Breaking the Ice: Mallards on the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
Breaking the Ice: Mallards on the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. Christopher Testani
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge
New York’s Montezuma National Wildlife refuge. Haisam Hussein

At the bow of the canoe, I dug my paddle into the last stretch of broken water and pushed hard toward the sheet ice. Rising up onto the frozen water, the boat teetered, as if deciding which way to tip. My stomach twisted, knowing the rest of me was going for a swim. As the canoe began to go over, I instinctively threw my arms over my head, paddle in the air. With that, a loud crack erupted under and before us. The ice broke, the boat settled, and I was still dry. I looked back at my buddy Clay Tietjen in the stern, his arms still in the air, and we had a good laugh. Behind us our friend Mike Bard and photographer Christopher Testani were in a 12-foot johnboat trying, and failing, to row forward. We bailed out of our boats into the waist-deep water, then pushed the johnboat forward, an improvised icebreaker smashing through the cattails.

national wildlife refuge sign
Welcome to Montezuma. Christopher Testani

Ice or not, we were determined to hunt this section of the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, just north of Cayuga Lake in New York’s Finger Lakes region. This patchwork of 10,000 federal acres is the first U.S. layover for more than 1 million Atlantic Flyway waterfowl on their fall migration south. Open to duck hunters every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday during the season, Mon­te­zuma requires a reservation, made three days prior to your hunt day. Once you’re in, refuge rules apply: no motors, only 15 shells per gun, and hunting stops at noon. These restrictions are why the place isn’t shot out, even now in late November, five weeks into the season. The only thing that pushes the ducks off Montezuma, in fact, is ice.

mike bard duck hunting
Mike Bard Christopher Testani

The four of us spun the johnboat in circles to break open a 20-yard kill hole. Once we set the decoys, we hid among the frosted cattails refracting the rose-colored sunrise. We’d made it in. Now, we just needed birds.

boatload of duck decoys
A boatload of dekes. Christopher Testani

History in the Making

Jesuit missionaries were among the first Europeans to explore the Finger Lakes, and they were stunned by all of the birds they found. “The sunlight over the marshes,” one of them wrote, “was shut off by clouds of ducks and geese.” To understand why this region was, and remains, so important to waterfowl, you need to consider its natural history: At the end of the last Ice Age—some 13,000 years ago—Lake Ontario was three times its current size and flooded into Cayuga and Oneida Lakes, a vast inland sea dubbed Glacial Lake Iroquois. Much of present-day Syracuse, N.Y., and Toronto was underwater. When the ice melted, Iroquois’s waters receded, leaving behind a massive wetland region—the historic Montezuma Swamp.

arranging duck decoys
The author and Tietjen get the decoys ready before first light. Christopher Testani

In mild winters, Montezuma Swamp became a massive wintering ground for waterfowl, and a central stopping ground in colder years for ducks and geese before they flew south. In 1937, as the swamp was drained for farms and shipping canals, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the foresight to save some of it for the birds, designating 6,432 acres as a migratory bird refuge.

clay tietjen and high flying ducks
Left: Clay Tietjen; Right: High fliers Christopher Testani

In the last 15 years, the refuge has grown by 60 percent, all of that new land bought with duck-stamp money. During a tour with refuge manager Tom Jasikoff, I got to see where some of that money has recently been spent—most notably at Hidden Marsh, a 1,000-acre addition that will be open to waterfowl hunters in 2018. An amphibious excavator sat waiting to work and a pair of bald eagles perched on a distant power line. Down the dike, a tractor bushhogged a dry field to be planted with native grasses in spring. “We’re not a bunch of bureaucrats,” Jasikoff says. “We like pushing dirt, not paper.”

michale r shea taking a shot at ducks
The author takes a shot. Christopher Testani

Getting Warmer

In the distance, we see ducks flying along the Seneca River, skirting our iced-out marsh, and feeding in “the mucks”—lowland cropfields across Route 31 planted thick with corn, now shelled and holding water, and drawing all our ducks. “They didn’t roost here with this ice,” Bard says. “But if it melts some, they could come back to loaf.”

duck and shotgun shells
One duck closer to a limit. Christopher Testani

Tietjen makes a call, and two drakes and a hen mallard bomb toward the decoys. Thirty yards out, they put on the brakes, cup their wings, and start to backpedal. I crumple the lead drake, then Bard and Tietjen shoot at the other two, but the birds keep going. By 10 a.m. on our little piece of wetland, the ice begins to melt. And here come the ducks.

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pair of wigeon ducks
A pair of wigeon. Christopher Testani

Twenty mallards swing overhead and commit. Bard and Tietjen take out the lead drake. Minutes later, seven birds zip in, and we kill a drake and a hen. “What’d I say?” Bard says. “Late morning, baby!” As if on cue, another hen cuts across the spread, and Tietjen sends the duck sailing into the cattails.

Tomorrow we’d hunt nearby state land, and the day after we’d be back here at Montezuma. But neither hunt would come close to the action we’re enjoying at this moment. As I wade in to pick up our ducks, another flock comes in but flares off before we can get into position. ­Tietjen calls, and the group swings toward him and over Bard, who downs another drake. “Nice shot,” I holler, before tucking back into the cattails.

We’d made it in. Now we had birds. And more were on the horizon.