Even though I was sitting on a cushion, the stony ground beneath it was hard to take. The view behind us-the dark towering Douglas firs and brushy bracken fern-more than made up for any physical discomfort, however. In front of us, three dozen drake bluebill decoys bobbed in the ebb as the waters of the Columbia River raced westward to the Pacific Ocean.
Beside me my good friend Tony Miller hissed a warning: “Out front, low.” I’d won the pre-dawn coin toss and sat on the firing line, autoloader filled with 3-inch steel BBs at the ready.
As the leading edge of the flock of bluebills reached the outside line of decoys, I raised the shotgun to my shoulder. My first charge hit a drake.
I missed the second bird in the formation, but I recovered my accuracy in time to crumple a Tail-End Charlie.
I hefted the downed scaup in my right hand, awed by its size and beauty and by the scenery around me. “Get out of the seat,” said Miller, rudely interrupting my Kodak moment.
The dividing line between Washington and Oregon, the Columbia River serves as a major migration corridor for waterfowl traveling from the river’s headwaters in Canada to its mouth at the Pacific. What makes the river even more attractive is the amount of publicly accessible water. Bays, coves and the river’s tributary streams offer abundant hunting opportunities, while riverfront refuges present alternatives to high-dollar leases and crowded public potholes.
** Lewis and Clark National Refuge**
Covering some 35,000 acres, the Lewis and Clark NWR consists of more than a dozen islands scattered just off the Oregon shoreline east of the coastal town of Astoria. This is definitely a boating enterprise, with a 15-footer being the minimum. Most waterfowlers run 17- to 20-foot flat- bottomed skiffs powered by 90- to 200-horsepower jet-pump outboards. Some will tow smaller layout boats and hunt from them.
Mallards, pintails and wigeon make up the bulk of the puddlers, while available divers include bluebills, redheads, buffleheads and an occasional canvasback. A launch at Aldrich Point north of Oregon Highway 30 provides good access, as does a slightly longer boat trip from a ramp at Skamokawa on the Washington side. Call the refuge for details at 360-795-3915.
Julia Butler Hansen National Wildlife Refuge
Across and slightly downriver from Lewis and Clark is the Julia Butler Hansen NWR, another place where a boat is necessary. Launches at Skamokawa and Cathlamet lie at either end of the refuge; smaller cartoppers can be hand-launched at the southern end of the refuge. Like Lewis and Clark, JBH is an island complex, offering both main-stem gunning and shooting in sheltered sloughs and backwaters. Mallards, wigeon, scaup, buffleheads and mergansers are standard fare. A portion of the riverfront refuge is off-limits to hunting. Call 360-795-3915 for details.
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
Just north of Vancouver, Wash., the Ridgefield NWR offers phenomenal shallow-water gunning. Hunting here is done from permanent blinds, and you can gain access two ways: Apply in advance and, if successful, go through a lottery-style blind drawing the day of the hunt, or wait until 10 a.m., pay $5 and choose one of the unoccupied blinds as indicated on a pegboard at the check station. Ridgefield maintains 11 box blinds and 10 pits. This is primarily a puddler hunt; the deeper ponds attract some divers. The refuge’s hunter hot line is 360-571-2015.
**Washington’s **2004-2005 late waterfowl season runs through January 30, with a daily bag of seven birds. For a downloadable copy of the current license and waterfowl regulations, visit the department’s Web site at www.wdfw.gov.
Oregon waterfowlers start October 9 or 16, depending on the zone, and finish up on January 23 or 30, again depending on area, with a seven-bird daily bag. Oregon regulations can be read at www.dfw.state.or .us/GB/birdregs.pdf.