A quiet river, a cold morning and unpressured ducks make for enjoyable float-hunting for those who try this overlooked waterfowling method. Photo by Travis Mueller, Avery Outdoors
The canoe slides like a whisper on the river, just inches from a slick, muddy bank. Its two occupants are on high alert. The man in the front cradles a shotgun at port arms. The one in the back dangles a paddle in the water, sculling slightly to keep the boat aligned with the current. There's "shaking water" coming from around the bend. The hunters know this means ducks are just ahead.
Suddenly a dozen mallards swim into view, spy the hunters, and erupt from the water in panic! The paddler backstrokes to angle the canoe for a better shot. The shooter swings on a greenhead and pulls the trigger, and the duck folds. He quickly finds and fires at another drake, still inside 30 yards, and this bird cartwheels. It's all over in five seconds, an explosion of ducks and a brace of mallards in the bag. Then calmness returns to the river as the hunters fetch their birds and resume their journey downstream.
Floating is duck hunting's great getaway. It's how to escape the crowds on public hunting areas. It's how to experience high quality sport at little expense. It's how to bag ducks with cunning instead of gizmos that are so pervasive in modern waterfowling. Indeed, floating is an old style of hunting that is little practiced today, but it's still as available, effective, and exciting as ever.
Conrad Vollertsen of Sand Spring, Oklahoma has float-hunted for ducks for over 30 years. He says this experience is "unparalleled in quality." "There are more mallards and woodies scattered along small rivers than most people realize. Also, floaters are always seeing deer, beavers, turkeys, squirrels and other wildlife. The scenery is pretty; the setting is quiet. This style of hunting is just a lot of fun, and it's an effective way to bag some ducks that most other hunters overlook."
Vollertsen float-hunts from a canoe, always with a partner. One man paddles while the other "rides shotgun" in the front of the craft. Their canoe is painted camouflage, and both hunters wear full camo to blend into the river backdrop.
"A canoe is the perfect boat for float-hunting," Vollertsen affirms. "It's quiet. It's highly maneuverable, and it's plenty stable if you don't shift your weight too quickly. In all my years of floating, I've never tipped a canoe over." Vollertsen adds that a Kevlar or polyethylene canoe is more desirable than an aluminum canoe since these materials are quieter than metal.
A float hunt typically starts at a public access site on a river -- a bridge, ford, boat ramp -- and it progresses downstream. Hunters can paddle to a predetermined takeout point (where another vehicle must be pre-positioned), or they can carry along a mini-outboard and mounting bracket to motor back upstream when their float time has elapsed.
Vollertsen continues, "The best condition for float-hunting is when the water level is normal to low. If a river is flooding, ducks will spread out everywhere. But when the river is in its banks, and especially when the temperature is cold enough to freeze surrounding farm ponds and sloughs, ducks will concentrate on the moving water."
Vollertsen's typical float-hunt begins around 7:30 a.m., and his strategy is simple. "We paddle as quietly as possible, and we always hug the banks on inside bends of the river. Ducks like to hang in pools and eddies, especially where there are logs or upturned roots or other cover. A lot of times we'll ease around a bend, and we're on top of them before they know what's happening."
Author Wade Bourne frequently enjoys good duck shooting when floating overlooked streams and small rivers.
Other times float-hunters will spot ducks far ahead on long straight stretches of river, and the ducks will also see the hunters. Vollertsen continues, "At a distance, they don't know what you are. They'll be suspicious, and they'll usually swim ahead of you, or they may lift up and fly a couple of hundred yards downstream and set back down.
"In either case, when we see ducks out of range ahead of us, we just keep still, ride the current, and let them make the next move. If they swim around a bend, we'll paddle fast to catch up to them for a flush shot. Or if they pick up and fly, we know we'll have another chance at them further downstream."
Vollertsen says the best shotgun for jump-shooting ducks is a 12 gauge with an open choke, loaded with #4 or #6 steel loads. He explains, "Ducks will frequently flush within 10 yards of the canoe. Sometimes you even have to let them get out a little to shoot. This is why you need a shotgun and load that'll give a wide, dense pattern at close range."
More than anything else, safety should be the paramount consideration when floating. Only the hunter in the front of the canoe shoots, and he must be constantly aware of muzzle direction. Hunters should always wear life vests. (Vollertsen recommends a life vest worn with shoulder straps, but which has flotation panels only around the waist. This type vest doesn't get in the way when mounting a shotgun or paddling.)
Each hunter should carry matches and fire-starting materials in a waterproof kit in case someone gets wet. Another good idea is to take extra clothing in a dry bag. And finally, floaters should always tell someone where they're going and when they plan to return. Then, if an emergency arises, rescuers will know where to start looking.
Vollertsen and his partner hunt at the river's pace and take whatever bounty it offers. They frequently bag a few squirrels in addition to ducks. Sometimes they explore up tributaries. Vollertsen always carries a half dozen duck decoys in his canoe. If he finds an area where ducks are working, he tosses the decoys out, and he and his partner hide in cover on the bank and wait for the next flight to show up. At lunchtime they beach their canoe on a sandbar, build a fire, and cook a hot meal.
"That's the beauty of float-hunting," he says. "You conduct your hunt the way you wish. You can start and end when you want to. You can take a break when you're tired. You can stop and warm up if you get cold. And you can take pleasure in the solitude, the lack of competition, and the wild nature of the river.
"Truly, rivers are a last frontier for waterfowl hunters. You just launch off downstream, and you get ready for action every time you go around the next bend."
Floating is but one of many duck hunting methods described by outdoor writer Wade Bourne in his book, "Ducks Unlimited Guide to Hunting Dabblers." Signed copies of this 216-page hardback book may be purchased from the author at: 450 Old Trenton Road, Clarksville, TN 37040. Price is $29.45, which includes postage/handling.