Duck Lore Breakdown: Episode 3, Nebraska Sandhills

Welcome to Duck Lore Breakdown, a series of articles that will correspond to each episode of Duck Lore. In these articles, we’ll go deeper than the show, going over the weather and hunting conditions, the target species and their environment, as well as the episode-specific gear that was used and the technology of some of that gear.

the target species
The target species for this hunt were primarily mid-season migratory birds and local nesting ducks, specifically Pintails, Wigeons, mallards, and local mallards. While you can only shoot one per day, the real prize on this trip was the drake pintails that we were lucky enough to get.

Ruddy Ducks nest everywhere from South Dakota to Japan to eastern Russia, with most of their breeding taking place in the Prairie Pothole region, like many species of Puddle Duck. In the fall, you’ll usually find pintails that use the same resources as mallards. Grain fields and shallow seeded wetlands are their preferred environments, though they will climb into deeper water if pushed. The ruddy duck’s hunt also changes a lot depending on its location in the migration, even more so than other ducks. When pintails are on the Saskatchewan prairie, they are the easiest ducks to decoy in a barley field and are usually the first decoy birds of the day. But when they arrive in Arkansas, they spend a lot of time sitting in open water and are one of the hardest ducks to attract; many would argue even more than a mallard.

Pintails are also very tasty. Their seed and grain centered diet is great for meat and fat. I will take a plucked pintail over any other creature when it comes to taste.

The state of migration
Pintails are a mid-season migrant. They make most of their southward migration in October and early November, although some will stay with mallards in the late-season cold. In this hunt, the migratory status of the rufous duck was normal or perhaps slightly delayed; although we did see a few martins and even a flock of migrants, I’d expect more than we saw in a normal year, and we hadn’t had a single hard freeze yet.

weather conditions
Wind: North @ 3-10 mph Sunny High Temp: 63 Low Temp: 35

Sean’s Hunting Notes
Today was not only our first day of travel, but my first day hunting waterfowl in the Sandhills. We spent the whole day before exploring and finding that getting around here is difficult. There are few roads and even fewer places from which you can see the water. Driving from valley to valley, you can’t help but wonder how many duck-filled lakes and swamps lurk away from these roads. Since the land here is predominantly private and some entire valleys lack road access, there must be thousands of ducks staying out of sight and out of mind.

That said, you can still find birds and spots. The bog we found to hunt was the most picturesque duck pond you could ever hope to find. It was almost a mile long from end to end, but the pinches and narrows made it seem much smaller than that. The western edge of the swamp was perfect for the ducks but not for the hunter. There was no cattail, it was covered almost from shore to shore by mint, and it came up to her waist. Two large patches of cattails with a smaller, deeper channel separating them occupied the center of the quagmire. These patches were flanked to the west and east by more smartweed. The eastern side of the quagmire was shallow and had mudflats extending from the banks. The pintails and teals loved standing on these flats and bread.

Janis and I settle into the cattail patches and look for the edge of the smart grass. We didn’t get far enough into the swamp on our first try, so we had to pick up the lures and head deeper into the swamp. Our second facility was right on the edge of smart brush, and the birds here lure much better and more consistently than in the first location. The morning saw consistent solitaires and small flocks of three to five birds moving around the swamp, but they always stayed on the smartweed. A bunch of ducks flew past our expanse without even looking. It was the morning meal, after all. Those ducks had to be in the smartweed where they knew there was food, not around the edges where we were.

As the morning progressed and the wind picked up, the mallards became more receptive to calls and lures. They were rising up and out of the smart undergrowth in the western part of the swamp and moving toward the open water shorelines and marshes in the eastern part. We intercepted some and had a great lure. Most of our shots went around 30 yards, which is a bit long, but the Ducks were feet down and engaged.

Perhaps the best experience of the morning was when a flock of migratory eagle-rays passed by. At first, all I heard was their wings as they began their descent. They dropped to within 20 meters of Janis’s barrel from hundreds of meters above ground. This flock of 30 was obviously new to this location and looking for a safe place to land. For a beautiful Pintail duck, it was not. This morning we took home a mix of Mallards, Wigeons, Mallards and Pintails.

weather conditions
Wind: North at 15-25 mph Torrential rain and low clouds High temp: 43 Low temp: 36

Sean’s Hunting Notes
Last night a cold front came in with rain as we went exploring. We found birds everywhere, but one pond in particular was full of mallards and a few mallards, making it the most attractive spot we found. We called the rancher and (luckily) got permission. The pond was bigger than I normally like; about 600 yards wide and 200 yards long, giving these ducks plenty of room to stop. Gadwall, in my experience, like to stop lures in deeper water even more than other ducks. Going into the morning, I had my suspicions that many ducks would not make it all the way to the edge.

We woke up to 20 mph winds from the north with pouring rain. We built a small shutter out of willow branches and tumbleweeds in the northwest corner of the mudflat. We sat on the ground as if we were hunting turkeys, so that we could have as little profile as possible. Immediately at first light, the ducks made it obvious that they did not buy our setup. They worked to our east, sitting in the big water and around the eastern edge of the swamp. Some ducks gave us shots, but they were very few. An hour after the hunt, there were thousands of ducks rafting on the east side of the lake, bypassing our facility entirely. Janis and I split up to help the birds bounce between us. One of us settled on the east side, another on the northwest side. It wasn’t pretty, but we were able to make nickels and dimes all the way down to a mixed bag of nine ducks.

First Lite Transitional Outerwear: Brooks Down Vest, Uncompaghre, Catalyst Jacket, Softshell Vest and Pant
Waterfowl season is long, and ideally you want to get as much variability out of your team’s weather as possible. On this hunt, you see us wearing what we would call “transitional outerwear.” These transitional pieces can act as outerwear when the weather is nicer, and as a middle layer between marine base layers and waterproof outerwear when the weather hits.

Having these transitional outerwear is vitally important for a good match and ease of use in your waterfowl kit. These pieces are the workhorses and you’ll be wearing them day in and day out. Whether it’s 50 degrees and sunny or 30 degrees and it’s snowing, the only thing that changes is where these transition pieces fall on your layers. Some examples of our transitional outerwear include the Catalyst softshell jacket, vest and pants, the Uncompahgre jacket and pants, and the Brooks down vest.

Janis and I both wear the Brooks vest. Waterfowl lovers everywhere love to wear a hoodie and vest, and this was my pick over my hoodie all season long. It has a fill power of 800, so it is very warm and light. That makes it packable if you want to put it in the blind bag, but personally, I never took it off long enough to use its packable. On the first day’s hunt, I wore a waterproof and windproof outer layer, and Janis didn’t. For me, the piece was a mid-layer until the sun came up after the hunt. When we go plucking birds, I took off my waterproof jacket and only had the Brooks vest as my outer layer. On day two, we both wore the Brooks vest under our wind and rain waterproof outer layer.

My pant choice under my boots was the Catalyst Softshell Pant. They’re soft, breathable with the 37.5 fleece lining, and most importantly, they’re not too bulky or stiff. Once we were done hunting, they were still a great regular pant for daily duck camping activities like plucking birds, exploring, and napping.

LEDLENSER H15R Core Headlamp
This headlight is one of my most used pieces of equipment. I want a headlamp that has an adjustable beam that I can focus, dim, or use as a searchlight. It should be rechargeable, durable, and bright enough to help me navigate in the dark. It’s a great question and it took me years to find a brand that I liked. I was lucky enough to discover LEDLENSER when I bought one at Leatherman retail in 2018. I’ve used them ever since, and while the H15R costs a lot of money, it’s worth it in those early hours of the morning.

Federal Premium MeatEater Bismuth Ammo
In this hunt, Janis shot Federal Premium Bismuth and I shot my usual Federal Premium Black Cloud. She 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 loads for duck hunting. Few people see the greater benefit that the MeatEater Bismuth load offers; It has the same Flitestopper cleat that makes Black Cloud so effective at long range. The far edge of the smartgrass we were hunting was pretty far out, and some of our shots went 35-40 yards. You really notice what the Flitestopper cue can do when you get to those distances.

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

Benchmade 533 Mini Bugout and Benchmade Hidden Canyon
These two blades from Benchmade are great everyday knives for a duck hunter. We used both to skin the few birds we had, some of which were ducks that could not be plucked because of their fine feathers. We left a wing attached for transport and managed to keep both the legs and the breasts. All of this was quick and easy, thanks to these knives.