A Mecca for Waterfowlers
by Eric Fowler
Rivers and marshes get most of the glory in waterfowling circles. But farm ponds can provide some excellent shooting, and most Nebraskans will find one within a short drive of their back door.
While no one has an exact count, there are at least 20,000 farm ponds in Nebraska, and there could be as many as 40,000. That’s more lakes than Minnesota has, although one could say that’s comparing apples to oranges. But if the exact number were in the middle of that range, it would mean there’s a pond for each of the state’s 30,000 waterfowl hunters.
Many of those hunters don’t even think of a farm pond as a place they might put out a spread of decoys and try to shoot a duck or goose. Instead, they focus on rivers or marshes and wetlands, venues more likely to provide that picture-postcard setting many envision.
Rad Dobson, Darrin Duffy and Chad Engle don’t fit that mold. Duffy and Engle went to high school together in Lincoln, and Duffy and Dobson now work together. They started hunting together when they were fraternity brothers at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, and pack up and head west from their Lincoln homes to their blind on the Platte River near Overton as often as they can. But in the nearly 20 years they’ve been chasing ducks together, they’ve learned that farm ponds can also be a mecca for waterfowling. And while some hunters are sitting at home waiting for the first big push of mallards to arrive from the north sometime in November, the trio enjoy some excellent shooting on the 10-acre pond they’ve been hunting near Hallam since the early 1990s.
“From the middle of October on, there are better years, but until then, four or five guys can shoot a limit of ducks virtually every time we go,” said Dobson. With the help of friends who get regular invites, the trio typically harvests more than 100 ducks and a few geese each fall, not bad for a neighborhood that barely registers on the list of Nebraska waterfowling hotspots.
The bag is always mixed, filled mostly with early migrators like teal, widgeon and gadwall. The early teal season in September is hit-and-miss, but last year was one of their best ever, adding more than 60 ducks to the bag. By late-October, gadwall and wigeon make up the majority of the bag. “I’m just not sure what it is about that pond. We’ll see a lot of mallards and pintails, but it just doesn’t seem like we’re shooting big numbers of those ducks,” Dobson said.
The size of the pond the trio hunts even makes it attractive to the diving ducks, including bluebills, redheads and canvasbacks. “Those are pretty fun, especially the bluebills. When those big groups come rocketing in there, sometimes it just sounds like a jet,” Dobson said.
One hunt last October ended with shoveler, mallard, teal, goldeneye and redhead in the bag. They could’ve had a canvasback or two if Duffy hadn’t picked an inopportune time to rearrange decoys. And they passed on a flock of bluebills. “Its fun with all the different ducks,” Duffy said.
If the migration is at its peak and the weather is nasty, shooting can be good for mallards and snow geese. But the best luck for greenheads has come after the pond has frozen. The hunters have gone to great lengths to try to extend their season when this happens, including breaking ice and bringing in pumps to spill water on top of it. “It can be pretty amazing on those days,” Dobson said. “But they can be pretty crappy days too. I’m never bringing my chainsaw down there again. It did work a lot faster when the ice was really thick, but you get wet. It’s kind of hard not to.”
An early freeze-up – early compared to most rivers anyway – is one of the main drawbacks of hunting farm ponds, just as it is for Sandhills lakes and Rainwater Basin wetlands. “We’ve had some years where we can only hunt until Halloween or so because we get froze out,” Dobson said. “Sometimes we’re lucky to make it to Thanksgiving.
Another factor that makes hunting ponds difficult is siltation. The lightest soils are the first to wash from crop fields in the watershed above any pond. Catching this silt and keeping it out of rivers and streams, therefore improving water quality, is one of the purposes of farm ponds. But when silt begins to pile up on the bottom of a pond, it begins to tug at your boots, making wading extremely difficult. “If you stay in one spot too long, you get sucked into that stuff,” Dobson said. “Over the years, as we’ve gotten older, it’s kind of rough on the legs and the backs.”
When they began to hunt the pond, the group built their blind – a 10-man behemoth so big it was dubbed the Hallam Hilton – on the upper end. But the same storm that spawned the F4 tornado that destroyed Hallam on May 22, 2004, also dumped seven inches of rain in the area. The flush of water that came down the two creeks feeding the pond washed their blind all the way to the dam a quarter mile away and filled the upper end of the pond with silt. Wading there was now impossible, forcing the group to move their blind to the middle of the pond’s southeastern shore. “It’s about the best wading in the whole pond,” Dobson said. “You can go out there and you’re only in a foot of silt versus being up to your knees.”
While hunters have abandoned the upper end, their dogs must still venture up there to retrieve an occasional duck. When the water’s low, “it wears a dog out to retrieve a duck,” Duffy said. “Your dog is beat by the time he gets back.”
Another challenge faced by those who hunt ponds is fluctuating water levels. A quick rise often follows a rain or snowmelt. When they hauled their blind in last October, they put it three feet from the water’s edge. When the men went back to retrieve it after the season, it was two feet into the water and frozen in the ice. Water levels can also fall several feet when the rains don’t. This group tucks their blind in the vegetation surrounding the pond, but for most of the 2005 season, it was more than 10 yards from the water’s edge. That left little of the emergent and submergent vegetation that is attractive to ducks and also limited shooting opportunity.
Lack of vegetation is one reason some farm ponds in Nebraska provide much better waterfowl hunting than others. But even some that look good aren’t. That is one reason this group is happy with their spot near Hallam: they’ve hunted plenty of other ponds where the bad days far out numbered the good.
There are a few factors that may contribute to their success. First and foremost, there is plenty of water in the neighborhood. About 50 ponds five acres or larger, hundreds of smaller ponds and four of the Salt Valley Lakes are within 10 miles. Each water body might attract another duck that might fly by this group’s blind. Nice fall Saturdays, when anglers push ducks off the Salt Valley Lakes, or nasty ones, when the duck hunters push them off the lakes and ponds, might even be some of the better hunting days. “We can tell when the guys have their boat blinds out because we see a lot more ducks on those days,” Duffy said.
The Big Blue River flows nine miles to the east, funneling ducks into the region that might just decide to stay a while. The pond is also just 40 miles from the eastern edge of the Rainwater Basin, a magnet for ducks that might decide to lay over on a southern Lancaster County farm pond on their way to or from the wetlands. Rainwater Basin marshes full of water attract more ducks to the basin, and Duffy said those years are also better on their pond near Hallam.
Duffy, Dobson and Engle usually hunt only one day on the weekend. Occasionally they’ll hunt both, but they rarely hunt weekdays. This gives ducks a chance to find and use the pond all week. And a few ducks on a pond are liable to attract more. “That helps us a lot as far as the number of birds we see,” Engle said. “Because we’re not here every day, they get to look at it all week without a spread and guys pounding on them.”
When they do hunt, they’re usually not out long. On a slow day, or a good one where bags are filled early, they will be picking up decoys by 9 a.m. Rare is a day when they aren’t home in time for lunch. “It’s so close you sometimes get your limit before the wife and kids even get out of bed and still get home in a decent enough time that you can get your chores done around the house or go to football games,” Dobson said.
With no rivers to cross or marshes to wade to get to the blind, it’s also easier for the men to bring their sons to the pond. And with most of their hunts there coming early in the season, the weather is usually mild enough that a youngster’s enthusiasm isn’t dampened by a chill.
Engle brought his ten-year-old son, Greyson, to hunt opening day last season. The soybeans in the field next to the pond hadn’t been harvested and they hadn’t been able to haul their blind yet, so they just hunkered down in the vegetation along the bank. It was a bluebird day, and Greyson had as much fun playing with caterpillars and his Daisy Red Ryder BB gun as he did shooting his first “duck” – a coot that landed on the edge of the decoys and swam off, but not far enough that Greyson and Chad couldn’t sneak within shooting range. On a much cooler morning two weeks later, Greyson sat in the blind in front of the portable propane heater and thumbed through a duck identification guide to help identify the take, including a wood duck.
Dobson has brought his oldest son, five-year-old Jack, to the blind a few times and hopes to do so more often this year. Duffy’s four-year-old, Boddy, has also been on a hunt. Getting the boys out of bed is the initial challenge, but not the only one, Duffy said. “We need them to get a little older where you can say, ‘Here’s a doughnut, now be quiet,’” he joked. But if that doesn’t happen, home, TV and cartoons are only a half-hour drive away.
Farm ponds come without two challenges faced by waterfowl hunters elsewhere. In most cases, unlike rivers, large reservoirs and public marshes, there is no competition from other hunters for birds or hunting spots. Some of this trio’s first hunts together were at public wetlands in the Rainwater Basin where on weekends they would often “go out there and stomp around for 40 minutes before you found a spot that wasn’t already full of hunters,” Engle said. “Everywhere you would get that looked nice, somebody would shine a flashlight at you.”
And unlike rivers, there is no current to fight. “The decoys don’t float away,” Duffy joked. “The water going up and down on the river can be scarier. At least if you’re stuck in the mud in a pond, the worst case scenario is you take your waders off and swim to the bank.”
But the main thing that has kept these guys hunting ponds and led them to Hallam is convenience. Hunting there doesn’t involve a long drive and motel bills like their trips to Overton. “Some years we hunt down at Hallam more than others,” Duffy said. “If we have a chance to go to the river, we go to the river. But if we don’t have the time, then we just go down to the pond.
“That’s all it is, opportunity. And it’s an overlooked opportunity.”
Of course, having plenty of chances to shoot a duck is a bonus. “I’m glad I got up this morning,” Dobson said on a hunt last October after making the most of one of his chances, downing three ducks from a flock in three shots.