Story and Photos by Eric Keszler
I needed South Dakota.
It had been a while. Nearly two years since I had been on an airplane. Nearly two years since I had ventured very far outside of my hometown city limits. Nearly two years since I had hunted anywhere other than one of the blinds at my local duck club with close friends and family. Nearly two years since things had felt even somewhat normal.
When I stepped off the plane at the Aberdeen airport, gathered my luggage, walked outside, and ripped the N95 mask off my face, for the first time I began to sense that maybe we had gotten through the worst of it. Maybe it was the prairie air, the smell of a landscape scoured clean by wind and recent rains, the bright sun and cloudless sky, the comically giant pheasant statue outside the terminal, or just being somewhere far from home again, but I felt like maybe this was the start of something. Just a glimmer of hope, maybe, that the pendulum was beginning to swing back toward normal.
On the short drive to Flatland Flyways, a first-class waterfowling lodge and outfitter near the town of Hecla, I admired the beauty and enormity of the rolling prairie landscape, fields of cut corn, and pothole wetlands. It’s a big place with big skies, endless vistas, and very few people. It’s the kind of place that seems tailor-made for getting away from the troubles of the world—troubles that include a global pandemic and its numerous physical and emotional costs. I remembered this line about South Dakota from Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America: “You can’t believe how remote and lonely it feels out in the endless fields of yellow grass. It is like the world’s first drive-through sensory deprivation chamber.”
Sensory deprivation. After two very strange and stressful years, that’s what I needed.
Though most of North America’s prairies had been gripped by drought, the northeast corner of South Dakota had enjoyed some isolated precipitation and was a welcome green spot on a drought-index map that had been dominated by red and yellow for months. Many of the local potholes held water, and word on the street was that migrating ducks had recently shown up.
I was a guest of Federal Ammunition, one of Ducks Unlimited’s corporate partners and a leader in high-quality ammunition and wildlife conservation. I met up with Brian Kelvington, Federal’s media director, and Brian Anderson, Federal’s marketing director, at the luxurious Flatlands lodge. Kelvington is a proud Minnesotan, a genuine company man, and a sincere spokesman for his employer. “In 50 years of shooting, I have never shot anything other than Federal ammunition,” he said, “because it is a Minnesota company.” My hosts brought along premium waterfowling loads from Federal and Hevi-Shot for our use, and I was excited to try some of their offerings, especially the new tungsten loads.
The lodge’s windows feature grand views of prairie and sky and not much else for as far as you might dare to look. As the sun set and we gathered around the fireplace to make plans for the next three days, I felt like this must be one of the best places in North America for people who are looking to get away from it all—whatever that might be. Sensory deprivation indeed. And I thought about something an old friend of mine used to say about the best remote places: “It’s not the edge of the earth, but you can see it from there.”
And while the area is remote by the standards of most humans, to waterfowl it can be a densely populated environment. We were in the famous Prairie Pothole Region, which cuts a broad swath through the north-central United States and southern Canada and hosts millions of ducks, geese, and other avian species during the breeding and nesting seasons. In a typical year, more ducks are raised in this region than anywhere else on the continent. As summer turns to fall, those birds begin their epic migrations, stopping where the habitat looks good and waiting until colder weather forces them even farther south.
At our location on the southern end of pothole country, in an area with a relative abundance of water and freshly harvested croplands, we were uniquely positioned to intercept some of those migrating ducks.
“It’s not the edge of the earth, but you can see it from there.”
On the edge of a cut cornfield, Flatlands owner Alex Russo, who was guiding us on the first morning, had set up a half-dozen layout blinds facing south. A stiff wind blew in from behind us as intermittent flocks of ducks lifted off from a nearby wetland and headed out to the fields to feed. Many of these flocks surprised us, bombing straight into our setup—no hesitation, no cautious circling, no reconnaissance flyovers.
I sat up when a flock of mallards hovered over the decoys. I picked out a drake and fired, bagging my first duck of the season. Alex’s Lab, Coot, delivered the bird, which was nicely colored for this early in the season and plump and healthy with a snow-white ring around his neck, bright orange feet, curly tail feathers, and a deep-green head. A perfect bird. There was something about that bird in that moment, something so right and so good. It sounds crazy, but I felt like this was another sign, delivered with the hope of a future where things are once again at least somewhat normal.
And so it continued for the next 72 hours. The Brians and I sat in a pop-up blind on a slight rise in another cornfield on a rainy morning, where Alex and his guides had set out a mixed spread of duck and specklebelly decoys. At shooting time, it was still so dark that we heard birds before we saw them—wigeon whistles, mallard quacks, and gadwall grunts, mostly. When we finally had enough light to identify what we were seeing, we saw ducks everywhere. In a reversal of the previous day, there was no wind. Ducks came into the decoys from all points of the compass, and we often had multiple groups working our spread at the same time.
Alex wanted close shots over the decoys, and he worked hard to get the birds into position with a series of feeding chuckles and quacks. We watched, in awe of the show. We shot and we laughed and we gave each other high-fives and we shot and laughed some more. I hadn’t laughed like that in nearly two years. We all ducked in unison as a flock of gadwall snuck in behind the blind and flew just inches over our heads. We all cheered when Kelvington shot the last duck of the morning. Soaked and smiling, we helped load up the decoys and the ducks and the blind panels and headed back to the lodge.
On the last morning, the sun was shining, the air was chilly, and the wind was blowing. Our guide, Austin Kaufman, worked the ducks with his call like the conductor of a symphony orchestra, providing our group with close shots right in front of the blind. The sun was behind us, lighting up the birds like a spotlight. There were pintails, mallards, wigeon, gadwalls, even a specklebelly or two. Austin’s dog, Roxie, rocketed back and forth from the blind, collecting our prizes. The action was fast and there was so much to take in—the birds, the sky, the land, the dogs, the fine company. I started out wanting sensory deprivation. Now it felt like sensory overload.
This escape to the prairies reminded me why I love waterfowling. It’s not so much about the shooting or the harvest. It’s about the intimate connection we make with these wild creatures, hatched on a vast and lonely prairie, sustained by rich and diverse wetlands, and carried south by cold autumn winds. Their travels can span the length of an enormous continent. And when we are lucky enough to encounter them, they share their stories with us.
In her book, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris wrote: “For me, walking in a hard Dakota wind can be like staring at the ocean: humbled before its immensity, I also have a sense of being at home on this planet, my blood so like the sea in chemical composition, my every cell partaking of air. I live about as far from the sea as is possible in North America, yet I walk in a turbulent ocean.”
Through all of our adventures, the South Dakota landscape loomed large, and I understand why so many writers have compared North America’s prairies to the ocean. For three days we drifted through a sea of grass and water and wind and rain, afloat on our shared love of the birds and the habitats that sustain them. We hoped the recent rains signaled the beginning of the end of the drought that had gripped the Duck Factory. The rain helps to heal a dry landscape, and the landscape can help heal all of us who draw energy from the outdoors.
During this unsettling time, our little hunting party experienced some healing, I think. It remains to be seen if my inklings about a return to normal will be realized anytime soon. But we can take comfort and feel some sense of security in the knowledge that places like South Dakota exist—and that Ducks Unlimited and its partners are working to preserve the gifts these places provide for waterfowl and for people.