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I think it’s safe to say that everyone in Maine, hunter or not, agrees that we are right in the middle of the most beautiful time of year. You can’t go through the day without admiring the clear blue skies, appreciating the smell of wood smoke in the air or admiring the astounding colors of the hardwood leaves on the horizon between where you are and where you need to go.
Swing by any major waterway (and some minor ones) and you just have to stop and admire the stunning view. You often hear poetic references to the place where the sky meets the water and, sometimes, you can’t tell the difference. Well, this is one of those times, and even the most jaded anti-winter person can’t deny that Maine’s fall beauty is second to none. After all a million avid leaf peepers can’t be wrong!
With all this, you understand just half of what motivates the average Maine waterfowler when he launches his canoe or boat and heads out for a morning of duck hunting. Certainly meat in the freezer is the ultimate goal, but a lot of interesting stuff goes on out there, and it happens before most other Maine folks have hit the snooze button for the second time.
I have always been partial to paddling at dawn on a misty October river, and our area has some of the best waterways in the state for early-morning duck hunting. There’s just something about getting to the water in the dark, loading up with guns, gear and supplies for the day, and then shoving off for a long, silent drift downstream. You automatically become part of the scene, alert to the twists and turns of the river, the sudden changes in depth and flow, and you develop a knack for knowing not only what’s around you but what’s coming up, how fast and how far.
There are two goals in canoeing for ducks: Getting shots at ducks (of course) and keeping the canoe from banging into every rock, log and hidden ledge along the way. Most of our rivers are deep and clean enough in fall to allow easy passage for a shallow-draft canoe, but there are always obstacles lurking that can cause problems if you don’t pay attention. If there have not been heavy rains in recent days, our rivers are generally low, slow and easily traversed. There are a few places where the roar of “whitewater” can be heard, but a steady hand and attention to the situation at hand will get you through. These are good rivers to practice your canoeing skills on. They’ll get your blood up, no doubt, especially if you happen to miscalculate and end up slipping through slick channel broadside (always a thrill) or backwards (embarrassing if anyone might bed been watching). I have had a few close calls over the 30 years I’ve been canoeing Maine’s rivers and bogs for ducks, but I haven’t dumped a canoe due to rough water. I have had my canoes tipped over by over-eager Labrador retrievers that couldn’t resist a downed duck splashing into the water, but that’s not a problem you can solve with a clever paddle stroke!
The trick in hunting ducks from a canoe is to paddle close to shore and stay to the inside of bends. Ducks like to spend their days in secluded bays, backwaters and eddies, and all you have to do is paddle close enough for a shot. This is not as easy as it sounds, because ducks are always on the alert, spook at the least sign of danger and don’t take kindly to paddle splashes, gunwale thumping and other rookie paddlers’ mistakes.
When things go right, hunting ducks from a canoe is as exciting and productive as the sport can get, but if you don’t adhere to the hunter’s rule of stealth and patience, you’ll rarely dine on roast duck!
As you might expect, canoe hunting for ducks is best enjoyed as a two-man project. The bow man is the shooter, sitting ready and alert for birds that may be in the swampy bay ahead or that might jump out from shoreline brush with little or no warning. The stern man is the “driver,” whose job is to keep the canoe aimed and moving downstream and angled so that the shooter (who may be left- or right-handed) will be able to mount and shoot his shotgun with ease when the birds leap into the air. It is never the stern man’s job to shoot, or even to carry a loaded gun, because he has more than enough to do and the risks are too high for two-man shooting in a moving canoe in a flowing river, especially because most shots occur on bends in rough or rocky water, where someone needs to be manning the oars, as they say.
The general rule is that the bow man shoots his duck or two, and then the stern man moves into the front seat for his chance to shoot. Over the course of a morning both hunters will get their fair share of shooting and paddling, and if you decide to make a day of it you’ll have all the paddle-and-shoot switching you can stand.
In fact, I often let the bow man do all the shooting for the day because I like the challenge of dodging obstacles, wielding the paddle and getting my shooter as close to his quarry as possible. Plus, there are endless opportunities to just drift along the straight sections and admire the gorgeous October scenery. There will be opportunities to observe otters, muskrats, beavers (which love to dive unexpectedly off a grassy bank and splash into the river just inches from the canoe – and that will wake you up first thing in the morning, believe me!), deer, bears, moose and all sorts of water birds. On one trip I paddled alongside a swimming gray squirrel that, even going downstream, was “paddling” faster than our drifting canoe.
You just can’t see stuff like this if you stay in bed till 9 a.m. on your day off. Fall in Maine is already too short, so don’t put it off any longer – the time to go is right now!
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