Duck Lore Breakdown: Episode 3, Nebraska Sandhills

Duck Lore Breakdown: Episode 3, Nebraska Sandhills

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, and we’ll go through the weather and hunt conditions, the target species and their environment, as well as episode-specific gear that was used and the technology of some of that gear.

The Target Species The target species on this hunt were mostly mid-season migrants and local nesting ducks, specifically pintails, wigeon, gadwall, and local mallards. While you can only shoot one per day, the real prize on this trip was the drake pintails we were lucky enough to get.

Pintails nest everywhere from South Dakota to Japan and Eastern Russia, and the bulk of their breeding takes place in the Prairie Pothole Region, like many puddle duck species. In the fall, you’ll usually find pintails utilizing the same resources as mallards. Grainfields and shallow wetlands with seeds are their preferred environments, although they will raft up in deeper water if they’re pressured. Pintail hunting also changes a lot based on their location in the migration, even more so than other ducks. When pintails are on the prairie of Saskatchewan, they’re the easiest duck to decoy in a barley field, and they’re usually the first birds of the day to decoy. But by the time they get to Arkansas, they spend a lot of time sitting in wide-open water and are one of the hardest ducks to decoy—many would argue even harder than a mallard.

Pintails are also very tasty. Their seed and grain-focused diet makes for great meat and fat. I’ll take a plucked pintail over any other critter when it comes to taste.

The Status of the Migration Pintails are a mid-season migrant. They do the bulk of their migration south in October and early November, although a few will hang back with the mallards in the late-season cold. On this hunt, the status of the pintail migration was typical or maybe slightly behind schedule; while we saw some pintails and even a migrator flock, I would expect more than what we saw in a normal year, and we hadn’t even had a hard frost yet.

Hunt 1

Weather Conditions Wind:North @ 3-10 mph Sunny High temp: 63 Low temp: 35

Sean’s Hunt Notes Not only was today our first day of the trip, but my first day ever hunting waterfowl in the Sandhills. We spent all of the previous day scouting and discovering that getting around here is difficult. There are few roads and even fewer spots you can see the water from. Driving from valley to valley, you can’t help but wonder how many lakes and sloughs filled with ducks are tucked far off these roads. With the land here being predominately private and some whole valleys lacking any road access, there must be thousands of ducks that stay out of sight and out of mind.

That being said, you can still find birds and spots. The slough we found to hunt was as picturesque a duck pond as you can hope to find. It was almost a mile long end to end, but pinches and narrows made it seem much smaller than that. The west edge of the slough was perfect for the ducks but not the hunter. There were no cattails, it was covered almost shore to shore in smartweed, and about waist deep. Two big patches of cattails with a small, deeper channel separating them took up the middle of the slough. These patches were flanked to the west and east by more smartweed. The eastern side of the slough was shallow and had mudflats that stretched out from the banks. The pintails and teal loved to stand on these flats and loaf.

Janis and I set up on the cattail patches and hunted the edge of the smartweed. We didn’t push far enough out into the slough during our first attempt so we had to pick up the decoys and push farther into the marsh. Our second setup was right on the edge of the smartweed, and the birds here decoyed much better and more consistently than in the first spot. The morning saw consistent singles and small flocks of three to five birds moving around the marsh, but they always stayed in the smartweed. A lot of ducks flew by our spread without so much as a look. It was the morning feed, after all. Those ducks needed to be in the smartweed where they knew there was food, not around the edges where we were set.

As the morning went on and the wind picked up, the mallards became more receptive to calling and decoying. They were getting up and moving out of the smartweed in the western part of the slough and moving into the open water and mudflat shorelines in the eastern part. We intercepted a few and had some great decoying. Most of our shots were about 30 yards out, which is a little on the long side, but the ducks were feet-down and committed.

Perhaps the best experience of the morning was when a flock of migrating pintails came through. At first, all I heard was their wings as they began their descent. They came down to 20 yards from Janis’ barrel from hundreds of yards high. This flock of 30 were obviously new to this spot and looking for a safe place to land. For one beautiful drake pintail, it wasn’t. We took home a mix of mallards, wigeon, gadwall, and pintail this morning.

Hunt 2

Weather Conditions Wind: North @15-25 mph Spitting rain and low clouds High temp: 43 Low temp: 36

Sean’s Hunt Notes Last night, a cold front with rain moved in while we went scouting. We found birds all over, but one pond, in particular, was full of gadwall and some mallards, making it the best-looking spot we found. We called the rancher and (luckily) got permission. The pond was bigger than I usually like; about 600 yards wide and 200 yards long, giving these ducks plenty of room to short-stop us. Gadwall, in my experience, like to short-stop the decoys in deeper water even more than other ducks. Going into the morning, I had my suspicions that plenty of ducks wouldn’t come all the way to the edge.

We woke up to 20 mph winds out of the north with spitting rain. We built a small blind from willow branches and tumbleweeds in the northwest corner of the slough. We sat on the ground like we were hunting turkeys, so we could get as low a profile as possible. Right away at first light, the ducks made it obvious that they didn’t buy our setup. They worked to our east, sitting down in the big water and around the eastern bank of the slough. Some ducks gave us shots, but they were very few. An hour into the hunt, there were thousands of ducks rafted up on the eastern side of the lake, avoiding our setup entirely. Janis and I split up to help bounce birds between the two of us. One of us set up on the east side, one on the northwest side. It wasn’t pretty, but we were able to nickel and dime our way to a mixed bag of nine ducks.

Gear Highlights

First Lite Transitional Outerwear: Brooks Down Vest, Uncompaghre, Catalyst Jacket, Vest, and Softshell Pant Waterfowl season is long, and getting as much variability weather-wise out of your gear as possible is ideal. On this hunt you see us wear what we would call “transitional outerwear.” These mid-season pieces can act as outerwear when it’s nicer outside and as a mid-layer between marino base layers and waterproof outerwear when the nastier weather hits.

Having these transitional outwear pieces is vitally important to good layering and usability in your waterfowl kit. These pieces are the workhorses and you'll wear them day in and day out Whether it’s 50 degrees and sunny or 30 degrees and snowing, the only thing that changes is where in your layering these transitional pieces fall. Some examples of our transitional outerwear include the Catalyst softshell jacket, vest, and pant, the Uncompahgre jacket and pant, and the Brooks down vest.

Janis and I both wore the Brooks vest. Waterfowlers everywhere love to wear a hoody and a vest, and this one was my choice over my hoody all season long. It's 800-fill power down, so it's very warm and light. That makes it packable if you want to shove it in the blind bag, but personally, I never took it off long enough to use its packability. On the first day’s hunt I wore a waterproof and windproof outer layer, and Janis did not. For me, the piece was a mid-layer until the sun came up after the hunt. When we go to pluck birds, I took the waterproof jacket off, and just had the Brooks vest as my outer layer. On the second day, we both wore the Brooks vest under our waterproof outer layer in the wind and rain.

My pant choice under my waders was the Catalyst softshell pant. They’re soft, breathable with the 37.5 fleece backer, and most importantly, they’re not too bulky or stiff. Once we were done hunting, they still made a great regular pant for doing everyday duck camp activities like plucking birds, scouting, and napping.

LEDLENSER H15R Core Headlamp This headlamp is one of my most used pieces of gear. I want a headlamp that has an adjustable beam that I can focus, dim, or use as a floodlight. It must be rechargeable, durable, and bright enough to help me run the boat in the dark. It’s a big ask, and it took me years to find a brand that I liked. I lucked into finding out about LEDLENSER when I bought one at the Leatherman Retail Store in 2018. I’ve used them since, and while the H15R is high dollar, it’s worth the money in those early morning hours.

Federal Premium MeatEater Bismuth Ammunition On this hunt, Janis shot the Federal Premium Bismuth, and I shot my usual Federal Premium Black Cloud. He shot the 3-inch, 4-shot, 1 3/8-ounce load, and I shot the 3-inch, 3-shot, 1 ¼-ounce load, both great duck hunting loads. Few people ever see the biggest benefit the MeatEater Bismuth load offers; it has the same Flitestopper wad that makes Black Cloud so effective at long ranges. The far edge of the smartweed we were hunting was pretty far, and some of our shots were 35 to 40 yards out. You really notice what the Flitestopper wad can do when you get to those distances.

Phelps Game Calls PD-1 Duck Call This duck call has a nice natural rasp, quiet to mid-volume, and just an overall ducky sound. While it might not have the volume you want later in the year for high-flying birds, it has plenty for these October mid-season migrants. You can see these mallards respond to it later in the morning on the first hunt.

Benchmade 533 Mini Bugout and Benchmade Hidden Canyon These two Benchmade blades are great everyday carry knives for a duck hunter. We used both for skinning the few birds we had, some of which were ducks that weren’t pluckable because of their pin feathers. We left a wing attached for transport and got to keep both the legs and breasts. This was all fast and easy, thanks to these knives.

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