By Richard Massey
Like Huckleberry Finn, I’m a child of the river. Nothing gets me out of my chair and up and going like a trip on a stream. Being a Senior Sportsman can make me think twice about certain activities in the outdoors. I can’t slog through a muddy plowed field like I used to, but I’ll still go if the geese are flying.
But the river has a pull on this old Huckleberry. There’s nothing like riding the current, especially in the fall. Especially when the wood ducks are migrating. Nothing like it.
Imagine those beautiful leaves falling and you drifting quietly downstream. Think of rounding a bend in the river and having a flock of Canadas blast off from the shoreline right in front of you. Can you see it? Would you be able to make the shot in your excitement ? Or would you swamp the boat and have to clamber out in the cold and get a fire going real quick?
Either way, the river is always an adventure. Either way, you will leave the river at the end of your run already planning your next float trip.
These days folks are really starting to get into kayaks. Kayaks are becoming popular in the fishing community. Here on the river, we think kayaks are a big deal too. Back in the day, we float hunted on the river using canoes. Not anymore. Kayaks put you down lower on the water and that lowers your center of gravity. You are much more stable shooting out of a kayak. I used to be afraid of rolling my canoe with a shot to the side. Not with my kayak.
How does a float hunt on the river work? Well the first thing about it that may surprise you is that this hunt begins at 10 o’clock in the morning. Nope, no sunrise vigil like on the slough. If you do go early you won’t find many geese. They fly out at dawn to feed just as they do on the slough. Then at around eight or nine they return to the river to hide and loaf. That’s why we start our float at 10. Bankers’ hours. So let’s try a simulated float hunt and see if you’d like it.
What’s a river float for waterfowl like? I’ve been asked that question a lot. Well, maybe I can explain it this way: You drift quietly down the river with every sense alert. You round a bend and there’s a flock of birds loafing on a sandbar ahead of you. They’re too far away so you hold really still and the current takes you slowly, slowly toward them.
Now actually, that’s the way I like to explain it. That’s the best time of the hunt, the tension and anticipation. The possibility of a big shoot ahead. You’re close enough to make your move now and you pull up on an exploding flock. But the kayak has drifted to the left and you’re a right-handed shooter. So you track a bird and realize you’ll be lucky to get one bird when you expected to get off three shots.
But honestly, you won’t be surprised. A float hunt on the river is never easy. Too many things can/do go wrong. Wind, for instance. It’s your friend when it gets the trees to rattle their leaves. You don’t make noise with the wind blowing. But then, you run into a flock of birds and you have to freeze or the birds will beat you. So the wind is blowing you at them and manages to turn the kayak completely around before you’re in range. Who’s your friend now? It happens.
Much of a float hunt ain’t good. Imagine sitting on a moving platform, shooting at a moving target. That’s what we laughingly call a humbling experience. Yes, you’re thinking that you’re a reasonably capable shooter. Then you ride the river with us. We put you in the front seat of a twin-seater kayak. Nothing to do but shoot. Plus, if we come upon that flock on the sandbar, I’ll paddle you right up there.
Without hardly moving a muscle, I’ll put you right up there with a few well-timed feather strokes of the paddle. In fact, I’ll turn the kayak slowly so you get the best angle for shooting. It won’t matter at first. The average for first time gunning on the river is one or two kills per box of shells. Humbling. But things improve with time. I’ve hunted the river for 50 years and I am now batting .333. That’s great in baseball and it’s great on the river too.
It isn’t about killing birds though, so don’t get hung up on the kill. The river is the star here in this scenario. You’re just lucky to be there. Much happens as you drift. Rivers are migration corridors for all manner of birds. Songbirds of all types will be there. The cast of bird characters will change as the fall weather progresses. Flocks of robins will be there one time and your next visit might be all about gold finches. Always a surprise and always beautiful. And the beavers, deer and otters live there too.
The best part of a float is that most animals and birds that we encounter are sleeping or very relaxed so we get a good up close look at them. My son Will’s Nikon is cranking when we run by a big turtle. He loves mossy- backs with the big claws. He caught beavers asleep on their lodge last year. Fun-fun-fun!
We live in Minnesota. Out on the western prairies we have reminders of the French traders that named our rivers and the big lake Lac qui Parle. Out here we pick our float hunt rivers with care. That’s the best advice I could give to a waterfowler who wants to try a float hunt. Will and I had to learn that lesson the hard way. We thought the faster the river the better. We’d get up on them quicker. We not only got up on the birds quicker, we also got swept into snags that were under water and limbs low on the water to roll us.
Will lost a nice Nikon and lens that way and he shot downstream backwards, fending off rocks with his feet. Then we still had to pull the kayak out and continue to our take-out spot. All in all, a lesson learned. As the old song goes, “up a lazy river we go,” and since then, we have had far less trouble targeting slower waters. And yes, we take every precaution. We wear flotation vests, but those without big pads over the shoulder. That way I can shoot better and swim better too, should the need arise.
If you’ve noticed, kayaks are a big deal with anglers lately, and it made a big change for us, more stable giving you a lower profile for birds watching out for hunters. They also have nice covered areas fore and aft to keep duffle dry. Two of the best makers of hunting kayaks are Old Town and Poke Boat. Will has a camo pattern that he paints on both boat and paddles.
That’s all part of the attention to detail that we put into these festivities. Camo clothes with a change along in case of dunking. Camo gloves on the hands and a face mask for camo and sunblock. We’ve even been known to attach branches to the front if the birds are super wary. Now I’ve even purchased a camo 10-gauge from Browning. My old Ithaca Mag 10 jammed one time too many.
Why the big gun? Because it knocks down geese at a distance and ducks too. Wise ducks sit at the bend of the river. When you come around a corner upriver, they jump and just have a foot or two to fly before they are gone around the next corner. With a 10, I can sometimes reach out at long distances before they’re gone. Also, even if they jump close I have more time to shoot when I can reach out further.
GO WITH THE FLOW
These are true Huck Finn experience hunts for us if we get the time. Lazing down the river, shooting a few ducks along the way. Pulling up on a sandbar and dressing out a couple. Spitting them over a bed of coals with a tin can of coffee in hand to savor while waiting for the meat to get done. If possible, and when would it be not, a bottle of merlot to enjoy with our duck. I like a good cigar about this time to celebrate the hunt. Then the gun is put away while we put our dishes away and paddle for the takeout.
Each fall we go on the river and follow the migration. It begins early with the “summer ducks.” Woodies and teal that sit in trees and blast off branches that are over your head and weave through trees. That’s the wood duck, but teal will rocket away so fast you won’t believe it. As the migration moves along the flocks will build until a hard frost drives them south. But you won’t mind.
Because next come the fat mallards from Canada. These beauties can’t rival a woody for color, but they are much easier to hit.
They jump straight up off the water and don’t swerve as much in flight. Woodies not only fly in and out of trees, but they often fly low on the water making them hard to see when the sun sparkles the waves on the river.
Wood ducks have a nutty taste and teal are so succulent, but mallards are hard to beat for flavor too, and they stick around on the river until the water freezes over.
Other ducks like ringbills and goldeneyes are there on the cold days and we are too. Chopper mitts on hands and electric boot heaters help a lot, but a little suffering is necessary at that time. It will be worth it and all the sweeter when you know it will soon be over for the year.
By far, my favorite quarry on the river is the big Canada goose.
The geese come to the river to escape detection. Once they are down on the river they aren’t going to be found too easily. They only have one problem. They need openings in the trees along the river in order to land. With that in mind, you’ll kind of get an idea of where to expect them. That and the fact that they love to make those honks and nuk-nukks that warn you that they are around the next bend. Talk about excitement. A dozen geese sitting on a sandy beach means you’ve punched your ticket for some real waterfowl hunting fun. Another reason for my beloved 10-gauge.
A goose has to jump and fly into the wind to get airborne. They aren’t hard to hit when they do that, but you need to hit them with a heavy load to bring them down. Again, the 10-gauge. And as with any bird you bring down on the river, you have to finish it on the water unless it’s dead. A crippled duck or goose will do remarkable things to hide or escape. They will swim into snags that you can’t get them out of. They will swim to the shore and scurry into the brush where you can’t get them without a dog.
And speaking of dogs. My family came to the prairies of Minnesota from Wisconsin, and brought their dogs with them. The little American water spaniel has fallen out of favor in these days of the ubiquitous Lab, but our family never forgot. A river float is what these little retrievers were bred for. At forty pounds I can pick her up and plop her in the back with ease. Drop a duck in heavy cover along the shore? My baby will find it. In heavy current she can use her tail as a rudder. Very fun to watch.
And before you think rivers are the only game in town, consider a paddle through a slough or along the lakeshore. The advantage of a quiet approach is still yours on a slough or lake. Besides our diminutive retriever, we’ve found lightweight blow up decoys by Cherokee Sports Decoys. They take up very little room and weigh next to nothing. Find a spot, and wait for the action.
I know from experience that you will find it daunting to learn to shoot from a sitting position, but with practice you will improve. I put the kayak on the ground and sit in it while a friend launches clays with a hand trap. It is a learning curve but if you want to ride the river or creep through a slough or some brushy lakeside, you’ll have to learn.
I don’t like to get up early in the morning. I don’t like to wait around by the decoys if I don’t have to. A river float is more like a pheasant hunt. You’re moving along seeing lots of new country. Jump shooting woodies is much like shooting flushed pheasants and to me, that’s great fun. You won’t see a lot of people and now that I’ve explained how frustrating the shooting can be you know why more people don’t do it.
But even though it’s tough shooting, Will and I will be there, for we know a secret: Disneyland for duck men is a lazy river.