Duck Hunting From A Kayak

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An alternative to traditional duck hunts on the water

Have you ever wished you could silently approach a flock of ducks hiding in a cattail marsh? Have you ever dreamed about setting up a decoy spread on a distant shore, but had no way of accessing it? You might think that these are pleasant daydreams for the quiet moments in your duck blind, but they can easily become a reality if you hunt from a boat. There are many different types of boats that the waterfowler can use. I was looking for an option that was light, quiet, comfortable, easy to load and unload by one hunter, quick to deploy and large and stable enough to carry all my waterfowling gear. Oddly enough, the simple kayak fulfilled my needs.

As luck would have it, the weather was perfect on the maiden voyage hunt with my kayak. A light wind was blowing from the west. The grass was still covered in frost from the night before as I slid my kayak into the water. Paddling silently through the pre-dawn light, I arrived at a small opening in the middle of the marsh – a spot where ducks loved to loaf all day long. A spot that was always out of reach, until this morning. My decoys were set in record time. I tucked my kayak along the edge of the reeds and deployed the cam-nets. I even had time for a hot cup of coffee, watching a wedge of crimson light start to grow on the horizon. The swish of duck wings overhead snapped me back to the task at hand: the hunt.

 

The kayak in time

The kayak originated with the Inuit people of the northern latitudes. Traditionally a wood or whalebone frame covered with animal skins, the kayak protected the hunter from waves and spray with its watertight covered deck. Built for speed, its low and sleek profile allowed hunters to manoeuvre silently to within striking distance of their prey, including sea mammals, waterfowl and caribou. Kayaks were found across the north, from Siberia to Greenland. Today, while the materials used in manufacturing a kayak have changed, the basic design remains the same. And for the same reasons, they are just as effective as they were thousands of years ago.

 

Why use a kayak?

Kayaks have several advantages for waterfowling over other boats, such as johnboats, which are also designed for hunting calm, shallow waters. Weight is the first category where the kayak wins. Because it is light (40 to 70 pounds, depending on the model and accessories), it can be easily loaded on the roof of a vehicle, including a small car. This opens up options for hunters who may not have access to a substantial vehicle to trailer a larger, heavier boat. Its light weight allows the kayak to be launched by hand from almost any shoreline, and allows for easy portaging. On my first duck hunting trip with my kayak, I unloaded it from the SUV, filled it with my hunting gear, climbed in, launched it and paddled off into the breaking dawn within minutes of arriving at my hunting spot. It was a lot easier than I thought!

Lightweight boats are less likely to get stuck in the mud of a shallow marsh, and if you do get stuck, it is a simple process to wiggle and push free again. Additionally, kayaks have a shallow draft – that is, a short distance from the waterline to the bottom of the keel. A shallow draft will allow you to manoeuvre through mere inches of water to retrieve a downed duck or neatly tuck yourself and your rig in the reeds to ambush unsuspecting waterfowl.

Kayaks are very quiet in the water when compared to a flat-bottomed, square-hulled johnboat. Stealth is the key to good duck hunting, especially when trying to jump-shoot ducks loafing in a secluded backwater. The only technique to master for stealth is keeping your dripping, two-bladed paddle from splashing too loudly. The laws under the Migratory Birds Act say that boats powered by a motor must be turned off and have stopped their forward motion before you can shoot. I also have a flat-bottomed duck boat that uses an electric trolling motor. While it is quiet enough to make a stealthy approach, turning it off and coming to a stop really doesn’t work for jump-shooting ducks. That boat has become a portable duck blind – I drive to where I want to hunt, set up and wait. Kayaks do not have a motor, so jump-shooting ducks by paddling up to them and taking them by surprise works well.

As a bonus for the solo hunter, kayaks can easily be propelled by one person. While this it also true of a canoe, it requires more skill to track in a straight line across the water.

 

Getting started

Gearing up for hunting from a kayak requires a few specialized pieces of gear. First and most obvious is a kayak. There are two basic types of kayaks that you can purchase. A traditional kayak has a closed or covered deck, while a sit-on-top kayak, as the name implies, doesn’t have a covered deck. I tried the sit-on-top design for duck hunting, thinking that it would be easiest if I didn’t have to worry about climbing into and out of a small hole in the deck. The other required gear is a kayak paddle, a personal floatation device that is substantial enough for you and your gear and designed to allow freedom of movement to paddle and shoot, and the other basic watercraft safety items such as a buoyant heaving line and a signalling device like a whistle or air horn. After trying it out on a windy day of two degrees Celsius, I decided that I also needed a pair of neoprene waders. Staying dry is the key to staying warm and comfortable through the entire hunt. There are a few other items that I include in my gear bag that help me during a hunt: a GPS for navigation (very important in big complex marsh systems), camouflage netting to hide the deck of the kayak in the vegetation and, of course, the standard duck hunting gear: decoys, calls and an insulated container of coffee. This list is only limited by your budget and room on the kayak.

 

Other considerations

One thing you may want to consider is tethering your shotgun to the kayak. A bump with a paddle may be all it takes to send your shotgun into the drink. Other gear should be stowed so that it is still accessible but not at risk of getting wet or lost. Dry bags are your friend, as are the small, watertight compartments on kayaks for storing important things like your wallet and keys for your vehicle.

Even if your shotgun doesn’t go for a swim, it is likely to get wet. Many modern shotguns are made with tough, weatherproof exteriors such as barrel and action coatings, as well as synthetic stocks. The inner workings of most shotguns are not so weatherproof. Magazine springs, bolts, firing pins, trigger mechanisms and a myriad of other small internal parts will rust quickly if not dried completely and lubricated before storage. I was surprised one fall, when doing a detailed strip-down of my shotgun, to find the magazine spring was completely covered in rust.

 

Hunting from a kayak

There are two basic methods of hunting from a kayak. The first is jump-shooting. This works well in complex wetlands with plenty of emergent vegetation and pockets of open water. I like to cruise the edges of lazy creek channels. The trick, especially if you are in a solo kayak, is to paddle towards a bend in the creek and then set down your paddle and silently glide around the bend with your shotgun at the ready. Paddle. Glide. Ready your shotgun. Shoot if there are ducks to be had. I have passed within three metres of birds loafing on rocks in the shallow creek, and they simply looked up at this strange “log” floating by. This is a very relaxing and productive way to cover a lot of water. I suspect this would be even more productive in a two-person kayak. The rear hunter would provide the paddling power, while the front paddler is the shooter. I didn’t have that option, but the solo method worked just fine.

The second way you can use the kayak is to access areas not accessible by foot. Shooting can be done either sitting in the kayak or pulling your kayak to shore and standing in the marsh vegetation. Whichever method you choose, the kayak is a great way to set decoys, especially in deeper water or soft, sticky sediment. Most marshes have plenty of secluded spots to set up and take ducks all day long. Scouting can help. I even go so far as to mark good locations with my GPS so that they can be easily located in the pre-dawn hours.

 

Limitations

While a covered-deck kayak keeps a hunter’s lower body from getting wet, they can be somewhat difficult to get in and out of, and are not the most practical design for the duck hunter. Sit-on-top kayaks leave you and your gear exposed to the elements, as well as every splash of your paddle. Getting wet is inevitable. This either limits kayak use to the earlier season when the water and air are still warm, or the hunter will need to use waterproof clothes like neoprene chest waders and a rain coat to keep from getting wet and cold.

Unfortunately, a kayak is not a dog-friendly boat. If you enjoy taking your dog out for a hunt in the marsh, you may have to look for some other form of water transportation. The kayak is not as stable as other boats and would be difficult for a dog to get onto and off of, especially from the water. Even if my best hunting buddy could climb on, he might tip me off at the same time!

Small kayaks limit the amount of gear you can haul. My kayak has a maximum load of 350 pounds. I have never weighed my entire kit, and 350 pounds seems like a lot. But once I added up the weight of hunter and clothes, two-dozen decoys with anchor weights, shotgun and shells, safety gear, food and drink, I am sure I was very close to the maximum capacity of the kayak.

Kayaks are self-propelled only. Many other watercraft, including square-back canoes, can accommodate a small outboard motor. Not so with a kayak. So if your idea of a good time doesn’t involve too much physical exertion, you may want to consider another mode of transportation.

Jump-shooting from a single person kayak requires a hunter, upon spotting a flock of ducks, to lower his paddle, pick up his shotgun and shoot. Things may happen too fast for you to get a shot in some situations.

 

Safety

Safety is paramount when working in and around water. As duck hunters, we want to be covered from head to toe in camouflage. However, if you should happen to capsize, the only thing that your rescuers will see is a light-coloured kayak bottom. My kayak has a sand coloured deck and a white bottom. There are kayaks on the market that are coloured everything from olive drab to one of the many waterfowl-specific camouflages. I think a better option for concealing a kayak would be to have an easily deployed camouflage netting that can be put in place once you reach the site where you want to set up.

Personal Flotation Devices (PFDs) are the single most important piece of safety gear on your boat. Wearing it will ensure your safety, if you ever should need it. There are many different types of PFDs on the market, including camouflage ones with the waterfowler in mind. There are also automatically-activated, inflatable PFDs that inflate when they are immersed in water. They operate on a small tablet that dissolves in the water and causes the inflating gas to activate and fill the inflatable cell. They can also be manually inflated if need be. These devices provide personal safety while not restricting movement, but there is a concern that splash from your paddles or while deploying decoys could activate your PFD.

Water temperature is a major consideration. Falling in the water is never a good scenario. Doing so in October, in a secluded duck marsh, could be deadly. Packing a dry bag with basic survival gear and a change of clothes could save your hunt or even your life.

Firearms safety is another factor that must be given careful consideration, especially if you are jump-shooting ducks. While I have two shells in the magazine, my shotgun’s chamber remains empty until the final approach. I feel that switching back and forth between a paddle and a loaded shotgun is not a safe practice. I am willing to miss out on a few shots in order to stay safe.

Finally, use common sense. Sit-on-top kayaks are fair-weather, shallow water vessels. Taking them out in big water is just asking for trouble. Hunting in extensive marshes with many small openings and channels is ideal, but take your compass and a GPS so you don’t get lost – you don’t see much while sitting down close to the water’s surface. Check the weather before you depart and keep an eye on the sky. If the weather is changing, make sure you can get off the water with time to spare.

The hunting spot I had coveted for years on that distant bank did not disappoint. Mallards, pintails, teal, shovelers and gadwall circled the decoys and locked their wings to settle in. The shooting was fast and furious. Paddling back to my vehicle after my hunt, I flushed duck after duck, providing ample opportunities to take more ducks, if I had not already reached my limit. I must admit that the kayak had worked much better than I had even hoped it would. Using a kayak gave me another option for hunting ducks. It opened up new spots that were previously not accessible and gave me quiet solitude to reflect about our hunting heritage.

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