How to Hunt Moving Waters

Hunters who know how to adjust to moving water can follow the birds and find incredible shooting

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Photo © Jesse Vokolek

by Wade Bourne

Moving waters comprise the last great frontier in North American waterfowl hunting. These are the large rivers, small streams, and tidal marshes that bisect and border this continent. They are wild, free places that draw hunters with a similar nature. Hunting on them provides ever-changing adventure and—at times—some of the best shooting imaginable.

"When conditions are right, the Mississippi River has the best duck hunting on the planet," declares David King, a longtime freelance hunter on this Father of Waters. "Typically, this is when the water is rising and breaking into the switch willows along the banks. When this happens, the ducks can show up overnight, and they'll be in a working frame of mind."

"Ducks hang out on little creeks all over the country. There are more birds on these spots than most people realize," states Jesse Simpkins of Hinckley, Illinois. "If you can gain access to private property where they're located, and if you know the right tactics, you can bag limits on these little creeks. They can be productive and very satisfying places to hunt."

"The tides and winds are the keys to success in the marsh," explains Ryan Lambert about hunting coastal wetlands in south Louisiana. Hundreds of square miles of brackish and freshwater marsh are open to the public, and they can offer terrific shooting. However, as Lambert emphasizes, "The water level determines where the best food is and where the ducks will be. You've got to be able to read the conditions and know where to go to get in the action."

Rivers, creeks, tidal marshes: moving water is the common denominator. Water rises and falls. It pushes and pools up. It creates new feeding opportunity for ducks, then it takes it away. Hunters who know how to adjust to moving water can follow the birds and find incredible shooting. Here is how these three experts do it, and how others can apply their tactics on their own moving waters.

David King: Freelance Hunting on Big Rivers

King, of Clarksville, Tennessee, grew up in the backwash of the Mississippi River, and he's hunted on it for four decades. King says this big river is the "central thoroughfare" for waterfowl in the mid-U.S. It is the principal travel route and—when conditions are right—feeding and resting area for birds migrating south.

King says hunting on this and other big rivers peaks when the water level is very high or very low. He explains, "When rising water overflows into bordering woods and fields, ducks flock to these newly flooded areas. Or, when the Mississippi is extremely low, exposing sandbars and forming pools of trapped water, the ducks use these as rest areas. In either situation, shooting can be extraordinary for those in the right location and who have the know-how and equipment to hunt these birds."

During hunting season, King keeps constant watch on the Mississippi's water level. "My favorite time is when the water's rising and first breaks into the switch willows. The ducks are more concentrated then, and it's easy to hide your boat in the cover."

King runs the river in a high-sided johnboat outfitted with a large outboard and a portable blind. "Make sure you emphasize this," he stresses. "A big river that's flooding is a dangerous place. Do not—I repeat - DO NOT go out in an undersized, underpowered boat. I'd recommend at least an 18-foot boat with a 72-inch beam, a splash well, a high- volume bilge pump and at least a 50-horsepower outboard, and an 80-horse is better. The blind must be collapsible; it cannot impair vision when you're running. And all loose equipment (especially cased shotguns) must be secured."

King knows from past history where water will back into willows and low-lying oak flats when the river is rising. "The secret is getting to the head of the water, the areas that are most freshly flooded. After I launch, I run and look for ducks. I'll stay out in the main river and watch where ducks are working with my binoculars, then I'll go in and set up." King normally tosses out a couple of bags of decoys. Then he hides his boat in whatever cover is available, and he erects his boat-blind and waits for the next flight.

He continues, "When the water starts falling, I reverse direction and hunt places where the floodwaters are running back into the river. This is where the food is coming out. Typical spots for this would be at the mouths of creeks or sloughs or where switch willows border a stand of timber."

The other extreme for hunting big rivers is when the water level is severely low. King remarks, "Very few other people hunt like this, but more would if they knew how good it could be."

In this case he runs the channel looking for ducks rafted in eddy pockets adjacent to exposed sandbars. (He does this in a boat painted to match the sand.) When he flushes a good concentration of birds, he moves in and inspects to see if a setup is possible. "I look for a spot where I can hide my boat next to a sand knoll. The best ones have vertical sides, and they're about blind height. If I think I can hide, I'll toss out my decoys, then pull my boat right up next to the sand and anchor at each end. Then I erect my blind (also specially made to match the sandbar). And that's all there is—no brush, no nets. I just try to make the boat and blind look like a mound of sand."

King continues, "When ducks are working, hunters and dogs must stay absolutely still. Also, facemasks are standard equipment. You just sit and watch while the ducks are inspecting things, then when they finally commit, you give 'em a surprise."


Jesse Simpkins: "Great Little Hunts" on Small Streams

Simpkins, of Hinckley, Illinois, doesn't have an expensive duck lease, and he doesn't have access to the storied waterfowl clubs of central Illinois. But what he does have is a little family farm with a creek running through it, and he knows that sometimes ducks feeding in nearby cornfields use this creek as a resting place. By stalking along its banks and jump-shooting, or by hunting over decoys where beavers have dammed the creek up, Simpkins bags these birds with surprising consistency. He says other hunters can do likewise if they gain access to small streams where they live, then learn the secrets of hunting them.

"I've got an advantage," Simpkins confesses. "I live on the farm where I grew up, and all the neighbors will let me hunt on their property. For many hunters, gaining entry to private land where creeks flow can be a big problem. But if they can do this, they'll find birds that are unpressured, and they can practice a style of hunting that is intimate and challenging and, to me, very rewarding."

Simpkins says the best time to hunt creeks is when ponds and small lakes have frozen, but the creeks are still running. "The ducks will feed in nearby fields, then come back to the creeks to loaf. Mallards and wood ducks are the most common species I get, but I'll also shoot an occasional black duck, gadwall, pintail, even a diver every once in awhile." One of Simpkins' favorite ways to hunt creeks is jump-shooting. This involves slipping along the bank, spying ducks ahead on the water, then stalking into shotgun range. When he's close enough, he flushes the ducks and fires away.

"Ducks on small creeks are really wary, and you have to be as stealthy as possible to slip up on them," he explains. "First, you've got to see them from long distance, then plan your stalk. I use binoculars to look down the creek 100-200 yards ahead. Most ducks I locate are holding in quiet pools above or below riffles. They won't be in swift water.

"Once I spot birds, I plan my stalk. I pick out a tree or some other mark so I can make a circle away from the creek bank and come back in at just the right spot. Also, when I'm close to the ducks, I look for shooting lanes through the trees or brush for when they flush. I try to leave nothing to chance."

This attention to detail also includes what Simpkins refers to as "camo everything": clothing, shotgun, facemask, gloves.

Simpkins' other creek strategy is hunting over decoys on ponds where beavers have dammed up the creek. "I won't use many decoys, maybe six or eight, and I won't group them together. I'll put two here, four here, two more here. And I don't set them in the middle of the pond. Instead, I'll put them about a third of the way out from the bank. Real ducks on a creek are wary of predators, and they won't sit close to the bank. But neither will they be right in the middle of the pond."

With his decoys placed, Simpkins finds a hiding spot on the bank. When ducks show up overhead, he calls sparingly. "I may do a little feeding chuckle, but I don't do any loud calling. The ducks are coming to the pond anyway. I want things to seem as natural and laid back as I can."

Ryan Lambert: "Go with the Flow" in the Marsh

Lambert runs Cajun Fishing Adventures in Buras, Louisiana, and during the hunting season he guides for ducks on public areas around the mouth of the Mississippi River. These areas are a mix of marsh and open bay that rise and fall with daily tides. Lambert says to be successful here, hunters must know how to pick hunting spots relative to these water level changes.

He explains, "When the tide is high and water is covering the aquatic vegetation, the ducks come into the marsh to feed. But during low tide or when there's a hard west or northwest wind, the water drops out of the marsh, and the ducks go back to open water. Under these conditions, I set up in the big open bays where the birds raft."

Lambert hunts from a barge/blind powered by a Go-Devil motor. He scouts ahead of his hunts to see where ducks are congregated. "They'll move around a lot, depending on food and, again, water level. If I'm hunting a pothole in the marsh, I'll put out only a couple dozen mallard or gadwall decoys. But if I set up out in open water, I'll put out a hundred decoys. Out there I like to use mallard decoys that I've painted to look like scaup. The black-and-white contrast shows up farther."

Lambert says hunters in tidal marshes must always be alert to dropping water. "A lot of hunters go in when the water's high, and they find a good spot and set up. Then the tide starts going out, or the wind kicks up from the west. Either one of these conditions will suck the marsh dry. When you see your decoys lying over on their sides, you say, 'We gotta go,' and you go fast. Every season lots of hunters get stuck in the marsh, and they have to wait for the next high tide before they can get out."

Not for Sissy Hunters

Being mobile. Knowing when to be where. Adjusting to changing conditions. All three hunters above do these things in their own way. They move a lot. They go to the ducks instead of waiting for the ducks to come to them. They have the right equipment to hunt effectively in their particular setting.

These are the basics of hunting moving waters. Then, beyond them, as in every waterfowl-hunting situation, hunters must be flexible and figure out ways to solve problems and make adjustments when the need to do so arises.

The bottom line is that moving waters are plentiful, they are available to most hunters, and waterfowl use them on a regular basis. As a rule, hunting them isn't easy, but they can be very rewarding. As David King says, moving waters aren't places for sissy hunters, but they are places for those who love adventure and who are willing to work hard to experience the best that this sport offers.

Legalities of Hunting on Navigable Waters

If there is a flood on a major river, and backwaters are spreading beyond the original river's banks, can a hunter legally navigate and hunt over the newly flooded area? Are the backwaters now a legal part of the river and open to public access?

Talk about Pandora's box! Water laws around the country are incredibly complicated, and they vary from one state to the next. What is legal and allowed in one state may be prohibited in the next. A long history of court cases has rendered a confusing range of decisions about who has rights to water usage and navigation.

For instance, in some states, when a navigable river is flooding, the floodwaters are recognized as an integral part of the river, and boaters may navigate on it. However, the land beneath the floodwaters is still privately owned. Though they may have the right to float over it in a boat, hunters who drop an anchor or wade or touch the bottom in any way are trespassing, and they're liable to being cited.

An attorney for a state wildlife agency, who declined to allow his name to be used, said, "These situations are all very nebulous in terms of interpretation and jurisdiction. They have to do with which streams are classified as navigable, who owns the land beneath the streambed, and how particular states apply the Public Trust Doctrine [looking after the interest of the public in matters relating to use of lands and waters].

"The best advice in any situation relating to these matters is for a hunter to contact the appropriate state wildlife agency and ask them what he can and cannot do relative to hunting on navigable waters. But be forewarned. You'll probably get a less-than-straightforward answer. Water laws are a can of worms. Sometimes the only way to settle these issues is to try them in court and let a jury decide."