The thrill of splashing a drake mallard in the decoys is exhilarating, but safety, Fujan cautions, should never be an afterthought. "The most important thing when hunting a river at any time is safety, but especially late in the year," he says. "Not only is the water usually deep and moving quickly, but because it's typically the last open water in the area, there will be ice and freezing temps. In this environment, safety has to be the top priority."
This is particularly true if you are using a boat. When hunting on large rivers in South Dakota, Fujan's crew will wait for sunrise before launching their boat. "You need to ensure that you can see what's ahead of you at all times. Watch out for ice, swift current, snags and other hazards. Of course, everyone should also be wearing a Coast-Guard-approved life jacket, and you should have cold-weather survival gear on board," he says.
In addition to safety, waiting for daylight will also allow you to see where ducks and geese are going. "Oftentimes late in the year they don't start flying until the sun gets up anyway," Fujan says. "They are trying to conserve energy and often wait for the sun to thaw out the grainfields before flying out to feed."
For that reason, many river hunters focus their efforts during the middle of the day—from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.—to take advantage of ducks returning to the water from feeding.
What about retrievers? Is it safe to bring your four-legged friend on a late-season river hunt? Fujan says it's always best to err on the side of caution. "If it's icy and potentially dangerous for the dog, or the river is running very fast, leave him at home," he says. "No duck is worth risking your dog's life."