Navigable rivers serve as migration corridors for many of North America's ducks and geese, and plenty of birds also rely on these waterways for loafing and roosting habitat
. To hunt these moving waters effectively, waterfowlers should scout regularly to keep up with daily bird movements in response to water levels and weather conditions
. The best way to do this is to get out there and do some looking.
Ed Larson is a typical member of the small fraternity of waterfowlers who put in the time and effort necessary to hunt big rivers. A category manager for Cabela's Inc., Larson is a lifetime waterfowler who grew up hunting on Pools 7 and 8 and guiding professionally on Pool 9 of the upper Mississippi River. Today he hunts rivers both from a boat and by hiking and wading into backwater areas.
"You should start scouting a new stretch of river before the season opens," Larson says, "because you've got to know how to get around. You have to learn the channels and landmarks so you won't get lost. It's easy to get confused on a big river, especially when you're running in the dark. Also, you have to know where state lines and refuge boundaries
are so you won't get in trouble. Using a GPS, Google Earth, and other scouting and navigation aids
can help immensely."
When hunting a big river from a boat, Larson deploys a big spread of decoys, including divers, puddle ducks, and geese. He carries a much smaller spread when hunting small backwater sloughs. "You have to be equipped to hunt in a variety of situations," he says, "so you can go where the birds are working."
Above all else, river hunters should be safety conscious, Larson says. "You must respect the dangers that come with hunting on big water in cold weather," he advises. "You need a boat that's large enough to carry heavy loads of hunters and gear in rough water and strong current. Each hunter should wear a personal flotation device whenever the boat is running. You should carry emergency signaling and
survival gear, including a change of clothes in case somebody gets wet. And you should always let people know where you're going and when you expect to return."
Larson's last word of advice is both practical and ethical: "When hunting public areas—rivers or anywhere—hunters should always be respectful of each other," he says. "Always give other hunters enough room to enjoy their hunt and to hunt safely. There's plenty of water and opportunities, so you should have a backup plan ready in case somebody is already set up where you wanted to hunt."
Don and I launched the boat after the morning flight had departed the lake. We motored to where we'd seen the biggest concentration of ducks lift off, wedging the boat into a makeshift log blind.