Every year the duck season opener is to the tune of the same symphony. Johnsons and Evinrudes, Yamahas and Mercurys dipped into the water and with a few purposeful jerks, they’re fired up. If you’re lucky, you are the first one out there. Whether it’s a matter of early alarms or previous day preparation, you got out there to solidify your spot, to hear the symphony as those who slept in scramble to their destinations. If the landscape is flat, you’ll see ducks busting from their roosts as the symphony gains momentum, sometimes half a mile from the instrument, fearful of the invasive motor.
Riding in a motorized boat can get you to duck hotspots that would be near impossible to get to had you not had one, not to mention its convenience and entertainment in driving. But sometimes it’s a relief to revert to older knowledge; to weave through the deepest of old forgotten swamps, silent and noticed only by the lily pads who rock in your wake, drifting bends to find ducks who were previously unknowing of your presence. Sometimes it’s nice to hunt out of the oldest tool in the duck hunter’s arsenal, a connection to our heritage and the duck hunters of long before us. But besides its reclusive nature and historical significance, hunting out of a canoe can get you into duck sanctuaries that no motor boat ever could.
Natives have been using canoes in North America for thousands of years. Using the resources the land provided for them, some natives would build wooden frames and line them with birch bark applied with pine resin for water resistance, a technology that has been perfected today. Other ingenious tribes would carve shape to a downed tree, and hollow its inside. As unsophisticated as it may seem, Native’s honed the craft over generations to create lighter, swifter, more hydrodynamic crafts. Most interestingly, however, was the bull boat used by the Plains Indians. After connecting wooden ribs and lining at their joints, a buffalo skin was stretched around the outside and fastened tight. The result: a lightweight waterproof canoe made from one of America’s most exemplary game animals.
(Mandan bull boats. Painting by Karl Bodmer c. 1832)
From their canoes, Natives could close the range on deer, moose, beaver, ducks, and geese. When white settlers arrived in America in the 17th century, the advantage of using stealthy water craft to hunt was quickly noticed. The canoe evolved into a flat-hulled boat with a square end and a punt gun fastened at the stern.
Although the days of the market hunter are now long gone, and punt guns no longer pollute the opening morning air, using a motorless raft is still a powerful tactic to close in on reclusive groves of waterfowl, unseen and unheard.
Wood ducks are special lovers of the back woods flooded timber and secluded streams and lakes inaccessible by motor boat. If you keep a low profile, your likely to find not only wood ducks but also mallards, mergansers, and, if you’re lucky, some unexpected visitors.
A couple years ago, I took a kayak to the far reaches of a beaver swamp. Rowing as far as I could without losing water for my decoy spread, I set out my wood duck mannequins and beached on the edge of a floating peat landscape. I drug my canoe to a thicket of bayberry bushes, and sat at its base. Unaware of my presence, a whitetail doe jumped an island from across the way, swimming through my decoy spread, nudging them out of her way as she tried to make it to my side. I snapped a few pictures before the scene invoked her anxiety, and she splashed back for the island of which she came.
After she had left, the wood ducks turned on and I gained a quick limit. There is a seemingly complacent attitude among animals in reaches not usually associated with human predators. These places are for ducks seeking sanctuary from heavily hunted lands and, because you are motorless, you can sneak in without revealing your presence. That is what makes long and tough hunting ventures by canoe or kayak worth the hassle.
If, however, you are like many of my hunting contemporaries and not looking for an exertive, albeit adventurous, kayak hunt deep in forgotten territory, there is another, just as lethal, method: float hunting.
Float hunting can be an expeditious thrill if done right. The benefit to it: you can work the shallow waters not accessible by motor boat, which adorned by ravenous ducks finding the shallows a good opportunity to feed.
You can do this as a partnered venture (gunner at the stern rower at the bow) or as a solitary mission being both paddler and gunner. Play the tide and let the current carry you upwind towards untraveled territory. This will help to mask any sounds you may make as you paddle. Keep your gun at the ready and avoid banging barrel or paddle against the sides of your raft. Take river bends carefully and hug the bank, around every corner there could be an unwary duck.
Unsuspecting fowl will be on mudflats, against the bank, or up narrow tributaries so be ready to rise your gun at these places. After your first shot, it’s a good idea to anchor your kayak/canoe to the bank and let everything settle back in. You could have ducks re-land just upstream or offer you the chance at a fly by shot.
I’m anticipating next season’s opening day to be symphonized by the hum of a four-stroke and to the smell of gasoline yet again. Honestly, I’ll probably be a member of the band. But, when the afternoon flight gets slow, I’ll hop in a canoe and indulge myself in one of the most historic and unobtrusive methods of waterfowl hunting.