December 22, 2010
Greenheads flock to a frozen watering hole.
Breaking a hole to set a decoy spread was a chore, but the work paid off with fast limits of greenheads during a memorable hunt.
I had booked a last-minute trip with Dog 'N Duck Outfitting in east-central Alberta and couldn't find a buddy to accompany me on short notice, so I arrived at duck camp without knowing any of the other hunters with whom I'd be sharing my adventure. But I wasn't worried. I knew the outfitter well and was there for the hunting experience, first and foremost.
It was mid-October, usually prime time for fat mallards with brilliant green heads and bright orange feet. It's my favorite time of year to hunt waterfowl, but a major cold front had moved in 10 days earlier than normal, dropping the thermometer to a bone-chilling 2 degrees Fahrenheit.
I had been traveling through central Alberta just before the weather change and marveled at the incredible number and diversity of ducks and geese still staging throughout the agricultural landscape. The birds all sported new plumage, looking content and ready to settle in for an extended stay.
It's funny how conditions can change overnight. The entire central part of the province froze solid in a matter of hours, and it seemed as though every bird in the country had migrated south. I had trouble thinking about the winter ahead without some mallards to grace my table, so when Bob Clark, better known by friends as "Rip," called to let me know some remnant birds were still in the country, I made plans to join him.
Ice, Frost and Snow
I arrived in camp early and found myself swapping waterfowl recipes with the camp cook. Three other visitors were expected that evening. I waited up for them so I could meet them. When headlights appeared in the driveway, I headed outdoors to help the other hunters bring in their gear. The father-son team of Phil and Ryan Peddie, and their friend, Mike Binns, had traveled a good part of the day to get to camp on a much-anticipated hunting trip.
It didn't take long to break the ice and get to know each other. Phil Peddie's waterfowl roots go way back, and he spoke of his early years in the field with his dad. He has kept a journal from every trip he ever been on and cherishes it as a unique treasure. We stayed up way too late, considering the planned events for the following morning.
The pre-dawn air greeted us with a crisp bite that numbed our fingertips quickly. After enduring a week and a half of unseasonably cold weather, I was getting used to it. The truck's defroster started to cut a hole in the frost that obscured the windshield, and I had to wonder if any duck in its right mind would have stuck around.
A thin blanket of snow covered the ground, and a thick layer of frost clung to the trees and standing vegetation, making the fields look like they'd been frozen in time. A multitude of bright stars illuminated the fields with the icy coating, reflecting the distant light to increase visibility. I felt like I was heading out on a late-season deer hunt, not a duck hunt.
Mallards poured into the pond, despite the fact that it was locked under a solid sheet of ice.
We turned off the country road into a stubble field. Our vehicle left distinct tracks in the snow that almost hid the stubble covering the rolling hills. Each time we topped a ridge, I scanned the field for something that could be attractive to ducks. Every one of dozens of small wetlands was frozen over and sheathed with a dusting of fresh snow. It was hard to believe we'd scratch a duck hunt out of this bleak winter landscape.
We traveled more than a mile into the large field and pulled up near the edge of a large, square dugout. The water was frozen, and the only thing that made it different from the other wetlands we'd traveled past was the fact that there was no snow cover. Clark had a dozen floating decoys, and we carried them to the edge of the ice to see if we could place them before the sun broke the eastern horizon.
Whistling wings caught my attention in the still morning air. The sounds seemed as crisp and distinct as the frigid sky. I stretched my neck skyward and quickly located a huge flock of ducks winging toward the far side of the field. The closest open water was at least 10 miles away, but the ducks obviously liked something about the stubble field we were hunting.
Clark walked onto the edge of the ice and drove the heel of his waders into the icy sheet that covered the pond. It looked solid. He pounded away at the ice, and eventually, found a pry bar to chip a hole and start breaking away larger chunks. It was hard to believe the birds would visit the remote dugout, as there was no water to access.
Molly, a chocolate Lab, stayed warm with a neoprene vest and a healthy number of retrieves.
However, it wasn't hard to tell we were in the right place as a flight of early ducks winged in and skidded across the ice as they touched down. It was comical to watch the ducks twisting and turning as they tried to keep their balance, maneuvering their orange feet to dig their tiny claws into the ice. It was a Three Stooges scene of ducks bouncing off of each other and careening across the ice like out-of-control racecars.
When the ducks finally came to a stop, they looked up and realized our presence. With nervous glances from the entire crew of winged warriors, the birds decided to take off and find a safer skating rink. The expression from the ducks was priceless. They first strained to see what was going on, and then tried to cautiously turn and sneak away before breaking into flight.
Legal light was still 20 minutes away, but as each minute passed, more and more ducks visited the ice-covered pond. The flocks were getting larger, and 20 to 30 birds would work the pond together. They'd visit the field and then jump over to the dugout, with flocks lined up like airplane jets at a busy runway. Five or six flocks approached from the north at any given time, staged in the air, following the previous flight that had made it to the ice.
Clark finally had broken a hole large enough to place decoys. We fo
und natural cover for our shell bags and seats, and settled in for the hunt to begin. It was a treat to sit back and watch the ducks pour into the small body of water with reckless abandon.
Clark gave the order to load up the shotguns. The cold didn't seem as bad as when we left the lodge, because the anticipation of our duck hunt surged adrenaline through my veins like heating oil.
A group of eight mallards descended on the dugout, barreling right down the center of the pond and crossing in front of us. We fired. Greenheads systematically fell from the flock as though they had frozen in mid-air. Molly, Clark's chocolate Lab, whined with anticipation of getting after the downed birds. But a second flight of mallards was on us within seconds. We dropped some of the nicest drakes I've had the privilege to witness in years.
Everyone was getting their share of shooting, and we took turns sitting back to watch the action. I knew the experience would be over before we knew it, and tried to soak up the unique situation and all it was worth. I watched Phil and Ryan Peddie tag-team a pair of drakes that had them both smiling from ear to ear. The hunt was one of the most incredible sights I'd ever witnessed from a duck blind, and I felt blessed to be a part of it. I was hunting with strangers, but we would always share a bond from that magical morning.
A flock of 15 birds appeared in the sky, and I blasted a greeting hail from my call. The birds were vocal on their approach and seemed mesmerized by the frozen pond. The ducks wanted to visit our frozen wetland, although I'm not sure why. They wouldn't be able to get a morning drink, but their ritual of hitting the small water before going to the field had them soaring down the center of the wetland on a collision course with our decoys.
Clark had spotted the shoot a couple of days earlier and watched the birds congregate on the ice. He said they covered the ice surface from corner to corner and would actually melt a hole in the ice by mid-afternoon. I couldn't help but think the small wetlands were a special place for the birds, even though the water was frozen. The bond between the prairie and parkland sloughs, and the thousands of birds raised there every year, makes them more than just watering holes. The daily gathering was a social event the birds had to participate in each morning, no matter the conditions. It reminds me of my addiction to morning coffee, and how I go out of my way to find a good cup of java, no matter where I am or what I'm doing.
It was magical to watch the birds float toward the frozen pond with wings cupped and bodies swaying in rhythmic fashion to avoid a mid-air collision. My hunting companions giggled like school kids playing without a care in the world. When the first bird backpedaled and set its feet onto the water, we emerged from cover and hit the unsuspecting drakes with well-placed patterns of steel shot.
More than 5,000 mallards bombarded us that morning, and we shot a full limit of birds in just 20 minutes. It was a spectacle to behold. Shooting a limit was a bonus, but getting to watch the ducks at such close range was fascinating.
One for the Books
Hunting with Clark has always been a treat, especially when he has a retriever along. I try to hunt with him at least once a year because it is always enjoyable and entertaining. He is an excellent dog handler and a dyed-in-the-wool duck hunter. Clark knows how to set up a fabulous hunt in fields and on wetlands, and he seems to locate birds when nobody else in the country can.
Molly had a workout retrieving all the birds from the water and off of the ice. She used her keen nose to round up a few ducks in the dense cover around the pond. Her neoprene vest was essential equipment that morning, but she was fine. We waited until we were done hunting to put her to work. When the last of the birds was collected, we treated Molly to the front seat under the heater vent in the truck.
I stood at the edge of the pond with the guys, and we watched with open mouths as the ducks continued to come in and land on the ice. Our presence on the banks didn't seem to dissuade the birds that just had to make a morning pit stop.
The ice-breaker mallard hunt is one for the diary. Phil Peddie and I discussed planning a return visit for this fall, where the four of us could create more memories and enjoy the newfound friendships only duck hunters can appreciate and understand.
Brad Fenson of Edmonton, Alberta, hunts ducks and geese across Canada.