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You are here:   Articles this Issue | Hunting Prairie Potholes


Hunting Prairie Potholes

by Christopher S and Jason A. Smith

Source: Wingshooters Guide to North Dakota Upland Birds & Waterfowl

Canada Geese
Photo by: USFWS
Most waterfowl hunters look with great anticipation at the projected fall flight of ducks, crossing their fingers every year that this may be the one in which we achieve the North American Waterfowl Management Planís goal of 100 million birds.

The basis for these projections come from breeding-duck surveys in the heartland of waterfowling: the Great Plains of the U.S. and the Prairie regions of southern Manitoba and Saskatchewan. This "duck factory" is responsible for producing almost half of the entire continentís flight of ducks.

For this reason, hunting the prairie potholes of the Dakotas, Iowa, Nebraska, and the Canadian provinces is popular and productive. These potholes, the remnants of glacial activity, occur mostly in agricultural areas, so permission will more than likely be needed before you can plop down along side one. Some potholes are ringed with tall weeds or cattails in which you can stand and become almost invisible. But due to intensive farming, other potholes may not have much cover. Then, a pop-up blind will usually provide enough concealment, or simply hunkering down on the ground against a hillside can also do the trick. On these denuded ponds, proper camouflage and holding still are of extreme importance.

Prairie pothole hunting can be difficult at times for one simple reason: the potholes are scattered throughout the countryside, and if the ducks are moved off one potholeóor are shot atótheyíll simply drop over onto another one, one that isnít being hunted, and sit tight. With nothing to move them around, you might only get shooting at one or two flocks. This is one time when a little pressure from other hunters is welcome. In most cases, though, there are shooting opportunities constantly presenting themselves, and some of the best puddle duck shooting occurs over these small bodies of water.

Another way to hunt these potholes, other than just setting up in the middle or along the edge, is to forget decoys and simply park yourself under the flight lanes between potholes. Pass-shooting buzzing puddlers is a humbling way to spend an afternoon. Just hold way out in front, keep swinging, and donít count your empties.

For those times when youíre not waiting in pass-shooting ambush, decoys figure prominently, especially on larger potholes. Most of the time, decoys can simply be scattered about, but be sure to leave empty water in shotgun range so that youíre presented with killing shots as the birds attempt to land. Not many decoys may be needed, but in larger potholes, a rig of a couple dozen placed in some ducky-looking spots is a sure-fire way to get some shooting.

Flock of Mallards
Photo by: USFWS
Calling is as important here as it always is in puddle duck hunting, and dogs can mean the difference between taking your limit home or not finding a downed bird. These potholes are often quite deep in the middle, and if you donít have a dog, a belly-boat or small canoe is a must in order to retrieve most of your birds. If pass-shooting, a dog keeps you from having to get up and retrieve your own birdsó-pure laziness here. With Fido, your faithful picker-up, the whole thing can become a sort of driven-duck shoot.

One of the nicest things about prairie pothole hunting is the variety of ducks youíll encounter. One time in North Dakota, we identified just about every variety of puddlers on the continent, and we took seven different species of dabblers during a three-day hunt, plus canvasbacks, redheads, a bluebill or two, and a few geese. Most of these birds will respond to a mallard call, but it might be useful to have a pintail or wigeon whistle on your lanyard as well.


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