Gerald Almy: Combo float hunts exciting

Gerald Almy

Floating silently in the river’s current, we watched intently downstream. The only movement was the soft sculling stroke of the paddle keeping us pointed straight ahead. Surely we would flush a squealing wood duck or squawking mallard any second.

But not right yet. Instead, the fifth gray squirrel we’d seen in a short half-mile of floating distracted us as it scampered across a white oak branch. Enough was enough.

We’d passed up the first four bushytails so we wouldn’t flush any unseen ducks ahead. But now the temptation was too great. We had permission to hunt from the shoreline landowners, so my partner took advantage of it and bagged our first squirrel of the day with a quick shot from his 12 gauge.

As he slipped a fishing net under the quarry and hoisted it aboard, I spotted yet another bushytail, this one a fox squirrel, and collected it with two shots from my double barrel. As we admired the brace of fat squirrels and drifted further downstream, a pair of mallards erupted from a logjam to our left and my partner quickly bagged the drake.

And so the day went. Sure, we might have spooked a duck or two by changing the game plan and going after squirrels as well. But the joy of that action-packed float hunt made me a strong proponent of dual-species float hunts. Yes, I still hunt just for ducks at times. And on other occasions squirrels may be the only goal, if ducks are out of season or scarce on a particular stretch of river.

But combining squirrels and ducks makes for one of the richest outings you can imagine. And a hunt like this is feasible just about anywhere. Streams and rivers suitable for float hunting are abundant throughout Virginia and nearby West Virginia. And if the hunting for one quarry is only mediocre, the other one will usually take up the slack.

Most streams with nut-bearing trees along shore generally support gray and/or fox squirrels in sufficient numbers to hunt. If they have agricultural crops growing nearby in the fertile bottomlands, that makes them even better. Those crops are likely fed on by both the bushytails and ducks.

Many of the streams you wade for float fish in summer are probably good bets for a combination hunt. Also consult with game biologists, wardens, and sporting goods stores. Studying topographic maps, aerial photographs, and images on Google Earth is another good way to find rivers for float hunting. If you can obtain permission from landowners, the nearby Shenandoah River is an excellent choice.

Avoid sections with treacherous rapids and also slow areas backed up by dams. Ideally, choose a stretch with a slow, steady current that takes your boat along with very little paddling. Always err on the side of too short a drift instead of too long, for safety reasons. About 5-10 river miles makes a good length for a 4-8 hour hunt.

Both canoes and johnboats work well for these float hunts. One is more stable, the other easier to maneuver and paddle through slow stretches. Both should be painted drab colors or camouflaged. Tying some brush on the bow before setting out is also a good idea. And be sure to wear a floatation vest.

A 12-20 gauge shotgun with improved cylinder or modified choke is best, with sizes 4, 5 or 6 shot. Also bring paddles, rain gear, seat cushions, a waterproof bag with a change of clothes and a few survival items, plus a landing net.

Some squirrels float and others sink. With the net you can quickly retrieve the ones that might sink.

Generally, the safest bet is for only the person in the bow to shoot. The one in the rear does the boat handling, and positions should be changed periodically so everyone gets an equal share of the action. If the person in the stern does shoot, it should only be at squirrels off to the side or behind the boat, not ducks flushing out front.

In Virginia, you’ll need the permission of the landowner to hunt squirrels along the bank. Often you can find sections of rivers flowing through public land, though. In that case you won’t have to bother with this step.

Woodies, mallards, and black ducks are the three species I encounter most on rivers. I’ve also bagged gadwall, teal, buffleheads, pintails, and even Canada geese, which makes for an exciting bonus if their hunting season is open.

If the river is large and birds are trading up and downstream, you may want to try stopping for an hour or two and setting out a few decoys. But mostly just floating silently downstream is the best way to bag both ducks and squirrels.

Watch for ripples along shore that could spell feeding ducks and listen for the sounds of mallards chattering, woodies squealing, or squirrels scampering through tree branches. For pure excitement, it would be hard to think of a more action-packed winter hunt. And it’s all possible for free, often just a few miles from your home.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.