WING, N.D. -- In one of the more profound ironies of three seasons of the Duck Trek, a stinker ended what was shaping up to be a classic North Dakota duck hunt.
John Devney’s black Labrador, Seamus (pronounced Shay-mus) was trolling the edges of a pothole in the hill country of North Dakota looking for the final redhead that would fill out a limit of the highly-sought after divers.
Seamus’ hunt took him through the thick bulrushes and cattails on the edge of the pond; his nose intently searching before he abruptly stopped, reared up on his hind legs and bolted like his face was on fire and the rest of him was starting to heat up.
It didn’t take long for Devney and the rest of the hunting party to understand. Seamus brought with him the strong pungent odor from the spraying of a skunk.
It was a simple irony and lesson for a hunt in North Dakota.
North Dakota is the essence of hallowed ground for duck hunters: Biologists and conservation organizations like Ducks Unlimited and Delta Waterfowl call it the Duck Factory, and with good reason.
It's still one of those places that, for the most part, is untouched by man's hand. Much of it still looks like scenes straight out of "Dancing With Wolves." At any moment you expect to top a rise and be greeted by Kevin Costner chasing a huge herd of buffalo.
If you're a duck hunter, everything in your world revolves around the holes of the Dakotas and those like it in Canada. We've heard it called the "pothole region" our entire lives.
Even in this remote part of the country, man's hand is a big part of how the land can function, with predators often being the biggest beneficiary.
The little ponds or holes of water that give the region the surname “pothole” are scattered everywhere, mostly surrounded by agricultural fields. Over time farmers needing more land have drained and farmed many of those holes. And on a large part, many of those remained are farmed right up to the edge, forcing ducks and predators to share homes in dwindling habitat.
One of those predators is the skunk; they, along with foxes and raccoons (which aren’t native to this part of the country), account for an overwhelming percentage of nest loss of ducks.
According to our hosts John Devney and Scott Terning, both with Delta Waterfowl, in some areas nest success is well below the rates necessary to sustain populations, which means far less ducks coming down the flyways.
They back that contention up with data from Delta research sites in North Dakota and in Southwest Manitoba. In those areas, nest success on areas where predators were not managed was 3 percent in Manitoba and 6.4 percent in North Dakota. In areas where predators were managed nest success was 43 percent and 28.1 percent in Manitoba and North Dakota respectively.
Delta Waterfowl’s research has been one of the organization’s cornerstones. But it’s been one of those things that haven’t caught on in a big way in the duck-hunting world.
Regardless, skunks cause a lot of problems before the season and in our case, during the season.
The pond that Scott Terning and John Devney decided to hunt isn’t your standard North Dakota pothole. Most of them are small, a couple of acres at best. Our pond for the day, though, was more like 30 acres, maybe more.
It was in a series of three similar size lakes where a variety of ducks from pintails, mallards, and every make of diver was transferring about. The puddle ducks feeding in the nearby fields, while the divers were sticking to the water and feeding on the sago pondweed.
It was surrounded by hills, big enough that some might call them a mountain range. For those used to flat ground, watching the gap between to knobs as the ducks spill through it is an interesting sight.
Our day started out as any duck hunt in the area. Decoys were thrown in a set with Terning, Devney and Seamus hiding in the tall grass. The beginning hope was to shoot whatever species spilled through the gaps of the knobs and were fooled into coming into shotgun range.
But the attention quickly changed. No more than few minutes after everything was set a group of redheads rushed over the hilltop in front and glided across the pond and toward the decoys.
Two of those were peeled out and a duck hunt all of the sudden changed to a redhead hunt.
“These are stud birds,’’ Devney said, with an excited tone in his voice. He was holding up a drake, admiring the red head and ashen body.
Redheads are prized species for some. And unlike canvasbacks, which share a similar distinction, they are actually in good shape population-wise. Their numbers are currently 63 percent above the long-term average, numbering just over one million birds. North Dakota is an important state for redheads. More than 40 percent of their population is produced in the Prairie Pothole Region.
They stage here before heading down the Central and Mississippi Flyways and into the Gulf of Mexico and the coast of Texas.
Since we’ve been talking about skunks, redheads actually nest over water on a mat of vegetation so impacts from skunks are minimal compared to other species, which could explain their awesome production. They are also a gypsy of sort, known as a wandering species, seeking out the best water conditions to breed in where canvasback and scaup tend to be more philopatric or they home to traditional areas.
And when redheads find great conditions they are known for their parasitic nesting behavior where females will lay eggs in the nests of other females or other ducks. According to Devney, it is not uncommon to see redhead ducklings in with canvasback broods or other duck broods
Despite all that, they are a prized species in some circles and we were all of the sudden keyed in on them and it didn’t take long.
Minutes after the first pair had hit the water, a group of five slid into the water amidst our decoys and another pair was peeled out of them.
A mallard drake joined that pile and some errant shots at some speedy buffleheads occupied our time, until the third group of redheads barreled in on us. One of those hit the water in the decoys, the other well out into the lake. Instead of sending Seamus on a long retrieve for a bird we could barely see, the wind was blowing perfectly to just walk around the pond and pick it up.
Our redhead hunt was over. The limit is two per hunter.
While Terning stayed behind, hoping for more mallards or other species, Devney and Seamus went to the other side, which was a great plan until Seamus came nose to tail with a skunk.
A decade ago, a duck hunter could fly into North Dakota and hit the ground running. Waterfowl were (still are) numerous in these parts. Back then, though, “Posted” signs were few and far between.
But over time, there are more and more of the signs placed around in key areas. That doesn’t mean you can’t find a place to hunt.
There are still plenty of places where a scouting hunter can find a dry field or pothole full of ducks and simply roll out in the area and shoot.
That’s totally foreign to a hunter from the south accustomed to seeing a “Posted” sign every 100 yards or less in prime hunting country.
The state caters to resident and non-resident hunters like no other in the country. They've set up a program called PLOTS, an acronym that stands for Private Land Open to Sportsmen. It comes with a book that maps out where these private lands are, and like decades ago in other states, hunters can hunt those areas by just showing up.
And in places where “Posted” signs exist, it's often just a matter of calling or finding the landowner for permission. Since most landowners are more interested in pheasants and deer, they often give permission.
"You can find a place to hunt in this state if you stay open-minded,'' Devney said.
Those places can be small potholes or harvested fields, the latter becoming more common as the harvest accelerates.
And when you make the right choice, as Overstreet is found of saying, "It's on!"
The evening before our redhead hunt, the scout was on full force.
Devney and the Duck Trek crew went one direction and Terning went the other. Both found the mother lode of mallards feeding in a field. Both felt they were slam-dunks.
Terning actually spent the evening with the landowner at his home, hoping to gain permission. But he was eventually shot down because the landowner had already given permission to another group to hunt that area a few days later.
Devney’s field was exactly what a duck hunter would dream about. It was for the most part a dry field with a sliver of water running through it. Literally thousands of mallards were pouring into it along with a healthy mixture of Canada geese. The scene was reminiscent of Claypool’s Reservoir in Arkansas.
The field though was posted on all sides with “No Hunting” signs. But they also included a name partly washed out by sun and rain. We spent the better part of an hour trying to find the landowner, knocking on doors and calling phone numbers to reach try and reach the owner of that promised land.
But the harvest was on, and at every door we knocked no one was home, we assumed spending their time in the fields harvesting the miles of grain fields around us. By the time it was dark, the only lights in the region were from our truck and the dozens of combines still in the fields.
Our hoped for smack down would have to wait for another day, with our only safe option to set up in the series of lakes.
It was an option, though, and that’s what North Dakota offers: Options of everything from mallards to redheads and potholes or dry fields, maybe even some with a skunk or two added to it.