River Hunting for Hoosier Late-Season Ducks
October 04, 2010
The Ohio, Wabash and White rivers, plus innumerable smaller riverine settings, provide topnotch waterfowl hunting for those sportsmen in the know. Here's what you need to know!
Photo by Marc Murrell
By Mike Schoonveld
Think of places to hunt waterfowl in Indiana and one's mind wanders to places like Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area (FWA), Mallard Roost, Hovey Lake or any of the private ponds and wetlands that haven't completely disappeared from Indiana's landscape. You probably don't think of the White River, the Tippecanoe, Wabash, Sugar Creek or any of the other waterways great and small that flow through the Hoosier landscape.
There are those waterfowlers who specialize in hunting Indiana's rivers and streams. Perhaps they prefer the kinds of ducks that frequent Indiana's river ways. Perhaps the river is close by and they don't have to burn tanks full of expensive gasoline to access some other hunting area. Perhaps they dislike the antiquated pre-dawn drawing system, which allocates the daily hunts on public areas to a lucky few and sends other hunters home, rejected and dejected.
Any of these are reason enough a few hunters have chosen to veer away from the typical behavior of Indiana waterfowlers. It could also be they like knowing that given a bit of luck and a dose of applied skill, they'll seldom come home empty-handed.
Our state's rivers and streams come in all sizes and most of them will attract some ducks, at least at some time of the year. The size of the flow helps dictate just what sort of hunting is going to be most productive. The simplest is called jump-shooting and is best done on streams ranging from small down to miniscule.
When I walk out of my house to go hunting, I'll go over a short checklist. Hunting license? Check. Gun? Check. Shotgun shells? Check. That's it. Everything else is just fluff. Some of the fluff is almost as essential as a license, gun and shells. Some of the fluff is mostly non-essential, but when it comes to jump-shooting, almost everything else is fluff.
Head for a stream, load the gun and carefully scan upcurrent and down to see if you can spot any ducks. A pair of binoculars might help, but many stream-jumpers consider even that aid to be fluff. The ducks won't be found in the main flow. Check carefully, however, in quiet eddies and just downstream of logjams or similar places where quiet water can be found. That's where the ducks will locate, often tucked up tight to the shore or under some overhanging brush.
Once the quarry is spotted, retreat out of sight, plan a route that will get you in range and start your stalk. Each situation will be different, but if all goes right, the end result is being in range when the ducks notice your approach. As they spring into flight, the shots are often more like shots at woodcock or grouse, so good luck.
Avid jump-shooters learn the locations of many "ducky" areas on the streams they hunt. They know even after bagging the ducks using one of the spots, there's a good chance by the next day or next week another duck or two or even a small flock will move in to take over the location. By knowing several good spots, a hunt is just a matter of moving from one to the next and to the next, until you locate where the ducks are the day of your hunt.
Early in the season, expect the most common stream ducks to be woodies with a sprinkling of mallards or other puddle ducks. By December, mallards and the occasional black duck are going to make up the bulk of the harvest. Not that there is anything wrong with any of these. All are at or near the top of any list of good-to-eat waterfowl.
Earlier, I suggested jump-shooting is best done on streams that range in size from small down to miniscule. It's not that jumping ducks is impossible on large rivers. Ducks certainly use large streams frequently. It seems, however, the number of "ducky"-type spots get farther and farther apart as stream size increases. A small trickle running through a pasture might have the kind of quiet current break ducks prefer every few yards. A bigger flow might have a good area every 100 yards or so. Go still bigger and a hunter on foot can find himself spending the bulk of his day hiking along empty water.
If you want to hunt a medium-sized river, it's time to get a canoe or john- boat. Boaters afloat can still jump- shoot ducks, but far different tactics are needed for success.
It's not a matter of simply hopping in a boat and letting the current drift you downstream to where willing ducks will spring into flight, presenting you with easy shots. That's not going to happen. What might happen is by looking hard, or using binoculars, you'll float downstream and spot loafing ducks either before they spot you or while you are still far enough away they don't feel pressured to leave prematurely.
Once you spot the birds, beach the boat and stalk down the bank as you would if jump-shooting on foot. The boat is simply transportation from one spot to the next and an easy means to retrieve downed ducks once you have enjoyed success.
Just as bank bound jump-shooters need to learn the spots along their route to save time and boost success, boating jump-shooters can do the same thing. By repeatedly floating the same stretch of river, hunters will learn what stretches never have ducks and which areas to scrutinize carefully based on past history. In some cases, it's prudent to beach the boat or canoe and scout known hotspots from the bank.
A fun way to jump loafing ducks is almost as simple as floating downstream close enough to shoot from the boat. Few ducks are going to allow a bare boat or canoe to drift very close, but they just might overlook what they think is merely a floating brushpile or fallen tree. When I was in high school, a friend and I managed to turn an aluminum canoe into what looked to be a floating pile of debris using wire, sticks, burlap strips and natural cover.
We didn't turn the whole boat into a blind; rather, we constructed a screen that draped across the bow. The river we floated was a slow, sluggish stream with lots of logjam "drifts." When we spotted a drift ahead, we'd paddle to keep the bow pointed right at the drift until we were in easy range of any ducks that might be loafing in the slack water on the downstream side. Then the one of us at the bow would trade his paddle for a shotgun and the paddler at the stern would spin the canoe sideways as quickly as possible.
We learned for right-handed shooters, it's simple to shoot from about 90 degrees to the left to straight ahead. It's almost impossible to shoot to the right or overhead. Only the person in the front did any shooting - for safety's sake and because the stern paddler wa
s responsible for putting the canoe in the right position and helping to stabilize the craft as the shooter was swinging his gun.
While true duck hunters don't worry much about hauling out of bed long before dawn, traditional pass- shooting or decoy hunters know the best action can occur in the fleeting minutes just after shooting time arrives.
An early hour alarm clock isn't really necessary if the strategy for the day is jump-shooting. While ducks frequent small and medium-sized streams suitable for jump-shooting during the day, they don't often spend the nights there. When it's time for them to go to roost, they'll choose a large lake or marsh over an isolated small body of water every time.
Late in the year, mallards often feed in harvested grain fields first thing in the morning, then again, just before sundown. It's only during the daylight hours when these ducks seek out the small streams to loaf away the midday hours. Jump-shooters heading out at dawn are too early. The ducks aren't there, yet.
There's no doubt waterfowling is one of the most traditional of all the shooting sports. These traditions date back to the earliest days of our country and include a healthy dose of ducks, dogs and decoys. Many hunters participate as much to relive and carry on those American traditions as they do to bring a few ducks home for dinner. To these traditionalists, the only duck worth shooting is one that has been lured close by a well-placed decoy spread and expert calling.
It's true that smaller-sized streams aren't very friendly to decoy hunting, but there are places on Indiana's large rivers where dekes and dogs and hunting out of stationary blinds works just fine. Late-season hunters, in particular, are likely to be river-gunners. When lakes and marshes freeze as fall turns to winter, the rivers keep on flowing.
Mallards are always reluctant migrators when there are abundant food supplies available and since Indiana sits solidly in the "corn belt," as long as the snow doesn't pile too deep, the waste grain in Indiana corn fields is enough to keep late-season mallards content. Once the marshes and lakes freeze, ducks gravitate to rivers and late-season hunters will adjust their tactics to intercept a few of them.
Indiana's largest streams, such as the Wabash and the White, offer a few suitable places for hunting over decoys regardless of how full the streams are running. Some of Indiana's medium-sized streams, such as Sugar Creek, the Tippecanoe and Elkhart rivers, have a few choice spots as well. Often, however, on both large and medium streams, these locations are few and far between.
The thing to remember, just as when jump-shooting, is to find slack- water areas - although if you want to put out decoys, you'll need more than just a small, quiet eddy. You'll need a relatively large, quiet spot and therein lies the challenge. Look for sandbars, midstream islands or perhaps exceptionally large drifts, which can provide suitable locations. You'll have to do some scouting, but unlike jump-shooters who need to find several locations, you'll only need to locate a few spots and then let your dekes and calls go to work on passing flocks.
The best scenario, the one which river hunters live for, however, isn't to find a few spots that provide a bird or two each time they head out. The prime action occurs when late fall rains come in ample amounts, causing the streams to swell out of their banks.
Three things happen when this occurs. The rivers get bigger. Even small streams become quite large and medium-sized streams become even larger. The more a stream spreads out into surrounding uplands, the more attractive they become to big flocks of late-season mallards and other waterfowl species.
A rain-swollen river inevitably backs into bottomland farm fields and low-lying timber areas. The only thing a late-season mallard enjoys better than a free meal of Indiana corn is a meal of corn it doesn't have to fly off to find. Flooded fields offer a banquet they find hard to resist.
It's also much easier to locate suitable slack-water pools to float decoys. Timbered draws or flooded access creeks can provide these breaks. Once the rivers go out of their banks, it's often more problematic choosing which of many spots to set up than finding any spot at all.
Let the ducks choose the location. Make a scouting run up or down the river and keep an eye out for large concentrations of birds. If time is at a premium, once you locate a group, bust them out of the area and set up as quickly as possible. Some of the birds will inevitably start trickling back over the next few hours and will mistake your dekes for some of their buddies who returned even sooner.
If time allows, however, a better ploy is to mark the spot and come back the following morning under the cover of darkness. Chances are the birds will have gone elsewhere to roost and when they start their morning shuffle, count on the resulting action to be spectacular.
I'm sure there are a few locations around the state that are so reliable that hunters invest in building permanent blinds. Most river hunters, however, recognize the need for mobility. In some cases, including some blind-making material along with guns and gear is all that's required. A machete, some wire and perhaps a camouflage net or two can have a pair of hunters set up nicely in a few minutes. More often, river sportsmen will go with boat blinds.
Factory-built models are available, but many hunters will opt for a trip to a hardware store for some PVC pipe or electrical conduit from which to construct a frame. This frame is easily bolted or clamped onto the gunwale of a boat. Once the hunting location is chosen, burlap or camo tarps stretch across the framework and the boat becomes a floating blind.
Rivers at flood stage are no place to navigate with undersized and underpowered boats. High-sided 16-foot johnboats with reliable 40- to 90-horsepower outboards are standard. Some guys get away with using 18-foot semi-vee fishing boats, again with powerful motors. The boat has to be fast enough to power upstream against a strong current. There are always underwater obstructions and floating debris with which to contend, as well. A strong, stainless steel propeller is almost mandatory.
Access to Indiana's rivers for boaters is always of prime concern. Pick up a copy of the Indiana Fishing Guide, available wherever fishing licenses are sold and look for the listing of Department of Natural Resources boat ramps, or go to www.wildlife.in.gov and click on the "Where to Fish" link.
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