by Wade Bourne
The big river’s cold was numbing, but hey, we were duck hunting! Our traditional flooded bottomlands and fields were locked up with ice, and the ducks had headed to the open water of the river. They ducks didn’t come in waves. In fact, they were almost scarce. Sometimes my partner and I would watch for an hour without seeing a flight.
But when we saw one, we got ready to shoot! Virtually every bird that flew over our hole in the willows cupped its wings and curled back in. By late morning, we had a limit of greenheads and wood ducks and the satisfaction of not having seen another hunter nor heard another call.
Such action typifies that found along big rivers throughout the U.S. Hunters with the right equipment and gumption can run these waterways and find some of the finest, least pressured shooting this sport offers. The timing must be right. Hunters must always be geared toward safety, and they must be adventurers at heart. But when these elements are in place, rivers can be the best of all waterfowling worlds.
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.
Conducting a River Hunt
Conducting a river hunt is a two-step process. First, you must locate the ducks. Then you must set up precisely where they want to be. In so doing, your decoys must look natural and your boat and hunters totally concealed from discerning eyes in the sky above.
If you don’t know where ducks are working, don’t leave the boat landing before dawn, since it’s safer to motor big water in daylight, especially if flood conditions prevail. Plan to shove off and start scouting for ducks just about shooting time.
Then simply cover water and watch for birds. Don’t stop and set up before you find a concentration. Then, when you see working ducks or flush a large flight off the water, move in and set up exactly where they were. They like that spot for a reason.
Pre-rig your decoys with long strings (15 feet or more) and heavy anchors (8 ozs.) If you find ducks working shallow water, you can adjust string length accordingly. But if they’re rafting in deep water, you’ll need the long strings and heavy weights to hunt there.
Then it’s a matter of picking a spot to hide the boat blind, setting up and waiting. If possible, push the boat into adjacent cover, hopefully in a shadow or next to a tree with overhanging branches. Add native vegetation to the blind for a more natural appearance.
Truly, river hunting can be wild and unpredictable. It can scare you. It can awe you. It can also provide some of the most unforgettable experiences in waterfowling.
In this age of expensive private leases and crowded public shooting areas, rivers may be the best deal going for hunters willing to explore their potential. Large and small, these flowing waters are pathways to discovery. Try them out, and you will learn this for yourself.