The waterfowl season on the prairies had been a good one. The stars had aligned — I had the blessing of my household’s “management,” the weather and the birds had cooperated and I’d successfully completed an early-season tour of duty through Manitoba and North Dakota. But the three-week, non-stop schedule had been grueling. I arrived back in Wisconsin, my home base, just past the middle of October, tired yet satisfied. Neither feeling lasted very long.
With mild weather patterns holding winter’s icy grip at bay, good hunting conditions all across the northern prairies were set to last well past October. A lenient Mother Nature gave me another chance to go at it again. And after a week at home, I was well rested, and itching to go. All I needed was a destination.
It was barely November when I got a call from John DeVries. John had experienced what was for him a pretty duckless season, so he was fairly enthusiastic to get into some action. You see, John eats, sleeps and breathes waterfowl hunting, so I’ve learned to never underestimate his ability to find bunches of birds. And after a few minutes of conversation, and by the tone of his voice, it was obvious that he knew the whereabouts of a hefty concentration of field-feeding fowl. The location was North Dakota, and he was looking for some help to work them over.
With a daylong run behind me, I hooked up with John just past sunset. Jay Strangis, editor of Wildfowl magazine, and his black Lab, Buddy, rolled in an hour later. Over burgers and sodas at a local pub, I mentioned that I hadn’t seen much in the air driving in. “Well, you will first thing tomorrow,” John said with a reassuring grin.
DAY ONE…CLASSIC ACTION, “FOWL-UPS”
Following John’s dust cloud as we raced down the prairie roads that first morning, we arrived at our chosen field in little over 10 minutes. John, ever the general, hustled his four-wheeler off the trailer, all the while barking a steady stream of orders at us, the outfit’s designated soldiers. In no time we were headed down a puddle-pocked prairie trail. I rode the bike with John, while Tanner sprinted alongside. Jay and Buddy hoofed their way in.
After an errant attempt at a shortcut across a sodden soybean field, the firm-based two-track brought us to a water-edged field of standing corn. With dawn already soaking through the thick, ground-scraping scud, we hastily chucked a couple dozen mallard blocks into the standing water, set a pair of spinners and laced the pond’s lee shore with a number of full-bodied decoys. The day’s first ducks, barely discernible in silhouette, momentarily joined our spread. Realizing the ruse, they soon flushed in a flurry of wings. With the set complete, we spread out and hunkered down in the cornrows.
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“Man, what a setup,” I suggested. “This could be over in a heartbeat.”
“Should be!” John darn near ordered, his expectations high.
But as shooting time approached, the “duck follies” began.
The skies over our setup lit up with ducks. Mallards, wigeon, teal, gadwall, they were all hovering over us at once. Some scooped hard, materializing from high in the clouds. Others streaked and darted low over the corn. A lot of birds worked our rig, but more were looking at the preferred pockets of standing water scattered throughout the field.
John started making the most of the shooting opportunities. But some of us couldn’t. Tanner, at six years of age and a veteran of that many trips up and down the flyway, was unexpectedly hard to handle. Add to that, I was still recovering from hip surgery. So prying myself out of the muck when John commanded, “Take ‘em!” was a challenge. And as if a restless dog and ailing hip weren’t enough, I was shooting like a rookie on his first duck hunt. John noticed this, and couldn’t help but let me know it. Jay, who was focusing on his pup during its first action-packed hunt, was shaking his head right along with me.
In spite of our comic missteps, however, we did manage a mixed bag limit of puddle ducks. A fine first outing that would have made the whole trip worthwhile. “Stay tuned,” John said as we packed up the rig. “There’s more to come.”
After lunch and a much needed midday nap, we were all out scouting for birds. Given the fast-shortening November days, prairie ducks typically leave their roosts on afternoon feeding flights, spending short periods of time in the fields before returning home. A hunter rarely has more than an hour to pattern their flights during last light. Though we’d intentionally timed it right, it was really a matter of luck to come across a cloud of mallards whirling over a recently picked, hilltop cornfield at dusk.
DAY TWO…MALLARD MANIA
The skies had unexpectedly cleared overnight. We were running a little late as we hustled to deploy a full rig that morning. With eight-dozen full-bodied field duck decoys and four mechanical spinners on the downwind edge, we set three heavily-stubbled layout blinds amid five-dozen full-bodied Canada blocks that were placed up and crosswind of the duck spread.
The day’s first flight, probably a hundred birds strong and screaming in from up high, caught us flat-footed and unarmed. Buddy the young Lab didn’t care. Still duck-high from the first day’s hunt, the youngster took off on a dead run, trying to stay under the circling flock with his face pointed upward, playing outfielder under the still-tempted flock of mallards. Jay, yelling at the top of his lungs, tried to wrangle his rambunctious pup, only coercing him after the dog had k
ept the ducks at bay for a few laps around the field. Jay would admit later that he was embarrassed by the whole episode. I only laughed, assuring him that we’d all been in his boots at one time or another.
John, on the other hand, was visibly distraught. As we finally tucked into our hides, with Buddy corralled, John’s silence was deafening. I’ll admit, with empty skies for the next 10 minutes, it looked like we had blown it.
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But then it was as if some distant roost water had turned on the spigot. Only a trickle at first, a steady flow of high-flying mallards soon filled the winter sky over our field. And they were all “looking,” a breakfast of golden kernels weighing heavily on their ducky minds.
With only a light breeze from the south and a bright sun rising at our backs, singling out drakes from the totally committed flocks, was easy. We all shot well, quickly chasing down a green-cap limit. The highlight of day two was the last bird, a solo shot by Jay, and a proud, prancing, field-mallard retrieve by six-month-old Buddy.
Quickly falling into a prairie-paced routine, the late afternoon found us glassing a rolling, sheet-water-laced soybean field that was being worked by a fair number of mallards and a mixed swarm of wigeon and gadwall.
DAY THREE…A CLOUD OF DUCKS
With the ground soggier than what we had hunted on day one, we had to feel our way, slipping and sliding, from high knoll to high knoll, across the bean field in foggy, murky blackness.
We took our time with the set, as there was no rush to beat shooting light. We sloshed around the two-acre, ankle-deep pond, which was guarded by a large hill-like rise. Even with no stubble to dress them, we gladly took refuge in the dryness of ultra-low profile blinds set tight to the water’s edge.
The sounds of the early morning were incredible, as flight after flight of hungry ducks ripped at the thick, damp air. Bunches wheeled and strafed from every angle, some splashing noisily among the blocks. And the odd single or pair would flash for a second on backpedaling wings, hanging directly above the hard-working spinners not 15 yards away.
As shooting time arrived we found ourselves still encased in a dark, mist-shrouded world of waterfowl. Black, blurry-winged forms backlit against the barely brighter overcast, the anxious birds descended upon us in a feathery, tornado-like cloud. Far from being able to differentiate species, much less sex, our guns remained silent in the early going.
The surreal spectacle continued until suddenly…unexpectedly, really…we were able to identify the closest birds. Much to the relief of an overwrought Tanner and Buddy, the shooting finally began. Not wanting to ruin the show — so many birds wanted our “x” in this field so badly I doubt we could have — we shot purposefully and individually, gradually chipping away at the morning’s bag, in an effort to make the experience last.
The afternoon scout job promised more of the same for our final day; we went to dinner that evening feeling confident. As we analyzed the trip so far over a good beverage, we decided everything had come together for a number of good reasons. The migration, though late due to the relatively mild weather, was in full swing across our part of the prairie. Since the small sloughs and shallow ponds had frozen out earlier, all manner and specie of ducks had taken to roosting on the larger, deeper lakes. From those waters they’d fly to freshly cut corn or the long-harvested but still-bountiful bean fields to binge. Along with the late season’s lack of competing hunting pressure, it was John’s intimate knowledge of the turf, and his ability to access it that allowed us to hunt so successfully.
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DAY 4…WIGEON TO THE RESCUE
Traversing yet another soybean field was no problem. Sometime during the middle of the night a strong cold front had roared across the Dakota countryside, stiffening the ground and quickly icing the shallow sheet-water ponds. Having been thrown a climatic curveball, we still set out undaunted.
After busting up a large pond with the four-wheeler, we deployed our rig and dove for the cover our blinds provided us. The sky was high, bright, cloudless and for the most part birdless, as shooting time approached. There were some good flights just after sunrise. But they were skyscrapers, likely migrants hightailing it out of Dodge. A couple small flocks of mallards gave us a look early on, but they were spooky, flaring high and wide, adding fuel to the fire I sensed was smoldering in John.
Things weren’t looking good, and I for one was resigned to the fact the percentages had caught up with us. But I was keeping my head down and Tanner still, knowing that if I didn’t I’d surely hear about it from John. Even though he was on the far end, and in spite of the howling wind, I could hear Jay rustling around in his blind, working to still his restless pup. It was enough to finally boil John’s pot over.
“Geez, Jay,” he said sarcastically. “You got your wife in there, or what?”
Tactfully, there was no reply.
All was quiet for a few minutes, when John glibly offered, “Nine o’clock, boys…the birds’ll get off the roost at nine. Look sharp.”
“Yeah, right,” I thought.
Now, I’m still willing to debate that it was pure luck, but as the magic hour approached, so did the ducks. At first they were mere specks in the high blue sky — singles, pairs and small flocks of mallards began to work the field in earnest. And with lucky, longer-range gunning, we managed to score a few.
But it was the wigeon, in tight-maneuvering flocks numbering 20, 30 and sometimes 40 birds or more that stole the show. On their first swing they floated over our spread high and deliberate. Then abruptly and decisively, they rocketed into the rig on wings so tightly cupped their tips seemed to touch. Too busy with their flight controls in the gusty winds, they paid no attention to the three lumps below. But when we popped up to shoot they pulled every aerobatic trick out of their feathery caps.
Though magnificent in hand, the birds in the air, fully lit in the m
id-morning sun, the flocks dominated by fully colored, baldpated drakes, is something I’ll never forget. What a finale to a successful series of prairie field hunts.