As a lifelong resident of Maryland, Mark Hoke has enjoyed the luxury of hunting some of the best marshes and farms on the state's fabled Eastern Shore. But one hunt that stands out in his mind took place on the opposite end of his home state on a river better known for its smallmouth bass fishing. Hoke and a buddy dropped a canoe in the Potomac River 30 miles upstream of Washington, D.C., on a bitter cold day in January. A long cold snap sealed the region's ponds under a layer of ice and snow blanketed the woods along the Potomac. The river, however, was free of ice and flowing at a gentle pace.
"I just had this feeling we were going to do very well," said Hoke, a member of Avery Outdoors' pro staff and a superintendent for a local tile contractor. "I just didn't know how well."
The two hunters paddled upstream against the light current until they came to a large island adjacent to the main river. A pocket of calm, flat water lay on the lower end of the island, the perfect spot to set up a decoy spread. As Hoke tossed out two dozen mallard decoys, his partner built a makeshift blind on the edge of the water, grabbed their gear and stashed the canoe on the other side of the island. The ducks couldn't resist their setup.
"We had a limit within an hour or two," he recalled. "Because everything was socked up in ice, we killed mallards, blacks, a couple of widgeons and even a goldeneye, which we hardly ever see around that area. They didn't have any other open water for miles around."
The birds were trading up and down the main river all morning, looking for a place to rest out of the main current. Every time he saw a group of ducks, Hoke blew a few notes on his call, and that was all it took.
"We saw this hen mallard with three drakes behind her," he said. "I blew on my call and they just turned like they were on a string. We got all three drakes."
That morning was just one of dozens that Hoke and his friends have enjoyed on rivers throughout Maryland. Whether he's sitting over decoys on a wide free-flowing river like the upper Potomac, or some small tributary not much wider than his house, there's a good chance he'll be knee-deep in birds. Spend time on any river throughout duck season and the reasons will become obvious.
"During the early October season," Hoke said, "our rivers are covered up with wood ducks because they find lots of food there. Acorns drop into the water from overhanging oaks, grapes fall into the water and a whole bunch of aquatic vegetation is still growing—there are snails, insects and lots of other foods. Rivers are really just prime wood duck habitat."
Woodies are found on rivers throughout the country. Whether it's a fast ribbon of water tumbling through forested mountains in New England or the Appalachians, or a slow-moving, deep slough in the upper Midwest, Tennessee or even California, wood ducks are abundant. In other words, you don't need a sprawling cattail marsh or some exclusive rice field at your call to have a great day on the water.
Even in areas that don't have many wood ducks, rivers are duck magnets for a variety of reasons. Robb Nicolay, a guide for High Plains Wingshooters, spends 90 percent of his duck season on the Platte River near his home in Torrington, Wyoming. Like Hoke, he has access to a variety of other great spots, but there are times when the Platte is the place to be.
"We hit the river hard later in the season when all the ponds and marshes around here are frozen up," Nicolay said. "The birds have no other open water besides the river. Although the Platte will ice up under extreme conditions and the ducks and geese will leave, the constant current keeps the water open pretty much all the time. We actually do well even when the surrounding lakes and ponds are still open."
The Perfect Spot
Some rivers are better than others and some spots within those prime waters attract more ducks than others. When Hoke and Nicolay scout prior to hunting, they look for a few key ingredients. Of course, they prefer to see live ducks. If they do, they'll come back and set up on that exact spot the next morning. However, if there are no birds on the river when they happen to be looking, they still have complete confidence in their decisions.
"I look for any kind of calm area, either behind an island, a cut in the shore away from the current or some sort of large flat area of shallow water with little or no current," Hoke noted. "Woodies in particular avoid current, but big ducks like mallards will actually get out in it to feed as long as it's not too strong. So will divers. I also like more open water for big ducks, but woodies will get right in among thick cover like lay-downs."
Nicolay also looks for slack water. He favors the downriver side of inside bends where the current swings away from the bank, leaving a pocket of still water against the shore. It's a great location, but it's even better on windy days. Nicolay says the riverbank will act as a windbreak and birds will tuck in against the shore. If the pocket of water is shallow, that's even better. He also likes to see a sandbar or an open island next to that still, shallow water. Ducks will use that dry ground to nap.
"Where I hunt, the ducks aren't using those spots to feed," Nicolay said. "In fact, they'll leave the river early to hit the grain fields and then they'll come back later in the morning to loaf in those shallow pockets out of the wind."
When Nicolay hunts a slack-water spot, he uses decoy spreads of various sizes, depending entirely on what the real birds are doing. Through diligent scouting, he'll see if the ducks are gathering up in large flocks or small groups and then duplicate their behavior with a spread of Green Head Gear decoys. Most of the birds he kills on the Platte are mallards, so he typically uses an all-mallard spread. He will, however, add some Canada goose decoys, especially if the water he's hunting has a sandbar near it.
"Geese really like to loaf on sandbars with ducks," he said.
Hoke tends to stay with smaller spreads, too, only because ducks that use rivers tend to travel in smaller groups. Wood ducks in particular travel in groups of two to 10, rarely more, so Hoke often carries only a half-dozen wood duck decoys with him during the early season. He might add a few mallards, as well, because there seems to be a few greenheads around pretty much throughout the entire fall and winter.
No matter how many decoys he utilizes, Hoke makes sure he puts at least a few in clear view of the main river channel. That's an important part of his strategy because ducks that fly up and down a river might not see a spread tucked in behind an island or in a set-back off the main channel.
"I don't want to put them so far out that it's just not natural, but I definitely place them out so passing birds can see them," Hoke explained. "I also like to put a few in a light current, which can really get the decoys swimming around and looking lively. If you put them all in the calm water, you'll be facing a spread of lifeless decoys and that might work against you. The current can really help, but don't put them in fast water because it's not realistic."
Nicolay will set out a few full-body mallard decoys on an adjacent sandbar, as long as that beach isn't out of gun range. He likes sleeper decoys on bitter cold days because it mimics the behavior of real ducks. And like Hoke, he wants to put some fakes in plain view of the main river channel.
"I want passing birds to see my spread," Nicolay said. "Fortunately, they tend to follow the river, so they're likely to see them. That's the nice thing about hunting rivers. They don't have many choices. On a lake or a big marsh, they could go pretty much anywhere, but not on a river."
When The Ducks Aren't Flying
If waiting for the ducks to come to you is a great tactic, going to the ducks can be even better under certain circumstances. In fact, it can be downright fun. During October, there's a good chance Hoke and a friend will slip a canoe into a small river and ease along with the current and jump-shoot ducks. The trick, he says, is to sit still and let the current do all the work.
"If you don't spook the birds, you can often drift right up on them and get real close before they flush," Hoke said. "It's not traditional duck hunting, but it's a great way to kill some birds, especially when they're done flying for the day."
Hoke will line the gunnels of his canoe with foam pipe insulation to decrease the noise from paddles bumping the edge of the boat. Of course, he typically uses only the paddle as a rudder, steering the boat downstream as the current pushes his canoe at a slow clip. However, any unnatural sound or movement sends the birds scurrying for safer grounds, and stealth is the most critical factor on a float-hunt. Hoke and his partners will crouch low with the expectation that a duck will bust out of a lay-down or some other cover along the bank at any moment. They often do. In fact, he says woodies will loaf on fallen trees and feed in the still water behind virtually any current break along the river's edge.
"I always try to hug one bank or the other, and I stay on the insides of bends when I can," he said. "That gives me the chance to get close to birds that might not be expecting any sort of danger. I also use binoculars to look ahead on long straight-aways."
Another great tactic, especially on narrow rivers, is to simply walk the bank and sneak up on birds loafing in a pocket of still water. Jump-shooting is a proven method of putting a few extra birds in your game bag when the ducks aren't flying. Hoke eases over the river bank and uses binoculars to scan the surface of the water for birds.
"I study fallen trees real hard," he said. "Woodies will get in the middle of a big tree and just take a nap. If I see some birds, I'll take some mental notes of landmarks near the ducks so I can pop up right on top of them. It's really exciting to sneak up on them."
Woodies are especially prone to a sort of "duck drive," particularly on smaller rivers where overhanging trees create a tunnel over the water. Unless they've been hunted hard, wood ducks will follow the river's bends and straight-aways after they've been flushed from their loafing spots. Station one hunter upriver a few hundred yards while another walks the banks or right up the river itself. It's often that easy. Duck hunting is rarely easy, of course, but take to a river early or late in the season and you'll be working a captive audience.