The thin sheet of ice crackled beneath the aluminum johnboat carrying three heavily clothed hunters, one eager young Labrador retriever and dozens of duck decoys from the sandy launch point to the blind several hundred yards away.
Former Marine Sgt. Dwayne Germer, a 30-year-old Pennsylvanian and a game warden at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., relished the opportunity to get in a little late-season waterfowling with best hunting buddy Jeff Depuy, a native Vermonter now living in the Old Dominion. Depuy's Lab, Titan, was an enthusiastic partner in the duo's duckin' expedition.
Germer had been a Marine machine gunner by trade before sliding into the game warden position; he left active duty last fall. He's been a deer hunter since age 9, but game wardens don't get a lot of deer-hunting time with thousands of hunters to monitor and vast acres to patrol when deer season is open.
Post-deer season, though, is prime duck-hunting time, and Germer enthusiastically began learning the ways of the waterfowler under Depuy's tutelage on numerous quests for quackers along the fertile rivers and creeks of Northern Virginia.
Luckily, the water in front of the blind appeared free of ice. Several ducks could be heard making a hasty departure as we angled the boat toward shore.
The late season brings in a smorgasbord of shooting opportunities, from puddle ducks such as mallards, gadwall, pintails, wigeon and black ducks, to divers such as ringnecks, redheads, scaup and what some consider the "king of all ducks," the canvasback.
Like most trained retrievers, Titan is well-mannered. Sporting a neoprene hunting garment to retain heat around his vital organs, he sat cooperatively while the boat picked through the icy waters. But as soon as the boat slid onto the log-strewn beach, he eagerly leapt ashore and raced around, bleeding off energy.
Germer and Depuy, clad in heavily insulated chest waders, donned neoprene gloves and began splashing through the water in front of the blind, setting out the decoy spread.
"You can actually break a little sweat getting the spread set, even in these cold temperatures," Germer said.
The puddle-duck decoys were scattered to the left, with a pocket of divers to the right. A long string of "cans" (canvasbacks) was arrayed at the outer perimeter, between 30 and 40 yards out.
In the blind, ice quickly formed on the waders, the dog's coat and anything else that touched water. A small propane cylinder-fired heater, along with a container of hot coffee, took the edge off the frozen dawn.
Most folks would want to be home huddled with blankets at their chins on a morning like this. Not duck hunters; the promise of frigid weather driving migrating birds gets them salivating.
"I think duck hunters are twice as dedicated to their sport," Germer said. "There's nothing like being in a duck blind -- the camaraderie being with friends, watching the sun rise, seeing the birds fly and then work toward the decoys, and then watching the dogs retrieve once you get a bird."
Ducks began moving back and forth over the open water of the river's channel. The rising sun warmed the air, and the slight breeze upgraded to a steady northwest wind. Along with the changing tide, the elements worked to break up the massive sheets of ice on the river.
"This usually results in problems," Depuy said, referring to how floating ice can get caught in the decoys, messing up the spread and even carrying away decoys and downed birds in the current.
A solo duck suddenly flew in, and the hunters popped up shooting. The mallard splashed down hard, and Titan launched from the blind to seek the feathered prize. It became clear, however, that the dog could not maintain sight of the duck over the waves and was struggling to complete his mission in the frigid water. The wind and current carried the duck farther offshore, and Depuy called the dog back.
Leaving his shotgun in the blind, Depuy headed out after the duck himself, eventually catching the bird just as the water started to lap over the top of his chest waders.
Back in the blind to thaw out, the friends reached into a paper sack and hauled out nearly frozen honey buns.
"It's a tradition anytime we get the first bird in the bag," Germer said with a laugh as he wolfed down the pastry.
Germer next bagged a gorgeous drake wigeon, its late-season plumage in full splendor. The duck was laid on a tree behind the blind.
A pair of gadwalls then fell to the roar of 12-gauge shotguns. But when the ducks were being added to the birds behind the blind, something was amiss. The wigeon was gone without a trace, and it likely didn't walk away on its own. Theories abounded: coyote, fox or raccoon.
Our goal for the morning was a drake canvasback. Small flocks of the birds paraded 100 yards away up and down the river all morning, but only one group came over for a look. The big ducks were just teasing and stayed well out of gun range.
A solo hen goldeneye rounded out the shooting before Germer called it a day.
Hauling in the decoys is always bittersweet. It's a key part of the duck-hunting process, but it also means the morning is over and other duties loom.
While knocking ice off the decoys and winding the lines around the plastic birds, Germer stared out at the deep blue of the river reflecting the color of the winter sky. Plumes of steam from the Possum Point power plant struggled to gain altitude, rising before hitting some unseen thermal boundary and breaking off horizontally.
"It doesn't get much better than this," he said.
Ken Perrotte is a freelance writer in King George, Va.