The sun was so low and bright red-orange it looked like lava spilling into the Western sky, dotted with specks of black, ducks pumping their way back to the refuge after an evening field feast. As beautiful a moment as this was it was equally treacherous, running the river in a small johnboat loaded down with gear and full-sized men.
Shallow, fast-moving current and sunken sandbars pulled at the motor prop, twisting the boat. If our mothers had been there to see it, they would have never let us do this again. But, God, was is worth it. Not for the few teal and greenheads that tumbled into the skinny river, but for the entirety of the experience.
Like launching a boat down a steep ramp that fell off into the river—one slip of the trailer tire and the whole rig would have been in the water, washed away by the current. Watching mallards fly out of small inlets as we ripped down river. Setting up a panel blind with pieces of driftwood and brushing it in with sandy Johnson grass, sweating so profusely we pulled waders around our ankles and threw off coats, letting the wind cool us. Then the evening flight of mallards and honkers came, and we blew the guts out of our calls as an endless stream flew over public water.
“There’s hardly anyone ever out there, and once you figure the birds out it’s not as challenging as it looks,” said a local, who wished to keep his honey hole a mystery. “You just have to go do it.”
And if you’re willing to work, here are the reasons why shallow river hunting will be your next obsession.
Simon Says Go Late
Zach Simon is a hard hunter to find—he keeps it that way for a reason.
“I’ve guided a lot of different places, but found that I just enjoy a smaller setting with good buddies, and so a couple of years ago I sold my goose rig, 1,200 full bodies,” Simon said. “I bought a boat my friend custom-built. It’s basically a sled with a mud motor on the back of it.”
Simon was (and still is to a point) a gypsy waterfowler, traveling all over the country with his boat and decoys in tow. He cut his teeth hunting snow geese in the early 2000s with Ira McCauley and Tony Vandemore when Habitat Flats was in its infancy, and is now in medical school, but still after skinny river greenheads out West when the timing is right.
“One thing we have learned is you don’t need to go out on the river at first light,” Simon said. “If you know they are roosting on the river, maybe then we would go early, but most of the time we like to get between the refuge and a feed. The ducks are going to start coming back around 9 or 10 o’clock for a drink of water or a place to loaf. Birds get pressured at shooting light and get wise to that, plus we don’t have to get up early. Maybe that’s lazy; maybe that’s smart.”
Showing the birds something different is key. In fast-moving current, it’s easier to set big numbers of silhouettes, sticking them into the sandbars and shallows. You can also haul more of them as opposed to cumbersome full-bodies.
“Lighter is better for us and everybody is in on the Dive Bomb (silhouette) craze, but we used silos 15 years ago and flocked them ourselves,” Simon said. “I usually run about 10-dozen goose silhouettes and put three- to four-dozen mallard full-body floaters in the kill hole. Then we put four- to five-dozen goose sleepers on the sandbars. When it’s real cold, you can kill duck limits by 9 and hopefully get a bunch of honkers in.”
Running the shallows takes smarts. Even experienced hunters run aground, so Simon had a winch built in to the front end of the boat and keeps long pieces of PVC pipe handy, making it easier to roll the boat across sandbars.
“I’m not going to recommend this, but there are places on the river where ducks are that you would need an airboat to get to, but my boat has a slick polymer bottom, so I can run it hard over a sandbar and lift the motor up to get across,” Simon said. “I’ve seen some other guys try and do it, and it doesn’t typically work out. But I’ve gotten stuck too. That’s why we have the winch and PVC.”
Mallards Never Neo-Show
The Neosho is a private river in southeastern Kansas. Brad Harris of Avian-X has it clocked for greenheads. They hunt in the timber that lines the banks when the river is up, and when water levels drop the Avian A-Frames get grassed up and deployed on rock bars.
“There is a main gravel bar that runs for about a mile and is 100 to 125 yards wide. The water goes from a couple inches deep to about a foot,” Harris said. “Our birds are roosting on big lakes and strip mine pits, and are coming to the river to loaf.”
Like Simon, Harris doesn’t typically go out before sunrise because huge groups of mallards go to the river at first light for a drink before they head out to feed. He discovered long ago, birds would stick around if he didn’t shoot into the big wads at the opening bell, opting to set up around 8 a.m. and wait for the steady trickle of greenheads looking to wash down breakfast.
“We could have 10,000 birds coming to the river almost all at once, and that means we could shoot into a flock of 2,000 or 3,000,” Harris said. “You kill a few ducks, but you educate so many more. I think some people could learn—and would have better hunting—that you don’t have to follow the tradition of setting up first thing in the morning.”
Early season, Harris runs anywhere from 15- to 25-dozen duck decoys, 90 percent of which are floaters, the rest full-body field mallards. Calling can get aggressive. As the season progresses deeper into January, he knocks the spread down to one- to four-dozen of Avian’s Backwater series mallards and puts them in small feeding groups similar to a honker hunt.
“Late-season we pull the spinners unless it’s sunny, run high-quality decoys and take an extra 30 minutes to brush in the blinds, which can make all the difference,” Harris said. “We go pretty easy on the calling, hitting them on the corners.”
Historically, some of the best mallard hunting in Kansas comes after the split in late January, though December can be just as good depending on the weather.
“I love a bitter, nasty cold day on the river, but you can’t beat 50 degrees, sunshine and a south wind the day after a cold snap,” Harris said. “Last December was some of the worst duck hunting I have seen, but in late January we got a push of birds from the south and birds had just come in from the north too, so we ended on a high note.”
Try and imagine shooting a greenhead cutting air, back-pedalling into a six-foot wide spring-fed slough at 20 yards on a bitter cold January day. That’s a dream for most of us, but Spencer Holzfaster does it season after season in small cuts and on larger Nebraska river systems.
“All our sloughs and rivers have their own characteristics,” says Holzfaster, who farms and raises cattle for his real job. “Some are mucky, some sandy, some are warm-water fed and wouldn’t freeze if it were 100 below (zero).”
His groups of four or five mostly hunt out of permanent blinds that have been strategically placed between roosts and feeds, but they also will go mobile, using Tanglefree panel blinds or hide in the timber along the bank as mallards become educated and seek new resting areas. There are various types of waters to hunt, ranging from the diminutive sloughs that can be thigh to belly deep and bigger, faster moving water that will barely rush over your ankles.
The typical early season spread consists of three-dozen mallard floaters, three- to- four-dozen mallard full-body field decoys and maybe six goose floaters or field decoys. But as it gets closer to January and the greenheads begin to court their Susie’s, Holzfaster changes it up.
“Later in the season, some hunters like to run giant rigs, but as these birds get more pressure, I am apt to take six or a dozen mallard floaters—more greenheads than hens—and pair them up,” Holzfaster said. “You might not get the big bunches of 30, but you will shoot three-packs, twos and singles. Field Hudnall was here and took (a photographer) with four decoys into this small cut in the river and they killed a two-man limit in the snap of a finger.”
If you’re one of those hunters that likes to turn on the motion decoys and just let it eat the entirety of the hunt, Holzfaster has a few takes that will change your mind. If the wind is blowing hard, particularly out of the north, he will turn the Lucky Duck HD loose, letting it spin constantly as birds are looking for any safe place to dodge a stiff breeze. But in many cases, he utilizes the remote-control to turn it on and off at opportune times.
“I’ll run the spinner at first light and sometimes you can tell the birds are like, ‘I’m not sure about this,’” Holzfaster said. “So I will turn it on when birds are at a distance, turn it off as they get closer, then back on as they are making a turn, and off again when they start banking in and finish them with the call.”
Ducks also finish differently into a river than they do an impoundment or dry field. You still play the wind in fast-moving shallow water but it doesn’t always determine how Holzfaster sets up.
“They are still going to use the wind to get down, but as they get closer to the water will land in the current no matter what direction the wind is blowing,” Holzfaster said. “I don’t know why they do it, but that’s been my observation.”