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Big Water, Small Boat

Big Water, Small Boat
Waterfowl hunting Alabama's big water reservoirs from a canoe

There is no denying that the waterfowler in a canoe has a limited range when hunting over great expanses of water. However, a low profile boat such as a canoe can be advantageous when hunting open water spots that have minimal cover.

Paddling and wading big water isn't the easiest, but it's effective

Using a canoe to bag ducks and geese on big impoundments is a challenging and effective style of hunting. That being said, I strongly advise staying home and watching people shoot ducks on television if your only hunting option during a day of strong winds is canoeing big water. I've made the mistake of braving the high winds and it's a good way to have a bad day.

Paddling And Heavy Winds
Years ago, I loaded down my canoe with what seemed like a ton of decoys and started across Neely Henry Lake for the mouth of a big slough where several flights of mallards had been landing. The wind was blowing pretty hard but the water seemed to be navigable. However, the conditions got more treacherous the farther I got from the bank. The water began white capping. I tried to keep the bow of the canoe oriented so that it would cut through the waves while working frantically to stay on course for the slough. I paddled as hard and fast as I possibly could on the port side of the canoe in an effort to counter the forceful wind pushing against the starboard. The huge load of decoys setting in the bow made the little boat unstable. No matter how hard I tried to stay on course I couldn't.

I eventually realized that I no longer controlled the canoe and was at the mercy of the wind. Making it across the lake to the slough wasn't my goal anymore; I was only concerned with making it to safety. All the paddling I did against the wind had only worsened my situation. So, I decided to keep my center of gravity low so not to tip and hopefully be blown to the far shore. I prayed for safety.

I eventually ran aground on an island located in the middle of the lake. This was much better than being blown all the way across the huge impoundment. When the wind settled I wouldn't have such a long and arduous return trip to the boat launch. As I sat there on the island watching the waves crash against the bank, I felt relieved to be on solid ground. Eventually the wind calmed enough for me to fight my way back to the boat ramp.

Big Water Islands
As the season progressed and I continued to hunt points and sloughs located on the lake, I would look to the island and think of my wind blown experience. As I observed the island time after time, I started noticing Canada geese using the area regularly. It wasn't long before I started venturing to the island for early morning goose hunts. My canoe fit perfectly against the bank and the overhanging sweet gum braches provided just enough concealment with the necessary openings for firing at overhead geese.

There's just enough room for a hunter and his gun dog.

Every goose hunter can attest to the excitement of hearing a huge flock of honkers gradually getting louder and louder as they approach. And how exhilarating it is when you watch the huge bird crumple in the air, fall to the earth, and make a huge splash in the middle of the decoys. Over the years I've experienced many successful goose and duck hunts from this island and others like it. I've also had the pleasure of taking my hunting buddies to these islands for some of their first successful Canada goose hunts. After shooting geese and ducks for many years, I can almost say that I've gotten to the point where I enjoy providing shooting opportunities for other people rather than doing the shooting myself.

On a recent September goose hunt, I took two of my hunting partners to the Neely Henry Lake Island for an early morning hunt. Mr. Fuqua, who-prefers shooting geese with a Spanish made side-by-side 10 gauge, and Patrick, who took his first goose from the island years ago, were eager to experience some early season action. The first flight took us by surprise and we came up empty.

The following flight was a bit high and couldn't be reached. We sat there for about thirty minutes with no geese in sight and exchanged stories about past successes and how, if only we would have lead the honkers a bit further when that first flight came in, we would have bagged some geese. Then suddenly, I spotted a pair of geese sailing in from several hundred yards across the lake.

I alerted Mr. Fuqua and Patrick to get prepared. When the geese flew over our decoys, I sat back and watched the boys shoot. The first shot was from Fuqua's 10 gauge and it sounded like someone had fired a cannon as the blast echoed over the water, then I heard Patrick's 12-gauge fire simultaneously with Fuqua's second 10-gauge explosion. After all the shooting stopped there were two huge Canada geese floating belly up just a few yards from our feet.

As I listened to Patrick, in a subtle fashion, explain how one of the geese was his and Fuqua tactfully explain how they both belonged to him, I just smiled and wondered to myself how many of these gentlemen waterfowler's arguments I will witness and be a part of during the many seasons to follow.

During an early goose season a few years ago, I was scouting Weiss Lake for potential locations to set out a spread of decoys. I had my shotgun stowed in the canoe in case a shooting opportunity presented itself. As I paddled near an island I could hear the faint sounds of Canada geese on the water. The backside of the island was concave, creating a shallow water pocket for geese to rest and feed. I paused several yards away from the small landmass to load my shotgun and then quietly paddled closer. When I reached the island I hugged the bank so to be concealed by the vegetation and slowly followed the contour of the waterline.


As I approached one end of the crescent shaped pocket I paused for a moment, dug my paddle into the ground, and then forcefully pushed my canoe around the point into the opening of the pocket. As I glided across the water into the open, I saw about twenty geese jump for the sky. I fired three shots into the flurry of flapping wings and bagged four big honkers before the flock broke apart and flew out of sight. The geese were so tight I was able to down two with one shot. (Legal limit on Canada geese during the early September season is five.)

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The author's yellow with a mouthful.

Sandbars And Sloughs
Open water islands can make for decent duck hunting spots as well. However, it seems that duck hunting successes are experienced more often when setting up on sandbars and in sloughs. I've found that when hunting a sandbar with no possible cover in sight, a Christmas tree blind works wonders.

When Weiss Lake's water level is dropped each year during the winter, crappie fishermen take advantage of the low water by setting out artificial structures for attracting fish. Among other material used for these artificial structures, are Christmas trees. Clumps of Christmas trees situated along points, sloughs, and sandbars are a common sight while on the lake during winter. So it stands to reason that the ducks have grown accustom to seeing piles of dead pines, spruces, and furs.

I few days after Christmas I will collect trees thrown to the curb and haul them to a sandbar where I know ducks will be flying. I will set my blind at the water's edge because the ducks always fly the contour of the sandbar and never directly over the landmass. I like to put out fifty or more decoys and leave a landing strip directly in front of the blind.

I think that bringing ducks in close can be better achieved by adding decoys with white as part of their color scheme. White contrasts extremely well against the grayish-brown lake water making it easy for high-flying ducks to notice the spread. Puddle ducks will at times lock their wings and head for the decoys, but the divers, though known for being more likely to decoy, usually fly within range and buzz over the top of the spread.

Hunting sloughs is probably the best option for bagging big water ducks in Alabama. Successful hunts can be achieved at the back of these big sloughs as well as at the mouth. On one particular hunt I paddled a great distance over deep water to hunt mallards at the mouth of a large slough on Lake Neely Henry. I set out several mallard decoys a few yards from a bed of stumps then covered my canoe with camouflage netting. I wedged the little boat between two stumps, and then waded out to the edge of the stump bed. I then covered myself in camouflage netting and hunkered down level with the stumps and waited for legal shooting time. The water was smooth as glass and the fog was thick.

When the ducks came in it was as if they appeared out of nowhere. Being tangled in the camouflage netting inhibited me somewhat, but I was able to bag three mallards. I was fortunate to have such a thick cover of fog that morning, otherwise I doubt the ducks would have come in as close as they did.

Close to closing time on the reservoir.

If I move to the back of a slough after the first few morning flights and discover a large number of ducks feeding, I resist the urge to shoot at them when they flush. I just let them fly out and then move in where they were. Anywhere within 30 minutes to and hour and a half they will come back to roughly the same spot. I throw out only a few decoys to use as a confidence builder for the ducks. They want to be there, they just need to feel that it is safe to return.

When water conditions are low, and I'm unable able to hide under the vegetation strewn along the edge of the bank, I've found that sticking tall reeds and or cane into the mud about 10 yards from the water's edge can serve as a good blind. One year, Patrick and I enjoyed several days of mallard and widgeon shooting by just standing still and waiting for ducks to fly toward our decoys as we peered through reeds. Also, just lying in the canoe like it was a big sleeping bag and covering it with brown camouflage netting has provided adequate concealment in many low water situations.

Often when hunting from a canoe, I choose not to bring my dog because of the small amount of room and lack of stability. If he gets excited and moves too quickly in a canoe weighted down with decoys, the sudden shifting of weight could cause bad things to happen. But if you can find a sandbar or slew that can be accessed without traveling long distances over deep water, a lab can be a handy companion, especially when shooting diving ducks. A crippled diving duck shot down over deep water can make for an extremely problematic human retrieve.

On a recent hunt, Patrick downed a bufflehead. It was a long hard shot and the bird was only winged. And no matter how much steel was being thrown at the bird to finish it off, it just kept swimming and diving further and further away from us. Luckily, we had my yellow Lab with us. The dog was young and needed to learn how to make long retrieves. He struck out like a pro, swam a long way through icy cold water, and went after the feisty little bufflehead like he was bobbing for apples. Eventually, the young Lab got the duck under his control and proudly returned with it softly locked in his mouth.

Hunting open water out of a canoe can be risky, but when done under the right conditions it can make for a very enjoyable hunt. There is something extraordinary about being on a large lake and watching the sunrise while waterfowl fly from great distances toward your decoy spread. Sometimes I welcome a big freeze, that way I'm forced to move off the backwaters and experience the challenge of trying new hunting tactics on big bodies of water.

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