Late season duck hunting could be the best hunting of the year. Slob hunters, sky busters, and other miscreants have moved on to other endeavors and ducks that haven’t traveled further south become somewhat patternable. So what’s between a die hard hunter and a loaded up duck strap? In many areas ice is the major obstacle.
The key is creating an attractive landing area by breaking ice. Some hunters bypass this by rigging up trolling motors or anything else that creates current to keep water moving overnight and hopefully prevent it from freezing. This strategy is unrealistic for most. The vast majority of hunters will have to open a hole when the mercury really drops.
Tactics to Breaking the Ice
The best way to do this is walking out on the ice in a circle. Start at the shoreline and break ice step-by-step. Be sure to step on top of the ice and not into the ice. Shards of ice can easily cut waders and send freezing cold water flowing in. Walk out about 25 feet then turn to continue the circle. If the water is too deep to stomp on top of the ice, bring along a sledge hammer or even an axe to continue busting open the hole. The goal is to have one big piece of ice in the center of the circle.
Once the circle is complete, stand at the shoreline, grab the big piece of ice, and start pushing. An extra pair of waterproof gloves, preferably cuff length, will come in handy. Pushing the ice as a team will help prevent the giant piece of ice from breaking as you shove it under the surrounding ice. If the sheet is too big to move, you may have to break it in half.
Be sure to push the ice downstream if hunting on a river. This prevents the ice sheet from flowing back into the hole and destroying your decoy spread. Bring along a fishing net to sweep up smaller pieces of ice left from breaking open the hole. Perfection isn’t required but the better it looks to you, the better it will look to approaching ducks.
If it’s really cold, keeping the hole open becomes the next chore. Quiver magnets do a great job of creating ripples on the water and preventing ice from forming. They don’t look quite right to the human eye but I have never seen waterfowl flare from them. Ducks really like to see moving water, especially when everything else is froze up. Three or four quiver magnets within the decoy spread will keep a 25-foot by 25-foot opening ice free in most cases. Pack some extra batteries if you plan to hunt more than a few hours.
Some diehard late-season hunters use old trolling motors attached to deep cell marine batteries. This method is effective but it’s more hardware to carry and it takes a bit more work to conceal the rig compared to quiver magnets.
Where there is open water, ducks will find it. In the Midwest, late season duck hunting is all about mallards. In cold weather, mallards hit the fields hard. They will gorge themselves with waste corn until they can eat no more. It’s common to find corn spilling out of the mouths of retrieved late season greenheads. Typically, these birds will land in the first water they come to. This makes scouting essential but if you find a good spot, corn stuffed late season mallards put their bright orange feet down without much coaxing.