Floodwater Ducks

Floodwaters have always offered outstanding duck hunting in a pristine and magnificient setting, and the increasing trend toward floodplan restoration makes this style of hunting a worthwhile endeavor.

Dawn was breaking as I eased off the throttle a bit to get a good look at the grind of ducks piling into the floodwaters over a bank of willows lining the river channel. I wasn't sure if it was the wake or my hunting partner coming undone that rocked my 12-foot aluminum boat, but through the sway we both realized simultaneously that we were in for a real good day. Several thousand ducks - a mix of pintails, mallards and teal - swarmed over the open-water floodplain with scattered tule clumps and cottonwood groves.

"Do you see that?" said Richard Shinn, my die-hard mallard hunting companion, excitedly. "Let's hunt right there."

"Yeah, there are a lot of ducks there," I calmly replied, "but we're going to the good spot - that grove of cottonwoods and willows where Tom and I have hunted."

I had hunted this floodplain enough that I was actually calm about it. This was going to be one of the good ones, and the last thing I wanted to do was set up in an unproven portion of the floodplain. The spot I had in mind contained a substantial grove of willows and cottonwoods, better to hide the boat. Besides, Tom and I had two days of straight mallard limits there a couple of years ago under similar water levels and flood conditions.

Richard wasn't buying it. He had his doubts that I was still even a dedicated waterfowler since my pheasant and upland bird hunting had increased over the past few years at the expense of days in the marsh. Further, I had basically given up on the refuges in favor of this highly opportunistic and unpredictable form of duck hunting . . . this crazy floodwater boat-hunting business that was foreign to my friend. However, passing on a grind of 5,000 ducks was grounds for some serious suspicion of my motives - and my sanity!

"Are you sure?" he pleaded in an increasingly cracking voice. "I mean, I don't see any other boats out there. Do you see all of those ducks?"

I brushed him off again, juiced up the old 7.5-horsepower outboard, and spun around the next bend in the river. Finally, we approached the preferred destination. I pulled through the willows and out onto the floodplain. My worst fears were realized when a volley of shots from a boat tied up in my favorite cottonwood grove broken the morning stillness. No problem, I reassured Richard. "We'll set up here in the willows on the south end of the open-water slot. Shot two limits here last year."

Photo by R.E. Ilg

That lasted about 10 minutes until three groups of mallards promptly ignored Richard's calling and swung back over the old growth oak forest to the west - right back in the direction of where we'd seen all the ducks earlier that morning. Quick to admit my mistake, I suggested we pick up and move back downriver. I didn't have to lobby Richard much on that one!

However, as we swung the boat around the oak grove back toward the open floodplain, we both became instantly perplexed. Mallards were circling over the oaks back to the east. Suddenly, it became obvious. The water level was just high enough to convert a high ridge of valley oaks with a blackberry understory jungle into a greenhead haven. I cut the motor, we grabbed the push poles, and in a few minutes we were gliding into secluded clearings chalk full of clucking mallards. A small group exploded, then more, then 10 and 20 at a time. The woods were full of ducks!

We eventually found a wonderful hole about 60 yards long and 40 yards wide and threw out two dozen decoys. After moving around a couple of times, we finally got the boat in the shade behind a huge oak draped with a blanket of wild grapes and blackberry vines. Mallards quickly painted the blue sky, first circling around at treetop height, then tumbling through the opening for cupped-up feet-down 20-yard shots. Amplified to dramatic tones by the timber were Richard's calling, the response of the birds, our bellowing single shots, and the resultant splashes. The colors were brilliant in the morning sunshine - their green heads tucked back as the mallards whiffed through the oaks, their blue and white wing speculum spread out as they banked, and their orange webbed feet extended on final descent.

We took turns shooting - nearly a necessity in a small aluminum boat - yet it still lasted less than two hours. Group after group of mallards, sprinkled with the occasional wood ducks and even a few pintails circled the oak grove methodically, then piled in for dream opportunities. We chose the drake mallards and seldom missed.

Finally, I had seven drake mallards in the back of the boat and Richard had one to go to fill his limit. A brief lull was interrupted by the whirring of wing beats as another group sailed overhead. Richard got on the call and they responded immediately. He alternately high-balled and chuckled until they could take it no more and fell through the trees. Richard picked the greenhead on the left, squeezed the trigger, and the mallard hunt of a lifetime concluded with another resounding splash.

To this day I have never had a better duck hunt.

Not in terms of birds on the strap, not in terms of peaceful hunting conditions, and certainly not in terms of aesthetics. The magnificent experience of being out there in the floodwater, like it might have been 200 years ago, just us and the trees and the flowing water and the ducks - it's hard to imagine a more meaningful day of waterfowling. It was, as the old sports cliché goes, one for the ages.

The beauty of learning to hunt ducks in floodwaters is that these kinds of days happen. Maybe not frequently, but they happen a lot more often than under normal waterfowling circumstances. Pacific Flyway duck hunting is largely an endeavor practiced in well-defined places during predictable times. Whether it's a duck club where the hunter has the exclusive use of a blind for the entire season or a refuge that operates on Saturdays, Sundays, and Wednesdays, more often than not waterfowl hunting out West comes with a high degree of predictability and regimentation. Such is not the case in the Mississippi Alluvial Valley, for example, where waterfowl numbers and hunting opportunities change daily with fluctuations in river levels, and hence, the dynamics of bottomland wetlands.

Floodwater conditions aren't as common in the relatively arid regions of the West Coast states, thus these events offer only brief opportunities for freelance waterfowlers to experience something similar to the storied "green-timber" duck hunting commonly practiced by hunters in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. But here's

the catch - some of the best waterfowl hunting anywhere in North America occurs along swollen creeks and rivers in California, Oregon and Washington. In the West, floodwaters encourage ducks to break traditional use patterns and, hence, they are considerably more vulnerable in their new surroundings.

Hunting ducks in floodwaters requires advanced planning/scouting, special gear, and adherence to safety precautions, but the rewards can be incredible. The floodwater hunting experience is wild, untamed, and aesthetically pleasing beyond words. Competition with other hunters is seldom an issue. Floodwater duck hunting is highly opportunistic in that rivers come up, birds find the new floodplain habitat almost overnight, and the whole thing can be over in a couple of days. Thus, the hunter that invests some time in planning and getting ready for this unique experience has a tremendous advantage of waterfowlers that are locked into hunting particular refuges or leased land.

However, the main reason to get geared up for hunting floodwaters in the West is that more and more floodplain land is going into public ownership and natural habitat is being restored. There has been a fundamental shift in thinking over the last two decades relative to floodplains. Whereas building dams and constricting the flow of rivers was once viewed as the way to offer flood protection for people and maximize the amount land available for agriculture, most resource agencies are now looking at restoring the natural processes and dynamics of rivers, which involves letting the rivers flex their muscles more often and spill into floodplains. This has led to significant amounts of floodplain land acquisition and habitat restoration by state and federal agencies.

The restoration of floodplain wetlands and riparian habitat works for freelance duck hunters in three ways: 1) rivers spill out of their banks more frequently, 2) ideal waterfowl habitat is provided as the floodplain vegetation re-colonizes, and 3) public ownership goes a long way toward clearing up legal issues regarding "navigable waterways" and the right to hunt on land temporarily inundated by floodwaters.

Advance planning and scouting are the key to success when it comes to hunting ducks in floodwaters. The first trick is the identification of rivers with significant low-gradient floodplains where slow-moving backwater areas occur when the river spills out of its banks. An ideal floodplain has a significant amount of natural wetlands or grasslands interspersed with trees and perhaps some agricultural land. Willows and cottonwoods are fine, but larger and more diverse tracts of forest are even better. Mallards and wood ducks respond best to floodplains with significant amounts of forest whereas pintails, green-winged teal, and widgeon prefer open habitats such as flooded pastures, grasslands and oak savannas.

A good way to learn a river and know when to expect waterfowl use is to take your boat out during floodwater conditions after the hunting season, then make note of the river level by recording water elevation data from water agency Web sites. I use these post-season trips to learn about habitat conditions and waterfowl use patterns at certain water elevations. Then it's as simple as watching the river's elevation data during winter storms and going when the water conditions are right. This isn't a 100 percent guarantee of heavy waterfowl use of a floodplain, but I've found it to be very effective in predicting when waterfowl will respond to newly flooded habitat.

A common misconception about hunting ducks in floodwaters is that you need a huge, flat-bottom, battleship-type of watercraft with at least a 50 HP outboard motor, or even better, a jet drive. These boats are very effective for negotiating large, swollen rivers and are fine for most types of floodwater hunting, but the bottom line is that not everyone can afford to get geared up to this level for an opportunistic type of hunting that occurs only a few times a year. However, it's safe to say that most hunters and fishermen own a 12- to 15-foot aluminum boat with a 5 to 25 HP outboard. Since most of the best hunting occurs in low-gradient river floodplains, often in secluded backwaters, I'll focus on the small boat style of floodwater hunting.

I use a 12-foot aluminum boat with a 10 HP outboard and find that the small boat actually provides a significant advantage in that it can be easily hid in small clumps of trees. It's important to paint the boat a camouflage pattern that blends in with the local trees and vegetation. However, the most important aspect of hiding is parking the boat in the shade if possible, laying some branches over the boat, and draping leaf netting to break up its outline. I've found that mallards work much better in forested floodplains on sunny days, and under those circumstances, the shade is the key. Sometimes I'll even tow along a layout boat for hunting in shallow, open water, especially on stormy days when the ducks aren't working the trees.

Decoy rigs vary from large spreads for open water to a couple dozen mallards for pockets in the forest, but long lines are essential. The best trick here is to have extensions ready to clip onto your normal decoy lines so you can quickly adapt your spread for the floodwaters. I'll usually try to place a good bunch of decoys out in an open water bay with a narrow string leading back to where the boat is concealed in the trees.

Few wildlife laws or regulations are as confusing as "navigable waters" trespass laws. Basically, hunters in California, Oregon and Washington have the right to hunt within the banks of any navigable waterway. However, when the river spills out of its banks things get pretty confusing. Hunting in floodwaters over private land is generally considered trespassing, particularly if you anchor or tie up to a tree, unless you have permission from the landowner.

In California, the navigable waterways issue was pressed for many years by a group of dedicated floodwater hunting enthusiasts. The Attorney General even issued an opinion that hunting in navigable waterways was legal as long as you stayed in the boat. However, California regulations currently read that, "It is unlawful to enter any lands . . . belonging to another . . . including lands temporarily inundated by waters flowing outside the established banks of a river, stream, slough, or other waterway, where signs forbidding trespass are displayed at intervals not less than three to the mile along all exterior boundaries . . . without having first obtained written permission from the owner of such lands . . ."

The same basic rule applies in Oregon. Washington's laws are a bit more flexible in that you can hunt in navigable waterways so long as you are not anchored or tied to a tree. However, even there it is always a good idea to obtain permission from private landowners before hunting in floodwaters over their land.

Boat hunting in floodwaters is typically not much of an issue with landowners so long as the hunters are polite and ask first. "It's pretty easy to get permission from landowners for hunting in floodwaters," says Don Kraege, waterfowl coordinator for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Finally, the

best way to address the legal issue is to simply seek out public lands inundated by floodwaters. State and federal agencies do not always allow hunting under such conditions, but in many cases special rules are formulated when floodwater conditions occur to allow hunters to take advantage of this unique opportunity. Talking to state and federal wildlife personnel prior to the onset of flooding is a great way to determine which lands will be available for boat hunting.

Floodwater Safety
Safety is always an issue when hunting in floodwaters. Here are some important guidelines to follow.

  • Make sure your boat is big enough to handle the river. Be very cautious of snags and other submerged hazarrds and don't get overloaded with hunters, dogs and decoys. Avoid going upriver in the dark; the best hunting often occurs during midday when you can see where you are going.
  • Next, always wear a life jacket and rain pants. Never wear waders in a running boat. If you are ever dumped overboard, they can fill up with water before you can kick them off. You can always put on waders if you are going to get out of the boat in shallow water.
  • Finally, if you're hunting from a small boat, take turns shooting. I always hunt with a partner, also for safety reasons, but have found that two people trying to shoot at the same time causes just enough rocking of the boat to throw off your aim. Besides, taking turns will make a good day last a little longer!

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