Michigan’s nickname is the Great Lakes State, but it could have just as easily been called the Great Rivers State. Michigan has hundreds of streams, rivers and creeks that feed lakes, impoundments, bays and eventually the Great Lakes. Great Lakes bays, marshes, drowned river mouths and estuaries attract the majority of waterfowl during the fall migration, but enough waterfowl use moving water during different times of the season to make them worthwhile hunting destinations. With all the waterways that traverse the Michigan countryside, there’s bound to be a river or stream just right for floating not far from where you live. And it’s one of the most relaxing and scenic ways to hunt waterfowl.
One of the best times to float Michigan’s waterways is late in the season. As shallow marshes, lakes and bays freeze up, waterfowl are left with two options — head south or seek out the last vestiges of open water. Rivers and streams with current stay open long after many of the lakes and ponds have frozen. Waterfowl will be concentrated and hunting pressure will be at a minimum then. Quietly floating down a meandering river, the gurgling sound of the water has a mesmerizing effect. That is, until a flock of startled mallards explode within gun range, waking you from your daydream.
Before planning a late-season float hunt, waterfowlers need to be aware of Michigan’s trespassing laws. Michigan’s recreational trespass laws can be traced back to the logging days. If a log was floated down the waterway during Michigan’s logging heydays and you can gain access at a public site, you can float the river and fish, canoe or kayak. The river is considered public domain up to the high water mark. Hunting on a river or stream is a slightly different situation. The river or stream must traverse public lands while you are hunting, or you need to have permission from the riparian landowners in order to hunt while floating.
This limits many of us to areas where rivers and streams meander through state or federal lands. If you’re the ambitious type and aren’t afraid of rejection, you might be able to find some great float hunting opportunities on private lands, but it won’t be easy. The waterfowl season takes place during Michigan’s bow and firearms deer seasons, and landowners are pretty particular about who they give permission to then, but you never know just what the answer will be. Even on public lands, you won’t run into much competition late in the season. The waterfowl there might not have seen any hunters for weeks. Many of the ducks and geese will be new birds moving just ahead of actual freeze-up, so they might not be as spooky as you’d expect.
One of the great things about float-hunting is its simplicity. There’s no getting up at some ungodly hour, setting out dozens of decoys or shivering in a blind for hours on end. All you need is some type of watercraft, the necessary life-saving equipment and a shotgun. Usually a canoe is the craft of choice. It doesn’t even have to be camouflaged, although it helps when trying to sneak up on wary late-season birds.
The procedure is to spot a vehicle where you plan on ending up and then launch upstream and float down to the strategically placed vehicle. About a three- or four-hour hunt is about right for a late-season float — any longer and legs start to cramp, fingers quit working and cold can set in. If you plan a longer float, plan a midday stop for lunch. Another option is to bring along a few decoys, and if you jump a bunch of birds and don’t get a shot at them, stop, set out some decoys and wait for them to return. Many times, if the ducks like the spot, they’ll come right back a short time later.
Although I haven’t tried it, it seems like a kayak would be ideal for float-hunting. These crafts are quiet, easy to maneuver and lightweight. A friend also uses his float tube to drift rivers for ducks. The tubes have a low profile, can be purchased in camouflaged colors and are stable.
Because you’re floating down a river when conditions are probably cold, if not on the edge of extreme, you should take safety precautions. Wear a life jacket. The inflatable SOS-type suspender life jackets are great. You hardly know you have them on, they won’t restrict your shooting and they’re there when you need them. Bring along a waterproof bag with a change of clothes, something with which to start a fire and a cell phone. Better safe than sorry.
Most of the shooting will be at close range. It seems there are two types of waterfowl that use the rivers — ones that have played the game and swim ahead before jumping out of range and others that choose to hold tight, slipping behind a logjam or vegetation before flushing. Those are the birds you usually get a chance at. Generally, those shots will be between 25 and 35 yards. Ideal loads are 12-gauge, 2 3/4- or 3-inch shells of 2, 3 or 4 shot for ducks and No. 1 or BB loads for geese. Improved cylinder choke is a good choice. Quick-handling, shot-barreled shotguns are preferred in the action of your choice. A third shot often comes in handy to dispatch cripples before they get into heavy cover or disappear around the bend.
Most of the ducks that remain during the waning days of the season are hardy varieties like big red-legged mallards, black ducks, goldeneyes and buffleheads, but you might be surprised. More than once I’ve shot wood ducks on the last day of the season when there were 10 inches of snow on the ground. Wood ducks are commonly referred to as “summer ducks” for their propensity to migrate early at the first hint of fall, but there must also be a thick-skinned variety that migrates though Michigan. Canada geese can commonly be found using rivers and streams during the late season. It’s especially exciting to sneak up on a flock of honkers and have all hell break loose when they discover they’ve been had.
Southern Michigan has plenty of slowly meandering streams and rivers that attract late-season waterfowl. The problem is that there just isn’t that much public land to which float-hunters can gain access. But there are exceptions.
“Portions of the Grand River offer some opportunities,” claimed Joe Robinson, avid waterfowler and wildlife biologist at the Pointe Mouillee State Game Area. “I’ve shot some wood ducks on the Grand River where it flows through the Portland State Game area.”
Another possibility might be the Grand River where it traverses through the Ionia State Game Area, but you would need to secure permission from the landowners on the north side of the river. Farther downriver, the Grand flows through the Grand Haven State Game Area. A tributary of the Grand, the Flat River offers some float-hunting opportunities where it flows through the Flat River State Game Area.
My son, Matt, and I did a short float on the Flat River several years ago during the late goose season. It had been cold,
so the river was one of the last pieces of open water left and my friend, Greg Runnels, said the geese had been using it. Runnels waved us off after launching the canoe and said he’d meet us at the next bridge.
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