Sandbar Ducks on the Big Muddy

By Jim Low | November 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Nov 2003

It's two minutes 'til dawn.The temperature is a little over 40 degrees, and an impatient north wind is kicking sand into the shallow pit where I huddle with Guiness,my golden retriever.The pleasantly musty smell of her damp fur stirs memories of other hunts.

A few feet to my right, soft snores indicate that my hunting partner, John, who has no dog to keep him warm, has escaped the cold in the folds of Morpheus' cloak.

My gaze drifts left, where a slight rosy glow promises sun and warmth. I am lost in memories of other mornings when squadrons of low-flying ducks suddenly swoop low over the decoys, their wings rending the silence with an airy roar. I catch the barest glimpse of handsome black and white markings before they are gone behind me.

"Ringnecks," John observes, instantly awake. Guiness' swiveling head tells me the birds are circling out across the Missouri River's main channel, preparing for another pass.

John blows encouraging quacks on his call as four small, speedy ducks come back into view. I contribute contented feeding chuckles.

Skimming low over the roiling water, the quartet of divers seems determined to light. When they reverse their wing beats and throw out their feet, we throw back our tarps. Two shots dump two drakes. The remaining birds flair wildly and are out of range almost before their mates hit the water. Guiness is in retriever heaven, splashing madly toward the the ducks as they drift slowly down the river slough.

Duck hunting on the Missouri River is unpredictable. It shifts with the river's moods, sometimes fast and challenging, other times slow and contemplative. But it's never dull.

River duck hunting is more work than dabbling in flooded cornfields, but the rewards are worth the trouble. For one thing, you need no reservations. Instead of standing in cramped rooms with other hunters to draw lots for hunting spots, you can survey your decoy spread without another hunting party in sight or hearing.

River hunting really comes into its own when ice locks up shallow wetlands. Then, ducks seek open water in river sloughs and side channels. I have seen river backwaters teeming with late-migrating mallards weeks after waterfowl refuges stood empty and silent. I'll never forget the haunting calls of a thousand snow geese descending through moonlit fog to land around me on a mile-long sand island.

River duck hunting, more than any other pursuit, puts you in touch with the awe that early explorers felt as they headed into this wildlife treasure trove.

Where to go

Some of the best places to hunt ducks on the Missouri River are adjacent to public wetland areas. The stretches of river near Lower Hamburg Bend (Atchison County), Bob Brown (Holt County), Grand Pass (Saline County) and Eagle Bluffs (Boone County) conservation areas all fit the bill. Howell Island Conservation Area (St. Charles County) also is good. When wetland development is complete at Columbia Bottom Conservation Area (St. Louis County) next year, this area will be a waterfowl magnet for river duck hunters.

Instead of trying to get ducks to come where you want them, it makes sense to hunt where ducks naturally want to be. You can discover these areas by drifting a stretch of river and scanning areas off the main channel with binoculars.

Side channels are good prospects. So are the head and tail ends of islands. When scouting, take time to explore islands, mud flats and low banks behind wing dikes, even if you don't see birds there. Droppings deposited in such areas prove that Canada geese are feeding and resting there. Ducks often loaf in these sheltered areas, too.

How to set up

Choose a spot where you can set your decoys within shooting distance of land. It's a good idea to place a few decoys at the water's edge and a foot or two on shore to give the impression of safety.

Wind direction is critical. Unlike flat, open wetlands, the river has features that can be obstacles to approaching ducks. Bluffs and treelined banks downwind of your decoy spread make landing hard and can prompt ducks to go elsewhere. When the river is very low, even an exposed wing dike can ruin an otherwise promising hunting spot.

Once you find a workable location, your biggest problem is concealment. Natural vegetation may provide partial cover along river banks, allowing you to simply cover yourself with a camouflage tarp. The jumbled surface of wing dikes can provide concealment, too. Most times, however, you have to create a "hide" of some kind. The challenge is greatest on flat, featureless sandbars.

If logs and driftwood are available, you can arrange them to form an impromptu hide that breaks up your body's silhouette. A tarp or burlap sheet arranged over a framework of driftwood stuck in the sand works, too. One very effective approach is the pit hide. This consists of a grave-like depression just deep enough to put your nose and toes below ground level. A small shovel and rake are indispensable for this project.

After digging the pit, arrange pieces of driftwood across the opening and lay a tarp across them. Cover the bottom and side edges of the tarp with sand. A few pieces of driftwood across the tarp will also help disguise your hide. Then use the rake to spread out any piled-up sand and erase your footprints and slip under the tarp to wait for your quarry.

Pit hides can be surprisingly comfortable. They offer shelter from wind and rain, and a closed-cell foam ground pad keeps your backside warm and dry. You'll have to resist the temptation to snooze.

When choosing tarps for camouflage, remember that driftwood, sand, and rock rip-rap are much lighter-colored than most marsh camouflage patterns. Plain burlap and old, faded tarps are better choices. Faded tan or brown coveralls blend well with river sand.

If you wear bifocal eyeglasses, leave them at home and wear single-vision lenses when hunting from a pit hide. Lying flat on your back forces you to look through the bottom half of the lenses. It's maddening to try to focus on incoming ducks through lenses made for looking at objects two feet away.

Unless you are hunting from your boat, anchor it as far as practical from your blind. Prop logs and sticks at random angles around the outside of the craft, then drape tarps on top to break up the boat's straight lines.

What you need

The most important piece of equipment for river duck hunting is a riverworthy boat. A sturdy river johnboat at least 16 feet long, with a large enough motor to push you upstream is advisable. Smaller craft may be adequate for short trips in good weather.

If you must motor the river in the pre-dawn darkness, bring a spotlight to help you navigate. Dense fog is common. Allow plenty of time to reach your hunting spot so you aren't tempted to go faster than is safe.

River sand can damage fine guns or cause them to jam. Field-worn but serviceable double-barrels purchased for modest prices are ideal.

Pack extra fuel, clothing, food, hot beverages and a propane heater in case you get wet and need to warm up. Cell phones don't always work on the river, so tell a friend where you are going and when you expect to return.

Waterfowl loads

Waterfowl hunters must use federally approved, non-toxic shot. Steel shot is the most popular and least expensive option. If used with a proper load/choke/shot size combination, it's very effective at ranges of up to 40 yards.

Other non-toxic shot options are bismuth-tin, tungsten-iron, tungstenpolymer and tungsten matrix.These loads, which are available at most major retailers and firearms dealerships, are heavier and more dense than steel, which increases their stopping power within reasonable ranges.

For shooting ducks at close range over decoys, use No. 1 or No. 2 shot from a 12-gauge shotgun and an improved cylinder choke. For pass shooting, use a modified choke.

Bryan Hendricks

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Ara Clark
Designer - Les Fortenberry
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler