Crossing Points and Breaking Ice
Author’s Note: “I hunt every single day of duck season,” says Billy Blakely, chief guide at Blue Bank Resort on Reelfoot Lake near Tiptonville, Tennessee, located between three waterfowl refuges and only a short distance from the Mississippi River, one of the premier duck-hunting regions in the U.S. “I’ll guide 80+ days per year for ducks.” When Blakely takes a party of duck hunters out to Reelfoot Lake for a day of hunting, he often carries 4-10 hunters at one time plus a dog, guns, ammunition and food. Blakely usually will carry his party about 2 miles before they set up to hunt. That 2 miles of the lake includes stumps, shallow water, deep water, brush and ice. If he is hunting from his permanent blind, he pulls his boat into a covered slip.
During the late waterfowl season, Reelfoot Lake, because it has so much shallow water, often will freeze up. So, the ducks have to move out into open water. With a camouflaged boat and a boat blind, even in open water, we look like a big pile of debris rather than a duck blind. I search for crossing points in the lake to set up and hunt ducks when the shallow water freezes up. Crossing areas are the open places ducks fly across to either go from one waterfowl refuge to another or to come in from the Mississippi River to Reelfoot Lake. Ducks are much like we are. They set up certain routes they like to travel. Once you learn the routes the ducks take to get from one location to another in your section of the country, you can set up a blind in-between those two points, put out some decoys and attract those ducks. Many sections of Reelfoot have registered blinds that individuals have registered with the Department of Conservation and that remain in the same location every year. We’re forbidden to hunt within 100 yards of any registered blind. However, out in the open water, there are hardly any registered blinds, so we can set up and hunt almost anywhere we want in that open water.
Another trick to being mobile, even in open water, is to have electric anchors on your boat. If the ducks are crossing in a different place than I’ve thought they will, I simply can hit the switch, pull up my electric anchors, move to the place where I determine the ducks are crossing, put up my waterfowl blind and be ready to hunt. Too, by using the electric anchors, I can flip a switch, pull up the anchors, drop the blind into the boat, pick up the ducks, return to the spot I want to hunt, drop the electric anchors, pop the blind back up and be ready to hunt again.
When Reelfoot Lake freezes up so hard that we can’t hunt it, we have the option of going out on the Mississippi River to hunt. We hunt the river almost like we hunt open water on Reelfoot. We’ve learned that the ducks look for what we call willow holes, which are willow trees growing off the bank that provide protection and cover for the ducks. These willow holes don’t freeze up because of the current in the Mississippi. We can back up our boat into the willow trees, put up a waterfowl blind after we’ve thrown out a few decoys and hunt the ducks coming down the river or those moving from the refuge to the river. When we go to the river and hunt in the willow holes, about 90% of the ducks we’ll take will be mallards. Some of the biggest flocks of ducks we work and bring in to the decoys will be coming down the Mississippi River. Most of the ducks coming down the Mississippi River when Reelfoot Lake is iced-up will be new ducks migrating in from the North, and they won’t have seen any hunters out on the river before. So, although having to be mobile and going to the Mississippi River is often a hassle, many times during the late season, river hunting produces some of our best days of waterfowling.
Oftentimes we create duck holes on Reelfoot Lake, even when we have ice-ups. We have deep water right in front of Blue Bank Resort, so many times I’ll use my boat to break 4 or 5 inches of ice to create a trail out to a duck hole I’ll make that may only be 300 to 400 yards from Blue Bank’s lodge. Remember, if I can’t get out on the water and duck hunt, regardless of the situation on the river, I can’t make a living for me and my family. I also may saw out a hole in the ice with a chainsaw, place my decoys in that hole and then hunt on the edge of the ice from my boat and boat blind. To keep the hole open once I cut it with a chainsaw, I’ll use a generator and a Powerhouse Ice Eater. I put my generator and my 3/4 horsepower Ice Eater in my boat. Once I get the hole cut, I’ll leave the portable generator and the Ice Eater out on the water. I’ll fill the generator full of gas and let it run all night. The Ice Eater has a propeller on it, similar to an outboard motor, and it pushes water. I can cut a 20 foot hole in the ice with a chainsaw, put my Ice Eater in that hole and run it with the generator. By morning, I’ll have a hole of open water that’s 1/2 to 3/4 acre. I can go out early in the morning, put my decoys around the ice hole and then shuttle my hunters there. If there are any ducks flying at all, we usually can limit-out in the first 2 to 3 hours of a morning hunt. When we reach the blind, we turn off the generator, and when the ducks are flying over Reelfoot Lake, that open water with decoys sitting in it sucks them in like a magnet.
This article is part of a series on winter duck hunting. Click here to go back to part four, alternative tactics for duck hunting and going mobile.