HUMNOKE, Ark. — Hockey isn't a Southern sport for two good reasons: One, no sport could budge King Football from high atop its mighty throne, and two, ponds just don't freeze that often in the South.
But we're not talking about hockey or football here; we're talking duck hunting ... on ice.
For many across America, the last two weeks of duck season have coincided with the coldest temperatures of the year. And while their hunting brethren from higher latitudes may respond to the above statement with a gruff "yeah, so what?" those wielding the steel shot in Dixie have been forced to endure these rare frigid conditions.
When Mother Nature sends Old Man Winter for a visit below the Mason-Dixon Line, grocery stores from South Carolina to south Texas witness a frantic run on milk, bread and batteries. But for the Southern duck hunter, the show must go on — even when frozen precipitation is falling from the sky, and those favorite hunting waters have been stiffened with a strange crust of ice.
The habitat throughout the southern reaches of the Mississippi flyway, places like southern Arkansas, northern Mississippi and Louisiana, is commonly viewed as the last step along the "frost line." As cold temperatures plunge farther and lower into the United States from Canada, ducks and geese fly a delicate line to stay just ahead of this ever-moving boundary.
For migratory birds, flying too far ahead of this line would be a waste of energy, especially during the dead of winter. Often, reverse migration occurs as ducks bounce back and forth, with the arrival of cold and warm fronts. When freezing conditions and frozen waters are only temporary, some ducks leave, some stay, and colder conditions in northern locales may drive many new ducks into a given area.
Duck behaviors change as a result of frozen waters. While some ducks roost on high spots and logs in flooded timber, others will sleep on the ice itself, rafting up in the middle of a frozen farm pond, lake or field, to keep safe from predators. At first light, these ducks look like they are actually stuck to the frozen water's surface. Unless pushed from their resting areas, ducks may linger longer before leaving their roost areas in the mornings, as many wait for the sunlight and rising temperatures to melt the ice on open water so they can feed.
Ducks trying to use flooded timber areas may circle, with tiresome results, in search of thawed waters to land. Small ponds and flooded fields often thaw first, while flooded timber can be some of the last places to thaw. Because the sun can't penetrate the trees and the wind can't work to move any ice, timber hunting — which is so popular in Arkansas — can slow to a crawl during frozen conditions.
Any break in the ice, no matter how small in size, presents a duck with opportunity to land and feed in water, so a duck hunter may wish to help break the ice and create a hole for these searching ducks. Hunters may break out a hole with an ATV (when available), or stomp out a hole by foot.
Decoys should then be presented in and around the hole in the ice, making sure to leave an open landing area for approaching ducks. The hole broken in the ice should be larger on the downwind side to help the wind push the broken chunks of ice away from the hole. Otherwise, broken ice chunks can reform and refreeze over the opening, providing the temperature remains below freezing.
If decoys are left overnight, they will freeze. Frozen decoys if left alone will cause them to remain motionless and stationary — not something that will help the cause of attracting live ducks.
Make sure decoys have ice completely removed otherwise a decoy heavy with ice on one side may result in unnatural positions. And with late-season ducks already weary of anything vaguely unnatural, the more motion decoys display, the better the chance of fooling those aloft.
But ducks aren't the only animals that must adapt to frozen conditions: Duck dogs will find themselves cooped up in their kennels for longer than they want. Duck hunters must use discretion if they decide to use their retrievers in heavy ice, as jagged shards of ice can cut the webbing between a dog's pads, causing injury and pain. The dog should be kept out of the water between retrieves to prevent canine hypothermia, which can be fatal.
Obviously duck hunters themselves must prepare for freezing weather; spending hours upon hours in frozen conditions means the hunter must make some adjustments to his gear to cope with the weather and the ice.
Higher gauge neoprene waders make for added warmth in frigid conditions. Adding insulated decoy gloves keeps fingers warm and dry, and employing hand warmers adds bonus creature comfort. Most of a hunter's body heat escapes from the head and neck, so it's a good idea to be outfitted with neck coverings (not to mention a cap) and a hooded jacket to preserve body heat.
Keeping blind doors closed traps warm air, not to mention keeping hunters concealed. Since ducks prefer to land into the wind, hunters should keep the wind to their back.
Once ducks have identified the hole in the ice, they can be drawn to the newly-opened water like metal shards to a magnet. Snow, sleet and rain can actually benefit a hunter, making it harder for ducks to see a hidden group of hunters, and help decoy spreads seem more realistic.
These cloudy days eliminate shadows, making it easier for hunters to find ducks against a gray background. But the overcast conditions also make it easier for circling ducks to spot movement as they circle a decoy spread. Sunny days create shadows, and this helps the concealment process.
And when the steel starts flying, ice offers a few added benefits: Ice may help on a low or finishing shot, as pellets bounce off the ice and into the target.
Shooting a flying bird during icy conditions also works to the hunter's advantage: should a wounded bird crash onto the frozen surface, the impact can be as strong as a duck falling upon concrete — and the result dispatches them naturally.
When it's time to call it a day, hunters should remember to close any blind doors when leaving, as falling precipitation can accumulate in an open pit or blind, and any doors or windows can freeze in the open position.
Regardless of where they call home, even the most miserable of conditions can't keep the duck hunter from braving the elements and doing what they love.
And after a long day outside, it's a universal truth that a favorite beverage and a raging fire will soon be in order back at every duck camp.