| This is the day hunters across the state have waited for since before last Christmas. Tomorrow is Oct. 1, the “official” opening day of the 2013 hunting season and, as we discussed last week, the time for preparation and anticipation is just about over. Today is the last day hunters will have to get ready for their favorite season. The fun begins when dawn breaks tomorrow morning.
Early morning commuters will likely hear sporadic gunfire just as the sun comes up. The action will be on or near water as the state’s contingent of waterfowl hunters heads to the marshes in pursuit of ducks and geese. There’s really no better way to spend Oct. 1 in Maine than drifting down a secluded river or stream in a canoe or kayak, hoping to jump a few wood ducks, mallards or geese in backwater coves or brushy beaver ponds. Paddling is a pleasure on its own, and the foliage near the water is usually the first to turn color, so the scenery is unbeatable. Also, it’s not quite time for the annual fall migration so most waters will have plenty of birds to shoot at.
There’s nothing quite like being on the water at dawn in October. The water is still, the wind is low and the ambience is as tranquil as it gets. Other than the calls of blue jays, hawks and chickadees there’s no sound but the gurgle of the river.
Every corner turned brings with it the possibility of jumping a few ducks or geese. Wood ducks are especially prone to sitting up on shore, tucked in amongst the weeds and logjams, and when they flush it’s surprising enough to cause even the most experienced of hunters to miss every shot or forget to shoot at all!
I have drifted most of the major rivers and streams in our area and find the procedure to be the same on every one. Paddle slowly along shore keeping to the inside of bends and bows because ducks prefer to rest and feed in the coves and eddies created by these features. If you paddle to the outside of the bend any ducks sitting there will spot you and be gone long before you can get a shot at them. Drift slowly with the current, keep the bow of the craft pointed slightly to the right (for a right-handed shooter) and avoid noise or movement as you go. Be ready to shoot every time you round a bend whether you’ve seen ducks or not because they can be resting on shore of among the tangled limbs and logs that collect in these places. Always assume there are ducks there and don’t let your guard down till you’ve passed completely through the bend. Hanging grass and brush along shore can also hide birds, so be ready to shoot until the river straightens out again and it is time to drift up on another bend in the river.
It’s a good idea to be on the water before sunrise because ducks like to fly up and down the river at dawn. They often fly low to the water on whistling wings, the only indication you’ll have that they are nearby. Teal, for example, are nearly impossible to anticipate. By the time you hear the tell-tale buzz of wings they are long past you. One of Maine’s smallest ducks, teal travel in small flocks and are as quick and erratic in flight as any snipe. You’ll see far more than you will shoot, I can guarantee you that!
By full sunrise most of the river’s ducks are settled into their daytime mode, loafing and feeding near protective cover. Most of the action will be jump-shooting at birds you’ve surprised in a brushy cove or slough, but always watch the skies upriver and down for ducks that may try to slip past you on your journey. Also, when you hear the call of mallards or woodies in the distance, be ready to shoot. Something spooked the birds and they will be coming by at full speed in a few seconds. If you’re ready for them you can expect to make a good shot, but if you are caught daydreaming all you’ll be able to say is, “There they go!”
Expect to see wood ducks, mallards, black ducks, teal, mergansers and even a goldeneye or two while paddling our local rivers, even a few geese if you get out there early enough. Canadas tend to leave the water at sunrise in search of adjacent corn fields or large pastures, where they will spend most of the day feeding well away from roads, woodlots and hedgerows. However, there is a way to bag a limit of geese from the river. Simply pull over and check out bordering crop fields, using binoculars to scan the field for feeding geese. Stay low and come up slowly in case the birds are near the river and already in range.
When a flock is spotted, come up with a plan to sneak up on them or, with the help of another hunter, push them toward a waiting shooter. Geese are difficult to fool at any time, but once in a while even a good plan can work!
Drifting for waterfowl is a great way to spend several hours or even an entire October day, but of course not everyone can afford such a luxury. No problem: ducks may be hunted using a technique called jump-shooting, where the hunter knows (or assumes) ducks will be gathered in a pond, river bend, beaver flowage or similar pocket of water. The strategy is simple enough: sneak in, get close to the birds and stand up when you are ready to shoot. With a little experience you’ll learn where the birds are most likely to be on any given water and then it’s just a matter of creeping in unseen and getting in range before the birds take wing.
There have been times when I’ve jump-shot a limit of woodies or mallards and had them plop down right in the middle of a beaver pond. There’s nothing like having to strip down and swim out to retrieve a beaver pond duck in October. “Cold” only begins to define how invigorating that experience can be!