Surviving the Elements of Duck Hunting

News & Tips: Surviving the Elements of Duck Hunting...

Duck hunters are well known for their sport in bad winter weather. Fact of the matter is, they often suffer out there; it's part of the sport. What many forget is that it can turn deadly. Get stuck out there in the elements, and wet, and it becomes a test of survival. Duck hunters have perished in the marsh, sometimes lots of them. For instance, a dozen scattered hunters died along the Gulf Coast during the December 1983 killer cold front. Many were stranded by an outgoing tide, and then a fast temperature drop brought on hypothermia.


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Classic jumping mallards — enough to stir the heart of any duck hunter.

So, it behooves many of today's new duck hunters  to be prepared. Taking a beating in the marsh is a cold slap of reality compared to watching reality TV in a cozy living room.


Generally, it's the big and rapid temperature swings that catch hunters off-guard in the marsh. A balmy day can turn cold and savage, and if you're under-dressed, it's time to seek shelter or go home. But if you're stuck out there, that's a problem. Reasons for getting stuck, or marooned, are many. A crab trap in the salt marsh wraps your propeller, and you don't have wire snips. Bad gasoline. A balky (maybe old) outboard motor. Low tide and no water. Waves too big to handle with a jon boat. Peasoup, blinding fog, though at least that kind of weather is warmer along the Gulf Coast.


I've been stranded a few times. Once, the wind shifted, the anchor dragged, and our heavy fiberglass bassboat was washed onto the beach, filled with water by waves hitting it. There was no way to move or re-launch it. We left our gear and walked/hunted three miles of marsh to the highway, and hitchhiked home. Even bagged a few ducks along the way. (And recovered that boat the following summer, discovered at a farm house nearby).


The possibilities for stranding are endless. Another time we hit an underwater sandbar in a shelter, small bay, while driving into a rising sun. Stuck for 17 hours in a heavy boat, until the tide rose a few inches. But we shot ducks; made a campfire at sunset; pulled out my little survival bag and cooked dinner; then slept under the stars in our chest waders, in the boat under a tarp. We were lucky, it was January on the Texas coast, balmy weather the first day and night. At 3 a.m. the tide rose a few inches and we escaped, driving the boat 15 miles back to town. Next morning, peasoup fog arrived and made boat navigation impossible. A few hours later the fog blew away, thanks to a wet cold front that arrived that afternoon. By then we were snug at home, never even got cold or wet during our night in the marsh.  


Luck and timing has much to do with duck hunting survival. Consider the fate of an estimated 82 duck hunters who died on a Monday, on Nov. 11, 1940. And consider the casualties, if the storm had arrived on a Saturday.


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Always be prepared for changing weather.

The weather that day was a balmy 50-60 degrees, nice weather for tough duck hunters in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Most of them  wore only simple canvas jackets of the day and hip boots. (There were no modern neoprene chest waders, or high-tech hunting clothes). Hunters that day didn't know that low pressure to the southwest (providing Gulf moisture, drizzle and a little wind) would collide with an Arctic norther — the two combining into a white-out blizzard that would bury cars and drivers, even cause a head-on collision with two nearby trains. As for local duck hunters, they were the most exposed of all, many of them having rowed to favorite spots along the Mississippi River and bottoms that, unfortunately, produced waves up to 5 feet by day's end. There was no way out. Fifty-knot winds, snow flying sideways, and a low of 9 degrees. Three ships that night were sunk on the Great Lakes with all hands lost, a preview of what would happen to the Edmund Fitzgerald on Nov. 10, 1975... Thirty-five years minus one day, into the future. (Beware early November storms).


Duck hunters that night in 1940 fought for survival, but many died. Those caught on exposed sandbars were overwhelmed by the waves. One survivor said, "Anyone who went out that day, fell in the water or got wet somehow, they were done. Hardly anyone could have survived that. The only thing that saved us is that we kept our clothing dry. The cold was bad enough but the wind was something else. It froze so hard that night that the next morning we walked over little ponds, one man in single file right behind the other."


Others huddled on islands with trees and built bonfires to stay alive. Those without firewood had to burn their hand-carved, cedar decoys. Next morning they found one hunter standing frozen in shallow ice, his hand still wrapped around a willow branch. They had to cut the branch, and bring it home with the hunter.


Boats were small back then, mostly wooden rowboats. Today's modern outboards and bigger, rugged, heavy-gauge aluminum jon boats would save a lot of people in a similar situation. The biggest hero during that tragic 1940 cold front was actually a pilot, Max Conrad of nearby Winona, who was already nationally known for his flying adventures. Next morning Conrad took off in 50-mph gusts, and spent the day dropping food, whiskey and cigarettes to stranded hunters only a few feet below. (The latter two of his donated items are considered of dubious value today when helping hypothermia cases, but this was 1940). His presence so close overhead gave new life to hunters who survived a long, cruel night. "I remember him flying over us," recalled one hunter. "I can't image how he managed to fly so low. He was just above the group, trying to look under tipped-over boats to see if anyone was underneath them."


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If you're hunting within hiking distance, the exercise will keep your warm in case of a cold-snap.

Luck and timing, with the weather. In our younger years we sped way back in the marsh in our small jon boats, and few if anyone knew where we were. There were no cell phones back then. We could have been marooned on hundreds of trips, but weren't; we always made it out. Our Texas weather was fickle, varying from 80 degrees with millions of mosquitoes, to cold, wet and very windy. When the killer cold front of 1983 arrived just before Christmas, I wasn't even in the marsh, but boarding a flight to Denver. More luck.  


That's why I recommend packing a survival bag in any duck-hunting boat. These bags can be small, just a zippered sports bag, really. Walk-in duck hunters don't need to carry the extra weight of a survival bag. They can almost always walk out of a bad situation; walking helps warm even a wet hunter. But if you can't walk out of the marsh, that's a problem.  


Thus the survival bag. Here's my list, refined somewhat after I actually spent the night out there, stranded, and used what I packed. You can find this stuff around the house:


Duck Hunting Survival Bag

  • Call phone in waterproof bag. (Just hope you have cell phone coverage in the marsh.)
  • New, folded 12-foot blue tarp. They're cheap, cut the wind and rain, and three or four people could huddle under one of this size.
  • Cans of soup. Hot, chunky soup can be a life-saver. Bring four. Sardines (Just a personal favorite). A can or two takes up little room and offers pure protein.
  • Hot sauce. The night we were stranded out there, the soup was too mild and needed flavoring.
  • Spoons. Nice, if you want to dish out that soup.
  • Chocolate. Fast energy. Maybe a bag of Snickers bars won't freeze as hard as dark chocolate.
  • Big water-proofed, kitchen matches. Best for throwing at and lighting up a gasoline-flavored pile of damp firewood.  
  • Fish hook. For inserting into your boat's gas hose clip. Insert hook, squeeze bulb and watch the gas fly. You can fill a coffee can this way with serious fire starter, and start a good fire even with damp wood.  
  • Coffee can. For bailing out the boat, boiling drinking water, carrying gasoline from the boat, or even mixing soup. (Preferably not all four with the same can.)
  • Lighters. Unlike matches, these may still function after getting wet.
  • Flashlight. For signaling rescuers.
  • Hand-held GPS. Report your exact position.
  • Irish snakebite medicine. Treating hypothermia with alcohol has fallen from fashion, but if you're sitting around a healthy campfire all night with a tarp...
  • Acetaminophen. Hard to sleep at night when you're aching, after pushing all day on that grounded, heavy boat.
  • Empty gallon jug with screw cap. What if the boat sinks? Duck hunting airboats, for instance, have little or no flotation, top-heavy with that airplane engine. The empty jug, closest to the zipper at the top of the bag, can be reached and inflated with one puff of air, if you're swimming. A gallon of air is a lot of flotation. Those cans of soup are heavy, but you want them to arrive with you on the shore.

Nobody wants to sit stranded in the marsh for several days during winter, when they were counting on a simple morning hunt. New hunters today should keep this in mind — and pack a bag of survival items, in case their situation turns tough.