Afloat For Michigan Waterfowl


Change your waterfowling ways this season with a float down one of our state's rivers or streams. (November 2009)


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.

Snow hung heavy on the limbs of trees and the shelf ice along the river crackled as the wake from the canoe pushed against it. Matt was the shooter in the front of the canoe. We hadn't gone too far when I spied a fat drake mallard swimming up ahead. The duck saw us though and flushed wild out of range. Several other groups of mallards chose the same escape route. It was obvious from the drag marks in the snow and the footprints that we weren't the first ones to float the river that day, and the birds were already wise.

I hugged the south shore and quietly stroked the paddle as we neared a maple tree that had fallen into the river. As we got parallel to the tree, we heard the unmistakable gabble of an alerted flock of geese. A dozen Canada geese came busting out from behind the tree running across the water headed downriver. Matt swung on the birds and missed, but his next two shots put two honkers on the water.

Another tributary to the Grand worth checking out is the Maple River system north of Lansing. The Maple River weaves through the Maple River State Game Area and offers a lot of space for float-hunting. The river flows though an expansive marsh just off M-27 that is managed for waterfowl. Birds using the marsh also frequent the river. In recent years, water levels have been a problem, but heavy snows and rains this year have improved water levels.

Some hunters float on the Huron River in the Island Lake Recreation Area off I-96, but you really need to do your homework to find places to hunt in southern Michigan. There are several other recreation areas along the Huron River, but you need to check with the local MDNR office to see if they allow hunting in those areas. Contact the Southeast Michigan Management Unit of the MDNR at (248) 359-9040.

The Kalamazoo River has some float-hunting potential, especially near the Fort Custer Recreation Area west of Battle Creek and downstream of Lake Allegan. Many of the tributaries of the St. Joe also have float-hunting opportunities, but they largely run through private lands, so securing permission is necessary.

The Cass River in Michigan's "thumb" runs through the Vassar, Tuscola, Sanilac and Cass City state game areas, so public access is not a problem for waterfowlers. The Cass bends sinuously through woods and farmlands, which attracts late-season ducks and geese. The Cass River flows through Sanilac and Tuscola counties. The proximity to Saginaw Bay and the managed areas there means a steady supply of waterfowl that use the river. For information on float-hunting opportunities on the Cass River, contact the MDNR's Cass City Field Office at (989) 872-5300.

"There are a number of rivers that run through public land that provide good float-hunting opportunities in northern Michigan," said Larry Visser, wildlife biologist at the Northwestern Management Unit. "One that comes to mind would be the upper Muskegon River. It has the type of habitat that would be ideal for ducks, and it runs though a lot of public lands in the Pere Marquette Forest."

After coming out of Houghton Lake, the Muskegon River forms the Dead Stream Flooding, which is a popular early-season venue for waterfowlers. From there, it meanders through Roscommon, Missaukee and Clare counties, where float-hunters should find some good sport. Visser said that the upper Muskegon offers a slower current, meandering river channel and the type of habitat that ducks love.

Another river that Visser said is a good one for float-hunting is the Big Manistee. The Manistee flows though plenty of state and federal lands as it courses through Kalkaska, Missaukee and Wexford counties. Being that it's a little faster, the Manistee stays open until the waterfowl season closes. There are plenty of backwater eddies, islands and slack water where waterfowl can rest and feed. The river can provide some exciting shooting for mallards and black ducks right up to the end. The lower Manistee also flows though state and federal public lands, and once the local marshes freeze, ducks and geese concentrate on the river upstream of Manistee.

For more information on float-hunting opportunities in northwest Michigan, contact the Northwest Management Unit of the MDNR at (231) 775-9727.

The South Branch of the Au Sable River runs through miles of public land as it traverses the Mason Tract downstream of Roscommon. The river is a favorite with a few serious float-hunters. The South Branch has slow-moving currents, overhanging tag alders and aquatic vegetation that attracts and holds ducks. For information on hunting opportunities in northeast Michigan, contact the MDNR's Northeast Management Unit at (989) 732-3541.

"We just don't get a lot of interest in waterfowling up here," said Terry Minzey, the wildlife biologist who works out of the Eastern U.P. Management Unit's Cusino field office. Places like Potagannissing Bay, Munuscong Bay, Les Cheneaux Islands and St. Martin's Bay are legendary waterfowl destinations for eastern U.P. and downstate hunters. Few hunters take advantage of the float-hunting opportunities across the Big Mac Bridge.

"There aren't a lot of rivers in the eastern U.P. that are conducive to waterfowl hunting," shared Minzey. "One problem we have is water levels. Many years there's not enough water to float a canoe. One place that I hear they do some float-hunting is on the Tahquamenon River between Newberry and Dollarville." One thing about U.P. waterfowling is that it can be short and sweet. Strong fronts often push waterfowl quickly through the U.P., but when it's good, it's very good.

One other potential eastern U.P. venue for float-hunting is the Munuscong River. Be prepared for some rough going, as the river there is full of obstructions, logs and hazards, but good numbers of birds pushed off Munuscong Bay often take refuge there. You're not likely to have much competition.

For information on hunting eastern U.P. locations, contact the Eastern U.P. Management Unit at (906) 293-5131.

One thing the central and western U.P. don't have a shortage of is public land. What they do have a shortage of in the fall is water. If a rainy fall keeps water levels up, you can find some great hunting. "You don't hear of a lot of people float-hunting," said wildlife biologist Craig Albright, who works out of the Escanaba office. "Water levels are usually down in the fall, but where you can find some water, you can probably find some good hunting." Albright suggested checking out the Manistique, Sturgeon and Menominee rivers. "There are some beaver dams on the Sturgeon that you might have to portage around, but those are the types of habitat that also attract ducks," offered Albright. Albright said that all of the rivers traverse lots of state and federal land. Hunting typically remains good up to the firearms deer season in mid-November when things begin to freeze up.

For more information on western U.P. float-hunting, contact the Western U.P. Operations Center at (906) 228-6561.

Float-hunting can be one of the most relaxing and simple ways of waterfowling. Don't miss the boat his season.

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