Waterfowling on the Columbia River is all about big water, treacherous tides, and ducks that line up for miles
The ducks spot the decoys from a half mile away and start to swing. We can read their minds from the set of their wings banking low over the water out where the seals cruise the river’s dark tidal rips. Behind me, nearly invisible against a driftwood-strewn sand bluff, Dave Sonnenburg calls in a low, conspiratorial tone: “Mark, mark. Birds on the string.”
I peer over the cowling of a layout boat and glance downstream, past Pillar Rock and craggy Jim Crow Mountain nodding high over the Columbia River between Astoria and Portland, Oregon. Beyond the gunsight notch of my boot tops, the river rolls under long lines of oversize scaup decoys, past sandbars and alder-fringed islands and on toward the headlands where Lewis and Clark bivouacked at tiny Fort Clatsop 199 years ago. I grip the gun and shift in the boat, pitching in the chop as the bluebills beeline for our trap.
Dave mouth-calls the ducks–it’s an odd, blurping call completely out of character and scale to this raw, open landscape–and in they come. One moment the scaup are pepper flakes on the horizon, then too quickly they are over the dekes, winged bits of distant Alaskan rivers and ice-stunted taiga that rain down on the Columbia estuary each winter.
The ducks never waver in their final approach, blue-gray feet dangling, and then suddenly they put on the brakes and flash white bellies, rising a few inches on cupped wings. That’s when I’m up in the layout boat, gun barking. The boat shimmies and shifts, and my first shot ignominiously sprays the river 5 feet behind the lead bird. There’s precious little time for a Hail Mary, stock-off-the-shoulder second shot, but that one takes the trophy duck–a mature drake greater scaup in full winter plumage. Now he’s on the water with feet to the sky, and as Polar and Babe sprint for the retrieve it hits me: I could be nowhere else but precisely here–on the Columbia River estuary in the deep clutches of winter. Every aspect of the experience–the skeins of cackling geese overhead, the massive barges in the shipping channel, the spruce-serrated ridges rising into scudding clouds–molds a sense of place and time that is all its own and impossible to replicate.
And that’s what draws hardcore duck hunters to big rivers year after year. From the Mississippi’s sandbars and sloughs to Montana’s Big Hole to the languid flows of Georgia’s Altamaha, big rivers offer duck hunting on a grand scale (see sidebar). Killing birds on such difficult waters requires site-specific skills and a brand of local knowledge that builds up season after season. The payoff, however, is worth the investment of time and hard work, for more than anything else, big-river duck hunting offers an intersection of time and place and a passion for ducks that gives each river a character all its own. Gun for ducks on the likes of the Columbia and you’ll find a connection to the landscape as direct and visceral as anything you can do with a gun or rod.
CRAZY FOR SCAUP
Few relish that connection as much as the trio of Oregon duck hunters hauling me out to the Columbia River to hunt wintering scaup. John Boys, an industrial pump designer, spent his first nine years on the south side of the river and the last 54 on the Washington side. The Sonnenburg brothers are third-generation Swedish-Americans and diving duck fans of the first order: elder Marvin, soft-spoken and smitten with his yellow Labs; and Dave, a garrulous part-time taxidermist with a worldwide big-game hunting resume. Together, the three prowl rivers, marshes, and high-desert potholes for what they call the “Northwest 27”–the 27 species of ducks known to Oregon and Washington.
For most folks, the Columbia River means salmon–salmon and sturgeon, salmon and steelhead, salmon and American shad. But to these guys the charms of the lower Columbia are its winter-scoured solitude, its mercurial and often menacing nature, and its massive populations of diving ducks, particularly bluebills. After a few hundred thousand pintails, wigeon, and greenwing teal migrate through the region, some 15,000 greater and lesser scaup spend the winter in the lower Columbia area. Unlike puddle ducks, divers such as scaup and canvasbacks swim underwater as they grub for mollusks and submerged vegetation. Stout-bodied birds with short wings and legs set near the tail, scaup mass in huge flocks and haunt open waters. They’re widely figured as unwary (or outright dumb) and barely fit for the table. Out here, my hosts tell me, you either love big-river diver hunting or you hate it. And they’re happy as thumbnail clams that 95 percent of local duck hunters fall into the latter category.
“We don’t have the East Coast’s grand tradition of diving duck hunting,” Boys warns as we pull up to a small boat ramp on the river. “Most people out here are mallard purists. They don’t have a real high opinion of these birds. You’ll see.”
And I do, quickly. Diver hunting on the Columbia is governed by the tides, not the sun, and puddle duckers are frequently puzzled at the sight of hunters launching their boats in the midmorning hours. As we off-load the johnboat, another hunter is already headed home, ferrying mallard and pintail decoys from his boat to his truck. His face is sweat-streaked and sour. “Second day in a row of nothing,” he mutters. “Didn’t see a duck worth shooting.” We hold our tongues–already we see wispy black lines of scaup skimming low over the water.
In fact, everything that others disdain about these bottom-feeding, swift-flying, elegantly feathered birds seems to attract my companions–a crew of serious gearheads who obsess over their oversize decoys and intricate line rigs. A lack of wiles means scaup are easy to decoy, so my crowd makes a game out of shooting only big, mature drakes. This wide open estuary also demands experience to deal with squall lines that roar through like flash floods in the sky and miles-wide waters that go from calm to white-capped before you can crank the outboard. Perhaps the Columbia’s most challenging quirk is the twice-daily tide that rises and falls upwards of 9 feet. Hide your boat in the wrong place, and it could wind up dry-docked 200 feet from falling waters. Worse yet, set up on the wrong island, and the Columbia could swallow it by lunchtime. But these men have hunted the river for years. “We’ve already made most of the mistakes,” Marv jokes. And they even hold that the lowly bluebill makes a fine table bird. “Just like elk,” Boys promises with a wink. “You’ll see.”
I don’t have to wait long to test the birds’ infamous gullibility. Our setup on a large sand island in the heart of the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge is smack in the middle of the river, and the birds are in constant motion. Searching for exposed clam beds, they move with the tides. As the water drops and uncovers feeding sands, the birds hopscotch downriver. As the tide rises, the flocks are forced upriver. Coming or going, they’re passing right by us.
It’s the kind of weather that pounded the Corps of Discovery all too often: wall after wall of low, scudding skies, wind gusts, and curtains of rain. A beautiful day for divers, in other words, and the birds toll into Dave’s gang lines with unchecked abandon. Tornado-shaped flocks of cackling geese swirl overhead. A flight of canvasbacks buzzes the decoys, unscathed. Goldeneyes make a visit, whistling across the marsh behind us. Clouds skim the peaks of the Oregon Coast Range.
“Don’t forget any of this,” Boys mutters, munching on a lunch of blacktail sausage and buffalo jerky, “because this is as good as it gets.” Despite the rain and fog and wind–or perhaps because of them–it’s one of those rare days when the birds can’t say no to the decoys and we take turns shooting to make the day last longer. By midafternoon there are 15 scaup draped over our driftwood hide, and my companions put down their guns. The last bird is mine.
“So,” Boys says, eyeing the pile of hulls littering the sandbar under my feet, “would you rather shoot a limit of these big bluebills or wait for a wigeon to fly by?” I want to answer him, but there’s a knot of black specks heading our way, and I’m grinning as I grip the gun.
•FIVE BIG-WATER DUCK RIVERS
[FALLING FOR NIAGARA]
From puddle ducks in the upper reaches (but well below the falls, mind you) to oldsquaws at the mouth of the Niagara, this American icon offers more than a honeymooner’s retreat. The late-season flights of oldsquaws and divers are huge. Ice locks up lesser waters, pushing birds to the Niagara’s boisterous flows. Just don’t go more than halfway across the river: You’ll be in Canada. Contact Sparky’s Charters, 716-837-3146; www.sparkyscharters.com
They don’t just hunt wood ducks down in Dixie. The Tennessee River near the Tennessee-Kentucky border is a puddle ducker’s paradise, and it’s loaded with geese, too. It’s big-water hunting reminiscent of coastal regions with the chance to work mallards, black ducks, and wigeon with big spreads and brassy calling. Contact Steve McCadams, 731-642-0360; www.stevemccadams.com
[OLD MAN RIVER (AND HIS LITTLE BROTHER)]
Near St. Louis, the Illinois and Mississippi River come together to create one of the Midwest’s great ducking regions. Wealthy sports in the last century locked up large parcels of private lands, but state-run drawings for river blinds still give the public plenty of access to this part of the continent’s most important waterfowl migration corridor. Contact the August A. Busch Conservation Area, 636-441-4554; or the Columbia Bottom Conservation Area, 314-877-6014; www. conservation.state.mo.us/areas/stlouis
[SANDBARS ON THE MISSOURI]
Dig a pit or burrow under a sheet of burlap–there are few places to hide on the Big Muddy sandbars, but the river’s famous flocks of puddle ducks make the discomfort worthwhile. Find a sandbar near shallows with a piece of water off the main current flow, and use enough lead–anchors that is–to keep your rig in place. State conservation areas in Atchison, Holt, and Boone Counties are good bets. Contact the Missouri Department of Conservation, 573-751-4115; www.conservation.state.mo.us/areas
[ROCKY MOUNTAIN KNOCKDOWN]
When everything else in Montana freezes, the Big Hole and Beaverhead tailwaters run free–when they’re not gummed up with geese and mallards. Back channels and current seams draw the birds, and if it’s bluebird weather, nobody cries. They break out the fly rods instead. Contact Frontier Anglers, 800-228-5263; www.frontier anglers.com
The Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge islands (pacific.fws.gov/refuges/field/wa_L&C.htm) can be accessed from various boat ramps on the lower Columbia River–we used the ramp at Brownsmead, off U.S. 30, about 20 miles east of Astoria, Oregon. In nearby Westport, the Westport Motel (503-455-2212) has waterfowler-friendly rooms and efficiencies that are set up for duck hunters and their dogs (they don’t even mind if you hang your ducks from the railings). Pick up nontoxic shells, licenses, and some local advice on tides and decoy spreads at Sporty’s (503-728-2712) in Clatskanie.