KODIAK — I’ve been blinded by silver salmon!
The fishing has been so late and so good, I lost track of time.
Monday morning I was folding an omelet when, through the open window, I heard the distant rapid-fire notes of a shotgun.
Thud, thud, thud….
It sounded like a duck hunter, but surely not.
A glance at the calendar confirmed my suspicions.
It was indeed opening morning of the 2018 Kodiak duck season and I was standing in the kitchen with a spatula in my hand.
And rather than decoys, the truck was stuffed with fishing gear.
In all truth, that is probably not such a bad thing this year.
It’s great fun to hunt ducks, opening morning, after months of waiting.
But after the first few minutes of excitement the hunting usually falls off to nothing for the rest of the day.
In my long experience, Kodiak’s duck season starts slow and takes its own sweet time building to the point I’d call it good.
Our population of resident birds is small, and we’re not on a major flyway.
It takes a series of freezes and the tailwind of a good storm to bring larger flocks to local waterways, and some years you can wait well into November or even December for that to happen.
In the meantime Kodiak duck hunting is mostly a specialized game of trying to fool well educated local birds.
This year makes my most successful strategies problematic.
In most years I do my October hunting on small inland waterways and ponds far from the disturbance of other hunters.
But not this year.
The skinny pink salmon run and the late arrival of the silvers have resulted in more bears on the road system than I’ve seen in my 40 years on our wonderful island.
I’ve run into enough bears in the darkness in previous years to guess that encounters will be common this year. And I’m getting too old for that kind of excitement.
For the time being I’ll leave the inland waters to bears that need the salmon, even later in the day when I have a much better chance of seeing bears before colliding with them.
I’ll head inland once it turns cold in December. In the meantime I plan to hunt only the more open coastal areas, even at the cost of a few extra ducks in my bag.
If you share my aversion for bears in close cover, I recommend the same approach. Leave the brush for the bears and hone your gear and strategies for open water.
The biggest challenge in dealing with Kodiak’s open water is the tide.
Low tide results in open mud flats in lots of areas, making travel and concealment difficult if not impossible. The birds can see you coming from a mile away, and they know just what to do about that.
If there’s an offshore wind or no wind at all, they simply fly out to sea and find a comfortable spot to spend their day.
You can beat that a little by picking days with strong onshore winds. The open water is roiled and the birds naturally return to the flats in search of shelter and food.
You still face the challenge of getting within range, but at least they’re inclined to come back onto the tide flats after they’ve been chased off.
Take a good look at the tide flats, and it’s easy to see the problem.
They’re mostly flat and featureless. There’s virtually no natural cover to conceal you, and the few places that will conceal hunters are well known to the ducks.
There are ways around that though.
It requires either getting really flat to the ground or waiting for the rising tide to bring birds closer to cover above the high tide line.
I use both approaches, depending on the tide, weather and especially the wind.
Your best friend on the tide flats is a good brown tarp or mesh camo. Lay flat and spread the cover on a bit of higher ground, and especially pull any handy seaweed or branches onto the cover to help break its outline.
This kind of concealment has its challenges though. For one thing, the rising or falling tide will require frequent moves. Every half hour or so you may have to move your decoys and re-spread your cover.
In short order that will teach you the value of small rises and channels on an otherwise featureless tide flat. You’ll also learn the value of small decoy spreads and heavy decoy weights.
Even more challenging though, is the shooting you’ll have to do. Sitting to shoot dramatically alters your swing with a shotgun, yet there’s usually not time to stand up to shoot.
Watch other hunters on the tide flat, and they’ll teach you the same lesson learned long ago by the birds.
Hunters wander all over the flats around low tide, but they head home once the tide has raised even halfway toward high. The birds simply avoid the flats around low tide, saving their return and feeding until the water is higher and the hunters are gone.
Meanwhile most bays have small islands or spits that remain dry at high tide.
Even as it presents new challenges of concealing a boat, I’ve had my most productive hunts from those islands and spits around high tide. A low boat like a canoe or kayak is relatively easy to disguise as a log or grass bank, as it is meanwhile a great way to carry decoys and retrieve downed birds from deeper water.
You have to be careful on really windy days though, because even the heads of bays can get rough in a hurry. By all means use your judgement and always wear a suitable life vest.
I’m the furthest thing from a great duck caller, but even my stumbling efforts have proven the value of a duck call. You have to limit the amount of calling and do it right, but circling wary birds often overcome their suspicions when they hear the reassuring talk of the ducks on the water.
I’ll also confess to not being the greatest long distance duck shot in the world. I need all the help I can get and more practice. But thankfully when the conditions are right and the birds are working I get lots of practice.
Though I use very open chokes and smaller shot charges on the confines of inland waters, the tide flats are certainly the realm for tighter chokes and heavy charges of premium shot.
You also need to be sure that your shot provides killing energy and penetration when it reaches distant birds.
I’m a fan of 3 ½” shot shells on the tide flats because, as I said, I need all the help I can get. I know talented wing shots who perform well with 3” shells.
In either case though, you face a tradeoff between shot size and pattern density at longer ranges.
While in some areas hunters may prefer #6 or #5 shot for early season shooting, I draw the line at #4 and make up for fewer shot with my long shells. By November and December I’ve moved up to #3 shot, and come January I resort to #2s. My talented hunting partner laughs at my choices and starts his season with #5s and progresses to #3s by the end of the season.
I’m sorry if you too missed opening day this year, but with more bears and fewer ducks you probably aren’t missing much if you delay your season.
Come the cold snaps of November and December, you’ll have lots better reasons to duck hunt.
And lots fewer bears!