Hunters commonly cruise streams when the weather is nice, but float-hunting can be fun and effective when the snow flies too.
The convenience store clerk stood unmoving behind her cash register and stared as we tromped through her door. After a stony few seconds of silence, she shook her head and muttered, "I don't believe what I'm seeing. What time do you want me to call out the rescue squad?"
It wasn't that the kayak-like boats on our trucks were unusual in these parts. The river near this Tennessee town is a mecca for floaters in warmer months. But in the previous few hours a renegade winter storm had dumped 14 inches of snow on the mid-South, and the temperature now hovered at 15° F. The coffee-and-doughnuts clerk thought we were looney to go on the river on a day like this, and I was beginning to agree with her.
But not Peter Mathiesen, a hunting companion who scores high in the gung-ho department. "Great day, great day!" he assured the clerk. "Just right for a little adventure." She rolled her eyes back in silent rebuttal. There was no use arguing with a crazy man.
Pete and I had planned this trip six weeks earlier to accommodate mutually busy work schedules. He'd been promising to demonstrate what he not too kiddingly referred to as "the duck hunting secret of the century."
He'd explained, "Today most hunters crowd in around the refuges and management areas. Somebody's always skyblasting or trying to call ducks away from you. So three years ago I got fed up with all this competition and tried floating streams and jump-shooting ducks, and it worked like magic. Since that first trip, I've always found birds on the smaller rivers and creeks, and I've never seen another hunter."
Pete lives in St. Louis, Missouri, some four highway hours from my Tennessee home. I knew of a nearby river close to a federal refuge that I felt would be a good place for him to demonstrate his technique. We set the date and made plans for Pete to drive to my house the night before our hunt. Then we'd be up and on the water early the next morning for a float that should last until mid-afternoon. All was planned and on track--until Mother Nature set her snowy sights on Dixie.
"Pete, we've got a major winter storm moving in tonight with predictions for a foot or more of snow," I phoned. "Think we'd better cancel and wait for better conditions?"
"This will be my only chance this year," he responded. "If I leave now, I can beat the storm to your house. And don't you have a Jeep? We can four-wheel it to the river in the morning. With all the snow and cold air, the ducks should pile in on it and sit tight. Conditions will be perfect."
I was apprehensive, but his enthusiasm was a strong persuader. "If you get here, we'll go hunting in the morning," I answered resolutely. Five hours later he was on my doorstep.
The snow fell that night in layers instead of flakes. As we slept, it piled up as high as I can ever remember for this part of the country. When the alarm clock beeped at 4 a.m., it was still coming down, and the wind was blowing hard from the north. Still, we were committed to go. We'd tied the boats atop Pete's truck and loaded our gear before going to bed. Now we dressed quickly and started for the river, driving through fresh snow on roads that were all but deserted.
I led the way; Pete followed. I would leave my vehicle at the takeout site. Then I'd hop in with Pete to drive the few additional miles upstream to where we'd launch.
However, our initial priority was a stop at the all-night mart for coffee and country ham biscuits. That's where we encountered the clerk who had expressed her doubts about our sanity.
But we knew the danger we'd face if we turned a boat over in such harsh conditions. Hypothermia poses a deadly peril for float-hunters who get wet unexpectedly, and that's why we'd laid careful plans to avoid such a problem.
First, we'd float in separate boats. It was extremely unlikely that we'd both turn over at the same time. One would be able to help the other if trouble developed. Second, we would be using Poke Boats, small, pointed, fiberglass craft which look like kayaks but are infinitely more stable. And third, both Pete and I would be carrying waterproof canoe bags with complete changes of warm woolen clothes, a quick-fire kit, and copious supplies of candy bars and other high-energy snacks. Indeed, if one of us did go in the drink, it would be a shivering experience, but not one that should cause any more than temporary discomfort.
After leaving the convenience store, I led Pete over a series of backroads to the bridge where our float would end. Daylight was seeping beneath the overcast; the countryside seemed deserted. No humans were stirring. No deer were feeding around the field edges. No crows were flying over the quiet, snow-covered valleys. The only sign of life rose from the chimneys of the houses along the roadsides. Thin plumes of smoke testified that the inhabitants had stoked the morning fire and then crawled back under the covers.
We left my Jeep by the takeout bridge, then continued in Pete's pickup to a ford five miles upstream. Here we pulled on waders and parkas. Next, we untied and lifted the boats off his truck and arranged our guns and gear inside. Besides our emergency clothes bags, we each had four decoys (in case we found a slough where ducks were working), a thermos full of coffee, a standard paddle, and a smaller paddle with the handle cut off.
"Basically, we'll be drifting instead of paddling," Pete explained. "We'll use these cutoff paddles as skullers to keep our boats aligned with the current.
"Now, we'll probably get two types of chances at ducks," he continued. "They may be hiding along the edge of the river, behind logs or drift. We'll never know these ducks are around until they flush.
"Or we might see some swimming ahead of us, out of range. If this happens, just keep still and let the river carry us in their direction. They won't know what we are, and usually they'll swim a few yards and then ease in next to the bank and let us drift close enough for a shot when they jump up."
As we prepared to start our float, an earlier difference of.opinion resurfaced. Pete had had far more experience with the Poke Boat than I, and he maintained that it was stable enough to preclude wearing a life vest. I disagreed. I knew the boat was stable, owing mainly to the paddler's low center of gravity in the water. But this river was deep in places, and I always like to err on the safe side. As we shoved off, Pete wore no life jacket over his camo parka. I had on a vest, zipped up to my chin.
A quarter mile later I recognized the practicality in his decision. The river was calm. The boat was rock-stable, and there was no way I could get my shotgun to my shoulder while wearing the cumbersome vest. I took it off and stuffed it behind my back as a cushion.
(Float-hunters should consider wearing ski belts around their waists. These provide flotation without interfering with your shooting. Also, a flotation parka is ideal for this style of hunting. In any case, I still feel that floaters should wear some type of flotation device to keep them afloat should they turn over their boat.)
Small, rural streams are always columns of quietness, away from roads and people, and today this river was especially hushed. The snow dampened all noises but the wind, which whistled through the sycamore and cottonwood trees lining the banks. The silence was almost foreboding, but it was too late to turn back. Floaters are one-way hunters, and our next stop was the bridge where my Jeep was parked.
Pete led the way. He skulled with his right hand, keeping his boat pointed downstream. In his left arm he cradled his old Ithaca pump, ready for a shot should ducks suddenly flush. Thus situated, he became a log awash on the river, saying nothing, moving very little, focusing all his attention on being prepared for his chance--whenever it should come.
Not knowing how eminent action was, I had trouble concentrating on the right things. I was more alert to the frost forming on my mustache, the ice droplets freezing on the side of my Poke Boat, the surface rivulets made by the current as it washed over some object on the bottom. I was worlds away when the ducks flushed. The explosion of their wings sounded like a tree falling.
There were 30 or more, mallards and black ducks. They'd been resting in an eddy where the current had gouged a hole out of the bank. As they strained for altitude, Pete blotted out the nearest bird's head with his shotgun bead and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, a mallard folded cleanly and splashed back into the water. His second shot missed, and the survivors disappeared over the timber. I stared transfixed during this five-second rush of action, never considering to raise my gun.
Pete retrieved his bird and paddled over for a conference. "See, I told you they'd be here," he laughed. "I always find ducks on the streams--sometimes not many, but you don't need many when you can float in close to 'em and get good shots. Now you take the lead."
Those ducks and the expectancy of others caused me to focus more on hunting and less on my discomforts. I quickly forgot about the cold. I stroked out a few yards lead on Pete with my big paddle, laid it in the Poke Boat, and then began skulling with the sawed-off paddle. The boat responded like a feather whenever I dug water. I kept my pumpgun between my legs with the barrel propped up on the gunwale. If more ducks flushed, I could bring it up fast.
A hundred yards of river bank oozed by, then two hundred. I floated silently and with as little motion as possible. When I came to a bend, I skulled to the inside of the turn and then hugged the bank around it. Pete had warned me that ducks like to hang behind these points where the current passes them by.
After an uneventful half hour, I rounded a bend and spied five mallards loafing in a straight run where the current was slow. They immediately saw Pete and me, but they weren't sure what we were. As my partner had predicted, they turned and started swimming downstream ahead of us.
We moved nothing but our skulling paddles. We angled our Poke Boats cross-current so our bodies would block our sculling movements from the ducks' view. I also slowly scrunched down, drawing my face behind the upturned collar of my camo parka. Now I wished for my turkey hunting face mask. I felt as obvious as a black bear on a big snowfield.
Still, the ducks didn't flush. They continued swimming downstream, and eventually they became more at ease about our presence. As they dawdled, we closed the gap.
After 75 yards of cat-and-mouse, the mallards evidently decided, we were no threat, and they'd let us pass. They swam into a logjam at the side of the river and disappeared. Now Pete and I skulled madly to move into range, which we did before the ducks decided to beat it.
When they finally identified us as humans, they took wing--right into our waiting shot patterns. Pete and I both downed drakes with the first volley. I swung on a second bird, but my shotgun's action was frozen shut, and I couldn't eject the empty. Pete had all the mallards his bag limit would allow, so the remaining three ducks escaped.
When floating a river, individual stretches seem to pass slowly, but the hours and miles mount quickly. I'd thought it was late mid-morning, but when I checked, it was 1:30 p.m.
By now we'd seen three other flights, two of which flushed close enough for shots. I'd downed another drake from one, and we both missed out on the second chance. The birds had stuck tight until we'd floated past them, then they caught us off guard. Neither Pete nor I could turn around quickly enough to pick out a duck other than a mallard.
The third flight had been a gimme. While drifting, Pete and I saw four birds glide down and land on a slough behind an island. One was a big black duck, which would nicely fill out either of our three-bird limits.
After a quick strategy session, we beached our Poke Boats and crawled across the island. The snow muffled our noise, and undergrowth shielded us from the ducks' view. After an easy 10-minute stalk, we could see them just a few yards away, dabbling on the slough. When we stood up, the black duck flushed on my partner's side, and his shot was dead center.
With one duck left to take and the day growing short, I suggested to Pete that we start paddling to get off the river. We weren't familiar with its course, and we could only guess how far we'd come. We certainly didn't want darkness to catch us on the water. So after a quick candy bar and coffee break, we started stroking in earnest, and the scenery began passing at a much faster rate.
The difference our increased speed made was-amazing. We were no longer part of the landscape. We were travelers through it. Instead of hearing the wind, we now heard our heartbeats in our inner ears. Despite the frigid air, I started feeling sweat form under my cap. Throttle down, I warned myself. Don't push it. Pushing on a river in winter is unwise.
An hour-and-a-half later we rounded a bend and saw our takeout bridge stretching from bank to bank. We'd bumped a few more ducks off the water, but I hadn't had another shot. We were tired, and I was glad the hunt was over. It had been an enlightening, exhilarating day, but now it was time to nestle into the warmth of our truck cabs and head home. On the way, we stopped back by the convenience store. The early-hours clerk was gone, but we asked her replacement to tell her we'd made it off the river okay.
The months since this hunt have given me time to reflect on what we did and how other hunters could do likewise. First, the location. The nation's flowing waters hold more ducks than most people realize. Don't expect to see spectacular numbers. Pairs and small flights are the rule. However, Peter Mathiesen says when a hard freeze locks up flooded fields and marshes, ducks can pour onto running waters in big numbers. This was happening the day of our hunt.
Don't float big or fast-running rivers. Slower, smaller, flat-country streams are more attractive to the ducks and less dangerous to hunters. Also, don't try to float-hunt more than three to five miles in a day. We almost bit off more river than we could chew. A five-mile float is plenty to last from early morning to well past noon.
In the boat department, our Poke Boats were perfect for float-hunting. They were lightweight, stable, quiet, and very maneuverable, plus they showed a low profile in the water. They proved extremely effective in getting us close to stream ducks before they flushed. The Poke Boat is made by the Phoenix Poke BoatsŪ, Inc, P.O. Box 209, Berea, KY 40403 (phone (800) 354-0190).
Other boats will suffice in float-hunting. Canoes require teamwork between two hunters: One shoots from the front while the other paddles from the back. But canoes are tippy and shouldn't be considered by hunters who aren't expert in their use. Aluminum johnboats are a poor third choice for float-hunting. These flat bottoms are heavy, noisy, and hard to maneuver, but they will work if no better craft is available.
Safety should be paramount in the minds of all float-hunters. Extra clothing in watertight bags, fire starting kits, and food are essential survival items. Again, life preservers are strongly recommended. Hunters who float frequently would be wise to invest in a camouflage flotation coat.
In the guns and load department, 12 gauges, three-inch shells, and heavy shot sizes are best. Float-hunters need all the firepower they can muster when ducks are climbing over the treetops. Hunters might also stuff a few decoys into their boats if there's a chance they'll find birds working backwaters adjacent to their chosen creek or river. The new styrofoam decoys by Feather Flex weigh nothing and take up little room, two qualities that make them perfect for floaters.
All in all, float-hunting for ducks is a viable option for waterfowlers looking for a change, and the rewards are twofold. First, float-hunters get a crack at birds that others overlook; there's no competition around to spoil the fun. On streams, it's just you and the ducks. And second, float-hunters experience some of the most pristine real estate in the country. Small streams are fountains of beauty and serenity. While on a stream, it's easy for a hunter to immerse himself in the rhythms of nature, to get back to the basics of water and boats and birds. It's all very peaceful--until you drift around a creek bend and ducks explode in your face.
Article originally appeared in American Hunter, December 1989
Reprinted with permission
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