by Keith Sutton

The year, 2001. 4 a.m., 5 a.m.I'm not sure. No one in his right mind is up this time of day or night. I'm trailing my hunting partner through a cocklebur field to a sandbar on the Arkansas River. It's pitch black outside. Mean little cockleburs stab my ankles. Mouth's as dry as a Canadian pothole.

Suddenly, I'm clotheslined at the waist. "Watch the fence," my buddy notes.

Sure. Thanks.

"I'll carry the decoys, you carry my bag, OK?" Whatcha got in here, pal, a case of shells? Must be at least a case. And a six-pack of sodas. Gun in one hand, bag in the other, cockleburs swarming in my socks. I must be crazy.

Finally, we reach the sandbar. I know it is a sandbar because my face is buried in it. "Don't trip on that rock," he calls from up ahead. Yeah, right.

The sun rises, despite my apprehension. The river is postcard perfect. Knucklehead wades out in the shallows and sets the decoys.

Canada geese are calling from a sandbar downstream, but the ducks aren't flying. I twist the top off a soda. Sand grates against the glass like fingers scratching a chalkboard.

Better load my shotgun. Ooooooh! Another chill down my spine. Sandy receiver sounds like a coffee grinder.

Two scaups buzz through the chute. The great white hunter tries dumping one on the pass. Fast little buggers. They fly on. I'm caught dumping sand out of my boots. Couldn't reach my gun.

Three hours later, we call it quits. Several flights of ducks pass by out of range, but besides the scaups, none are close enough for a shot. My friend, undaunted, shrugs his shoulders and says, "Well, that's river hunting."

They're a different breed, these river hunters. Two McNuggets short of a Happy Meal, a friend likes to say. It's tough hunting, perhaps the toughest there is, both in ducks bagged and effort expended.

Still, big-river duck hunting draws a devoted cadre of fans. Why? I polled a pair of big-river waterfowlers to find out. The information they provided can help you find great hunting on rivers near your home.

"There's a lack of regimentation to big-river hunting," says waterfowl research biologist Dale Humburg, trying to explain his passion for the sport. "It's not as crowded as a lot of other areas you'll find. And when everything else is frozen up, you can still find a place where you have open water and pretty good concentrations of ducks. It takes a little more work to find them and more equipment to get there, but when it's right, it's pretty hard to beat.

"There's a challenge to making the whole thing work," he continues. "In marshes or timber, when you find a spot where the birds are feeding, you're pretty much guaranteed to shoot some ducks. But on the river, you're not hunting a feeding location. You're hunting a place where the birds are coming in to roost, or a place where they're loafing midday, or a place where they're coming in after feeding. It's not a situation where you're hunting birds that can't wait to get in to feed. And, boy, that's a different world."

Another big-river duck hunting enthusiast, Jim Spencer, agrees. "Sometimes big-river hunting is the only game in town," he says. "I usually hunt the rivers when everything else is frozen up. The sloughs, prairies and shallow waters freeze, but the moving water doesn't. That concentrates the ducks in a smaller area, and the hunting can be spectacular.

"I like the grab-bag aspect of it, too" Spencer says. "There are more than just mallards to shoot. There are gadwalls, scaup, pintails and all the divers. You never know what you'll shoot at next, and that adds to the fun."

Big-river hunting requires specialized skills, starting with the ability to locate hunting areas with concentrations of ducks.

"Where you hunt depends a great deal on weather conditions," Spencer says. "If a blue norther passes through with a calm, cold high pressure system behind it, look for hunting areas close to current because that's where open water will be. If it's rainy and windy, look for sheltered places where ducks find protection from the elements. Hunt on the lee side of islands or behind dikes or levees. If the weather's too frigid, and it's raining and windy, too, then just stay home."

Wind is the primary factor determining where Humburg sets up to hunt. "You've got to pay attention to the wind probably more than anything," he says. "Birds are always going to work into the wind. The tendency on a cold, blustery day is for ducks to work into the wind, to work into a high bank for instance, or into a sandbar where they have some protection. They want to get into a place a little more comfortable than where they've been. I know from flying waterfowl surveys on cold, blustery days, those birds are usually tucked right up against the high bank where they're protected from the colder elements."

Both river hunters believe in the efficacy of large decoy spreads. Spencer uses as many decoys as he can get in his boat.

"Big spreads are better than little spreads because it's big water," Spencer says. "In timber, you hardly need decoysbecause when you see ducks, they're in working or shooting range. Big water is different; you may see a flock of ducks two miles away, and they must be able to spot your spread. You need a visual attractor, and the more decoys you've got, the better your visual attraction is. Take at least three or four dozen."

Humburg recommends placing the decoys in strings on the water. "I know from flying waterfowl surveys that many times you see ducks on the river in more of a linear fashion. Often they'll be lined up along a sandbar or along the bank as opposed to in a big block or big bunch like you'd set decoys out in the marsh."

Most hunters using large decoy spreads leave a pocket of open water in the spread to encourage the ducks to land there. "You want an open spot in your decoys within gun range," Spencer says. "Set the decoys around the open spot close together when the wind is blowing. Set them more loosely in calm weather. Mallard decoys or whatever you have will work. But you might want to put about a dozen floating goose decoys out with your others. That adds to the visual attraction because a duck can see a goose decoy farther away."

Good, loud calling is best.

"You have to blow your guts out," Humburg says. "Use a good loud hail call, or, if the birds get by you, a good comeback call. You're talking about big water and big open country, so it's pretty essential to call loud and a lot. If you have a good wind, you can go ahead and blow that duck call without a worry about spooking ducks with the noises you make."

"Forget the feeding call," says Spencer, "because river ducks are resting, not feeding. The highball is all that's needed, and make it loud."

Spencer and Humburg both agree the blind should look natural because ducks quickly spot anything that's out of place on or near the river. In some case, though, the river dictates where you'll hunt. Spencer, by necessity, usually hunts from a camouflaged boat. "Most of my river hunting is boat stuff," he says, "because it's difficult to find a place on shore to set up a blind. I usually hunt from a boat that's hidden in some bushes or other cover."

Humburg likes to use blind material indigenous to the river. "I think any place you're going to set up a blind, river included, you want to make use of what's there more than anything else," he says. "Use local materials when you can, so at least the blind materials blend into the situation. If you're hunting a sandbar, you want to use some old sticks or driftwood or some kind of light-colored material. You want to build something that blends into where you're hunting.

"You'll also want to cut down your profile," Humburg notes. "You want as low a profile as possible. A big high-profile blind on a sandbar is pretty obvious to flying ducks, and if you want to shoot ducks, you have to keep this in mind."

Safety is the most important consideration when hunting big-river ducks.

"There's an element of safety you must be concerned about on the river all the time," Humburg says. "The sands shift around quite a bit, and the location of deep water changes day to day. That means you must be very careful when setting out decoys and picking them up, or when retrieving downed birds. You need a good retrieving dog in most situations, unless you want to be going back and forth through the water a lot, and that's not a good idea.

"Late in the season, you also have ice to deal with," Humburg continues. "You just don't want to trust rivers and currents. It's not as safe as hunting out in the marsh, so those things have to be considered."

"You have several factors working against you," Spencer says. "One is the sheer big-water aspect. You often encounter big wave action or other problems absent in ricefields or timber. And the wind really cuts into you out there, so it's always better to be overdressed than underdressed. You can always pull something off."

Both hunters agree on the safety tips to pass along to river hunters. First, big rivers demand big boats and big motors. "A 14- to 16-foot wide-bottomed boat with a 25- to 35-hp motor is ideal," Spencer says. "It needs to be adequately powered but not overpowered; 25 to 35 horses is about right."

The motor and batteries should be in tiptop shape, but you should still carry paddles for each hunter. Check your fuel supply before leaving shore to be sure it's ample for your boating needs. Remember the one-third rule: one third of your fuel for going, one-third for returning and one-third for an emergency.

Each passenger should wear a personal flotation device, and the boat operator should wear a kill switch. When boating at night, run slowly, always watching for other boats and obstacles such as wing dikes and sandbars. Carry a waterproof fire-starting kit and some high-energy emergency foods like chocolate bars. And always file a trip plan with a friend or relative. Let them know where you're going and when you'll return.

If you measure success by the number of ducks killed, big-river duck hunting probably isn't for you. But there are many positive aspects to this arduous sport. Wind, spray and open space are heady wine for duck hunters. You're out there alone, without competition. You see wild places and wild thingseagles, geese, the occasional deer, and, if you're lucky, ducks. Lots of ducks. But that plays second fiddle to just being there.

"A big river has a way of making a man in an open boat feel very small and vulnerable," Jim Spencer says. "That's a good thing to be reminded of every once in a while."

Amen to that.