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Ice Ducks: Waterfowling's Frozen Challenge

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Hard water doesn't spell the end of the season. In fact, it opens new doors

Widespread ice might send many birds south, but hardy ducks and honkers congregate in remaining open water, providing great freeze-up hunting. Photo © Bill Konway

Waterfowl seasons occur during a period of great change. Depending on your location, you might start the campaign by shooting local ducks during summer-like conditions. Farther south, folks wait for the first blast of winter to move migrants into their area. But wherever you hunt, you’ll probably wake one morning to calm, crisp conditions and a duck hole that seems still — too still. It’s frozen.

For many folks in the North, that signals the end of the season. For Southern waterfowlers, it might just represent a temporary hurdle. Either way, you’ll have to deal with ice and how ducks react to it.

Agricultural fields really shine in some areas during freeze-up, but we’ve covered those tactics in other blogs and features. For this article, let’s focus on hunting water when the landscape goes arctic.

Big Moving Water

Large portions of many major rivers remain open during freezing weather, mostly, of course, because the water is constantly moving, so it takes much longer to freeze. In addition, many rivers feature spring holes, which pump in relatively warm water. And of course, warm-water discharges from hydroelectric or other municipal operations also keep many areas open.

As sloughs, marshes, backwaters and lakes freeze, open portions of rivers become choked with hardy birds, such as mallards, blacks, geese and goldeneyes. Puddlers and geese typically roost in large areas of open water and then fly out to feed in agricultural fields. If the weather is frigid, they might conserve energy and only make one feeding flight a day, often during the afternoon. If temperatures moderate, they might make a morning and evening flight. However, because everything else is frozen, they’ll usually return to their roost river or stream after feeding to loaf and get a drink. Divers, of course, stick to the open water, flying between roosting and feeding areas.

Typically, I like to hunt over decoys on large rivers. Birds congregate in large expanses of open water, so jump-shooting isn’t often practical. Further, you can experience great decoy-shooting during a freeze, and that type of hunting is pretty straightforward. Find a spot ducks are using, throw out the appropriate decoys, conceal yourself and take ‘em when they come in. During freeze-up, you’ll have to hunt areas with current instead of the slack-water stuff you tried earlier in the season. That often means you must set up on main-river sandbars, shorelines or tributary mouths. Ideally, these spots will feature enough current to ward away ice but not so much that water rips through like a rapids.

The problem with setting up on islands, sandbars and shorelines is that many of them have little cover, especially if it’s late in the year and there’s snow on the ground. You can build a makeshift blind out of driftwood or other materials, but you might consider hunting in your boat using a boat blind. Many commercial models are available nowadays, or if you’re handy, you can build one with PVC piping and camouflage material. Probably the nicest part of hunting inside a boat blind is that you can run a portable heater.

Decoy spreads don’t need to be elaborate during this time, but they should probably be relatively large. After all, you’re hunting big water, and fowl are grouped in large flocks.

If you’re focusing on puddlers, bring your magnum mallard and Canada goose decoys. Set them out in two groups, or make a large V or J-hook, with mallards comprising one arm and geese the other. Mix things up by running some full-body field decoys on sandbars or ice to mimic loafing or sleeping birds.

If you're seeking a mixed bag of puddlers and divers, set a stool of mallards to one side, leave a large open hole in front of your blind, and then set out a line of divers that stretches downwind.

Freeze-up is a great time to decoy honkers to water setups. In fact, you’re cheating yourself if you don’t throw out some floating Canada goose decoys and bring along your favorite short-reed call. It’s amazing how well you can lure in honkers on big rivers during freeze-up, and a bag of plump greenheads and big honkers makes a mighty pretty picture.

Of course, hunting big rivers during freeze-up is dangerous business. Large moving water is no place for a skiff or small boat. Use a large duck boat with a powerful motor. Ideally, your rig will have a spare kicker motor or electronic trolling motor just in case.

You might have to break through several inches of ice at the landing with your boat and navigate ice-strewn channels in the dark. So naturally, you want to be especially careful. Dress in very warm clothes, and use extreme caution when under power. If you have to break through some ice, that’s fine, but don't try to ram through several inches of solid black ice. Try to inch your boat along, getting the hull atop the ice and then letting it sink down, shattering the ice. Also, beware of floating sheets of ice, which can damage your boat hull or catch your anchor rope, pulling the bow of your boat underwater.

One final point: Because half-frozen big water can be so dangerous, consider hunting later in the day. In my experience, freeze-up shooting action is often better later in the morning than at first light. If it’s really cold, ducks might not fly out to feed until later, and they’ll probably return at some point to loaf and drink.

Small Moving Water

Springs and spring-fed streams are beautiful things year-round, but they become even more appealing when the mercury plunges. As small lakes, marshes, sloughs and backwaters freeze, these creeks and small rivers start to fill up with ducks. The best streams are those that empty into lakes, marshes or impoundments that attract migrant ducks. As the main water freezes, birds often immediately relocate to the nearest open spot.

I’d rather hunt over decoys than jump-shoot, but flushing birds works better on small waters. Ducks just don’t have much room to work to small bends and oxbows. Further, the best time to kill ducks on small creeks is the first day after other waters freeze. Because the freeze usually occurs at night, birds will already be in the creeks at sunup, so you usually flush them anyway.

So, I typically wait till the sun is up and then slip along the bank or in the creek, ideally with the sun at my back and the wind in my face. If you’re quiet, and use trees, cover and bends in the river to your advantage, you can sneak amazingly close to large numbers of ducks and even geese.

Creep as close as possible, of course, but try to pick out a good spot to shoot. And with every step, be ready to mount your gun, pick out one or two drakes and shoot. You must take advantage of good flushes. Otherwise, the birds might relocate downriver or find some unknown pocket of open water, and your chance will be gone.

After a good hunt, it's wise to let a small spring or stream rest for a few days. Pounding a small area every morning might net you a duck here and there, but waiting a few days between trips can net you several quality shoots.

If you choose to decoy-hunt small streams, you can usually get away with a dozen or so mallard decoys. Make your spread loose and visible. Also, set some decoys up on ice sheets or the streambank to mimic loafing birds. And if ducks swing close, take the first good shot. Remember, they don’t have much room to work, so kill ’em when you can.

Open Holes

An ice hole, of course, is just any hole in the ice. They can take many forms, including a 10-by-10-foot hole you chop with a baseball bat or a 100-yard expanse of windswept river mouth. Size isn't too important. Small holes of open water often attract ducks. In fact, they can be magical. Don’t ask me how, but ducks almost seem to have a sixth sense about the location of open water in an otherwise frozen landscape. They can find amazingly small pockets of open water minutes after those holes open.

The best way to find ice holes is to scout lakes, marshes and sloughs after freeze-up. Drive or walk around lakes, and note any spots with open water or poor-looking ice. Sometimes, windswept shorelines or river channels open up long after guys have been ice-fishing nearby for weeks. Also, talk with locals or game-agency officials about the locations of springs or small tributary creeks. If nothing else, ice in these areas will be thinner and easier to break.

If you can’t find natural ice holes, create them. First, you can do it the old-fashioned way and chop holes in the ice with axes, hoes or baseball bats. This works best if you can wade, of course, because you don’t want to chop a hole in the ice above 10-foot-deep water.

If you don’t want to chop, try using an electronic trolling motor or a commercial ice-eater to keep small holes open through the night. You might have to run two or three extension cords from the motor or aerator to a gas-powered generator, but the results can be incredible.

Because spring-fed or man-made ice holes are small, you don’t need many decoys when you hunt them. In fact, if you can fit a couple of dozen in those spots, that's usually enough. Mallard decoys work for every occasion. Just arrange them in a small stool or blob, and place some on the ice itself to mimic resting birds. Make sure to leave a relatively large landing area.

Of course, not all ice holes are small. Wind and current often open up large areas of open water on otherwise frozen lakes, and ducks use these spots heavily. However, because these areas of open water are still usually surrounded by ice, they can be difficult to hunt.

The best situations occur when high offshore winds shove ice to the windward shore, opening up the lee shore. Sometimes, wind might open up a large stretch of water on the main lake while bays and most shorelines remain frozen. When that happens, ducks will fly along the line where ice and open water meet, often right past nearby points of land. In such situations, you really don’t even need decoys. However, a few strategically placed blocks might help sucker flocks even closer.

Conclusion

When the ice man visits this year, don’t pack away your gear. Scout hard for huntable open water, whether on rivers, creeks or lakes. You’ll be in for some of the season’s most memorable shooting.

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