Decoy Sets for Frozen Waters

Knowing how to set out your decoys when most of your favorite lake is solid ice can make or break your shooting success at this time of the year.

Photo by Stan Warren

All week on the job you've watched the weather turn ever colder and nastier. Without a doubt it has pushed ducks and geese into the area you hunt. You can hardly wait for a crack at some of these naive newcomers that have not already memorized every blind and decoy set in the state. But as you round the bend heading to the launch ramp, the headlights glare strangely from the water's surface: you are iced out.

At this point, the majority of waterfowlers would stare out in disgusted wonder, possibly consuming the coffee intended for sipping in the blind. Most would then head back for home, either to catch up on lost sleep or to make inroads at chores that have been piling up since some time just shy of opening day. But a hard-core few sportsmen will shift their mental gears and allow the severe conditions to work for them.

Before proceeding, we might as well admit that sometimes too much is really just that: too much. If extended severe conditions take hold and freeze every body of water from your hunting area northward to the Canadian border, be sensible and let it go until things improve. That may mean waiting until next year. After all, going hunting when there are no birds is the act of someone who does not understand futility.

Conventional wisdom says switch to large impoundments or to moving water. If you have access to the former and there are open areas, then by all means, take advantage of them. The only problem is that the reservoir closest to my hunting location only has launch ramps in sheltered, fairly shallow coves. Guess which parts of the lake freeze earliest and hardest?

I frequently drive for an extra hour to reach a raw, windswept point where at least two strong-armed companions are required to safely get a boat into the water. Luckily, not far from there is a deep-water bay with some degree of protection for a boat blind on the north and west sides, and on those nasty days when waves are breaking their backs on the shoreline rocks, some birds are likely to drop in. The puddle duck purist need not waste his time. There may be a few mallards and gadwalls. Far more common are bluebills (lesser scaup), goldeneyes and buffleheads, with an occasional canvasback thrown in just to keep your interest level up.

Your decoy set is apt to make all the difference here, especially if you intend to try your hand at hitting the fast-moving "black and whites" as they rocket through. Arrange your puddle duck decoys in standard fashion, a "C," horseshoe or whatever you prefer. Concentrate most of the mallard blocks and similar puddlers to one side. Use bluebills or other two-tone dekes mostly on the other. The birds will mix but prefer to decoy to their own kind.

Now, outside the main set but still within shooting distance, put three to six goldeneye decoys (paint your own from magnum bluebill decoys), preferably on the downwind side. These birds are notoriously antisocial and will not bother to visit anything that does not look like a relative. To fine-tune your set, put the goldeneye decoys in a line where waves and slack water come together.

For those who are set up to handle shallow-water duck hunting, take along a spool or heavy monofilament so you can lengthen decoy lines according to the needs of the day.

For river hunting, the first thing to do is make sure that you have decoy anchors that are up to the job. I use concrete weights poured in large Styrofoam cups and still have to chase dekes on occasion, so be forewarned.

The ideal location is in a large bend that offers a windbreak or where a sizeable creek enters the larger flowage. Since either may offer a situation where your set is not easily seen by birds flying over the main channel, put out a few easily seen "swimmers" in plain view. I use goose decoys that have been repainted to resemble ducks, although the extra effort is probably not necessary. Puddle ducks will readily decoy to goose blocks when they are in a mood to set down somewhere.

Now we come to the really bad situations. Either of the still waters are locked up solidly or ice near the shoreline is too thick to allow you to safely break your way through, and the streams that are still open do not lend themselves to hunting from a blind or by floating.

Do not despair just yet. Unless the birds are being fed around the open water, they are going to have to go somewhere to eat. Frigid conditions dictate that they have to feed heavily and regularly to keep from freezing to death. Make it a point to be in a position where you can see the directions that the birds take when they fly out in the morning, then again in the afternoon. A single day of serious scouting will show you one or more of their preferred feeding areas. If you can obtain permission to hunt on one of these spots, then you are in business.

For this type of field hunting, especially on late-season birds that may be blind-shy, consider lying out on the ground and camouflaging as well as you can with whatever grass or stubble is available. If there is snow, wear a white parka or cover.

For the earliest flights you do not need a lot of decoys (I use about two goose decoys to each mallard block), but flights of birds that arrive later are accustomed to seeing lots of company. Since there is no hard-and-fast rule, I will leave you to your own mathematics.

Although a dozen or so full-bodied dekes look good in the set, there have been times when a long walk over rough terrain has forced my hunting partners and me to get by with nothing but silhouettes. It never seems to matter as long as the ducks and geese have been feeding there for more than a couple of days. More than once we have scored with no bogus birds at all, just propping up the real ones bagged early on and waiting for more.

Now for the neatest trick I have seen in more than 40 years of chasing various types of waterfowl, one that popped from the fertile minds of two teenaged boys who would not be denied. They had accompanied their dad and me to a well-known duck club where reserved hunt dates are rare. The marsh and surrounding ponds had frozen a couple of days prior to our arrival, but large flocks of ducks and geese were still in the area due to open water at a major refuge just a couple of miles away.

There were so many harvested fields in the area, most of them planted with waterfowl in mind, that the ducks and geese were not concentrated. The father and I slept late and were enjoying a late cup of coffee when the red-faced, drippy-nosed boys returned with a double limit of fat mallards. They had found a small, centrally located pond the afternoon

before, and before putting out field-type decoys on the ice, had used laundry bluing in a gallon of water to give the appearance of an opening. The ducks practically knocked the kids' hats off trying to get into the artificial pothole.

You may have noticed that I have not recommended using a boat or other means to break an open area in an icy lake. I have done it and might possibly do it again, but this is simply a dangerous thing to do.

Twice I have pulled people that I knew from frigid water when either they fell from the boat or the thing swamped. Another time a fellow bank hunter decided that he could stomp out a better hole than the one that nature had provided and went face down. The bonfire that we built was probably visible to the space shuttle. Loving waterfowl hunting is one thing, but only a fool is willing to die for it.

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