Winter Ice Jams and One Last Duck Hunt

The last retrieve of the season.

“Something we hydrologists occasionally forget is that water isn’t always a liquid.”

That was something a now-deceased hydrologist and friend of a neighbor liked to point out concerning the occasional problems that frozen water, better known as ice, causes. Recent ice jams at Twin Bridges and Ennis are cases in point.

This time of year, I frequently go through the community of Twin Bridges on my way to and from some of my duck hunting spots (and that is as specific as I’ll get as to just where I hunt those ducks). As always, it’s interesting to see what happens when winter hits western Montana and some of those rivers, such as the Jefferson and Beaverhead, start freezing.

The town of Twin Bridges was built right on the banks of the Beaverhead, including some businesses and the local high school that are just feet away from the river. Fortunately, the banks on the other side of the river are a bit lower so when there’s high water, the river can spread out without causing catastrophic damage.

A couple weeks ago I went through and everything looked normal. The river was flowing along with patches of slush ice on the surface. On the west side of the river there is a small park and rest area on the north side of the highway and the Madison County Fairgrounds on the south side.  Every December a low spot in that little park is flooded to create an outdoor skating rink.

In most years skating doesn’t last long, as there are usually warm spells in early January that turn the rink into slush. If you’re a skater, you have to get out there and enjoy it during the short period before the ice melts.

It was a surprise when the flooding on the Beaverhead due to ice jams downstream from Twin Bridges became the hot news a couple weeks ago. The flooding would have happened a day after I was there when everything looked normal.

My last duck trip of the season came after several days of warm weather gave the ice a chance to break up and let the water recede, though subzero weather had returned on that hunting day. In the morning the river was running pretty much normally. By noon, the ice floes had merged again and the water was again rising.

Ironically, the skating rink was closed, this time because the park was iced over. The ice rink was under a couple feet of water and new ice. Benches poking up above the ice marked where skaters might have taken a break a couple weeks earlier. The good news was that the ice rink was dramatically larger than usual. The bad news, of course, is that the new ice is unsafe; otherwise there’d be enough ice for an Olympic racing oval.

All this underscores problems humans create when they build communities next to rivers, seemingly without worrying about what might happen when streams go over their banks.

If those ice floes cause problems, they also create opportunities. In fact, when it comes to duck hunting, I depend on river ice to move ducks off the rivers and onto the warm water spring creeks I hunt.

 As the season winds down duck numbers drop as more and more ducks decide there must be better places to spend the winter than Montana. Still, on that last mid-January hunt Flicka, my faithful Labrador retriever, and I managed to get within shooting range of a small bunch of ducks and Flicka happily swam across a warm pond to retrieve one last drake mallard to end our season. After a couple minutes, Flicka was frosted with ice that formed on her coat in the zero degree temperatures. I doubt she even noticed that it was cold outside.

The hunting season is over. It has been a long time since those hot days of early September to January’s deep freeze, but it went all too quickly. It’s time to clean guns and equipment and put things away for the season. It’s time, and I’m content.

Just try convincing Flicka

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.