The Golden Age of Jump-Shooting Ducks on the Prairie
A hunter visiting North Dakota in the 1940s learns to hunt like the locals
This story, “A Shot at Pothole Ducks,” originally ran in the November 1947 issue of Outdoor Life.
DOC POST stopped his car, with the duck boat lashed on top, at the crest of a low rise in the prairie road and waited for us. We had had to drive two cars that morning. Sam Weller and I planned to hunt pheasants later in the day, but Doc had an afternoon appointment—filing down somebody’s bridgework—and would head back to town around noon.
We pulled up beside Doc’s car and stepped down to see what he wanted.
“Flock of thirty or forty pintails got out of that last pothole when I drove past,” he explained. “Likely there’s six or eight that didn’t leave. Shall we try for ’em?”
Sam looked at his watch. “Legal shooting in ten minutes,” he announced. “That’s not long to wait.”
Doc nodded. “Might as well start here as any place,” he remarked. “We can sneak through that standing corn and get right up to ’em without any crawling if we’re careful.”
We stood there beside the cars and watched the overcast dawn break across the wide and empty South Dakota prairie, and it came over me that I was about to learn a new brand of duck hunting.
Doc Post, they had told me back in the town of Mitchell, where he lives, is a pothole shooter. When they say that about a man out there in the prairie country they’re paying him a pretty high compliment. They don’t mean pothunter, not by a long shot. What they mean is he takes his ducks the hard way. He still-hunts ’em.
He crawls 100 yards on his belly for a chance at a single. He lies in the wild sunflower tangles without blind or decoys and waits for his birds to come in of their own free will. He matches wits with bluewing teal and mallards and pintails on their terms. He stalks ducks the way a good deer hunter stalks whitetails. He takes ’em without trickery or subterfuge—or drives back to town without a single bird in the bag.
In short, when the folks out in Dakota call a man a pothole shooter they mean he’s a duck hunter, thirty-third degree.
And now Doc and Sam, another apostle of pothole shooting, had invited me to go along with them and see for myself. Luckily for me, this was before 1947, so nonresidents were still free to hunt ducks in South Dakota; and I arrived in Mitchell at the height of the heaviest early-season duck flight the prairie folk had seen in thirty years.
Hunting pheasants that week, we’d seen the sky literally alive with waterfowl. There was rarely a time when we could not look up and watch ducks moving somewhere. The glint of sunlight on the wings of distant flocks became almost as much a part of those days in the big Dakota cornfields as the clatter of pheasants rocketing out of the weeds.
SLOUGHS and potholes were swarming with teal and spoonbills and pintails, with a good scattering of greenheads mixed in. Some were local ducks hatched on the prairies, some had come down from the north with a few days of stormy weather.
“The duck depression has ended out here,” Sam said to me the evening we planned our pothole hunt. “If you go out with Doc and me in the morning you’ll earn your ducks. It’s not armchair hunting. But we’ll show you some shooting to remember.”
AND NOW the three of us were waiting there at the side of the muddy road while the light brightened steadily over the big level fields. The prairie wind was raw and wet on our faces. The morning promised rain. But while we watched, a narrow band of rose showed under the gray on the eastern skyline and the clouds overhead began to break, driven by a wild, high, northwest wind.
“It’s really blowing up there,” Doc remarked. “Ducks will move today.”
Finally Sam looked at his watch again. “Time,” he said crisply, and snapped three shells into the magazine of his 12 gauge.
The pond where we hoped the ducks were waiting lay 200 or 300 yards back down the road. It covered a couple of acres and was dotted with clumps of grass and low brush. A big field of uncut corn shut it in on three sides.
We moved off the road into the corn and began our stalk, creeping down the weedy rows at a half crouch, pussyfooting along as cautiously as three cats after a robin.
The wet wind rustled the corn blades with enough noise to cover any minor racket we might make. This, I told myself, would be duck soup. I could vision those startled pintails rising in panic off the pond. I could see myself lining my 20 gauge on the nearest bird. The thought went through my mind that I’d likely make a double.
THEN I came down to earth. We were still fifty yards from the edge of the pond, hidden in the corn, when from about the same distance out on the water there came a sound as of heavy rain pattering down, then a sharp wing rustle and a bunch of seven pintails went zooming up like a well-drilled squadron of miniature rocket planes.
They didn’t appear panic-stricken. They went out in a hurry, duck fashion,but they were well out of range and something about their swift and ordered flight suggested that they knew it.
I stood and watched them beat their way across the prairie, gaining altitude as they went, and cussed softly under my breath. When I looked around Doc was grinning at me.
“They’re pretty smart,” he said mildly. And Sam added, also grinning, “That’s why we like it.”
“We’ll go look for another pond,” Doc decided then.
The pond wasn’t hard to find. Water had come back on the South Dakota prairies in the previous couple of years. In the section where we were hunting, every square mile of land had from two to twenty potholes and small sloughs.
“There are some good pintail holes over on the next section,” Sam suggested. “Let’s look ’em over.” We did and I got my first real taste of pothole hunting on one of those pintail ponds. Full of weeds and grass, it lay beside the road at the foot of a long grade. We parked the cars at the top of the hill a quarter mile away.
“I’ll go down through the corn on the opposite side of the road,” Sam proposed. “You two swing around and come in from the east and we’ll have the birds between us.” He took it for granted that there’d be ducks in the hole.
Doc and I climbed the fence into an old pasture grown with sparse weeds and began a long circle to come up to the pond where Sam had indicated. We were halfway there and I could see water over the top of the grass when I heard a noise like the distant rumble of thunder behind us.
I was flat on my belly by that time making a stalk, but that low muttering noise stopped me in my tracks. There was an ominous quality about it that I didn’t like.
I twisted my head around and my worst misgivings were confirmed. On the near side of a fence, maybe 200 yards away, was a black bull about the size of a buffalo. He had spotted us inching along through the grass of his pasture and resented it. He stood watching us, mumbling under his breath, and even at 200 yards I knew there was a truculent gleam in his eye. Every few seconds, just to lend emphasis to what he was saying, he dropped his big black head and pawed a handful of turf.
Doc Post was twenty feet away on my right, wiggling along as close to the ground as a sidewinder. I signaled him with a sharp hiss.
HE STOPPED and turned his head my way without lifting his face three inches from the ground. “Look behind you, Doc,” I whispered urgently. “Bull!”
He managed a nod with his nose still down in the grass. “Never mind him,” he snorted. “There’s ducks down in that pothole.” And with that he crawled ahead again.
I went on, but my mind wasn’t on the duck hunt. The bull stayed by the fence, muttering and grumbling, and while we made the rest of that agonized crawl I kept my head twisted over my shoulder most of the time to make sure who was stalking whom.
We were twenty yards from the marsh, the grass was thinning out, and I realized that whatever was going to happen wouldn’t be delayed much longer. Then, right in front of my face, a big gray jack rabbit took off like a bat out of a chimney.
My nerves were geared to the bull back by the fence, and set on a hair trigger. I was stretched out as flat as a living-room rug, literally worming through the short grass. When the rabbit went out I choked back a yell that would have scared the ducks out of half the county. But right after the rabbit’s clattering getaway I heard duck wings ripping the water. Doc bounced up on one knee and his pump gun talked out in three short, solid syllables.
I forgot the bull and the rabbit. I scrambled to my feet and laid two shots across the pond. At the second I saw a duck crumple and drop back to the water with a splash. Then Sam had two shots from the corn on the far side of the pothole, and I counted four ducks that the flock had left behind.
“Spoonbills,” Doc said. “There are other ducks I’d rather shoot, but this isn’t bad for a beginning.”
I started down to the marsh to retrieve but he halted me.
“We’ll get down and wait,” he explained. “Chances are they’ll circle back and give us another shot.”
We lay in the grass and watched the spoonbills swing far out over the corn. I realized the bull had lost interest in us and stopped bellowing and I felt a lot better. Then the ducks headed back, just as Doc had predicted.
They came in over the end of the pond, too high for shooting. They circled and slanted down and made up their minds to alight, and I could hardly believe my eyes. But when thirty feet above the water they seemed to recall suddenly that this was where all the trouble had started five minutes before. They flared and swung off—and a second later they were boring straight over our heads.
It seemed a high shot but I risked it. I missed clean and then the heavier report of Doc’s big gun smashed out and a spoonbill dropped, killed as if hit by a lightning bolt. While we watched them rocket on, a second faltered, lost flight speed, and pitched steeply down into the prairie grass. Doc had made a double with one shot.
We picked up our ducks and held a little council of war. Sam voted to wait in the corn beside this pothole for half an hour while Doc and I tried another pond a couple of fields away.
“Ducks are on the move,” Sam pointed out. “There’ll be more dropping in here. I’ll take a bet I have some pintails or mallards by the time you two get back.” On the next pothole, in the middle of a bare pasture where a stalk was out of the question, Doc and I spotted a flock of close to fifty pintails.
They were huddled in a little raft in the middle of the pond, feeding and making a lot of duck conversation. We watched them from the crest of a low ridge for a quarter hour, trying to scheme up some way of getting near enough for shooting. The chances looked slim but Doc finally hatched a plan.
“I’ll go up to the head of the pond,” he proposed. “Give me fifteen minutes to get set and then crawl along this ridge as close as you can. If you put ’em up they may swing over me. If they’re still on the water in twenty minutes I’ll come down on ’em and drive ’em this way. One of us ought to pick off a couple.”
It sounded good but the ducks upset it. They must have had sentries out; for Doc was still on his way to the head of the pond and I was getting organized for my crawl when they took alarm. They climbed steeply over the far side of the pothole and were gone. I heard Doc hail me.
“Beat it down to the edge of the water and find a place to hide if you can,” he yelled. “They’ll be back!”
I didn’t believe it, not in a place like that, but I did as I was told. We raced for opposite sides of the pond and as I ran I picked the nearest thing to a natural blind anywhere in that pasture. Cattle coming down to water had cut the bank away with their hoofs in one place on my side, leaving a steep dropoff two or three feet high. I could crouch there, and if the ducks came in at the right angle maybe they’d overlook me.
I dropped down under the bank and looked for Doc. There was no shelter of any kind on his side, but a dozen feet above the water a small scrubby cottonwood stood all by itself. Doc was flattened under it, hugging the ground. He saw me watching and jerked a warning arm off to the south. There, sure enough, came the pintails back.
They made a big circle around the pond, out of range but low enough for us to hear the rustling passage of their wings. They were looking the place over. And suddenly to my amazement they seemed satisfied. They swung out over the prairie, wheeled in close formation, set their wings, and came slanting in.
That was a sight I’ll never forget, that band of fifty sprigs planing down, tilting, guiding themselves in the air like a squadron of little monoplanes, the whole bunch coming in without a wingbeat. It was as pretty a piece of duck acrobatics as I’ve ever watched, and even while it happened I couldn’t believe it. There was Doc under his cottonwood, conspicuous as a tombstone in the middle of the cow pasture. And there I was, crouched under the low pank in plain sight of every duck in the flock.
But still they came on, dropping steeply now. They were seventy feet above the water, then fifty, twenty—another beat of time would bring them square between us at easy range. I braced myself to whip the gun up. But I never lifted it. For the pintails at the head of the flock saw us in that last split second before they came within reach of our cross fire. As one duck the bunch flared and pounded up almost vertically. That time they went for good.
Three or four minutes later we heard shooting from Sam’s direction.
“They went that way,” Doc pointed out. “Bet he got him some ducks.”
On the way back to join Sam we circled to take in a little pothole at the edge of a cornfield where Doc had killed three or four mallards the weekend before. We found it empty. Doc was disappointed.
“Ought to be mallards here,” he declared; “it’s a great spot for ’em. I’ve seen—” He broke off suddenly. “Here comes one,” he whispered. “A single. Over your shoulder.”
There was no need to crouch down. We were hidden in a thick growth of sunflowers taller than a man’s head. I twisted around and watched the lone duck come racing in.
“He’s a big greenhead,” Doc whispered. “It’s your turn. Take him!”
I took him. I swung with the duck as he rocketed over. My shot broke his arrowing flight and he turned shapeless and came curving down upon the water.
When we got back to Sam he had collected a couple of pintails and a greenwing teal, and had lost a cripple in the thick grass of the pond, all without leaving his place in the corn. He had had far better shooting than we. We joined him in a hunt for the cripple but after ten minutes of wading we gave up and went back to the cars.
“There’s a great mallard pond a couple of miles down the road,” Doc Post told me. “It’s in the middle of a big cornfield. If there are ducks anywhere in South Dakota today there’ll be greenheads on that pothole!”
I got into Doc’s car for a change and we started off. Less than half a mile on the way to the mallard pond we tangled with another little bunch of pintails. They were in a shallow pothole in a weedy wheat stubble. We spotted them from the road. There was plenty of tall grass for a crawl and it looked like the sweetest set-up we had encountered that morning. What we didn’t know was that the ducks were holding a fortified position. The wheat field was full of sand burs.
Those Dakota sand burs grow anywhere from a foot to three feet high and they form a tangle that’s almost manproof. The burs are in bunches and the stems are loaded with ’em. The spines are a quarter inch long and as sharp as a needle. You walk through an infested field, hunting pheasants, and every few yards you have to stop and pick the burs out of your pants at the back of the knees.
Try getting down on your belly as flat as a bull snake and wiggling through a mess of that stuff!
We were halfway to the pond when I put my hand into the first clump of burs. I cussed and pulled back and looked for a way around the obstacle. I noticed that Sam and Doc had slowed down about the same time.
We wormed ahead, sliding our guns along on the ground, inching around the burs the way you’d go through a mine field. It took us ten minutes to cover the last fifty yards. We made it at last and Doc waved us up with a swift hand signal. The ducks flailed the water in sudden and frantic confusion, and as they lifted clear the guns began to talk. We put down four out of the bunch.
“Should’ve done better,” Doc commented. “That’s a lot of sand burs to crawl through for four pintails!”
A little farther down the road we drove past a small pond at the corner of a farmer’s barnyard. His flock of tame geese drowsed on the muddy bank but there were no other waterfowl in sight. We remarked about it because that was one of the very few potholes we saw that forenoon that were empty of wild birds.
Just after we went past the farm pond I missed my hunting cap and recalled that I had left it back among the sand burs. It was a bright-red leather affair and I had snatched it off and dropped it, fearing the ducks might notice the spot of vivid color through the grass tops.
I called a halt and we went back to pick up the cap. It took maybe five minutes. But when we drove past the barnyard pond the second time six or eight spoonbills were feeding there. They had dropped in as casually as tame ducks in that five-minute interval.
The farmer could have stood in his kitchen door and reached that bunch with a slingshot. We drove just beyond the house, parked, and sneaked back through the sunflowers along the side of the road. When we reached a spot that put the flock of geese out of line of fire we stepped into the open, flushed the shovelers, and blazed away. We got three of ’em.
Then at last we went on to the mallard pond and heard ducks gabbling in the corn when we stepped out of the cars. “They’ll be mallards,” Doc predicted. His eyes were shining. “Let’s do this right!”
We separated so as to come at the pothole from two sides. The weedy corn stood shoulder-high, making the stalk an easy one. Doc and I halted a bit back from the water’s edge and gave Sam five minutes more to get in place. Then we crouched over and covered the last few yards with a rush.
The pond exploded with ducks. There were somewhere between 100 and 200 mallards in that bunch. The whole pothole was alive with them. As they flailed their way up in the steep vertical climb so typical of greenheads we opened on them from the edge of the corn at point-blank range.
Doc shot twice so close together it was almost one gun blast, and I saw two ducks start to drop before I made my first play. I didn’t do so well. Maybe there were too many ducks. Maybe I had mallard fever. Maybe I just shot into the flock. Anyway I poured three rounds out of the 20 gauge, with the marsh in front of me blanketed with rising drakes and Susies, and never lifted a feather.
It was all over in four or five seconds and I stood and watched the big flock wheeling off above the corn, not knowing whether to laugh at myself or get mad and throw the gun after ’em.
“Man, that was shooting!” Doc yelled. “We got six or seven. I can see four from here.”
Sam hailed us from across the pond. “Three down on this side,” he announced.
I waded out after the nearest mallard, saying nothing, and fifty feet in front of me a lone straggler lifted belatedly out of the rushes. What had delayed him I don’t know. Maybe he had made up his mind to skulk and then thought better of it.
He climbed straight up with hammering wings, his green head and chestnut breast glinting in the morning sun that came through the broken clouds overhead. He was a jeweled duck, a perfect mallard drake if ever I saw one. I laid the gun on him as he labored up. He crumpled at the shot and fell like a stone.
“That’s shooting!” Doc yelled again, and now I turned and answered him.
“Doc,” I said, “this pothole hunting of yours is the greatest duck business I ever got mixed up with.”
“Pothole hunting?” Doc looked hurt. “That’s no name for what we’ve done this morning. This is duck hunting—Dakota style. If there’s anything better we don’t know about it out here!”
This text has been minimally edited to meet contemporary standards. Read more OL+ stories.