Getting The Jump On Mallards
September 29, 2010
Don't have a dog or a truckload of decoys? Grab a canoe or drift boat and jump-shoot these six rivers in Washington and Oregon. (November 2007)
A quiet, low-profile craft like a canoe is your best choice on streams and calmer rivers.
Photo courtesy of Gary Lewis.
The canoe sliced through the water. The only sound was from the droplets running from the blades of our paddles back into the river. Hunting buddy Ron Burns was in the stern. I was in the bow, shotgun at the ready.
We rounded the first upstream bend, hugging the left bank, our eyes focused on the next corner. But we didn't see the ducks that paddled nervously against the grassy bank to our right. They flushed wild, well ahead of us, far beyond the reach of my shotgun. We pushed on against the current, and promised ourselves we wouldn't miss the next ones.
Then, as we rounded a sharp bend, we spied two ducks on the water just ahead, close to the muddy point.
I set my paddle behind me and lifted my Remington 1100 to my shoulder. Burns kept paddling, closing the distance. The ducks streamed out ahead. I determined to take the one on the left first.
When they flushed, I led the bird and squeezed, registering the hit.
Swinging to take the other bird, I missed, and then watched it flare and climb above the trees.
We retrieved the first bird, admiring it for a moment before putting paddles to the water again. With this first success under our belts, we pushed ahead, communicating in whispers, careful to keep our paddles from striking the side of the boat.
Rounding a sandbar, hugging the right bank, I spotted ducks again. Five mallards paddled away from the tall grass, cutting Vs in the mirror surface of the river. With strong strokes, we closed the distance, and I put my paddle behind.
Burns kept paddling with quiet, even strokes, and I picked my target -- a drake, second in from the left.
Keeping the safety on, I waited for the flush.
They erupted from the surface in a spray of foam. I led the drake, feeling the recoil in my shoulder, watching four ducks continue on where there had been five.
Most hunters turn to moving water when nearby lakes and ponds are frozen over. But from October to January, in fair weather or foul, any waterfowler can find good sport on one of several rivers in Oregon and Washington.
It gathers water from the Cascade Crest above Snoqualmie Pass, and collects in Keechelus Reservoir. Then the Yakima River flows south and east to its junction with the Columbia River, 215 river miles away. Between Union Gap and Mabton, the river serves as one of the boundaries of the Yakama Indian Reservation.
The Roza Dam north of Selah divides the upper from the lower river. Ducks use the whole river below Keechelus Reservoir. But the best hunting is in the slower water, closer to the confluence with the Columbia.
Mike Franklin of Pacific Wings Waterfowl Adventures got his start as an outfitter on the lower Yakima, back in the mid-1980s.
He built a 2,054-acre ranch on the Yakima River.
"We put 82 hunters on it at one time, and everybody shot their limits of birds two days in a row," said Franklin. "We used to shoot from 5,000 to 8,000 ducks a year. Most of them were mallards."
Today, Franklin guides his hunters on dozens of flooded farm ponds close to the river.
Those properties, and others like them, are magnets for waterfowl using the Yakima and the Columbia as stopovers on their fall migration. And that's what makes the lower Yakima a drift-boat duck-hunting destination.
According to Franklin, "There are several spots where you can put in a boat off of Snively Road, which is off of the Twin Bridges Road. There's been a launch there since at least 1986, and it has been improved in recent years."
Downstream, the drifting hunter will find an island that "always has good numbers of ducks and geese."
Below that, there's another seven-mile stretch of river that can produce good duck hunting. Because the Yakima is a navigable river, you can hunt the islands and shorelines up to the high-water mark.
For information about guides and outfitters, other recreation opportunities and lodging along the lower river, contact the Tri-Cities Visitor and Convention Bureau at www.VisitTtri-Cities.com, or call them at 1-800-254-5824. Or check out Franklin's Web site, www.pacific-wings.net.
Interstate 5 crosses the Skagit River north of the city of Mount Vernon. Here, the river takes a couple of sweeping bends to the south and straightens out at Skagit City to break into the North and South Forks and a series of sloughs before it empties into Skagit Bay.
Mallards make good use of the Skagit for much of its length, but for the waterfowler, the midriver and lower reaches are the most important.
Roads parallel most of the lower river and its forks. There are two launches on the South Skagit Highway, east of Sedro Woolley. On the north side of the river, there is a launch at Burlington. A launch at the end of Penn Road on the west bank provides quick access to the North Fork or South Fork. There are ramps on both forks and on Fir Island.
John Koenig of the Rockport-based John's Guide Service spends a lot of time each fall with clients on cast-and-blast trips for silver salmon and mallards. And there are a lot of birds.
Koenig recommends the lower river for duck hunters who left their fishing rods at home. "If I'm headed after silver salmon and want to hunt ducks at the same time, I head upriver," he said.
Koenig, who hunts and fishes out of a 22-foot Bolton sled, focuses on the river from Sedro Woolley upstream. "Windy days and foggy days are best," he said. "The weather keeps the birds flying low."
Blake's RV Park and Marina is located on Fir Island, about a mile and a half from the mouth of the North Fork. Manager Bob Gee sees many of the same peop
le year after year, returning to hunt ducks in the river and sloughs.
Gee said the best bet is to bring a 15- to 20-foot flatbottom boat and outboard motor to negotiate in this tide-influenced section of the river and in the bay.
For Skagit hunting information, you can reach Koenig via the Web site, www.johns-guide-service.com, and Gee at www.blakesRVpark.com.
From the air, it's easy to see why the Chehalis is important to waterfowl. This is Grays Harbor County's largest river, and it is collects the water of close to 1,400 rivers and creeks on its way to Grays Harbor and the sea.
Prone to flooding, the Chehalis has left on private land a number of sloughs and potholes that hold ducks throughout the season. These birds move back and forth from the river to the standing water.
Roads provide easy access to most of the Chehalis. Plenty of boat launches make put-in and take-out easy. Some ramps are bank skids, and others are more modern.
In the Oakville Reach, the river is characterized by riffles and pools. Downstream from Elma, the river is subject to tides.
Some of the better-known launches are at Cedarville, Porter, Fuller, South Montesano at the Highway 107 bridge, Cosmpopolis and at the Highway 101 bridge at Aberdeen.
While a drift-boat makes the most sense on the upper river, a rowboat or canoe might be a better choice on the lower runs.
Keep a close watch as you round each bend. Birds can hide in brush along the banks and break from cover after your boat has drifted past.
From its headwaters to the mouth, a hunter may find mallards anywhere between the banks of the Deschutes River. In the upper section are long sections of water that are perfect for the duck hunter. Below Wickiup Reservoir, the Tenino boat ramp provides access to several miles of river down to Pringle Falls.
Between Tetherow boat ramp and Sunriver, there are nice bends in the river and productive backwaters. But there are also some houses along the river, and it's best to unload your gun in the residential environs. From the last house below Sunriver, there is good duck hunting down to the boat ramp above Benham Falls.
Mallards make good use of the lower Deschutes too. Here, a drift-boat provides the best stability, while a framed raft is more forgiving in the rapids. From the ramp at Warm Springs down to the lower reservation boundary below White Horse rapids, the west bank of the river is Indian land and is off-limits.
Tim Curry of Bend's Cast and Blast Outfitters spends a lot of time on the lower Deschutes during steelhead season -- which, he pointed out, coincides nicely with the mallard migration. Curry suggests carrying a fishing rod alongside the shotgun.
"It makes for a nice trip," he said, "because if you have trouble finding the fish, there's always a chance that there'll be ducks around the next corner. And the duck hunting, on any given day could be fantastic."
Below Maupin, drive the east bank of the river to put-ins below Sherar's Falls. From Mack's Canyon to Burns, the river is remote, with no additional boat ramps. If you like to combine your casting with blasting, then plan for three days on the river.
All boating in the lower river requires a boater's pass, available at www.boaterpass.com and most local tackle shops. The lower Deschutes is best boated by experts. If you're new to the river, run it with someone else before tackling it on your own.
For more information, get hold of Curry through his Web site, at www.castandblastoutfitters.net.
The lower Umpqua is another major mallard layover. Miles of meandering, from Roseburg west to Winchester Bay, provide lots of room for flocks of ducks to drop in on their way south. To intercept them, hunters can take Highway 138, which follows the Umpqua down to Elkton and the junction with Highway 38 that leads down to the ocean.
Above the tidewater influence, a drift-boat is your best bet. The Umpqua is characterized by deep channels and sharp rock ledges. But the lower river is easily run by the drift-boater with a little experience on the sticks.
Plan a short run from James Wood down to Osprey, or add some river miles by taking out at Yellow Creek. The next boat ramps are Sawyer's Rapids and Scott Creek. Reach of tide is found below Scottsburg Park.
The best duck hunting is in the tidewater area, according to Jody Smith of Jody Smith Guide Service.
"Mallards, pintail and widgeons really move a lot with the tide," Smith said. "When high tide comes in over the grass, the water floats the seeds." And the birds drop in for the easy eats.
Smith likes to drift the river for birds that he can find along the way, but he carries a few decoys with him when hunting the tidewater.
"Early in the season, the birds will come into a spread of a half-dozen decoys," he said. "Windy days are the best, to put a little motion in the spread" -- and to keep the birds flying within shotgun range.
"A lot of times, we do a combination steelhead-waterfowl trip," Smith said. "When you spot ducks ahead of you, one guy jumps out, and then the rest of the group floats by on the far shore. The ducks almost always seem to fly up the opposite side of the river that the boat is on."
If you drift the Umpqua for ducks, bring your fishing rods. This is one of the Northwest's premier salmon and steelhead rivers. Drift it in November, and there'll be fall chinook and coho in the deep water.
Get in contact with Smith at www.jodysmithguideservice.com.
Pudding and Molalla Rivers
The slow-moving Pudding River winds through private farmland in the heart of some of the Willamette Valley's most productive waterfowl habitat. Easily floatable from put-in points at bridges near Woodburn and Aurora, its sloughs and eddies can be loaded with ducks.
A drift-boat can be employed when the water is high, but a canoe or a rowboat is a better choice.
Local waterfowlers have been basing hunts out of the Pudding for decades. It's not uncommon to drift around a bend and into a small spread of decoys. If they stay in one place, they're probably plastic. Smile and keep drifting.
The jump-shooter and the decoy hunter have a symbiotic relationship. In a few minutes, you'll be flushing duc
ks that will drop into their dekes.
The nearby Molalla River, of which the Pudding is a tributary, is a completely different stream. Flowing down out of the high country from the Table Rock Wilderness, it's fast-running and shallow.
JUMP-SHOOTING SAFETY TIPS
'¢ Load one gun. There's room for only one loaded gun in any boat or canoe. The person in the rear seat is responsible for steering and keeping balance while the hunter shoots.
Also, there could be fishermen, hikers, or other hunters on the bank. Be mindful of the direction the birds are taking before you fire.
'¢ Keep your gear near. Wear a lifejacket and bring waterproof matches or a lighter to start a fire. Watch for underwater snags, and be careful climbing in and out of your boat. The water is cold in November. After an unplanned swim, a person's body temperature can plummet and bring on hypothermia.
FOR YOUR INFORMATION
To order a signed copy of Hunting Oregon, send $19.50 (includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709.