Mallards on Montana’s Frozen Tundra

Flick retrieving a winter mallard

The frozen tundra is an over-used term, often describing late season football fields, particularly after the frozen, subzero NFL championship game in Green Bay in 1967. Still, as Flicka and I trudged our way across the snowy field, I couldn’t help but think frozen tundra.

A couple months earlier, the field was tall, green alfalfa. In January, that green field had been grazed down and this morning, after recent snowfalls and steady winds, the snow was an untracked arctic expanse. The wind put an extra edge to the subzero temperatures.

Hank, a neighbor when we lived in North Dakota, liked to hunt but he steadfastly refused to hunt ducks. “It’s too cold,” he’d whine. Yes, we’d have some chilly days when hunting ducks, but it would still be in October. Hunting ducks in eastern North Dakota was an October game because you could almost depend on a hard freeze in early November, and after the little potholes froze up the ducks didn’t have much choice but to get back in the air and resume journeys south.

I don’t know what Hank would say about trudging across frozen fields on frigid January mornings. He was around, but probably too young to appreciate at the time that his hometown of Parshall, North Dakota, set that state’s record low temperature of -60° F, set one frigid morning in February 1936, in a winter that set records for cold temperatures all over. By that standard, this January morning was shirtsleeve weather.

While it’s cold, billows of steam mark where a warm water creek goes across the field. On cold winter nights the warm water spring creeks of southwest Montana draw ducks like a magnet, with warm water, aquatic vegetation and a layer of tropical air just above the water’s surface. Still, after a week of cold weather, the question would be whether ducks were still in residence or if they had moved on.

I made a couple trips to this ranch in mid-December when things worked as they should and when Flicka, my black Labrador retriever and I approached the creek hundreds of mallards would flush. It’s a memorable sight, with the vivid blue and white markings of drake mallards sparkling in the morning sun.

Not this morning, however. As we approached the creek nothing happened. The ducks hadn’t come in to relax in their warm water spa, or at least not this one.

There are other ranches and other creeks, however.

On an approach to another creek we didn’t see ducks, though a red fox exploded out of creek-side cover and hightailed it for the hills. At another spot, a jackrabbit hopped away in a casual lope. At another creek the springs weren’t warm enough to keep the creek from freezing.

There was one creek left. Flicka and I made a wide swing across the field before making an approach to the creek near a line of willows. The snow near the creek was deep and powdery, where the brush slowed the wind and the snow could settle out. At first I didn’t think there were any ducks here either, but then a dozen mallards flushed from about 20 yards away. I tried to pick out a drake and then missed with my shot. Then another mallard drake left the water and this time I connected.

Flicka floundered a bit in the deep snow to get to the duck but she found the duck and brought it to me.

Occasionally, I wonder about some of these late season outings, driving an hour or so to get to these ranches where I have permission to hunt, and then trudging across snow-covered fields on the off chance there are still some ducks around and that I’ll be able to get within shotgunning range. Certainly, if I attempt calculating the cost of those roast duck dinners in coming months it’s hard to justify.

As of today, there are just a couple days left in the waterfowl season. I’d better get out and take one more look. It’s a long time until September.

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