When the hunting gets Hard Core, the Hard Core go hunting.
It is no secret that when the ponds and lakes freeze over, waterfowl head to the only sources of open water left before finishing the move south. Being on these sources of open water can be highly productive for a Hard Core waterfowler. Rivers are a good bet, and there are other sources of open water you shouldn’t overlook.
The number one thing you need to do is find the birds. It’s Not Easy! If you don’t have any major rivers around you, the next best bet are the creeks and smaller waterways that don’t freeze over, at least right away. If there is a warm-water discharge from a factory or plant near you that is open to hunting that can be another place to look. It gets very tricky in that case, however, as there are lots of regulations to adhere to.
Every year when the regulations and season dates were released, the same thing kept popping up. There was a late two-day duck season in January. Not all that uncommon, except this was northern Michigan and by that time, there was a pile of snow and trucks parked on the lakes. We usually hit the bigger rivers and did okay, but we were never alone.
One year, while deer hunting in late November, I came upon a creek not more than ten feet wide at its widest spot. I thought this might be a good spot to find deer, but instead I found ducks. I came back a few weeks later during that late season and sure enough, there were still ducks there. Big, fat black ducks, which are a bucket list bird for many a hunter.
As the hunt was planned out, we soon realized this was going to be very different from any other kind of duck hunting I had done.
If you get the chance to do this kind of hunt, you’re going to get cold and wet, but the hunting will be thrilling from start to finish. This kind of hunting was full-on, commando-style, sneak-attack jump shooting. Some waterfowl hunters don’t like jump shooting, and I respect that. For this time of year, it was the only option. You need good, warm waders that are puncture resistant because you’re going to be crawling creek banks and over fallen trees. If there is a lot of snow, snow camo works well. Travel light as you really only need to carry ammo and a few necessities. A Hard Core Guide Bag works well for this type of hunting. For clothing, I like to layer. A good, lightweight rain jacket works well with a fleece or down vest. Luckily Hard Core has you covered with gear designed for this type of hunting.
We found that as we slowly crept downstream, the birds would push in front of us. The trick was to apply just enough pressure to them to get them to jump in front of you. We found that having a blocker did not work as the birds would get too nervous to quickly and leave the area. If we worked them slowly and steadily, they would jump closer to us and only move a short way downstream from us, allowing for a second stalk if someone missed. At the time, the limit on black ducks was one per day so we did put in a lot of time getting our one duck limit, but it sure was worth it.
When we’ve had more than a single day or so to hunt, we’ve had success in the same spot by jumping the ducks and then putting out a few decoys. It’s very similar to fall turkey hunting. You bust up the flocks and then pick off the stragglers as they come back into the decoys. You only need a few decoys, and magnum decoys work really well. Hard Core Mag Mallards and Mag Black Ducks are outstanding in this situation. You only need roughly six or so and having them pre-rigged makes life so much easier.
If you have the room to set up on the shore and wait them out, a Run-N-Gunnar blind from Hard Core is the cat’s meow too. You can carry in a half-dozen decoys and then have a comfortable layout blind to set up and hunt along the bank.
The role of weather
There is such a thing as being in the right place at the right time. For late season ducks, I think this is more the rule than the exception. When there is a hard freeze yet the rest of the weather is reasonably mild, you can find yourself in the middle of a waterfowl bonanza the likes of which you’ve never seen before. If things get too rough, weather-wise, it’ll drive birds out of the area faster than you can imagine.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of being on a late season fishing trip in Alaska with my cousin. We were going to go after the monster trout that come in after the salmon eggs. As luck would have it, I hit it so that we were going to go out right after the first hard freeze in the area.
You’ve seen those hunting shows where they are hunting in Canada or similar location and the sky is just black with thousands of birds, right? This was like that but in a more confined space. It is by no means an exaggeration when I say we saw thousands of ducks as well as a few dozen tundra swans. For several hours, I sat in a boat and at no time was there less than a dozen ducks including pintails and mallards sitting more than 20 yards from me. And I had only a fishing pole in my hands. While I did catch some truly amazing trout, I have vowed to return some day with my shotgun.
It’s Not Easy!
When the temps are dropping and the lakes and ponds freeze, keep in mind there are still ducks to be had for the waterfowler who is prepared. Scout out spots early, keep a journal of where you think they’ll be and keep a keen eye on the weather. Be prepared for quick shots and sparse ducks, but you can and will be rewarded with some of the most memorable hunting you’ve ever had.