I heard the distinctive sound before I saw who was responsible for it. A few steps further and I could make out the shadowy figure of my hunting partner waist-deep in the slough and surrounded by frozen water. His swinging arms were choreographed to the deep tha-chunk of axe meeting ice. Sometimes it pays to be late.
"Froze up, huh?"
"Yup," Jeff grunted without breaking stride. "I came out last night to take a look and she was solid right near to the fence."
Nebraska had suffered a severe cold snap and our honey hole had turned into something more suited to Hockey Town than the mallard haven it usually was.
"Ya shoulda called," I answered. "I wouldn't have slept in."
Picking up a spud bar from behind the blind, I joined Jeff on the ice and went to work doing what the Titanic couldn't — breaking ice.
Frozen water is the bane of duck hunters everywhere from about the 40th parallel north to the Arctic Circle. Even those hunters south of 40 degrees have to contend with ice from time to time when Mother Nature scoffs at global warming.
But iced-over lakes and ponds don't necessarily send ducks fleeing south, effectively ending your waterfowl season early.
It's been a decade or more since that particular ice-breaking incident and I like to think I've gotten smarter in my waterfowling pursuits. Truth is, I'm probably just lazier. Instead of swinging an axe when ice invades, I spend my time scouting, looking for any open water I can find.
As long as there isn't a foot of snow covering the crop fields (and there rarely is where I live in the rain shadow of the Rockies), the smallest slough or other stream of moving water will hold ducks and geese long after the Ice Age invades.
Normally, the North Platte River stays open on its upper reaches in the Nebraska Panhandle where I do most of my waterfowling, with ice jams more common farther down the valley. Last year, was a particularly brutal one for waterfowlers here, and across the country.
Winter came early and stayed late. By mid-December, sub-zero temperatures were threatening to lock up my little corner of the waterfowling world with ice inching farther upriver than had been in years.
Many of my friends are tied to that stretch of the river, and so go their fortunes. All week the talk centered on disappearing birds, with text messages flying back and forth about just where the river was freezing up and where the birds would go when it did.
The more pessimistic ones were bemoaning an early end to what had been to this point a pretty good duck season. I lamented the cold with them even as I held on to hope that a secret little spring creek that would resist the coldest of cold snaps.
Searching For Sloughs
Access to that short stretch of open water came about through the kind of six degrees of separation Kevin Bacon would be jealous of. Often knowing a guy who knows a guy is the best way to find hunting access. Sometimes it requires a little more hard work and lot more diesel fuel, but the rewards are worth it.
To save precious gasoline, start scouting at your desk with good topographical and aerial maps of the area, like those from Terraserver. Google Earth also provides a duck's-eye view, revealing hidden ponds and pocket water so small conventional maps may not list them.
Pay particular attention to spring creeks, warm-water sloughs and tailraces with faster moving water that stay open longer.
Cooling ponds attached to power plants are usually the last refuge for birds before they're forced south and while you may not be able to hunt them, you might be able to gain access to nearby fields and catch birds as they fly out to feed.
Cross-reference your finds with township and plat maps that list ownership and keep your cell phone charged.
After doing your homework, it's time to put in some windshield time driving back roads with your master map in hand. Spend most of your time on the roads in the early morning or just before sundown. Park your truck near the most likely looking areas and wait, watching the skies for ducks trading between spots.
Note access points, pullouts and any other pertinent info, such as landowner names and phone numbers, on your master map. Then start dialing for ducks.
The great thing about freeze-up is the birds aren't too picky, which is a welcome change at the end of the year after dealing with a month of decoy-shy ducks. When you're sitting on the only open water around, flocks act like flies, buzzing your spread until you almost feel like you have to swat them away.
Big rigs aren't required, especially on small water. I typically only pack in a dozen or so high-quality blocks — Avian-X is an excellent choice. These are used more to position the birds in front of me then actually attract them.
I don't lean too heavily on the call either, unless I catch some high migrators that might be looking for a place to rest.
Then I just get on them early, and shut things down once they start dropping. A few contented quacks on the corners and a little chatter is usually all it takes and, admittedly, those calls are probably more for my benefit than birds who are anxious to toast their feathered butts in water so warm it's steaming.
That iced-over day a decade ago, Jeff and I and our friend Mark were rewarded for the sweat equity we spent opening up a bedroom-sized hole for the ducks dropping in out of the blinding snowstorm that accompanied the cold temperatures.
In less than half an hour, we had 18 ducks on ice — our limit of five mallards apiece along with bonus wigeon for each man. It was worth the hard work, even if we spent more time chopping ice than actually hunting.
This past season was a little different, and not just because I did haven't to bring along an axe. The birds were already there, having spent the night on the steaming stream. As we approached the high-banked bend in the creek before dawn, they flushed, waves of them taking wing at our interruption.
It wasn't long, as in minutes, before they started flocking back, small groups of them buzzing me as I set the decoys, which, like the calling, were probably completely unnecessary. At times, ducks splashed nearly at my feet before jumping back up when they realized their error.
I'll admit it did take a little more than half an hour for Tess and me to fill our straps, but not for lack of opportunity. I blame the multiple layers of clothing it required to keep hypothermia at bay, but more likely our shooting, like the weather, was just cold that day.
Still, we managed to keep our black Lab Aengus moving as he retrieved mallards, wigeon, gadwall and even a green-wing teal, who obviously missed the memo about heading south. He enjoyed hunting more in sub-zero temps rather than the warmer days of early season and willingly, even eagerly, made multiple trips across the skinny flow.
Flowing water and some foresight in finding it can help you stop worrying and love the lock-up.
If you know where to look, some of the best duck hunting of the season can be had when everyone else thinks all the birds have disappeared. Later that morning, from the couch next to a roaring fireplace, I texted a few friends, inquiring as to their luck with the ducks.
"River's locked up," one replied. "Freezing in a field waiting for the geese instead." I sent a photo of an ice-covered dog, red-legged mallard clenched in its mouth.
"Not everything is under ice."