August 03, 2023
It’s hard to argue against the wood duck being America’s most beautiful duck. I grew up in south-central Minnesota, and my earliest gunning for waterfowl was over flooded crop fields. A long time ago, I sat on a plastic bucket, hidden in an October corn field. Just before legal shooting light ended on a drab, cloudy day, a pair of wood ducks whistled into a flooded soybean field. Fortunately, they were close enough for me to collect the pair with my 20 gauge, even with a severe case of duck fever.
I’ve lived in North Dakota most of my adult life, and wood ducks can be few and far between. I’ve been fortunate to experience the breathtaking thrill of thousands of snow geese descending into the decoys in a stubble field, green headed mallards swirling into a slough and speedy canvasbacks sweeping by on storm tossed lakes. Despite it all, it seemed I may never hold a wood duck drake in my hand again.
Even with today’s access to information, sometimes opportunities fly under the radar. Such is the case with wood ducks, which are called summer ducks in many locales because they are often the only wild nesting duck present during that season.
The multitude of waterfowl in the prairies can be overwhelming. Light and dark geese, puddle and diving ducks can keep a hunter busy for a lifetime. While the open prairies of the Dakotas and western Minnesota, among other states, don’t contain wood ducks like the eastern part of the country, there are scattered pockets of habitat that appeal to them. The key is finding the microhabitats that are attractive to the colorful ducks.
My first experience in the prairie hunting wood ducks occurred on an oxbow lake near a prairie river. The previous week I had been armed with my bow in a tree stand along the lake, hoping to waylay a buck drifting through the timber. I didn’t even see a deer but watched countless wood ducks winging across the tall grass and splashing down, through the trees, into the dingy lake water.
The next morning, I shot a three-duck limit as they funneled through an opening in the hardwoods.
All waterfowl hunting requires extensive scouting, but that’s even more true with wood ducks. For reasons sometimes only known to them, they will be pitching into an oxbow lake, creek or river in one location over another, and since they don’t respond to decoys very well, not finding the X will result in an empty bag.
I found a fantastic location this past fall completely by accident. My significant other, Melanie and I took advantage of a beautiful late September day to try to bag a few squirrels for the freezer. After a hike across a tall-grass prairie, we found ourselves smack dab in the middle of an undulating oak ridge.
Mel stood a seat on a ledge with a broad view of the valley. Pushing on, I was slipping down a ridge edge when I heard the unmistakable sound of dancing water. It only took a few more steps through the timber to reveal a beautiful sylvan scene.
Ambitious beavers had built dams every hundred yards or so on a natural spring. The pools of water were a deep green blue color and trickled slightly over each dam in pursuit of the river. Careless with my feet, I stepped on a stick, the snap sounding deafening in the quiet, hushed forest.
A flurry of brightly colored wood ducks flushed along the creek, whistling and calling as they funneled up and out of the creek. There were easily 50 birds in the air at once, twisting and diving away. With a smile on my face, I knew I would be back with a shotgun in hand.
My good friend and co-worker Eric Dahl agreed to accompany me back to the creek, and in the week leading up to our hunt I studied an aerial of the property. I’m terrible at navigating in the dark, and I wanted to be sure I would be able to find the biggest pool well before the first trickle of light spilled into the hollow.
The forest was mostly bur oak, with some hackberry, hop hornbeam, lindens, boxelder and ash mixed in. In our yard we have an ancient oak that was dropping acorns, and they barely hit the ground before our free-range chickens gobbled them up. The wood ducks were no doubt filling their crops each morning with tasty acorns before heading back to the river. The creek itself was a nearly insignificant part of the overall landscape, but the deep, cool water, tumbling from a seep high in the prairie, must have looked like heaven to the birds.
The mile-long walk, first through the prairie and then the forest, dressed in chest waders, was making me sweat in the tepid autumn air. The memory of those ducks kept me moving, and soon Eric and I were hidden above the pool, leaning against a fallen tree. We shut off our headlights and disappeared into the dark.
The first noise in the water below us was not made by ducks. In the murky light, a beaver swam out of a bank den, no doubt searching for some tender young shoots of box elder to have for breakfast. A slender shape appeared like quicksilver, slipping over the dam and heading upriver. Any time I get to see a river otter is a good day in my book.
It wasn’t quite shooting light yet when ducks began piling in. The wood duck’s call brought me back to my youth, and I looked over to Eric to see his smile gleaming in the dark. The ducks hit the water like little cannonballs, and we sat motionless watching the show. Soon the big pool was full of ducks splashing and gulping acorns.
A furtive glance at my phone showed it was legal shooting light, but we were having too much fun to break up the party. We were watching ducks bombing in until a single drake noticed us above them. The birds flushed and we shot, the echoes of our guns reverberating amongst the trees. One duck shy of our limit rippled on the water as the smell of gunpowder mixed with the earthy, soft odor of the autumnal forest.
A quick walk through the woods to the spring’s source in the prairie gave us our final duck, jumped at close range. Eric and I sat back in the fertile soil of the forest, admiring our limit of fine drakes.
Wood duck hunting in creek bottoms is unlike pothole or field hunting. With the ammunition shortage of 2021, Eric only had 3” steel 2 shot for his shotgun, and we were lucky most of his shots were well-placed at close range and managed not to mangle the delicious breast meat. I was even over gunned with 2 ¾” steel 3 shot. Close range shooting, on dipping and diving ducks, is best done with smaller shot. I was unsuccessful in finding 20-gauge steel, but that would have been perfect for the intimacy of the creek.
We weren’t even to my house after the hunt when we decided we needed to hunt wood ducks again.
Lugging my 22-magnum rifle trying to collect the fixings once again for a squirrel stew, I scouted out miles of beaver ponds, oxbow lakes and river back waters, hoping to find a different wood duck hole. A couple lakes had a few ducks, but most were empty. Wiping my brow before turning back towards my pickup, I was glad to have at least checked the locations. On the map they looked like winners, but nothing beats on the ground scouting.
A week later we were back, sitting in the dark awaiting the flight. This time we sat further back, up against a cluster of oaks. Our new location gave us a bit more time to see the ducks and take longer shots. Close range wing shooting is not something I’m particularly good at.
Like before, the ducks came in just at legal light. We were sharing a box of 2 ¾” 4 shot and it made a tremendous difference. The flight lasted only a few minutes, and while short of a limit, we were glad we once again made the hike to experience the magic of the wood duck.