A fortunate few tap the peak of the mallard migration in.
The author's son, Bill, cashed in on the memorable greenhead frenzy set in a freshly-cut South Dakota cornfield.
Sometimes good things in our world of waterfowling come to those who wait. Such was the case with our South Dakota adventure last year.
We annually apply for South Dakota non-resident waterfowl licenses in the state's highly subscribed lottery. When we are drawn, we're in hog heaven. But because we have to pick the 10 consecutive hunting days allotted by the special license in advance, timing our hunt to coincide with the season's peak migration is always a crapshoot.
The decision was a lot easier last year when my son, Bill, and I were invited to join a group of friends from Michigan on their annual early November SoDak pheasant hunt. With high fuel prices, it made sense to piggyback our waterfowl hunt with the pheasant trip.
And a wonderful pheasant hunt it was — productive and social South Dakota classic in every sense. But as we left the boys at hunt's end out near Mobridge, Billy and I had little trouble shifting gears. With webbed feet on the brain, I phoned the third member of our waterfowl group, John DeVries, as we motored eastward toward Aberdeen. Our plan of attack had yet to be fully formed.
Although he's a North Dakota native, DeVries knows South Dakota from a waterfowler's perspective from life as a snow goose guide.
"Drop down off highway 12 a few miles, get out your map and look for the Scatterwood Lakes NWR, just south and west of Aberdeen. Check that whole area out, then let's talk again."
Arriving at Scatterwood a half-hour before sunset on a beautiful Indian summer Sunday, we were thrilled to find its waters paved with snow geese, and the skies nearby were etched with small, trading flocks of the same. However, except for a solitary tornado pummeling one of the area's few cut cornfields just after sunset, ducks appeared to be scarce.
We had planned for a full day of scouting though, with Job One being to prowl the northeastern part of the state looking for a decent field hunt setup. But we were flexible. Ducks, geese or any combination thereof would be fine with us.
The next day, as we tooled through the lake country east of Aberdeen, thoughts of those oh-so-tempting snows out west weighed heavily on my mind. Few fowl were moving at midday. But we found several roost waters chocked full of puddlers, mostly mallards.
The birds put on a show as they swarmed a quarter section-sized bean field — one mostly harvested, but pock-marked by acre-sized chunks of obviously wet, still standing crop. It was enough to make our blood boil. No competing hunters were looking at the birds.
"Snows be damned," we decided. "Ducks it'll be!"
While staying in phone contact with DeVries, who was sizing up a similar situation in another part of the county, Billy and I hustled to locate the landowner.
Finding two old gents working on a combine in a nearby farmyard, we stopped to make an inquiry. Upon realizing we weren't after pheasants, the suddenly friendly pair gave us the landowner's phone number and directions to his home. After leaving a message on his voice mail, we took the chance of finding someone at home. Luck was with us as we caught the missus just as she was leaving to take her husband's supper to the cornfield he was combining. She invited us to follow her.
"You wanna hunt ducks?"
Although the goal was to shoot a three-man limit of 15 greenheads, the author's hunting partner, John DeVries, couldn't resist a handsome wigeon.
Grinning incredulously, he was obviously amused. After assuring him waterfowl was all we were after, he shook his head, and responded in a manner I hadn't seen in the Dakotas in years, "Well hell yeah! Have at 'em."
A Soggy Bean Setup
We inched across the bean field, trying diligently to avoid any low-lying suckholes under a late-night blanket of stars. When the truck's headlights found the flooded bean patch we'd studied the afternoon before, the place erupted with flashing wings.
The setup was ridiculously simple. Randomly tossing a dozen blocks into the most open pockets of water, we added a pair of spinners, and then hunkered in our low-profile blinds in the outermost, but still soggy, rim of standing beans. To a man, we were confident we'd soon be up to our eyeballs in carelessly hungry ducks.
But it was the late season. These birds had been hunted somewhere and sometime, although maybe not in South Dakota, and probably not for a couple of weeks.
The day's first shooting light brought ducks. Flight after unexpectedly small, high, nervous flight materialized over our field. Most were willing to give us at least a cautionary look. After a little sweet talk, singles, pairs and small flocks kept our hunt interesting. While it was obvious early on we weren't going to fool the big wads, it was just as plain to see that we were going to get it done. And we did — one gun taking one drake at a time. Each greenhead provided simple work for my old Lab, Tanner, or his younger sister, Maggie, whichever happy dog happened to be up to bat. It proved to be a great day in South Dakota.
Motherlode of Mallards
After a bowl of chili at a country crossroads café and a midday siesta, we were back to scout that afternoon, cruising the lightly traveled back roads. DeVries motored east, while Billy and I drove south and west. Although we could have gone back to the well and hunted our bean field successfully the second day, we felt confident we could come up with at least an equal option.
Billy and I soon got to the point where we didn't know which way to turn, for every one led to a waterfowler's field of dreams. Half of the continental population of mallards seemed to be crammed into our little corner of South Dakota. The bean fields, although picked, were speckled with sheet water that in turn, was peppered with ducks. Most of the cornfields were still standing. Judging by the numbers of ducks dumping in, they were just as wet. The skies, then cloaked in gray-shaded, low-hanging, daylight-robbing scud, were alive with restless flig
hts of fowl.
We had no doubt we were in an often-sought, seldom-found locale: Duck City.
While we were nailing down a couple more landowners, my cell rang. It was DeVries again, and this time he was darn near hyperventilating as he tried to describe what he was looking at through his windshield.
"Aw, it's the motherlode, Jack," DeVries said slowly, almost solemnly, in a hushed tone, as if to make sure the birds couldn't hear him. "The mother of all motherlodes! I'm staring at 40 acres of freshly combined corn, and it's alive with the happiest looking mallards you'll ever see. But that's nothing. You should see the sheetwater roost! It's barely over a half mile off and it's got twice as many birds still sitting on it. And the real good news is I just got done talking with the farmer, and we've got permission for the whole shootin' match!"
Color in the Gloom
It was unseasonably mild, clammy and dead calm as we left the parking lot the next morning towing a trailer with an elaborate field spread inside. We were all wide-eyed and raring to go. But I could see DeVries was a bit agitated. I asked him, "Why?"
"It's the wind. Or the lack of it, actually. We sure could use a little breeze from the south to filter both the noise of our setup and that of our shooting, away from the roost."
Like everything on this charmed trip, it seemed a matter of "ask and ye shall receive." As we stepped into the corn stubble, a slight drift of a freshening southerly breeze brushed our faces. Suddenly, all was right with our world.
We hustled to set the rig of 12-dozen full-body field mallard blocks in a teardrop pattern.
We set the narrow, pointed end downwind, and fashioned a broader glob upwind, where we hid our blinds. Within 20 yards, we had six spinners.
It was soon obvious our hunt would be spectacular. Even in the black of night, flock after apparently ravenous flock of fowl bombed our set, their pinions ripping at the damp atmosphere. The gush of air off of hard-cupped wings flushed our faces. As our world finally, painfully brightened, squadron upon squadron of ducks, mostly chuckling mallards, with a few soft-whistling pintails and wigeon mixed in, attacked our position in a full-on, frontal assault.
With our drakes-only policy, it was every man for himself. We'd commonly all rise together, only to have but one of us — whoever could definitely single out a greenhead in the gloom — fire. I was having a particularly tough go of it. Time and again I'd pop up, moving my gun barrel from bird to bird, only to be unable to find color. It wasn't until Billy had three and DeVries had two greencaps on the ground that I was finally able to pick a bird and add a mallard to the bag.
But it didn't matter. The show had just begun. None of us was anxious to see it end.DeVries had a good point, though. "If we want to, or have to, hunt this field again, the sooner we give it back to the birds the better."
The hunt was short. Although never bright, enough light eventually permeated our dull, gray surroundings to allow for sure identification. Fully absorbed in a world of such trusting, close-working ducks, a limit of 15 greenheads came quickly.
Field Hunting Culture
After pulling the pin that morning, we spent a few hours cruising the countryside observing fowl, and generally congratulating ourselves on our good fortune. And while we were no doubt happy to be there, fully enjoying world-class wildfowling, why we were there was easy to understand.
It was November, after all. Mother Nature had the birds, especially those from the fast-freezing Great White North, on the move.
Then too, while the weather and feed conditions were likely just as favorable only a few hundred miles north of us, many of the birds in our immediate world had likely encountered substantial hunting pressure in those latitudes. Moving down the flyway, as they surely will when heavily gunned, the ducks found plenty of protected roost water and enough harvested grain fields to make them fat and happy. It was a table set quite to their liking.
The birds will dine until hard winter sets in, primarily because hunting pressure in South Dakota is not much of a factor. Now, the state has its share of hardcore waterfowlers. But South Dakota is lightly populated overall, and the number of waterfowl hunters relative to those who prefer pheasants and deer is minimal.
Then too, South Dakota keeps a tight reign on nonresident waterfowler numbers, allowing only 3,700 statewide licenses each year. Like it or not, keeping nonresident hunting pressure at a manageable level contributes greatly to the overall quality of the state's wildfowling.
South Dakota does a great job of protecting its most prominent roost waters as well, closing many of them to hunting. The state has learned that busting a roost, sadly, can prove just too tempting. Nothing sends the birds southbound like shooting the roost.
Realizing the value of roost waters, South Dakota waterfowlers, resident and nonresidents alike, have developed quite the field hunting culture. While gunning fields requires more time, more gear, more know-how, and simply, more dedication, the quality, satisfaction and results are more than worth the effort.
Pretty as a Picture
We split up to scout again that afternoon. After being sidetracked by a flooded cornfield with rows packed with happily swimming and feeding mallards, Billy and I were racing daylight trying to hustle up a hunt.
Ringing up DeVries, he was quick to inform me our morning's field was wrapped with fowl again. "What ya think?" he asked, knowing full well the obviously needless reply.
With total confidence and a lot less anxiety, we settled into our blinds on that still oddly mild morning. But given the blizzard predicted to blow through the area by late the next day, it would likely be our last hunt of the trip, and maybe for the year.
Although it was more dark and dreary than the day before, we were content to just sit back and enjoy the show. We were once again enveloped in a world of whirling, chuckling, whistling ducks — black silhouettes framed against a dull, gray sky.
It was odd, like we didn't want it to begin. Because we didn't want it to end. But the color of green heads and white-ringed necks eventually seeped into our otherwise gloomy world. And when it did, we had to shoot. But there was no urgency. To draw out the hunt and really savor it, we shot only one gun at a time.
So many birds were working so well, we had no reason to take anything but "candy."
Nothing would have been prettier than a picture of a three-man limit of greenheads that morning. And that was the picture we i
ntended to take — until DeVries sat up and doubled on a pair of gaudy, bald-pated wigeons that made the mistake of crossing his path. Before I could give him any crap, DeVries came clean.
"Yeah, I know," he offered willingly. "I just lost it. Couldn't help myself! They were there. They were right! And that's that."
I just laughed. He didn't need to explain himself. The excitement of our sport just never gets old. I'd come close to straying a time or two myself that morning.
Way too soon, another in a wonderful series of special hunts came to a gratifying end. As did the trip itself. Oh, we could have squeezed in one last hunt the next, stormy morning. And we'd probably have done just fine. But it would have been truly miserable. And it couldn't have been better than what we'd already experienced.
No. It was time to get out of Duck City while the gettin' was good.
Jack Hirt hunts waterfowl from coast to coast and resides in Glenbeulah, Wis.