hunter in kayak holding a duck
Julia Johnson

Small rivers can offer great early-season duck hunting without the hassle of a 3 a.m. wake-up call and elbow-­to-elbow crowds. They’re not without their challenges, but they are worth navigating. So grab a skiff, locate a launch, and go find the ducks.

1. Test the Waters

First, you’ll have to pick a suitable river. If it’s a familiar waterway, you already know about its launches, take-outs, no-shooting zones (if any), and where you’ll likely encounter birds as you make your way downstream. If you’re planning to hunt unfamiliar territory, Google Earth can help you identify launches and take-outs. As you pore over the satellite imagery, pinpoint backwaters where ducks might loaf, bends where birds might sit, and sandbars where you can drop a few decoys. Better yet, grab a rod and reel when the weather’s nice and devote a day to field research. Take pictures of likely locations, drop GPS pins so you know exactly where you’re going, and maybe catch a fish.

2. Sleep In

Midmorning is when you should be on the water. Ducks that roosted elsewhere will go to feed at first light before hitting the secluded stretches of your river later in the morning to loaf. Birds that roost on still river backwaters will also head out to feed at daybreak. Be there to greet them when they return.

3. Team Up

A float hunt is a one- or two-gun show. If you’re hunting solo, work the inside of bends, letting the current sweep you around the corner while sticking tight to the bank. Tether your paddle so you don’t lose it when you reach for your gun. For buddy hunts, let one guy shoot from the bow while the other controls the boat. Switch back and forth as the hunt unfolds. A kayak, canoe, or aluminum johnboat are all good craft options, depending on the character of the river. Aquapod and Momarsh offer waterfowl-specific models. Often the best power is via paddle, although some hunters find it convenient, if not necessary, to float downstream and motor back with a lightweight outboard. The element of surprise generally makes a camouflage finish unnecessary, but a bit of brush on the bow and a stealthy approach can persuade birds to sit just a second longer.

4. Take ‘Em

The main strategy is to simply slip downriver and jump-shoot ducks from eddies and backwaters. But you should also bring six to 10 decoys. River ducks sit on specific stretches for specific reasons, and a small spread where the birds flushed—combined with patience and an AA-netting blind—can help you fill your limit. Just make sure you have enough weight to hold them in the current. Remember, banks and even the bottom to the midstream may be privately owned. Check the legality of tying up, dropping anchor, and setting decoys. As for safety, life jackets and common sense are mandatory.

Duck hunting is hard work, and float hunts are no exception. But if your usual spots aren’t producing or you’re looking to switch things up, a midmorning trip down the river might be just the cure for those where-did-the-birds-go blues.