FORT BENTON, Mont. -- Our hopes were quickly confirmed as we beached our canoes on an island soon after launching on the Missouri River near Fort Benton, Mont.
We'd removed our lifejackets, readied the dogs and were just loading shells into our shotguns when the first rooster pheasant of the day flushed within range from the shoreline willows.
"That's a good start, even if I wasn't ready," said Bob St.Pierre, a Pheasants Forever official visiting Montana recently.
Finding a productive place to hunt upland birds in Montana isn't as easy as it was years ago, before large ranches were selling as recreational property and huge blocks of farm land were being leased by outfitters.
However, a few hunters with the skills to navigate chilling waters are drifting their way back into the good ol' days on the same waterway traveled by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
The permanent islands are public land, where within the first hour we flushed a half-dozen pheasants and dozens of waterfowl.
Ed Lehman, who runs the True Value Hardware store in the historic fur-trading and riverboat town of Fort Benton, suggested how to get the most bang for the buck on a paddling river hunt.
"Devote one canoe to pheasants if you want to carry lead shot; devote the other to waterfowl and carry steel shot (to be legal)," he said, noting that smaller steel shot loads would work fine on pheasants, too.
A minimum group of four with two canoes also offers a measure of insurance should an accident occur.
The Missouri River for much of its course through Montana is notably friendly to canoeing hunters, especially in low autumn flows through free-flowing stretches.
"You rarely go far before you hit shallow water or a gravel bar in our area," said Mike Gregston, who runs Adventure Bound Canoe in Fort Benton.
Most of Gregston's canoe rental, guiding and shuttle business comes from paddling groups heading downstream through the Upper Missouri Wild & Scenic River stretch, which runs 149 miles from the Fort Benton area downstream into the Missouri River Breaks at Kipp Recreation Area.
Hunters -- including big-game hunters -- are becoming an increasing presence on the river during the fall and early winter seasons, Gregston said.
"It's pretty much ideal: Class I water; no rapids. If you do nothing more than stay upright in the boat and spin in circles, you'll get to the next take-out or campground," he said.
Several stretches of the river can be floated and hunted in day trips, but paddlers heading downstream from Coal Banks must be equipped for several nights on the river to reach the first opportunity to take out at Judith Landing.
Pheasants were found on every island St.Pierre's group hunted, although some flushed wild and offered no shooting opportunity.
But there was always some sort of attraction, including the seven bald eagles perched in two trees at the end of one island and the mule deer that erupted from another.
Canoe hunter's 6 rules
With 35 years of canoe hunting experience under my boat, I have a solid list of guidelines learned from my own trial and error and the mishaps of my buddies.
-- Wear a good life jacket while on the water. It will do little good in a time of need if it's in the bottom of the canoe.
-- Bring a "dump bag" for each paddler. Dry clothing is your insurance against hypothermia if you get wet, even in mild weather. A complete change of clothes, along with a knife and fire starter, should be packed in a waterproof bag that can be fastened into the canoe.
This lesson was rammed home decades ago by two waterfowling buddies who dumped during a previously sensational day of hunting on a small, winding stream in Montana. The air temperature was 10 degrees.
With no change of clothes, they began running down the shoreline to generate body heat, but even that became impossible when their wool pants froze to the hardness of cast-iron pipes. They survived -- barely!
-- Shooting from the canoe is restricted to the bowman. A canoe is a stealthy tool for getting close to waterfowl around bends on smaller, meandering streams such as the Colville River or in the lee of islands on bigger rivers. But the sternman should always be in control of the boat.
My hapless buddies mentioned above capsized because both of them shouldered shotguns and fired simultaneously broadside at a flock of low-flying geese.
-- Train your dog to ride in the canoe and to exit only on command.
This is best accomplished during warm weather months before you pack along your $1,000 shotgun down a flowing current of 38-degree water. Dogs appreciate a rug or canvas tarp for insulation from the cold canoe hull.
-- Be frank about your paddling skills and those of your partner, and choose your route accordingly.
-- Know your river. Scout paddling routes in advance by roads, maps, guidebooks and talking to other paddlers. Be especially conservative on the first outing. A small winding stream may require you to wear waders for portaging over beaver dams. Bigger rivers warrant closer scrutiny of weather, especially wind.
Canoe hunting is not advised away from shore on big, deep rivers such as the Snake, which is subject to dangerous winds, waves and huge wakes from barge traffic.