The Ice Men

FROST­BITE. WIND CHILL. FROZEN ROADS AND DRIFT­ING SNOW. WHEN WIN­TER CON­DI­TIONS ARE AT THEIR WORST, DUCK AND DEER HUNTERS KNOW THE AC­TION CAN BE RED-HOT

Outdoor Life - - HUNTING - by Gerry bethge

As the sun set, the snow flew— first in flur­ries, fol­lowed by blind­ing sheets of white. My 4Run­ner—in 4WD low— strug­gled to climb Wurts­boro moun­tain on Route 17 in New York’s Catskills, vis­i­bil­ity through the iced-up wind­shield tee­ter­ing be­tween low-beam blur and nonex­is­tent. An inch per hour or 2 inches per hour—lo­cal ra­dio sta­tions could not con­firm. The gen­eral firearms sea­son in the state’s most heav­ily hunted deer unit had just ended, and open­ing day of the mid-de­cem­ber muz­zleloader sea­son would ar­rive at dawn. I had to get to camp. Although five of us were sched­uled to hunt, only my buddy Ralph Stu­art and I made it to camp in what was a bona fide ice storm. Tem­per­a­tures were in the teens, winds reached 50 mph, and the sleet just kept on fall­ing. Our wood­stove never suc­ceeded in warm­ing up the cabin that night, and though dawn broke with clear skies, the limb-crack­ing winds never sub­sided.

“Let’s go,” Stu­art said shortly af­ter sunup. “We need to do it, for no other rea­son than to say that we did it. This is deer-killing weather. We are the Ice Men.”

I, frankly, thought that he had lost his mind. Although the ice and snow had quit at 15 inches, the wind had not. Through the win­dows at camp, I could see tree branches crash­ing in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Nev­er­the­less, Stu­art headed west and I headed east on what was to be the most mem­o­rable deer hunt ei­ther of us has ever had. Af­ter sev­eral muz­zleloader mis­fires, Stu­art filled his tag by noon. I, too, had sev­eral mal­func­tions and then filled my tag at four in the af­ter­noon.

Wisconsin wa­ter­fowl guide

Jeremy Der­sham and New York deer hunter Joe Denitto have earned the ti­tle of Ice Men, too, be­ing hunters who don’t just en­dure harsh late­sea­son con­di­tions, but in­ten­tion­ally seek out the cold, the snow, the ice, and the wind. Why? Be­cause they are con­fi­dent that the worst of times weather-wise can be the best of times to hunt. Reeds­burg, Wis., wa­ter­fowl guide Jeremy Der­sham is re­minded of the risks and re­wards of late-sea­son duck hunt­ing each morn­ing that he backs down the boat ramp in Fer­ryville, Wis., on the Mis­sis­sippi River’s famed Pool 9. There, a plaque memo­ri­al­iz­ing the wa­ter­fowlers who died in the calami­tous Ar­mistice Day storm of 1940 serves as a con­stant re­minder of what can hap­pen on the big wa­ter.

“It was, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, a hur­ri­cane,” wrote Chris Mad­son in “The Day the Duck Hunters Died,” in the Fe­bru­ary 1984 is­sue of Out­door Life. “The baro­met­ric pres­sure at La Crosse, Wisconsin, dropped to 28.73 inches. When the wind struck La Crosse at 3 p.m., the mer­cury stood at 54 de­grees. About 16 hours later, it hov­ered at nine. It was the kind of shoot­ing that makes a duck hunter for­get the cut of the wind. All along the up­per Mis­sis­sippi, wa­ter­fowlers rev­eled in it—for a while. By the time they ap­pre­ci­ated the real fe­roc­ity of the storm, many of them were com­mit­ted to stay­ing where they were. There were many places on the river where no hu­man be­ing could sur­vive. A few hunters found them­selves in such places.”

“Mother Na­ture caught hun­dreds of duck hunters on the Ar­mistice Day hol­i­day,” wrote Gor­don Mac­quar­rie, then the out­doors ed­i­tor of the Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal. “She promised ducks in the wind. The ducks came and men died. They died un­der­neath up­turned skiffs. They died sit­ting in skiffs. They died stand­ing in river wa­ter to their hips. And they died try­ing to help each other.”

More than 85 duck hunters died in Wisconsin, Min­nesota, and Illi­nois dur­ing the Ar­mistice Day storm.

“There is no ex­plain­ing the lure of such a day to some­one who hasn’t ex­pe­ri­enced it,” wrote Mad­son. “There is the shoot­ing, of course. But the main at­trac­tion is far deeper.”

“That plaque re­minds you,” says 37-year-old Der­sham. “I think about it a lot, and have read sto­ries about it. I think about it more late in the sea­son, when con­di­tions are at their worst and we’re break­ing ice all day to hunt ducks. Pool 9 isn’t nec­es­sar­ily deep, but it’s one of the widest points on the river—2.7 miles. It’s also one of the most dan­ger­ous spots on the river. The gear has changed since then, but the dan­gers are there. Duck hunters die here ev­ery year.”

The main at­trac­tion Mad­son re­ferred to in his piece runs deep in Der­sham, too. “When ice-up oc­curs, the bird ac­tiv­ity can be astro­nom­i­cal—lim­its in a short pe­riod of time,” Der­sham says. Plus, late-sea­son mal­lards, gold­eneyes, and can­vas­backs are in their best plumage of the year—tro­phy birds. What’s even better for him, though, are the sights and sounds of late-sea­son.

“There’s noth­ing quite like head­ing out and see­ing ice­fish­er­men sit­ting on their buck­ets catch­ing fish, or trap­pers walk­ing around in the marsh check­ing their line,” says Der­sham. “There are the bald ea­gles, and then there’s the creak­ing and crack­ing of the river mak­ing ice. It’s spe­cial—but there are de­tails to keep in mind no mat­ter where you’re hunt­ing late­sea­son wa­ter­fowl.”

READ THE CON­DI­TIONS

▪ Pay­ing close at­ten­tion to the hourly fore­cast and the lo­cal con­di­tions is para­mount to Der­sham’s late-sea­son-hunt­ing plan.

“Weather cre­ates chaos, but what I’m ide­ally look­ing for is a 15 to 20 mph north­west wind with ei­ther sun or snow,” he says. “From where I set up, I want some­thing to get into the birds’ eyes. I keep the sun to my back or side so that the birds can’t pick us out—any­thing to keep the shine off of the de­coys. Snow is ob­vi­ously better.

“The wa­ter and birds are go­ing to tell you what to do,” he says. “If the wa­ter is mak­ing ice faster than you can break it, your hunt is go­ing to be short. Pay close at­ten­tion to the chan­nels be­com­ing lodged with ice and what your boat can go through safely. The same goes for ice al­ready formed north of you and melt­ing off when the tem­per­a­ture hits the 40s. Be pre­pared for ice to be mov­ing down and what your course of ac­tion is go­ing to be to get out safely.”

If the birds are not do­ing what you want them to do, make ad­just­ments to your spread. When there is ice on the river, Der­sham typ­i­cally uses mi­cro spreads of no more than two dozen de­coys. He sets his full-body dekes on the ice shelf and up to six floaters in the open wa­ter. Late sea­son is also the time for con­ser­va­tive call­ing.

“There’s no need to scream on a call,” says Der­sham. “In these con­di­tions, the birds want to get down. A few greet­ing calls and soft chuck­les should do it. The birds will tell you.

“The im­por­tance of read­ing both the river and the birds dur­ing real-time mo­ments and mak­ing ad­just­ments ac­cord­ingly will make for a safe and suc­cess­ful trip,” he says. “The river can change at a mo­ment’s no­tice—pay close at­ten­tion to what she’s telling you.” It was a les­son he learned the hard way three years ago.

LOCKED IN

▪ “That late sea­son, the tem­per­a­ture never got above freez­ing for five days straight,” says Der­sham. “The river was mak­ing ice con­stantly, and as I of­ten have to do, I used an ax and a hatchet to break ice to get out. We went right at day­break and set up off the main chan­nel. Within an hour, the boat was frozen solid

to the point. It was pretty steady shoot­ing, and in two hours we had our lim­its.”

Con­cern set in quickly as Der­sham set out to col­lect his de­coys.

“I was an ici­cle,” he says. “It took me 45 min­utes to break enough ice with my hatchet to get out of there, which is when I no­ticed that my buddy Dar­ryl was not re­spond­ing to me. His hands were freez­ing up and he was pale. And the ice was re­freez­ing as fast as I was break­ing it.”

The sit­u­a­tion turned bleak when Der­sham re­al­ized that the propane line to his heater had frozen solid, as had the dis­charge hose on his out­board. With tem­per­a­tures in the teens and ice lock­ing them in tighter by the mo­ment, the pair were es­sen­tially trapped al­most 2 miles from the boat ramp.

“That’s when I went for my big ther­mos of cof­fee,” says Der­sham. “I poured it in the pee-hole dis­charge of the out­board and fi­nally got it thawed enough to start the en­gine. It took a while, and I had to break some se­ri­ous ice on the way back in, but we made it.”

By the time Der­sham se­cured his duck boat to the trailer, the truck cab’s heater had kicked in enough to help Dar­ryl re­gain both his wits and the feel­ing in his hands and feet. Driv­ing past the Ar­mistice Day me­mo­rial had never seemed more poignant.

With a har­vest den­sity of just one­half deer per square mile in some units, New York’s Adiron­dack Re­gion may be the most dif­fi­cult re­gion of the coun­try in which to hunt white­tails. There are few roads to drive and fewer trails to walk in the vast, forested moun­tains. And your chances of even see­ing a deer, let alone a buck, are low. But that suits New York dairy farmer Joe Denitto just fine.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that catch­ing up to and shoot­ing an Adiron­dack buck is harder than it is in Maine or north­ern Ver­mont and New Hamp­shire,” says Denitto. “But when you get a killing day, there’s

no other place I’d rather be. When the weather and the con­di­tions are per­fect—when the snow is right— I know I can be within 200 yards of a ma­ture buck 8 out of 10 days. Heck, we own a 1,000-acre farm and I don’t even hunt it. I pre­fer the Adiron­dacks. It’s where you’ve got the abil­ity to change your own sit­u­a­tion. You don’t have to worry that the buck you’re af­ter is al­ready hang­ing in some­one’s garage or has been hit by a car. And I’m not con­cen­trat­ing on a spe­cific deer—i’m chas­ing snow.”

The 52-year-old’s record speaks for it­self. From 1996 to 2008, Denitto shot 12 bucks six years old or better. Seven of those were taken his first day on the track.

KILLING DAYS

▪ Among hunters in the up­per Mid­west and the North­east, deer track­ers are looked upon with rev­er­ence; their craft is con­sid­ered to be al­most mys­ti­cal for its im­plau­si­bil­ity. For Denitto, how­ever, it’s all pretty sim­ple—any­one can track a buck and ev­ery­one should try it.

“I’m not for a minute sug­gest­ing that any­one give up their bow or their tree­stand or their ground blind,” he says. “All I’m say­ing is that when the right weather hits and the snow flies, go out there and do it for a day.”

Ide­ally, that day should fall late in the sea­son. There should be 2 or 3 inches of snow on the ground that’s been re­freshed by a cou­ple of inches overnight.

“Some hunters think that bliz­zard con­di­tions are per­fect,” says Denitto. “In a way that’s true, be­cause the deer can’t smell you, have a hard time see­ing you, and can’t hear you. But I don’t like it. When the snow is hang­ing on branches and trees and then drop­ping off or blow­ing around, it cuts your vis­i­bil­ity a lot. Then if the tracks get cov­ered up in snow too quickly, you can’t tell when they were made.”

The rut cy­cle is im­por­tant, too. Bucks are only “catch­able,” ac­cord­ing to Denitto, in ei­ther the pre-rut, when they have does on their mind but aren’t quite hell-bent on find­ing them, and late in the sea­son, when they are try­ing to re­gain en­ergy stores to sur­vive the up­com­ing win­ter.

“Dur­ing the rut, they’re just mov­ing out and have a one-track mind,” he says. “I re­mem­ber one time I picked up a rut track that was no more than an hour old, and by the end of the day, he’d gained an hour on me—he was just mov­ing out try­ing to find a doe. That’s a tough deal.”

So how do you fig­ure out pre­cisely what a buck is go­ing to do? Denitto’s sim­ple ex­pla­na­tion erases track­ing’s mystique.

“I like to put it into terms that are easy to un­der­stand,” he says. “Big bucks are like a guy com­ing home from work. He gets in his truck, jumps on the high­way—maybe he fol­lows some girls for a bit—but then he gets off the ramp. He may go right, he may go left, but he’s ba­si­cally look­ing for a lit­tle some­thing to eat. Well, that’s what a buck is do­ing late in the sea­son.

“Then you get home. What’s the first thing you do? You head for the re­frig­er­a­tor for some­thing to eat. That’s what a buck does, too. He may eat some buds, browse on some branch tips for a bit, or maybe take a bite of a mush­room. What do you do af­ter you eat? You’re go­ing to hit the couch or the bed. It’s com­pletely pre­dictable, and bucks are pre­dictable in the same way.

“When I see him take a few bites to eat and then go ei­ther left or right, that’s the open­ing that I need. I be­come a mov­ing tree­stand—take a step ev­ery few min­utes and try to catch him off guard or in his bed.”

When it comes to choos­ing the best scent elim­i­na­tion, best track size, or bear­ings in the big woods, Denitto is equally prag­matic.

“All that is pretty sim­ple, too,” he says. “I don’t worry about scent. When you’re on the track in the woods, that buck will take you in all sorts of di­rec­tions. Ide­ally, you want the wind in your face, but it doesn’t al­ways work out that way. When it comes to track size, if I don’t say, ‘Holy sh$%,’ when I see a track, I don’t fol­low it. In terms of get­ting lost? Well, I walk the ridges away from the truck un­til noon. If I’ve not found a track to fol­low, then I head right or left, ba­si­cally in a big cir­cle. I have a com­pass, a map, and a flash­light so that I can read the com­pass. Even if I’m drag­ging a buck be­hind me, I’ll get out.”

ANY­ONE CAN TRACK A BUCK, AND EV­ERY­ONE SHOULD TRY IT.

jeremy der­sham (be­low) is one of five out­fit­ters on Pool 9 on the up­per mis­sis­sippi river; one of his clients (above) with a day’s mixed bag.

a tough day’s brace of ducks taken by wa­ter­fowlers aboard jeremy der­sham’s lan­dau 1680 semi-cus­tom­ized duck boat. the craft’s 100-inch-wide beam Pro­vides added sta­bil­ity in rough con­di­tions.

marcy, new york’s joe denitto (above) drags out— and shows off—a ma­ture adiron­dack buck.

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