Hunt Saltwater Ducks All Around the Tide
September 24, 2010
We don't have much time to hunt in tidal marshes. That's why it is important for West Coast waterfowlers to extend their time in the field by hunting all around the tidal clock.
Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg
By Doug Rose
If you are like most waterfowlers, you don't have many days available for hunting each season. This lack of opportunity makes most hunters work harder to take advantage of their limited time in the marshes and ponds. It isn't uncommon for hunters to arrive at their blinds in darkness, hunt the morning flight, take a breather, and then hunt hard until the last moment of legal shooting time.
Although they don't have any more free time than their freshwater counterparts, this isn't usually the situation among the waterfowlers along the West Coast's saltwater beaches. Many of these hunters focus the bulk of their effort on the handful of hours immediately before the peak of high tide. This reflects the conventional wisdom that the best tidewater duck hunting occurs when rising water pulls the birds up onto the edge of a marsh, where they obtain the seeds and grasses they feed upon.
However, waterfowlers who restrict their sport to a fraction of the daylight hours often miss out on excellent hunting.
I discovered this firsthand a few years ago. I had spent the morning hunting an incoming tide on the beach near our home and then quit as the tide began to ebb. A strong series of rainstorms earlier in the week had unleashed a series of mudslides along the bay's bluffs, resulting in snags and small trees floating up onto the beach during the week. So after a late breakfast, I returned to the beach to beef up my beach blinds with limbs and branches.
It was several hours after high slack tide, and the mud flat off the beach was exposed for several hundred yards. I didn't expect to see any birds, but I carried my double-barrel shotgun anyway. As always, my yellow Labrador, Lily, accompanied me. She tilted her head up and sniffed the air when we drew close to the beach. Then she began to wiggle her rear end, the way dogs do when they smell a bird, and moved toward the mouth of a slough that drains into the mud flat.
"Stay," I said, as I raised the gun. I still couldn't see anything, but Lily was definitely acting birdy.
The dog looked at me briefly, considering whether to obey my command or her instinct, and just then a small flock of ducks erupted from the junction of the slough and beach. They were small birds, and were drably marked. I wasn't sure what they were, and thought they could be hooded mergansers, which I saw regularly at high water. But then I caught a glimpse of green on their speculum. They were teal, green-winged teal! I swung on the tail bird, pushed the barrel ahead, and shot.
I missed. Teal are small, not presenting much of a profile. It's pretty easy for them to avoid the pattern of a large shot like the 4s I was shooting. They had also drawn fairly far away by the time I had identified them.
I wasn't disappointed. Indeed, the encounter was something of a revelation. It showed me that, at least under some conditions, there are birds to pursue on tidewater at times other than those accepted as traditional. Since then, I have explored the beaches and sloughs at all tide phases, and have discovered that birds may be present just about any time of day. They aren't always present in the concentrations that hunters expect on rising water, and the species are often different. But for hunters with limited time for the marshes, hunting low tide and mid-tide can be worth effort and will often round out a successful day in the marsh.
When I look through my duck hunting journals, it is clear that I experience my best hunting on flooding tides. The reason for this is simple: Rising water changes the ducks' environment and puts them on the move. In this way, a rising tide functions similar to stormy weather on fresh water. My blinds are located along a private stretch of beach between a state park and federal holding where hunting isn't allowed. On low and the first half of the incoming tides, mallards and pintails loaf along the pickleweed and saltgrass of these marshes. I can hear the feeding chortles of hen mallards as I wait in the blinds, and the birds are reluctant to move during the first several hours of the flood tide.
Once the tide begins to vigorously push up into the intertidal zone, though, the birds begin to fly. It is a mystery to me exactly where the birds are going, but they fly parallel to the beach, and it is fairly easy to pull the ducks in with a couple dozen mallard blocks and a few highball calls. When it is raining or the wind is blowing, the birds often shadow the beach. The flight also always seems to abruptly end around high slack.
As much as I enjoy the taste of mallards and pintails, widgeon are the staple of saltwater duck hunting for many West Coast waterfowlers. In many areas along the coast, widgeon are rarely seen far from saltwater, and they exhibit a wide range of behaviors in regards to tidal movements. When the weather is mild and the water is calm, they may raft up in open water on low tides, then follow the edge of the incoming tide as it pushes into the marsh. It is often possible to hunker in your blind and wait for them as the tide reclaims the beach, then jump them as they move into your decoys.
Later in the season, after the seeds of the salt marsh are depleted, widgeon may also begin to feed on terrestrial grasses, even large, well-manicured lawns. They do this on low tides, at the same times when pintail and mallards rest in the salt marsh. Although they may be a considerable distance from saltwater, they somehow anticipate the return of the tide and return to beaches. Unlike pintails and mallards, which will make shortcuts over points of land, widgeon usually fly close to the tide line unless there is heavy rain or fog.
HALF TIDES ARE SLEEPERS
When you are hunting a straight stretch of saltwater beach, one without any irregular features like bays or spits or estuaries, the incoming tide is most likely the best time to hunt, and interpreting the tide is pretty straightforward. With the exception of sea ducks, waterfowl will nearly always opt for the protected water behind barrier beaches. Indeed, surprisingly large numbers of ducks often congregate in lagoons, sloughs, and small bays. These areas provide refuge from the wind and weather, and they also have more food than areas that are pounded by the surf. Mallards, pintails, widgeon and green-winged teal, in particular, will usually be much more abundant in protected water.
The trick to hunting ducks in backwaters is figuring out when they fill up and when they drain. Obviously, the size of the bay or inlet is the major factor. A large sprawlin
g bay will often have high and low tides that do not seem to have any correlation at all with the nearby open water. Fortunately, large bays and inlets are usually listed in the "correction" tables of tide books, and a hunter can easily determine when high and low tides will occur locally. Then all you have to do is employ the same strategies you use on similar tide phases in more open water. If you identify a few productive spots on bays, you will be able to hunt the incoming tide on the beach, then shift up into the bay and extend your shooting time by several hours.
As far as I am concerned, many of the real jewels of tidewater hunting, however, are neither open beaches nor large bays. They are, rather, the small pockets of brackish water that form behind sand spits or off the deltas of creeks. Tidewater sloughs are also a favorite resting and feeding habitat for puddle ducks and bufflehead. Many of these areas are often not hunted seriously, but may contain several dozen ducks when there is enough water to float the birds. If there is a storm out on the ocean, these "pocket water" coves and lagoons can swell with ducks and provide superb hunting.
A slough winds through a large salt marsh adjacent to one of my favorite beaches. It is about 40 feet wide at its mouth and about half that in its upper reaches. At low tide, the slough is virtually dry - an impassable morass of sticky mud and muck. However, as soon as the tide floods it with three or four feet of water, the ducks begin to appear. Some of them fly in, but the majority simply float in on the tide from the mouth. Because it takes longer for the slough to fill and drain than the adjacent beach, it is always slightly "off" the tide phase.
I have studied this slough extensively, and it won't usually have enough water to attract ducks until two or three hours after high tide. But it will hold water for several hours longer than the beach. As on the large bays, this delay after high tide on the beach gives you additional shooting time after the action on the beach has screeched to a halt.
Obviously, the relatively confined nature of sloughs and lagoons and coves require slightly different hunting techniques than larger water. Large permanent blinds are overkill in areas that only contain ducks a few hours a day, and most hunters confine themselves to rough assemblages of driftwood and beach debris, usually enhanced with camouflage netting.
Since many of these coastal indentations are not large enough for watercraft and are too soggy for safe wading, much of the action takes place adjacent to the water. I like to spread a half-dozen or a dozen mallard decoys along the saltgrass and pickleweed adjacent to the water. This is especially productive during the extreme high tides of December and January, because sloughs and small bays often overflow their banks then. I have often pulled in pintails and mallards flying toward the slough that flared into my decoys when they saw them bobbing in a couple of inches of water above the grass.
If you know what you are doing, the larger sloughs and lagoons can also be a great place to hunt in a marsh boat, a craft shaped like a flattened kayak. These boats are extraordinarily stable and float like corks. The smaller models, those 10 feet long or less, only weigh about 60 pounds. This makes them light enough to carry, along with decoys and other gear, a few hundred yards without much strain. There is also room for a well-trained retriever, although some hunters prefer to have the dog heel beside the craft.
Marsh boats give waterfowlers access to the heads of small estuaries and coves, which can often be reached by vehicle but that don't usually have formal boat launches. In some areas, it is also possible to float a creek downstream from a bridge to the upper end of a slough or estuary, then row back upstream as the tide rises. The great advantage of marsh boats is that they let you get in position at low tide, to spread out your decoys and camouflage the boat before the birds fly in on the rising tide.
LOW TIDE OPPORTUNITY
Obviously, loafing ducks are difficult to decoy, regardless of how handy you are with a duck call. In areas where there is public land upland of the intertidal zone, however, hunters can enjoy excellent jump shooting for these birds. This is, however, a demanding hunting method.
The footing in salt marshes usually ranges from dicey to treacherous to impossible. While retrievers are absolutely necessary to retrieve ducks in a wetland's myriad hiding places, the dogs must be absolutely steady to "heel" and "whoa" commands. The shooting tends to occur all at once, with the entire group of ducks rising more or less in unison. As a result, shots are usually very close. On more than one occasion I have completely missed mallards because my pattern was still tightly grouped as it sailed past the birds. If you regularly jump birds, consider smaller shot with tighter patterns.
In my experience, the best low tide jump-shooting for resting birds occurs in marshes that are divided by networks of small "blind" sloughs. Usually only a yard or so wide and seldom too wide to jump across, at least for a dog, these are the uptide capillaries of the sloughs. As a result, they drain much more slowly than the large sloughs, and they hold water longer. Mallards and teal, especially, are aware of this, and birds that want to continue feeding will often drop into them. The footing adjacent to these smaller bites and cuts is also usually firmer, and it is possible to walk parallel to them relatively easily. When heavy wind and rain make their usual low tide loafing areas uncomfortable, puddle ducks also will seek shelter in the cuts. This is the time to approach the birds from downwind - slowly, and with your dog at heel.
Finally, anyone who has spent much time around West Coast tidewater knows that there can be a profound difference between one high tide and another. During December and January, in particular, when the tidal exchange is influenced by the lunar alignment associated with the winter solstice, the difference between high and low tide can be extreme. Additionally, there are "spring tides" each month, during which more water is moved, and "neap tides," where the difference between high and low tide is more modest. A December spring tide will be one of the biggest tides of the year. If it happens to occur during a low pressure system, which also allows tidewater to move more easily, be prepared! Several days each winter I have to abandon my beach blinds well before high water, because of larger-than-predicted tides.
Fortunately, large tidal exchanges often have the same effect on ducks as storms. They make the birds nervous, and they often fly about restlessly, looking for calmer settings. If you have taken the time to scout the flight patterns of the ducks, you can often enjoy excellent pass-shooting. If these extreme tides coincide with stormy weather, you may experience hunting that you remember for a very long time.
The amount of days and hours we have in duck blinds and marshes are all too short. That's why it is important for West Coast waterfowlers to take advantage of every minute. One of the most productive ways to extend your time in the field is to hunt all around the tidal clock. You have a lot more chance of filling a d
uck strap if you spend more time in the field. Perhaps even better, hunting the low and mid-tides gives you a different perspective, one that lets you hunt an entirely different world.
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