Salt ponds stay open to draw waterfowl.
One of the most fascinating and productive duck hunts in my 35-year waterfowling career didn't start out as a duck hunt. Last November, I was invited to Woodward, Okla., to hunt white-tailed deer.
Strip mine ponds remain open during frigid temperatures because of high salt content.
I arrived in Oklahoma City, where I soon met Kevin Howard and hunting partner, Bob Robb, of Arizona. Until then, the weather had been mild. However, as we tossed our gear into Howard's truck, dark clouds appeared, accompanied by increasing winds and falling temperatures. Before daylight the following morning, the ground was covered with an inch of snow, flakes the size of dinner plates filled the air, a brutal wind was howling and the mercury hovered somewhere between zero and nothing.
That day, I saw little, save for a skittish six-pointer, a covey of bobwhites, and much to my delight, several small flocks of mallards trading between the Cimarron River and a series of tiny potholes scattered around my ice-box of a tower blind.
Already, I was plotting as to how I would broach the subject to Howard as to my trading my .270 for a 12-bore.
The next morning, although still unusually cold, arrived with bright blue skies. After an uneventful daybreak, Robb, our guide, Corey Self, and I arrived at a high bluff overlooking the Cimarron Valley, where I took the opportunity to shoot a series of digitals of the scenery.
"Buck! There's a buck, M.D.!" I turned to face Robb's hissed announcement. "Drop the camera and get over here!"
The man was correct -- there was indeed a buck, and a nice deer at that, walking out of the Cimarron toward the bottom of the bluff. Dropping into the prone position, I centered the cross hairs on the buck's chest. "Two-fifty," coached Robb off my left shoulder.
Simply laying in natural cover can be the best option to hide from incoming ducks.
"Wait 'til he stops and turns."
When the whitetail did as my friend wished, I touched the trigger -- and missed. Unsure of where the shot had originated, the buck ran just a short distance and stopped. "Easy now. Hold a little low," Robb said. This time, the 130-grain ballistic tip found its mark, and the buck fell not far from the river's edge.
"Nice!" Robb said, slapping me on the back. "What do you think there, Mister First Whitetail with a Rifle?" Smiling, I racked the silver empty out of the breech, shook my friend's hand, turned to Self, and said, "Awesome! Now, tell me about this duck hunting."
Unbeknownst to me, and while Robb and I were freezing in box blinds or hauling dead deer up out of seemingly bottomless canyons, Howard, along with Kenny Perry, owner of O-Kan Outfitters, and hunting partner, Andy Davis, had been tagging full limits of puddlers and divers over little more than a couple dozen mallard blocks.
"We're walking in," Howard said back at the lodge while showing off the morning's take of greenheads, wigeon, redheads, bluebills and an incredible bull canvasback. "It's a small mallard spread on an eight-acre strip pit, more or less, and a natural blind in the willows. It's non-stop action."
Curious as to why, given the extraordinarily low temperatures, these still waters weren't locked up solid, Howard simply smiled and said but one word: "Salt."
Salty Strip Pits
An Oklahoma native, Perry has been hunting the northwestern corner of The Sooner State for 13 years, and has operated as an outfitter for seven. Perry explained the reason behind the still-open water, despite the below freezing temperatures. "It's salt," he said. "Or rather, it's the high salinity content of these ponds, and these strip pits in particular, that keeps them from freezing over. You step in the water here or cross a creek, and when your boots dry, you'll see the white crust left behind. That's salt crystals."
The area comes by its salty reputation naturally. Millions of years ago, much of northwestern Oklahoma was repeatedly flooded with sea water from what was a massive inland ocean. Over time, the flooded lands were cut off from this ancient sea, and the waters evaporated, leaving the salt behind. Wind-blown sediment resulting from erosion covered much of visible salt. However, proof of this natural process can be seen at the Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge, just 40 miles north and east of Mooreland and the ponds we hunted. Here, the whitish salt crust covers 11,000 acres. According to natural lore, groundwater has over the years helped carry the dissolved and now-covered salts away from the plains, depositing them randomly about the Oklahoma country.
"It's just a natural thing," Perry said. "Every time it rains, you can see it (salt) here and there. For a duck hunter, it's a great opportunity. Ponds like the pits we hunt, which range from shoreline shallows to eight or 10 feet deep in the center, very seldom, if ever, freeze. And if they do ice over, there's always open water remaining in the middle. It's a magnet."
A True Mixed Bag
With Robb still looking to notch his whitetail tag, I joined Perry, Howard and Davis on the largest of a quartet of salt strip ponds for the final morning of our hunt. As the sky began to glow beyond the Cimarron to the east, the four of us arranged 24 mallard blocks in two small bunches slightly below us to the south, and quickly carved impromptu blinds out from among the salt cedars blanketing the sandy point to our backs.
A dedicated coffee drinker, I had no more than cracked the Thermos when the air was ripped by the sound of wings.
"Ringers," Howard said from his bucket seat to my left. "We have a few more minutes to wait."
Open water acts as a magnet to waterfowl when lakes and rivers begin to freeze.
The wait, as is often the case, was made much longer, as flocks of birds, large and small, buzzed our hides and our pond like a swarm of angry bees around a hive. Mallard hen voices mingled with the whistles of sprig and baldpate. A splash, followed by a staccato high-pitched "qquuaacckk-quack-quack-quack" spoke of a knot of greenwings on the water. Low, the buzzing growl of redheads echoed off the high backing to our left. It was, indeed, an aural overload.
"It's time," Perry said, as the alarm on his watch announced legal shooting hours. We didn't have long to wait. A small squadron of wigeon, the drakes calling a breathy "whoo-WEE-woo," were our first customers.
Shouldering the loaner Winchester Super X2, I rolled a white-capped male duck out of the group. My second round, however, was met with a severe case of accuracy trauma.
Out of the corner of my eye, a splash -- then another -- caught my attention. Perry and Howard were likewise warming their barrels with success.
"Not bad," Perry said, already on his way out to grab the trio.
Not trying in the least to hide my kid-in-a-candy-store Cheshire grin, I could only manage, "And I never spilled my coffee." Beside me, I heard Howard chuckle.
So it went until about 10 a.m. when the wind died. The skies, once full, turned devoid of everything, except an occasional kingfisher and great blue heron. Behind me on a strap, a six-pack of birds -- a ringneck, a wigeon, a canvasback, a redhead, a green-winged teal and greenhead -- hung on the ragged stump of a short salt cedar. Similar strings, just as heavy but including bluebills, goldeneyes and sprig along with sampling of the aforementioned, lay on my gunning partners' gear.
"See what I mean?" Perry asked as he handed me a decoy he had just pulled from the water. He pointed out the light dusting of salt, while simultaneously making note of the icicle hanging from the hen's plastic bill. "Not often you see both, eh? Salt and ice. I don't know what it means to y'all, but here it means you'd better be getting your duck hunting gear together."
Resisting the urge to say that the first thing I think about when I hear the words salt and ice is a Jose Cuervo margarita, I simply smiled. No, there weren't post-hunt fresh oysters, steamer clams or lobsters on which to gorge myself, but there was indeed saltwater. And there were ducks. Boy howdy, were there ducks.
Make-Do Decoy Spread
Typically, a puddle duck spread is a puddle duck spread, and a diver rig is a diver rig.
Very seldom will the twain meet. I've had occasion to use mallards or blacks as part of an open-water diver spread simply as fillers. And I have from time to time thrown three or four drake bluebills in a puddler-only arrangement, my thought being the predominantly white scaup serve as eye-catchers for distant birds. Does it work? It does psychologically, and successful waterfowling, like many hunting ventures, is largely a mental game.
Mixing puddle duck decoys with diver decoys can add realism to the spread.
Gunning the Oklahoma salt proved two things to me in regard to puddlers, divers and single decoy spreads. Both location and decoy arrangement are crucial elements, if the goal is to attract divers and puddlers to the same spread. On our hunt, we chose to set our spread off a small rocky point jutting into the lower end of the salt pond. The decision was part necessity, because the point offered excellent natural cover in the form of small willows, tall weeds and brush. It was also part design.
In terms of design, points are often the perfect ambush spot. The very nature of the topography accomplishes puts you closer to open and/or deeper water, a definite positive if your focus is on divers. And second, as was the case in our pond situation, a point can create a funnel through which birds can be directed. The point we chose on our primary pothole served to narrow the distance between us and the opposite high-bank shoreline to roughly 45 yards. Puddlers, and almost without exception the divers, favored a flight path over the open water, so birds passing our blind were within effective range of the high-velocity steel loads we were throwing at them. Decoying birds are nice, but I've never been one to scoff at 45 yard-and-under passing shots.
The Oklahoma salt experiment also proved divers can be duped by an all-puddler rig.
However, some species, goldeneyes and canvasbacks being two of the more notable, not only prefer diver decoys, but they're actually quite species-specific. If you are targeting goldeneyes, a half-dozen drake goldeneye decoys can improve your chances.
Canvasbacks have the same temperament when it comes to choosing their own kind over birds of a different feather.
"During the 2008-09 season, I learned a valuable lesson," Perry said. "A lot of these divers would segregate themselves from the puddle duck decoys, so it benefited us greatly knowing what types of birds were using a particular pond. That way, I could set as attractive a spread as possible."
Had I had diver decoys during our time in Oklahoma -- remember, it was supposed to be a whitetail hunt -- I would have set the spread differently. The point where we hid ourselves lay in a rough east-west configuration. A pocket of quiet water to the south held two-dozen puddler decoys.
We set another small knot of puddlers -- all hen mallards because the drab brown blocks got us as close to divers as we were going to get with our improvised rigging, 10 or so steps directly off the end of the point. The spread offered great visibility to passing birds, and better still, put the sun over our left shoulders on the water and in the eyes of approaching ducks, giving us additional concealment and minimizing the chances these late-season veterans would recognize our decoys as fakes until it was too late.
In a perfect world, I would have had what I consider the ultimate small-water diver rig set off the point. Based on the birds we observed, my rig would have consisted of three drake canvasbacks, grouped and set out 20 yards away from the rest to the south; three drake goldeneyes, again grouped and set 15 yards to the north; and finally, a mix of bluebills, buffleheads, ringnecks and a couple redheads, with a 70-to-30 ratio drakes to hens, balled up 20 to 30 feet off the point to the east. I would have addressed any and all divers running the gauntlet between the point and the eastern shoreline, a
s well as any puddlers that happened to hook over the cottonwoods to the south and work into the quiet pocket.
As it was, the relatively naÃ¯ve divers fell to the puddlers just fine, while the dabblers locked in on their own kind, often without hesitation.
Given the choice between ducks and deer, I'll take the feathers every time. Oklahoma was extremely kind to me in the form of great weather, cooperative whitetails and the unique opportunity to hunt saltwater ducks 600 straight-line miles from the nearest ocean.
M.D. Johnson is an avid waterfowl hunter from Martelle, Iowa.