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A Freelancer's Guide to the Prairie Pothole Region

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Late-Season Magic

Years of freelancing in the PPR have taught Georgia waterfowler Mark Smith that some of the best hunting of the season can occur right before freeze-up, but the conditions can be challenging for those who don't come prepared. "You learn to expect the unexpected up on the prairie, especially if you're hunting during the latter stages of the season," Smith says. "One day can make a big difference when you're hunting at the end of October or into November. One clear, cold night and the water you were planning to hunt the next morning can be locked up tight, and all the birds you were planning to hunt could be gone." 

Nevertheless, Smith says good hunting opportunities often remain on the prairies even after most wetlands are covered in ice. "Deep snow is a deal-breaker, but if you're just battling the cold and some ice, chances are you can still find birds and lots of them," he says. "I've watched mallards pile back into an area from the south a day or two after a cold front has moved through. The wind and cold were enough to get them moving, but if there is little or no snow cover on the fields, many of the birds will come back and use open water on larger wetlands, lakes, and rivers."

Smith notes that in bitter-cold temperatures, waterfowl will often shift to a once-a-day feeding pattern, and if the birds don't show up at first light, it's best to just sit tight. "Ducks and geese that are trying to keep water open will often wait until it warms up a little before going out to feed," he says. "Late-season afternoon hunts with the sun and wind at your back can be the stuff of legends.

"There's risk in planning a late-season hunt on the prairies, but with that risk comes big rewards," Smith adds. "To me, there's nothing like hunting on the razor's edge of the migration; it's what keeps me coming back."

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