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A dash 'o salt: whistling wings of both divers and puddlers await at the month of the Columbia.


THE BIGGEST FRESHWATER RIVER on the West Coast is salty enough, at least on an incoming tide, that delicious Dungeness crabs roam the waters, along with giant sturgeon and salmon rushing in from the sea, dodging the massive sea lions. The Columbia River Estuary is a scant 45 minutes from the front door of our little red house in Wahkiakum County, Western Washington. Between home and the expanse of the Columbia River that slips into the Pacific are the tides; saltwater giving way to brackish, which fades to freshwater further upstream.

The whistle of wings catches me messing with the hound, her lips are folded back to show her teeth--she's a growling mad dog. She hates it, but it makes me laugh. We both freeze; I look at Sadie Mae, her eyes rolled skyward. A barely audible whine starts in the back of her throat. I turn and risk a look at the small flock of bald pate, eight birds--maybe 12--backs turned and already cutting a 180 into the wind not 100 yards from the edge of the spread. "Easy, pup." I can feel the dog shake with adrenaline tremors; I know the feeling all too well. Calling is a moot point, as the front four are locked, doing that altitude-spilling wiggle-waggle, the motion of commitment we all so love to see.

A white-capped drake is the first to crumple; his wingman is next. Where the third shot went is anyone's guess. "Well," I say quietly to the furry blob of nerves at my hip, "Go get 'em." And she does; and right nicely, too.

I trade the VersaMax for a surprisingly still-hot Go-Cup of coffee, while Sadie Mae makes short work of the second of the pair. Leaned back against a huge cedar, the drift-log still has a springboard notch in her side, so she's an old-timer. The notch shows where the loggers cut a chunk out to put a board on which to stand when they did the real cutting of gigantic trees. I look out over the expanse that is the lower Columbia River. A lifetime away, she is, from the Lake Erie and Ohio River of my youth. This purgatory half-land between saline and fresh water. An ebb and flood dictated by the mysterious whims of Mister Man-in-the-Moon. A world of things far beyond most waterfowlers' imaginations. A place with just a dash 'o salt.


To better understand the title of this piece you have to first understand the last 150 miles of the big river. With headwaters in British Columbia, the Columbia drains portions of seven states as she makes a 1,243-mile journey over the bar to the Pacific Ocean. At its mouth, the Columbia stretches roughly three miles across from Oregon's South Jetty to the North Jetty at Fort Canby in Washington state.

Now, the last 150 miles. This final leg of the Columbia between Bonneville Dam and the mouth is tidal; it rises and falls in sync with the Pacific. How much does she rise and fall? Depending on the time of year, moon phase, and weather, the difference between high tide and low can be between eight and nine feet. Further upriver, yet still below Bonneville Dam, these fluctuations will moderate. What's all this mean to the 'fowler plying the waters of the Bottom End Columbia? Sometimes those pretty decoys are laying on their sides in the mud; other times, they're up and floating, untethered, toward, if my geography is correct, Japan. It's all a matter of timing, and possessing the ability to read and understand a tide table. There are plenty of tide apps for iPhones and other operating systems floating around on the web. I'm currently using a free app--Tides Near Me--to keep me up on the daily aquatic comings and goings, and it seems to be providing me all the information I need.

But back to the Dash 'O Salt. Because the Pacific Ocean is saltwater, it would only seem logical that the Columbia River would, as a result of the twice-daily influx of seawater, be saline from the mouth up to Bonneville Dam. Well, conventional theory be damned, because according to data I found on A1 Gore's Internet, only about the first 25 river miles is actually salty. That's roughly from the mouth upriver almost to the town of Skamokawa (Pronounced Ska-Mock-A-Wah) more or less. Most of those miles contain brackish water; technically speaking, this water is only somewhat saline. Thus, the Dash 'o Salt.


Traditionally, or at least during the two decades I've been out here, either as a transient or resident, this lower portion of the Columbia River, along with much of the southern bays--Willapa, and Grays Harbor--have drawn the attention of the diver fanatics. Though not as numerous as they were back in the early 1990s when I first moved to western Washington, bluebills are still present in strong numbers; a population that builds throughout the course of the season, and peaks in late December and into early January. Canvasbacks and redheads, too, can be found, albeit not in rafts as large as those seen upriver in the Columbia Basin above the Tri-Cities, but they're in the brackish water as well. And you have your requisite buffleheads, goldeneyes, and a huge contingent of common and red-breasted mergansers. There are plenty of Canadas here, with the occasional specklebelly and snow; black brant, too, on Willapa Bay, though the season is unpredictable, determined by late December aerial counts. It may or may not come off, depending on the numbers.

Divers are great; don't get me wrong. I love a good bluebill hunt, set against the monochromatic backdrop of western Washington's old-growth firs and wave-washed cobblestone beaches. Ah, those were the days. But it's the puddlers that interest me in this watery realm between salt and fresh. In mid-October, with the start of the Washington duck season, it's primarily a wigeon and green-wing teal show, with some sprig thrown in for good measure. Wigeon on the bottom end Columbia and Willapa Bay were in great supply, during the 2015-16 season. "I don't know why," a buddy told me, "but the wigeon have really come back in the last couple years." Unfortunately, the same can't be said about my favorite puddler, the green-wing teal. Damn, the green-wings I saw in 1993 when I first lived in Clark County. Clouds of green-wings, thick as starlings at a country silage pile. "I haven't seen green-wings like that," the same friend said, "in several years now. Some early in the season, and then they're gone. I don't know what's happened."



As October gives way to Thanksgiving and Christmas, mallard numbers, along with pintails and, most recently, grey ducks, swell on the brackish water. There are still plenty of wigeon and a smattering of teal. While not a mallard purist by any stretch, my focus turns to picture-perfect greenheads and snow-white drake sprig, each sporting dagger-like black pins the length of a baby's arm. Sprig are skinny things--not much meat on those hollow bones--but they make incredible subjects for my wife's photography. In years past, the brackish water held a good population of northern shovelers, the Rodney Dangerfield of the puddle duck family. It's a reputation undeserved, to my way of thinking, as I've stir-fried hundreds of excellent spoonbills, and turned my nose up at more than one late-season greenhead that had been gorging himself on winterkilled gizzard shad. Ugh! Apart from a handful, the spoonies never showed last year--a mysterious absence, just like the green-wings.


I'll admit it, my birthright is as an Ohio-born flatlander. I didn't grow up around tidal waters, so until I moved west and had a chance to really study and learn what these coastal sea-faring folk have known for millennia, I was as unfamiliar with the daily ebb and flood as I am with what passes for country music these days. Not that I'm a tidal expert now, but I know enough to accomplish two very important things: stay out of trouble and guess where the ducks will be at any given time during the tides.

Successfully hunting puddlers in this semi-salt environment is a matter of timing. Elementally, ducks come and go with the ebb and flood; that is, they come into the food sources made accessible by the incoming brackish water. Conversely, they leave when the water recedes. Theoretically, that's how it happens; however, I've seen wigeon mucking around in mud-covered tidal uplands at low tide, and I've sat through what I call The Turn: the hour just before and immediately following high tide, to include slack--when I should have been covered up with ducks, and saw nothing.



But when it works, it's the stuff memories are made of. There's a small slough not far east of the house here in Cathlamet that fills and empties with the tides. She's a skinny thing, not more than 20 feet wide and maybe 200 yards long. Lined with blackberry thickets, dark-green firs, blood-red vine maples, and the ubiquitous moss-draped scrub alders, the Uttle flow makes the perfect setting for one, perhaps two guns, a dozen decoys, jerk cord, and an eager black dog. I choose my partner most carefully, as it's public water and there's no need to advertise in detail the few good things in life. We paddle in via AquaPod, cover the skiffs, and hide among the cattails and sticker bushes. Sometimes we schedule our hunt for high tide, sometimes low. Either way, it's a mallard hole reminiscent of traditional Arkansas green timber, even down to the over/unders we pack and the 23A" loads of Nos. 4 or 5 steel. The major difference? This hole dries up twice each day. Every day of the year.


Along with the tides, there's the weather to take into consideration; no different, I reckon, than anywhere else a 'fowler puts down stakes. Wind and rain, and the birds move inland. Highs in the 50s, sunny with no breeze, and the puddlers will ride out the tide where the water doesn't disappear. And then there's sheet water, both a blessing and curse. Three continuous days of rain in Wahkiakum County, and small four-inch-deep ponds magically appear, each holding enough mixed puddlers to make for an interesting small spread hide-in-the-bushes hunt. Thirty continuous days of rain, however, and the 55 miles between us and the coast is transformed into one very large freshwater lake. What that means is six ducks here. Three ducks there. Four ducks over yonder. No concentrations of birds, all of which are taking the opportunity to leave the brackish water behind and enjoy the freshwater for a spell.

Sadie Mae and I think it's all right, this temporary Waterworld, created where the Pacific rises to touch the streams tumbling down The Cascades to points west. Why? Well, everything's a little better with a dash 'o salt. And that, as I've discovered, certainly does include duck hunting.
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Author:Johnson, M.D.
Geographic Code:0PACI
Date:Sep 28, 2016
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