The Boat Float

Split River Outdoors -

The Boat Float

When searching for opportunities to successfully hunt waterfowl, it’s often necessary to adapt in order to overcome obstacles. Every die hard ‘fowler’ has developed strategies to circumvent challenges, because it’s necessary when chasing weary, migratory birds. One such strategy that we employ, we call a “boat float.” We load our gear onto a 12 foot jon boat, and with paddles in hand we ventured out in search of birds hiding in inaccessible locations.

This past weekend we did just that. I met with my friend Marshal at 4:30 a.m. and we drove our vehicles to an area in western Colorado that we have floated many times. We dropped my truck off at the location where we would pull out of the river, and drove his truck to the location that we would put in.

As we were getting ready Marshal noticed that a mouse had chewed a golf ball sized hole in his waders. It was his first time out this year, so he had just pulled his waders out for the first time. It’s not something you want to see, but we weren’t going to let something like that ruin our day. So we pulled our waders on, layered up, pulled the boat out of truck and placed it in the river.

We’ve done these floats many times throughout the years and most of the time all goes well. There’s always an element of danger involved, and that’s what makes it unique and exciting to us. However, several of my latest floats have left me contemplating as to whether or not it's worth it. A couple years ago Justin and I tipped a boat in the river and barely managed to avoid a catastrophic event. We were extraordinarily lucky that the boat got wedged in concrete as it was tipping, or Justin would have flipped with the boat and got caught in the wreckage of concrete and rebar. Just a year ago we had to call it quits when we got caught in 40 mph winds that made it impossible to control the boat. Marshal knows the risk better than anyone. Seven years ago Marshal, his brother, and another friend flipped a boat on the Colorado River and Search and Rescue had to deliver them from there stranded situation. Needless to say, we know what can happen. I float less because of the potential for disaster, but it’s always a thrilling adventure which is why we continue to do it.   

As we set out we immediately noticed how shallow the river was. This past year Colorado has received very little precipitation which alters the rivers and creates unanticipated obstacles. We also had the added challenge of bringing along Gauge, Marshals dog. The added weight and Gauge’s restless nature makes for an interesting and unpredictable ride, but we could never feel content leaving a duck dog at home.

The three of us worked our way through a light fog, navigating various shallows, and doing our best to avoid potential mishaps.  We had some early shooting opportunities that we could not capitalize on (early season blunders), but all in all we were doing fine; that was until the trouble began. It started with a hidden rock that caught us off guard, causing me to drop an oar. I called out to Marshal who immediately grabbed the oar before it got away, and we were able to make adjustments just in time. I’ve never dropped an oar so I was a bit shaken, but I collected myself and we moved on. Unfortunately, the incident wasn’t the last of the day. We would lose an oar two more times before our trip concluded. Farther down river, another concealed rock flung my oar from the boat. The collision kept me from securing the oar because the impact forced me into the bottom of the boat. Marshal was unable to grab the oar this time and we had to pursue it down river. We recovered, laughed it off, and continued downstream. The third and final time we lost an oar was caused by our restless bird dog. Gauge eagerly launched into the water after shots were fired knocking Marshals oar into the river. We were in shallow water so Marshal jumped out and chased his oar down, but left me spinning wildly as I tried to control the boat as it bashed the river bottom. We’ve lost an oar before but to do it three times was unprecedented. However these events by comparison were not the worst of it.

As I mentioned above, the lack of precipitation alters the river. As water levels drop, the river adjusts accordingly to make its way towards its final destination. This change alters what was once safe routes which presents various challenges. Our experience with, and understanding of a stretch of river determines how safe the trip should be. However this was our first float of the year. When approaching islands, we typically know when to go right and when to stay left and vise versa. Unfortunately it can change year to year and even from one month to another, and that’s the predicament we found ourselves in.

As we approached one island in particular we knew we would typically go left. The river controls where the boat goes and we use our oars to avoid hazards; that is if it’s possible. When it’s not possible our experience provides us with knowledge on what to do next, which often prevents what could be a serious accident. As soon as I noticed that our usual route was not safe I relayed my concern to Marshal. He wasn’t nearly as concerned as me and had faith that we’d make it; and it didn’t matter anyways because we were too close to the island and the river was going to take us to the left. As we neared the point the swiftness of the river shot us towards the bank. We kept the boat facing forward to avoid tipping but we simultaneously prepared to deal with the impending threat. Thick branches and thorn covered Russian Olives were overhanging the bank that we were about to collide with. The branches could turn the boat sideways or knock us out of the boat, so we had to do two things; keep the boat from colliding with the bank and avoid being ripped from the boat. Marshal used an oar to maintain separation and I gave a branch a ‘stiff arm’ to keep the branch from reaching me. We then immediately got as flat as we could. The boat plowed through the overhanging brush as we covered our faces and secured our guns. We popped through the mess without losing anything and discussed the absurdity of our boat floats.

So much of our time was spent battling the river that we missed several hunting opportunities along the way. We managed to get two Teal and a Goldeneye which was somewhat disappointing considering how many ducks we saw. However, the experience is what we ultimately live for (Not to mention we were very optimistic considering what we had just overcome). I told Marshal that I’m getting weary of these types of floats and that it may be my only one of the year. I like to think that I’m getting more cautious each year, especially after experiencing floats like this one. Yet I knew, even as I was considering not floating again, that I would likely change my mine. We dropped the boat off at his brother’s house, told the story, and shared some laughs. Before I headed home I was invited to do it again. Despite what I know, I can’t help myself, and I’ll be on the river again in 6 hours. Wish us luck!