Snow Days

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Photo © Chris Thenhaus

By Matt Young

There's nothing like waterfowl hunting in the snow. Ducks and geese just seem to respond better to decoys and calling in wintry conditions, and a marsh is never more beautiful than when it's covered in a mantle of white. But the onset of real winter weather is often bittersweet for waterfowl hunters. While a blizzard can bring fresh birds from the north and provide phenomenal shooting, the action is often fleeting as accumulating snow pushes ducks and geese southward not to return again until spring. 

In the spirit of the season, Ducks Unlimited asked three well-known waterfowlers—outdoor journalist Matt Wettish, wildlife artist Scot Storm, and waterfowl biologist Dr. Mark Vrtiska—to describe their most memorable hunts in the snow. These are their stories.

Luck of The Draw—Matt Wettish

My hunting partner Scott Lynch and I were scouting for geese when we found a cut cornfield just off the Connecticut River with about 200 birds in it. We knew beforehand that this area had a lot of collared and banded birds, and as we glassed the geese with our binoculars, we counted six collars. Since the bag limit during the regular goose season was two birds, we decided to get a couple more guys together and maybe try for a collared bird the next morning, which happened to be Thanksgiving. The forecast called for snow, and between the weather and the holiday, none of our hunting buddies could join us. Scott and I considered cancelling the hunt, but the field was close by. We decided to hunt for just an hour or two, so we could get home before the festivities.

As predicted, heavy snow was falling when we arrived at the field the next morning. A couple of inches covered the ground, and it was piling up fast. Fortunately, Scott had a snow plow on his truck. We plowed a strip along the edge of the field to clear a plate for the geese. Since we had to make this a quick hunt, we set only a few dozen silhouettes on the cleared ground and simply hunkered down under the overhanging limbs of an old cedar tree on the edge of the field. 

As it got light, we heard the first flock coming. There were probably 30 to 40 geese in the flock, but it was snowing so hard we could barely see them. We just caught brief glimpses of their ghostly forms gliding through the swirling flakes. Several other flocks arrived right behind them, and soon the air above the field was filled with the honks and moans of unseen geese circling in the snow. Finally, one flock got low enough to see the decoys and landed right in front of us. More geese piled in after them, and before we knew it, about 200 birds were standing less than 20 yards from us. We strained our eyes looking for collared geese, but the visibility was so bad we could barely make out individual birds. It was nearly time for us to head home, so we decided to run the geese off the field and then shoot the first flock that came back.  

When we stood up, the geese took off in a huge racket and disappeared into the snow. About 10 minutes later, we heard a honk from a small flock coming back to the field. We gave a few quick calls, and the geese came right in and landed on the snow. We jumped them, and Scott and I each shot a clean double. When we picked up our birds, we were stunned to discover that all four were banded. We couldn't believe it. After all that, we ended up getting four banded geese in four shots, completely at random. Of course, we were thrilled to get the bands, but looking back, what I'll always remember most about that hunt was just being out there on Thanksgiving morning with a good friend, listening to all those unseen geese in the snow.  

The Hay Bale Slough—Scot Storm

Back in the mid-1990s, five of us traveled to North Dakota to hunt waterfowl. We had bluebird weather the first couple of days, but then a cold front came through bringing high winds and driving rain. We hunted that morning without much luck, and over lunch, debated whether to go back out that afternoon in the nasty weather. But we knew the front might bring new birds, so we decided to go. 

We took two trucks in case some of us wanted to go back to the motel early. My father rode along with us, but he was worn out from the morning hunt and decided to stay in his truck and take a nap. It was about a half-mile hike across a cultivated field to the slough, which was tucked out of sight among the surrounding hills. We called it the hay bale slough because several flooded hay bales stood in it. North Dakota received torrential rains that summer, and the farmer wasn't able to get all his hay out before the sloughs filled back up. Many years later, I used that same slough as the background for my 2004 federal duck stamp painting. 

Leaving my dad behind to nap, the four of us hiked to the slough and set the decoys. Drizzling rain quickly changed to snow, and ducks were already flying when we got there. More birds flew as the snow got heavier. Soon, there were so many ducks that we took turns shooting, congratulating each other when we made good shots and laughing when we missed. 

After a while, I looked over at my father-in-law and noticed that he looked really cold. That seemed odd because the rest of us were so warm from all the shooting that we had taken off our gloves. As it turned out, my father-in-law's waterproof parka wasn't working very well. He had made some great shots and was enjoying the hunt, but he was so wet and cold that he knew he had to get back to the truck. So he grabbed his birds and a bag of decoys and left my brother, our friend "Punky" Schumer, and me to finish the hunt. 

My father-in-law had a tough walk back. Snow was piling up, and the ground beneath was still soft enough to cake on his boots. By the time he reached the truck, he was carrying about six inches of mud on each foot. Making matters worse, he couldn't wake up my dad, who had removed his hearing aids before taking his nap. My father-in-law also couldn't get the decoy bag off his shoulders. With no one to help him, he had to lie on his back in the snow and wriggle out of the shoulder straps. But his persistence paid off, and he finally managed to get the decoy bag off and wake up my dad. By that point, he was so cold that they drove back to town without us.  

Back at the slough, we decided that we had better pack up and check on the old guys. Punky, who had always wanted to shoot a pintail, volunteered to pick up the decoys. As luck would have it, right after he handed me his shotgun and waded into the waist-deep water, a flock of pintails came over. I urged Punky to get back to shore, but he couldn't get through the mud fast enough. As the flock was going away, I dropped a gorgeous drake that fell in the decoys with a splash. I can't repeat what Punky said, but we sure had a good laugh.
 
My dad had already showered and changed when we got back to the motel, so when we walked down to the restaurant later, we were surprised to find my father-in-law sitting at the bar, still wearing his waders and hunting clothes. When we asked him why, he told us that he had been so cold when he got back to his room that he just had to have a drink to warm up. We go back to that restaurant every year on our annual hunting trip, and while that happened 15 years ago, they still talk about it.

Snow Blind Mallards—Mark Vrtiska

Several years ago, Scott Stephens and I went on a late-season duck hunting excursion in early December. Everything was frozen up on the northern plains, so Scott and I decided to follow the birds south in hopes of extending our hunting seasons for a few more days. Our road trip took us from Nebraska to western Oklahoma, the panhandle of Texas, and finally back north to Kansas.
 
While scouting a large reservoir, we spotted a big flock of mallards leaving an inlet on the upper end of the lake. We followed the flock to a harvested milo field a few miles away. It was covered with feeding mallards. A big snowstorm was rolling in from the west, and the birds were eager to feed. We watched the spectacle for a while as hundreds of birds piled into the field in the falling snow. When we tracked down the landowner, we were disappointed to learn that he had already given another group   permission to hunt the field. So we drove back to the reservoir and scouted the area where we had first seen the mallards. Kansas was suffering from severe drought at the time, so we had to hike about a half mile across the dry lake bottom to get a closer look at where the birds were resting. Through our binoculars, we spotted 200 to 300 mallards loafing along the water's edge, which convinced us that was where we should hunt the next morning.

Several inches of snow fell overnight, covering the back roads and turning the whole landscape white. We made our way back to the reservoir just before dawn, glad that we had remembered to pack our white parkas. We were also thankful to have Scott's black Lab, Branta, along with us since we didn't know how deep the water would be. After hiking in, we waded out and set about three dozen mallard decoys just off the bank. We dusted our wet waders with snow, which immediately froze to the neoprene, giving us additional camouflage. Then we knelt down against a couple of dead trees standing near the water and waited for daybreak. 

Large numbers of mallards started coming back to the reservoir about sunrise. It wasn't long before a group of about a half-dozen birds came by. We gave them a few quick greeting calls, and they turned and locked their wings. They didn't circle or show any hesitation at all. They just came right in with their feet down. We knocked down a couple of greenheads, which fell in the decoys about 10 yards away. Branta barely had time to retrieve the birds before another flock showed up, and they came right in just like the first flock. At that point, we realized this was going to be one of those rare days. Over the next hour, we took turns shooting one drake at a time out of each flock until we had our limits.

I have had very few hunts where mallards responded better to decoys and calling than they did that morning. It was the first winter storm of the year, and while there was still plenty of open water around, there's just something about snow that makes ducks want company. We also had excellent concealment dressed in white against the snow-covered background. Usually when you're duck hunting, your vision is obstructed by grass or tree branches or the roof of a blind. But that morning, all we had to do was keep still, and the mallards practically landed at our feet. It was just like we were invisible. There was so little other cover out there that I doubt we could have effectively hunted that spot without the snow.