“Paddling for Puddlers”
Uncle Ron has duck hunted since he was a young fella, but for as much as I chased deer and hare with him in my formative years, I didn’t join him in a duck blind until I was nearly 40 years old. I doubt that I’ll forget that first opening morning. We paddled into a weedy pond in the dark, found the rickety blind, threw out the decoys and sat quietly. Wings whistled in the dark, then I heard a splash amongst the decoys. The sky began to glow in the east, but those birds lifted off before shooting light.
“Wood ducks,” my uncle whispered, which I’m sure I was aware of before that moment, but I hadn’t ever pondered their existence. Now I needed to know more. What was then an unseen duck in the dark of a cattail blind has become one of the quintessential creatures of northern New England for me. One I am simply compelled to chase, joining brook trout, ruffed grouse, snowshoe hare, and whitetail deer.
I’ve spent time in a duck blind, just like I have a deer stand, and while it can be exciting when ducks are pitching in to the decoys, I get impatient. I’d rather get going and try to make something happen. Thankfully I’ve stumbled into floating for ducks. I have a number of rivers nearby that lend themselves to several hour floats, with meandering courses that make every corner an exciting opportunity. We normally do this with two people, so we drop a rig off at the downstream take out. Three people in a canoe can be fun, but iffy at times.
The tactics are simple. The guy in the stern tries to paddle quietly and set the hunter in the bow up for a shot. It is amazing how the ducks can spook with the slightest noise or visible flash of a wet paddle. We’ve gotten better at our concealment over the years and I think I bump the canoe with the paddle less than I used to. Shots are fast and unexpected, with ducks taking off anywhere from a far corner of a straight stretch of river to right next to the canoe where the duck thought it was hidden. We trade off paddling duties after a couple of chances. To be honest, it isn’t the most effective way to bag a duck, but it is fun.
We’ve upped our odds by learning to park the canoe and sneak into sloughs and oxbows for jump shooting. We even carry decoys, especially on the weekends, when we think spooked ducks might be looking for safety along the course of the river. The canoe I have is a rugged Old Town, so the knocks and scrapes on downed trees and hidden rocks don’t bother me too much. A little epoxy before spring fishing keeps it going. We have dumped the canoe and had some close calls with sweepers, so the floating part of the trip is the priority, as are personal flotation devices. When things look dicey, all it takes is a quick word from the bow paddler and the stern hunter trades his shotgun for a paddle in a hurry. After a trip or two, we know the sketchy spots and things go pretty smoothly.
Wood Duck in Hand
My first wood duck was a few miles into one of our more regular floats. Dad had taken a few shots and we had switched positions, so I was running my 12-gauge pump in the front of the canoe. We floated a straightaway without anything happening and the river turned to the right somewhat sharply. We eased around the corner, and some nice paddling by my father had us floating almost sideways into the bend so that I had a full view and could swing the shotgun comfortably across the width of the river. With just a couple of strokes to start us moving forward, a drake woodie erupted by my right side, just a couple of yards from the canoe.
My shock allowed the duck to get up off and then out over open water, far enough away that my pattern of #4 steel had time to open from my improved cylinder choke. I didn’t have time to think about the shot, which usually helps my wing shooting, and the duck folded and splashed into the river. We paddled to him and I lifted him into the boat. If you haven’t ever held a drake wood duck, he is a sight to behold. If a picture is worth a thousand words, seeing each of his feathers was worth at least that. Often described as iridescent, a drake wood duck has colors that look like you tipped over a box of 64 Crayola Crayons© with green, orange, chestnut and purple. For a guy with an 8 Crayon mentality, he is an absolutely stunning critter. Plus, he is good to eat!
If you’re interested in duck hunting, but afraid to try, my advice is don’t be. Your deer and partridge hunting skills are useful on the water. It doesn’t have to be all blinds and calling. Pick your shots, work on bird ID, and be patient. It is another way to enjoy out woods and water. Remember to buy your duck stamps that support and protect the wetland habitat that provides a home to this magnificent New England species!