December 12, 2011
GLENNS FERRY, Idaho -- Bryce Roberts rammed his jet boat into the corner of what looked like a small island on the Snake River in Idaho.
It was dark, really dark, and we were early. A week before, on opening day, Roberts said the ramp had been packed with hunters and the prime spots went fast, so we made sure to beat the rush. If there was even going to be a rush.
Conditions were not ideal. It had been warm, it was warm and it was going to be warm. Roberts said opening day wasn't bad but most of the ducks being shot were resident ducks. The push from the migration was still a few weeks away.
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"We usually hunt opening day and then come back after Thanksgiving," he said.
For an hour, as we waited for enough light to put out the decoys, we talked about what everybody in Idaho talks about: Boise State football. Roberts is a fan but he was outnumbered by SEC fans, so as soon as the sun started to peak over the horizon, he exited the conversation to start with the decoys.
With a little more light shed on the situation, it was soon clear that the island we had rammed an hour earlier was anything but small. It was at least a quarter-mile long and about 15 yards wide. We'd set up on the southwest corner, with the current moving west to our left.
Behind our island, a 50-foot steep wall of rock and dirt made up the shoreline and extended all the way down the river, making a right-hand bend about a quarter-mile away. The idea is that ducks flying upriver would make that turn in the bend and just continue right down into our decoys.
The day before, we'd spent some time driving over and around the Snake, but to be on it was a different experience entirely. It feels like the Snake was just cut, like a piece of pie, out of the Idaho landscape. It angles down hard from both sides and the rest of the world is functioning 60 feet above.
The ducks didn't seem to mind. Even with the weather as it was, they were all over, finding refuge around the thousands of islands that define the Snake. The trick was getting them to land on the tip of our island and being able to see them when they did.
Birds and snake
Idaho has a little bit of everything.
There's the 14,000-foot Mount Borah in the east and then Lewiston in the northwest, which harbors an ocean-going seaport. There are volcanic leftover "moon" craters covering the southeast part of the state and a handful of healthy national forests in the north.
As Ducks Unlimited put it, the irrigation districts of the Snake River Plain and Great Basin habitats seem a world away from the drainage districts of the Kootenai Valley and Northern Rockies.
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But redheads, mallards, Canada geese, and goldeneye find a place to reproduce in Idaho and plenty of other birds use it as a stop on their journey south. Most of the waterfowl that winter in Idaho are part of the Pacific Flyway, but a few, mainly redheads, make the move south and east through Utah and down the central.
According to a report published by Washington State University, more than 80 percent of the regional wintering habitat for mallard species is in Columbia Plain, which includes almost the entire Snake River. American wigeon, northern pintail, and gadwall species can also be found in high numbers.
The birds are there, but a long drive along the Snake River and a lot of empty ramps would imply that the hunters are not. In a state that is 44th in the nation in terms of population density, it's hard to tell whether an empty ramp is a good or bad sign.
"It's not the best time to go so I don't know how many guys will be out," Roberts said as shooting time approached. "Either way, we should see a decent number of ducks."
On an island
We had only been hunting 15 minutes and already Roberts was making adjustments.
Two groups of ducks had gotten close but not quite committed and it wasn't going to happen again.
Jeff Heaton, who had picked up duck hunting the year before, helped Roberts adjust the decoys, move the boat and set up a new camp 20 yards down river from the original. Roberts and Heaton met in a jet boat club and became friends as Roberts showed Heaton how to hunt waterfowl in Idaho.
It took some adjusting to figure how the ducks were approaching the island and we even let a couple land in the decoys for the sake of information. Eventually, Roberts got the action started with a pintail. Dead as can be, the pintail made a run for it, washing away in the current. Roberts had to jump in the jet boat to make the retrieve.
"Dogs either get swept downriver themselves or wear out chasing a bird so I leave mine at home," Roberts said. "You have to be selective with what you shoot and where."
The decoys were having their own trouble with the current. Roberts had them weighed down with 8-ounce weights (1-pound for the geese), but they too were slowly making their way downriver and had to be adjusted periodically. Between pursuing decoys and chasing down dead birds, there isn't much down time hunting the Snake River.
The four of us were hiding on the edge of the island, which was covered with trees and bushes. It made for great cover, but didn't offer a real clear view of the sky. Ducks were making the bank around the bend on the river just as planned, but they were finishing up all over the place.
A few groups landed behind us in the space between the island and the shoreline and a couple other groups flew past the island and landed on the other end. We'd lose track of ducks and then have them suddenly show up in the decoys.
A couple other times, ducks would work the island in plain view but before they could cup up and commit, the whistle from a nearby train would scare them off.
"You have no idea how many birds' lives that train has saved," Roberts said.
Even with all the distractions and difficulties, the action was steady enough that we had put eight birds in the water by 10:30 a.m. And whether they committed or not, watching ducks take the turn of the river and work the steep banks was enough to entertain.
The only major disappoint of the day came when photographer James Overstreet broke his streak with the Remington Versamax shotgun they loaned us for the trek. He took three highly unsuccessful shots at a greenhead passing overhead. We have video of but it's not fit to air because of his verbalized disappointment.
At around 11 a.m., we packed up the decoys and made the 10-minute ride back to the boat ramp. Groups of ducks were around almost every corner and on every island.
We spooked up a group of about 15 mallards as the jet boat made the last turn toward the ramp we had rushed to earlier that morning, but there was only one other empty trailer sitting in the parking lot.
"The ramp was jam-packed last week," Roberts said. "It's early season for Idaho and you can tell."