When ice starts forming on Lake of the Woods on the Minnesota/Ontario/Manitoba boundary, Lance Sage says duck hunting can be extraordinary. "Find the right spot, and you'll be in for the shoot of your life," he says.
Sage helps run his family's Sage's Angle West Resort in Minnesota's Northwest Angle. He's a part-time guide and an avid waterfowler who specializes in diving ducks. When the lake starts freezing in late fall, bluebills, goldeneyes, ruddy ducks, canvasbacks, ring-necked ducks, and others concentrate in areas that remain open. Sage looks for open water on wind-exposed points and banks, spring-fed areas, and rivers flowing into or out of the lake. Sage says finding these spots is simply a matter of watching where birds are flying and following them to where they are rafting.
"The bays freeze first, and when they do, the ducks move out to big water," he says. "The main lake holds its temperature longer, and strong winds also help keep it open. I'll use binoculars to find where ducks are landing, and then I'll figure out how to get there and set up." Sometimes he can access a wind-washed point or shoreline from the bank. Other times he breaks ice (up to an inch-and-a-half thick—no more) to reach open water. "This type of hunting isn't for the faint of heart," he advises.
Sage uses the same decoy spread and calling techniques that he employs before ice starts forming. "I don't change anything," he says, "except if it's snowing, I might change my camouflage. This is strictly a matter of locating the birds."
"Fog can be a really good thing, but you have to be quiet and extra careful not to let ducks see you," says Jackie Van Cleave of Samburg, Tennessee. Van Cleave is a full-time guide on fabled Reelfoot Lake. "Ducks can see better in fog than most people think they can," he says. "They can see decoys from overhead, and they'll just pop into your spread if they don't see or hear something that spooks them."
Van Cleave calls sparingly in fog. "A lot of hunters hear ducks chattering up in the fog and then start calling to them. That will usually flare them," he explains. "Instead, I use a Mallard Machine (water-disturbance device), and I'll bump it once every 30 seconds to make a little splash. It's the splashing noise and decoy movement that bring ducks in. The only calling I might do is a little soft feed chatter every now and then."
Another important factor in hunting in fog is staying still and being completely covered in the blind. "Pull plenty of brush up around your shooting hole and be absolutely still," Van Cleave says. "Don't do any talking or moving around in the blind. On a foggy morning, any little noise will scare ducks. Just keep your eyes over the decoys and be ready. Ducks will get in on you in a hurry in the fog, and if you're not ready, they'll flare and disappear before you can shoot."