While a good deal of the duck and goose hunting available in Washington occurs around small lakes and ponds, freshwater marshes, sloughs, irrigation canals and agricultural fields, waterfowl-hunting opportunities also abound in our large coastal estuaries, the marine waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Hood Canal and Puget Sound, the Columbia River and its impoundments on both sides of the Cascades, the Snake and Yakima river systems and many of our large lakes and reservoirs, especially in eastern Washington.
Hunting in and around “big water,” moving water and tidal water provides a wealth of shooting opportunities that can’t be found elsewhere, but there are also more challenges—and risks—involved, calling for additional planning and greater skills on the part of the hunter.
Boats have been a part of the waterfowling tradition since the beginning, and they’re often a necessity for hunting big water and moving water. From low-silhouette duck boats and drift boats to large, open skiffs and jet-powered inboards, those who hunt ducks and geese on open water, big rivers and marine areas often use boats as hunting platforms and/or for transportation to and from their favorite hunting spots.
And they use those boats in places and conditions that would be avoided by more cautious boaters and should be avoided by inexperienced boaters. The best duck-hunting weather is typically the worst boating weather, and waterfowl hunting usually means traveling to and from your hunting spot in the dark, often in boats that are loaded with eager hunters, restless dogs and lots of equipment. All of these conditions are major factors in boating accidents and fatalities. Here are some boating tips for waterfowl hunters:
- Before the trip, tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to return. Should you have a problem, authorities will have an idea where to start looking for you.
- Wear a Coast Guard-approved lifejacket or float coat. Besides keeping you afloat, they provide added insulation to keep you warm in cold weather or cold water. And, yes, they’re available in camo.
- Neoprene waders offer additional warmth and floatation in our typically cold Northwest waters.
- Don’t overload your boat. Choppy water and too little freeboard is a recipe for swamping or capsizing your boat.
- 5. Stay near shore and try to avoid crossing long stretches of open water.
- Should your boat be swamped or capsized, stay with it.
- Bring your cell phone along, and keep it in a waterproof container so that it will work in an emergency.
- Get a weather report before you go, and keep a watchful eye on changing weather conditions throughout the day. Conditions can become dangerous quickly, especially on open water.
- Take a boating class and get a Washington State Boater Education Card.
For more information, visit the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission’s Boating Programs office.
Remember, too, that moving water and areas affected by the tides present a range of conditions that both the boating and non-boating waterfowl hunter must keep in mind. If your attention span is short and your reaction time long, flowing water can take you places you don’t want to go and get you into trouble in a hurry.
Although it should be obvious, many boaters seem to forget that they move a lot faster when going downstream than when going upstream and that they usually continue to move (downstream) when they’re not under power. Remember, too, that river levels may change quickly, especially in areas downstream of dams or following periods of heavy rain or snowmelt. Quickly rising river levels and increased flows can spell trouble for boaters and non-boating hunters alike.
Any waterfowler who hunts marine waters or estuaries should have a good working knowledge of the tides, not only from the perspective of how they affect hunting, but from a safety standpoint. Ducks and geese move in and out of feeding and resting areas with the tide, and there is a tide change, from high to low and the from low to high, about every six hours in this part of the country. A spot that’s absolutely devoid of birds now may have dozens or even hundreds of them dropping in among your decoys in a couple of hours, as the water deepens, and vice-versa.
But hunters must always remember that those water fluctuations that cause the birds to move may also create a dangerous situation for the oblivious hunter. Check the tide tables before hunting and be mindful of tidal conditions throughout the day to avoid being stranded in the mud or cut off from your exit route by rising water; either situation could cost you your life. Certain tidal conditions, combined with strong winds, can result in even more challenges for hunters, as heavy chop and big waves can develop rapidly after a tide change if the winds oppose the tidal flow.
So, how do you find some of these big-water, moving-water and marine-water hunting spots?
Lands managed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, especially several of the agency’s wildlife areas, are also good possibilities. Big-water hunting options are available on the Skagit Wildlife Area, John’s River Wildlife Area, and some units of the South Puget Sound, Columbia Basin, Wells and Sunnyside/Snake River wildlife areas. Find more details about WDFW’s wildlife areas.
The National Wildlife Refuge system also offers opportunities. Willapa National Wildlife Refuge on Willapa Bay offers good duck hunting, especially early in the season, to both boaters and hunters on foot; J.B. Hansen Refuge provides boat access to some worthwhile duck and goose hunting on several islands in the lower Columbia River; Nisqually National Refuge is a popular duck-hunting spot on the south end of Puget Sound; McNary and Umatilla Refuges provide good duck hunting and fair goose hunting opportunities on the mid-Columbia River. Areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are also good options, especially along the Columbia and Snake River systems.
In addition, dozens of public boat ramps scattered along the Washington coast, Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, Hood Canal, the Columbia River and its impoundments, Yakima River and numerous large lakes and reservoirs throughout the state provide access to tens of thousands of acres of open water and hundreds of miles of moving water for duck and goose hunters to explore.