Lower Columbia Waterfowling

Lower Columbia Waterfowling

Refuges along the lower Columbia River aren't the easiest places to hunt. But if it's all about being easy, there wouldn't be any duck hunters. Check out these tips from local experts. (December 2009)

Along the West Coast there is a complex of waterfowl habitats that is extremely important to the West Coast Flyway. It stretches from Willapa Bay in the north to Tillamook Bay in the south, and from the mouth of the Columbia River east to the Willamette Valley. At the hub of this wheel is the lower Columbia River, an area known for its incredible duck and goose populations ever since the expedition of Lewis and Clark.

When Lewis and Clark camped here, there was so much racket from the waterfowl that they couldn't sleep. Today's waterfowlers still find good numbers of ducks and geese in the refuge's 35,000 acres.
Photo by Chuck Lobdell.

When Lewis and Clark camped on Sauvie Island, they found it difficult to sleep because of the racket made by thousands of ducks and geese.

Much has changed since that time, and a lot of the original habitat has been drained or plowed over. Lucky for today's waterfowlers, there is a complex of refuge areas along this reach of the big river, refuges that were set aside by forward-thinking individuals and conservation groups that did not want to see the big flocks of birds pass into history.

Today, duck and goose hunters can choose between the many state and federal refuges from Portland to Astoria, refuges that offer excellent gunning for geese, puddle ducks, divers and sea ducks.

Hunters like you could hunt from the bank or a boat, and target huge, open expanses along the river shoreline near the pothole-sized marshes.

You could choose the easier hunts of the flooded agricultural fields or take on the Columbia estuary, one of the most difficult and rewarding spots to hunt waterfowl in North America.

In addition to the refuges, there are other public options, such as state lands and public corridors adjacent to these refuges. These spots, like Vancouver Lake in Washington and Scappoose Bay in Oregon, add even more opportunities for gunners to bag a limit of birds along the lower river.

The late season is often the best time to hunt the Columbia as big, fat birds that nest in Canada and Alaska are forced south by winter storms. It is a time of year when a lack of water is rarely a problem, when areas that are dry the rest of the year provide food and cover to the migrating birds. Do a little homework, time your hunt correctly, and you could see hunting action that is unrivalled.

So, oil up your guns, load them with steel or tungsten shot, and practice your calling, because it's time to hit these hotspots for some great late-season action.

These two refuges, which are both administered from the same headquarters, make up the biggest public-hunting area along the lower river. Except for a small amount of shore access at the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge, this is boat-hunting country. In fact, the only way to access the islands within Lewis and Clark is by boat.

There are more than 35,000 acres and more than 20 islands within the Lewis and Clark Refuge. Both the Lewis and Clark, and Julia Butler Hansen refuges stretch from the town of Cathlamet west to Tongue Point.

This vast area winters huge flocks of waterfowl. But it's also dangerous to hunt and should not be taken lightly by novices.

"It is one of the most difficult places I've ever hunted on this continent," said Chuck Lobdell, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited. He has been hunting the Lewis and Clark Refuge for more than 15 years. "The tide changes can be as much as 8 to 10 feet, and there are a lot of hidden hazards."

Still, there is a reason hunters like this refuge. There can be more than 50,000 ducks wintering here at any time. If you work it right, the action can be fantastic.

But at times the birds are elsewhere.

"There is an amazing connection between the Columbia estuary, Willapa Bay and Tillamook Bay," said Lobdell. "If there isn't much water in the Columbia, the birds will head north or south to one of the bays."

A lack of water is rarely a problem in December and January, but Lobdell reminds hunters that the area is huge, and it takes weather or drastic tide changes to get the birds moving.

"The area is so big that birds can find an area they like and they will just stay there unless they have to move," he said.

Unlike some of the smaller refuges, the hunting pressure is spread out and that it makes it difficult for hunters to push the birds around.

"It's a weather-dependent hunt," said Lobdell. "And the weather is more severe on big tide exchanges."

For this reason it is important to hunt from the right boat, one that does not draw much water, but can take the rough water of the lower Columbia.

Lobdell hunts from a boat that was designed by East Coast waterfowlers and draws as little as 7 inches of water while providing a solid shooting platform. The low draft is necessary to navigate the sandbars and mud flats of the estuary, places you don't want to get stuck during a dropping tide.

While there are a few puddle ducks around in the late season, most of the take in December and January are divers and sea ducks.

Lobdell anchors up near one of the islands within the flight paths of the ducks and draws them to the gun with big strings of decoys. While he has his favorite areas to hunt, he stresses the importance of keying in on the birds' movements more than picking any single spot and sticking with it.

There are a few geese that use the area, but the goose hunting is better farther up the river, and few hunters target them down here.

Unfortunately, a new brand of hunters has been seen targeting this area lately: hunters who illegally run their boats through the rafts of resting birds to force them to move. This has become an enforcement concern, and hunters who try this risk a ticket from the stepped-up patrols.

It bears repeating that this is not an area for novices, nor is it a good place for first-timers. Go with someone who knows the area before trying to navigate the islands and marshes on your own


The Julia Butler Hansen Refuge is a 6,000-acre area created for the endangered Columbian white-tailed deer but offers hunters some nice opportunities for waterfowl as well.

The area consists of flooded woodlands and pastures, as well as sand flats, islands, sloughs and marshes. Hunting, Price, Tenasillahe and Wallace islands are accessible only by boat. Hunting is permitted along the shoreline on the refuge portion of Hunting and Wallace islands as well.

These two refuges do not require check-ins or permits, and are open every day of the legal waterfowl seasons. These refuges are within the dark goose permit management unit, which requires a special dark goose permit. All dark geese harvested must be taken to a goose check station at the end of the day.

The hunting in these two refuges is not something that hunters can figure out in a short time. For that reason, Lobdell always tells newcomers to plan on spending multiple seasons hunting here if they want to get good at it.

There are boat launches on both sides of the Columbia for hunters wanting access to these two refuges. The Aldrich Point launch on the Oregon side is a good place to put in. On the Washington side there is a good launch at Skamakowa.

For more information, call the area headquarters at (360) 795-3915. Or visit www.fws.gov/lc for the Lewis and Clark Refuge and www.fws.gov/ jbh for Julia Butler Hansen Refuge.

This refuge is farther up the Columbia on the Washington side of the big river near the town of Ridgefield. The refuge contains more than 5,000 acres, mostly floodplain agricultural lands and marshes.

A refuge-issued permit is required for each hunt day, and hunters must check in and out. All hunting on the refuge takes place in the River "S" Unit, which is a complex of small lakes and marshes. Hunters are assigned a blind and must shoot from that location. There is a reservation system for the blinds, but hunters without a reservation still have a chance to hunt. If all the blinds are not filled with reservation hunters, there is a lottery for the leftover blinds. The first lottery is before shooting hours, and there is another lottery at 10 a.m. Hunters must pay a fee of $8 per hunter, or $10 per blind, whichever is greatest. Annual permits are available for $100. The $3 entrance fee is waived for hunters who have a Federal Duck Stamp.

The best blind on the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge for geese is No. 15, a pit blind in an open field.

The most common duck taken on the marsh are shovelers. Some mallards and teal turn up, especially early in the season.

The area is popular with dark goose hunters, and the days that goose hunting is open tend to be crowded. The best blind on the refuge for geese is No. 15, a pit blind in an open field.

According to biologist Eric Anderson of the Fish and Wildlife Service, weather is a big driver during the late season.

"There are a lot of savvy birds around by then," said Anderson. "But stormy weather can reshuffle the deck and keep the birds moving."

He describes Ridgefield as a good hybrid hunt, where gunners can target geese and ducks from the same blind.

There is also a lot of shore hunting available along the Columbia River.

Anderson reminds hunters to avoid sky-busting because it ruins everyone else's hunt. He also asks that hunters wait to shoot and clearly identify their targets.

"Every year we write tickets for overharvest of pintails," he said. "The pintail hens in particular are often mistaken for mallard hens."

The protected dusky Canada geese also use this area heavily, so goose hunters also need to be dead-on in their identification to avoid taking these protected birds.

For more information, call the Ridgefield NWR Hotline at (360) 751-2015, or call the headquarters at (360) 887-4106.

The Shillapoo Wildlife Area and Vancouver Lake are both located just outside of Vancouver, Wash. The wildlife area is a complex of agricultural lands, including fields of barley and corn, pastures, marshes, sloughs, and flooded woodlands within the old Shillapoo Lake Bed. There is no permit or check-in required to hunt either the wildlife area or lake, and they are open every day of the season.

There is good hunting for ducks and geese in the late season, according to area manager Brian Caulkins.

"The late season is usually some of the best hunting all year," said Caulkins. "There are a lot of mallards, but there are a lot of pintails, too, so be careful and know what you're shooting."

The area also has many shovelers, which sometimes make up about a third of the bag.

It's popular with goose hunters. When dark goose season is open, you'll find more hunters in the marsh.

"There are geese elsewhere, but the North Unit is always the best," said Caulkins.

The area is within the special dark goose permit area, and hunters need to be careful not to take any dusky Canada geese.

Caulkins warns waterfowlers that the wildlife area is stocked with pheasants twice a week, and the birds attract many upland hunters.

"There are a lot of guys out there with orange vests until that season ends," said Caulkins. "That's one of the reasons the hunting is better in the late season."

Hunters who target Vancouver Lake also need to remember that there is a park near the west side of the lake, and houses along the north side. The best hunting is near the island and Mulligan Slough.

For more information, call (360) 906-6725, or online at http://wdfw. wa.gov/lands/wildlife_areas/shillapo.

Sauvie Island is located just north of Portland, and is the most popular public refuge along the lower Columbia. For that reason most of the hunting units are managed by a reservations system or by lottery, and hunters must have permits in three of the areas units. Hunting is allowed on an every-other-day rotation in all the units except the North Unit.

The eastside units are mostly flooded agricultural fields and offer good hunting all season. The westside units are mostly flooded pasture lands and marshy ponds, and the hunters there often take as many birds as hunters in the east units.

The Oak Island Unit is the only unit where geese may be taken. There you'll find fields and wooded groves. The North Unit is mostly pasture lands s

prinkled with lakes and sloughs. This unit provides some excellent jump-hunting opportunities during the late season.

This refuge is big enough that most new hunters should plan on spending the first year learning the hunting and the regulations, and expect to do much better in their second season.

For more information, call (503) 621-3488, or visit www.dfw.state.or. us/resources/visitors/sauvie_island_ wildlife_area.asp.

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