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Bushwhacking Holston River Woodies

Article and Photos By Mike Faulk

Iím not much at calling woodies. Who is for that matter? And Iíve never enjoyed great success at having the crested-king of the early migration landing in a spread of woodie decoys. But the late summer draw down of the TVA reservoirs in northeast Tennessee provides a good mid-September opportunity to have a great hunt bushwhacking woodies.

Holston River Duck Hunting
Holston River

With big meandering bends covering 3-4 miles of water, numerous feeder creeks, and one-half of its volume of water coming from the uncontrolled northern branch, the Holston River below the confluence of its forks and below the restricted Holston Army Ammunition plant is prime territory for hunters willing to invest a little extra effort to bushwhack woodies.

Since there are boat ramps every two miles or so, water fowlers in eastern Hawkins County have easy access for float trips lasting from a couple of hours to the entire day. A pace of about two miles per hour is average unless TVA is drawing down the closest upstream lake, Fort Patrick Henry, in which case the pace is twice as fast.

Itís a good idea to know TVAís generating schedule ahead of time. The generation schedule can be found on-line at or by calling 1-800-238-2264 (TDD 1-800-438-2264). If there is no release scheduled, youíll need to know where to spot your downstream pick-up vehicle because the river depth will be too shallow to motor back upstream to where you embarked.

Late summer conditions around this northeast Tennessee river in many ways mimic the very late season conditions along the more favored water fowling areas of the state. Farm ponds are dry, not frozen; nevertheless, they are useless to early migrators looking for safe cover. Creeks are low and inaccessible because of thick foliage. Crops not yet matured provide as little to eat as winterís harvested fields. And acorns arenít yet plentiful.

Even in September, the main channel of this 300-500 feet wide stream has numerous log falls and sandbars. When coupled with narrow sluices around twenty or so islands ranging from one to sixty acres, these log falls and sandbars create a suitable haven for woodies and early season teal.

Itís not uncommon to jump 2-3 groups of woodies per mile. Flocks of a dozen are about the maximum. Two to four birds per encounter are average. Teal tend to travel in slightly larger groups. Harvesting percentages are better with the smaller groups anyway.

Basic strategy calls for stalking the birds from a flat bottom Jon boat with a shooter and an oarsman. The flat bottom allows the boat to travel over logs hidden slightly under the waterline and is easier to drag across sandbars and shallow shoals. A boat longer than fifteen feet is tough to handle. A river Jon is better than a lake Jon since it isnít as wide and is easier for one person to maneuver.

Knowledge of the river is essential. Because of the generating schedule, the obstacles in the river and their location change every day - not just after a heavy rain. Hanging the boat on an invisible limb or banging into a submerged boulder seems to always happen just out of shooting range (35-45 yards) and just before jumping a group of birds. Add an early fall fog to a hunt that begins 30 minutes before sunrise to complete this recipe for frustration.

The idea is to stay in the shadows, as near to the bank as water depth will allow. The oarsman will have his work cut out for him negotiating around logs, limbs, and rocks in the water and low branches overhanging the shoreline. Depending on the way obstacles lay in the water, the shooter may have an easier shot when the boat is broadside rather than facing downstream.

Itís up to the oarsman to try to get the boat into range, produce the best shot, and keep the occupants safe. Steering the boat is easier when thereís some current. Birds are pushed closer to the shore in current. The danger is greater, too. Due to the serpentine pattern taken by the boat, running into an obstacle broadside makes overturning a common fear. Never lean upstream to help the boat clear the obstacle. Always lean downstream into the object.

Paddles are important. Although, otherwise traveling light will make dragging that Jon boat over sandbars much easier, carry three paddles for two people. The third paddle often becomes necessary when youíve broken one of the others prying the boat off some slimy log or rock. The oarsman will need a 5-6 foot paddle for steering and for forceful strokes to propel the boat past trouble spots. The shooter needs a 4 foot paddle to assist with rowing through areas of dead water and sparse cover and to help clear the boat when it hangs up. The shooter needs to keep his paddle close at hand for emergencies. Given the choice, an unscheduled dip in the Holston with loss of your gear and perhaps your life seems a poor alternative to being ready for "just one more bird".

Also, two other comments on paddles: first, sand the lacquer off and paint them flat black. Water dripping off a shinny paddle when hit with sunlight is just like using a mirror to send Morse code to the wood ducks saying, "Here we come. You can fly now". Secondly, the sound of a paddle, wooden or metal, clanging on the side of a metal Jon boat carries -- it seems forever or at least to the next flight of birds, which spook after hearing that most unnatural sound.

Stealth is good. Woodies donít see marsh grass or anything else cream colored or light brown float down the river in September. They do see dark logs and the river grass that has grown throughout the summer to three feet or so. It starts turning loose from the bottom and washing downstream in big clumps when the fall reservoir draw down begins.

A big pile of this river grass overhanging the bow of the boat makes for good camouflage. Also the reeds growing in canebrakes up and down the river make a good front and side cover for the boat. Cut them off so they stand 12"-18" above the rim of the boat. If any taller, they hang up in the low branches and leaves that overhang the water. While these branches are home to few snakes, they are full of spider webs and bugs.

Few leaves have turned by mid-September. Dark green camouflage is better than any marshland pattern. For the fogless sunny morning, a facemask is a must. Avoid much talking. Whisper when you must. An easy signal to your partner that you have spotted birds ahead is a simple wiggle of your bottom just enough to rock the boat. Show the right or left hand down low below the line of sight blocked by the disguise on the front of the boat and indicate with fingers how many birds lie ahead. Movement is a dead giveaway - whether in a blind or on the water.

Two boat cushions allow the gunner to sit in the floor of the boat with a backrest so his vision is slightly above the materials covering the front of the boat. The oarsman is seated normally on the back seat allowing him to see over the gunnerís head while at the same time hiding behind the shooter.

Take turns being the shooter. Almost all the firepower should come out of the front of the boat. While the oarsman is loaded with his shotgun within reach, the oarsman should shoot cleanup only. Birds flaring in the opposite direction from those taking the gunnerís fire are acceptable targets. Hunting partners should discuss and clearly designate shooting zones. Trespassing in the other water fowlerís shooting zone can be fatal. Keep in mind that the oarsmanís muzzle blast will be near the ears and head of the gunner if pursuing the same birds. Earplugs are a must for the gunner. Under no circumstance should the gunner stand up while guns are loaded in the boat. My rule is only one person is to stand in my boat when loading and unloading the boat. Otherwise, occupants should remain seated. The instability of two people standing increases the chance for an unscheduled baptism. No standing in the boat --period -- if there are loaded weapons.

Trolling motors are useful in tracking down cripples. Sometimes the slow moving current speeds up where the river width constricts. Inevitably, youíll shoot a bird just before reaching such a spot and there the cripple goes shooting down the river while your oarsman struggles to keep up. A trolling motor will allow you to get ahead of the bird so it to float to you. Caution: itís illegal to shoot waterfowl when your boat is underway by means of mechanical propulsion. See that the trolling motor is completely off before you shoot.

Challenging describes the shooting done from the floor of a Jon boat while in the most awkward of positions, while passing under branches and around logs, and while moving downstream at 2-4 miles per hour at a bird as it accelerates to 40 miles per hour. Following a few simple rules and taking a few extra minutes to plan your float trip on the Holston will prepare you for the challenge.


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