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Texas River Ducks
Pick the right spot on any of these waterways from D/FW to Austin or Houston, and you just might find yourself in the middle of some of the Lone Star State's best duck shooting!
By Robert Sloan
It was as dark as the backside of midnight on a new moon as we boated down the Brazos River that morning.
"We've got a low area up ahead that's full of rocks," said Kyle Rowe. "I'm not real sure where it is, but y'all hang on just in case we hit one." Within a couple of minutes it was quite evident where the rocks were located - right where the water was rushing over them.
"I've never seen this much water coming down this river," said Rowe. "They must be releasing a bunch at the dam." (We came to find out that an unusual amount of water had indeed been released, as the dam had been scheduled for repairs.)
We hit the rocks with a thud, and then came to a halt. "The rocks normally show up here," said Kyle, getting out of the 14-foot aluminum boat. "Not this morning."
The bad news was that we'd hit the rocks; the good news was that we had enough water to float the boat over them. The problem was that we had so much current under our wading boots that we could barely stand on the slippery rocks. Rowe's yellow Lab, Drake, jumped out of the boat and was immediately swept downstream. The dog angled its way to the bank and watched us struggle with the boat, the rocks and the current.
Such is life for hunters who choose to go after ducks on a Texas river. It's not the easiest way to go about waterfowling, but it's definitely a way to tap into some outstanding shooting for a variety of ducks. We didn't know it at the time, but our efforts at reaching a bend in the river that was out of the current was going to set up an outstanding hunt for mallards, pintails, teal, gadwalls and other ducks.
Did I forget to mention that the river water was darn near freezing that morning? The process of getting out of the boat, pulling it over rocks and then getting back in was definitely a grind. Our hands were numb from the cold. And pushing and pulling the boat took our breath away. We didn't reach the bend in the river that Rowe had in mind. A set of rapids and some pretty crazy looking white water prevented that. Cooler heads prevailed, and we opted instead to set up in one little cove that put us out of the current. We tossed out a few decoys, made simple brush blinds and waited.
What happened next was amazing. A bazillion teal started working our decoys; they came from everywhere!
"Don't shoot them unless you want to watch me shoot mallards later on," advised Rowe. "The mallards and pintails will be here, trust me. You can get an easy limit on teal right now. My advice is to hold your fire."
We held up on the early shooting at teal. As Rowe had said, the mallards and pintails began working up and down the river at about 9 a.m. They would come over high, see the decoys, and hear Rowe's expert calling. They would circle back behind us over the tall oak trees, swing out over the water and glide in against the wind and on cupped wings, setting up some very easy shots.
Needless to say, we had a big-time hunt. What was so amazing about that hunt was that it was on a river and thus presented us with a type of hunting that very few Texas waterfowlers bother to try. Some of the more popular duck-hunting rivers within easy reach of hunters from Austin or Houston to Dallas include the Colorado, Trinity, and Brazos, and, for the Dallas-Fort Worth crowd, the Red on the Texas-Oklahoma border. All these rivers hold an assortment of ducks.
One thing's certain: To tap into river duck hunts you'll have to do plenty of scouting, and rethink your way of hunting. Duck hunting on Texas' many rivers is no easy chore on most days, and on some, it can be downright dangerous. Obstacles you'll have to work through include high water, swift currents, logjams, rocks and a bottom that's generally booby-trapped with logs and brush, not to mention ledges falling off into deep water.
Always play it safe when you're duck hunting on fast water. Keep your life jacket on in a boat, and when wading around in the river always move slowly and feel your way along. You never know when the shallow area you're on will give way to deep water.
Once you figure out how to hunt a river, you definitely have a place to hunt that's not usually overgunned. The great thing about hunting a river like the Brazos, Colorado or Red, is that you'll have plenty of flats and nearshore brush that can be used for hunting.
What you don't want to do is trespass. The shoreline along many rivers is private property. The best possible situation is to get permission from a landowner to use his shoreline for future hunts; make sure you get it in writing.
Otherwise, your best bet is to hunt on shallow flats, or maybe an island. Or better yet, hunt out of your boat. Texas law on hunting in the rivers is vague. Basically it says that you can hunt from vegetation line to vegetation line. The law is unclear about where that line actually begins, however so in most river-hunting situations, if you get out of the boat and wander around, you're probably trespassing. Something else to consider is that some stretches of rivers are available for hunting via a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That's true along some stretches of the Brazos.
The bottom line is to find out where you want to hunt and either talk to area game wardens or the Corps. They can give you the specifics and point you to boat ramps.
Actually setting up for a river hunt is easy. First, you locate where the birds are stacking up; next, you go to them. Ducks that fly up and down the rivers have preferred areas to drop into. Some good examples that I've seen are shallow grassy flats, sloughs or just pockets along the river that allow ducks to get out of the current.
"When duck hunting out of a boat," says Copeland, "the main thing is to carry along lots of camouflage. We use a combination of mesh and natural vegetation. There is usually an abundant supply of brush on a river.
"What we do is drape the mesh over the boat and stack brush along the gunwales. The key is to keep a low profile and make every effort to blend in with natural vegetation."
I've made numerous river hunts with Copeland and Rowe. The best mallard hunts have been on shallow flats along the Red River. That's where you can set up and hunt out of the boat. Our concealment is in the many willow trees on the flats.
On one hunt last season we set up at an island of sorts. The current in the river was brisk, and the water was about a foot deep on the island. It looked like an impossible place to hunt, because along the edge, the water dropped several feet. The island vegetation was more than head high. Rowe ran the boat up on the island and we hopped out for a look-see. Lo and behold, a cleared-out area lay in the middle of the island! It was perfect.
"Why don't y'all put out the decoys and I'll camouflage the boat," said Rowe.
Copeland and I each put out a couple of dozen decoys. Just as we were getting them set up, ducks began piling in. It was an awesome sight. We sat down on logs in the brush and took turns shooting the mallards, gadwalls, teal and pintails.
Decoys are an absolute necessity for river hunting. In some situations you'll need several dozen, but on many hunts a dozen or two will be ample; in small areas you won't need more than a dozen. Make sure you have plenty of anchor weight for each decoy. If not, you'll watch your decoys get taken downstream with the current.
In summary, here are the three most important things to keep in mind when river hunting: First, don't trespass. Second, always wear your life jacket when underway. Third, scout - because that's the only way to be a successful river duck hunter.
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