On Top of the World

Wilderness waterfowling in Alaska‚Äôs rugged interior

By Bill Nichol

Our two-boat hunting party had just lost sight of the landing at the town of Nenana when outfitter Bill O’Halloran tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to a trellised steel bridge half a mile up the Tanana River. “See that bridge?” he asked with a grin. “There isn’t another one downstream of here for 800 miles.” I sat there a moment and let this news sink in. That was like saying there wasn’t a bridge across the Mississippi River between Memphis and the Gulf of Mexico.

Yet, this should not have been a surprise. Rivers, not roads, have always been the highways of Alaska’s rugged interior. Before floatplanes buzzed overhead or rough trails were blazed through the wilderness, Alaska Natives, pioneers, and seasonal sportsmen relied on systems of meandering rivers to traverse this vast, wild terrain.

On the last day of August, I traveled these waterways with O’Halloran and his guides and guests en route to Minto Flats, a sprawling wetland complex in the heart of Alaska. On the following day, Alaska would be the first of the 50 states to open its regular 2006-2007 duck and goose seasons, and anticipation was high as our two boats headed downriver toward our host’s campsite.

The Tanana’s glacier-fed, silt-laden waters ran the color of creamy coffee alongside our 28-foot johnboat. As O’Halloran smoothly piloted around the river’s sweeping bends, we passed many two-story wooden fish wheels traditionally used by Alaska Natives to harvest salmon. We also spotted several bald eagles perched on dead limbs—the birds’ white heads contrasting with the dark green of wispy spruce trees lining the bank.

During our 53-mile passage on the Tanana and Tolovana rivers, spruce and birch forest gave way to more marshy terrain characterized by low-lying willow and reed thickets. Rounding another bend, we caught sight of a seven-tent encampment pitched under a lush canopy of diamond willows. Upon arrival, hunters unrolled sleeping bags, assembled shotguns, and made other preparations while guides cooked a hearty dinner and built a roaring campfire.

Opening-Day Action

Early the next morning, guide Tim Bouchard, my tent mate Roger Nash, and I motored four miles upriver to one of Minto Flats’ countless shallow lakes. An east wind riffled the lake’s clear water as we slid our boat into a dense stand of reeds and set a spread of Canada floaters and a mix of mallard, pintail, wigeon, and teal decoys. We were assembling our blind when a skein of trumpeter swans winged effortlessly overhead. Their brassy notes and huge bodies made us pause from our task to admire their graceful flight.

Only a few minutes later, Bouchard marked a formation of dark birds advancing with the wind toward our spread. Their whistling calls identified them as wigeon as they deftly shot past the blind. Jostling for position, the little birds made a wide downwind turn and then hastily descended upon the decoys. The lead duck was hovering only a few feet above the water when Nash and I rose to shoot. Our volley produced several splashes in the blocks, and Bouchard’s chocolate Lab, Reed, was soon chugging through the water.

Reed had hardly finished shaking off her coat when her services were needed again. This time, a squad of mallards approached from the west, laboring against the wind. The ducks gradually lost speed and altitude as they slowed their wing beats to examine the spread. Nash and I each dropped a duck as the flock passed overhead, and then we watched in surprise as the remaining birds circled back downwind and lit a few yards outside the decoys.

This naive behavior was repeated several times during my trip and could only be a product of the truly wild environment these birds call home. O’Halloran’s duck camp lies within the boundaries of Minto Flats State Game Refuge. This 500,000-acre wetland is a pristine haven for wildlife ranging from hulking bull moose to nimble mink. In the spring, the area also serves as a magnet for waterfowl that return to Alaska from all four flyways  to breed and molt. In fact, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates the refuge produces more than 100,000 ducks annually, with a breeding population averaging 213 ducks per square mile.

Amid this expansive wilderness, ducks and geese rear broods and molt with minimal disturbance from humans. This translates into a unique advantage for Alaska’s waterfowlers. “One of the perks of being at the top of the flyway is getting first shot at these birds,” explained Bouchard, who is a member of the Avery pro staff. “On opening day, adult birds aren’t very wary, and the juveniles have never seen decoys or heard calling before. So the hunting can be great.”
Our guide’s words proved true all morning. Interested mallards, wigeon, pintails, and shovelers approached our spread without the usual wariness familiar to late-season duck hunters in the Lower 48. At 11 o’clock, Nash and I had nearly filled our 10-duck bag limits, and we cruised back to camp to swap first-morning accounts with the other hunters.

Minto Mixed Bag

The next morning Bouchard, Nash, and I marched out of camp through a patch of woods to an adjacent wetland filled with emergent grasses and potholes. The marsh spread before us several miles in every direction, bordered by the Tolovana River on one side and a tree-lined ridge in the distance. On the previous afternoon, we had witnessed a good number of ducks dabbling in the marsh’s open water and hopping from pothole to pothole. With this image in mind, we waded through knee-deep water and thick grass to a two-acre opening dotted with several islands of bulrushes.

With silhouetted ducks already trading above us, Bouchard quickly set out a dozen mixed decoys and two pairs of Canadas while Nash and I tucked into a nearby bulrush thicket. Our first visitors, a pair of buffleheads, caught us off guard as they barreled down the lake only inches above the water. The speedy duo abruptly stopped in the middle of our spread. But ripples on the water were all that remained by the time a gun could be mounted.

We were better prepared when a trio of blue-winged teal sailed downwind of our spread and made a hairpin turn to investigate more closely. Although low to the water, the bluewings maintained their rapid pace, showing no intention of joining our party. As they bobbed and weaved over the spread, a report from my partner’s gun sent one bird tumbling beyond the decoys.

While the sun gradually climbed above the river, our bag filled with an assortment of bluewings, greenwings, wigeon, and a bull pintail just emerging from its drab summer plumage. During the hunt, steady duck action had demanded our attention. But several family groups of lesser Canada geese had not gone unnoticed as they traded between the marsh’s open pockets of water. At one point, a series of honks revealed three Canadas flying toward us on the horizon. Fumbling for our calls, Bouchard and I soon struck up a calling duet. The oncoming geese echoed our enthusiastic clucks and moans as they fixed their wings and casually lost elevation.

Shortly before reaching the pothole, two of the geese locked on to our four Canada floaters and made a deliberate turn to my side of the bulrush thicket. Still 20 feet above the decoys, the birds lowered their feet and began descending toward the water. My initial shot folded the first of the hovering pair. As if on command, the remaining goose flared directly toward me, offering a picturesque overhead shot. 

Campfire Tales

This goose story was one of many tales traded around the campfire that week. Located a few yards from the river’s edge, the open-pit fire became the focal point of our encampment. Cold hunters inevitably gravitated to the fire’s welcoming heat upon their return from the marsh. Sitting or standing in clusters, they warmed extremities, sipped coffee, and talked about everything from waterfowling to world politics. As stories made their way around the fire, the majority paid tribute to the size, beauty, and bounty of Alaska’s wilderness. Tales about huge salmon, pike, and halibut followed animated accounts of moose, bear, and caribou hunts.

After listening to these adventures, I asked Bouchard how waterfowling fits into the busy schedule of Alaska’s sportsmen. “Most people don’t think of duck hunting when they think of Alaska,” he admitted. “But when I moved here a few years ago, I realized this place can have some of the best shooting anywhere. And you never have to fight for a hunting spot.”

Veteran waterfowler and retired Alaska game warden Dick Hemmen added that the first day of waterfowl season usually coincides with the opening of moose season, one of the most anticipated days on any Alaska hunter’s calendar. “Most moose hunters will bring their shotgun and decoys with them to moose camp and do some duck hunting too,” he said. “Winter settles in here in October; so we don’t waste any time and get all our hunting in during September.”

Close Encounters

On our last morning, Nash and I rode with guide Joe Kazense up a series of ever-narrowing channels. With only a trace of wind, rising fog clung to the willows like cobwebs. When we rounded one of the many bends, the unmistakably large form of a moose appeared ahead of us. As the boat slowly approached, the cow examined our party with a fixed but unworried expression before sauntering off into the brush. “I was wondering when we would see one,” Kazense said. “This is prime moose habitat. They love to eat the aquatic plants in these shallow lakes and streams.”

We motored on until we reached a stretch of bank that was trampled with webbed footprints and covered in loose feathers. We arranged several decoys on the bank and spread a dozen more in the 20 yards of moving open water before us. By the arrival of shooting time, Kazense, Nash, and I were hidden in a makeshift willow blind and were listening as ducks, geese, and swans bantered on a nearby lake. Despite the proximity of these birds, the calm, warm conditions compelled few of them to change location. Several single ducks kept us alert by rocketing over the decoys toward some hidden destination. But none gave our rig more than a passing glance.

“The first week of September is when big flocks of migrating birds start passing through here,” Kazense said. “But this year we had a cold, rainy summer, and it has pushed the migration back a couple of weeks.” Despite our slow finish, we returned to camp in high spirits and joined the others in preparation for our ride back upriver to Nenana and civilization.

Climbing a ridgeline on the Parks Highway toward Fairbanks, I stopped at a scenic overlook to make a last survey of this vast, pristine wetland. As the rivers, lakes, and streams of Minto Flats stretched out to the hazy reaches of the horizon, I thought of what O’Halloran had said about why many people come to visit Alaska and wind up staying indefinitely. “Alaska has that aura of being an immense land,” he said. “As you travel around, you can see that Alaska is big beyond anybody’s imagination. There’s just nothing like it.” From where I was standing, his point was more than clear.

For more information about hunting the Minto Flats with Bill O’Halloran and North Country River Charters, call him at 907-479-7116 or visit his website at www.ncrc.alaska.com