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Photo Essay: Duck Hunting North Dakota’s Prairie Potholes

An early arctic blast sends ducks pouring into North Dakota's prairie potholes, where, if you're lucky, you can still hunt on a handshake
Alex Robinson Avatar
hunter tossing out duck decoys

<strong>Icebreakers</strong>: Each morning we had to bust open a hole through the skim ice that had formed the night before. —A.R. Bill Buckley

Our morning hunt rests entirely on this farmer’s answer. He’s standing in his doorway wearing red flannel and a skeptical look. I worry for a second that Brantley’s Kentucky accent has jeopardized this whole thing, but before we even really get around to asking, the old farmer tells us to “go right ahead, just don’t shoot near the house.”

We shake his hand and hop back in the truck, giddy with the promise that the morning now holds.

Just 10 minutes into legal shooting light on the next morning, we’ve killed four ducks over our pothole spread. As Otis is shaking off her fourth retrieve, I hear Brantley mutter to no one in particular: “Holy crap, here they come.”

There’s a flock of 20 gadwalls locked up, dropping through the wind, with at least 200 more ducks lined up behind them, hooking in hard. We shoot and laugh and call and cuss until each of us has our limit of ducks. Then we pack up and head in for breakfast.

This becomes our routine for the next four days: Scout in the evening, find an ungodly amount of birds piled into a small puddle, shoot those birds the next morning, eat breakfast (which by midhunt consists of fried duck and hot sauce), clean birds, reorganize gear, scout again.

Two things make this limit-every-morning hunt possible for nonresidents like Brantley and me. The first is an early, bitter cold front that pushed the leading edge of the migration right into our laps. Mallards, gadwalls, wigeon, greenwings, pintails, and an assortment of divers sailed down on a northwest wind just as we arrived. The second is the hospitality of the North Dakota rancher. We had come to hunt ducks, but the most fun we have is hanging out at night, drinking whiskey and hearing stories from the ranchers who gave us access to their ground.

My theory is that farming and ranching on the cold, windswept northern prairie turns people nicer. Up here there just aren’t that many folks around—in the dead of winter a rancher can go a week or more without seeing another living soul—so you had better be kind to the people you run into.

Is that romanticizing farm life on the prairie? Maybe a little. But I know this much for sure—it makes for some damn good duck hunting.

Read Next: How to Plan the Ultimate Waterfowl Hunting Road Trip

red farm house and barn
Home on the range: We stayed at a family friend's cattle ranch for our week of hunting. —A.R. Bill Buckley
three hunters standing next to a tractor
The Art of the Ask: The weather. Tractors. Good rifles for those dang coyotes. All are viable conversation starters before asking: "Mind if we hunt that pothole?" —W.B. Bill Buckley
a horse standing behind a wooden fence
Horse sense: There are only three rules at the ranch: Don't track mud in the house, close the gates, and don't mess with the horses. —A.R. Bill Buckley
black lab on waterfowl hunting
Perked up: Otis eyes an incoming flock of gadwalls. There was no dog box for this lady. She rode right in the truck with us. Robinson doesn't know it, but I sneaked her a few Slim Jims every morning from my blind bag. —W.B. Bill Buckley
two waterfowl hunters in a canoe
Free Ride: Robinson asked, "How many paddles do we need?" I told him one was plenty. —W.B. Bill Buckley
waterfowl hunters in a field
The X: Two of our best shoots were in mud puddles that were no more than 15 yards across. We found them in the evenings by glassing for green heads poking above the crop stubble and then walking in after dark to scope out the setup. —W.B. Bill Buckley
will brantley waterfowl hunting
Higher Calling: Brantley hammers on his mallard call to coax in another flock of greenheads. We ran a relatively small spread for the large fields we were hunting, but a realistic setup paired with some aggressive calling was more than enough to get ducks dive-bombing into range. —A.R. Bill Buckley
ducks flying in the air
Black Skies: Waves of new ducks appeared each day in the wake of the cold front. There's no place quite like North America's duck factory during the peak of the migration. —W.B. Bill Buckley
greenhead duck
Mixed Bag: If you're a greenhead snob, you probably wouldn't want to ride with us. We killed greenwing teal, gadwalls, wigeon, pintails, and redheads (okay, I also shot one merganser) along with our mallards. —A.R. Bill Buckley
alex robinson holding greenhead duck decoy
Heads up: It was hard to concentrate on picking up the decoys as endless flights of ducks, Canada geese, snow geese, and sandhill cranes passed by overhead. —A.R. Bill Buckley
hunter aiming shotgun in field
Cheeks Down: Robinson and I missed a duck each this week. Maybe more. This is our damn story. Fortunately, we had plenty of opportunities to make up for the few that, um, didn't quite pan out. —W.B. Bill Buckley
two hunters wading through water carrying duck gear
Fully Loaded: Want to ensure you'll be welcomed back to hunt again next year? Then don't rut up the farmer's field. Sometimes that means hauling your gear in on foot, but the extra work is well worth it when you're carrying full straps back to the truck. —A.R. Bill Buckley
black lab retrieving greenheaded duck
Green Gold: Otis brings back a plump greenhead that crashed down into our icy pothole setup. I'm not sure if dogs are able to remember those perfect hunts like the one we had on this morning, but I like to think that they can. —A.R. Bill Buckley