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M&J Outdoor Communications » Moving Water Mallards


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Moving Water Mallards

The story actually starts the day before the hunt - and I mean in capital letters, THE HUNT - took place. On that particular day in late November, Joe Hassman, a waterfowling cohort of mine, and I had, well before daylight, parked my father’s Ford pickup near the boat ramp at a small city park in my hometown of Newton Falls, Ohio. Within minutes we were launching our borrowed canoe - we borrowed a lot of things back then - at a livery on the Mahoning River a short distance downstream from the dam at Lake Milton . The plan was to float the river, stopping here and there, before picking up in Newton Falls .

We didn’t get far. Not 300 yards from the launch, a flock of 50 or so mallards took flight, startled as we slid the canoe silently around the inside curve of the bend. “Let’s pull over here,” I told Hassman. “We’ll put out a dozen decoys, and see what happens.” Quick to agree, Hassman went to work camouflaging the canoe and building our impromptu hide while I arranged a handful of magnum mallard block in the shallow riffle in front of our position.

The wait wasn’t long. Within minutes, a small group of mixed mallards and black ducks appeared over the oaks lining the opposite side of the river, and, with wings cupped, began to slip-slide into the hole I had just created. Six shots later, I was quickly sloshing my way downstream, trying in vain to catch up with the final bird of the two doubles that had involuntarily stayed behind. “Come on,” shouted Hassman, “we’ll get it with the boat.”

Satisfied that our plan had worked to perfection, we dismantled our blind and shoved off downriver to retrieve our last bird. Comparatively speaking, the rest of the trip was rather uneventful; however, the events of the past hours had sparked an idea.

The next morning found us again at the small livery below the Lake Milton Dam; however, this time we had one fewer truck, and planned only to go as far as the site of the previous day’s hunt. Even in the darkness as we launched the same borrowed canoe, we could hear birds trading back and forth between the open waters of the lake and the countless riffles and pools on the Mahoning downstream. No two people paddled a canoe up to planing speed more quickly than did Hassman and I, eager as we were to see if our choice of stopping points had indeed been a brainstorm worthy of repeating through the ages, or merely a fluke.

We needn’t have worried. Like a carbon copy of the morning before, it took only minutes after legal shooting time arrived for small groups of mallards to begin working our small riffle. With flocks landing both upstream and downstream of our location, as well as in the cut corn stubble in front of and behind us, calling became a somewhat moot point. Nonetheless, and in part in an effort to make the hunt last as long as possible, Hassman and I traded off between shooting and calling, only taking one bird from each flock, and only a drake mallard. Still, it took less than two hours before we again found ourselves at the livery, the bottom of the canoe graced by five drake mallards and one of the most beautiful drake black ducks either of us had ever seen. It had truly been a morning to remember for both of us, a morning made possible due to that fact, as Hassman reminded me several times throughout the day, that moving water means mallards.

Successfully hunting ducks over moving water means recognizing three variables, all three being very important parts of the whole equation. The first of these, and probably the most elemental, is a definition of what constitutes moving water. Without question, this includes any flowing water, the current of which works to prevent or at the very least retard the freezing process. These waters can be as large as the Mississippi or the Missouri rivers, or as small as a creek or stream no more than eight or 10 feet across.

What many people don’t realize when the conversation turns ’round to hunting moving water is that such a category should also include those waters which are tidally influenced. Essentially, this means waters on the Atlantic and the Pacific coasts, or more specifically, waters such as the Lower Columbia River between Washington and Oregon, Washington’s Skagit and Willapa bays, and the famed Chesapeake Bay shared by Maryland and Virginia, as well as the countless tidal marshes and sloughs in the Carolinas, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas. Different in as much as where rivers flow horizontally, tidal areas “flow” in a vertical fashion, and in doing so present an entirely unique set of waterfowl hunting conditions, conditions which can be both very rewarding as well as very frustrating.

When progressing to variable number two, scouting, it’s very important to remember that ducks use specific sections of moving water bodies for specific reasons. Many will be the times when a river or tidal bay will present two seemingly identical situations, the difference being that while one is constantly alive with duck activity, the second shows little or no action. On rivers or streams, this condition is relatively easy to identify and interpret, thanks to the more often than not obvious current. Waterfowl, like fish and people, don’t enjoy fighting a current any more than necessary, and just like a trout or smallmouth will take up a position in a current seam or behind a large boulder that minimizes the flow, so, too, will waterfowl gravitate toward areas of decreased current. In rivers and streams, this means shallow pools, backwaters, or the downstream inside corner of any bend or turn in the river’s course, all of which present possible locations for the placement of a permanent blind, or at the very least areas to be approached cautiously for those floating or walking the banks. With tidal situations, waterfowlers need to remember that ducks will naturally fly along the front of the incoming water on the flow portion of the tide. Too, higher tides, the coming of which can be learned by the use of tide tables, mean that water can inundate shoreline grasses and other forage to a greater extent, and this condition will often result in greater numbers of birds leaving offshore loafing and roosting areas and coming inland to take advantage of this twice daily bonanza.

Most moving waters offer waterfowlers a variety of possible hunting methods; however, the three most popular are floating, which includes the use of boat blinds, shooting from permanent blinds, and jump shooting. In most cases, float trips involve a Point A to Point B style of journey, although, some, such as the second-day hunt that Hassman and I enjoyed, was made logistically simpler by the fact that the return portion of the trip involved little more than a short paddle upstream. It’s vital that floaters be as familiar as possible with the stretch of river they plan on hunting, both from a success as well as a safety standpoint. Most late-season float trips are prefaced by a mid-summer trip used to evaluate and scout certain parts of the river, and to identify any potentially hazardous situations.

Some moving waters lend themselves well to the use of permanent blinds. The secret with using this method is indepth scouting. Often, such permanent blinds are built along backwaters or sloughs, or at times on bends, pools, or riffles traditionally favored by both local and migrating birds. As many rivers support only a limited number of such traditional hotspots, these blinds are often jealously guarded, or in many cases are handed down from generation to generation.

Jump shooting is yet another effective method for hunting moving waters. Similar to those gunning from permanent blinds, jump shooters can often take advantage of the birds’ tendency to feed or loaf in specific sections of the river with regularity, and can thereby concentrate their efforts on these more productive areas while bypassing the less productive stretches. One tactic used successfully by jump shooters across the country is to glass a section of river using binoculars. Once birds have been spotted, a stalk can be planned, thus eliminating the so-called “surprise factor” so common among meetings between jump shooters and waterfowl.

Sidebar - Decoy tactics for moving waters

Using decoys in moving waters can often rank right up there with trying to separate two cheap paper plates in terms of frustration. Every year, waterfowlers across the country lose dozens of decoys when hardware breaks, knots come untied - basically, when a few simple rules and guidelines aren’t followed. True, decoys aren’t nearly as costly as a good duck boat or that new Beretta; still, there’s no need replacing that which doesn’t need replacing.

Moving water and current means more drag on decoys and decoy lines. Therefore, lines should be strong and of the best quality, and knots, whether tied static to the decoy keel or to hardware such as a swivel which is then fastened to the decoy, should be likewise as strong. The knots I use depend upon the type of decoy cord I’m using. With nylon cord, a good, old-fashioned double clinch knot, the same knot I use when I’m fishing, holds well, and as my father is fond of saying, “does nothing but get tighter the more you pull on it.” With the popular Tangle-Free cords, however, I’ll use a circular lead crimp-lock to ensure the cord doesn’t pull free. An alternative to using the crimp-locks with the Tangle-Free cord is to double the cord and pass it through the “eye” of the decoy keel. The loop is then pulled entirely over the decoy and pulled snug. A half-hitch is then tied in the tag end of the cord to prevent the tag end from pulling through, and the excess clipped off. It’s quick, easy, and holds surprisingly well.

Here’s a trick that I use when working with decoys in current. Approximately two inches back from the eye on the decoy keel, drill a 1/8-1/4 inch hole (water keel). Or, if using weighted keels, heat the tips of an ordinary fence staple with a propane torch and push the staple into the keel, again approximately two inches behind the eye. Tying the decoy off to this modified eye makes the decoy “swim” back and forth, with the lengthened leading edge of the keel acting like the lip on a crankbait. Typically, I’ll use three or four of these modified decoys per dozen.

Tidal situations spell an entirely different set of conditions for the decoy user. As tide waters rise, decoy cords that were fine at a foot in length become stretched to their limit. Eventually, the cork with is the decoy lifts both cord and weight from the bottom, leaving the decoy to float about on its own, and, depending upon the wind and where you’re hunting, either out to Europe or China, whichever’s closer. These rising waters, too, mean that decoys must be moved constantly either in or out, depending upon whether you’re hunting the ebb or flow. To remedy this, at least in part, it’s easy to rig several decoys, six to a dozen is common, on one main line with weights at both ends, or, in calm conditions, with a single anchor. Decoys rigged as such can be easily moved in or out as the tide dictates.