This time-honored tactic has become tougher, but hope remains
Years ago, prairie waterfowl adventures typically involved a long drive, lots of staring at dog-eared maps, visits with friendly farmers and life-changing duck and goose shooting.
Times have changed. Nowadays, trips to the Dakotas or prairie Canada still necessitate a long trip, but big money for guides, leases or exclusive rights often trumps the need to explore the country and gain permission to hunt from landowners. Many non-resident hunters still use the traditional do-it-yourself free-lancing method, but they increasingly find themselves squeezed or shut out of prime areas, especially at well-known destinations or in regions with urban amenities.
The situation has become so difficult at some spots that folks question whether traditional free-lance hunting on the prairies is a thing of the past.
The short answer is no, it's not. But let me back up.
I took my first trip to the Dakotas in 1998. One half-hour scouting mission revealed a large lake holding thousands of ducks. Two friends and I hunted it five consecutive days, pulling easy limits — mostly greenheads — every morning. In fact, we never even set up in the dark or looked for other spots. It was ridiculously easy.
The next year, more buddies joined us, and we had to work a little harder. By that, I mean actually scouting for more areas, knocking on a few doors and expanding our hunting scope. We found plenty of great water and were never turned down. A North Dakota expedition later that fall brought more of the same; slough after slough of ducks, and landowners who enthusiastically granted permission for no more than a handshake and a few minutes of conversation.
Of course, my buddies and I weren't alone. We were part of a tsunami of non-resident hunters that flooded North Dakota after the water returned in the mid-1990s. Before long, tens of thousands of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan license plates poured into Jamestown, Devil's Lake and other hot areas, eager to experience duck hunting they could only dream of at home. Landowners and outfitters took notice, and exclusive leases and specialized guiding operations began popping up throughout the state's best duck country. The same scenario occurred on a far smaller scale in South Dakota, because the state limits the number of out-of-state-waterfowl hunters, and in Canada, where travel distance and the lack of services — restaurants, campsites and convenience stores — effectively limits hunter numbers.
Nowadays on the prairies, it's not uncommon to find lodges, posted signs and landowners who've leased hunting privileges. That's not an indictment of anyone involved. I can't fault any hard-working farmer who accepts money for a commodity (ducks or geese, in this case) on their land. Likewise, guides and outfitters are simply folks trying to make a living doing something they love. They didn't go into business to squeeze the little guy or ruin anyone's trip. They offer a service for a fee. That's America. Further, I cannot get down on people who book guided waterfowl hunts. Time is tight nowadays, and it's often easier for a busy guy to drop a few bucks to ensure good hunting than to dedicate more days away from career and family. Let's just admit, without casting blame, that the advance of exclusive hunting on the prairies has made it more difficult for the free-lancer who wants to knock on doors and shoot a few ducks during a long October weekend.
But I believe there's good news: You can still find free-lance hunting heaven on the prairies of America and Canada. The first step is to throw out memories of the glory days of the 1990s and early 2000s. Then, get to work, using tried-and-true principles — like those outlined in Realtree.com's recent Prairie Primer feature — to locate ducks, gain access and cash in. It's that simple.
Sure, you'll probably have to drive farther, look harder and hunt smarter nowadays, but there's no harm in that. In fact, that kind of challenge is what drives hunters to seek the free-lance experience anyway. And the satisfaction gained from putting together a great hunt start to finish is immeasurable.
Bottom line: The demise of prairie free-lancing has been greatly exaggerated. The Dakotas and Canada still offer fantastic hunting for do-it-yourself waterfowlers. It will never be like the glory days, when ducks almost hurled themselves at you and limits could be found 50 steps from every highway. But prairie duck country remains an incredible resource. Best, by free-lancing, you can enjoy it on your own terms.