Late January Hunt in Blind 9 at McNary

McNary offers up Another good mixed bag of ducks with some mallards a specklebelly goose and a bunch of divers.

Location: McNary Wildlife Refuge, Fee Hunt Unit, Blind 9

Conditions: Showers early then partly cloudy, cold, shifting winds from South, West, and North

Birds Taken: 16 for 3 hunters (3 mallard drakes; 1 mallard hens; 1 green wing teal; 1 specklebelly goose; the rest a mixed bag of ring necks, scaup and buffleheads.)

Once again Scott, Tim, and I made the 4-hour drive from Vancouver, WA to the Tri-Cities area, this time for a Jan. 23, 2016 duck hunt at McNary National Wildlife Refuge at the Burbank Slough. Also joining us was Tim’s daughter, who has now observed our hunts a few times this season.

If you’ve read any of my McNary NWR posts you’ll know why we make the trek. There are simply more ducks here than our normal hunting grounds on the wet side of the Cascades. A lot more. Thanks to El Nino, the volume of rain we’ve gotten on the west side has left standing water, well, everywhere. The ducks can spread out and don’t have to stick around the refuges getting shot at.

On the drier east side of the Cascades, less water in the fields leaves ducks concentrated in the backwaters of the Columbia and Snake rivers. It’s helpful, too, that the Tri-Cities area thawed out from a two-week freeze about a week before our hunt date, luring ducks off the larger rivers. We had hunted at Ridgefield NWR the previous Saturday and bagged three birds out of six or seven opportunities. We expected a lot more from our McNary hunt as hunters on message boards had been posting excitedly, “The birds are here!”

A Long March

That morning we arrived at the check station to a full house. When it was our turn at the draw, we chose Blind 9. We’d hunted Blind 6 (which was already taken) across the bay from 9 a couple of times and watched the hunters in 9 bag quite a few birds. It was time for us to give this one a try!

We hustled out to truck and then drove to Lot B, which we thought would offer the shortest walk to the blind. However, once there a couple of hunters asked us what blind we were in and then strongly advised us to use Lot E instead. They were convinced we were crazy to make the long walk from B, which we had done once to Blind 13. It’s an arduous journey to Blind 13 and Blind 9 is another quarter mile or more. Here’s a map of the area (page 2).

So we quickly repacked the bed of the truck, including Scott’s new-to-him kayak and with Scott riding on the tailgate hustled to Lot E. Blind 9 is a long walk no matter what lot you use, but the hike from Lot E is maybe a little shorter … maybe. It’s flatter and that counts for a lot at the end of a long day. So a big thank you to the guys who saved us some agony!

When we finally made it to the blind we had 10 minutes to set up. At that point in the morning the winds were coming out of the South, so we created a rough, wide “V” with the 2-dozen decoys out from the South-facing blind and settled in with 2 minutes to spare before legal shooting time.

Poor Buffleheads

I’m a little trigger-happy early in the day. I often joke that I need to shoot three shells first thing in the morning just to clean out the gun and warm up the barrel. So when I saw a a group of 7-8 ducks puddling 25 yards in front of us in the dawn light at legal shooting time, I called the shot. We unloaded on them and dropped five birds right away. I was convinced we had mallards, but when Scott returned from the maiden voyage of his kayak he brought back 4 buffleheads and a scaup.

Tim was wearing a mask so I couldn’t see his scowl, but I knew he would be stewing about the bufflehead slaughter. We both have had trouble identifying ducks at McNary in low light conditions. At a previous hunt here we became pretty frustrated because we did not want to take many divers and inadvertently passed on mallards shots because we could not identify them quickly enough. This continuation of our troubles did not set the tone any of us really wanted for the hunt. We’re much more interested in bagging larger ducks in the Eastern part of the state. Even in our home refuge of Ridgefield, where mallards aren’t really common, we typically don’t shoot buffles. There’s just not enough meat to them.

A Speck on the Water

From legal shooting time at 7:05 a.m. until about 9 a.m. the action was fast. Flocka and pairs of ringnecks, scaup, buffles, mallards, pintails, and widgeon swirled around the refuge. Every time we looked into the sky we saw ducks. But since it was also a late-season hunt, many of the birds were very wary of the decoys, especially the mallards. Many simply got close and peeled off well before they got into range.

During this time one of the blinds well to the south of us had a flock of geese fly a little too low overhead. The shooters managed to get a pellet or two into one. It glided about a half mile and splashed into the bay a couple of hundred yards away from us and out of sight from the hunters in the blind that had shot it. It was still alive and paddled into the weeds. A little while later we could see the bird splashing around, flipping a wing off in the distance until it quieted and died. The prevailing wind at the time meant the body of this goose was slowing blowing in our direction. We glassed it a few times and could not decide what it was. It did not look like a canada goose.

We had decided that since we did not see the hunters who shot it attempt a retrieve, Scott would paddle out to get it when it got close enough. It stayed about 100 yards away from us until a hawk glided down, landed on its carcass, and began plucking its feathers. That was our cue. Scott grabbed the kayak and paddled out to get it. When he returned he held up a large specklebelly goose, aka a “white-fronted” goose or a “speck”. We don’t see these often – I’ve never seen a live one – on our side of the Cascades so it was a treat to have one in the bag. No, we didn’t down it, but we did retrieve it!

Tough Mallards

The speck was a treat, but even with it we were still struggling take down mallards. We had gotten a few more divers and Tim, with another sardonic scowl, brought back to the blind a hen teal that I swore was a mallard when I saw it in the morning light. But the big birds were tougher. We had dropped two drake mallards, seperately, about 25 yards out but both scurried off into the high bulrush and we could not retrieve them.

Finally, we managed to shoot one that had aborted a landing and chose an escape route over the blind. It landed behind the blind in a field of clumpy grass. After a few minutes of looking for it, Tim’s daughter claimed it. We bagged another mallard in the same way and downed two more in the water in front of the blind.

It had been a grind to get our birds. The wind changed directions at least three times, necessitating decoy changes throughout the day. In the end, four mallards, a green-wing teal and then 10 various divers rounded out our bag for the day.

We decided to pack up after some new hunters arrived to occupy Blind 6, which was by this time in the afternoon seeing favorable winds. I said, “With those guys there we’re not going to see any more action. All the birds are headed to them now.” We bailed out of the blind, unloaded our guns and started packing our gear. Just then Tim’s daughter said, “Look, two greenheads just landed right out front.” Sure enough, right in our landing zone, sat two drake mallards. Scott reached for his shotgun and they flushed as quickly as they arrived. Tim’s mood didn’t improve. We’ll save those two for next season.

Kayak Solves a Problem

The most satisfying aspect of the hunt was from Scott’s purchase of the heavily used kayak. If you don’t have a dog or a boat, it’s easy to lose birds in McNary to the deeper water or to the high grasses on the shore. It’s something that has plagued us during our hunts in this area. And while we don’t have a dog to fetch the cripples in the grass, the kayak gave us access to the birds too far out to retrieve in waders. We were able to retrieve at least 5 birds, including the speck, that may have eluded us with the kayak. Thanks, Scott!

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