Big River Duck Hunting

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Big River Duck Hunting
Big rivers often provide excellent gunning for ducks. Long strings of decoys set on the lee side of islands and other river structures tend to work best.

It’s 4 a.m., 5 a.m. No one in his right mind is up this time of day or night. A duck hunter is trailing his duck hunting partner through a cocklebur field to a sandbar on the Arkansas River. It’s pitch-black outside. Mean little cockleburs stab his ankles. His mouth’s as dry as a Canadian pothole.

Suddenly, the duck hunter is clotheslined at the waist. “Watch the fence,” his buddy notes.

Sure. Thanks.

“I’ll carry the duck decoys, you carry my bag, ok?”

"Whatcha got in here, pal, a case of shells? Must be at least a case. And a six-pack of sodas?" With a gun in his one hand, a bag in the other, cockleburs swarming in his socks. This duck hunter must be crazy.

Finally, they reach the sandbar. The duck hunter knows it is a sandbar because his face is buried in it. “Don’t trip on that rock,” his frined calls from up ahead. Yeah, right.

duck hunter
The best river hunting tends to be on cold, nasty days when most hunters would rather stay home.

The sun rises, despite the duck hunters apprehension. The river is postcard perfect. His friend wades out in the shallows and sets the duck decoys.

Canada geese are calling from a sandbar downstream, but the ducks aren’t flying. The duck hunter twists the top off a soda. Sand grates against the glass like fingers scratching a chalkboard.

Better load the shotgun. Ooooooh! Another chill down the duck hunter's spine. Sandy receiver sounds like a coffee grinder.

Two Lesser Scaups buzz through the chute. The great white hunter tries dumping one on the pass. Fast little buggers. They fly on. The duck hunter is caught dumping sand out of his boots. Couldn’t reach his gun.


Three hours later, these duck hunters call it quits. Several flights of ducks pass by out of range, but besides the Lesser Scaups, none are close enough for a shot. The friend, undaunted, shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, that’s big river duck hunting.”

They’re a different breed, these big river duck hunters. Two McNuggets short of a Happy Meal, a friend likes to say. It’s tough duck hunting, perhaps the toughest there is, both in ducks bagged and effort expended.

Still, big river duck hunting draws a devoted cadre of fans. Why? A pair of big-river waterfowlers were polled and here are the results. The information they provided can help you find great duck hunting on rivers near your home.

“There’s a lack of regimentation to big river duck hunting,” says Missouri waterfowl research biologist Dale Humburg, trying to explain his passion for the sport. “It’s not as crowded as a lot of other areas you’ll find. And when everything else is frozen up, you can still find a place where you have open water and pretty good concentrations of ducks. It takes a little more work to find them and more duck hunting equipment to get there, but when it’s right, it’s pretty hard to beat."

duck blinds
Duck blinds made from natural materials work best in the open environs of big rivers.

“There’s a challenge to making the whole thing work,” he continues. “In marshes or timber, when you find a spot where the birds are feeding, you’re pretty much guaranteed to shoot some ducks. But on the river, you’re not hunting a feeding location. You’re hunting a place where the birds are coming in to roost, or a place where they’re loafing midday, or a place where they’re coming in after feeding. It’s not a situation where you’re hunting birds that can’t wait to get in to feed. And, boy, that’s a different world.”

Another big river duck hunting enthusiast, Jim Spencer of Calico Rock, Arkansas, agrees. “Sometimes big river duck hunting is the only game in town,” he says. “I usually hunt the rivers when everything else is frozen up. The sloughs, prairies and shallow waters freeze, but the moving water doesn’t. That concentrates the ducks in a smaller area, and the hunting can be spectacular.

“I like the grab-bag aspect of it, too” Spencer says. “There are more than just mallards to shoot. There are Gadwalls, Lesser Scaup, Pintails and all the divers. You never know what you’ll shoot at next, and that adds to the fun.”

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