As fall closes in on Kodiak our waterways see fewer and fewer people as most anglers stow their tackle for the year.
That will change briefly this weekend, literally with a bang. Or rather lots of bangs.
The 2016 waterfowl season opens Saturday, Oct. 8, and extends through Jan. 22.
Long before daylight on Saturday, enthusiastic hunters will be afield waiting for the first legal minutes of shooting, one half hour before sunrise.
There’s good reason for all that enthusiasm and the early start.
Opening day hunting can be good, and the earliest shooting may be the best of the day. Even older birds wise to the ways of people have been lulled by months without hunting. And then there are all those young birds with no experience whatsoever.
If you’re on hand in the right place when the season starts, you may well enjoy your best hunt of the year.
By midday the birds have departed for safer waters and they’re reluctant to venture back until nightfall. And of course, by the second day of the season all the surviving birds are wary of hunters and the places they encountered them on opening day.
All those hunters stirring around in the early hours work to the hunters’ advantage, at least briefly.
In their mad flight away from the opening salvo, the birds will explore other waterways looking for safety. As they encounter more hunters they continue to move until they find undisturbed waters, where they can settle and rest for the day.
There’s always a lull in the hunting after the first hour or so once the birds find safety, even if it doesn’t take too long for the hunters to become restless. Some pack up and head for home, while others move about in search of undisturbed birds.
Add to that the birds’ own restlessness, and often you can enjoy additional shooting in the afternoon and evening right up until closing hour at sunset.
If the weather is sour and especially if it’s windy, the birds will also tend to fly earlier in the afternoon and more often. Add in the influence of tides, and I’m a little reluctant to end my day after the first hour of shooting.
When all the factors work in my favor, I’ve enjoyed even better hunting in the afternoon than in the opening hour.
If you’ve been out the road system scouting as you should in recent days, you’ve likely seen more birds than even a couple of weeks ago. That’s to be expected, because waterfowl from areas further north are beginning to move through Kodiak on their way south.
The sightings are reassuring as opening day approaches, but your scouting trips are more important for learning where the birds are spending their days. You can bet they’ll return to those spots on opening morning, however briefly.
But it’s important to recognize that every other hunter scouting the road system has seen the same birds in the same spot.
You might go there opening morning expecting to enjoy the hot spot, only to find other hunting parties already settled and waiting for the start of legal hunting.
My scouting efforts are equal parts reassurance and a search for alternatives. While it’s nice to see the birds, I’m more intent on forecasting where they’ll go once the crowds work their magic opening morning.
If I guess right based on the winds and tides, I can be set up far from the crowd on waterways the birds will turn to when leaving the roadside madness. If I guess right, I might not have any action in the first five or 10 minutes after I hear shots elsewhere, but I can get lots of shooting over the next couple of hours as birds search remote locations for shelter.
I’ve hunted ducks on the Kodiak road system for a lot of years, so I’m well acquainted with an array of remote locations that attract ducks. I choose between them depending on whether the tide is rising or falling and the direction the wind is blowing.
As a general rule of thumb, the birds will work inland at the higher stages of the tide, and they’re more likely to fly inland when the wind is blowing onshore rather than off. If the tide is falling I often concentrate on ocean shorelines rather than inland waters. There are bonus points for windy days along the coast, if you know sheltered locations when everything else is exposed to the wind.
Even when I guess wrong about a specific location, I’m usually not far wrong.
While the birds might not be coming right to my spot, if I’m alert and keeping track it’s pretty easy to spot the alternate location they’re using.
That poses a problem, however. Do I relocate to the new spot, or do I give up on the fixed location and switch to jump shooting?
If the birds are settling into an assortment of locations, I’ll usually jump shoot as many of them as I can find. But if they’re all settling into one spot, I’ll relocate my decoys.
The best of all worlds can occur if you hunt with a partner or two. Leave your spread of decoys right where it is, with one of you remaining there in concealment while the other set off to jump shoot.
A talented jump shooter can get lots of shooting, even as the one remaining behind can get action on the birds looking for a home after they were disturbed.
While I’ve had very good luck with large spreads of decoys on open water later in the season, my early season hunting is usually on small pockets of water. For that I find small decoy spreads are much more effective.
For one thing, it’s lots easier to move around, and especially to make quick location changes, if I only have a few decoys. Two or three decoys can be just as effective on small waters as two or three dozen on open water. The birds moving around in areas of small water don’t expect to see lots of birds in one spot, and they seem especially reassured if they spot only a pair or two at most.
Relying on a handful of decoys has an added advantage. It’s easy to jump shoot while carrying them in a day pack along with a square of camouflage netting.
I’ll jump shoot until I startle birds out of a spot without getting any shots. Then I’ll quickly put out the decoys and lay down with the camo netting over me, adding a handful of grass and twigs to help break up the outline of the netting.
Often as not, those same birds will circle back in a few minutes to resettle. Any other birds flying through the area are used to seeing birds there as well, so they’re quick to settle.
You have to remain really alert and still when hunting like this. The birds tend to beeline in at low elevations, settling quickly onto the water or spotting your movements before you have a clue they’re anywhere near.
There’s a great big “but” involved in hunting inland waterways, however. This time of year the bears are really active along upper rivers where anglers haven’t ventured recently. I’m here to tell you there’s nothing that will make me abandon an area quicker than the sight of a bear track still filling with water in the light of my headlamp as I stumble around in the darkness.
My favorite inland waters are well away from the rivers, and even there I tend to travel to them after daylight.
I’ve found over the years that the camo system I use for duck hunts works quite well for bears. I’ve had them walk right up behind me, even wade through my decoys, while I lay in wait of ducks. I’ve also snuck up on small streams and cut across river bends in expectation of ducks, only to find a bear has arrived before me.
While the inland waters can be productive for ducks, you have to use your head and be alert for bears. You also have to be prepared to leave an area if there’s any clue you’re sharing it with bears.