Lewis & Clark's Columbia River Ducks

One thing that has remained the same in the 200 years since Lewis and Clark floated the Columbia River is that the lower river remains one of the Pacific Northwest's most attractive waterfowl magnets.

Photo by Cathy & Gordon Illg

By Doug Rose

The members of Lewis and Clark's Voyage of Discovery enjoyed a variety of fish and game during the winter they spent at the mouth of the Columbia River. Well, "enjoy" may not exactly be the right word.

After the bounty of late summer on the mid-Columbia, when Clark described a Deschutes River summer steelhead as the finest fish he had ever eaten, the explorers gradually became tired of the coastal larder. During the long, rainy winter of 1805, Roosevelt elk were the staple of the party's diet, but it was supplemented with clams, sturgeon, smelt, and on one occasion, whale blubber provided by the local Chinook Indians. They liked the smelt but grew weary of the elk, which they ate for days in a row and which they often simply boiled.

Despite their mounting indifference to such a bland winter menu, the crew of the Voyage of Discovery seems to have all but ignored the wealth of waterfowl available at their encampment near present-day Astoria. The vast, sprawling shallow tidewater of the Columbia River estuary is one of the most important migratory stopovers and wintering waterfowl habitats on the West Coast, and it teemed with dozens of species of ducks and geese. Whether is was the relative inadequacy of their early 19th century weaponry or the difficulty of hunting the maze of grassy islands and treacherous open water, there is little evidence that the party made a concerted effort to hunt waterfowl.

"Rained all of the after part of last night; rain continues this morning," Clark wrote in his journal. "I slept but very little last night for the noise kept up during the whole of the night by swans, geese, white and gray brant ducks, etc., on small sand island close under the port side; they were immensely numerous, and their noise horrid . . . "

As the 200th anniversary of Lewis and Clark's winter at Fort Clatsop approaches, much has changed along the lower Columbia. The Columbia River itself is an international shipping corridor today, with dozens of ocean-class ships and barges passing up and down it daily. The vast salmon runs that the Voyage of Discovery marveled at are now largely gone, destroyed by a gauntlet of dams on the upper river, and the river would be all but barren of salmon if it weren't for the output of a score of taxpayer-subsidized fish hatcheries. It is now possible to drive down both shores of the lower river in many places, and cities such as Longview, Astoria and Ilwaco perch along the river's shoreline.

One thing that has remained the same in the 200 years since Lewis and Clark floated it, however, is that the lower Columbia remains one of the Pacific Northwest's most attractive waterfowl magnets. Indeed, upwards of 100,000 ducks and thousands of geese winter along the estuary. These numbers are swollen when storms push birds in from the Pacific Ocean. There are diving ducks such as canvasbacks and bluebills, and rafts of puddlers such as mallards and pintails. Several sub-species of Canada geese also frequent the estuary.

Once you move away from the roads and towns and shipping lanes, moreover, the lower Columbia contains areas that would look familiar to Lewis and Clark. More than 35,000 acres of the tidal marshes, islands, channels and sloughs are protected within the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge.

Contemporary sportsmen and women are far less indifferent to the waterfowl of the region than Lewis and Clark. The myriad habitats, changing tides, and often-violent weather do present a challenge. But when armed with modern watercraft, good maps and navigation equipment, as well as effective decoys and water dogs, modern Oregon and Washington duck and goose hunters can enjoy superb hunting along the lower Columbia. Even better, the region's marshes, islands and guts are relatively lightly hunted compared to many areas, offering waterfowlers an excellent chance for solitude in a setting that is virtually a watery wilderness. And all of this takes place in an area that is nonetheless quite accessible to some of the region's most populous region.

WATERFOWL HERITAGE EXHIBITS


Although outsiders know the lower Columbia River for its salmon, there is a long and illustrious waterfowling tradition in the region.



Immigrant loggers and commercial fishermen of 19th century Astoria often spent their recreation time hunting ducks and geese, and artisans such as Ernest Gustin and Charles Bergman became legendary for their boat building and decoy carving.



The classic Columbia River skiff was between 11 and 13 feet and had around a 45-inch beam. They were double-ended like canoes and had decks fore and aft. These small boats were rowed rather than paddled and often had masts for sails. They were excellent for navigating the grassy islands but could be dangerous when storms blew in from the ocean.



In recent years, the skiffs and decoys have become highly prized collector's items, and are even sold by auction houses such as Sotheby's in New York. The Web site for the Astoria Group (http://64.226.91.112/) has photos of lower Columbia skiffs, decoys and duck hunters.



Waterfowlers can see Columbia River decoys as part of the permanent collection at the Cowlitz County Historical Museum in Kelso, near the upper end of Columbia tidewater. The Cowlitz County museum is on the corner of 4th and Allen, near Interstate 5; call 360-577-3119 for hours and directions and to make sure the decoys are on display.



On the other side of the river, the Columbia River Maritime History Museum in Astoria has an incredible display of pioneer boats and gear; call 503-325-2323 for information. — Doug Rose

 

LOWER COLUMBIA PROFILE

If you look at a map of the lower Columbia River estuary, say the reach downstream of Puget Island and above the Megler/Astoria Bridge, you will notice that it appears much different than the upper reaches of tidewater and the area near the mouth of the river. The cities and towns such as Longview, Rainier, St. Helens and Portland are concentrated upriver, as is the easy roadside access, or near Astoria and Ilwaco. Wat

erfowlers take birds in this area, especially at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Sauvie Island wildlife areas.

The human imprint between upstream of Astoria and downstream of Longview is much less evident, and the river, especially the Oregon side, is characterized by islands, marshes, bars and tidal channels. This is where a contemporary duck or goose hunter can experience the mysteries and abundance much as Lewis and Clark did two centuries ago.

" . . . The high, mountainous country leaves the river on the port side," Lewis and Clark's journals state, "below which the river widens into a kind of bay and is crowded with low island subject to be covered by the tides."

The Lewis and Clark NWR is the waterfowling centerpiece of the estuary. Established in 1972, the 35,000-acre refuge is the largest marsh in western Oregon, and it hosts as many as 50,000 ducks and several thousand Canada geese at any given time during the winter. The refuge contains a handful of major islands, which contain trees such as Sitka spruce and willow, but that are nonetheless still tidally influenced. From east to west, these include Welch, Woody, Horseshoe, Marsh and Karlson islands. There are also dozens of tidal marshes that are basically islands at low tide but are usually submerged at high water. These marshes are typically adjacent to mud flats and sandbars, but are often accessible via deeper channels. The only access to the refuge is by boat, and there are launches from the east at Aldrich Point and the west at the mouth of the John Day River.

Outside of the refuge, hunters on the Washington side of the river can find good numbers of birds on the north shore upstream of Ilwaco. A handful of rough boat launches provide access to Baker Bay, the large backwater between Ilwaco and Chinook. This area, which is accessible off Highway 101 west of the Megler-Astoria Bridge, contains a number of tidal islands and sand bars where birds obtain shelter when storms wrack the ocean.

The north bank of the lower estuary is also one of the few places where shore-bound waterfowlers can find a place to hunt. There are a handful of pull-offs west of Chinook, near the mouth of the Chinook River, and more access is available to the east, on State Route 401 between Megler and Knappton.

DIVERS, DABBLERS & GEESE

A hunter with a boat big enough to range throughout the estuary and three or four dozen decoys of various species can take everything from common goldeneyes and wood ducks to scoters and western Canada geese on the lower Columbia. However, mallards, pintails, widgeon and green-winged teal are the most abundant dabblers.

A few birds are produced locally, especially in the sloughs at the east end of the refuge, but the bulk of the ducks are migratory. Migratory ducks, which follow the coastal bays down from Alaska, usually arrive sometime in mid-November, and they build up through the winter. Once the birds arrive, there are nearly always some birds around, but the best hunting occurs when storms push them in from the ocean. Unlike in eastern Oregon and Washington, where freeze-up pushes the birds south after cold weather arrives, ducks and geese remain in the estuary throughout the season.

Diving ducks spend most of their time along the outside fringes of the estuary. An early pulse of canvasbacks and redheads can show up before the season opens in October and provide shooting until they drift on down the coast. However, most of the divers that will remain in the region don't show up until late October or November.

Canvasbacks, redheads and both species of scaup are the most abundant divers. Sea ducks such as scoters and goldeneyes and bufflehead are also available, and they are most concentrated in the outer fringes of the estuary. Fewer hunters concentrate on geese in lower Columbia tidewater, but they often become a welcome incidental part of the daily bag.

LOWER COLUMBIA STRATEGIES

Hunting the lower Columbia, especially the Lewis and Clark NWR, is not something that should be undertaken casually. You can't simply show up at the refuge gate at daybreak with a dozen decoys and a dog as you can in many upriver areas like Ridgefield or McNary. With the exception of the handful of bank hunting areas, the estuary is strictly a boat hunting operation, and not a punt or johnboat either. You need a saltwater-worthy boat here, something in the 17-plus-foot range.

THINK SAFETY!


A waterfowler can quickly find trouble on the lower Columbia River.



Ebbing tides can strand hunters on mud flats or sand bars. If this happens, the only thing you can do is wait until water floats your boat again — usually four or five hours later.



It is also possible to run aground or get turned around if you aren't paying attention or get caught in fog. When you add in the risks of ocean-generated weather, shipping traffic and hypothermia, the Columbia River estuary becomes a fairly formidable waterfowling proposition.



Preparation is key to coping with these challenges. All boaters should have lengthy anchor lines, back-up oars, navigation charts, a compass and a GPS unit. It is also a good idea to carry first aid gear, extra clothing, 100 feet of rope, food and water. — Doug Rose

 

The vast expanses of water also usually require more extensive decoy spreads, usually as many as 40-plus blocks, and the presence of ebbing and flooding tides makes it necessary for long decoy strings and heavy weights. Anchors for your boat and anchor lines also need to be long and substantial in the Columbia.

The type of decoy you spread depends to a great extent on where you want to hunt. Diving ducks are most often encountered in the western edges of the region, especially after heavy weather on the coast pushes them into the estuary. As is the case elsewhere, divers such as canvasbacks and lesser scaup tend to require more decoys than puddlers, and they are often laid out along points off islands and the channels between the main river and backwaters.

The most dependable hunting, however, usually occurs at the eastern part of the refuge, and this is where puddlers are concentrated. Even the mallards, pintails, and widgeon often require several dozen decoys. Set these stools in the inlets of the islands and along the edges of the marsh where dabblers tip for seeds and grasses.

As for tides, the last couple of hours of an incoming tide tend to be the most productive. The

rising water kicks the birds off resting areas, and it also allows birds to swim up into the shallows and obtain food.



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