the water goes out, except wait."

That's why the first order of business each morning is to check the tide table. This is new territory, or uncharted waters, for me, the native Midwest flatlander. Affolter and Guthrie are joined at the kitchen table by a third cohort, Jerry Veenker. Together, the trio plots the day's plan of attack. By analyzing the tide table, they determine when and how long we can hunt in specific areas before the water level either drops or rises. Lose track of the time, or the tide schedule, and one can be left high and dry, or be flooded out.

"The best hunting," Guthrie says, "is typically on high tide, which will flood the islands. Birds, puddle ducks anyway, will go to feed on the islands. Just the reverse is true for divers, which feed on fingernail clams on mudflats at low tide. And you have to adjust to the tide depending on where you are on the river because there can be an hour difference as the water rises."

We set up on the tip of an island, approximately 14 miles upriver from the Pacific Ocean. The island is one of many open to public hunting in the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge. Our spread is a mix of gang-rigged bluebills and canvasbacks, and single-rigged mallards and wigeon, the dabblers being the result of Guthrie's considerable skills as a decoy maker.

"It's a beautiful decoy spread," says Veenker, who put aside his shotgun to become the volunteer videographer, from behind his camera. His 20-something daughter, Tiffany, is busy helping to cover one of two The Duck Boats (TDB's) we have secured against the bank. "Don's decoys look great. You never know, but I think we'll see some ducks today."

Awaiting the flight are Roxy, Simon, and Sage. Harley has pulled security detail and remained in camp. 

"Harley loves divers," Affolter says. "Heck, when we put out mallard decoys, he looks like, ‘This ain't gonna be much fun.'"

No one will have the heart to tell Harley that three canvasbacks are the first birds to visit in the hazy light of early morning. Tiffany takes one drake. Affolter another. The luckiest of the bunch wheels around and heads upriver.

Waterfowling here is practiced well off the main river channel, for good reason. Oceangoing freighters regularly travel back and forth between the Pacific and Portland, creating huge wakes. The river, too, can be rock-and-roll water when compared to the sheltered bays and sloughs that are protected from the wind.

"This is a terrible point to hunt if the wind's not blowing out of the east," Affolter says during what proves to be a brief lull.

Apparently having overheard the dialogue, five mallards are above us, followed minutes later by a flock of wigeon. The greenheads should have been allowed one more pass. That's the excuse du jour. At least for everyone except Tiffany, who is working on a personal bag limit featuring a colorful mix. 

Bluebills—Affolter's passion—are the morning's latecomers. One group of 30 birds catches us napping.

"We had an idea one time to bring a radar gun down here to see how fast a bluebill really goes," Veenker says. "We couldn't hit them with that, either."
But a couple of birds fall, and shortly thereafter we are picking up and heading for parts unknown.

"A lot of locals will hunt the two hours of tide and go back home," Guthrie said. "We like to move around."

We do just that during the course of two days. At hand are islands known as Woody, Horseshoe, Goose, Quinn, Welch, Snag, Tenasillahe, Russian, Seal, Karlson, and more. Small colonies of duck shacks—some of which have remained in the same families for 100 years—are introduced. The grand tour is impressive. But a map, a global positioning system, and a depth finder are essential pieces of equipment. 

"It's a lot of work to hunt here," Affolter says. "Some people don't want to do that. And that's fine with us."

The next morning, I hook up with Chuck Lobdell, a Ducks Unlimited biologist, and his brother, Bob, two others who regularly test the lower Columbia's waters. At heel are Viper, yet another black Lab, and Whisky, a Chesapeake Bay retriever.

Relative newcomers to the region, the Lobdells have spent the past couple of years—in season and out—inspecting the local geography, and learning their way around.

"We scouted a lot and learned that these islands get all kinds of water patterns," Chuck Lobdell says. "Some islands don't get wet (covered), but others are pounded all day long."

The Lobdells have turned decoy deployment into a well choreographed exercise in efficiency. Long gang lines are employed, some featuring bluebills, others hosting canvasbacks. Individual decoys are tossed out, too, but they make up only a small percentage of the overall spread.

"The lines might not look natural," Chuck Lobdell says. "But divers apparently are into math. The straight lines are orderly, and they seem to like that. What we try to do with our rig is direct the birds toward us, so that we get the best possible chance at a shot."

Something is working. Over and over. We take turns picking out single drake bluebills from flocks of up to 20 birds. 

"This isn't the way it always is out here," Bob Lobdell offers. "Actually, this is about as good as it gets."

This early December day, the 50,000-acre tidal marsh offers perhaps as good a diver shooting as anywhere in the country. Both dogs perform admirably. Tomorrow, who knows?

"One of these days," Chuck Lobdell says, "we're going to take the time to try and figure out the mallards. We haven't been able to do that yet."

Bluebills and canvasbacks no doubt have had something to do with the Lobdells postponing that exercise. But no explanation is necessary.

The lower Columbia region is a paradox, yawning one minute, and growling the next. Catching a tan under a bright sun and deep blue sky is not uncommon. But seconds later you might have to pull tight your parka collar to keep out the rain. You should also be prepared to get whacked upside the head by hail. And waves may pound your boat like a sledgehammer. Then, wait 10 minutes, turn around, and you may see not one but two rainbows.

"I'm always asking my friends to come out here with me," Tiffany Veenker says. "I think they'd enjoy it. They don't know what they are missing."

Respect is requisite, but be not afraid. Despite the quick-to-change weather, sensory overload is unlikely. Rather, this exquisite combination of elements provides a reminder of what waterfowling really is, or can be. And with that message comes a growing appreciation of simply being there. And feeling alive.