Rivers & Streams

In the September issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine, there’s a story by Wade Bourne in the Mixed Bag section called “Drifting for Early Ducks.” As Mark Twain described in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there’s no better escape than to drop a boat in a free-flowing stream and let the current take you. Like Bourne, I’ve had some of my most memorable waterfowl hunts on flowing waters, from the Mighty Mississippi to spring creeks in southwestern Montana.

Perhaps my favorite stream hunt took place several years ago on public land. When a severe cold snap froze our regular hunting spots, my dad and I decided to try a hunt on a series of beaver ponds on a small creek that we knew would still have open water. As we launched our canoe just before dawn, we could hear mallards calling to each other up and down the creek. We didn’t have a mud motor, so we had to get to those ducks the old-fashioned way. Despite the bitter cold, we broke a good sweat paddling against the current and dragging the canoe over a series of beaver dams. We kicked out quite a few ducks along the way, but we had no idea how many birds were concentrated upstream.

When we finally got to the ponds, we flushed at least a thousand mallards. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more ducks packed into such a small area. Needless to say, the rest of the hunt was a slam dunk. We barely had time to throw out a few decoys and load our shotguns before ducks started coming back, first in small groups and then in droves.

Getting there can be half the fun while float hunting, but a word of caution is in order: Before you go, be sure you know the trespassing laws in the area you intend to float. Riparian property rights can vary considerably from one state to the next. And any time you venture onto the water, especially in cold weather, be sure to wear a life jacket and practice good boating safety. A handy list of safety tips is available online at boatus.com/foundation/sportsnew/.

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Ultimate Trophy: Part 2

In response to my previous blog post, taxidermist Shane Smith sent me the following photos of hybrid and exotic ducks that he has mounted. To see more of Shane’s award-winning work, visit Artistic Compositions by Shane Smith. I’ve also posted an image of Tim Soderquist‘s leucistic hen pintail.

Mallard-Gadwall Hybrid, by Shane Smith

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Mallard-Gadwall Hybrid, by Shane Smith

Eurasian Wigeon, by Shane Smith

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Eurasian Wigeon, by Shane Smith

Common Goldeneye-Hooded Merganser Hybrid, by Shane Smith

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Common Goldeneye-Hooded Merganser Hybrid, by Shane Smith

Mallard-Black Duck Hybrid, by Shane Smith

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Mallard-Black Duck Hybrid, by Shane Smith

Eurasian Green-winged Teal, by Shane Smith

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Eurasian Green-winged Teal, by Shane Smith

Mallard-Pintail Hybrid, by Shane Smith

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Mallard-Pintail Hybrid, by Shane Smith

Leucistic Hen Pintail, by Tim Soderquist

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Leucistic Hen Pintail, by Tim Soderquist

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Your Ultimate Trophy

Most of the duck hunters I know enjoy shooting a mixed bag of different waterfowl species, and they are always pleasantly surprised when they bag something unusual. In the Mississippi and Atlantic flyways, harvesting a cinnamon teal is cause for celebration, while in the Central and Pacific flyways, taking a black duck is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Some species of sea ducks, diving ducks and geese are also rarely encountered except in specific areas.

Hybrids are also coveted trophies among waterfowlers. According to noted waterfowl biologist Paul Johnsgard, more than 400 kinds of interspecies hybrids have been documented among waterfowl. Mallards alone are known to have crossbred with some 40 other species in the wild and captivity. Mallard/black duck crosses are not uncommon in the Atlantic and Mississippi flyways, as these closely related species readily interbreed where their ranges overlap. Many waterfowl hybrids are striking if not beautiful birds. Mallard/pintail hybrids are prime examples. These birds often have an iridescent green head like a mallard, but have the blue bill and long tail feathers of a pintail drake. Mallard/gadwall hybrids can also be great looking trophies. John James Audubon painted a portrait of one of these birds that he shot on Louisiana’s Lake Barataria in 1822. Audubon mistakenly thought he had discovered a new species, which he named the Brewer’s duck in honor of a friend, Boston ornithologist Thomas M. Brewer.

What about exotics? Eurasian wigeon occur in fair numbers in the Pacific Flyway, and every year some of them are taken by hunters, largely in Washington, Oregon and California. Most of these birds come from Siberia, but reports indicate that a small breeding population also exists in Alaska’s Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Smaller numbers of Eurasian wigeon occur in the other flyways and likely include a few vagrants from Iceland, the United Kingdom and mainland Europe. Tufted ducks, a Eurasian relative of the ring-necked duck, also occasionally show up in North American marshes. Other exotic species are taken by hunters from time to time, but most of these birds turn out to be escapees from zoos or private collections.

Then there are leucistic and albino waterfowl. Animals with leucism have reduced pigmentation in their bodies. In waterfowl, leucism can affect plumage, bill and foot color. A few years back, DU Regional Director Tim Soderquist shot a hen pintail in Texas with pale, frosted plumage that is a good example of a leucistic bird. True albinism, where an animal has no pigmentation at all in its skin, feathers or eyes, is extremely rare, occurring in as few as 1 in a million individuals.

The older I get, the more I have come to realize that every duck is a trophy. If you consider the amazing journey waterfowl make every year between their breeding and wintering areas and the grave threats they face from habitat loss across the continent, we should never take them for granted.

What would be your ultimate trophy bird? I’m sure there are many DU members who have shot rare and unusual ducks. If you’re among them, please send your stories & photos to us at blogs@ducks.org. We will feature as many as we can in Part II of this story.

–Matt

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