Ice and wind drive puddle ducks through Missouri.
Droplets of pond water rhythmically splattered my camouflage, a pulsating morning shower unlike any I'd experienced in 30 years of hunting fowl.
I stood waist-deep in a mud-lined Missouri pothole, swinging a garden shovel in an assault against Mother Nature's rude December trick. Shards of ice that had formed during a 12-degree night splintered with each blow, but chipping a landing hole quickly turned into tedious business.
Twenty yards away, Zack Rednour was waging his own battle with the inch-thick covering, hammering a path with a baseball bat. Together, we pounded the frozen pond, periodically breaking free living-room-sized chunks.
"I've had to crack through ice a time or two with my boat, but I've never done an operation like this," I admitted to Rednour as we pushed a giant sheet of ice out of the way.
After more than an hour of heavy labor, we used a decoy bag to net a few final floating chunks and put the final touches on a 25-yard-long oval of open water.
"The hole looks good," Rednour said as he tossed a decoy toward the edge. After neatly arranging a couple dozen floating Flambeau mallards, gadwalls and wigeon, we added a dozen full-body mallard decoys on the edges.
"We're ready," Rednour declared. "Bring on the mallards!"
The setup looked super, but I was skeptical. We hadn't seen any ducks flying while we busted a place for them to land.
Before the Deep Freeze
Two nights earlier, I had joined Rednour at Johnny and Linda Everhart's Wilderness Lodge in Blairstown, Mo. A brutal, early December cold front was sweeping south through the Dakotas, pushing all manner of migratory birds along with it.
On the advice of our host, Johnny Everhart, we had slept in on our first morning at the lodge.
"The ducks don't come into the bottoms until late morning anyway," he explained. "No sense getting cold before the action starts."
Despite our rampant anticipation for the hunt, we ate a leisurely breakfast after the sun had crested the horizon, although both Rednour and I had one eye trained toward the skies outside of the picture window.
After we spied a lone greenhead circling Everhart's front pond, we hastened our pace to pull on our clothing and load our gear. I couldn't help but feel as though we were missing the best part of the morning -- it seemed sacrilegious to slumber until 7 a.m., and then tarry over cereal and pastries while the marsh sprang to life in our midst.
Thankfully, the blind was only a short jaunt up a hill, over a creep and through the timber. Wind ripped at our ears as we walked through the woods, and we could feel the temperature plunging from a starting point of just above 30.
Everhart led us to a sturdy, enclosed blind built to house three hunters. We stowed our guns and shells, then flung decoys into the ripples of windswept waters. High above, snow geese cried from beaks pointed south.
Finally, we were gripping shotguns in the box -- 8:30.
"Just about right," Everhart said confidently.
"Ducks out front," Rednour warned, stretching his lanyard to find the right call to coax mallards into our pocket.
The wad of greenheads whipped and whirled in the wind, descending to treetop height before arching in a final pass behind us. Concealed from view by the blind's roof, the flock locked wings and coasted overhead.
Rednour flipped the blind's front flap down and came up firing. I found green amongst the orange feet and sent a startled duck careening. Two down.
We had barely settled after the first action when another flock appeared in the distance.
"Mallards," I drooled, as if my partners were unsure. Everhart and Rednour worked the reeds in their tubes, and the squadron of 15 bought the charade. Just like the flock before, the ducks swung in from behind.
I coiled in my corner of the hideout, waiting to spring a frantic surprise.
I lurched to my feet, anxious to send pellets screaming across the pond. When the volley was over, another greenhead floated amongst our fakes. But it wasn't mine. I could have blamed the wind, the way the ducks worked or even my shotshells. The truth is I just plain blew it.
Redemption arrived. Another drake mallard, this one alone, committed without so much as a chuckle. I let the greenhead's feet nearly tickle the water before I unleashed my shot.
More snows winged past, and a vee of Canada geese honked noisily down the river a mile away. A few high mallards flirted, but found other places to settle.
Then a dozen whistled past, cupped, turned and came hard at our decoys.
Unsettled in their landing approach, most of the flock backpedaled far to my left.
Rednour cut into the ducks, and Everhart's shotgun thundered, too. I remained patient until a fleeing drake crossed in front of me. I swung fast and kept my barrel in front of the bird. Crumple. Five mallards floated in front of the blind after our highlight-reel moment.
"We'll be breaking ice in the morning," Everhart said as we collected the spread and emptied the blind. "This hole would have iced over already without the wind."
Fire and Ice
"How cold is it?" I queried at the breakfast counter.
"Twelve degrees," Everhart announced. "But the wind has died."
Tad Brown, a product development special for Flambeau Outdoors, joined us for the second day of our hunt. Brown took the opportunity to field test new waterfowl choke tubes he was working on.
Of course, the major ice-breaking expedition that ensued delayed all product testing -- at least until we could make a landing area.
lied a pair of propane heaters, and the resulting glow began to melt crusted ice off of my waders after we finally had set our decoys and nestled into the blind.
Ducks were scarce, seemingly resting after being blown and jostled by a couple of days of stormy weather. A few snow geese traded from fields to refuges, but mostly, the blue skies were void of birds.
Suddenly, Rednour strained to see through the treetops. "Big flock," he said. "Coming around."
"Holy cow!" I quivered.
A hundred mallards, if there was one, brushed directly overhead, their wings whooshing and chirping as they jockeyed for position in the bunch. A few touched all of the way down, but the rest bowed out for another pass at our hole. The lot of them swung past -- the greenest of the green at 15 yards.
"Let them go," Rednour whispered.
The bulk of the flock flew on, but a bunch of eight doubled back and fluttered headlong into our hole.
I pounced like a marauding cat on the closest greenhead, and then pulled to another. My partners were busy, too. A couple ducks splashed, a few more thumped and skidded. We killed five, and might have shot more had we not run out of drakes.
Our barrels were still warm when a five-pack of ducks launched into circle-mode.
Rednour sweet-talked, while Brown and I looked skyward to judge the readiness of the birds.
"Gadwalls," I declared as they closed in from my side.
All of our guns barked in an instant, and three handsome gray ducks stayed behind.
No more ducks worked us that day, but all of the ice-pounding effort to hunt that morning paid off during those five magical minutes.
Green and Gray
The next morning was warmer: 16 degrees. The ice, although still daunting, wasn't nearly as thick, at least not over the water we'd broken a day earlier. I traded my shovel for a splitting wedge, and Rednour and I made faster work of carving a landing zone.
Again, snow geese dotted deep-blue skies above, and a few mallards cruised the stratosphere. We'd planned a shorter session for our final day, but really, any ducks we added to total were bonus birds.
Everhart, who promised to join us later in the hunt, came calling after he heard shooting in the bottoms.
Rednour and I crouched as a wad of eight ducks veered past, disappeared over the treetops, only to rush back to our spread a moment later.
Three hung in front of me when we stood to fire. I was looking for a greenhead, but quickly calculated none of the trio were mallards. Gadwalls! I caught a drake on the way up, and then turned my attention toward another slower duck out front. Greenhead.
Rednour and I had killed both greenheads out of the mixed flock, and we each dumped a gadwall, too. Everhart arrived with a yellow Lab to fetch our ducks from the ice.
"I meant for you guys to hunt more than one acre of the place, but in these conditions, this is the best spot," Everhart said. "I don't know exactly why, but this hole is just a duck magnet."
After we dressed our ducks, Everhart gave us a tour of his 300-plus-acre wetland complex. As we rode on a series of levees past multiple water holes managed for waterfowl, it was evident we had not witnessed the property on anything close to its best duck hunting days.
Even so, for greenheads and gadwalls, it treated us just fine.
Paul Wait is editor of Wildfowl.
Note: Johnny and Linda Everhart produce "Missouri Outback," a weekly outdoors radio show. See missourioutback.com for more information. For more information about Flambeau waterfowl hunting products, go to www.flambeauoutdoors.com.