A light breeze masks your approach as your partner steers the canoe into a bend in the river. Three wood ducks swim out from the cover of a shoreline alder and blast skyward, the hen squealing as she flies. You swing on the nearest drake and drop him neatly into an eddy, where he paddles air with his last few feeble kicks, while the other birds head downriver.
“We’ll get another crack at them,” your partner says. “If they were mallards, they’d be long gone.”
Sitting in a blind in a cattail marsh can be a productive way to hunt ducks when they are flying and responding to decoys. On mild, bluebird days, however, you’ll often see and bag more ducks by floating a small river.
In float-hunting, also known as jump shooting, you flush ducks from resting cover instead of trying to decoy them or pass-shoot them as they fly from one area to another. Choose a short, flat-bottomed canoe, skiff or kayak that one person can paddle and maneuver without a lot of effort. The boat should be painted a flat green, brown or camouflage color. Paddles should also be dulled or camouflaged, as paddle flash can spook ducks from a long distance.
You can float-hunt alone, but it’s more fun with a partner. The paddler sits in the stern and keeps the boat moving as quietly as possible. The gunner sits in the bow and shoots ducks that flush and fly within a 90-degree arc ahead of him, never to the side or behind, to avoid endangering the paddler or upsetting the boat. Never paddle with two loaded guns, as shooting from the stern can endanger the bow partner or seriously damage his hearing.
Trade positions at agreed-on intervals: every half-hour or when the shooter bags a duck or misses a shot. This keeps the game interesting and gives both hunters a fair chance at the fun.
Choose a narrow, meandering river that flows through a marsh, timbered lowland or farm country. The closer to food, the more ducks a river will attract. Avoid swift, rocky streams. They are difficult for one paddler to negotiate, and they hold fewer ducks. Ducks usually hang out on mud flats, in the backwaters of sharp bends, under overhanging alder or willow brush and in sloughs adjacent to the stream.
Most of the ducks you see will be puddle ducks: mallards, teal and the like. On woodland streams, wood ducks are common. You’ll see an occasional diver and sometimes Canada geese. If the river flows through a marsh, you might also get shooting at snipe. An added bonus is the chance to see other wildlife, usually very surprised to see you. I’ve paddled right up on deer, otters, coyotes, muskrats, mink and a variety of raptors.
Unlike hunting from a blind, where you need to set up before daylight, float-hunting works any time of day. If other hunters are shooting on a nearby marsh, ducks often seek refuge on a quiet stream. Cloudy days are best, as you won’t have the sun in your eyes when the stream bends toward it, but float-hunting can also be productive on sunny days, when ducks would rather loaf than fly.
Keep gear and weight to a minimum for easier paddling. Take one gun, unless fit, style or gauge is an issue. One box of shells should be enough, since most shots will come at close range. I shoot a 20-gauge over/under. For ammo, I like 3-inch Bismuth 5s. A short-barreled pump or autoloader in 12- or 20-gauge would be another good choice. Take a lunch, two personal floatation devices (plus a throwable PFD, if your boat is 16 feet or longer) and a pair of waders in case you need to step out to retrieve a duck or pull the boat over a log.
Any craft is easier to control if you keep it moving a little faster than the current. Hug the shoreline as much as possible to avoid spooking birds that are out of range. When rounding a bend, the paddler should swing the bow quickly downstream to give the gunner a good chance for a shot.
If you don’t have a partner, it is possible to jump shoot solo. Watching trick shooter John Satterwhite many years ago, I reasoned that if he had time to throw a stack of five clays, pick up a pump-gun and break all five before they hit the ground, I could drop a paddle, pick a gun off my lap and shoot a single duck before it got out of range. To my surprise, I killed the first nine ducks I shot at.
You’ll need a fast-pointing gun that fits well, but that’s a given for any successful wingshooting. Bring two paddles and sit with your gun balanced in your lap. When a duck flushes, just drop the paddle and grab your gun. After the shot, pick up the second paddle, retrieve the duck, then go back and retrieve the first paddle. It may take a little practice, but when you get the hang of it, you’ll find you have plenty of time. In fact, shooting this way improved my score because I shot more deliberately, rather than rushing my shots.
Shooting from a sitting position takes some practice. Learn to swing from the waist, since you can’t move your hips. A right-handed shooter should face about 30 degrees to the right; a lefty, about the same to the left. When ducks flush, the paddler should steer the boat to keep the birds over the shooter’s opposite shoulder, if possible.
A river with an occasional slough or oxbow can offer phenomenal action, provided you can navigate the dead water quietly. Paddle or pole to the very end of a slough, as ducks might swim into a cul-de-sac and flush only when they discover they are cornered.
Mallards often bunch up as they hear danger approach and flush in a tight group when they see it. Let them get airborne and then pick out a drake if you can. You’ll bag more ducks if you make it a habit to shoot at only one and make sure you down it, rather than blast away at a flock.
Try to drop ducks over water. Dead or crippled ducks are hard to find in marsh grass and brush. Shoot cripples immediately, as they can dive and disappear in a flash. If you have a well-trained retriever that will sit quietly in a boat, take it along. Most dogs, though, are 50 pounds of excess baggage on a float trip. At worst, they’ll eat your lunch and tip you over.
Pack along three or four mallard decoys in case you jump ducks from a slough and don’t get a shot. Tie the boat a bend or two downstream, toss out the blocks where you jumped the ducks and hide in the brush for a half-hour or so. Jumped mallards often return if they haven’t been shot at. Forget it if you shot at them or if you’re seeing plenty of ducks.
Numerous rivers offer miles of good float-hunting. Pick one with the right characteristics, and you’ll have a good chance for lots of action. Pick the wrong one, and you’ll be as frustrated as a marsh hunter with a loud-calling, sky-busting hunter crowding his setup.
If a river is too wide or too straight, ducks will see you coming a long way off and flush out of range. If it is too shallow, your boat will drag on rocks and gravel, alerting ducks around the bend, or stick in the mud and require you to keep pushing it to move along.
Abundant shoreline brush or grass will help hide your approach. Hug the bank on straight stretches and inside bends to give the gunner a better chance at surprising ducks. Deadfalls, alders and other woody shoreline vegetation will hold wood ducks, while mallards and teal usually hang out in bends, on flat muddy points and in backwaters.
Scout a river you plan to hunt a couple of weeks in advance. You’ll see if it holds ducks, and you’ll discover any blowdowns, beaver dams or other obstacles before your hunt.
Topographic maps will help you pick a river and plan a route, as will paddling guide books. Avoid rivers with rapids or those too close to civilization. If a river flows through private land, you’ll need written permission to set foot on the bank, even to retrieve a duck.
Park a second vehicle at the take-out point, unless you can talk someone into dropping you off or picking you up. Don’t try to float more miles than you can cover in a half day, which gives you time to take a lunch break and make a side trip up a slough or two. Watch the weather and carry a lightweight poncho. Paddling for several hours in a cold rain can be uncomfortable and can even lead to hypothermia.
Hunting from a boat with a small motor allows you to use one vehicle. Paddle downstream to hunt, then motor back upstream to your vehicle.
In far northern Wisconsin, I spent many a fall day hunting several branches of the White River in Bayfield County. This river traverses the extensive Bibon Marsh, an area you can spend weeks exploring. In addition to puddle ducks, we shot the occasional wayward bufflehead, ringneck or scaup. Starting one trip on Eighteen Mile Creek, Steve Duren and I noted the water seemed very high. Then we came to a beaver dam across the entire creek and had to drag the canoe the last quarter mile to the main river.
In northwestern Wisconsin, the Clam and Yellow rivers in Burnett County are good choices, as is the upper portion of the Red Cedar River in Dunn County. The sloughs and backwaters of the Chippewa River in Pepin County are also worth floating.
In central Wisconsin, Willow Creek in Waushara County is floatable, although the last time I hunted there, we had to portage around a lot of log jams.
The Fox and Mecan rivers in Marquette County can also offer good hunting. You’ll also find good jump shooting in the ditches and channels of many large marshes, such as Horicon, Eldorado, Grand River and White River.
The creeks and small rivers that feed most flowages are worth exploring. Many of these creeks and rivers offer only a short float, but once you reach the flowage, you can sometimes paddle the edges and sloughs and get shooting.
The simplicity of float-hunting is part of the sport’s appeal. With no special gear, you can often enjoy hunting as good as you’d find in the best blind on a private marsh. To many, though, the best part of a float trip is the variety of the landscape and wildlife presented by every bend of the river. It’s a great way to spend a fall day with a friend.
FLOAT-HUNTING AND THE LAW
The rules for float-hunting or jump shooting are spelled out in the waterfowl hunting regulations pamphlet. It is legal to hunt ducks from a non-motorized boat on narrow streams where shooting from shore to shore is possible. On larger water bodies and marshes, a part of the boat must be located within three feet of any shoreline, including islands, or within three feet of a naturally occurring, unmanipulated growth of vegetation rooted to the navigable waterway’s bed or shoreline. This vegetation, which now includes stumps and trees, must provide at least 50 percent concealment of the hunter and boat from at least one direction. For more information, see pages 8-9 of the 2018 Wisconsin Migratory Bird Hunting Regulations.