A Freelancer's Guide to the Prairie Pothole Region

By John Pollman

With a mix of grasslands, croplands, and wetlands, the Prairie Pothole Region (PPR) of the north-central United States and southern Canada supports millions of breeding and migrating waterfowl. In the fall, the PPR is also a favorite destination for waterfowlers, who come from across the nation to experience the magic of the prairie for themselves. From teal to mallards to giant Canada geese, plenty of opportunities exist for freelancers to sample some of the finest waterfowling the PPR has to offer. Here's how to do it.

Early Opportunities Abound

September 1 marks the beginning of the waterfowl season across much of the PPR.

Veteran waterfowl guide Ben Fujan says staying flexible is always important for freelance hunters on the prairies, but especially early in the season. "If you limit yourself to certain species in specific habitats, you're likely to miss out on a lot of what makes early-season hunting on the prairies so much fun," Fujan says. "You can still have priorities, like hunting mallards over water or honkers in the fields, but weather and habitat conditions can determine what's available at a particular time and place. Also, those mallards might be leaving their roost too early or too late to make a field hunt work, but that little slough chock-full of ducks of every kind could make for a lights-out hunt."

While early-season ducks are often easier to hunt than late-season birds, hunters face their own challenges at this time of year. "In September and even early October, many ducks still have their drab plumage, which makes distinguishing drakes from hens difficult," Fujan says. "And calling can be less effective early in the season, too, which means scouting and being exactly where the birds want to be is paramount."

Midday is the Way

As September gives way to October, influxes of migratory waterfowl from the north provide even more hunting opportunities for prairie waterfowlers. Light geese and specklebellies stack up on staging lakes and adjacent grainfields, mallards fall into more predictable flight patterns between roosting and feeding areas, and "calendar ducks" such as gadwalls, wigeon, canvasbacks, and redheads congregate on larger potholes in preparation for their trip south.

While freelancing in the PPR, waterfowlers shouldn't overlook productive hunting opportunities during the middle of the day, says Montana resident Steve Bierle. "After the beginning of the season, mallards and Canada geese get conditioned to hunting pressure when they go out to feed early in the morning and later in the afternoon," he explains. "I have some of my best hunting on 'day roosts' and staging ponds the birds use late in the morning and early in the afternoon. They aren't expecting any trouble in these spots."

Bierle says waterfowl use a variety of habitats as midday resting areas. "You might find honkers loafing around a pasture pond, mallards tucked into a willow-lined slough, or pintails sitting on patches of sheet water in harvested grainfields. Wherever you find the birds, if you can get permission to hunt these spots, you're in for a treat."

Bierle adds that getting permission to hunt waterfowl on private land is still a reality across much of the PPR, but it's a privilege that shouldn't be taken for granted. "Sealing the deal on a hunt with a handshake is something that just doesn't happen everywhere," he says. "Many landowners still enjoy sharing the hunting opportunities on their property with visitors. In return for their generosity, hunters should be sure to pick up after themselves, close all the gates, and just say 'thanks.' Leaving a good impression may mean more hunting opportunities in the future."

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."