Every duck hunter has a favorite spot or type of hunting. For some, it is a flooded slough on the old lease that is always good for a limit of woodies, and when the stars align and Mother Nature shows her might late in the season, mallards seem to come from miles around to forage on the acorns to make a spectacular hunt. For others, it is the favorite blind on the lake that, after months of preparation and spending, one can enjoy a social hunting event with friends and family and participate in the best hunting that the lake has to offer. If you talk to the hunters of Arkansas, you are likely to hear of flooded timber hunts at Bayou Meto where the sky was black with mallards somewhere near the legendary “scatters.” You may even learn of the flooded rice field where ducks seem to gravitate as the winter storms wreak havoc late in the season on the famous Arkansas Grand Prairie. But the hunt I have chosen is much different; it is not like any other form of waterfowl hunting you can experience. In fact, there is no water involved!
My favorite hunting spot requires a long trip from the lakes of Texas and the Grand Prairie of Arkansas. About 24 hours of driving to the north lands, you are in one of the most spectacular waterfowl hunting opportunities on earth. You will be in the center of the continent’s duck factory. The prairie pothole region is where it all begins for nearly every duck that graces our presence in the south. Each year, as the days grow shorter and the north winds start to blow, there is a magical few weeks that affords the lucky few the opportunity to witness a miracle. The waterfowl of North America are slaves to instinct. They have flourished since the dawn of time by migrating south for the harsh months of winter then returning to the pothole region to raise their young. As the nesting season comes to a close and the winter months come close, the waterfowl’s instinctive voice tells them they must forage on whatever source of protein they can find readily available in order to build the fat layer necessary to make a cross continent voyage. Through modern agricultural practices, humans have opened a proverbial buffet for these instinctive creatures, the harvested grain field. That’s right; the spots that top my list are the grain fields of Manitoba and North Dakota.
If I have heard it once, I’ve heard it a hundred times, “those ducks land on dry ground?” I’ve even had the pleasure of hunting with friends that made the trip up in disbelief only to say, “Holy Cow! They really do land in dry fields!” after we shot the first group of the morning. We start by driving for what seems like an eternity looking for concentrations of ducks on the water. There is water everywhere, and much of it is only accessible by driving through fields or sketchy field roads that are no more than an ATV trail. No matter where they feed, every duck needs a nearby water source to survive and rest in relative safety. If you find them on the water, you’re one step closer to finding them in the field.
Let’s take a step back and look at what it takes to get to where we are ready for action if we actually do find a spot likely to produce field feeding Mallards. First, you need a 4X4 truck that is rugged enough to tackle the farm land of the north and comfortable enough to make a 3,000 mile round trip voyage. Behind that truck, you are going to need a trailer to haul gear. I prefer a cargo trailer to keep all of the gear dry and ice-free as the weather declines. The cargo hauler also makes a nice catch-all for you and your buddies for the week or two you are going to have to dedicate to the trip. I equip my trailer with spreader lights that can be turned on to illuminate the field for setting out gear in the early morning darkness. Inside the trailer, you will find about 14 dozen Mallard full body and shell decoys, along with a couple of dozen Canada Goose dekes (for confidence). On top of that, you’re going to need some motion. We prefer the mojo duck or similar to put motion in the decoys. We typically use 6-10 motion decoys in our spread, which seems like a lot but it is the icing on the cake for field hunting. So, you have all of the dekes and gather up all of the spinners you can find, but where are you going to hide? That’s where a good layout blind comes into play. Rarely used in East Texas, the layout blind is a necessity for this type of hunting. They come in all shapes and sizes for every size hunter. They usually fold up to a manageable size so they can be stored in the trailer with the rest of the gear. Don’t forget the mutt hut if you take your dog along. That’s right; they make a special layout blind just for your favorite hunting partner. These pooch concealers are handy almost anywhere you hunt to keep your dog hidden from wary birds. You’re going to need a top notch trainer to make sure your dog knows the ropes when it comes to layout blind hunting. So here we are with a trailer full of goods, a truck full of hunters, a hound, and we have found the water that is stacked with ducks.

Now you’re going to want to watch the skies for flocks leaving the water and heading to the field to feed. As the temps drop in the fall, the instinctive nature of these ducks is to feed several times a day to build up the necessary resources to make the long trip ahead. The harsher the weather gets, the more often the flocks will come to the field to feed. If undisturbed, the ducks will many times eat every speck of grain out of a field before moving on to another buffet of grain. In Manitoba, we find them most often in the wheat or barley stubble, foraging on the spoils that the harvester left behind just a few weeks prior. As you move south into the Dakotas, you’re likely to find them later in the season, as the cold weather pushes south in the fresh cut soybean and corn fields. In certain areas, depending on the availability of each grain source and how fresh it is, you can usually isolate the feeding to one source such as cut corn fields. This limits the number of fields available to scan for feeding and allows you to focus your efforts. Each person in the truck needs a good set of binoculars to be able to assist the driver. Keep in mind that you are usually pulling the trailer as you scout and are likely to cover hundreds of miles each day looking for the perfect field. Field hunters are aware of and cognizant of “the push.” This is what we refer to as the week or two push of birds through the region when they are heavily feeding, and have all of their resources readily available. As Mother Nature casts her spell on the north land, water becomes frozen and fields start to cover with snowfall forcing “the push” further south. During the peak of the push, you shouldn’t have to travel far to find concentrations of birds. It is the difference between hunting in a 10 mile radius and a 100 mile radius. Timing is everything, and Mother Nature is very unpredictable.
You’re likely only going to find two species of waterfowl concentrated in fields like this. Mallards are by far the most abundant in the dry field and Pintails are a distant second. Though the local water holes will hold all varieties of birds, only the Mallards and Sprigs look to the fields for abundant nutrition. Because of the nature of the type of stalks and stubble that is left in the fields after harvest, it is nearly impossible to just drive by and see flocks sitting in the field foraging. You need to see them land or take off to pinpoint their location. The earlier it is in the morning and the later it is in the evening, the more often the flocks hit the fields making these prime times to do some quality scouting (if you’re not fortunate enough to be hunting). Once you find a field that you know birds are landing in, you can watch from afar with binoculars, in amazement, as flock after flock seemingly disappear into the stubble and stalks.
So you have found the birds and they are in the center of a sea of corn stubble, in a field that seems to be a mile across; what do you do now? Well, you’re going to need permission from the farmer to make sure he allows hunting on his property. Furthermore, will he let you drive your 4×4 truck and all of your gear out to the center of his field early the next morning to satisfy your addiction? It is clear who owns the property because there is only one house for about 5 miles. So you pull up to the barn where you find the farmer preparing his equipment and cattle for the impending winter months of torture. He looks up from what he is doing as you ask if he will allow you to hunt his field and, in hearing your accent and seeing your license plate, he exclaims, “you drove all the way up here from Texas to hunt ducks?” That initiates a chuckle from within the truck and from the farmer. Being amused by your tenacity and the accent you and your friends so proudly display, he agrees to let you shoot ‘em up.
Giddy as school girl, you and your hunting crew get ready to plan your actions of the next morning. You find a local hole in the wall motel to rest your head and, hopefully, find a decent diner to get a meal and a beverage or two before its time to rest. Sleep is hard to come by in this part of the country, mainly because good lodging is equally hard to find. Each town has a motel or two, and most of them are akin to a homeless shelter. Just as you drift off to dream about fields of green (heads), the alarm goes off and its go time. Make the coffee, air out the dog, suit up for the brutal cold, wind, rain, snow, sleet… Once you make it to the field, you realize it looks much different in the dark, with just the dim glow of the lights leading your path across the endless rows of cut corn. You bounce across the field to your best estimation of the spot where they were hungrily bombing in the afternoon before. Truck off, trailer lights on, and the work begins. It takes about an hour to set up a good spread of field decoys and another hour to dig in and camo up the layout blinds so you can disappear into the landscape. Each field is different and each morning you start with a blank canvas to camo so your fowl adversaries are unknowing of your presence amongst the lifelike decoy spread. With everything in place, you unload your essentials (gun, shells, Scooby snacks, coffee, etc…) and one lucky soul gets to park the truck at the entrance to the field while the other guys put the finishing touches on the blinds and decoys as light begins to illuminate the eastern sky. Morning is coming and you lie in your blind and listen to the sounds of absolute silence and reflect upon hunting moments past and future. The time is here and even though it is too dark to shoot because of the thick clouds, you can hear and almost make out the silhouette of whistling wings overhead as the fowl wake up and begin to search for food. They arrive, at first 2-4 at a time and flutter over the dekes ahead of you. They flutter from left to right then land on the dry ground and start lapping up the grain that was left behind from the year’s harvest. It is such an amazing site, you almost hate to shoot and disrupt what is occurring. These water bound creatures are actually landing on dry ground and walking around your decoys. The dog whimpers, but holds strong as he also watches in amazement. 15 more flutter down and everyone knows it is time to roll. As if a bell rang, all of the hunters emerge in unison from the concealment of the layout blinds and the point to the sky. As shots ring out, the skies fall. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel. The first shot is a mere 15 foot, the second 25 foot and the third is an easily reached 50 foot. On your command, the dog goes to work, bolting from his hideout and picking up one after another and returning them to your hand. You all watch in amazement as the skies fill with flock after flock of mallards and pintails desperately searching for food in the vast expanse of grain fields. Once the go has brought you the spoils, you lie back down and do it all over again. It takes very little effort to get the uneducated ducks to commit to your convincing spread. In three minutes, you have reached the limit and you watch in amazement as they continue to fall into the field. It’s been so many miles and so much work, but in that moment it was worth every bit of the effort. It just doesn’t get any better than this!

-Written by Chris Knight