No boat means there are places I can’t go: places with deep water. I was fine with that until this year, when a confluence of events suddenly made it essential: My normal hunting grounds haven’t hunted well this year, and heavy rains keep flooding out my remaining walk-in spots.
So I took the plunge and bought a duck hunting kayak, a boat made of olive drab plastic, and molded to feature a reclined back rest, making it a floating layout blind.
Now I was ready for a whole new world of duck hunting awesomeness! But it hasn’t always been what I expected…
I was sitting in my kayak setting up a jerk rig on one side of a little island I was hunting with my buddy Charlie when I heard a shot. Thick cattails between us made it impossible to see what was happening.
“Did you get it? Do I need to chase it?” I yelled. He shot again, which answered my question. I dropped the rig and powered around the corner to find Charlie shooting at a crippled drake canvasback, the wiliest escape artist in the duck family, often capable of swimming 100 yards under water to evade hunters trying to finish them off.
Charlie wasn’t in his kayak, and the bird was quickly getting too far away from Charlie’s effective shotgun range, so I dug in and raced to the spot where I’d last seen the duck’s ripple.
If you’ve ever chased a diver, you know how this goes: It’s like a grim game of Whac-A-Mole, except rather than being confined to a table in front of you, the duck can surface anywhere, 360 degrees around you.
“There!” Charlie yelled, only I wasn’t facing the right direction to shoot from my boat. That drake was already under water again by the time I started pivoting in his direction.
“There!” Charlie yelled, and this time I was facing in the right direction. I dropped the paddle in my lap, picked up my gun, and before I could even take the safety off, the bird had gone under again.
Here’s the deal: You HAVE to keep the safety on: Accidentally blowing a hole in your boat while you’re in deep water could put you in serious trouble.
After several shots in which all I did was pummel water, I finally got Charlie’s bird. I could see this paddle-gun tradeoff was going to be harder than I thought.
Furious rainstorms had been dumping water into the Sacramento River, causing it to overflow into a series of bypasses – relief valves intended to dump water harmlessly into agricultural lands to avoid more dangerous flooding where people lived and worked.
This is what I’d been waiting for! There was this little hunting area in one of the bypasses that I’d been watching for years. It looked like it’d have pretty decent hunting when it was flooded, but it also looked like deep water would make hunting on foot treacherous.
No problema! Not anymore.
I went out exploring with my boat one morning, and I heard the mournful calls of wood ducks in some flooded trees. I love eating wood ducks, but I almost never get the chance to hunt them, so I made a beeline to the sound.
Sure as hell, as I was paddling into a pond behind the trees, four wood ducks got up right in front of me and flew away. I dropped the paddle in my lap, picked up my gun, pulled the trigger without taking the safety off, and groaned as the birds flew safety out of range before I could rectify the problem.
I kept exploring, poking around in the trees. At one point, I got about five yards from entering an opening between two clumps of trees when I heard ducks on the right bolt and fly away unseen. Crap.
I edged forward again, and now I heard more wood ducks burst into the air on my left, again unseen.
So much for that.
I figured I might as well go in and check out where they’d been hiding when another group of four jumped up and flew away, this time in plain sight.
You know the drill by now, right? Drop the paddle, pick up the gun, forget to take off the safety, watch the birds escape unharmed.
A pattern was emerging: Ducks NEVER came by when I was reclined and hidden in the boat, when my hand was on my gun, ready to go. And I was NEVER ready for them when I was paddling. Clearly, I needed to work on a system for this, or the case of shells I got for Christmas would go completely unscathed.
Finally, a duck I could get
I was the last hunter to arrive one morning in a fairly crowded hunt area. Everywhere I paddled, the spinning wings of Mojos and Robo Ducks alerted me to hunting parties I needed to avoid. I found a spot that looked decent, set up a jerk rig and a Mojo of my own, and started watching the skies.
Few birds were flying near us, and those that were were heading to the other guys. I fired precisely one shot in that spot, trying to hit a duck that had escaped another hunting party, missing. Even when I seemed perfectly set up, it turned out shooting from a sitting position was harder than it looked.
Not long after that, a pair of mallards entered our wetland theater, and for a moment it seemed like they were headed my way. I hit the call, but so did the other guys, and the birds went their way.
Boom! This time it was a shot across the water. So the duck was just cripped, and he was trying to finish the job.
From my boat, I watched the action. The hunter was sloshing through the water after that duck. Slosh, shoot, slosh, shoot, slosh, shoot. Finally, there was one last shot. The hunter, much closer to me now, took one step, then stopped.
“Hey!” he yelled toward the hunting party closest to him. “Do you have a dog?”
I couldn’t hear the rest of the exchange, except for the word “deep.” He’d finally killed that duck, but it was in water too deep for wading.
“Do you need help?” I yelled. “I have a boat!”
He didn’t hear me, so I just started paddling in his direction. What did I have to lose? It wasn’t like I was smothered in ducks where I’d set up.
Eventually he saw me – Swamp Thing! A kayaker in a ghillie jacket and face mask, with camo netting covering my boat, picking up twigs and branches as it went along. No dog was forthcoming, so it looked like I was actually going to make a difference here.
“Hey, thanks, man!” he said appreciatively.
I grabbed his duck – a hen mallard – and floated a few more feet to where he stood. I took off my hood and face mask, and his face brightened. I was not a man!
“I love seeing women out here! I try to get my sisters out, but I don’t get the chance very often.”
We chatted for a while and he dug a couple shells out of his pocket, offering them to me in thanks.
“Nah, don’t worry about it – I have tons of shells. Just send some birds my way!”
Without hesitation, he held out that mallard. I rarely get mallards, and it was irresistible.
“Really?” I asked. “Are you sure? You went so far to get this duck!”
“Yes, really,” he said. “Besides, it’s my brother’s duck. I’ll just tell him I lost it.”
“OK, thanks!” I said, laughing, sure that his brother had heard the entire exchange on this windless morning, and paddled back to my spot.
Even if he hadn’t handed me that duck, it would’ve been by far my most satisfying experience to date in that boat. In past seasons, I’ve lost a few birds that were dead and in clear sight, but in places I couldn’t get them, either deep water or in a closed zone. It felt really good to help another hunter avoid that anguish.
And the instant karma didn’t suck either.
I think I’m gonna like this boat.
Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.