“When the mercury begins the day between zero and freezing, it becomes reasonable to expect productive shooting over decoys.”
Author E. Donnall Thomas, Jr. in the book Fool Hen Blues
This month’s run of frigid weather — including low temperature readings between 0 and 8 degrees earlier this week — has caused me to do some thinking, especially as plenty of reports of good Texomaland duck hunting have rolled in.
In particular, I’ve been thinking about hunting the proverbial Siberian Express, a meteorological term that describes extremely frigid air pushing into North America. And it also describes the weather conditions that can bring the kind of epic late season waterfowl hunting action that significant Arctic cold fronts can bring as they roar down the Great Plains into the Red River Valley.
One such cold weather siege came years ago as a passion for waterfowling and outdoor writing began to take serious root in the heart, mind, and soul of this then high school senior at Denison High School.
Hoping for a late season push of greenhead mallards into the peanut farming rich region that the Red River Valley was back then, Old Man Winter came calling.
Boy, did he ever.
As school prepared to break for the 1983 Christmas holidays, a mid-December snowstorm rolled into town, a storm that deposited four to six inches of the white stuff across the North Texas landscape.
And right on the heels of that December snow came a series of record breaking cold fronts that plunged the region into the deep freeze…quite literally, I might add.
By the time the cold weather finally abated in early January 1984, nearly 300 consecutive hours of below freezing weather — pipe splitting, water main busting, lake freezing cold — had been recorded in the Texoma area as well as at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
So cold was the weather during that frigid span that all of the ponds and small lakes I had access to duck hunt on were frozen over several inches thick.
And as hard as it might be to believe today, the cold weather hardened a significant portion of the mighty Lake Texoma too. In fact, so thick was the ice at one spot that my pals and I tried on the big reservoir that the three of us couldn’t break ice to set out the decoy spread.
Truth is, we couldn’t even get it to crack, effectively spelling the end of duck season until the weather finally warmed up.
But that wasn’t true for everyone during that epic Arctic blow.
The late Max Eggleston, the longtime outdoor scribe for the Sherman Democrat, was able to use his big fishing boat to safely push out onto Lake Texoma where he found some open shoreline water and ridiculously easy shooting for limits of greenheads.
In fact, I still have in my possession an Eggleston article that I clipped from the paper that described his hunting success during the sudden Texoma Ice Age…and the pleasant aroma of roasting mallards wafting from his kitchen oven as he penned that column.
Max wasn’t the only one who found easy shooting during that epic cold stretch. My longtime duck hunting pal, Jim Lillis of Sherman also found duck hunting that most hunters can only dream about.
Launching his airboat onto the ice, the retired senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited and his hunting partners at the time, slid across the hardened water for several miles until they finally found what they were looking for. And that was a spot of water kept open along the Red River channel by hundreds of hungry mallards feeding in nearby peanut fields.
For several days, Lillis and his cronies couldn’t drive the ducks out of that hole, shooting easy limits of tasty mallard drakes, then settling back to drink steaming hot coffee and to watch the incoming aerial show.
Why the easy shooting?
“Anytime you’ve got ice out on these lakes, the rivers attract good numbers of these birds because of the open, flowing water,” said Lillis.
While most waterfowlers think of first light as the optimum time to shoot ducks over decoys, Mr. Duck as he is known to many of his friends, indicated that mallards will often feed at first light in nearby fields during such bitterly cold conditions before moving back onto the river around mid-morning.
The exception to such a rule is when there are clear, cold nights during a full moon phase.
When that happens, Lillis said that hunters must be set up on a river well before dawn since the mallards will feed in the bright moonlight before returning at daybreak to loaf and water along sandbars.
If river hunting is not your cup of tea — and it isn’t for many locals since an airboat or shallow drive motor is usually a necessity on the shallow flowing streams of North Texas and southern Oklahoma — you’re not necessarily out of luck.
Why? Because if you can’t find open water during a cold Siberian siege, make some…using an old baseball or softball bat.
Instead of breaking the ice up into a jillion little sparkling pieces — which can spook wary late season ducks flying overhead — use the bat to break out a rectangular seam that will allow you to break the ice into large sheets that can be easily slid under the remaining ice shelf.
If the ice is too thin to do so, then bust it up and bring an old leaf rake to rake the shards of ice out of the water.
Then muddy the water up good, toss in a few decoys — including a few loafing on the ice itself — and get ready for some sizzling red-hot wingshooting.
Because when it comes to Old Man Winter’s icy breath roaring across the Red River Valley in bone numbing fashion, there are few things that can warm up the chilly soul of a duck hunter quicker than the sight of a flock of greenheads suddenly backpedaling into the decoys.
If you find that happening over the remaining few days of the 2017-18 duck season, all that’s left to do is to steady the retriever, silently snap the safety off on your shotgun, and get ready for a limit of greenhead quackers.
On ice, that is.