The Sooner the Better

When the weather turns cold, thousands of waterfowl pour into Oklahoma‚Äôs northern tier.

By Gary Koehler

Our original plan is to hunt flooded timber, dutifully scouted well in advance by Elmo Halverson, who reports seeing ducks regularly using this hole just off the Arkansas River. Then a cold snap creeps into northern Oklahoma and the temperature retreats to 22 degrees overnight. Frozen tundra is one thing, a frozen beaver pond another.

Sure enough, after a hasty ATV ride from the truck to the secluded timber haven, Halverson returns with a somber face. His chin droops to his chest. “It’s all locked up,” he says. “Locked up tight. I’m not sure what we should do now. Everything but the river is frozen.”

This comes as no surprise to any of the four of us hanging out in the warmth of the vehicle. Hmmm. What we have here is a dilemma. The sun is on the rise. Our options are minimal.

“One end of the pond is not too deep, so maybe we should take another look and try to shoot it,” Halverson says. “We’re going to have to break ice, but I think we might be able to get in there and make a big enough hole.”

“That’s better than standing here,” Barnie Calef says. “We might as well give it a try.”

With a game plan now in the works, decoys are loaded onto the back of an ATV, along with additional gear. This exercise will take more than a couple of trips. And then there’s the matter of not spooking the herd of 200 or so cattle intently watching us from the adjacent pasture.

By the time I hike to the beaver pond, two-year-old Chessie pup in tow, Iowans Art and Greg Ladehoff, Calef, and Halverson are well on their way to cleaning out an opening in the inch-thick ice. Their only tool is a garden shovel. Sheets are broken off and slid under the peripheral ice. Years of experience have taught them that smashing the ice into cubes does not work well.

There is relatively little cover, save for scattered scrub trees, a few stumps, and a patch of cattails. Sitting still will be important, if we are lucky enough to see a duck.

“This is such a small hole, we’re going to have to be really careful with movement and calling,” Calef says. “If there are any ducks around, they are going to be looking for open water. We’ve got some, at least. Let’s sit and wait awhile and see what happens.”

It does not take long before that riddle is answered. A pair of mallards circle twice before deciding they are not interested. But then three gadwalls appear. Same result. Maybe the hole is not quite big enough.

Calef, who impressed enough judges to win three world duck calling championships over the years, has been personally challenged and is now in hunt mode. He pleads long and hard to the apparently spooky birds. Four gadwalls respond. These ducks are seeking a quiet place to sit.

They are welcomed by the Ladehoffs. There are now gray ducks on the ice, in the hole, and one on the bank. The pup, whose Tennessee upbringing is reflected in her name—Our Lady Vol Kayla—is unsure which bird to pursue. First blood will do that.

“Gadwalls are a whole ‘nother story. They can be tough,” Calef says. “Sometimes they just don’t want to commit. Gadwalls can be really frustrating some days.”

And so plays out the morning into early afternoon. We benefit from a clear and sunny sky. Gadwalls—stubborn or not—account for the bulk of the bag, but barrel-chested mallards and green-winged teal add rich color to the mix.

“I’m surprised that we did as well as we did,” Art Ladehoff says. “It didn’t look very promising early this morning.”

True enough, but Halverson, also a native Iowan and former Ducks Unlimited area chairman, has been pursuing ducks in this region for 25 years. Headquartered this trip in Ponca City, his (at this point) one-man guide service (Big Creek Outfitters, 918-381-8468) has access to private lands north and south of town.

“Oklahoma is different from many other places because you have to be willing to be mobile,” Halverson says. “I do a ton of scouting. There’s a lot of work involved. But the last seven or eight years, we have had phenomenal duck hunting. The word has gotten out, and there are a lot more hunters coming to the area.”

Ponca City, Halverson says, is located within a metaphorical funnel. The nearby Salt Plains National Wildlife Refuge (32,000 acres), Kaw Lake (17,000 acres), and Sooner Reservoir (5,400 acres) attract tens of thousands of migrating waterfowl. The Arkansas River also holds its share.

“We have birds from the beginning of November until the end of the season,” Halverson says. “On the river, you can expect to see a little bit of everything in terms of waterfowl species.”

Mallards are on the menu our second day in the field. This time we are sequestered along a stretch of sparsely vegetated riverbank. Decoys are set in the current and on a sandbar in the middle of the shallow stream.

“We’re going to have a hard time hiding here, too,” says    Greg Ladehoff. “But if the birds fly right down the channel, it’s going to get very interesting.”

Greenheads follow the script to a fault, although not at a breakneck pace. No, this is one-or-two-at-a-time gunning. And it grows slower as the morning wears on and the wind direction varies.

But high overhead, we see flock after flock of ducks and geese heading out to feed in agricultural fields. Corn, beans, milo, and wheat are big in this part of the state. The fall’s corn harvest, in fact, shattered records.

“January might be the best time to hunt here,” Halverson says. “While we always have some birds, sometimes we don’t get a really big push before then. The birds we saw today literally arrived overnight. Those were all new birds.”

This day’s outing ends up totally green: all mallard drakes. They are dressed to the max, colored up in their finest and most vivid hues. These are trophy ducks, anytime, anywhere.

“It used to be, when you talked about duck hunting in Oklahoma, some people might laugh, or think you were a little weird,” Halverson says. “It’s not like that anymore.”

Better than just OK, to be sure.