By John Pollmann
With its mix of grasslands and wetlands, the Prairie Pothole Region of North and South Dakota is the destination for millions of nesting waterfowl each spring.
Come September, that same patchwork of breeding habitat and fields of small grains and row crops becomes a major destination for waterfowl hunters — including many who put together the pieces of a successful hunt on the prairie all on their own.
From mallards to giant Canada geese, there are opportunities aplenty for the freelancer in the Dakotas. Here’s how to do it all season long.
Early Opportunities Abound
The early portion of the fall waterfowl season is highlighted by the variety of options available to a freelance hunter. You may find yourself hunting out of lay-out blinds in fields of harvested grain for mallards, pintails and Canada geese or watching over a small spread of decoys on a cattail-choked slough for blue-winged teal, gadwall and even the occasional wood duck.
If you’re set on only hunting one kind of bird in a specific situation, you’re likely to miss out on a lot of what makes early season hunting so much fun. You can still have priorities, like hunting mallards over water or decoying honkers in the field, but bird behavior in the early season can limit what’s available. So while those mallards might be leaving their roost too early or too late to make a field hunt work, a little slough chock-full of ducks of every kind would make for a lights-out hunt.
And while opportunities may abound, the first weeks of the waterfowl season can be extremely challenging. Most ducks in September and even the first week or two of October are still wearing eclipse plumage, which makes distinguishing hens from drakes really difficult, especially for mallards and pintails. And calling for ducks and geese can be less effective early on, too, which means that scouting and being exactly where the birds want to be is paramount.
Midday is the Way
As September gives way to October, small pushes of birds from the north will open up even more doors for the freelance hunter. The first flocks of snow geese and white-fronted geese may begin pushing into North Dakota along with some early Canada goose migrants.
On the duck side of things, mallards begin to establish more predictable patterns of movement between roost areas and feeding areas, and calendar ducks such as gadwalls and widgeon will start to filter south, providing hot action for hunters looking for a change of pace.
Among the more unique opportunities to arise at this point in the season are those that can be found by scouting during the middle of the day.
After the beginning of the season, both mallards and Canada geese are pretty well conditioned to hunting pressure during their morning and afternoon feeds. Midday movement to day roosts or staging ponds before an afternoon feed can make for some dynamic hunting, as the birds generally aren’t expecting any trouble. However, finding those midday hotspots often requires a little sacrifice.
If you’re hunting in a group and a guy or two are willing, send them out scouting after the first flurry of activity in the morning to see where the birds are going next. You might find honkers loafing away the day in the short grass around a pasture pond, or maybe you’ll find a little willow-lined water spot that mallards or pintails are hitting before bombing the field for their afternoon feed. Whatever you find, if you can land permission on one of these midday spots, you’re in for a treat.
It’s important to note that the ability to ask for permission to hunt a new piece of ground every day is a hallmark of freelancing in the Dakotas, and it’s also something that can’t be taken for granted.
Sealing the deal on a hunt with a handshake is something that just doesn’t happen everywhere. Most landowners enjoy sharing the opportunities found on their place, and the least you can do is make sure to show your respect for that opportunity by picking up after yourself, closing gates and just saying thanks. Leaving a good impression may mean more opportunities somewhere down the road.
Years of freelancing in North Dakota and South Dakota have left a lasting impression on me, and if the thousands of miles on the road and more than a piece or two of pie at small town cafés have taught me anything, it’s that no two seasons are the same in the land where so many waterfowl begin their journey south.
You come to expect the unexpected, especially in the final weeks of the season, when a night of cold, clear weather or a significant weather event can drastically change the landscape and bird behavior.
Staying ahead of the weather is a must during the late season, and when temperatures do take a dive, scouting efforts should shift toward large wetlands, lakes and even rivers — areas that are going to provide open water until Old Man Winter closes the door for good.
Those massive concentrations of hardy species such as Canada geese and mallards that remain can provide world-class decoying action in the surrounding fields. There’s nothing like hunting on that razor’s edge of the migration, and with high risk comes high reward, as those late season hunts can provide memories to last a lifetime.
From beginning to end, a season of waterfowl hunting in North Dakota and South Dakota is full of opportunities for a freelance hunter — a big part of what makes hunting ducks and geese so special up here on the Northern Plains.
10 “Must-Haves” for Every Freelancing Trip
Have plans to freelance and hunt waterfowl in a new area this fall? Here are 10 things you’re going to want to pack before you hit the road.
1. Handheld GPS — A satellite-aided navigation device on the dash of your pickup is a no-brainer in terms of driving from Point A to Point B on your next freelancing trip, but what about using a handheld GPS unit to mark a waypoint on a tricky field approach or, better yet, the exact spot where flocks of hungry mallards are feeding in a harvested cornfield? Using a GPS while scouting helps eliminate confusion in the morning, a time when even a few lost minutes can mean lost hunting opportunities.
2. Plat Map — Many state or county agencies publish plat maps which identify landowner names and contact information for a particular piece of ground. Convenient and time-saving, these maps are a must for the traveling waterfowl hunter. An online search will point you in the right direction for finding the correct maps for your next freelancing destination.
3. A Plan for Your Birds — If all goes well, you’re going to have ducks and geese to clean at the end of a hunt, and after a few successful days, you’ll likely run into problems staying within a given state’s possession limit. Try as you might, it is hard to eat your way out of a possession limit of ducks and geese.
Few hunters are only going to make a trip for a day or two, so the reality is you’ll need a plan for the birds you kill. Before you go, know the rules for transporting birds and see if there are any local food banks or other programs that could make good use of the meat.
4. Walking Boots — A freelancing trip to hunt waterfowl can often be augmented with an afternoon or two of chasing upland birds. And if the waterfowl hunting is particularly slow, a flushing covey of partridge along the edge of a harvested wheat field or the thundering eruption of a rooster pheasant from a stand of switchgrass might just be what the doctor ordered.
5. Tow Strap — When you don’t need it, a tow strap is a 0 on a scale of 1 to 10 in terms of necessary hunting gear, but when you do need it, it’s about a 15. Pack a tow strap or chain before you hit the road on your next freelancing trip. When your buddy’s truck is mired down in a muddy two-track, he’ll sure be glad you did.
6. Scouting Vehicle — Scouting is a top priority on a freelance hunting trip, but the miles of windshield time can eat up a travel budget pretty quickly. If possible, consider using a scouting vehicle. Instead of driving the countryside in a big diesel truck that’s getting 12 miles to the gallon, use a small car instead. You may save enough money in gas in the long run to buy new decoys for next fall.
7. ATV/Sled/Small Boat — If you’re freelancing, you’ll likely be hunting a different area day after day, meaning that decoys, blinds and other gear will have to be moved after each morning or afternoon hunt. An ATV will come in handy in any spot where you can’t drive a bigger vehicle, and a small boat or even a sled like those made by MOMarsh will ease the pain of slugging bags of decoys through a prairie marsh.
8. Local Veterinarian Contact Information — In addition to a first-aid kit for each hunter along on a trip, make sure you carry the contact information for at least one veterinarian’s office located near your hunting destination. Save the phone numbers or other contact information in your cell phone or carry a notecard for quick reference. Either way, in the unfortunate case where you’d need to contact a vet, you’ll be able to get the best care for your dog as quickly as possible.
9. Thank You Notes — Knocking on a door and asking for permission to hunt is still a reality in some areas, and often the landowners you meet will be some of the nicest folks you come across during your hunt. It’s always a good idea to stop by a landowner’s home after a hunt to say thanks, even if the birds didn’t materialize that morning. In the event that they’re not home, drop off a simple thank-you card with your contact information on it. Some landowners might expect a gift — most don’t — but everybody appreciates the effort you show to let them know you’re thankful for the experience. Chances are they’ll remember that the next time you stop around.
10. Traveling Kitchen — What better way to cap off a day freelancing in a new area than preparing a meal using the spoils of the morning’s hunt? If you’ve got room, throw a small charcoal grill in with your gear, or check with your place of lodging to see if there are cooking facilities available. A large plastic tote filled with a collection of pots, pans, plates, utensils, silverware and cooking spices is a good thing to bring along.
Don’t worry if your traveling kitchen is a mismatched collection of items collected at summer yard sales — no one is going to notice. Everyone is going to be too busy telling stories of the hunt and how excited they are to do it all over again in the morning.
About the Author: John Pollmann is a freelance waterfowler and outdoor writer from Dell Rapids, S.D. Follow him on Twitter @JohnPollmann.