December 06, 2023
Hunkered down, we peeked over the gunnel at a pair of drake canvasbacks locked on the decoys. Bucking a stiff wind, the two ducks seemed to take forever to get within range, but when they did my buddies were ready. They simultaneously arose and shot. Each dropped a bird.
My friends looked in admiration at the sleek, white ducks cradled in their hands. Water rolled off the drakes' velvety feathers as the coastal rain showed no remorse.
"I'm having this one mounted," said Scott Turner, shotshell product line manager for HEVI-Shot and Federal, with a smile. It was our best canvasback drake of the day ... and our last.
We motored to another spot on the lake, where we filled mixed bag limits of other diving ducks. Then we headed home, as the next day we were hunting puddle ducks in the valley.
Earlier in the week other buddies and I had shot limits of mallards as they spilled into our decoys in a tiny creek. Before that, we had thousands of cacklers funneling into our spread in a green ryegrass field. And the Saturday prior, we had hammered puddle ducks on a nearby river. So goes the life of dedicated waterfowlers in the Pacific Northwest this time of year.
Fowl All Fall … and Winter
I grew up along the banks of Oregon's McKenzie River, hunting waterfowl there as well as on parts of the Willamette River. There are a number of other rivers in Oregon and Washington that I've frequented. Northern California has excellent waterfowl hunting opportunities, too. If you're a serious waterfowler willing to travel, you won't get bored in this part of the country.
Oregon's waterfowl season begins with a September Canada goose hunt. We have three split goose seasons, the last general season in my area running Feb. 10 to March 10. This year the state's general duck season opened on Oct. 14. It will run through Jan. 28 with a brief break in late October or early December, depending on the part of the state.
Many hunters travel to eastern Oregon wetlands in the early season to hunt ducks and geese before freeze-up. There are multiple state wetland areas that allow public hunting. Some blinds are awarded through lottery, others are open to hunt as you please. Competition can be high in public land areas, but keep in mind we're all on the same team seeking the same adventures.
The Pacific Northwest coast has many bays, rivers, inlets, tidal marshes and lakes that offer good puddle duck and diving duck hunting opportunities. Wigeon often gather in big numbers up and down the coastline, starting as early as late August, when their fall migration commences. Sea ducks can even be had in select areas later in the year.
The Columbia River that divides Washington and Oregon has excellent hunting in places, something proficient boat operators will enjoy. Better yet, take a small craft into protected inlets, where the decoying action can be sizzling for both puddle ducks and divers. There are other rivers meandering through parts of the Pacific Northwest that offer good public hunting access. Most folks start early in the morning and set decoys on gravel bar points or in sloughs. Some wait until freeze-up to hit the river when more birds congregate there.
West of the Cascade Range, valley habitats see more ducks and geese overwintering. These birds move around a lot between roosting ponds on refuges and private lands and feeding areas. Both roosting and feeding locales shift, sometimes every few days. Many hunters simply follow the ducks and geese, hunting them on public ground when possible, running traffic on them wherever they can find a place to set up, even knocking on doors in hopes of getting permission to hunt private property. While many landowners get tired of being asked, some are eager to grant permission, especially if inundated with crop-raiding geese later in the season.
Options and Tactics Abound
Before I was old enough to hunt, I was the bird boy. I vividly recall joining Dad and Grandpa in their duck and goose blinds in the 1960s. When I finally turned 12 years old, I couldn't sleep before opening day. I was excited to finally be hunting. I still get that way.
Dad, Grandpa and I went to Oregon's Summer Lake Wildlife Area for my first hunt. The opening-day experience changed my life. Thirty-eight years later, Dad and I took my oldest son there for his first duck hunt. Tradition runs deep at Summer Lake for many families.
Wildlife areas in the Pacific Northwest are hunted by packing decoys on your back or in a decoy cart. Small watercrafts and mountain bikes can also get you to prime hunting locales. The key is figuring out how to best get a big spread of decoys to where you want to hunt, because large spreads often outperform smaller ones of fellow hunters. If you have a good day, it may require multiple trips to haul your gear and birds out.
We've had some great early-season hunts for local ducks and geese by floating rivers in a drift boat and tossing decoys on a point or back in a slough. Don't get too caught up in the decoy craze early in the season. A mix of mallard, pintail, wigeon and green-winged teal decoys is often effective, with a few floating honker and a half-dozen coots or divers helping to attract birds. Early in the season I use my older, beat-up duck decoys and mix up brands to give my spread a realistic look.
Late in the season, I pull out my fully flocked Final Approach mallard decoys and a couple dozen of the brand's Live Floating Wigeon decoys to create life-like spreads that fool wise birds. During this part of the season, the big rivers are best hunted by a sled boat. These boats allow you to find prime places to hunt by watching birds, moving to them and escaping fellow hunters. Motorized boats afford you the opportunity to run up and down rivers, increasing the places you have to hunt, given you're proficient and can safely run these boats in potentially fast-moving water with big rapids. Weekends with freezing weather are tough to beat as the ice forces birds off ponds, and out of grazing areas amid shallow water and flooded fields, and onto rivers. Having fellow hunters on the river to keep birds moving makes late-season weekend action excellent.
Hunting for diving ducks on the coast can also be good on the weekends. Not only will other hunters keep birds moving, but anglers and recreational boaters keep things stirred up. If hunting on a weekday or on a calm day when ducks aren't flying, move to them.
"The biggest game-changer for me was putting three dozen bluebill decoys on a single line so I could quickly move," shares guide Josh Farnsworth.
Farnsworth puts a 5-pound weight at each end of the decoy string, making it easy to gather the decoys and move. I've hunted divers on the coast a lot with Farnsworth, and changing location six to eight times a day is normal. In fact, we credit much of our success to it.
"No matter how good your decoys and cover are, if you're not where these birds want to be, you're not going to pull them into range," Farnsworth confirms.
The western valleys and coastal tide flats are home to some of the best wigeon hunting in North America. Toss in late-season mallards and a growing wood duck population thanks to an insurgence of hazelnut orchards, and you can easily experience seven different hunts a week if you have the tools to do it.
I love decoying wood ducks on secluded creeks and in isolated sloughs, and it can be done with regular success. Six to 12 decoys are all you need, not counting a dog to retrieve the ducks in the thick habitat. Because wood ducks hit the densest cover on the upper sections of sloughs and creeks, I've had my best hunts by getting access to these waters via private land so I can reach them on foot. Boating into these tangled messes can be impossible at times, but walking across a field and through some brush is very doable.
"When hunting hidden pocket water for wood ducks and mallards late in the season, I like to let the numbers build," points out Austin Crowson, one of the most avid and accomplished waterfowl hunters I know. "We might only hunt these spots once or twice a season, but you can bet that when we decide to go in, it's because a lot of ducks are using it and the action will usually be nonstop."
One day late last season Crowson and I hiked into a little creek and set out some woody decoys, but the birds were landing farther back in the trees, in places we didn't think water even existed. The next morning, we took Marsh Rat boats up the slough and walked into where the wood ducks were landing. We found a small pocket open enough to toss some decoys into and stand. The shooting was fast and close, and we even managed some mallards as they corkscrewed into the thick cover.
Select valleys in the Pacific Northwest are known for their goose hunting, be it early-season honkers, mid-season cacklers or late-season snows. All offer good hunting if you're willing to travel and amass the proper decoys, and you aren't afraid to knock on doors.
I live in the Willamette Valley, dubbed the "grass seed capital of the world." This is what attracts most of the Pacific Flyway's population of cackling Canada geese, the minima subspecies. Having more than 20,000 little geese in a single flock, spiraling into your decoy spread, becomes reality. But it's not easy.
"For every day I'm hunting these little geese, I'm spending three days scouting for them," shares Richard Kropf. He is a third-generation grass-seed farmer in the Willamette Valley, and his family leases a lot of land. "I get people from all over the country asking to hunt cacklers with me," Kropf continues, "and though I'd love to take them, you just can't plan a cackler hunt."
That's why very few guides target them. These geese graze on fresh sprouting grass as it pops up in winter. The warmer the weather, the more fields green up, and the more geese spread out and move. You might have five straight days of excellent hunting on five different fields, and then the birds may move to other fields for several days or even weeks. If you don't have permission to hunt these fields, it can be extremely frustrating.
Early in the cackler season, before birds grow educated, we'll run mostly silhouettes. I like spreading them out to make it look like a big flock searching for food from far away. In the middle of the season we'll often run 15 to 20 dozen full-body Dave Smith cackler decoys and 30 or more dozen Big Al's silhouette cackler decoys. When you tightly pack 50 dozen cackler decoys, emulating a grazing flock, it's surprising how small the spread looks. It works if you're on the X, but if you're not, be ready for a long day. These chatterbox geese are hard to traffic into a spread no matter how good it looks. During the late season we run almost all full-body decoys as these birds have seen it all and are very smart.
The Move North
By mid-January, many places west of the Cascade Range see a buildup of ducks and geese as they begin their migration north, back up to the nesting grounds. The return migration isn't like the fall migration where birds may fly thousands of miles nonstop. In winter, birds eat, fly and rest. If they find enough food and the conditions are favorable, they may remain in one area for weeks, even months, before continuing northward. This can make hunting good but challenging as birds are educated.
Late in the season, be it for ducks or geese, quality decoys and perfect cover are important. Last January a man who leases hunting rights on the same property I hunt called me for help. It's nothing more than flooded farm fields from rainwater, but the ducks love eating and resting there late in the season. The man asked me to take a look at his decoy spread. My buddies and I had killed more than 200 ducks from my blind at this point; the gentleman had taken less than 20 all season.
Three hundred yards from the blind I could see his problem. I could see the blind. All of it. Wooden edges, a blocky roof and a big, black hole in front. The decoys were the least of this man's worries. He needed to spend some serious time brushing in his blind.
When the ducks and geese are in the area and their seasons overlap, it's routine for folks in this part of the country to hunt five or more days a week, all in different places, often for different species. Saturday might find you on the river battling it out for public-land ducks. Monday you may be on the coast targeting divers, followed by a cackler hunt in the valley, a wood duck hunt in a creek the next day, a honker hunt on Thursday and a puddle duck mixed bag on Friday. Sunday is often a day of rest, for on Monday the cycle repeats itself. That's why I choose to live where I do.
- Tungsten and steel combine for top performance.
A year ago I tested HEVI-Shot's HEVI-Metal Xtreme on clay pigeons. I missed the first shot then busted 24 clays in a row, and I'm not a clay-bird shooter.
The next day I went duck hunting with the same load, fired eight times and killed seven mallards. From that first box of 25 shells I killed 19 ducks. The next two hunts I fired 15 shots and killed 14 ducks. I take my time when drawing conclusions on gear because I believe in thorough field-testing, but this new load quickly impressed me.
I consider myself a good shot, not great. I was shooting a Browning 20 gauge and was dazzled by the accuracy and lethality of the new HEVI-Metal Xtreme loads, which consist of 70 percent HEVI-Shot precision steel topped with 30 percent original HEVI-Shot tungsten. The tungsten has a density of 12 g/cc, making a No. 6 tungsten pellet weigh very close to a No. 3 precision steel pellet. Optimizing the pattern of these pellets is Federal's FliteControl Flex wad. This rear-braking wad revolutionized my turkey hunting, and I believe it is a big reason for the Xtreme's success.
The payload flies fast (1,350 to 1,450 fps), accurate and tight. It continued to impress me all season on not only puddle ducks, but also a range of diving ducks, including canvasbacks, as well as cacklers. ($58.99 per 25 rounds; hevishot.com)