The Land of a Million Ducks

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

By: T. Edward Nickens
On my knees in the muck, I curled into a tiny ball-"or at least as much of a tiny ball as a man in size 12 neoprene waders could muster. I pressed my face so far into the bulrushes that the windblown reeds threatened to slice my retinas. But there were ducks overhead-"clouds of ducks, more ducks than I had ever seen in my life-"so I took my chances with long-term vision and willed myself not to twitch. Twenty feet in front of me floated a freshly shot shoveler hen, the bird's head propped up with a forked stick. Not much of a decoy spread, but glory of glories, that smiling duck pulled in a lone pintail. Another shot, another forked stick, and I had a pair of real McCoys-"and they worked a multiplier effect on incoming mallards. I dropped the nearest greenhead and grabbed another stick. My motley flotilla didn't draw every bird on the pothole, but it didn't have to. All I needed was a few ducks, and they were coming in by the bucketfuls. I couldn't help but laugh out loud at the perfection and completeness of the moment. There aren't many dreams-come-true in life, so I wallowed in the wonder of this one.
Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

My dream was the dream of every North American duck hunter: Gun the prairie potholes, that sprawling 276,000-square-mile Holy Grail of duck country. When the last glaciers retreated from North America, they scoured out countless depressions in the Dakotas, northern Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, northern Montana, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Manitoba. Those primeval gouges are now multitudes of potholes, sloughs, and prairie marshes scattered across the landscape. And during fall migration, these prairie potholes are covered with ducks. Myth holds that hunters can show up in prairie pothole country and leave behind the cares of access, crowded marshes, and paltry flocks. Every farm, this legend insists, is pocked with ponds, and every pond is black with ducks. In recent years, however, I'd started to hear other tales-"that parts of the prairie pothole region were getting crowded. That no trespassing signs were becoming a familiar sight. Between myself and Lee Davis, a college pal and fellow waterfowling maniac, we had 60 years of East Coast ducking experience. But could we show up on the Saskatchewan prairies, find water, find birds, find farmers, gain permission, and finally put it all together in front of a shotgun bead?Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

To find out, we flew in to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, picked up photographer Greg Sweney, and crammed four dozen decoys, one motorized mallard, decoy sleds, field blinds, camera gear, guns, and a mountain of waders and fleece into a white Suburban. We headed into swales of prairies laden with barley, wheat, peas, and oats. We looked out the windows and shook our heads. "Well, here we are,-¿ Davis said. "Now what?-¿Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

On the Road
We'd imagined flat land, and there was plenty. But we also found rolling plains with 100-foot contours, ribbons of white-barked poplars and willows, and hunks of wooded country. And hundreds of miles of unmarked dirt roads and gravel paths. "Saskatchewan has figured out how to save money on road signs,-¿ Davis groused during our first full afternoon of scouting. "There aren't any.-¿
Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

But weeks before our trip I'd ordered a pair of 1:250,000 topographic maps and had them laminated. Now 9 square feet of map stretched across the dashboard, and I kept a pen on the grid lines at all times, counting aloud the intersections, circling hidden waterways and potholes tucked out of sight of the road. While I'd ordered the topo maps, Davis embarked on a more difficult odyssey: securing Rural Municipality, or RM, maps of Saskatchewan townships in our hunt area. RM maps carry landowner data denoted quarter-section by quarter-section, plus the names at each occupied farmhouse. Davis spent weeks tracking down the charts, and they proved no less helpful in killing ducks than working shotguns. For hours each afternoon we cruised for birds, trying to connect ducks on a pothole to names on a map and a willing farmer on the other end of the phone line.Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

One particular pothole had us swooning. In the last hour of light one day, we spied a glimmer of water at 300 yards and 35 mph. "Wait! Ducks!-¿ Sweney hollered from the backseat. Davis locked up the truck. Below a low ridge spattered with white boulders, hundreds of birds clotted a 2-acre pothole. White Rocks!! I jotted down on the map. We had found our spot. Next came what we thought would be the hard part. That night, Davis had phone duty. We listened as he put his Southern charm to good use: "Yes, ma'am, we're up here from North Carolina... Yes, ma'am, that's the pothole as near as I can tell from the map... Yes, ma'am, I saw that tractor, that's the one... Really? You don't mind?-¿ He hung up and danced a little jig. "And I quote,-¿ he said, grinning, "-¿Go in there and get 'em!'-¿Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

Ten hours later we were back at White Rocks. Standard operating procedure for pothole hunting is to show up at sunrise and let the birds leave the roost water, then set up for their return. It's a far cry from our 4 A.M. death marches and fog-shrouded boat rides into duck waters back home. "I can't get used to hanging out at the truck until half an hour after shooting light,-¿ Davis muttered as hundreds of mallards, wigeon, pintails, and teal lifted from the pothole into the sky. "It feels like we're late, and messing up.-¿Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

Finally I could take it no longer. I picked up a decoy bag. "Right or wrong,-¿ I said, "I gotta get in the water.-¿ We tossed out every decoy we had, then hunkered down in a stand of reeds some 20 feet from shore. "Let the games begin,-¿ said Sweney. Before our own ripples could dissipate, the ducks came home. Sweney hissed the first warning. "From the left! From the left!-¿ "No, they're on the right!-¿ Davis countered. "Man, look at 'em! They're coming like bees!-¿Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

Within a minute we were pinned down by ducks-"quacking mallards, wigeon and teal whistling, the sound of wings in every direction. Most of the birds boiled over the ridgeline in front of us and then dropped like rocks for the pothole. We picked out drakes and soon were taking turns. Davis was holding out for a wigeon drake at 20 yards or less. Bam. Next, a pintail. Bam. "If I don't pull the trigger for the next four days,-¿ he whispered, "I'll still be a happy man.-¿ Before long we simply put down the guns. We had ducks aplenty for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and 11 more hours of daylight ahead. Quietly we stood in the reeds and watched them pour in. Sweney shook his head. "It's like five seasons' worth of hunting in a single morning.-¿ "It almost doesn't seem right,-¿ Davis added. "The hardest part was crossing a barbed-wire fence.-¿Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

The Duck Vacuum
One of the things we most wanted to do was hunt ducks in a field, but after three days of glassing, no dice. We watched small numbers of birds drop into stubble to feed, but there seemed to be no pattern to their choices-"why this field when it was surrounded by hundreds more? Then, early one afternoon, we spotted two dozen ducks packed into a wet spot hardly worthy of the name pothole. Except this patch of water was surrounded by a pea field. It was covered in waste grain. Sweney watched the field through binoculars while I scratched my head over the RM map. Deciphering this parcel's ownership proved tricky. Most of the time quarter-section boundaries are fairly obvious, marked by a stake in the ground, swaths of grain that run in different directions, or hedgerows. Not this one. It took two farm visits and directions from a kid driving a small tractor to find the right house. A woman came to the door with hands wet from washing dishes and invited me right in. After a brief two-way radio conversation with her husband, on a combine on some distant field, she came back with a nod.
Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

But there was a bigger problem. Sweney and I dragged our gear across the field, scattering ducks like coveys of quail, while Davis hid the truck. When my partner joined us at the edge of the muckhole, I was more than slightly downcast. "There's good news and bad news,-¿ I reported. "I'll bite. Give me the good news first.-¿ "Okay. They're all ducks.-¿ "And the bad news?-¿ "Every one of those ducks was a spoonie.-¿ But our hands were tied: We were low on fuel and an hour away from the nearest gas station. Our hunt was here and now, or not going to happen.Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

For half an hour we stuffed pea stems and chaff into the foliage loops on our field blinds. I crawled inside and closed the doors. Our meager spread of decoys sat motionless in the 4-inch-deep muck, but "Flappy,-¿ our motorized mallard, hummed like a high-tension line. It didn't take long. A pair of mallards maple-leafed into range, and I dropped the greenhead. Then the world turned into feathers.Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

"Look up, ya'll!-¿ I hissed. Already I could see swirling flecks of black stacked up overhead. They were on us so fast we barely had time to pick out targets-"mallards in flocks of 10 and 100, skirring above us so close I could see their eyeballs pivoting, looking for a place to land. The birds never stopped coming. For 20 minutes we lay in the blinds, silent, watching as hundreds of mallards, pintails, gadwall, wigeon, and shovelers swirled overhead, in range, sometimes mere feet away. Without a word we seemed to be in agreement: Watch and wonder. Make it last and soak it in, because we'd never seen anything like this and we might never again.Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

Granted, we were the beneficiaries of the wettest spring and summer any farmer in these parts could recall. A late harvest had the fields full of grain. It was astonishing. In two and a half hours, we figured, 3,000 ducks came within shotgun range. Of course, it wasn't always so easy. We hunted promising potholes that didn't deliver. A time or two we got skunked. But we learned that the prairie pothole formula works: Smile big. Be nice. Never hunt without permission. And spend as much time looking through the windshield as peeking over the edge of a blind.Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

A Good Day to Be a Wigeon
We'd been saving a Ducks Unlimited canada marsh for our final shoot, crossing our fingers that no other hunters would stumble across the 25-acre wetland screened by brush and tall pasture. Since it was the day after Canadian Thanksgiving, we wondered if local hunters might have the day off. We arrived well before dawn to make sure we were first in line. We shouldn't have worried about a crowd, because there wasn't another hunter in sight. If it weren't such a perfect scene, it would be easy to discount the next two hours as just another prairie pothole hunt-of-a-lifetime, albeit the third one of the week. But after five days I was still stunned by the sheer number of birds; at the prairie's windswept beauty; at the kindness of the farmers; at the way the earth trembled when 1,000 birds decided to fly.
Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

Each hunt had its own charms, this one included. Redheads were mixed into the wigeon flocks at a ratio of perhaps 1 to 100, a challenge we couldn't help but take up. We swapped turns picking out those trophy divers, passing up shots of wigeon by the hundreds. "I don't know much about Canadian Thanksgiving,-¿ Davis said. "But today should be Wigeon Thanksgiving, because these birds don't know how lucky they are.-¿ I knew how lucky we'd been. After scratching down a double on redhead drakes, it was over for me, and I jacked the shells out of my gun. "I'm gonna give this marsh a rest.-¿ "Don't you have one more duck for a limit?-¿ Davis asked. But there wasn't room in my brain for one more memorable moment. I looked up at the prairie sky. Ducks and ducks and more behind them. "Yeah,-¿ I said. "But I'm coming back for that one.-¿Greg Sweney
DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

DIY Duck Hunting Saskatchewan's Prairie Pothole Country

Pothole Practicalities
The basics of ducking the potholes remain consistent across prairie country. For an in-depth primer, check out the duck hunting forum on www.nodakoutdoors.coma>. Gear: Hunters within driving range show up with trailers full of gear. In truth, though, chest waders, a motorized spinning-wing decoy, and three to four dozen floaters are all you need to get the job done. Of greater impact are local landowner maps and a big smile. Modus operandi: A typical day begins with a morning hunt, lunch, and then an afternoon spent scouting. At sundown you'll be at your next morning's location, "putting it to bed-¿-"checking to see that no one hunts it late in the afternoon and ruins it for you the next day. Even in areas where local laws allow trespass without permission, always find the owners and ask. It's the only way to ensure that they'll say yes to the next guy-"who might be me. -"T.E.N.
Greg Sweney