So I must be totally up front. If you’re a duck hunting purist, and feel that setting up decoys and skillfully calling in a flock of mallards to your spread is a sacred art form that is paramount above all else then you should probably turn back now because what follows is none of that! What I am presenting is an alternative to the classic duck blind but is something that will be easily recognizable to our upland game bird wing shooting cousins. This is all about jumping ducks.
The concept of jumping or flushing birds is age old. Use a dog, or just walk through the brush where they live, flush em out, and attempt to shot them as they fly away. This is a classic tactic used for grouse, quail, or pheasant. But it isn’t often applied to ducks. The reason is rather obvious. You typically find ducks in the water. In ponds and marshes where flushing them on foot is nearly impossible. Using a boat adds another layer of problems. The primary one being that it is illegal in most places to shoot ducks from a motor boat except in certain scenarios. Some laws say you must be anchored, some say the motor must be removed from the water, in NY they say the motor must be off and the boat must have come to a stop before you can shoot. The interesting thing about these regulation is that they are all almost exclusively written for “motorboats” (and in NY they include sailboats). Some explicitly exclude “human powered watercraft”.
Human powered vessels would include rowboats, canoes, and kayaks. The issue with all of them historically has been that pesky paddle or oar. It’s almost impossible to drop your paddle, pick up a shot-gun, swing to your target, and get a shot off in the time it takes for the bird to fly out of range. The only real option was to partner up with a buddy and do it with a gunner in the front, and a rower or paddler in the back. This is an effective tactic, but with two people, you might as well take the time to set up the decoys and call in the birds since that’s a lots easier with two people.
The solo hunter has had a difficult time in the duck world, but recent innovations in kayaks have changed that entirely. Meet the pedal drive kayak! These kayaks have been around for over 15 years starting with the Hobie Mirage drive. Originally made for the kayak angler, their utility in other endeavors is only just starting to be realized. Kayak fishing has experienced an explosion of growth in the last 5 years leading to multiple brands and dozens of boat models now being offered with a pedal drive unit. These kayaks allow for hands free operation and are the perfect vessel for jumping ducks.
Now how exactly does one jump ducks? Well it takes three things. First you need a pedal kayak. The brand, size, or even color doesn’t matter. Remember, you’re not trying to hide from the ducks and get them to fly close to you, you’re flushing them out so any color will do. The most important thing (besides the pedal drive) is that the boat is stable and you’re comfortable in it. The recoil of a 12ga goose load could end badly in an unstable kayak. Luckily, almost all pedal drive kayaks are very stable!
The second thing you need is a river with ducks! Narrow winding rivers are best. With all sorts of blind corners, the opportunity to bump into a group of ducks is a lot higher than when the river is just wide and straight. The exception to this is foggy mornings (my favorite). With dense fog cover, you can pedal along the bank of large rivers (or even a lake) and still get close enough to the ducks hanging out in the shallow areas. One thing to note, its important to know the hunting and shooting regulations where you are. Each state (and in some cases county or zone) will be different. You need to know where you’re shooting and that it’s safe to do so. If you’re in a small stream, you will likely need to get out of the kayak to recover the birds on shore. This may be complicated if you’re moving through private property. On big rivers, it’s very easy to keep the birds out over the water, and recovery is as simple as pedaling over to the downed bird. Either way, you may be moving through developed or populated areas so be conscious of where you’re shooting and that some area residents might not approve of hearing gunfire early in the morning on the river.
The last thing you need is to be a good wing shooter. Admittedly this is where I am severely lacking in my duck hunting skill set. When you’re decoying ducks, often times you can wait until they are locked up and getting ready to land making for easier shooting. When jumping ducks, you will almost always be shooting at ducks as they are taking off from the water which can be very erratic and will be quick shots. On that note, I also recommend purchasing a leash for your shotgun. I utilize the rear sling attachment on my shotgun to leash the gun to the kayak. The last thing you want is to watch that $2,000 Benelli sinking to the bottom never to be seen again.
So how does this all work? Well it’s very simple. Put your boat in on the river of your choice and start pedaling. I like to utilize a brace on the bow of my kayak to rest the barrel of the shotgun on. This keeps it pointed away from my kayak hull, and in a more ready position. I then keep my right hand on the stock, my left hand on the rudder, and I pedal my way along looking and listening. They key is to be comfortable and ready to lift and shoot at any second.
In a recent outing, it was a nice foggy morning on the local river. Since I wasn’t setting up decoys or anything, I didn’t need to get to the river super early to get to a spot. I launched literally 5 minutes before first shooting light. I started making my way along the bank and before long I came up on a little shallow cove. As I pedaled by, a group of 4 teal flushed from the bank out over the river. The shotgun barked, but nothing fell. My first miss of the day. They flushed a little early since I wasn’t hugging the shore as tight as I should have been. I noted that, and as I made my way forward, I made sure to stay closer to the bank.
A quarter mile down the river, I started hearing some ducks up ahead. I took my hand off the rudder and got into a more ready position. I kept pedaling very slowly just maintaining course. Out of the fog ahead two wood ducks appears swimming up the river toward me. As they got closer, they saw the kayak, turned toward the middle of the river and took off. As they lifted off the water, I pulled the trigger and dropped a beautiful drake. The second shot did not find it’s mark and the other woodie disappeared into the mist.
I made my way another half mile before crossing the river to return up the opposite bank. As I pedaled back upstream the fog was starting to lighten up a bit. Across the water I could make out the form of a flock of about 10 mergansers coming down the river toward me. Knowing this would likely be my last chance of the morning, I aimed my kayak diagonal across the river to cross in front of them. Holding the shotgun at the ready and just pedaling the kayak, I was able to quickly close the distance and got to about 30 yards before they decided they didn’t like the look of my boat moving fast against the current. I picked my first target and she dropped to the water. My second target was luckier and those pellets just flew into nothingness. The one I hit however was not done. She was crippled but was still able to swim and dive to try to escape. Again, using my pedals, I quickly made my way after the bird and was able to run it down and finish it off while pedaling my kayak the entire time.
Kayaks are amazing duck hunting tools. You can get back into marshes where even the mud boats can’t. You can easily haul a few dozen decoys, and make a great set where other have never hunted. You can also take advantage of a pedal drives and do something a little different than the average duck hunter. Either way, I know that kayak duck hunting is quickly becoming a new hobby I need to make time for in the fall.