South Dakota Spectacular

The hunt of a lifetime is the reward for days of hard scouting in this state's prairie pothole country 

Written by Gary Koehler
Photos by David J. Sams


Roughly two hours removed from Aberdeen Regional Airport, we are sitting in a pickup truck staring blankly at a harvested cornfield situated on the far side of a dusty gravel road. Don't ask me where we are. But if this isn't the middle of nowhere, it's got to be nearby.

Martin Hesby, who is in the driver's seat, is fussing with a pair of binoculars. Next he checks his watch. And then glances at his cell phone. I'm hoping he has a GPS handy because it doesn't look like he has packed any provisions.

Hesby is at the tail end of a 14-day vacation from his job at a wireless communications company. He has spent his time in the state's northern tier resourcefully, alternately pursuing ducks, ring-necked pheasants, and white-tailed deer. During his stay, he has also put a few extra miles on his truck, more than 300 today alone.


Long-distance driving is part of the duck-hunting regimen in this part of the world. At least for ambitious sorts such as Hesby and his partner Tyson Keller, who is off somewhere surveying other cornfields. Scouting, they insist, is critical to their success. And they've got proof. "Just watch," Hesby says as midafternoon begins to turn into early evening. "You're going to be stunned. I can almost guarantee that."

Hesby has been babysitting this field for three days. He found it during one of his multiple-mile duck reconnaissance missions. The landowner was subsequently located and permission to hunt here was acquired.

"I've been hunting ducks up here for 20 years and I've never, ever seen a feed like this one," Hesby says. "Last night, I think there were about 50K in this field."

    
Hmmmm... 50,000 ducks? Right. Who is he trying to kid? Do I really look that naïve? Does he realize how many ducks that is? Still, I say nothing. And continue staring into a mostly clear sky.
    
"There they are," Hesby says half an hour later, binoculars in hand. "They're starting to come back to feed."
    
Sure enough, a flock of maybe 300 mallards circles our field before dropping in. And then another flock. And another. This all-out invasion continues nonstop for more than two hours. We stay past dark, and do not leave until we can no longer see winged silhouettes in the sky. "That's where we'll be in the morning," Hesby says. "Right in the middle of that cornfield."

Hesby and Keller have been hunting together for several years as friends and members of the Avery pro staff. Keller is a Pierre native. Hesby, well, his introduction to South Dakota is worth recounting.

    
"I'm originally from Virginia," Hesby says. "My father was a retired navy man. He spent two years at South Dakota State when he was in college, so when it came time for me to select a school, we decided to visit Brookings.
    
"I looked over the campus for about 20 minutes," Hesby continues, "and spent the next three days hunting ducks. After that, I knew exactly where I wanted to go to school."
    
So here we are, early on a Wednesday morning in November, accompanied by publisher-photographer David Sams, a Texan who has hunted ducks and geese in any number of venues. The sky is overcast. It's 41 degrees—the coldest weather thus far this year here—and there's a bite in the air. We dig into the back of the trailer and unload 180 full-body duck decoys, four layout blinds, guns, and gear.   

Forty-five minutes later, Keller and Hesby make last-second adjustments to the carefully placed decoy spread and then crawl into their blinds. "Cover up," Keller says. "If there are as many birds as Martin says there are, this oughta be something."

Reaching Out to Ranchers
Cattle and ducks need the same things for a healthy existence—water and grass. Ducks Unlimited believes that makes for a natural partnership between DU and ranchers.
    
"We have the same basic interest—keeping grass and water on the landscape," says Randy Meidinger, DU's manager of conservation programs in South Dakota. "If we want to retain that grass and water in South Dakota, we must reach out to the people who own and manage the bulk of the native prairie."
    
South Dakota is located in the heart of the Duck Factory and is home to some of the continent's largest blocks of contiguous native prairie. To date, DU has spent more than $27 million in this state, conserving nearly 400,000 acres.
    
This past year DU restored a property near Woonsocket, providing essential waterfowl breeding and migration habitat. DU seeded 100 acres of former cropland to grass, restored six wetlands, and controlled noxious weeds before selling the land to the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department, which will keep the property open for public hunting.
    
The bulk of DU's dollars in South Dakota go to purchasing conservation easements from ranchers and other landowners, protecting prairie in the best-of-the-best waterfowl breeding grounds. Grassland, however, is being converted to cropland faster than DU can secure it. Jim Ringelman, DU's director of conservation programs in the Dakotas and Montana, hopes more cattle producers will join the fight to save grass and water.
    
"We've offered ranchers programs like grazing systems and conservation easements, but we must do more to develop programs to fit their needs," Ringelman says. "We're looking for ways we can help them be successful. If producers continue raising cattle, that grass will continue providing nesting habitat for ducks."
—Becky Jones-Mahlum


Legal shooting time is upon us. Ducks begin arriving as if on cue. There are perhaps 200 in the first flock, mostly mallards. Waves of their brethren dance in the distant sky.

"Greenheads and pintail drakes," Hesby whispers. "That's what we're after. No brown ducks. No teal. And no wigeon."
    
I'm antsy. Ducks are fluttering over the decoys. The whup-whup of flailing wings is all around us. Three mallards land just to my left. A long-handled net could easily scoop up the trio.

"We better take some of these," Keller says, "because the tornado above us is getting way too big. We don't want to educate too many of them at one time."

    
Hesby calls the shot. But which bird to shoot? There are so many. I remind myself to pick out one and stay with it until it falls. Four shotguns roar. The ducks are backpedaling. At least half a dozen tumble to the ground.

Everyone reloads and prepares for Act II. Again, only minutes later, another flock is descending quickly. Two more enormous bunches follow. The pale sky becomes a mottled canvas of green and brown and white with a mix of dangling orange feet thrown in. This is high-definition gunning on the widest of wide screens. Shotguns bark again. More birds are down. 

I'm shaking. And absolutely astounded. There is seemingly no end to this duck parade. At least once I pinch myself, just to make sure this is not one of those classic dreams that duck hunters endure the night before opening day. No, this is real. The sky is full of ducks. And we're right below them. We are sitting not only on the elusive "X," but also the U, V, W, and Z. Upon further review, we've likely got the entire alphabet covered. It's as if every duck in South Dakota has been summoned to a special meeting in this field.

    
It takes us all of about 20 minutes to shoot four limits. And, uh, that lone wigeon? I confess. Then we case the guns and watch the feed continue, peering from behind tiny mesh layout blind windows.
 
"Shooting's great," Hesby says an hour later, as we begin to gather gear. "But it's all about the show. There's nothing like the show."

And he's right. The production we just witnessed would play well to duck-hunting audiences in Peoria, or on Broadway. The consensus among us is that there were at least 20,000 ducks in this quarter-section field during the course of the spectacle.

Sams looks at me. "Did you ever see anything like that?" he asks.
    
I do not have to think twice about my answer. "Nope. Never."
   
The following morning finds us in the same field, although our position has been adjusted a bit in deference to the wind. Decoys are again deployed. Layout blinds are draped in stubble. "I was hoping for a little more sun today because it's easier to hide the layout blinds," Hesby says. "The cornstalks have a sheen to them that reflects the light and blends right in. And the birds, they really shine in the sun, too. I like them colored up."

    
Shooting chores take a little longer this morning, but we're done by 8:30. To no one's surprise, duck numbers have diminished. In addition to our hassling, the ducks had already eaten everything they could find in this field. They'll likely move on to another site tomorrow. The radio weatherman predicts a steep drop in temperature overnight.
    
"Once it turns really cold up here, which will be any day now, the birds seldom go out and feed in the morning," Keller says. "They go out late in the afternoon. Our theory is that they stay on the water to keep it open. There's really only a small window when you hunt them in the afternoon."
    
Whatever the case, while Hesby will soon head home for a weekend of more deer hunting, Keller is planning on jumping back in his truck in search of the next big feed. "Between us, we put on more than 3,000 miles scouting the past week," Keller says. "We've learned that's often what it takes to find just the right spot."
    
Topping this particular field will take some doing. Subtle imposters are everywhere. But the truly spectacular reveals its identity only sparingly, even in South Dakota.

Pheasant Hunting is Big Business
Ring-necked pheasants, which share South Dakota's grasslands and wetlands with waterfowl, are an important economic resource in the Mount Rushmore State. While last season's financial figures are not yet available, resident and nonresident upland gunners spent nearly $220 million here in 2009.
    
South Dakota remains one of only a few midwestern states whose pheasant population has remained strong—often upwards of 8 million birds. Hunters have bagged more than a million roosters every year here since 1992. The daily limit remains three per day.

More than 5 million acres of public land and leased private land are open to the public. Walk-in areas leased for public access are clearly marked with signs. Those who wish to hunt on private land are advised to make arrangements prior to their trip to South Dakota.
    
The pheasant season typically opens in mid-October and runs through the first of January. Nonresident small-game licenses are available for a total of 10 days in two five-day periods. Pheasant brood counts for specific areas are normally posted online around September 1.


FOWL FACT
LOTTERY HUNT Nonresident waterfowl hunters who wish to hunt ducks in South Dakota must apply for a limited number of permits chosen by lottery prior to the season. Check with the South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks Department (gfp.sd.gov) for details.    

INTERNET
To see more of David Sams' photos and watch video of the author's incredible South Dakota duck hunt, visit the DU website at www.ducks.org/SouthDakota.