January 21, 2021
As ice-anglers rejoice, many waterfowlers lament. The first hard freeze of winter often locks up most waters, sending birds south and heralding the start of another winter.
But that’s when savvy duck hunters get excited. They know that freeze-up can bring some of the season’s best shooting for multiple species on big water and small hot spots. Here’s how you can get in on the action.
As small lakes, marshes, sloughs and backwaters freeze, spring-fed creeks and streams with swift current fill up with ducks—especially mallards. The best streams are those that empty into lakes, marshes or impoundments that attract migrant ducks. As the main water freezes, birds often relocate to the nearest open spot.
Jump-shooting often works better than decoy hunting on small streams. Freeze-up ducks sit tight much of the day. And because ice usually forms at night, birds will already be in the creeks before sunup, so you’ll likely flush them as you enter a spot.
Slip along the bank or in the creek itself, ideally with the sun at your back and wind in your face. If you’re quiet and use cover and bends in the river to your advantage, you can sneak surprisingly close to large numbers of birds. Be ready to mount your gun. When the birds flush, pick out one or two drakes and shoot. You must take advantage of every flush, as escaping birds will likely relocate downriver to some distant pocket of water. After a good hunt, it’s best to let a small spring or stream rest for a few days.
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 full-body decoys on ice sheets or the stream bank to mimic loafing birds. Be smart about your hide, as ducks in tight quarters will easily pick you out if you’re not concealed well.
SPRINGS AND SMALL ICE HOLES
Ice holes can take many forms, including 10-by-10-foot spring holes and 50-yard swaths of windswept shoreline. These small pockets of open water in otherwise frozen landscapes attract ducks. In fact, they can be magical. Ducks seemingly find tiny and remote areas of open water minutes after they appear.
The best way to locate ice holes is to scout lakes, marshes and sloughs soon after freeze-up. Note spots with open water or poor-looking ice. Sometimes, windswept shorelines and river channels open up after sun and wind work on them. Talk with locals or game agency officials about the locations of springs or small tributary creeks. If nothing else, ice in those areas will be thinner and easier to break.
If you can’t find natural ice holes, create them. You can do it the old-fashioned way by chopping holes in the ice with axes or baseball bats. This works best if you can wade. Or, use an electric trolling motor or commercial ice-eater to keep small holes open through the night. You might have to run extension cords from the motor or aerator to a gas-powered generator, but results can be incredible.
Because spring-fed or manmade ice holes are small, you don’t need many decoys. One- to two-dozen mallards usually suffice. Arrange them in a small blob and place some on the ice to mimic resting birds.
Take full advantage of hot ice holes while you can. Busting late-season birds out of small areas usually ensures they won’t return.
Large portions of many major rivers remain open during freezing weather, mostly because the water is constantly moving, so it takes much longer to freeze. Warm-water discharges from hydroelectric or other municipal operations also keep many areas open.
Open portions of rivers often become choked with hardy birds, such as mallards, black ducks, geese and goldeneyes. Puddlers and geese might roost on open rivers and then fly out to feed in agricultural fields (see sidebar on left). Divers will stick to the open water.
During freeze-up, you’ll have to hunt areas with current or wind instead of the slack-water bayous and backwaters you tried earlier in the season. That often means you must set up on main-river sandbars, windswept shorelines or tributary mouths. Many of these areas have little cover, especially if it’s late in the year. You can build a makeshift blind, but you might consider hunting in your boat using a boat blind. The nicest part of hunting inside a boat blind is that you can run a heater.
Decoy spreads don’t need to be elaborate during this time, but they should probably be relatively large, as fowl are typically grouped in large flocks. If you’re seeking puddlers, use magnum mallard and Canada goose decoys. Set them out in two separate groups, or make a large V- or J-hook. Again, if doing a V- or J-hook, separate the mallards and geese, and keep the geese upwind of the mallards. Run some full-body decoys on sandbars or ice. If you want a mixed bag, set a main body of mallards to one side, leave a large open hole in front of your blind and then set out a line of divers downwind.
LARGE LAKES AND RESERVOIRS
Wind, current and the laws of thermodynamics often keep large areas of big lakes or impoundments open when other waters freeze, and, as with open rivers, ducks use these spots heavily. However, because these areas of water are often surrounded by shoreline ice, hunting them can prove difficult.
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, some strategically placed blocks might help sucker flocks even closer.
The mouths of rivers or tributary streams also keep some areas open, especially if sun and wind also work on these spots. Again, hunting these can be tough, as you must often hike to these areas or launch your boat in the open river and break some ice to reach the X. Cover can be a challenge. Boat blinds or portable panel blinds work well. Even using field blinds or crouching low amongst shoreline rocks or deadfalls can be effective.
Let the situation dictate your decoy approach. If you’re hunting several acres of open water near a river mouth, build a fairly large spread. Numbers can often matter this time of year. Again, mallards and geese will attract all ducks. Toss out some cans or bluebills for added visibility if divers might be on the menu.
If duck season’s still open when the cold stuff hits, put on another layer and scout open water and fields for hardy birds. You’ll likely experience unforgettable last-minute gunning while your buddies sit at home.
Hunting Fields After Freeze-Up
Mallards, black ducks and other hardy puddle ducks often stick around long after other ducks have gone south, even when most surface water has frozen. Food is a big reason. Provided snow cover isn’t too deep, ducks in ag country can load up on high-carb corn, beans and other grains when aquatic food sources are locked under ice. Freeze-up is probably the best time for field hunting, as ducks are concentrated and cold weather prompts them to hit the feedbag.
Scout hard 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. Conversely, 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. Use full-body duck decoys if you like, but honkers or, where appropriate, snows, work great for decoying ducks. Full-bodies are ideal, but you can supplement your numbers by adding some rags and windsocks. Bring spinning-wing decoys, too, but make sure you can turn them off with a remote control when ducks get close, or else they won’t finish as well.
Safety Considerations for Icy Duck Hunts
Frigid late-season weather demands care. Freeze-up is no time for taking risks.
Be especially careful when operating a boat. Large, moving water is no place for a skiff or small craft. Use a large duck boat with a powerful motor. Ideally, your rig will have a spare kicker motor or electric trolling motor just in case. Be extra careful if you have to break skim ice. Always wear your life vest, and tell someone at home where you’ll be hunting and when you plan to return.
Take precautions to avoid frostbite. Cover exposed areas of flesh, especially during windy days. Bring extra gloves in case one pair gets wet. Use a portable heater in your boat or blind, provided you can operate it safely.
Consider hunting later in the day. You won’t have to stumble through treacherous conditions in the dark, and freeze-up shooting action is often better later than at first light.
Make sure your dog stays safe. Pups can actually get frostbite very easily, especially on their noses and ears. And although dogs withstand cold water far better than humans, they can get hypothermia, so don’t force them to make long, exhausting retrieves in dangerous conditions. Make sure they can shake off after a retrieve, and keep them as warm as possible.