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Lynn Burkhead — Winter siege brings back cold outdoors memories

Herald Democrat
As one of the worst stretches of winter weather in years threatens Texomaland, the cold wave and forecasted snowfall are of little comfort to area hunters since most hunting seasons are now closed. But that doesn't mean that local outdoors enthusiasts can't reminisce about other times when Old Man Winter brought about some great duck hunting action here in the Red River Valley as snow fell and thermometer plunged.

Thanks to the current cold snap, these are the times that can try the souls of a Texomaland outdoors enthusiast.

The current wintry assault — which is forecast to get much worse early next week with low temperatures possibly approaching the zero degree mark along with prospects for a good snowstorm — will certainly put the brakes on any good bass fishing action around the Texomaland area for some time to come.

And the current opening of Creation’s refrigerator door will do little to boost the morale of Texomaland quacker backers even as new flocks of waterfowl push into the area. Why is that? There are lots of ducks moving in from the north…two weeks after duck season closed down for the year.

So, what’s left to do here in the Red River Valley as cabin fever creeps in over the next few days and the firewood pile dwindles? For yours truly, the plan is to pull out a favored venison chili recipe, keep the wood burning stove supplied with fresh logs, read the outdoor works of an author like Gordon MacQuarrie or Gene Hill and do a little fireside reflecting.

That reflecting will likely center around previous cold weather blitzes that have produced some good hunting and fishing action. That includes a long ago duck hunt after a cold and snowy spell moderated, an epic goose hunt near a Panhandle playa lake as a cold wave eased, a memorable Rolling Plains deer hunt after a snowstorm, and even a late season quail hunt after snow and ice had blanketed the ground.

And there will certainly be a few thoughts about one of the state’s most infamous winter weather episodes, the freeze in December 1983. That blue norther was a true-blue Siberian Express, one that froze the local landscape even as it warmed up my budding hunter’s heart for the sport of duck hunting.

A senior at Denison High School, I was only a few years into my duck hunting career, hoping for a late season push of greenhead mallards into the numerous peanut fields that were found across Grayson County and the rest of the Texoma region back in those days.

As school prepared to break for the 1983 Christmas holidays, the historic siege of winter weather began when a mid-December snowstorm rolled into town, a storm that deposited four to six inches of white powder 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 record cold spell 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 Lake Texoma too. Big Mineral Arm was essentially frozen over and only the big expanses of deep water out in the middle of the lake stayed ice free.

In fact, so thick was the ice at one of my duck hunting spots on the lake that my pals and I couldn’t break it as we endeavored to set out a 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 in early January.

But not everyone was shut down during that epic Arctic blow. In fact, 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 duck shooting during that stretch of subfreezing weather. As I’ve noted here before, my longtime duck hunting pal, Jim Lillis of Sherman, also found duck hunting action that most hunters can only dream about.

Launching his boat in the frigid conditions, the retired senior regional director for Ducks Unlimited and his hunting partners at the time, would find their way to a carefully scouted hunting spot. At one such honey hole, 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.

“I remember that we would put in at one of the main ramps up on the Oklahoma side of the lake to the east of Hickory Creek,” said Lillis.

Lillis — who regularly guided duck hunters on the side when his job at Anderson Clayton would allow—would put in and run back to an absolute duck hunting Nirvana on the upper end of the reservoir.

“We had found an ice free hole back in there that the ducks were keeping open,” he said. “It was near the river channel, which remained open even though the whole back end of the lake was frozen. There were just a few little pockets of open water, but where they were, the ducks were there.”

At one point, so iced up was the lake that Lillis and his hunting partners slid across the lake in an air boat, using the big rig as a floating blind once they reached the spot that the ducks refused to leave.

“If you could find open water, you had a gold mine because the vast majority of the shallow water on the lake was frozen up,” said Lillis. “We shot a lot of ducks up there and also on the Red River north of Bonham, often bagging ducks that you wouldn’t ordinarily see down here like goldeneyes, buffleheads, hooded mergansers, etc.”

The open spot on the upper end of the lake during that stretch of cold weather remains one of his all-time favorite duck blind locations because the mallards flocked in with little abandon.

“The ice was really thick up there around the Lebanon boat ramp, and all the way to the back end of Lebanon and Hickory Creek, it was just solid ice” said Lillis. “Sliding across that ice in my air boat was pretty loud — there’s not much chance an old metal airboat sliding across the ice won’t be pretty loud — and you could hear the ice cracking as we drove across.”

Lillis also put in at Slickum Slough and said that for most of the upper end of Texoma, the ice was up to four or five inches thick. That made for fabulous greenhead shooting as the ducks flushed out of the spot when the boat approached, circled while the decoys were being set, and then decoyed back in as the shooting began. Limits were child’s play in that setting and took only a few minutes to bag.

As the freeze on the lake deepened and eventually silenced that hole, Lillis and his hunting friends shifted to the flowing waters above and below Texoma on the Red River. One such spot north of Bonham produced some epic hunts.

“They would fly out into the surrounding peanut fields and feed heavily at first light, then come back to the open water that was flowing in the river later that morning,” he said. “We took a tremendous number of mallards on those hunts, easy limits that I remember to this day. There was still a lot of peanut farming in this area back then and the shooting would have rivaled anything you could have found in Stuttgart.

“And it didn’t even take a big decoy spread, either. You’d find an open hole of slack water, put out a couple of dozen G&H floaters on the water and field decoys on the sand bars, and those mallards would just pile in.”

Better yet, the duck hunting followed banker’s hours, meaning that you didn’t have to be there at the crack of dawn since the birds would leave the river, go out into the fields to feed, and return to water and loaf around 9 or 9:30 a.m.

“Man, was that fun,” recalled Lillis. “Their old craws would be loaded up with peanuts.”

The current cold snap might not offer the chance to repeat such unrivaled shooting since the duck season is closed. But remembering is almost as fun, no matter how cold it gets outside.