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Waterfowling America's Rivers (Page 2)

Need a new duck hunting spot? Open a map. See those blue lines? They're rivers. They are duck highways. Now all you have to do is follow the advice in this article.

Altie Lannom, Mossy Oak’s regional pro staff manager for the Mississippi Flyway and president of the Lannom Call Company, also likes magnum-sized decoys. He arranges his dabblers into an old-school “J-hook” spread no farther than 30 yards from the blind. He then positions lines of two or three dozen divers upwind and a dozen downwind from the dabblers, no more than 50 yards from the blind.

“The diver decoys help kill a few bonus divers, but they’re mostly there to catch the attention of dabblers,” Lannom says. “The white on the divers really adds visibility.”

Similarly, I like to place a couple dozen geese upwind of my dabbler spread. Even if you’re primarily hunting puddle ducks, goose decoys improve visibility because they are large and their white-on-black coloration is easily seen from a distance. Plus you’ll inevitably see a few geese.

Another secret to visibility is placing the decoys slightly farther apart than normal. From an aerial view, your spread will look like a big, wide raft of ducks rather than a smaller blob.

This is no time for subtlety, and that includes calling strategy. When a group of ducks is heading down the river 100 to 150 yards away from my spread, it’s one instance when I’m not worried about hitting a bad note. My goal isn’t to sound perfect (I never do anyway); it’s simply to get the ducks’ attention. Hammer them with a relatively loud greeting or hail call. If any of the ducks turn their heads to look, you’re in business. You can finesse them with softer, more realistic calling once they’ve swung and made a pass.

Prime Time: Late-Season Rivers
Late December and January are when rivers really shine. Most of the birds have moved on to warmer climates, but those that persist have fewer and fewer options as the potholes, creeks and sloughs freeze up. If you live far enough north that even the river begins to freeze, you have an opportunity to kill some prime mallards. You don’t even have to be a great duck hunter, just one who’s willing to work—find the open water, bust your tail to access and hunt it despite bone-chilling temperatures, and you’ll be rewarded with a fully plumed January greenhead or two.

“I don’t even hunt the river until it’s a last resort,” says “Big” Sean Hammock, who hunts the St. Joseph River in northern Indiana and has guided waterfowlers since the age of 16. “I like it when it’s half-iced over, when the conditions are so bad that everybody else is at home.”

Hammock drives along the river looking for waterfowl and pockets of open water. “If you spot geese in a field and find the nearest open water, you’re going to kill them almost no matter what,” Hammock says.

When he finds open water, which can often be found near power plants and factories, he’ll put on ice cleats over his waders and push a double-welded aluminum boat across the ice. Once it starts to break through, Hammock and the other hunters get in, fire up the outboard and motor through to the open water. (This type of hunting is not without risks. Make sure your equipment is in top shape, always wear life vests and never hunt alone.)

“We’ll break ice and increase the size of the hole until we know we have good, thick ice to rest our decoys on,” Hammock says. “Then I’ll break a path through the ice all the way to the bank so we can use the boat to retrieve ducks.”

Almost all of Hammock’s spread is placed on the ice. He packs 50-100 full-bodies and shells tight around the edge, with lots of sleepers looking nice and comfy as if they just got back from feeding. He’ll toss a dozen decoys in the water in a line to appear as if they just landed and are swimming in to rest with the group. Sometimes he’ll add a half dozen mallards, but he believes mallards will decoy to geese anyway.

Check out the illustrations of each of the different river hunting scenarios.

“I’ll also splash some water on either side of the shells. It’ll freeze and keep them from blowing around,” Hammock says. “And most full-bodies have a spot in the base or between their feet where you can run a screw down into the ice to hold them in place.”

Once Hammock’s spread is ready to rock, he does very little calling, since he’s already where the geese want to be.

“Plus when geese return from feeding, they’re not real aggressive. Most of the spread is relaxed sleepers, so a lot of calling wouldn’t be natural. The only calling I’ll do is soft murmurs and clucking,” he says.

Small Rivers and Big Creeks
Not all rivers are giant expanses requiring huge spreads and obnoxious calling tactics. Herald spends a lot of time hunting the Kentucky River, which is almost creek-like in size.

“Small rivers are my favorite type to hunt, because you can scout them and really determine where the ducks are going,” he says.

Smaller water means smaller spreads, because there will be fewer ducks and hopefully they already want to be where your decoys are located. Herald uses only one to two dozen, often arranged in a shallow “U” shape, with a spinner or two on either side (where legal). His favorite spot is just past a shallow, rocky riffle to add motion to the decoys. The entire spread consists of dabblers, since you’ll rarely find geese and divers inhabiting such waters.

“You tend to get a lot of in-your-face shooting, and it makes for a real quality duck hunt,” Herald explains.

Flood-Prone Rivers
Lannon hunts rivers all season. Two of his favorites include the Ohio and Mississippi, but his best waterfowling doesn’t occur until after the southern Illinois River floods its banks late in the season.

“There’s always some duck traffic on the rivers,” Lannom says, “but after the river floods they tend to concentrate more on a food source. You may go a while without seeing any ducks, but when you do you’ll find a bunch.”

Lannom scouts the flooded backwaters by walking them or, if possible, cruising through in a boat until he flushes ducks. He advises checking anywhere with oak trees, as the floodwaters create a floating buffet of acorns that puddle ducks can’t resist. Flooded crop fields, especially corn, are also good bets. Once you locate a feeding area, the hard part’s behind you. Just return with a simple spread.

“You don’t need any more decoys than you can carry in on your back,” Lannom advises. “If the ducks have been going there to feed, there’s a good chance they are planning to go there again anyway. A small spread and some light calling is all you need. I’ll use a boat blind if there’s an opportunity, but typically I just use a tree to hide behind and place the decoys far enough away that the ducks won’t look directly at me.”

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