Big River Bird Basics
By shore blind or by boat, many rivers are killer duck holes.
There isn’t a rice field for hundreds of miles. The nearest coastal marsh is a four-hour drive. Flooded timber? Only after a hurricane dumps a foot of rain. Take a look at the landscape around Shawn Hash’s favorite place to hunt ducks and geese and you’d never think a guy could shoot a limit of ducks in a day, let alone an entire season. Don’t be fooled. It may look nothing like traditional duck country, but when conditions are right, the hunting can be nothing short of spectacular.
Hash hunts the free-flowing rivers of western Virginia, where current and riffles and rocky bottoms look more like smallmouth bass habitat than a place to hunt waterfowl. In fact, when it isn’t hunting season Hash can be found steering a raft down one of those rivers as he guides clients to bass and muskies.
Pennsylvania resident Kevin Addy also loves to float his home rivers in the spring and summer. When cold weather settles across the region, though, you’ll find Addy on places like the Susquehanna or Delaware rivers with a shotgun in his hands. They can be duck magnets. Or they might not.
“We kill a lot of birds at certain times of the year, but there are a lot of days when we don’t bother. It’s not really worth going,” says Addy, a 49-year-old Avery/Banded pro-staffer from Morgantown, Pennsylvania. “It doesn’t take much hunting pressure to run them off. Boat traffic from fishermen can push the birds off the river, too, and there can be a lot of boat traffic on mild fall and winter days.”
“The birds that are on the river just find nearby ponds and marshes where they have food and don’t ever get bothered. They just stay there. There are always a few ducks on the rivers I hunt, but those resident birds are just about impossible to kill after opening day. They know the game.”
Addy and Hash mostly kill wood ducks and mallards during mild spells, the two most common species found on an eastern upland river. When a cold snap hits, though, everything changes. The fishermen are mostly gone. Even better, local ponds freeze and the birds have no choice to but to head south or head to the nearest open water, a river. Lots of ducks choose the latter. In fact, the colder it is, the better the hunting, agree Hash and Addy. It isn’t out of the question to shoot everything from pintails and teal to divers. Hash has killed canvasbacks, goldeneyes and even a long-tailed duck during extreme cold spells.
There’s no telling why big-water ducks would visit a rocky river hundreds of miles from their traditional habitat, but they do. And they are often found in places that a hunter familiar with those birds would never expect to find them.
“It varies from river to river. You just have to do your homework,” says Addy. “There are places that look great that never hold a duck and there are places that don’t look very ducky that can hold tons of birds at times. I’m not sure why that is, but that’s why it is so important to scout.”
Generally, ducks on upland rivers seek slower, shallower water, but they won’t hesitate to sit in the middle of a deep pool with slow current, either. Ducks don’t like to fight current any more than a fish does. The good news is that slower water can be found almost anywhere in a river if you look for it—below islands, behind mid-river rock ledges, in eddies along the bank and behind fallen trees and other debris. The bad news? Some of those spots attract more birds than others.
“There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I can run down the river and show you 15 spots that ought to hold birds but never do and two spots that look similar and that always seem to hold birds,” says Hash. “The only way to find those is through scouting. In fact, we spend a lot more time scouting than we do hunting. We may hunt for a few hours in the morning, but then we go looking.”
When he finds something worth hunting the next day, Hash returns with as few as three decoys or as many as a dozen. How many he uses depends on what he sees. Ducks tend to gather in small groups on the rivers he hunts, so a large spread won’t look realistic.
Addy favors big spreads during the peak of the migration or when surrounding ponds, lakes and creeks are frozen because the rivers he hunts can hold lots of birds.
“We’ll put out as many as 25 dozen decoys and we usually include a few dozen goose decoys, too, even if geese aren’t in season. They just add an element of realism and they are more visible from long distances,” he says. “Really big spreads help create a sense of security for ducks. I also think it can help when there are a lot of other hunters on the river. The birds see spread after spread of three or even six dozen decoys, so when they see my decoys, they just think it is a really big raft of birds.”
The only problem with such a massive spread is that more decoys equals more potential for a lifeless spread. Motion is critical, no matter where those decoys sit. Don’t fret. Addy and Hash place a couple of decoys in nearby current to bring the spread to life. The moving water swings decoys back and forth, creating a realistic scene of ducks swimming upriver.
Moving decoys are only part of the river hunting equation. Hiding from overhead ducks can be a challenge, especially if the “X” is below an open sand bar or a barren rock ledge. Addy and his friends will hunker down in a mess of brush and logs pushed up by high water or they will build a makeshift blind out any natural material they can find. Sometimes, they’ll use layout blinds on islands and cover them with whatever is available. Hash also uses any available material he can find, but he often backs up against a tangle of roots and limbs along the river bank.
“They won’t hesitate to come to a spread right on the bank, but I make sure I don’t put my decoys out too far. Otherwise, they may end up landing out in the middle of the river and swimming in,” he says.
Get To Them
Getting birds to commit to a spread is just part of the challenge of a river hunt. Getting to those ducks on any free-flowing river in the eastern United States can be a bigger challenge. Rapids, rocks just inches below the surface, swift current and cold water can all be dangerous by themselves. Add some ice, some high water and maybe some floating debris and you may wonder if it is worth it.
That’s a question only you can answer, but Addy and Hash agree that if you have doubts about your ability to navigate a river safely, don’t do it. Hash typically runs a jet boat, which allows him to boat up and down river through riffles and rapids. Higher water levels are actually safer, he says, because low water can expose rocks and other hazards that can blow a hole in a metal boat.
“You certainly don’t want to go out in flood conditions. That can be even more dangerous than low water,” he says.
Addy and his friends prefer to pole canoes when the river is gentle enough to do that safely. Jet boats are just too loud, he says, and they don’t allow him and his friends to reach many of the shallow spots he frequents.
“Know the river before you go out. If you’ve never been on a river before, I would strongly recommend spending a few days just looking around so you know what the conditions are and where the hazards are. And always wear your life vest when you are in a boat,” he says. “You also need to know the water conditions. Just because the river was safe a few days ago doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. Rain can raise the water to unsafe levels. Cold weather can freeze parts of the river, too. Don’t go into this blind.”
Know The Law
Even if a hunt is safe, is it legal? That depends on your state. Access and trespass laws vary from state to state, but in most cases, if a river has been deemed “navigable,” the public can use it by entering the river from a public access site or private land with landowner permission. However, landowners can actually own the river bottom in some states, effectively prohibiting wading or anchoring. Check before you hunt.
Even if it is legal, you still need to consider a number of things. What happens if a bird falls on dry land? The water and riverbed may be public, but the land above the high water line likely isn’t. In almost every instance, walking on that land to retrieve a bird without permission is trespassing. Consider that before you pull the trigger.
You also need to be aware of surrounding houses. Riverfront homes are a common sight on some sections of rivers in the east, so make sure you aren’t going to rattle someone’s windows with steel shot when you shoot. Just because you can hunt somewhere doesn’t mean you should.
Don’t worry. Some of the East’s larger rivers are hundreds of miles long. With a little scouting and some effort, you can have a wad of ducks on a remote section of river to yourself.