2. Explore for Open Water
It's Waterfowling 101. When shallow marshes and flooded fields freeze, ducks and geese move to where open water can still be found on big rivers, lakes and estuaries. But during sustained cold snaps even the big water can lock up tight, and that's when hunters have to be inventive and energetic to find the last bastions of open water on an otherwise frozen landscape. Any ducks that remain in the area will use these spots, often in large numbers, and hunters who locate these honey holes will enjoy some of the best shooting of the season.
Initially, waterfowl will maintain a small area of open water in their preferred habitats
, says Jim Reid of Wichita, Kansas
. "This is just a natural way that ducks keep a hole open. Some fly out to feed while others stay behind. It's like they take turns feeding and staying in the hole to keep it from freezing," he says.
After a few days of single-digit temperatures, however, waterfowl often abandon these isolated pockets of water, forcing hunters to look elsewhere. "The second place I look for open water is where a natural spring empties into a stream or a marsh," Reid says. "The groundwater bubbles up at a temperature of 52 to 55 degrees, and it will keep water open when everything else is frozen. I've seen a lot of ducks pack into small spring-fed holes. Another type of spot I look for is where a river narrows and the current flows faster, usually in riffles. Sometimes pools below these riffles will stay open during a hard freeze—and again, the ducks will pack into them."
When all else fails, Reid says, waterfowl will congregate around manmade warm-water discharges. "These will often be the last places in the country to freeze over," he explains. "They can be below a power plant, a waste-water treatment plant, or any other place where warm water is released into a river or slough."
How can hunters locate these hidden hotspots? "There are no shortcuts," Reid says. "You have to put in the road time and the looking time. I've found spots by driving back roads and watching where birds are flying. I've actually hiked along waterways to find spring holes and open riffles and pools. I've followed birds from feeding areas back to their resting spots. The best times to scout are at dawn, at midmorning when the ducks are flying back after feeding, and again in late afternoon when they're heading to roost after feeding."