Freeze-Up Ducks: Dos and Don'ts

By author of The Duck Blog

Follow These Tips During This Productive Yet Tricky Period

Do: Hit the Fields

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1 | Do: Hit the Fields

Mallards, honkers and black ducks often stick around long after other ducks have gone south, even when most surface water has frozen. Why? Food is a big reason. Provided snow cover isn’t too deep, hardy ducks and geese in ag country can load up on high-carb corn, bean and other grains when other food sources are locked under ice. Freeze-up is probably the best time for field hunting, as ducks and geese are concentrated, and cold weather prompts them to hit the feed bag with gusto.

Make the most of that opportunity. When traditional duck waters freeze, hit the scouting road to find likely fields near remaining open water. Look for flights in the air and birds on the ground at daylight and dusk. Often, ducks fly at first light, but geese — especially pressured late-season Canadas — might make only one flight a day, right before sundown.

Locate a hot field, and determine the X. Then, secure permission, and set up there before dawn. Forget about duck decoys. Use honkers or, where appropriate, snows. Full-bodies work best, but you can supplement them with rags and windsocks. Bring some spinning-wing decoys, too, but make sure you can turn them off with a remote control when ducks get close. Otherwise, ducks won’t finish as well.

Photo © Bill Konway

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Do: Seek Open Water, Large or Small

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2 | Do: Seek Open Water, Large or Small

As mentioned, after a good freeze, hardy or straggler ducks and geese congregate in large numbers on remaining open water. Likely areas include large rivers, swift-moving streams, springs or spring-fed creeks or large, windswept reservoirs or natural lakes.

Small waters are easier to hunt during this time, of course. You can kill a lot of mallards by jump-shooting creeks or using decoys at springs or river bends during this time. Of course, birds won’t stick around if they get pressured. Your first trip will usually be the best. After a good shoot, let an area rest for a bit or, better, find a similar spot to hunt.

On big water, you’ll probably have to break some ice at the boat landing and perhaps even for a few hundred yards until you reach open water, but if you can get there safely, the results might be phenomenal. Best, provided water remains open and you can access it, the action might last for several days or weeks.

Photo © Bill Konway

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Don’t: Be Afraid to Break Ice

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3 | Don’t: Be Afraid to Break Ice

Sometimes, it’s tough to find open water. Don’t be afraid to make your own. Use one of the many commercial ice-eaters available nowadays to keep a roosting area, loafing pond or likely blind site open during the night. Or, if ice isn’t too thick, use sledgehammers or chainsaws to open a large area, and then set out decoys.

This might seem silly, as much of the surrounding water will be frozen, but ducks and geese find open-water areas very quickly and from long distances. You can even shoot divers sometimes by chopping away a 30-by-30-yard hole on a frozen lake.

Photo © Banded

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Don’t: Neglect Midday Opportunities

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4 | Don’t: Neglect Midday Opportunities

When field-hunting ducks or decoying them at small destination waters, it’s best to be set up before light. However, when you jump-shoot birds or hunt big water, midday action is often great, so don’t ignore it. Many times, birds return from fields to loaf and get a drink at midmorning. Or, increasing winds during the day prompt them to move toward leeward areas.

That doesn’t mean you can’t set up at dawn. Just be prepared to stay most of the day. Or, if conditions are harsh, plan to hunt during the warmest part of the day, and make the most of it. Oh, and if it snows, find a field and hunt there as long as possible. Ducks and geese will likely go crazy and feed throughout the day.

Photo © Bill Konway

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Do: Make Sure Your Gun and Shooting Are Up to the Task

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5 | Do: Make Sure Your Gun and Shooting Are Up to the Task

Frigid weather is tough on gear, especially semi-automatic shotguns. Be certain yours is ready for the deep freeze. Make sure it’s clean, and don’t use too much oil, as that can make the action sluggish. Consider having a pump or double-barrel ready as a back-up gun.

Also, realize that you’ll probably have to wear more clothing than normal during a cold-weather hunt. That can affect the manner and efficiency with which you shoulder your gun and move your body while shooting. Avoid excessively puffy or baggy outerwear, and practice shouldering your shotgun beforehand to make sure you can do so without catching the stock under your armpit.

In addition, don’t get cute with shell selection during frigid conditions. You’ll be shooting at the toughest, most fully feathered birds of the season, so you don’t want steel No. 6 shot. Use stout loads of large shot, and finish cripples immediately to avoid long boat rides in subzero weather or, worse, harrowing and potentially dangerous retrieves for your pup.

Photo © Bill Konway

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Don’t: Be Careless

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6 | Don’t: Be Careless

The sting on your cheeks and pain in your fingers say it all: Frigid late-season weather demands care. It’s no time for taking risks. Be especially careful when operating a boat, especially if you must break ice to reach a spot. Some boats are made for that; others are not. Don’t find out the hard way that yours is in the latter category.

Take precautions to avoid frostbite. Cover exposed areas of flesh, especially during windy days. Bring extra gloves in case one pair gets wet. Consider using a portable heater in your boat or blind, provided you can operate it safely.

And as I alluded to in No. 6, make sure your dog stays safe. Dogs can actually get frostbite very easily, especially on their noses and ears. And although they withstand cold water far better than humans, they can get hypothermia, so they shouldn’t be making long, exhausting retrieves in dangerous conditions. Moreover, make sure they can dry off after a retrieve.

With a few precautions, everyone will stay comfy after freeze-up — and probably enjoy some of the most memorable action of the season.

Photo © Bill Konway

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For many folks, frozen boat landings and iced-over wildlife-management areas spell the end of duck season. For others, it simply marks the next step — a shift to a unique period with rugged challenges but potentially great rewards.

Whether you hunt in the North or South, freeze-up shooting can bring unequaled opportunity. But anyone can see that standard approaches won’t cut it when the snow flies and most waters ice over. The game has changed, and you must adapt. Here are a few dos and don’ts for making the most of this icy opportunity.

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