PHOTOS: Pothole Ducks

Photos by: Joel Sheagren As the first strains of light bled across the eastern horizon, the night bid farewell with a final, frigid tantrum. The cold air piled up and spilled forward, rushing ahead of the warming sun and stinging the men with its bitter chill. They were submerged to their waists in ice-skimmed water and had to struggle to remain upright. Their legs and feet were numb, their muscles wrenched in shivers.Outdoor Life Online Editor
But in the trembling, there was also a quiver of anticipation, and it was this feeling alone that steadied each hunter and urged him forward. I stood with them, eruptions of white breath rising about my face, and shared their excitement for what the approaching minutes might bring.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Our eyes were aimed heavenward, bearing witness to the last failing stars, when the first rush of wings crackled overhead.
"Teal," a voice whispered from back in the rushes. It was our guide, Paul Majors. I could just make out the black shapes of the birds as they sped across the sky.
Another rush of wingbeatsâ€"constant, steady, beautiful and this time punctuated by a splashâ€"and then another.
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Ripples filled our spread, as two of the ducks lit among the decoys. More airborne shadows banked just above our heads, and we shifted the guns restlessly in our hands.Outdoor Life Online Editor
"Steady, boys, steady. We still have another minute until legal shooting time," drawled Majors (pictured), his Alabama accent out of place in this frigid South Dakota landscape. Each year he and his good friend Robert Rudder make the long drive north to guide duck hunters at Prairie Sky Guest and Game Ranch, in Veblen (prairieskyranch.com). The locale, better known for its phenomenal pheasant hunting, is also a hot spot for waterfowlers.Outdoor Life Online Editor
It lies in the heart of the famed prairie pothole region-America's duck factory-where more than 10,000 years ago glaciers scooped huge divots out of the land. These divots-or, more accurately, potholes-filled with water, creating vital wetlands and nesting habitat that produces as much as 50 percent of the continent's waterfowl.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Traveling down the Central and Mississippi flyways each fall, millions of ducks pass through the region, which covers North and South Dakota, Minnesota, parts of Wisconsin and northwest Iowa. Ducks Unlimited has placed the expanse at the top of its list of the "25 most important and threatened waterfowl habitats on the continent." I was about to get a taste of why it tops the lists of so many waterfowlers.Outdoor Life Online Editor
OL's Doug Howlett I was one of a group of some 20 hunters who, because of our numbers, were broken into four parties for the morning. Earlier in the week, when the October weather had been milder, other hunters had found success sitting just off the open sheet water that flooded the crop fields. There, ducks could pitch into the shallow water and feed on the plentiful millet, corn and waste grains.Outdoor Life Online Editor
The other guides and hunters were sticking with that plan. But with the temperatures plummeting to near single digits over the previous two nights, our guide had decided to take a gamble.Outdoor Life Online Editor
"We're going to set up on a little pond adjacent to a marsh where those ducks have been roosting," Majors said as we rumbled across a dark pasture in a pair of Polaris Rangers. "That sheet water in the fields is going to be frozen, and I think the ducks are going to dump into the deeper water."
The plan was to pull the camo-painted Rangers right to where we were going to hunt, unload and then pull them to cover where they would blend in with the terrain.
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The hunters would then wade in among the reeds and cattails that formed in large clumps around and in the pothole. Fortunately, the ride had saved precious minutes that were needed to arrange our spread, as we had to break ice to set the dekes. In the hide, we realized that the small stools we had brought to sit on were useless. The water was too deep, in some places up to our ribs. We were going to have to stand.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Majors studied his watch as if it were the New Year's ball dropping in Times Square. During the fourth or fifth wave of ducks-now plainly visible against the brightening sky-Majors barked, "Take 'em." Our shotguns, a cadre of Brownings and Winchesters, erupted like cannons. Several ducks tumbled. I was certain I had hit none.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Majors commanded his black Lab forward, and within minutes it had navigated the water and ice mix to retrieve the fowl. In the process, it had also broken new holes for ducks to drop into. And they did. The Lab was still in the water when four mallards swung around, banked and set their wings. A volley of shots claimed two from the group. This time I had stuck with a single incomer until he crumpled in midair.Outdoor Life Online Editor
I was reloading when some wigeon dove past, circled close and then tried to flare. It was too late. Shots thundered as I stood by and watched. But my gun was up when the next group rolled in from behind. I fired, the first bird dropped, and as a second climbed skyward to escape, my barrel caught up to it and sent it spiraling. Fellow hunters Kevin Howard, representing Winchester and Browning, and Gary Koehler, with Ducks Unlimited, were making short work of each incoming flock. I was simply trying to keep up.Outdoor Life Online Editor
When we stumbled from the frigid waters a little more than an hour later, we were close to our limit despite the bluebird day that had developed. At the peak of shooting, we had observed hundreds, at one time thousands, of ducks rising from the distant marsh. Several of us slid along the reeds that bordered the bigger water and were quickly rewarded with passing shots that completed our limit. The hefty brace included a mix of mallards, wigeon, a few pintails and even one Canada goose.Outdoor Life Online Editor
The next morning, I headed afield with Mossy Oak's Bill Suggs and Butch English. Most of us were sporting hats with the camo company's new pattern, Duck Blind, on them. Rudder would be leading us. Fueled by the previous day's success, another group, led by Majors, would be joining us near the marsh, and as luck (or misfortune) would have it, I was soon chest-deep in freezing water again.Outdoor Life Online Editor
Despite another clear morning, the ducks politely obliged our efforts. The pace was less intense than it had been the previous dawn, but we benefited from the other group shooting a mere quarter-mile away. The commotion in both directions kept ducks in the air. We were five birds shy of our limit when the other hunters returned, shot out for the day.Outdoor Life Online Editor
"They're still flying pretty decent over there," Majors announced. "And there's a great little rise with good cover where you can set up out of the water and shoot." That was all we needed to hear.Shivering and numb, we staggered ashore and made our way to the point. It jutted into a deep sluice of water surrounded by towering rushes. Mallards continued to track across the sky as we moved into position. In short order, we completed our limit.Outdoor Life Online Editor
As we rumbled homeward in the Polaris, I felt a deep disappointment that the hunt was over. Only a few whitetail hunts back East remained on my fall schedule, and despite being a big-game fanatic, I couldn't see how those hunts would stack up to the excitement I had just experienced.
"But if I lived here," I caught myself now completing my thought aloud to Paul Majors, "I'd hunt ducks every day. I'd hunt them like it was my job." He just looked at me and smiled.
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2007 Forecast
It should be another banner year for ducks and duck hunters as the first seasons open. Duck populations are 14 percent higher than they were last year, with five species at or near record highs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates. The results were reported in the agency's Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, which samples 1.3 million square miles across parts of the north-central United States, Canada and Alaska. An Eastern survey puts populations at last year's levels, with increases in black ducks and ring-necked ducks. The overall population exceeds 41 million birds. Mallards are the most populous at 8.3 million, a million more than last year.
Redheads (1 million), canvasbacks (865,000) and northern shovelers (4.6 million) are all at record highs. Blue-winged teal (6.7 million) and gadwall (3.4 million) numbers are at near-record levels for those species.
Outdoor Life Online Editor
2007 Forecast
It should be another banner year for ducks and duck hunters as the first seasons open. Duck populations are 14 percent higher than they were last year, with five species at or near record highs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) estimates. The results were reported in the agency's Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey, which samples 1.3 million square miles across parts of the north-central United States, Canada and Alaska. An Eastern survey puts populations at last year's levels, with increases in black ducks and ring-necked ducks. The overall population exceeds 41 million birds. Mallards are the most populous at 8.3 million, a million more than last year.
Redheads (1 million), canvasbacks (865,000) and northern shovelers (4.6 million) are all at record highs. Blue-winged teal (6.7 million) and gadwall (3.4 million) numbers are at near-record levels for those species.
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Quittin' time comes early beneath South Dakota's mallard-filled skies. OL's Doug Howlett gets in on the action.