The crusty snow crunched and squeaked with every step as I made my way down the old dirt road toward the northern Utah marsh. I was trying to find some open water to float my six decoys. They were all loaded in my little red toboggan on which I had bungeed my shotgun, camera bag, tripod and an assortment of duck and goose decoys. The loaded toboggan slid effortlessly, smoothing my tracks in the snow as it followed along behind me.
During the early part of the season, I'm the type of waterfowl hunter that goes out in a boat and hunts from a blind on the edge of a large marsh. When the water gets locked up in winter's icy grasp, I simply change my method of operation by putting my boat in storage—but not my shotgun. During the early season, I have the birds come to me, but the role is reversed during winter and I must go to the birds.
Winter's icy grip freezes up about 80 percent of the water, but the one thing that usually doesn't freeze very quickly is moving water. I found that often, any amount of current in a stream will do the job to keep water from locking up too tightly. It might freeze around the edges, but ducks and geese do not mind the cold and will stand or rest for hours at a time on ice. The breeding plumage of ducks and geese has been renewed at this time of the year and they are at the height of showing their spectacular colors.
I was walking parallel to a stream known as Swift Slough, which was usually one of the last areas to freeze up solid in the winter, even under extremely cold conditions. It was about a mile walk from the car and my breath was forced skyward in clouds of steamy vapor. I found a corner of the stream that widened, and as I approached I spotted a goldeneye. I stopped immediately and watched as it commenced swimming back and forth, trying to figure out just what I was and if I was any threat. I don't like the taste of the fish-eating goldeneyes, so I just enjoyed the moment.
After about 5 minutes, I decided to continue on and that is when three or four big, old greenheads and their brown female companions exploded into the air. I was caught completely by surprise because they had been hidden by a thick stand of cattails. No matter how many times I have done this, it's always a very startling experience. I always try to move with my shooting foot forward because then I can be ready and easily swing my shotgun in any direction for a quick shot. All of the birds came up at once, giving me the temptation to flock shoot.
They were a little out of range, but I now had a plan. In the winter months, waterfowl will often frequent the same stretches of open water or fields multiple times a day, often returning day after day. So, I threw out my six decoys into the sluggish current exactly where the birds where sitting and placed a few goose decoys next to where I planned to lie down, just in case a flock should happen to come by.
Making A Nest
I unfolded a white bed sheet and tried to find a comfortable place where I could lay as flat as possible. With the white sheet in place, I became almost invisible in the snow. I saw a few ducks moving here and there, but no big flocks. There was even a flock of geese or two, but none of them wanted to give my imposters a second look. They seemed to be more interested in finding a place to feed. I was really waiting for my mallard friends to come back to the same stretch of open water where I had disturbed them only a half-hour before. A snack or two and a cup of hot chocolate seemed to be in order, and it helped to pass the time as I waited for some honest-to-goodness action.
I got almost too comfortable, closing my eyes for brief ticks of the clock, but the cold began to penetrate through my layers of clothes. I don't think I really went to sleep, but I was jolted awake as I heard some ducks calling each other in the distance. I produced my own duck call and answered them with a few quacks. An old hen answered me back and we began carrying on a conversation. She would quack a couple of times and then I would try to repeat what I heard.
Then, out of the corner of my eye, they came into view and I tried to follow them without moving my head. I knew that any movement on my part would put an immediate end to this hide-and-seek game I was playing. They circled out of sight, and I could only hope that they were committed enough to come back and join their plastic cousins that were moving slowly in the water just a few feet away.
The mallard hen continued to answer my every quack, so I knew I had her attention. She brought them all back for one more look, and I could see three hens and four drakes out of the corner of my eye. They began losing altitude, and I heard the almost automatic disengagement click of the safety on my Browning Gold shotgun as I prepared to sit up and see what I could do.
One last pass brought them by about 20 feet over my head. Their orange feet were outstretched and their wings began working faster to slow their descent. As I sat up, they began backpeddling and, for an instant or two, they were almost standing still in midair. A big mallard drake at the top of the flock was my intended target. He crumpled with my first shot, and I quickly tried to find another greenhead to add to my bag. For a split second the flock of ducks was in total confusion, but instinct quickly took over and they were rapidly wheeling away. The second drake I was looking for was gaining altitude quickly and my first shot at him was a few seconds behind. The second shot of hot steel found its mark, and it was all over in matter of seconds. I was out of shells and the remaining flock of ducks was scrambling to get away from their most recent ambush.
I sat there for a few minutes enjoying the excitement of the hunt. I was pleased with how well I had shot because some days I don't do so well. Two fat mallard drakes rested on the snow among the goose decoys. Their shiny, dark green heads and necks were glistening in the sunlight. I saw three or more black curls near their rumps, indicating that these were mature birds.
I again looked up at the sky and thought back to my early years as a young boy; this was the way I took my first few ducks and I've found that it still works. Today, it seems that very few hunters choose this method. I enjoy the cold weather and find boredom sitting by the fire in the recliner and dreaming about the next early season waterfowl hunt.
I don't always take my little toboggan and decoys. Some days I just carry the shotgun and a pocket full of shells and begin to walk the riverbanks. As I do so, I use my compact binoculars about every 10-15 steps so that I can hopefully see the ducks before they see me. It is easier to sneak up on one or two ducks than a flock of 20 or 30. The greater the number of eyes looking for danger, the more difficult the approach becomes. If the stream is winding back and forth, then I just walk from one bend of the river to the next and glass the straight stretches in between. That saves a lot of walking and proves to be very efficient.
I find the quiet solitude of walking for winter ducks stimulating and refreshing. But, when the water in the marsh turns to ice and I still have a desire to hunt, I grab the little red toboggan and go set up on some open water.