A late-November cold snap had frozen up most of the ponds and lakes, and the ice floes careening down the center of the Susquehanna River threatened to sweep any decoys in their path all the way to the Chesapeake. Fortunately our spread—about seven dozen mallards and black ducks and two dozen geese—was shielded from the current by an L-shaped island.
I took a sip of hot chocolate, not yet of coffee-drinking age, but old enough to know that when men hunt ducks they drink from thermoses. A nice group of mallards had already landed in the decoys before legal shooting time and had just as quickly scooted when they heard our young Chessie’s high-pitched whines.
As dawn broke a half dozen blacks flew in from behind us. My Dad’s friend Eric greeted them with a few gentle notes and they banked back. A couple of passes later we stood to shoot. Two blacks crumpled; the smaller of the two was the first game animal I ever killed.
Since that initial hunt, I’ve spent more time hunting ducks on rivers than anywhere else. What I like most about rivers is they’re all different, from the mile-wide and foot-deep Susquehanna, to the ocean-like waters at the mouth of the Mississippi to the creek-like streams such as the North Platte. Rivers are everywhere, and public hunting opportunities abound even in urban areas; for example, I’ve enjoyed some of the best duck hunting of my life on the Potomac River just outside the Washington, D.C., beltway.
If you know how to hunt a river, you can hunt ducks practically anywhere and, because the rivers are last to freeze, you can hunt long after the other guys have hung up their waders until next year. Here’s how to decoy waterfowl in the most common scenarios you’ll encounter hunting rivers.
Deep-River Diver Hunting
“Buffleheads will run the shoreline. You can pull them with decoys a little, but bluebills, canvasbacks and most divers definitely like to be out in the middle of the river where they feel less pressured,” Wetherald says. “This is especially true late in the year.”
When he’s scouting, Wetherald looks for huge rafts of birds feeding or resting. Divers and sea ducks feast on mussels, oysters and aquatic grasses, making sandbars prime hunting locations.
Wetherald’s decoy spread consists of about five dozen ducks. The heart of his spread is formed by two gang-rigged lines of a dozen bluebills each. (A heavy weight at the end of each line holds the decoys in place.) The lines form a “V” shape facing into the current. Social groups of bluebills, canvasbacks, goldeneyes, buffleheads, scoters and long-tailed ducks are added on either side of the lines, the majority of them inside the “V.”
“I think buffleheads are always good to have in the spread because they improve visibility for all ducks, and buffleheads decoy well,” Wetherald explains, “but be careful not to use too many canvasbacks. Cans aren’t real social when they find a good food source. They’re the biggest divers and can be real bullies. Some ducks even flare from cans.”
You can leave a little pocket in the “V” if you wish, but divers and sea ducks don’t need a landing area like puddle ducks and frequently brush up against one another on the water. “I’ll even mix the sea ducks right in with the divers, and we’ll kill both of them out of the same spread,” Wetherald says.
The “V” and most of the ducks within it should always be positioned facing into the current, regardless of wind direction, since divers feed and swim primarily against the current. The wind will affect how you position the boat. You want it blowing parallel to the blind, providing all hunters with shots as the ducks land into the wind.
As a final touch, Wetherald advises the placement of six Canada goose floaters off to one side of the boat. “They give the divers confidence,” he says, “and you might pull a bonus goose or two.”
Early- and Mid-Season Rivers
“Scouting really comes into play, because you may have a 5-mile stretch of river with only two places the ducks want to be,” says Tim Herald, host of “The Zone TV” on The Sportsman Channel. “Run the river in your boat, find a concentration of ducks and geese resting on an island and come back the next day to hunt it. Or, if you can see the river from the road, drive it and glass it with a binocular. I focus my scouting on stretches of the river near crops.”
Check out the illustrations of each of the different river hunting scenarios.
Islands are good places to find waterfowl, because they block the current and provide a sanctuary for ducks to raft up and rest. Knee-deep, calm, slow water is where the puddle ducks want to be on rivers. Sandbars are also good, but they cause boat blinds to stick out like sore thumbs, so to hunt them effectively try using layout blinds or moving your decoy spread farther from the blind.
Once you have a spot selected, it’s time to pack every decoy you own into the boat and go hunting. That may be a slight exaggeration, but hunting a river before the freeze is all about maximizing your spread’s visibility. With all that open water, you likely won’t be “on the X.” Unlike marsh or pothole hunting, most of the ducks you see will probably have another destination in mind, so in order to decoy them you have to draw their attention.
“I like a minimum of six dozen magnum mallards, the bigger the better,” Herald says. “We’ll tailor that to the number of ducks we’ve seen in the area. If we see 300 ducks rafted up somewhere, we’ll put out as many decoys as we can. We also use weighted keels and heavy anchors on the river so the current doesn’t flip them over or carry them away.”