6 Great Places for DIY Duck Hunting

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Traveling waterfowlers have excellent options for do-it-yourself adventures

From local ducks to late-season migrants, the Dakotas have unmatched variety. Photo by Bill Konway

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1 | Prairie Pothole Mixed Bag

Hitting the prairie potholes of North Dakota and the eastern half of South Dakota might be the quintessential DIY duck foray. The states are in the heart of the prairie pothole region, which annually produces about 50% to 80% of North America’s ducks and attracts hordes of migrant birds.

The region features diverse opportunities, including puddle ducks on small potholes, divers on big water and great mallard and goose hunting in cut ag fields. North and South Dakota have excellent walk-in hunting programs, plus loads of state game properties, federal waterfowl production areas and other public land. You can hunt unposted land in North Dakota, and knocking on doors can still unlock access to quality spots. Plus, the folks are great, and hanging around small prairie towns feels like going back in time 50 years.

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This late-season hotspot is generating lots of attention from duck hunters. Photo by Forrest Carpenter

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2 | Oklahoma

Perhaps the Sooner State was a sleeper years ago, but no more. Waterfowlers took more than 380,000 ducks there in 2020-21, and with more than 1 million acres open to hunting, the state has become a popular freelance destination.

Oklahoma has more than 80 wildlife management areas, many of which have water for ducks. Also, it features waterfowl management areas and wetland development units, which are devoted to ducks and open to hunting. In addition, the state has 27 U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lakes and related lands.

Greenheads are the stars here, as Oklahoma has the second-highest mallard harvest in the Central Flyway, right behind North Dakota. Hunters will also find good opportunities for most other puddles and a surprising number of divers, especially ringnecks.

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3 | New Jersey

Most duck hunters probably think about heading west or south for new adventures, but they might want to look east. New Jersey offers great waterfowl opportunities, with hundreds of miles of ocean and bay-shore coastline, plus many coastal and inland wetlands, ponds, and lakes.

More than one-third of the black ducks in the eastern United States winter there, along with more than two-thirds of North America’s Atlantic brant. You can find good wood duck action in swamps throughout the northern part of the state, and thousands of greater snow geese congregate in the salt marshes along Delaware Bay.

The state has more than 750,000 acres of public lands open to hunting, including more than 352,000 in the state Wildlife Management Area System. Cape May Wetlands WMA features almost 18,000 acres of coastal marshes and other waterfowl habitat.

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The upper Mississippi River attracts hundreds of thousands of cans each fall. Photo by Images on the Wildside

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4 | Mississippi River Cans

Bull canvasbacks probably top the taxidermy bucket lists of many duck hunters, and there might be no better place for a DIY can adventure than the upper Mississippi River in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, where the regal birds mass every fall during migration. Pool 9 — which cuts through the border of southwestern Wisconsin, southeastern Minnesota and northeastern Iowa — is typically the hotspot.

Canvasback numbers usually peak during the first or second week of November, when hundreds of thousands of cans use the river some years. It’s also a great multispecies area, with loads of other divers and abundant puddle ducks.

Public opportunities abound, as that stretch of river is part of the Upper Mississippi River National Wildlife and Fish Refuge, which covers 261 miles and more than 240,000 acres.

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Incredible variety and abundant public land — what

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5 | Oregon

Its northern and southern neighbors might overshadow the Beaver State, but freelance waterfowlers can find loads of opportunity there. The Snake River has become a hot spot for mallards, and you can chase cackling geese in the Willamette Valley, puddle ducks at massive Sauvie Island, divers on the Columbia River or specklebellies near Klamath Falls. Tidal hunts abound along the coast, including the vast Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge near the mouth of the Columbia River.

Oregon offers millions of acres of public land for hunting, including many wildlife areas and private properties open through the state’s Access and Habitat Program. Duck seasons generally begin in October and extend into January.

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Long-tailed ducks mass by the thousands on Lake Michigan. Photo by Ray Hennessy

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6 | Lake Michigan Sea Ducks

Disclaimer: Do not attempt any DIY hunt on the Great Lakes without a large, seaworthy craft, other necessary safety equipment and a heavy dose of big-water experience. But if you check those boxes, you might want to explore the Lake Michigan coasts of Wisconsin and Michigan, which host huge wintering flocks of long-tailed ducks. The colorful, talkative birds feast on invertebrates far offshore and provide great open-water hunting opportunities.

Layout rigs work best for longtails, as the birds have become increasingly pressured the past 20 years. However, hunters can also anchor or drift in larger crafts and shoot some ducks.

Longtails usually arrive en masse by mid-November, and it’s fairly easy to spot large rafts or feeding flights of birds. One caveat: As mentioned, Lake Michigan’s longtails have received substantial hunting pressure the past few seasons, so consider making this a trophy hunt for prime drakes instead of a pile-’em-up mission.

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Great duck hunts typically involve long hours of scouting, substantial physical labor and a good measure of applied experience. So it’s no surprise that waterfowlers are among the ultimate do-it-yourself outdoors adventure seekers.

Duck geeks love testing themselves by seeking new thrills in far-flung places without a proverbial safety net — situations in which success is never guaranteed and failure is always a possibility, especially when you’re far from home.

That’s part of the appeal: new water, different birds and fresh experiences. And that’s why duck nuts always yearn to hit the road. In that spirit, here are six great potential DIY hunts for vagabond waterfowlers.

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