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Author: John N. Felsher
Hunt the moving water this season for more ducks.
In icy darkness, the guide maneuvered the 16-foot aluminum boat through towering timbers growing at the edge of a Mississippi River oxbow. Giant cypress trees festooned with Spanish moss engulfed us like hairy skeletons rising from the foggy, frigid swamps. Occasionally, the boat tilted as it pushed over a submerged cypress knee or stump hidden by darkness.
For centuries, millions of ducks followed rivers on their semi-annual migrations. Just as the Mississippi River and its tributaries draw water from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians, ducks follow the Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Missouri, Red and multitudes of other rivers that act as a giant funnel to the wintering grounds. Rivers in other flyways also serve as landmarks and corridors for migrating waterfowl and other birds.
Besides offering navigational aid, volumes of life-giving fresh river water create abundant food. Thick brushy banks provide ample cover from a multitude of predators. With plenty food, cover and sweet water, rivers offer everything a duck needs.
"We should get some wood ducks at first light and then some mallards," said David McEacharn of Southern Wings Plantation in Delhi, La. "Mallards typically fly later, usually between 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. They like to see where they are going and to see into the cover under the trees. Typically, mallards don’t land in thick cover, not like a wood duck. A wood duck is a kamikaze; he’ll land anywhere he wants to, thick, thin or wherever. Mallards are afraid of predators in thick cover and typically land in a more open area where they can see."
We placed about six decoys in a pothole between the trees, really just a wide spot in the swamp bordering this oxbow lake, a remnant of the ancient Mississippi River channel. With the decoys set, we secured the boat against some brush and erected the blind.
McEacharn stretched camouflaged Army netting over a rigid aluminum frame, completely covering the boat and motor. The device came up on both sides and formed a pyramid-like tent. We could see the ducks through the netting, but they couldn’t see us. When ducks came within range, McEacharn dropped one side and we started shooting at surprised birds.
Still well before shooting hours, wood ducks already began to fly. Woodies generally fly the same patterns each day as they move from feeding areas to roosting areas and back at dawn and dusk. We heard them whistling through the dark trees. Several flocks of wood ducks burst unexpectedly from the trees in the dim light as shooting hours began. Soon, empty shell casings danced in the swirling river current.
After the sun penetrated the thick canopy, several mallards passed tantalizingly close. McEacharn worked his call to entice them. They circled and circled as we waited anxiously beneath the camouflaged netting. Wary after months of living as targets, they didn’t quite commit to landing and disappeared into the swamp. With the river rising and inundating the swamps, ducks could land almost anywhere.
After watching several more mallards head to other potholes, we packed up, cranked the outboard and moved. Hunting from a self-contained boat equipped with a built-in blind allows us excellent mobility. Within minutes, we tossed the decoys and began hunting from our new spot.
While wood ducks fly predictable patterns, other ducks may appear and disappear quickly. As capricious as the rivers they frequent, ducks might prefer one slough today and another tomorrow. Hunters must remain flexible and go to where ducks land. Boat blinds allow sportsmen vastly increased mobility and versatility. Boat blinds enable sportsmen to adapt to rising or falling water or move with the birds as conditions warrant. Hunting in a different location each day, even if only a few feet away, confuses ducks that might grow accustomed to popular blind locations.
"Hunting out of a boat is comfortable," said Mike Caruthers of Vicksburg, Mississippi. "We have to be mobile when hunting river ducks. We can get up and move to find ducks and set up in a few minutes. Because we can move easily, ducks don’t get used to seeing blinds. We have to keep up with the birds as they move up and down the river."
Many rivers flow through outstanding duck habitat as they slope from upland forests through hardwood bottomlands to swamps, marshes, lakes and bays. Oxbows, beaver ponds, sloughs, backwaters and tributaries offer additional habitat. Frequently, ducks seek river backwaters and secluded ponds to escape intense hunting pressure on large lakes, bays and marshes. Hunters on rivers regularly find themselves alone with the ducks.
"River hunting provides very fast shooting," said Carl Manuel, who hunts on the Calcasieu River that flows through southwest Louisiana. "I’ve seen flights of 20 to 30 wood ducks coming over one after another for 30 minutes. Mallards also love fresh water and timber. I’ve never killed more mallards in my life than I have on a river. I’ve even killed pintails, gadwalls, wigeons and scaup on rivers. It’s amazing how many green-winged teal come to a river on a rainy day. The nastiest, coldest days are the best for hunting on rivers."
In cold weather, shallow backwaters, marshes, fields or ponds may freeze, preventing ducks from landing. However, river currents help prevent freezing, possibly giving ducks their only landing options. Flowing river pockets in an otherwise icy countryside could provide some of the most outstanding shooting anywhere.
"Once, it got down to about 16 degrees," Manuel said. "On that day, there were so many ducks on the river that they were almost landing in the boat with us. Everything was frozen. The backwaters were frozen, but the river channels were still flowing. Ducks had no other place to land."
While wood ducks generally prefer small potholes and thick cover, mallards generally prefer more open water or flooded timber. They land in ponds, sloughs or in pools in river channels. Sandbars, logjams and other obstructions usually create slack spots where mallards and other ducks can land without fighting strong currents. On major channels, hunt the downstream sides of islands, sandbars or bends where current flows lightest. With access to shorelines, hunters might hide among driftwood piles, fallen trees or other natural cover.
Points, especially those growing with cattails, bullwhip or other native vegetation, make excellent places to hide. Points allow hunters to take advantage of winds blowing from several directions. Surrounded on three sides by water, hunters can surround themselves with decoys and pick off birds landing into the wind from three directions.
Surrounded by thick cover, most blind locations only offer limited visibility. Birds may materialize quickly from any direction in a river pothole. Ducks may appear and vanish quickly. Hunters often must spot ducks, aim and fire in seconds.
Not every state offers a marshy coastline or bays rich in ducks, but hunters in just about every state can usually find excellent hunting along rivers close to home. Many states literally overflow with long stretches of public hunting opportunities. Since water bottoms sometimes belong to the states, people along rivers can usually find abundant public opportunities to bag birds.