By Will Brantley
One morning in late September, my high school buddy and I found ourselves standing thigh-deep in a beaver pond. We'd been scouting wood ducks at the pond for a week, and that morning we finally got to trade our binoculars for shotguns. We each knocked down our two-bird limit shortly after daylight and were back at the house before my folks even woke up.
Since the morning was still young, we swapped our shotguns for .22 rifles and headed for the hardwoods. Squirrels were busy gathering nuts in the hickory and beech trees, and after a couple of hours we had a mess of bushytails to complement our ducks.
But my hunting day wasn't over. After taking a short nap, I climbed into my tree stand with bow in hand. Just before dark, a doe walked under my stand and gave me an easy shot. After cleaning the deer, my long, eventful, exhilarating day finally came to an end.
Combining three hunts into a single day is a rare treat, even for diehard hunters. Much more common are two-hunt combos. Add fishing to your hunting day and you have the proverbial "cast and blast."
All of these combos can start with waterfowling, which often begins earlier in the morning than other pursuits—and can end early too, if you're lucky.
Choosing which combinations to try depends a lot on the hunting and fishing opportunities that exist in your area. Starting close to home will not only save you time and money, but will also give you a chance to learn more about the diversity of species in your neck of the woods.
But taking a road trip will give you a chance to explore a variety of hunting and fishing opportunities available in other parts of the country. Here are just a few destination combo hunts where you can double both your pleasure and your fun.
Southern Wood Ducks and Squirrels
Slow-moving streams wind their way through hardwood bottomlands in the southeastern United States. Towering oaks on the stream banks attract hungry squirrels in the fall, and the acorns the squirrels miss often plop into the water below, where they're relished by resident and migratory wood ducks.
Hunting this combination of species requires little in the way of gear. With a canoe or small johnboat, a stealthy hunter can bag a limit of wood ducks and a few squirrels with the same shotgun during the course of the same float. Hip waders will help you stay dry while you drag your boat around logjams and across sandbars, and binoculars are handy for helping you to spot loafing wood ducks and feeding squirrels in the distance. A dip net will help you retrieve both ducks and squirrels that fall in the stream. Just be sure to fetch the squirrels quickly; they don't float very long.
Even if you don't have a boat, you can dress in full camouflage, leave the decoys at home, and just stalk your way down the creek bank, watching for ripples on the water and shaking limbs in the trees. It doesn't get much easier, or much more fun, than that.
Gulf Coast Cast and Blast
Though you can shoot a limit of ducks and catch a few redfish nearly anywhere along the Gulf Coast, the marshes of southeast Louisiana west to Corpus Christi, Texas, really shine for pursuing this exciting combination. The Gulf Coast is one of the most important wintering areas in the United States for all kinds of ducks. Pintails, gadwalls, redheads, and green-winged and blue-winged teal are among the species found here in abundance.
Cold weather usually sets in by the late season. But during November and December it can be warm enough to fish in shirtsleeves by early afternoon. That's a good thing, too, because in addition to the duck hunting, the best shallow-water inshore fishing in the world can be found right here.
Giant bull redfish at the mouth of the Mississippi River near Venice, Louisiana, are notoriously strong and willing to bite. Wade fishing for the "Texas Trio" of speckled trout, redfish, and flounder is popular in the Laguna Madre, and it's not unheard of to catch fish within sight of a duck blind. Just stash a heavy-action spinning rod spooled with braided line and a small tackle box containing some jig heads, soft plastic shrimp, and maybe a topwater lure or two in your duck boat.
Lake of the Woods Bluebills and Walleyes
Several years ago, I joined former DU chief biologist Dr. Bruce Batt for a waterfowling and fishing adventure on Lake of the Woods, a sprawling freshwater lake straddling the border between Minnesota and Ontario. Like many of the lakes in this region, Lake of the Woods is a favorite fall stopover for diving ducks such as scaup (commonly known as bluebills) and buffleheads. The lake is also full of walleyes.
We did our hunting from shore, setting decoy spreads on the ends of rocky points. Though we were after divers, we shot several mallards as well. Bluebill hunting can be tough work, but it's a labor of love and a tradition in this area. Timed with the peak migration, a good bluebill shoot can be fast and furious. Ours was fun, but difficult.
The fishing, however, was easy. Walleyes feed heavily at this time of year, before the winter freeze-up. We caught our fish on jigs and spinner rigs, but a variety of live-bait and trolling presentations work just as well. Few fish taste better than battered-and-fried walleye.
Prairie Ducks and Pheasants
Fall is a great time to be in South Dakota if you're a wingshooter. This is pheasant country, and the season traditionally opens around mid-October. The northeastern part of the state is also prairie pothole country, with outstanding duck hunting early in the fall. You can spend the morning setting up on potholes for a mixed bag of puddle ducks and save the afternoon for chasing ringnecks.
Pheasant hunting doesn't require much extra equipment. A good pair of brush pants and comfortable hunting boots are really all you need. Your duck gun can pull double duty on pheasants. And so can your retriever, once it catches on to the ringneck's wily ways. Wild pheasants like to run, so it's best to team up with a partner or two to work irrigation ditches with a couple of shooters stationed at the end of the cover. In a good area—and South Dakota is full of good areas—simply walking ditch rows and jump-shooting without a dog will often produce a few pheasants as well.
Please note that nonresident hunters must apply early for a waterfowl license before hunting South Dakota. The application period is typically mid-May through early July.
Midwest Honkers and Bucks
Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri are at the top of the list when it comes to trophy white-tailed deer hunting. Firearm and muzzleloading seasons are typically set for late fall and early winter in these states. That's usually around the tail end of the whitetail rut, when trophy bucks are still actively competing for available does. When the rut is over, bucks begin packing on the pounds lost during the rigors of the breeding season and can be targeted while moving from bedding to feeding areas. A blast of cold air from the north can put deer on their feet early in the day, and if you can tolerate the chill, hunting from a tree stand can be very productive.
Cold weather can also send thousands of ducks and geese winging their way through the Missouri and Mississippi river corridors. Northern Illinois remains a prime spot for Canada goose hunting, while the big rivers in Missouri, from St. Joseph all the way to the Bootheel, are home to legendary duck clubs and outstanding public gunning.
Montana Geese and Trout
Montana is a huge state with an enormous amount of hunting and fishing opportunities. In addition to outstanding big game and upland bird hunting, the waterfowl hunting in Big Sky Country is truly amazing. I hunted geese in the sugar beet fields along the Yellowstone River last winter, and we had no trouble filling our limits each morning. I also saw more Canada geese there than anywhere I've ever hunted in my life.
We hunted in early December, which was a little too late for the ducks and a bit chilly for fishing. But if you go a few weeks earlier you can experience prime duck hunting and world-class trout fishing. The state has numerous rivers and hundreds of small streams and lakes that teem with wild trout. So if you like to catch beautiful wild trout on a fly rod in a pristine mountain setting, Montana is the place to go.
East Coast Honkers and Stripers
The East Coast is steeped in waterfowling traditions that date back hundreds of years. Over the past several decades, the Chesapeake Bay region, especially Maryland's Eastern Shore, has become a goose hunting magnet. Plenty of Canada geese are raised in the region, and many more migrate here each winter.
The fishing in Chesapeake Bay is nearly as famous as the waterfowl hunting. Striped bass, bluefish, flounder, and a variety of other species are caught in good numbers, but it's the big stripers, also called rockfish, that steal the show in the fall. When water temperatures drop, stripers migrate along the Atlantic Coast and winter off the shores of Virginia and North Carolina, feeding voraciously as they move along. The big ones, which tend to hang out in deep water during the summer, get active as the waters cool. Fishing with live baitfish like mullet, bunker, and eels is the best bet for catching a big one. But plenty of stripers are also caught on jigs, spoons, and other artificial lures.