Welcome to the Duck Lore Breakdown, an article series that will correspond to each episode of Duck Lore. In these articles, we’re going a layer deeper than the show. We’ll discuss the weather and hunt conditions, target species and their environment, as well as episode-specific gear we used and the technology behind some of that gear. You can watch this North Dakota episode here.
Target Species The original intended goals and expectations of this hunt started around mid-season migrants: wigeon, pintails, gadwall, all the types of ducks you’d typically encounter on the Great Plains in October. But the focus of the hunt eventually shifted into a medley of geese, ducks, and even cranes. We witnessed most of the species you can find in the Central Flyway, along with two of the most prized species, culinarily speaking. Those two are the white-fronted goose, also known as specklebelly, and sandhill cranes.
While these birds are very different in their behaviors, size, and looks, they have two things in common: They love agricultural fields and their populations have benefited from more grain crops along their migration route. For the specklebellies and the sandhills, we hunted what we call “combo fields.” A combo field usually means multiple species are using the ground. In this case, the combo fields we hunted held a variety of geese and ducks in the first field and ducks and cranes in the second.
Specks and cranes don’t migrate together but they tend to migrate through North Dakota around the same time every year. Mid-October is the standard time you can expect to see both species. However, once they get to South Dakota their migration path diverges: the majority of specks will go to Arkansas, and the cranes will go to Oklahoma and the panhandle of Texas.
Status of the Migration Specklebellies and sandhill cranes are both partially calendar migrants and weather-dictated migrants. Both elements play a factor in their movement patterns. Personally, I think the specklebellies are usually more weather-dependent and the cranes are more calendar-oriented.
I’ve seen an early October snowstorm push them both to their wintering grounds in a “grand passage.” That's a rare but special experience when a mass migration occurs, filling the skies with waterfowl headed south. Without early cold weather, cranes will head south in late October very consistently. Specklebellies on the other hand might wait until late November if weather conditions are mild. On this hunt, the status of the migration was typical mid-October with both species staging in North Dakota.
Hunt One Weather Conditions Wind: North @ 5-10 mph Partly cloudy to cloudy High temp: 52 Low temp: 40
Sean's Hunt Notes Today was our first day hunting in North Dakota and we hunted a silage field. With heavy rain hitting a couple of days ago, the field was soaked and had a lot of standing water. The water is the reason the specklebellies like this field so much, but it also means we needed a Can-Am to get our gear out there. When the sun came up, there was a sizable and very unexpected first flight of wood ducks and mallards, and we were able to pick off a few. They seemed to be coming off small stock dams in the area, and they were definitely keyed in on the flooded silage.
The first flight gave Snort her first duck retrieves since her rattlesnake bite. It was a happy moment for everyone to see her back in the game, especially Cal. Right at about legal sunrise, the flight of both Canada geese and specklebellies started, first as a trickle. Then the waves started, hundreds and hundreds at a time. While a lot of them were a little wary of our edge hide in the corn, small flocks would peel off and decoy. With a relatively light wind and some cloud cover, the decoying wasn’t all-feet-down to the landing, but 10- to 25-yard shots were plenty common, and we each got to shoot plenty of shells. We ended the day with a handful of mallards, wood ducks, specklebellies, and Canada geese for each of us.
Hunt Two Weather Conditions Wind: North @ 20-30 mph with 40 mph gusts Driving rain and low clouds High temp: 47 Low temp: 40
Sean’s Hunt Notes Today, we hunted a cornfield right off a lake that was full of sandhill cranes the night before. This morning was entirely different weather than our first day. We dealt with driving wind and rain from the moment we woke up until the hunt was over. Our setup required the CanAm to haul in gear with the fresh rain. While we could have possibly driven trucks in, it was better to be safe than sorry and not rut up the field.
We hunted over full-body crane decoys this morning, a rare and special piece of gear. Sandhills are known for their vision, so having good decoys is pretty important. But even with the good decoys, it became apparent pretty quickly that the cranes weren’t going to be cooperating with our setup. That’s part of hunting, especially crane hunting. So, we resorted to low passing shots as the cranes flew over our blind. It was hard shooting but successful, and Callaghan shot his first crane. We went home with a cooler full of prized birds.
Wind: West @ 10-20 mph
Cloudy and cold
High temp: 50 Low temp: 37
Sean’s Hunt Notes Last night we finally found a sizable number of ducks, thanks to a couple of friends of Matt Chouinard’s. We hunted them this morning on a large body of water. It was too big to call a pond, maybe too small for some to call a lake, but definitely the kind of place you tend to find gadwalls. With a strong west wind and clouds, we set up facing south to southeast with a pretty big decoy spread, at least six to seven dozen floaters.
At sunrise, we saw that many gadwall and redheads had roosted in deeper water. While it wasn’t ideal and gave us real birds to compete with, it didn’t matter. Even more gadwall and wigeon had roosted somewhere else and came flooding in to the lake. The shooting was hot and heavy for Matt and me, but Callaghan did what any good dog owner would do when their companion is a little rusty. He put the gun down and helped Snort sharpen up on a few things. The ducks decoyed great, we shot some beautiful drake gadwalls and wigeon, and Snort got the work she’d needed since her rattlesnake bite.
**The Gear Breakdown ** Can-Am Defender Pro with Long Dump Bed The most important piece of gear was the Can-Am on this trip. If we’d had to walk our gear in with this mud, it would have taken us hours and hours. For example, the crane field was almost a mile from the nearest road, and a very hilly and muddy mile at that. I really liked Cal’s long-bed Can-Am for waterfowling because it can haul a ton of gear and brush at a time.
First Lite Typha Camo This hunt was the first Duck Lore episode to feature First Lite’s new Typha camouflage pattern, and it was a perfect environment to see this gear in its primary element. First things first: what is Typha? Typha is the genus name of a variety of cattail species, which create the color palette this new camo pattern was tailored to. The pattern still uses the same effective nature-based algorithm that creates micro and macro breakups in First Lite’s other patterns. The goal is to create focal depth confusion, not just a photorealistic pattern.
But what I think First Lite has absolutely dialed in is the colors for cattail, phragmites, and agricultural environments. In the corn, I kept noticing how well Callaghan color-matched. I noticed the same match on our last day in the phragmites. While color match can never be perfect in all situations, I’m very impressed with it in yellow and gold environments. After the hunt our last morning, I got a distant look at Cal while I was picking up decoys, and it really helped me recognize what I think is the best part of this pattern: Cal didn't look like a dark blob.
When First Lite reached out to me about the development of this pattern, I couldn’t emphasize enough how important it is to get rid of the “dark blob” effect. So many patterns try to be two things at once: they try to look decent in both dark and light environments. By trying to compromise, they end up being too dark from a distance in light backdrops. To me, this is most noticeable when you see someone wear a timber pattern in the marsh. This pattern and color highlight the importance to recognize perception at a distance versus perception up close. At a shooting distance of 25 yards, when I looked back towards Cal in Typha, he wasn’t a dark blob at all and had a great “luminance” match.
As far as the specific gear we wore this week, you’ll see that these are new pieces from First Lite’s upcoming waterfowl line. More on that later.
Tanglefree Panel Blinds On our first morning we had a unique opportunity to hunt standing rows of corn in a silage field. This is somewhat common in the early part of the waterfowl season in the Dakotas, but not many other places. We were able to weave the Tanglefree blinds into the rows so that our cover was perfectly in line with the cornrows. After the hunt, a drone view of the hide showed us how much that symmetry helped create a better hide. It was my first time using panel blinds woven into the stalks, but it won’t be the last.
Vortex Razor 10x42 Binoculars You simply can’t scout and hunt ducks in the Dakotas without a good pair of binoculars, and the Vortex 10x42 binos lived on my dash this week.
onX Hunt On this trip we hunted a few different private spots, but one landowner specifically let us have access to all his ground. By utilizing the search feature within onX, we scouted his farm and pre-pinned his land. Then, we drove piece to piece on our third scout. Those pins gave a nice visual of what roads to take and which path to follow.
Deception Decoys Sandhill Crane Full-Bodies On our sandhill crane hunt we used full-body decoys. These are pretty uncommon, and there are only a couple of manufacturers, but the most renowned crane decoy brand is Deception Decoys. While we weren’t finishing the birds feet down, they were plenty close enough for a limit.
Dakota Decoy and Lucky Duck Collapsible Mallards While we had a variety of decoy models on the duck hunt, Dakota Decoy and Lucky Duck both make a collapsible mallard decoy that is very lightweight and easy to pack in. They also move great in the wind, so they’re a staple for me.
Dakota Decoy Gadwall, Wigeon, and Pintails We filled out the spread with these for visibility and to match the species on this pond.
Lucky Duck Lucky HD This is a spinning wing decoy that I can hook to remote and has a nice realistic size and visibility. The Lucky Duck is my go-to spinner.
Weatherby Element w/ stock Extended Choke (included w/ shotgun) This shotgun was great to me on this hunt. It went bang and it cycled like a shotgun should.
Federal Premium Black Cloud Ammunition On this hunt I shot the 3-inch #2 shot 1 1/4-ounce load, a great combination for shooting at both geese and ducks. You really notice the importance of a tight choke and the Flitestopper wad on 30-yard shots on big North Dakota honkers.
Simms G3 Waders These waders keep you dry and comfortable when you need to be.
Benchmade 533 Mini Bugout and Benchmade Hidden Canyon These are two great everyday carry knives for a duck hunter, and we used both for skinning birds. This early in the season we ran into some ducks that weren’t pluckable because of pin feathers, so we had to skin some of them. The main reason to skin them was to leave a wing attached for transport with both the legs and breasts. This was fast and easy.
Snort There’s nothing better than a well-trained dog in deep water with high winds. Snort got birds that would have taken us a long time to walk to!