By Chris Jennings
When ice locks up our favorite hunting spots, knowing how to adapt to frozen conditions is a must. The following tips from veteran waterfowlers will help you stay in the game when open water is hard to find.
Break the Ice
If open water isn’t available, the best thing waterfowlers can do is break a hole in the ice to float decoys, advises Brook Richard, corporate relations manager for Higdon Outdoors. He spent a lot of time breaking ice last season, and he says the key to success using this tactic is to make sure that all the ice—including slush—is out of the hole.
“When shallow wetlands and flooded fields freeze, ducks will often keep small pockets of water open with their body heat. These holes don’t have any chunks of ice floating in them, and that’s why it’s so important to create a clean, open area of water for birds to land in,” Richard says. “We do this by breaking the ice in large sheets and either removing the sheets from the area or sliding them under the surrounding ice. We try to avoid breaking ice into small pieces that can fill up the hole.”
Once Richard and his hunting partners have created a hole in the ice, they keep the water open using a portable Higdon Ice Blaster, which can run for several hours on a single battery charge. “When it gets really cold, an Ice Blaster is a very important tool for us. It not only will keep a hole from refreezing but also gradually increase its size by bringing warmer water up from the bottom.”
Keep Your Decoys Moving
Steven Cahoy, a Drake Waterfowl field expert from Lincoln, Nebraska, says that setting a realistic decoy spread is especially important when hunting small pockets of open water during the late season. “It doesn’t take long for ducks to get wise to decoys placed in holes in the ice. That’s why it’s vital to watch what the birds are doing and try to imitate that with your spread,” Cahoy explains. “Several years ago, I watched a flock of ducks keep a hole open on a pond just outside of town. They huddled together, swimming rapidly in a circle. That gave me some ideas about how I should set my decoys.”
To imitate the natural movements of waterfowl in open holes that he has cleared of ice, Cahoy deploys several Higdon XS Pulsators among his decoys. These pump-driven floating decoys, which imitate ducks tipping up to feed, intermittently splash water and create lifelike ripples in the decoys. “Setting several Pulsators in the hole will activate your entire spread, which is a big factor on days with little or no wind. The more movement that I can create in my spread, the better.”
Hunt the Thaw
Some of the best duck hunting of the year can occur during a late-season thaw. As the ice begins to melt, ducks are eager to fan out and exploit potential food sources. On a larger scale, reverse migrations can occur when warm temperatures persist on a regional level, bringing large numbers of ducks up from the south.
Richard says that many of the same tactics that work during a freeze will also work during a thaw, but with one key difference. “The first day of a thaw, we only put a small number of decoys in the hole, because what the birds are really looking for is open water. You don’t want to pack in too many decoys, which will make the hole look smaller,” he explains. “Let those birds see as much water as you can,” he says.