North America's duck factory remains a top-shelf destination
Duck hunting offers many bucket-list opportunities, including mallards in green timber, eiders along marine coastlines or canvasbacks on the Mississippi River.
But for many folks, a trip to the prairie pothole region tops them all. This North American treasure is the remnant of what was once the world's largest grassland, the Great Plains. Today, although threatened, it remains perhaps the most critical duck production area in the continent and a major migration corridor. Best, the region has ample publicly accessible land and relatively few people, making it a freelance hunter's dream.
Hunting the prairies is pretty straightforward: Locate concentrations of ducks, gain access to hunt them, put together a common-sense game plan and then have at it. Still, first-time visitors might want to heed some suggestions to ensure a successful trip. Here's a quick prairie primer for the traveling hunter.
Pick a Spot, Time
The Canadian prairie pothole region extends from Alberta through much of Saskatchewan and into Manitoba. The United States' portion covers northern Montana, the eastern Dakotas, western Minnesota and portions of northern Nebraska and Iowa. With all that real estate, hunters can have a tough time deciding where to go.
My prairie experience involves 20-some trips to North and South Dakota, and that's pretty typical. Those states are centrally located, and North Dakota offers an over-the-counter nonresident waterfowl license. South Dakota has several zones, most of which require hunters to apply for and receive tags, but it's still fairly accessible. Canada probably offers the best, most remote prairie hunting, but we'd need a separate article to cover the planning required for such adventures. So, for this article, let's focus on the Dakotas.
Also, let's assume you want to freelance instead of hunting with a guide. There's nothing wrong with booking through an outfitter, of course. In fact, it's probably the best way to ensure a quality trip. However, most hunters enjoy the adventure of being self-sufficient.
A quick internet search will reveal several towns and water bodies that offer great duck hunting. These aren't bad places to start, but remember, they're well-known and probably attract lots of hunters. Further, guiding operations dominate many of those hotspots, locking up private land and making access difficult for rank-and-file visitors. For example, pulling into the Devil's Lake, North Dakota, area the night before the nonresident waterfowl opener might be a recipe for frustration. You're usually better off focusing on lesser-known or more remote areas.
In addition, before locking in a location, decide what kind of trip you want. If you want to work with a young retriever, for example, it's usually best to identify an area with lots of small sloughs and potholes. Water hunting can be good for locally breeding ducks from opening day into mid-October and great for migrants through freeze-up. Be careful, though, as prairie potholes can freeze any time in late October or early November, depending on the year.
If you crave field action, locate large agricultural areas near refuges. Wheat and other small-grain fields offer good early-season hunting. Farmers typically start taking beans in early to mid-October, and the corn harvest follows later. Some years, many corn fields have been picked by late October. If it's wet, though, standing corn might dominate the landscape. Late-season corn-stubble hunting can be spectacular.
If you lust for big-water divers, locate several large lakes or rivers. You can easily find these spots by viewing maps or aerial photographs. Many diving ducks — redheads and prairie bluebills, for example — breed in the region, so you can experience good shooting from early October through freeze-up.
When you've narrowed your search, learn as much as possible about the spot. Chat with folks who've hunted the area, or call regional state biologists or conservation wardens. Pore over satellite photos to good-looking water and public land. Be as prepared as possible before hitting the road.
Finding the X
Twenty years ago, prairie scouting usually involved some leisurely drives, glassing from the road and interactions with friendly landowners. Things aren't quite that simple nowadays, but the premise still applies: Put in lots of windshield time to find ducks, and then secure permission to hunt them.
After setting up camp or settling into a motel, split your group into teams and scout various points of the compass. Identify stretches with lots of water away from paved roads, and then crisscross those spots in a loose grid pattern. Look for ducks in the air, in fields or on sloughs. Don't be afraid to park the truck and hike to good vantage spots to view water hidden from the road.
Usually, it's best to look for ducks in the air and fields during early mornings and late evenings. Scan sloughs throughout the day, but identify larger waters that might be nighttime roosts. Many locals and hunters consider hunting such waters to be an unforgivable sin, as they believe gunning pressure at roosts moves birds out of the area, spoiling opportunities in nearby fields and smaller waters. There's probably something to that. Further, it's usually easier to hunt smaller, more manageable feeding or loafing waters away from roosts.
You can find plenty of good opportunities on state wildlife areas, federal waterfowl production areas, private land enrolled in walk-in hunting programs or other publicly accessible land. However, much of the best hunting occurs on private ground. Use plat books or apps such as OnXMaps Hunt to identify landowners, and then contact them for permission. Sometimes, that's as simple as finding the nearest farmhouse and knocking on the front door. Other times, you might have to look up a phone number and make several attempts to contact someone. Folks in many areas allow access to polite duck hunters, even though they might turn away people wanting to hunt deer or pheasants. If they've been pestered by parades of nonresident waterfowlers, they might not allow permission. If that's the case, abide by their decision. Either way, try to give something back by offering them a gift (cheese curds from Wisconsin, for example) or at least following up with a card or note afterward. You might make a lifelong friend and secure hunting rights for years to come.
Another note: North Dakota has an implied-consent law, which lets people access land that's not posted. Hunting such areas is legal but a bit rough. Usually, it's best to find the landowner and ask him about accessing the property. That courteous gesture goes a long way with folks, and resulting conversations sometimes lead to info about other potential hotspots.
Identify and gain permission to as many spots as possible. Some days, your first choice will produce. Other times, you'll need to hit a Plan B or C spot. You can never have too much ground.
Getting it Done
Finding ducks and gaining access constitutes 80 percent of the prairie battle. Hunting is fairly straightforward.
During wet years, many sloughs might be deep, so you might have to use a skiff or canoe, or stand in waist-deep water. In dry periods, sloughs might have receded quite a bit, leaving large mud flats between cover and water. You might have to use a field blind or lie on your back near the water's edge to shoot ducks.
Always be aware of the wind on the prairies. Most days, it'll blow like heck. That moves ducks, of course, but it can also make for tough shooting and long retrieves. Make sure to train your dog so it takes straight lines on marks and is accustomed to land-water-land retrieves.
Also, always think about your dog's safety. Prairie country contains many hazards, such as thorns, fence lines, rock piles, submerged barbed wire and nasty critters such as skunks and porcupines. Carry a field first-aid kit with you at all times, and locate area veterinarians before you travel. Your pooch will thank you.
Above all, enjoy the prairie spectacle. Watch thousands of mallards circle a corn field at sunset, or view wave after wave of bluebills pour off a huge slough. Appreciate the pheasants, sharptails, Hungarian partridge and other wildlife. And spend time with the locals, most of whom are some of the nicest folks you'll ever encounter.
That's what I did almost 20 years ago, during what was supposed to be my first and only prairie hunt. I've been back every year since.