By Larry Dablemont
The storm that hit the Ozarks was something unusual.
By the time it was over, the bitter cold that followed it had frozen most of the ponds and quite a bit of the upper reaches and backwaters on reservoirs where duck hunters are usually found this time of year.
But the rain that came before it was good news for the areas to the east and south, and the river not far from my home came up about four feet.
As it dropped to a floatable level, with more water in it than it has had in months, I knew it would also be full of wild ducks. With so much else frozen, waterfowl go to the rivers, finding open water and food and solitude.
If you get out there early and throw out a few decoys, you can get some action for the first hour or two, and then the flocks settle in somewhere and stay there.
Rich Abdoler and I started out at about 8 a.m. and headed downriver in my 16-foot johnboat with chest-waders, paddles, shotguns, a few decoys and a blind attached to the bow.
We intended to stop here and there and hunt over decoys awhile, float down a ways and jump shoot a few ducks, then try the decoys again at likely looking spots.
There were some huge flocks of mallards, from 30 to 60 in a flock, and flocks of smaller ducks like gadwall and widgeon as well. Early in the afternoon, we had eight mallards, four gadwall and widgeon and three big Canada geese which weighed 10 to 12 pounds each.
It isn't something many hunters do, because it is a lot of work, and few people paddle a boat efficiently or quietly enough to be successful at it.
Stalking ducks from a boat means you have to drift along quietly and keep that blind between you and the flocks you are stalking. To be successful, you need to get within 30 or 35 yards and be quick with a gun when they flush.
Big flocks are tough to get close to; there are too many eyes and too many wary old hens. Ideally, you like to sneak up on small groups, from three or four to perhaps a dozen.
But when you get into a really big flock, and you don't fire when they flush, you can get hidden and throw out a half dozen decoys and in the next hour, the chances are good some of the ducks will come back. And on the river, they are far less wary, often settling into the decoys on the first or second pass.
You need to be good with a paddle and take your time. We don't cover a lot of river in one day, sometimes only four or five miles, and with that blind on the boat, you must have calm winds or a wind at your back.
The blind acts as a sail if there's a significant wind. We carry a good load, cover it with camouflage and don't take chances. If you get wet on a cold winter day, you have problems. And a full river is a good place to swamp a boat if you don't know what you are doing.
Trying to hunt from a canoe is foolhardy. I would never do that, and I've had lots of experience on Ozark rivers. No one should hunt from a canoe, experience or not. They lack the stability you need, and they'll get you in trouble.
If you take your Labrador, he has to be well-trained, and he has to sit patiently in your boat and wait to be sent.
The hunter in the front does most of the shooting. You invite disaster if you shoot from the rear of the boat forward at any angle. When I am paddling, I shoot only those ducks flying back over me, behind me or to the side, never forward.
We stop at midday, build a small fire and have lunch, with decoys set out in the river before us. And always, it seems, lunch is interrupted by some ducks circling our decoys. In the course of the day, we may hunt over decoys at three or four locations. Then it's back in the boat and downriver.
With such a plan, you don't use many decoys - six or eight will be enough. But you need a good duck call, and you need to know how to use it.
We had a couple of great days on the river this week. We saw eagles, deer, wild turkeys, a sharp-shinned hawk, a mink, several coyotes and hordes of hooded mergansers and squirrels. And the river with a full current was beautiful in the snow. Best of all, we didn't see a soul in two days.
Are wild ducks and geese good to eat? Absolutely.
I pick a few and smoke them whole or bake them. But that takes lots of time. More often I skin them, filet out each breast and cut small steaks crossways.
On a mallard you get four or five one-inch steaks from each breast. Season the steaks, wrap a small strip of bacon around each and hold the bacon with a toothpick.
Then put them all on a skewer with onions and green peppers and grill it.
Put the legs on the skewer also. It is delicious.
By Larry Dablemont