Duck hunting on the Crooked River

Warm weather has made ducks bypass Central Oregon

Gary Lewis /

Published Jan 22, 2014 at 12:11AM

I didn’t see any of it, except at the last moment. After the second shot, I looked up from the camera and saw a ring-necked duck tumble out of the sky. There were already two on the water. A Scotch triple is what you might call it: three ducks in two shots.

“Dude, it was all luck!” Bill Herrick thumbed fresh loads into the magazine and looked upstream.

At a word from his master, Reno plunged into the river to retrieve the first bird. Our guide, Alex Sackerson, of Predawn Adventures in Prineville, hooked his thumbs in his call lanyard to watch the fun, then walked down to the water’s edge and gathered up the ducks Reno deposited on the bank.

The next bird flew low over the decoys and I missed it. The bird splashed down upstream, then jumped up and flew right back into the decoys. My next shot connected at the outside of the pattern and Reno made another retrieve.

Duck season started off with a high degree of anticipation. Waterfowl numbers are at record levels for many species, but our weird winter weather has encouraged a lot of ducks and geese to either bypass Central Oregon and blast on to California or hang out at the Columbia River.

We started with 36 diver and puddle duck decoys. Sackerson threw in the dekes while Herrick and I settled in to the blind on the south bank of the Crooked River. I looked out at the glassy water. I wondered if any steelhead had passed through here in the night. A small fish splashed; no steelhead, maybe a smolt.

Two minutes before shooting light, two ring-necked ducks dropped in to the decoys, splashed down, paddled around, then jumped out when their plastic brethren didn’t exhibit any signs of life.

“Yesterday, this is where the ducks wanted to be,” Sackerson whispered. “We scouted it in the afternoon. I have six other places we could have gone, but this is the best one right now.”

Small flocks of geese followed the course of the river well up in the air, too high to shoot. Ducks in ones and twos dropped in to a bend in the river downstream.

“One of the reasons I like this spot is it’s a pinch point. We get birds coming in out of Prineville to the east, Lone Pine, Powell Butte, Terrebonne and Crooked River Ranch.”

I had my camera in hand instead of my shotgun when seven ring-necked ducks jinked in out of the east, flickering for a moment over the decoys. Herrick dropped his call and swung the gun up; he fired twice and three birds fell out of line. Splash, splash. Splash.

“This time of year, we don’t get as many mallards and teal as we did early in the season,” Sackerson said, “more wigeon, gadwall, ring-necks, bluebills, goldeneye and buffleheads. We’re seeing more of the white-fronted geese now than we used to.”

Our shooting deteriorated as the morning wore on. We missed easy left-to-rights and congratulated ourselves on being good conservationists. Herrick should have quit after his first volley. I wanted to quit when I missed an easy poke at a wigeon.

At midmorning, the wind changed and so did the flights of ducks. The geese stayed high in the sky. “These are mainly resident honkers. They know what’s going on,” Sackerson said.

Out of another flock of seven, we managed to put another in the drink for Reno to bring back.

With six ducks accounted for, we were tempted to call it a morning, then a teal showed on the horizon. Moments later, it was bank-high above the decoys where it flared. Herrick was going to let me have the shot but thought better of it and we dropped the teal below the high water line.

An hour before noon the wind stopped altogether. The calm before the storm. A dark line of clouds, the advance of a Pacific system front, hung over the Cascades.

Duck hunting in Central Oregon wrapped up last Sunday, but duck hunters get one more weekend in Zone 1, which takes in all of Western Oregon and in Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam, Morrow and Umatilla counties. The goose season in Eastern Oregon runs through Sunday.

— Gary Lewis is the host of “Adventure Journal” and author of “John Nosler — Going Ballistic,” “Black Bear Hunting,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Lewis at GaryLewisOutdoors.com.