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.

Waterfowl Season Comes to a Close

It’s a crisp, still morning in southwest Montana. The sun is up but not making much of a dent in the sub-zero temperatures. In short, it’s a perfect morning for duck hunting.

Clouds of steam and fog hang over the warm springs, marking likely spots where mallard ducks, those hardy, wary and, fortunately for hunters, delicious birds come in at night seeking warmth and open water after a day of feeding on area grain fields. It’s a dry winter, so far, so the fields are mostly brown. The rushes and brush along the springs and creeks are, however, a brilliant white from hoarfrost, sparkling in the morning sun.

Flicka, my black Labrador retriever, and I are approaching a warm spring pond where I’m hoping ducks are enjoying the balmy microclimate of warm air hanging over the steaming pond. We’d made another approach on a nearby creek earlier. Hundreds of mallards were in that creek, though were flushing out, far ahead. Cattle and sheep in the field were moving nervously, and the ducks took their cue from the livestock. Still, there were ducks that stayed tight until we got in shooting range and I managed to make a rare double on the flush, dropping a pair of mallards.

The ducks were on the pond, not disturbed by those earlier gun shots, and when we came close, the air filled with ducks, their green heads and blue wing markings shimmering in the sun. I have a sorry record when it comes to shooting when there are a lot of birds in the air and this was no exception. I emptied my gun and the birds flew away unharmed. I thought I had picked out individual greenhead mallard drakes, but, if results are a true indicator, my focus was evidently on the flock.

That’s how the morning went. I made a couple more sneaks on other ranches and on one walk, I dropped a duck with my first shot but when I looked for another mallard drake, the rest of the birds were already out of range. On yet another sneak, I again came in just right, and, again, filled the air with shot without positive results.

I suppose I could have gone home that day feeling frustrated about the whole business, but I couldn’t help smiling.

If my shooting lacked accuracy, it wasn’t that big a deal. I still went home with three prime mallard ducks, and after I’d finished plucking feathers from three ducks I felt no need to pluck more. Moreover, from the perspective of whether this was a successful hunt, it was one of those days when almost everything went right. The cold weather concentrated the ducks on the little warm-water spring creeks and my hunting strategies put me in shooting range when the ducks flushed, and Flicka was elated to be able to make a few more retrieves before we came to the end of the season.
The waterfowl season, the last of the general hunting seasons, is now over, marking the end of almost five months of hunting, starting with chasing blue grouse in early September, moving on to ruffed grouse, pheasants, deer, and waterfowl. Flicka and I have walked mountainsides, wetlands and prairies from western Montana to western North Dakota and back again. We’ve had hunting thrills, along with a moment of sheer terror when Flicka got in the path of a car back in November. Yet, here we are in January, finishing up the waterfowl season with a flourish.

In short, I’m content. I’m hoping for a lot of new snow for skiing. It’s time to do some flytying, and to get going on a rod rehabilitation project. I want to try some new recipes for cooking wild game. The days are getting longer and on some mild afternoons I’ll probably sneak out for some flyfishing. Maybe I’ll try to organize a spring turkey hunt, but in any event the next hunting season is just over eight months away. We’ll figure out something to do while we wait for September.