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Most folks agree that October is one of the most enjoyable periods of the year in Maine. It’s hard to argue with that — just look outdoors at the clear, blue sky and colorful leaves, and feel the crisp coolness of the autumn air. If you don’t feel more alive in October, check your pulse!
One of the best ways to enjoy this prime October weather is to spend a day on the water. My favorite fall excursions feature a slick-bottomed canoe, a shotgun and a river, where I can drift and hunt all day, ostensibly in pursuit of ducks and geese, but mostly just enjoying the scenery and serenity that comes with being away from all things civilized.
The rivers in our area are unique in one aspect in that they are usually steep-sided, winding and slow moving, perfect for a leisurely canoe trip. In most area you can’t see over the banks, so whatever is in the distance is obscured, and the feeling is definitely one of “Lewis and Clark” for most of the float. Plus, there’s a very real chance to encounter deer, moose and other game, not to mention the occasional beaver or otter that will plop into the river beside you with a loud, unexpected splash!
My focus in October is on waterfowl, and the odds are good that there will be enough wood ducks, black ducks, mallards, mergansers and geese to make the trip an exciting one. All of these species (along with the occasional bufflehead, goldeneye and teal) can be found in our area in October, though most will move on once the real cold weather kicks in next month.
There is nothing easier than a river duck hunt by canoe. Simply load up, shove off and drift with the current. If there’s any trick to it at all it’s that you should keep to the inside shore when approaching bends or backwaters because those are the places where ducks are likely to be found. You want the element of surprise when you round each bend, so it’s a good idea to approach silently on a slow drift, and then lower your paddle and raise your shotgun as the bow of the canoe makes the initial turn. In most cases the birds will be tucked in close to the bank, among fallen logs or under brush, so be prepared for a fast and furious flush once the ducks spot the craft.
The beauty of a canoe hunt is that you can find, shoot and retrieve your ducks with ease. This is a relaxing and enjoyable way to hunt and it’s very productive, too. On the busier days there may be other hunters waiting on beaver ponds, deadwaters and lakes in the area, and this will cause any ducks they encounter to seek refuge on a winding river or stream nearby. Even the hunters who stake out the major river bends or points will move birds upstream or down, pushing them right into a showdown with a float tripper.
Expect to see most of your ducks along the bank and in lazy backwater coves, but always keep an eye peeled for birds trading along the river’s course both ahead and from behind. I can all but guarantee you that, sooner or later, you’re going to be paddling along with a keen eye ahead only to have a flock of ducks some sailing by from back to front. I can also all but guarantee that you won’t be able to switch from paddle to shotgun quick enough to get a shot, a real frustration because often those rear-passing birds will sail by close enough to see the gleam in their eye – but flying at 45 miles per hour, you won’t have time to do anything about it!
It’s always better to hunt with a partner so that one hunter can focus on paddling while the other shoots. It’s common courtesy to switch positions after each opportunity so that both hunters get a chance to shoot. Also, the bowman can make paddling easier by pointing out rocks, logs and other obstacles the stern man might not be able to see.
It’s required that all boaters (including canoeists) have a PFD on board for each passenger, but I’d recommend buying the low-profile, even inflatable types and wear them, don’t just stuff them under the seat! Truth be known, I have been flipped out of more canoes while duck hunting than any other event (especially when in the company of over-eager Labrador retrievers), and the odds of a serious accident happening are compounded in rivers thanks to high water, cold fall temperatures and uncertain depths and current.
Also, plan ahead and stow all your gear, extra clothing and ammunition in waterproof, floating bags or boxes. My gear box for duck hunting is sized to fit amidships between the thwarts. It contains all of my extraneous gear, food and equipment. When it’s time to load, unload or portage I simply grab my shotgun and the box and walk away – nothing to gather, nothing ruined by exposure to water, nothing to fall in or roll away to the other end of the canoe.
For safety’s sake, especially on long floats, be sure to tell someone where you are going, where you put in and take out, and when you expect to return home. There can be miles of empty terrain between bridge crossings, and if no one knows you are hunting the warden service won’t know where to start looking for you.
I have had only one near-disaster while canoeing (aside from several Lab-induced dunkings!), but it could have been trouble. I was floating in a canvas-covered canoe one rainy week day and discovered halfway downriver that canvas does not like rocks! I’d hit so much ledge that there were tears in the fabric, which caused the canoe to leak like a sieve. It would fill up with water and sink to the bottom every 50 yards or so. I finally gave up on trying to make repairs with spruce pitch and walked about 6 miles back to my truck.
It was a great day and I got my limit of ducks in the end, but three hours of walking in a cold October rain was lesson enough for me. My new aluminum canoe doesn’t leak and if I’m not back on time I know someone is going to come out to find me!
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