As this is written we have a blustery but relatively warm
day – last night it reached down to the high 20s but all our water is still
open. We have gathered the decoys, boats
and blinds and stored them away for another winter and are hard at it pursuing
Yesterday morning saw a stiff northwest wind and mass exodus of snow geese, which have been hanging around for several weeks. It was mile after mile of solid goose skeins across the sky for several hours. All that are left now are a few laggards and some fat mallards along with some really huge dark geese.
Wife Jeanie put her venison in the freezer last week while I continue to pay for passing on a nice 10-pointer early season while holding out for the monster 12-pointer which has been frequenting the acreage. Still a couple days left to make it happen.
We started the season on a strong note, taking many blue-winged teal along with mallards, gaddies, widgeon and a few divers. Dark geese were a bonus most of the early season, having worked the McArdle Pit, the Hook and both blinds on Bluebill with some regularity. Our far-flung sharpshooters took advantage of the shooting and provided the dogs with some heavy freight-hauling opportunities.
The shooting turned spotty just days into the season as the weather was “too nice” in general – but slow days were interspersed with hot shoots, especially on our new Hook blind, which was really favored by the puddle ducks.
A near absence of redheads and bluebills early season led to much head scratching, as redheads often lead the pile in the cleaning shed. 2016 was not a redhead year. Happily, these were replaced by mallards, which is pretty unusual for us as most of our hunting is done over water. But greenheads replaced the redheads and most hunters were happy with the result. Although targeted by several hunters, cans were largely absent from the scene. I believe we only took one or two all season. We did however take a fair number of pintails, including some tremendous drakes.
One day of snow early season gave us another shot of new birds and the boys returned with weighty game carriers. Mid-season found the weather and birds stale; gaddies replaced the mallards and provided some good shooting but then the birds began to play hopscotch – jump them off one pothole or decoy set and they just moved a mile away and sat down again. Jump them there and they moved another mile etc. In short, they did not work the decoys well and our hunters were forced to go mobile to find the birds and roust them up.
This makes for some beautiful sunrises but challenging duck hunting. In talking with some other lodges and experienced hunters in our area they found largely the same thing, for both water and field sets.
Late season found the same pattern but with many more ducks in the area – local ponds were full of birds but our morning shoots were sparse. The best strategy was to scout out local areas nearby and set up on the birds for morning or evening shoots. Some of the PLOTS south of us gave up some good shoots this way, as did some nearby private land.
At season end we still had open water, snow geese and mallards but no big push. In previous years we have been frozen up tight by November 10 or so. This year the big water will be open past Thanksgiving. Our roads are also in very good shape for this time of year, as we had only a trace of rain all fall.
What caused this bird composition and migration pattern? Our basins were either dry or shallow, which may have accounted for fewer divers and more mallards. But we also saw fewer species – not much for bluebills or cans, no ruddies, few spoonies, no goldeneyes and few buffleheads. On the other end we also saw an unprecedented number of white-front geese and a larger than usual number of snows. I’m guessing we are entering a dry cycle but beyond that can’t point to just one or two factors causing the shift in birds.
We have learned that we are weather-dependent as it relates to hunting opportunities – if we get weather (rain, snow, NW wind) we get birds. Sunny skies means it’s time to find the upland gear.
Our custom swan set brought swans setting in the decoys a couple times and had them working hard on other occasions, but nobody hunted the blind. In other cases the swans “came right overhead” but found our hapless hunters either shell-less or caught by surprise.
The prairie can be a harsh mistress, giving and taking on a whim. But this year she found pity on those scatter-shooters who would chase our native sharptailed grouse and gaudy pheasants, as well as their canine companions. Want roosters? We got ‘em, and many found their way to either the taxidermist or cleaning shed during the course of the season. Sharpies were harvested in equal number, often taken from the waterfowl blinds.
Dog power often made the difference, as the pheasants were holding tight well into the season. The big food plot held birds all season – just yesterday the two black dogs and I put up sharpies, pheasants and the wily resident covey of huns (which have not suffered a loss in numbers since September) during a short walk thru the beans and cornstalks. Regardless, 2016 will go down as one of the top two pheasant years in the last 15. We know that one harsh winter can change all that, but we will provide food and shelter all winter to try to help the birds through. We’d like to congratulate our successful pheasant hunters this year – these were hard-won wild birds, born and raised here on the prairie, as opposed to their pen-raised cousins in the “Other Dakota” to the south. Well done!
Sandhill cranes were a happy development this year. We saw more cranes in 2016 than literally the last 10 years combined. They came, they liked what they saw, they stayed. We never really set up on them seriously as we thought they’d leave quickly, as they have in past years. Of course, once we arranged to hunt on private land just east of the ranch, they did leave. But then a week later another wave came in and stayed for several weeks. Can we count on them for 2017? I don’t know but suspect, like the whitefront geese, a combination of factors unique to 2016 explained their extended stay.
I recall one afternoon watching as thousands, if not tens of thousands, of cranes rode a stiff northwest wind overhead on their way south, their raucous and trilling calls filling the sky to the horizon in every direction. Sandhills could be the sleeper hunt of 2017.
NEW FOR 2017
We really enjoy talking to our clients from across the country; learning about their own hunting experiences and adventures and comparing the opportunities and hunting approaches to our prairie fare. We were again pleased to host some younger hunters and family groups – providing a safe, drama-free setting for quality hunting is one of our primary goals. We are also open to new approaches in order to maximize the success of our groups -- and conduct a post-season evaluation every season to this end.
We’ve always set up many of our water bodies with blinds and blocks –usually 8-12 lakes and sloughs – but after hearing about hunting on large southern reservoirs , utilizing huge decoy spreads and fully enclosed hunting blinds -- replete with hot breakfasts and beverages -- we thought we’d try something similar. No, you still make your own breakfast, but we are going to try some big decoy spreads on selected water, namely the Bluebill Saddle and possible the Hook blind, depending on water conditions.
Large spreads are not practical on the bigger wind-swept water as it is nearly impossible to keep decoys in place during a 45 mph windstorm, which we get about once a week in the fall. But we can fill up a bay or small slough with decoys, so we’re going to try it. We want to make it terribly inviting for ducks to sit-in once they see these spreads.
Based on 2016 blind usage, we will cut back on setting up the smaller water in favor of our “go to” blinds – namely Bluebill Westside and Saddle, Mallard Point, the Hook and the McCardle Pit blind. We may mothball the West Camp Pass until the water recedes, as it does not produce as it once did. As always we will have decoys available for your use anywhere you’d like on the property.
We are also going to cut the large food plot down to size – blocks of corn -- maybe 75 yards long --instead of long strips. We want to make it practical for two hunters and a dog to work the food plots out without all the birds making an early exit.
BOOKINGS FOR 2017
As usual we will take bookings for next year in January. We are trying to put together a special discounted Youth Hunt in late October but will need to see how the dates fall. Have a great and safe Thanksgiving and Holiday Season.
Dan & Jeanie
Prairie Smoke Ranch