Devils Lake Ducks

This sprawling North Dakota lake offers endless public hunting opportunities for freelance waterfowlers
By Wade Bourne

October 26, 2010, was the day "the bomb" dropped on Devils Lake, North Dakota

The temperature plunged into the 20s. Rain showers turned into curtains of snow. Straight-line winds blew upwards of 50 mph for most of the day and night. The barometric pressure was the lowest ever recorded in the U.S. interior—lower even than on that fateful day in 1975 when the ore hauler Edmund Fitzgerald broke apart and sank in Lake Superior. This was one of the most violent storms ever to sweep across the northern plains.

Bob Meek and I greeted this tempestuous morning sitting in his truck watching a county road disappear beneath a froth of angry water. My Go-Devil boat was hitched behind us and my Lab Andy was tucked into his dog crate in the pickup's bed. We were anxious to go duck hunting, but the conditions were just too severe. Instead, we decided to head back to town to wait out the storm. A chili omelet and a late-morning nap seemed more appealing than battling the elements for a few greenheads. Besides, we had already enjoyed two days of spectacular hunting. 

Finding Our Way

Our first morning began ominously. We woke up at 4 a.m. and dressed right away. Bob went outside and came right back into the room. "Fog is so thick you can barely see across the parking lot," he reported. "We're really socked in."

I went to look. The fog hung like a heavy, wet blanket. Bob and I had to navigate several miles along back roads southwest of town to get to our spot, and it would be easy to become disoriented in this soup. Still, we forged ahead. It had been a long drive from Tennessee to North Dakota and we were anxious to burn some powder.

Surprisingly, we drove to our launch site without getting lost. We pulled on waders and loaded gear into the boat. Then we launched as the inky night oozed into a damp gray morning. 

"What now?" Bob asked. We couldn't see more than 10 feet.

"Why don't we hug this cattail line until we hit open water. Then let's stop and wait for the fog to lift so we can see where we're going," I suggested. 

That's what we did, idling parallel to the reeds until we came to what we thought was an opening. We tossed out a dozen decoys just in case, and pushed the boat into the cattails to wait for the fog to rise.

Our wait stretched over several hours. The air was dead calm. Every now and then Bob and I could hear the sound of duck wings beating in the fog. A couple of times ducks flashed into view over our decoys and then disappeared quickly. We kept watch and quacked occasionally on our calls, but our only "takers" were a pair of coots that paddled blissfully through our spread.

Finally, around midday, the fog blew out. We quickly picked up our decoys, got our bearings, and started motoring toward where we'd seen so many ducks the prior afternoon. We still had several hours left to salvage the day.

Navigating through a patchwork of cattails and open ponds, we turned to enter another cut when suddenly mallards began flushing—several hundred birds. There were so many ducks that we could hear the roar of their wings over the noise of the mud motor. Bob looked at me with wide eyes and a big grin on his face. This was his first trip to the prairie pothole country with its boundless skies, which were now filled with a bounty of ducks and geese.

We tossed the decoys out and rammed the boat into the cattails, and soon mallards started filtering back to their resting hole. We picked away at the drakes and had our five apiece in a couple of hours. Andy worked well in the shallows and retrieved several birds that we'd dropped in the thick cover. 

As good as our pothole was, we watched continuous swarms of mallards sailing into another spot several hundred yards to the south. When we finished our shoot, Bob and I headed that way to scout for the next morning's hunt. 

A half-mile later we started kicking up ducks in big numbers. They got up from the cattails in rolling waves. There were dozens here, hundreds there, and finally at least a couple thousand from one hole that was no larger than two acres.

"Let's hunt here in the morning," Bob said, as if I needed any convincing.

The Big Blow

That night we got our first news about the approaching storm. The weatherman on the local news described it as a "bomb." A wedge of arctic air was plunging in from Siberia, bringing high winds, heavy snow and freezing temperatures. Winter was coming early to North Dakota. Bob and I had one day to hunt before the storm hit.

The next morning we were set up in the little two-acre pond at dawn. A trickle of ducks at sunrise turned into a flood by 9 a.m. Line after line of mallards returned to the water after feeding in nearby grainfields. We took turns shooting and each bagged five mallards, plus a pintail and green-winged teal between us, by 9:30. Then we picked up and left quickly so other ducks could return and rest undisturbed. 

The storm struck late that night. The next morning, we loaded up and drove back to the marsh, but hunting was out of the question. The water was whipped into a lather and the temperature was dropping rapidly. One miscue in the boat and we'd be in big trouble, so we wrote the morning's hunt off and headed back to town.

That afternoon we decided to go looking for any hunting possibility we could find. We covered back roads and glassed for a couple of hours. Then we found a point of land that extended into an open-water flat where bluebills and redheads were crossing. We trudged out and sat on the point, hoping for some passing shots. The waves were crashing and covering us in spray. At one point Bob yelled to me, "I never thought I'd get to hunt the coast of North Dakota." We gave up and went back to the motel.

The blow continued all night and into the next day. The wind was still too strong for a boat hunt, so we slept late before heading out to scout for another walk-in hunt. Ducks were stirring and we found several possibilities, but the best spots were posted. 

That left one more day to hunt before starting for home. The weather forecast was perfect for this final morning: temperature in the high 20s, clear skies, northwest wind 15 to 25 mph. We were going back to our honey hole and anticipated new ducks in the marsh. I was tired from four days of hunting and battling the elements, but I had difficulty sleeping that night. I kept thinking about what the morning might bring.

Last Chance Ducks

One thing we didn't anticipate was a frozen boat motor. When we got to the launch site in the predawn, I turned the ignition key and nothing happened. The boat had sat in the motel parking lot for two days in blowing snow and sub-freezing temperatures, and the motor was locked up. We had no option but to drive back to town and thaw it out.

With his full beard and oily Carhartts, Cliff Brekken didn't look like an angel, but he certainly acted like one. "Back your boat into my shop, and we'll get it unfrozen in no time," he said. After a few minutes' heating by blowers and a welding torch, the motor was freed up and purring. Brekken didn't want any payment for helping us, but we forced him to take $20—the best bargain Bob and I found during our trip.

Then we drove back to our launch site and were motoring into the marsh by 9 a.m. The flight of waterfowl was heavy. When we got to open water, large rafts of mallards and Canada geese flushed. We realized the potholes back in the cattails were frozen, so we quickly set up on the edge of a broad open pond. 

The ducks were coming back before we could get our boat covered. They came one flight after another, mostly mallards. It was obvious that the storm had prompted a big push of birds from Canada. Indeed, a second bomb had gone off at Devils Lake this week—an explosion of new ducks.

We shot our limits and a bonus of two Canada geese in short order, and then we sat and watched the spectacle before us. We didn't say much. There was no need for conversation. We reveled in the moment and the great pleasure of simply being there. We'd driven a long way. We'd faced adversity. We'd tested our skills. We'd enjoyed the wildness of this place, and we'd shared in its bounty. Now it was time to go home.

Waterfowl hunters pursue matters of the heart instead of the mind. They seek answers to unspoken questions about themselves and the birds they pursue. Bob Meek and I didn't find all the answers, but we found some of them at Devils Lake. And as we turned back south on Interstate 29, we rode with the quiet contentment that comes from knowing ourselves and each other just a little better.

"You like gospel music?" Bob asked. I nodded, and he put in a CD to help pass the long miles ahead.

About Devils Lake

Devils Lake is a bull's-eye for ducks and geese moving south from Canada's prairie provinces. Historically, this vast, natural lake has attracted large numbers of waterfowl. But rising waters have expanded the lake dramatically, increasing the habitat available for waterfowl.

An extended wet cycle has caused Devils Lake to rise more than 30 feet in the past 18 years. The lake's surface area has grown from 45,000 to more than 200,000 acres. Sadly, dozens of farms have been flooded as the water has crept ever higher. Today, a vast complex of shallow wetlands surrounds the original Devils Lake basin. This catastrophe for farmers has been a boon for ducks and geese that pile in when the fall migration begins. The birds are drawn by an abundance of both food and refuge. As a result, waterfowl numbers in and around Devils Lake have increased significantly as the waters have spread.

All this has created a freelance hunter's paradise. North Dakota law states that as the water rises, the land it covers becomes public domain. Boats can be launched in various places, and hunters can explore the seemingly endless marshes and shallow flats. Ducks and geese are where you find them. Dabblers and geese typically feed in grainfields at dawn and return to loaf in nearby marshes midmorning. Find these resting spots and your waterfowl hunter's dreams can come true.
If You Want to Go For information about lodging, restaurants, and other amenities in the Devils Lake area, contact the local tourism bureau by phone at 701-662-4903 or visit its website at devilslakend.com. Waterfowl hunting regulations are posted online at the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov. This site also includes maps of private land enrolled in North Dakota's PLOTS (Private Lands Open To Sportsmen) program, which offers good public waterfowl hunting in the Devils Lake area.