When I began waterfowl hunting I had no clue what I was doing. I didn’t know anything about decoys, duck calls, the gear to buy or strategies to employ. Most importantly, I didn’t know where to go. I knew ducks liked water. I knew they moved and migrated. But I just had to pick a random piece of public land with water and start there.
Nowadays I have several options to choose from, but I’m still very limited by what’s available. I don’t have connections to private land and I don’t have a dog which limits my choices significantly. I have to find areas that allow me to retrieve without the risk of falling in, and I have to contend with all the other public land hunters. This was and still is the reality of hunting in western Colorado. Unless you’re able and willing to drive several hours, you work with what you got, unless you have access to something that expands your reach.
Cue the arrival of the duck boat… A few years ago I agreed to bring a couple guys on a duck hunt that I had not met. I’m always reluctant to hunt with people I don’t know because of negative experiences I’ve had doing so. However this invite paid off in several ways. Justin invited John and John would later invite Lance who are now good friends of mine. I took them on a couple of hunts that were far from spectacular. We got along, shared a lot of the same values, and managed not to get in each other's way. The season ended and we talked about needing to find new areas. Then in the middle of the summer I got a call.
John and Lance bought a used 16 ft. G3 aluminum boat and found a working jet drive outboard at a scrap yard! They fashioned a cowl themselves out of fiberglass (something they say they’d never do again), installed LED lights on the bow, strung lights on the inside of the boat, and finished what was left to make the boat water ready. We tested the boat in the summer catfishing, made a test run on the river in early fall, and realized that we now had an opportunity to find new waterfowl spots in areas that are nearly inaccessible. By the end of that waterfowl season, we discovered that hunting ducks in Colorado can be phenomenal if you’re able to get to locations where the birds seek asylum.
Our first “jet boat” trip of the year occurred a few weeks ago. A week before the hunt, Lance, John and I got together one afternoon to do a test run. The water has been low all year due to a lack of precipitation so our goal was to set a GPS track that would allow us to navigate the ever changing waters, knowing we’d be going in while it was dark. It was immediately obvious that the lack of rain and snow was going to make the run a bit more challenging than usual, but we were able to get to our spot without too much hassle and therefore knew it was doable. The weekend of our first hunt Justin was in town so we were able to get the whole crew together. The four of us met at the boat launch where we were quick to recognize another obstacle we’d have to overcome: The fog.
Most people we’ve met on the river want no business taking their boats down the river in the dark. This gives us a great advantage considering that Lance, our designated duck boat captain, has the stomach for it. “Prime time” often occurs in the very first minutes of shooting light. If you’ve ever experienced the quiet calm of sitting on a river bank, in the dark, in a remote location while ducks pour into the spread, the thought of traveling down river after the sun has already come up is absolutely asinine. However, seeing fog on the river that limits visibility to 5 yards, does make you question the rationality of venturing into the fold. Regardless, it was the first jet boat hunt of the year and not one of us erred on the side of caution. We backed the boat into the river, unlatched it from the trailer, and tackled the fog head on.
More is always better when hunting with close friends, but adding weight to a boat presents challenges. It makes it tough to get on plane which can be a problem in shallow stretches of water where a jet drive will propel you through narrow channels. We’ve experienced problems before where we’ve had to drop off passengers and make two trips, but that wasn’t a sound option considering the complete lack of visibility. Therefore, the four us opted to adapt by literally moving our weight around. I remained in the hull of the boat near the bow, John would climb to the front to get us on plane before returning to his seat, and Justin sprawled out awkwardly across the bags of decoys that were strapped to the bow of the boat. Justin’s position would typically obstruct Lance’s view, but since the fog made it impossible to see in any direction, our captain navigated using his GPS. A spotlight held by John was used to locate the occasional rock or gravel bar, but the bow lights actually made visibility worse. The fog would reflect and refract the light which simply turned the fog into an illuminated wall of cloud, so we did away with the main light bar. With eyes on his GPS, Lance did his best to stay on the track we created a week earlier on our test run. This is easier said than done however. Every once in a while John, Justin or I would noticed that we were getting awfully close to a hazard. We’d make Lance aware by calling out to him and he’d make the necessary adjustments.
The only way we’re able to attempt such a risky undertaking is to have faith and trust one another. As Justin laid across the bags with his head hovering over the tip of the bow, he had to trust that Lance wouldn’t slam into an obstacle that would send him careening head first into the river. John had to trust that somebody would save him if he fell into the river while walking the length of the boat. I had no visibility in the hull, so I had to trust that the others would warn me to brace myself if things went awry. Lance had to trust that we’d warn him if we were about to collide with a hazard, considering that his eyes were glued to his GPS. This level of trust isn’t something to be handed out without consideration. You choose the people you hunt with carefully, and we’ve become comfortable enough with one another to attempt what many would say is absurd. Still, we definitely let out a sigh of relief when we reached our destination. We set up our decoys, parked and covered the boat, and began to reminisce as if the trip we had just endured was something that happened years ago.
As shooting light approached, we marveled at the amount of fog that was on the river. The sunlight struggled to penetrate the veil, we could only see a small portion of our decoys, and the conditions had the ducks so subdued that we had no choice but to live in the moment. The morning was slow as anticipated. We have hunted in similar conditions and know that ducks are fairly inactive when the fog is dense. We had a pair and single drake visit which we able to take advantage of, but the defining moment of the hunt came later in the morning when a flock of over 20 ducks suddenly appeared from behind me. Lance and Justin had actually wandered up river in an attempt to “jump” a stubborn duck when the flock arrived. When I first noticed the flock, it was due to “rolling chuckle” that I had initially thought was Lance and Justin returning after a failed attempt to sneak up on their duck. I looked up to see a flock of mallards flying away, so I immediately grabbed my call and desperately tried to get them to turn around… And it worked! As I chuckled and greeted them they worked round and round until one drake made the decision to join our decoys, and the rest followed. As soon as I saw half of the ducks hit the water, I called out to John to “take ‘em!” Little did I know that Justin and Lance had made their way to the waters edge just in time, and the flock and landed within shooting distance for all four of us. We let out a volley and in the end we were able to come back with a couple handfuls of mallards.
In the end we left with eight ducks which is a relatively low number, but it was definitely one of my favorite waterfowl experiences of all time. Despite my love for waterfowl, the hunts can definitely become monotonous. Yet, if you add a bunch of fog, close friends, and a couple of opportunities to squeeze the trigger, an ordinary hunt quickly turns into a unique adventure.