After weeks of waiting, the northern migration finally arrived.
Crushing ice beneath the bow of the boat echoed loudly. The sound bounced off of the dry, withered cattails lining the banks of the channel leading to a wide-open marsh. The noise alarmed big flocks of coots that paddled and skedaddled out of the path of my 16-foot duck boat. Then, I was suddenly surrounded by mallards, gadwalls and northern shovelers that quickly formed into flocks of circling ducks. The show of wings added up to more ducks than I had seen all season. I knew it was going to be a good day.
The magic of a morning hunt increases when the weather turns cold and the ducks are forced south to find food and open water.
Some of the best waterfowl hunting takes place after the first week of December. In the northern states, December often brings very cold conditions and ice up of non-flowing waterways. Ducks are on the move. If you can find open water, you'll likely have a good hunt. If you put the decoys away too early, you might be missing some of the hottest shooting of the year.
Tough Hunts Early
In northern Utah, the first week after the opening day of the waterfowl season is usually pretty decent hunting, but then the appearance of uneducated ducks and geese slows to a screeching halt.
Preseason scouting reveals a lot of local ducks and several big flocks of geese that wing their way from this northern marsh to feed each morning, with a return flight later in the day. The waterfowl follow the pattern daily until the first shots are fired. With a week between the youth hunt and the regular season opener, the remaining birds usually begin to calm down and go back to established preseason patterns.
I hunt public marshes that receive a lot of pressure during the first couple of weeks of the regular season. The past few years the local birds are either shot or leave, which results in about 60 days of sporadic waterfowl hunting. The local hunters have to go elsewhere or anxiously wait for the weather conditions to change. It has to get downright nasty and cold to drive new waterfowl down the migration route.
I usually hunt two or three times a week, so I have my fingers on the pulse of the duck and goose populations most of the season. Most of the cinnamon teal leave before the Oct. 1 opener, and the other species of teal follow shortly on their tails. Utah does not have an early teal season.
Because my hunting area is on the eastern fringe of the Pacific Flyway, we see only a few big flocks of waterfowl that stray from the mainstream migration. Still, hunting can be pretty good at times. The key ingredient for good shooting opportunities after the opener is definitely the weather.
It was Dec. 17, and it was cold enough to freeze any slow or stagnant water. I was determined to go hunting because it might be my final hunt for the season. I had been out three or four days before and the marsh was freezing up quickly. The previous day, the sky had been empty except for a pair of northern harriers looking for a meal. The migration just had not started yet. Today, I hoped would be different.
I bundled in several layers of hunting clothes and trailered my boat to the launch. There was some open water around the boat dock, but I didn't know how far I would be able to go into the marsh. I decided it was worth a try. The ramp was a sheet of ice, so I prepared the boat for hunting on the graveled parking lot. I did not want to be forced to hang onto the sides of the boat with one hand to maintain my footing while undoing restraining straps to free the boat from the trailer.
As I backed the boat into the water, cracking ice greeted my ears. I wondered if I would be able to pull away from the boat dock. My four-wheel drive answered the call and I slowly crept back onto firm gravel. Extra precaution is always on my mind when the weather is extreme, because carelessness can lead to a tragedy.
The Go-Devil long shaft roared to life. I let it warm up a little longer than usual because the thermometer in the truck console had read 17 degrees. When the engine settled into its regular rhythm, I eased back on the choke and dropped the spinning propeller into the water.
As I swung out into the river channel, chunks of ice moved slowly the same direction I was heading. Sheets of hard water echoed loudly as they bounced off or were crushed under the weight of my decoy-loaded boat. Flocks of waterfowl that had been loafing just around the first bend of the river took flight. Soon, the sky was full of circling ducks. The northern migration had replenished the diminished duck population on the marsh.
Most of the open water was frozen solid, but two little islands still had open water all of the way around them. I had to break through 100 yards of inch-thick ice to reach the small, cattail-covered island. The long shaft of my motor lifted three times to ride on top of the ice chunks, so I experienced a few grinding halts before I reached my goal.
After I reached open water, I began unwinding anchor weights from the decoys. I lowered my little trolling motor into the water and set the goose decoys over the side of the zigzagging boat. I placed six goose decoys on one side of the island and four on the other side. I then put out 15 duck impersonators, leaving plenty of room for the landing party I hoped would visit me. I quickly pushed the boat next to the cattails and raised the natural grass camouflage, which by this time of the year was ragged. I hoped I had become invisible.
Take 'Em on the Pass
A few ducks were flying, although the big flock seemed to have settled into other open-water areas. Every 10 to 15 minutes, small flocks would appear in the distant sky. Most of them came past to look my decoy spread over, but the larger flock of live birds a few hundred yards away ended up luring them from my location. At first, I was determined to try and call them right into the decoys. I wanted them to come in with their wings cupped and feet outstretched, but the birds just would not fully commit. After a few failures, I decided to fire at the next birds that came into range.
I saw them coming from the north -- four ducks. I crouched just a little lower in the boat blind and reached for my duck call. I let them swing by one time then hit them with my best pleading call. They made a tight turn, and on the second pass, I stood and swung the barrel of the shotgun ahead of them. I fired. A mallard drake set its wings as if froze
n in flight and glided to a crash-landing to the icy landscape below. The other three accelerated and left abruptly.
I settled back into my boat blind and rubbed my hands together, and then repositioned the hand warmers I had placed in each glove. Soon after, a couple of gadwalls broke away from a large flock of ducks another pair of hunters just entering the marsh had stirred.
The sound of their boat scraping on the ice had flushed several large flocks of ducks just as I had done a couple of hours earlier.
The gadwalls flew directly over my stoic decoys, and without hesitation, I rose and shot. The drake folded and splashed in the open water surrounding the island. It began drifting away because of a light wind that had kicked up. I waded out to intercept the drifting duck. The drake gadwall was in full winter plumage, so upon returning to the boat, I took a few pictures to preserve the memory.
Go to the Ducks
I had seen three ducks feeding to the south of my island. They would appear and disappear periodically as they paddled about. They were a long distance away, but there was open water between us. I kept watching to see if they would feed any closer. They did, but stopped about 100 yards away.
A long time had passed since there had been any action, so I decided to go to the ducks, since they would not come to me. I waited until they disappeared into a little cove next to the shoreline. I quietly pushed my boat out into the open water and then lowered my electric trolling motor. I went directly across the little expanse of water and then hugged the bank. I had devised a plan. The trolling motor was silent, so I was hoping my ruse would pay off.
It was just like jump shooting, only I was stalking the birds from a boat rather than walking along a creek bank. I stealthily motored toward the last place I had seen the ducks. When I was within 25 yards of where I thought they were, I shut off the motor and glided to a stop. I waited quietly for what seemed like 10 minutes, but it was more like 30 seconds.
One of the ducks swam into view. I stood slowly and shouldered my shotgun with the anticipation the drake would jump. I didn't have to wait long the duck to realize a new object had moved close to him. The northern shoveler discovered it was in trouble. It jumped, and I pulled the trigger.
I was about ready to pull my decoys and go back to the truck to get warmed up when a pintail caught me by surprise and cruised past. I whistled, and the sprig slammed on the air brakes, circled over the cattails and dropped right into the decoys. The sleek duck came back so abruptly that I didn't have time to even raise my shotgun. It was the kind of response I had been waiting for all morning. The pintail presented a fairly easy target while making a quick scramble to get airborne. Just after he cleared the decoys, a string of steel shot brought the duck back down amidst a shower of feathers.
Decoys and Calls
While hunting during the last few weeks of the season, I have discovered a big spread of decoys is not necessary. A dozen or so is sufficient because migrating birds simply want to pitch into open water to rest and drink. However, I do place a few decoys on the edge of the ice. Ducks and geese like to rest and nap on any shelf of ice that rims the open water. You can buy decoys with field bases or models without keels to sit flat. I have also used damaged floating decoys to sit on the ice. I just cut the keels off.
In late season, I use calls very sparingly, or not at all. Most duck hunters find not calling difficult, because we like to blow our duck calls and think we are powerful when we have called the ducks in. Trouble is, many late-season ducks have heard a lot of calling, so it can work against you. Have you noticed that ducks on the water do very little calling, if any, as flocks of waterfowl pass overhead?
Give Me Ice
I like it when the ice has formed and locked up most of the marsh. It becomes less of a guessing game as to where ducks might pitch in for a drink when 80 percent of the water has hardened up. Weather to the north causes the birds to move in large flocks, triggering the migration into full swing.
I love to hunt ducks any chance I get, but iced up and ducks on the move is what I wait for each season.
Wendell Shepherd is a long-time waterfowl hunter from Logan, Utah.