Rivers of Opportunity

Tips from three veteran waterfowler's on river hunting
By John Pollman 

From small creeks to massive rivers, chances are there are ducks and geese using the moving waters in your area. Check out the following tips from three veteran waterfowlers, then grab your decoys and calls and find opportunities on a river near you.


Scout for Early Opportunities

While the majority of the waterfowl hunting Kent Contreras does throughout the season is on bigger water, the first weeks after opening day are often spent on smaller watercourses near his home in eastern Washington.

"The birds in my area have a tendency to seek refuge on smaller creeks and rivers once they've received pressure on the bigger water," Contreras says. "When there's a big weekend coming up and we know there will be a lot of hunters on a larger river, we'll head to those creeks and tributaries instead."

After 20 years of scouting along these smaller waters, Contreras has learned to concentrate his efforts on shallow portions of creeks, river bends and backwater sloughs that have formed off the main channel—areas ducks and geese love to use for feeding and loafing throughout the day.

Early-season hunts will produce a mixed bag of teal, pintails, gadwall, Canada geese and even an occasional wigeon, but by late season the smaller ducks will have moved on and will be replaced mainly by mallards.

Contreras says the downside to these smaller creeks and river tributaries is that open water is short lived once the mercury starts to drop. "One evening while scouting we found a creek holding close to 1,000 birds. Overnight the temps dropped, and the next morning when we showed up to hunt, the water was frozen and the birds were gone," Contreras says. "Cold weather will change things in a hurry."

Use Oversized Decoys

Cold temperatures often cause hunting to heat up on larger bodies of water, particularly rivers, which are always the last to freeze. When things get cold in central Missouri, Avery pro-staff member Tony Vandemore shifts his attention from moist-soil management and flooded corn and timber areas to the big waters of the Missouri River.

Big water, Vandemore says, means hunters need decoy spreads that will have greater visibility to passing waterfowl. When Vandemore hunts the Missouri River, his spread consists almost entirely of oversize Canada goose floaters.

"Canada goose floaters are bigger and more visible from greater distances than duck decoys," Vandemore says. "Also, I think late-season ducks can get accustomed to seeing the same five- to 10-dozen-duck decoy spread everywhere they fly. By switching over to a spread composed entirely—or mostly— of Canada goose floaters, you give the ducks something they haven't seen before."

Call Loud and Often

Using Canada floaters to fool ducks is a trick also employed by Ben Fujan, who chases late-season waterfowl on public rivers in his home state of South Dakota and at a family club along the North Platte River in Nebraska.

Fujan says hunting late-season mallards on rivers is one of his favorite ways to hunt waterfowl, partly because of the setting, but mainly because of the calling.

"In my opinion, ducks are more susceptible to loud, aggressive calling on rivers late in the season than at other times of the year," Fujan says, who is also a member of the Avery pro staff. "When conditions are right, you can call them on a string all the way to the water."

Fujan uses long series of four- to six-note greeting calls to catch the attention of ducks flying along the river. Once a flock slows down and starts to work his decoys, Fujan backs off on the calling and watches how the birds respond to different sounds. 

"As a general rule, the farther away or less interested ducks are, the louder I call," he says. "The closer they are and the more serious they are starting to look at the decoys, the softer I call."

If wings are cupped and the birds are working the way you want them to, Fujan says the fun part has almost arrived. "Hit them with one last five-note greeting call and then grab your gun," he says.

Safety First

The thrill of splashing a drake mallard in the decoys is exhilarating, but safety, Fujan cautions, should never be an afterthought. "The most important thing when hunting a river at any time is safety, but especially late in the year," he says. "Not only is the water usually deep and moving quickly, but because it's typically the last open water in the area, there will be ice and freezing temps. In this environment, safety has to be the top priority."

This is particularly true if you are using a boat. When hunting on large rivers in South Dakota, Fujan's crew will wait for sunrise before launching their boat. "You need to ensure that you can see what's ahead of you at all times. Watch out for ice, swift current, snags and other hazards. Of course, everyone should also be wearing a Coast-Guard-approved life jacket, and you should have cold-weather survival gear on board," he says. 

In addition to safety, waiting for daylight will also allow you to see where ducks and geese are going. "Oftentimes late in the year they don't start flying until the sun gets up anyway," Fujan says. "They are trying to conserve energy and often wait for the sun to thaw out the grainfields before flying out to feed."

For that reason, many river hunters focus their efforts during the middle of the day—from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.—to take advantage of ducks returning to the water from feeding.

What about retrievers? Is it safe to bring your four-legged friend on a late-season river hunt? Fujan says it's always best to err on the side of caution. "If it's icy and potentially dangerous for the dog, or the river is running very fast, leave him at home," he says. "No duck is worth risking your dog's life."