By Gary Koehler
There was a time when a couple of friends and I would lie on our backs for hours in a picked cornfield, waiting for transient mallards and the odd Canada goose to come to dinner. Snow, ice, and temperatures in the 20s, or worse, we didn't consider problems.
There was shooting to be had. But that was 30 years ago. I can't speak for my buddies, but my bones can no longer handle that type of action, at least not without proper preparation.
Comfort is relative, but there are a number of things you can do to make your outing safer, more pleasurable, and more efficient.
1-All Decked Out
The outdoor clothing industry has made tremendous strides. And we're not talking about the 1,001 camouflage patterns now available. No, we're talking about fabrics and insulation systems that can keep you warm and dry in the coldest, wettest weather. Some things perhaps will never change. Layering your clothing remains a sensible piece of business.
Hunters realized that many years ago, but most of the materials available in the past were flawed because of their moisture absorption and retention rates. Moisture displaces air, which is the true source of insulation in fabrics. This reduces the clothing's insulating value and pulls heat from the body. You can bet that a damp hunter is a cold hunter.
Start with undergarments made of fabrics that wick moisture away from the skin. Wool, tried and true for generations, remains an excellent choice for the next layer.
"Wool traps wet heat in the form of perspiration, absorbs it, and radiates dry heat back to the wearer. Nothing else does that," says King Cavalier, whose King of the Mountain outerwear has often been the choice of military special forces. Turtlenecks, vests, and sweaters are good. Down is warm, but bulky.
Waterproof and windproof bib overalls and a hooded parka provide a protective outer shell. Wear an insulated cap or hat. Take along extra gloves or mittens. Face masks work, and so do fleece-lined muffs.
Do not wear so many pairs of socks that you can't wiggle your toes inside your boots. Neoprene waders will keep you warmer than hip boots, and waders with boot liners can make a big difference.
2-Taking Care of Your Partner
Sporting dogs are generally preconditioned to winter's hazards. But only to a degree. Dogs, too, can become uncomfortable during raw, late-season outings. "Outdoor pets require extra calories to keep warm," says Gail C. Golab, DVM, Ph.D., of the American Veterinary Medical Association.
"Feed your pet according to its needs when the temperature drops." For retrievers, which burn plenty of calories on the job under normal conditions, that translates into an increase in food volume.
Retrievers are hardy as a rule, but do not expect yours to be Super Dog and tread icy water all day long. Give your animal a place to sit out of the water. Bring the dog in the blind or boat, build a special hooch, or erect a platform of some sort. Neoprene vests can help keep your dog warmer. Remember, snow, ice, and bitter cold can lead to frostbite in a dog's footpads.
3-Picking Your Spots
Where to go when the temperature bottoms out? Open water, if you can find it, or grainfields. Point is, you have to adjust.
"If you are going to tough it out to the end of the season, you are going to have to keep track of the birds," says Tim Peterson, creator of the Goose Magnet decoy and a Minnesota waterfowler with 40 years of experience. "This is when scouting becomes critical."
Cold weather will freeze shallow marshes and ponds, and when that happens, ducks and geese often will move to large lakes, reservoirs, and estuaries where there is open water. Rivers, spring creeks, and man-made flowages offer additional options if the current is strong enough to prevent freezing.
"If you know your territory, you will also know which lakes have a tendency to freeze later," Peterson says. "You will know what will be open, and what won't."
Ducks and geese require extra carbohydrates in order to stay warm when the weather turns bitter cold. They find what they are looking for in harvested agricultural fields where waste grain provides the birds the energy they need.
"I much prefer to take them in grainfields late in the season," Peterson says, "just because there gets to be so little open water. I really don't want to disturb birds on their roost.
In this situation, all you are going to do when hunting open water is to chase the birds someplace else, and then you are going to have to find them again."
4-Ice Cubes in Your Call
Keeping your duck or goose call operational during late-season hunts can be frustrating. Moisture from your mouth gets trapped in the call and can freeze.
"Some guys will put a little silicone spray on the reed, a real light coating, when it gets real cold. It doesn't seem to hurt," says Jim Olt of the P.S. Olt Game Call Company of Pekin, Illinois.
"But the best advice I have is to keep blowing through the opposite end of the call, the end you hold in your hand. By doing this, you blow some of the moisture out."
To prevent your call from icing up, do what you can to keep the call warm. "Put it inside your jacket, next to your body," Olt says.
"With today's clothing, it stays pretty warm in there. Too many guys leave their calls on lanyards outside their jackets. Moisture has always been a problem with game calls, especially when the weather is cold. It's always a good idea to have extra calls with you in case you have one that freezes up."
5-Tighten Up Your Decoys
Dick Marcillac has been guiding duck and goose hunters for more than 20 years in the Klamath Basin, located along the California-Oregon state line.
While the region does not get an extraordinary amount of snow, temperatures can plunge and ponds freeze up anytime around Thanksgiving.
"I can't say we put out more or fewer decoys when it gets cold, because we usually keep about the same number in our spread, around 80. What we do change is how close together we place them. When it's cold, we put our decoys much closer together than when it's warm. Ducks have a tendency to huddle due to cold weather," Marcillac says. The tight spread also leaves more room for the birds to land.
Marcillac maintains that theory when it comes to setting his goose blocks, and picks up his decoys every day, no matter what he may be hunting.
"I keep my decoys in a trailer. I think they should be covered, because a live duck has to be extremely cold to have frost on it. And that's what's going to happen to your decoys if you leave them out."
For those who do not have a trailer to haul their decoys in, store your blocks in your boat, or elsewhere, and cover them with a tarp. This also prevents the decoys from becoming encased in snow and ice.