October 04, 2010
Wintertime has rolled into Idaho and Montana, but that doesn't mean that late-season duck hunting -- or goose hunting -- has rolled out of town! (Dec 2006)
As Christmas Day approaches, the calendar heralds the end of another duck and goose hunting season in the northern Rockies.
But that hardly means the year's best waterfowl gunning is behind hunters in Idaho and Montana.
In fact, for the hardy 'fowler, hunting greenheads and ganders on open rivers and spring creeks flowing in steamy defiance of pipe-splitting cold fronts surging southward through these two states, the gunning during these late-season days can be nothing short of -- well, nothing short of epic.
If you're not willing to take my word on the matter, then how about the words of E. Donnall Thomas Jr. -- one of Montana's favorite outdoors writers?
In his wonderful wingshooting volume, titled Fool Hen Blues, Thomas writes the essay "Late Season" that chronicles the glories of duck hunting at the season's bitter end:
"When the mercury begins the day between zero and freezing, it becomes reasonable to expect productive shooting over decoys.
"And when the thermometer bottoms out and the truck won't start without a block heater and any suggestion of a breeze sends the chill factor slicing right through the last layer of your dignity, you can anticipate a duck hunt the likes of which you may never experience anywhere else."
Besides making me wish that I could write as superbly as he does, Don Thomas' written words inspire a willingness to step away from the comforting warmth of the fireplace and holiday preparations to venture outside and steel myself against Old Man Winter's icy wrath.
What for? For the chance at a duck hunt for the ages, one that will warm the soul for many bleak winter nights to come.
When the dying embers of another duck season arrive, the key, of course, is to find flowing water -- open water where wheat, barley, and corn stubble occur not covered by snow.
There will almost certainly be some big flocks of late-season mallards nearby, not to mention a smattering of other puddle ducks; late migrating divers, like goldeneyes; and big Canada geese.
With that in mind, here's a look at where, when, and how you can find December waterfowl in these two northern Rocky Mountain states.
Randy Renner -- a Bismarck, North Dakota, based regional biologist for Ducks Unlimited -- is a former Montana resident who understands full well the lure of late-season gunning for iced-up waterfowl.
"It can be pretty spectacular," Renner said. "It's some of my favorite hunting. There's just something about being out in the cold, lying in the snow and having a bunch of full-feathered birds decoy (into your spread)."
Take the hunt that Renner experienced a number of years ago on one of Montana's legendary spring creeks.
"I guess that was the first time that I had ever shot a spring creek, and it is probably one of my most memorable hunts of all time," Renner said. "The birds worked so well -- they really don't have a lot of options about how to decoy, since these are pretty narrow streams."
All in all, it was a hunt of a lifetime for Renner. To this day, he can vividly recall the snow on the ground, the cold weather and the brilliantly plumaged greenheads that decoyed with sheer abandon on that memorable outing.
"It was pretty spectacular. The birds worked in close very well. And since it was in the Pacific Flyway, it was the first time in my life that I ever shot a seven-drake mallard limit," he said.
Admittedly, gaining access to such spring-creek shooting wonderlands can be a tough problem, often solved only through a blood relative possessing a fistful of gate keys, the invitation of a good friend, or a willingness to hunt with a guide or an outfitter.
But according to Renner, that doesn't leave the Montana hunter lacking any spring-creek access up a late-season waterfowling creek -- if you'll pardon the pun.
"Any of the rivers with some open water in them during that time period will have some fair waterfowl shooting," he said.
Which rivers? Renner says to just pick one -- they can all be good at this time of the year. When pressed, however, he admits the Missouri, the Yellowstone and the Bighorn rivers stand out in his mind.
"The Missouri can be pretty good between Great Falls and Helena, and then on below Helena," Renner said.
"It's a flatter river, which begins turning into more of a prairie river. The valleys of Montana are pretty broad, so you don't have a lot of really boiling water in these rivers. And that's why the ducks are there."
He suggests that hunters also pay attention to the Missouri's nearby aquatic cousins, including the Gallatin, the Madison and the Jefferson rivers.
"There's some pretty good hunting along those rivers too," said Renner. "Some of the best areas off those rivers can be discovered by finding some of the spring creeks that come into them -- places where you might have some backwater eddies or flat water."
A second major river system to consider is the free-flowing Yellowstone River.
"It's similar to the Missouri, in that it comes out of the mountains," Renner said. "I'd say that the best hunting on the Yellowstone is probably from Big Timber east to Glendive. That's a big stretch of water, but it probably holds the most waterfowl, since there are more nearby irrigated corn fields."
A third primary river system the DU biologist points to is the Bighorn River.
"It comes out of the Bighorn Mountains and comes out into the prairie, so there's some pretty fair duck hunting out there," Renner explained. "And there are some good agricultural crops in the area, pretty much the same crops as in other areas -- like wheat, barley and a fair amount of irrigated corn."
Don Thomas and Randy Renner aren't the only hunters who enjoy the sheer beauty and spectacular gunning that a late-season waterfowl outing can provide.
From his Sacramento, California, office, Ducks Unlimited
regional biologist Jeff McCreary, a former Idaho resident, carries his own memories of late-season gunning, particularly on the rugged Snake River.
"It's amazing," McCreary said. "This canyon is not very wide at all. It's actually relatively narrow, and the birds are cruising up and down the river below the lip of the canyon."
McCreary says that when hunting the Snake, you often hear the birds long before you see them.
"When a big flock of geese is flying over, you will hear them and their calls echoing off the walls of the canyon," he said, noting that the sounds of airborne mallards, a hunter's calls, and a variety of shotgun blasts -- not to mention the rushing water of the Snake River itself -- also contribute to the canyon's clamor.
But auditory stimuli aren't the only reasons to make a late-season duck-hunting visit to the Snake. There's also plenty of Creation's beauty for the eyes to feast upon too.
"(When) you look out of your blind, you're looking up a sheer volcanic basalt cliff, and it's pretty spectacular," McCreary said.
Not to mention the fact that the river offers good hunting most of the time, and spectacular hunting some of the time.
"If the Hagerman Wildlife Management Area freezes up, the birds come off the wildlife area and go onto the river," McCreary said.
During freeze-up conditions, another river worth considering is the Boise River. McCreary says that like the Snake, the Boise stays open even during bitter winter weather conditions, thanks to an abundance of springs that flow into the river.
"The Snake and the Boise rivers can be pretty good all of the time, but they get even better when everything else gets frozen," McCreary said. He noted that tail-outs, backwater eddies, quiet pools and slow-moving shoreline water can attract late-season ducks.
Speaking of frozen, the former Idaho-based DU biologist said hunters might also want to keep in mind that when Idaho's American Falls Reservoir freezes up, the hunting for big western Canada geese can be spectacular in dry-land agricultural fields where corn and wheat have been grown.
The bottom line, according to McCreary, is that the Snake River country is a great place to consider for a late-season waterfowling hunt.
"The Snake River is never going to freeze up, and there are always going to be (some) birds on the (Snake)."
LATE-SEASON HUNTING STRATEGIES
How should you hunt these rivers, streams and spring creeks in Montana and Idaho?
For starters, the colder the weather is for a late-season duck hunt, the better the hunting tends to be on open, flowing waters -- that is, as long as deep snow doesn't cover up the food sources ducks and geese rely upon.
Keep in mind that the colder the weather actually is, the more likely it is that the timing of feeding flights -- particularly of Canada geese -- will be affected. In fact, on some bitter days, Renner has seen geese stay on rivers until early afternoon hours before flying out to feed in what little warmth the day provides.
At any time of the year -- late-season included, Renner stressed -- the best waterfowl hunting advice he can give is to urge hunters to "Scout first, hunt second."
This can be done by driving roads near the rivers and feeding fields, glassing such areas with binoculars for ducks and geese moving out to feed before returning to rivers, streams and spring creeks to loaf and receive protection from the elements.
"(Scouting), that's always the key," Renner said. "Watch the birds and find out where they want to go."
Sometimes getting to where the birds want to go means the use of a boat.
"Oftentimes, you're going to need a boat, something like a regular V-hull boat to get you upriver," McCreary said. "Plus, you're going to need a decent motor to battle the current. For the most part, while you're not necessarily going to be hunting the main stem of a river, you'll need the boat and motor to get to backwater areas where the water isn't moving too fast."
Many times, getting to where the birds want to be will mean gaining access to prime duck-hunting ground found on private property. That chore is certainly more difficult today than in years gone by, but Renner pointed out that hunters who do their homework to locate a landowner can still receive permission to hunt waterfowl with a polite and reasonable request.
Renner continued that once you've located birds and secured access, late-season duck hunting is a bit more of a scaled-down affair than early-season hunts on bigger waters.
Flocks of ducks that decoy into spring creeks, streams and rivers are typically smaller than the massive flocks that pinwheel around feeding fields. That's why Renner recommended using one to two dozen mallard decoys, as the situation warrants.
McCreary agreed, noting that mixing in a few green-winged teal decoys never hurts a late-season spread.
These dry-land feeding fields can become magnets for late-season greenheads, particularly when the birds key on cornfields as the snow cover increases.
For such land-based hunting, Renner said, a good spread often consists of a 100 or so Canada goose decoys -- a spread that mallards will typically decoy into very well. Still, it never hurts to add a dozen or two mallard shells to a goose decoy spread, to increase the odds for a late-season limit of dry-land ducks.
THE DEVIL IN THE DETAILS
How about calling? With the possible exception of field-hunting for geese and ducks, Renner said, less calling action can be "more."
"I would say that location is more important than calling is, unless you have a day of fog or limited visibility," he said. "Then calling becomes extremely important. But most (late-season) days, it seems like laying off of the call is (one of) the best things you can do."
One thing hunters should not lay off of is big shot sizes in their non-toxic waterfowl loads.
Because most late-season duck-hunting shots are up-close and personal, Renner said that he'll typically use 3-inch steel loads in No. 2 or 3 shot sizes fired through a modified choke.
When goose hunting -- remember, geese are also a surprise possibility on most river duck hunts -- the DU biologist likes to shoot loads of BBs.
Layout style blinds are great for field hunts for mallards and Canada geese, but when hunting around the rivers, Renner said, he likes to rely on available natural cover to hide his location. Cover can
consist of weeds, cattails, brush, willow trees or the branches of a fallen cottonwood.
And don't forget that "the devil is in the camouflage details." Match your camo to your surroundings, wear gloves and a facemask, and pick up empty hulls and trash that can spook late-season waterfowl that are flying overhead.
GUARD YOUR DOG
When you're talking about late-season duck and goose hunting in frigid weather, perhaps, the most important consideration of all is safety for both hunters and their four-legged canine friends.
"This is not a summertime visit to a trout stream," Renner pointed out. "To start with, you've got to make sure that you don't get your hands wet. When temperatures are below zero, if any part of you gets wet, that becomes a pretty dangerous situation."
Also, don't forget to pay attention to the safety needs of your retriever. The first key, according to Renner, is to not put your dog into harm's way unnecessarily. Such situations can include retrieves in swift water, or icy shelves that can form along the edge of a river or a spot of open water, where a dog could break through and not be able to climb get back out to safety.
"I do not hunt an area if I'm going to endanger a retriever," Renner said. "Dogs mean too much to me, versus a (downed) bird."
Another consideration is to use a neoprene retriever's vest to help provide insulation and floatation as your dog it works to retrieve in the harsh elements.
Of course, the bottom line is that if you'll play this late-season duck and goose hunting game safely and wisely, it just might be the most memorable waterfowl shooting of the year.
It might even be the duck or goose hunt of a lifetime, one that will bring fond memories and a big smile, as you sip hot chocolate in front of the fireplace for years to come.