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River Hunting Strategies for Ducks

A hard freeze is good time to hunt river ducks
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Story at a Glance
  • Hunters with the right equipment and gumption can find some of the finest, least pressured shooting this sport offers.
  • The prime condition for river hunting is during a hard freeze or when the river is flooding.
  • A fold-down boat blind is invaluable for river hunting.
  • Pre-rig your decoys with long strings (15 feet or more) and heavy anchors (8 ozs.) 

When to Hunt Rivers

A few ducks always hang around rivers, which are natural loafing and feeding spots. However, two special times are far and away the best for running rivers. Hunters should be alert for these conditions and take advantage of them when they occur.

The prime condition for river hunting is during a hard freeze. Current will keep free-flowing rivers open long after shallow marshes and flooded fields ice up. When the Big Chill hits, ducks will frequently feed in dry grainfields, then move to the rivers to loaf in the mid-day. They will pile up in eddies along banks or creek mouths, or they may raft right in the main channel if the current is slight.

Another great time to hunt rivers is when they are flooding. When floodwaters spill into adjacent bottomlands, they draw ducks like magnets. Clouds of birds can show up overnight, guided by instinct to what amounts to a new abundance of fresh food.

Hunters should keep a constant check on river levels as the hunting season progresses. Levels and flood stages on big rivers are available online from the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers. Hunting is typically best when rising water first starts breaking into riverside woods and fields. When a river surges above flood stage, be there the next morning. One day’s delay might cause you to miss one of the best hunts of your life.

Equipment for River Hunting

Hunting on big rivers requires a dependable boat and motor with enough horsepower and gas to cover many miles when looking for ducks. Such a boat should be more than large enough to handle heavy loads of hunters, dogs, decoys and other gear. It should have deep sides to turn high waves. It should have all the standard safety features: life vest for each passenger, throwable life ring, running lights, paddles, level flotation, kill switch, high volume bilge pump. (Check with the U. S. Coast Guard for a list of required safety items.) And make sure you tell someone the general area where you’ll be hunting and when you plan on returning. It could save your life.

A fold-down boat blind is invaluable for river hunting. When you locate birds, you’ve got a blind at your fingertips. Simply anchor or tie off the boat, erect the boat blind and get ready to shoot.

Several items should be stored in the boat’s dry box to facilitate both hunting and safety purposes. Suggestions include: a survival kit, chain saw, limb pruners, rope, small heater, spotlight, binoculars, GPS, assorted motor tools, military Meals-Ready-to-Eat, flare gun, extra shells and calls and other small, miscellaneous items.

Any favorite shotgun, choke and load will suffice on rivers. A favorite among river-hunting veterans is a 12-gauge magnum pump-action shotgun because of its rock-solid dependability. I shoot a modified choke and #2 3-inch premium shells. And when not in use, I keep my unloaded shotgun in a waterproof flotation gun case. If the gun bounces overboard, I won’t lose it.

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