I almost didn’t go hunting Saturday. I had scouted the river the day before, and two separate rain showers earlier in the week had left the water high and muddy. I’ll be honest: I didn’t feel like waking up early to beat weekend warriors to the put-in, just to have a marginal-at-best day where, if I did shoot a bird, it would hit the surface and be swept away by the current before I could get it in the boat.
So I slept in for a change. Not going to lie, it was a really nice change of pace compared to getting up at 5 a.m. to go to the gym through the workweek.
But curiosity and boredom got the best of me around midday, so just for kicks I drove by the boat ramp I had intended to use as a take-out to see if the conditions had improved. The water had dropped several feet and, while still somewhat high, had lost all traces of murkiness.
I was back with my gear in an hour.
Even with the changes for the better, I doubted whether I’d actually see or shoot anything. The aforementioned weekend warriors have made duck hunting in western North Carolina even more difficult than it already was. Working up a limit of birds with the scant number of migrants we receive is hard enough without the uninitiated sky-busting from yellow kayaks just in front of you and around the next bend. (Happened twice on consecutive days earlier this season. True story.)
Saturday was the first day of the third and final split of the NC season, so I didn’t expect great odds that late in the day. Birds would likely have been shot at once or twice already, and with the weather unseasonably warm there was no telling what I would see. But it was the first time I would get to take my new duck gun on the water, and it was worth chancing it come what may.
Up until now in my waterfowling career, I’ve killed every duck but one with my Cerakoted Remington 870. It’s simple, reliable, and, with the extended range Patternmaster I run in it, levels ducks from one bank to the other on smaller rivers.
As much as I love my first duck gun, I was ready for an autoloader that weighed less than eight pounds. My Remington 11-87 doesn’t fit that bill and has too nice of a wooden stock for me to let it slide around on my kayak’s center console.
Enter my new Beretta A300 Outlander. It had all of the features I was looking for in a new river gun, without the extra $1,100 for a top-tier waterfowling piece. If it happened to go overboard (which is an all-too-real possibility, as the 870 took a bath when a canoe capsized in the winter of 2013) I could replace it much more easily than a more expensive model. The only difference between the Outlander and more expensive guns is essentially the stock’s quality, but as a working gun I didn’t care what the black synthetic looked like anyway.
I went straight to the same extended Patternmaster tube as the 870 wears. River-shooting is jump-shooting, so shots are almost always long. If I did my part and the gun/tube combo did its, I’d be skinning ducks with my new Gerber replaceable-blade knife by headlamp that evening.
The hunt started off slow, but maybe 45 minutes into the float I spotted two ducks working their way downstream along the bank. The bright white head of the drake told me it was either a hooded merganser or a bufflehead. I’ve killed one of each for the taxidermist and/or photo album, but other than that I don’t eat them.
They were mergansers. I passed on the shot when they flushed up and out from the bank in that stuttering, sputtering way divers do. I didn’t want to shoot something I didn’t intend to eat just for a kill with the new gun.
I can’t say my first shot with the Beretta when hunting was a hit when it did come, though. Not more than a mile below the mergansers came three gadwall; the second one to rise from the water was peppered at best. Still, I had taken a valid shot and seen several ducks, so no matter what happened from then on the hunt was a success for me.
A small flock of maybe eight mergansers burst from behind a log on the left descending bank, also rising at their leisure with no shots to hurry them on. I was enjoying the scenery when a little gray head darted out from the bank in the area they had just left.
A hen woodie. Her friends owe their anxiety, and one drake his life, to her poorly timed exit from a downed tree. She had heard the mergansers take off, and even though I hadn’t fired the Beretta, she came out to check on things for herself. She took off, but unlike the mergansers I didn’t let her go free. She literally stopped in midair and dropped like a sack when the Patternmaster turned her way.
Then the rest rose. My second shot missed one drake, but the third found the other male in the group as he brought up the rear.
Two in the boat with my new gun, both dropped like bricks from a window.
I don’t usually take ducks to the taxidermist anymore unless it’s a new species or a special circumstance. I opt for photos instead, but unfortunately I left my SLR at home and had to settle for an iPhone’s best. The trophy photo was too early, though. I still had one bird to go, and it came a few minutes later in spectacular fashion.
The kayak was almost into a long but comparatively tame set of rapids when I spotted the drake mallard hugging the bank. He was directly upstream of the rapids in the last pool of still water available. In all the years I have hunted the area I had never seen a duck tucked so close to the fast-moving water.
He had saw me too, and before I could make a move for my gun he started to paddle out toward the open water. He hesitated once of twice about which direction to go, turning back toward the shore as I came closer with the current. He must have been deciding whether to fly, stay put, or chance the rapids.
Then the strangest thing happened. He stopped dead-still in the pool, looked upstream at me, and waited. It was like he was making a gentlemen’s agreement with me that, since his options were fairly limited and I was almost on top of him, he would wait and give me a fighting chance at shooting him. It was like a western shoot-out on a rushing river, him waiting for me to get my gun so we could draw at the same time.
When the tension finally broke he shot straight up into the overhanging limbs of a tree instead of out and away over open water. I found him as he passed behind a thicker-than-average limb, and when he reached an open tunnel in the branches I brought him back down to the water’s surface.
My third duck of the day, and certainly an unexpected one. But now I had a problem; although the river’s current hadn’t been a problem up until now like I had thought it would, the rapids were. My iridescent drake was bobbing along the whitecaps like the boat from The Perfect Storm, it’s green head showing for a split second as it rolled over the tops of each rock-formed wave.
Well, I wasn’t going to just leave it! I dropped the gun, picked up the paddle, and cut into the waves like a knife. Each wave brought another barrel of water onboard, and if I had not been riding a sit-on-top kayak with the scupper plugs removed, I would have probably swamped the boat. But as the duck exited the rapids below me it slowed down a considerable amount, and when I finished the run he was waiting on the right side of the boat to be scooped up.
There was still a bit of daylight left, but this time I was content to call it a day. I had enough light to take another trophy shot of my day’s kill, and this time three was the final count.
It was pitch-black when I parked the truck and started cleaning the birds. The Gerber made quick work of them, which was no surprise since I had read reviews from elk hunters who had skinned out bulls with only one blade being dulled as a result. Three little ducks, even with the butterball of a mallard, were nothing for the folding scalpel.
Three dead ducks with a brand-new shotgun, all on a day I hadn’t expected to go hunting at all, much less see anything. Waterfowling is like that sometimes.
All too often, hunting and fishing magazine readers question a writer’s gear choices when they read an article. Does the writer really think Rifle X, Shotgun Y, or Ammo Z is the best, or was it used purely because of sponsorship dollars? I can honestly say that my 40+ hours a week paid for the gun, tube, and knife. I spent my own money on the items used in this article, and if Saturday was any indication, I spent it very well.