I'm driving a rented Toyota Corolla on a narrow, two-lane highway crowded with rush-hour traffic. Ahead of me, weaving and bobbing like a prizefighter at nearly 80 mph, is a huge, red, crew-cab Ford pickup. At the wheel of this behemoth is my photographer friend Lee Kjos. The truck is crammed full of duck-hunting gear and two Labs (May, a young black, and Sackett, a 10-year-old yellow). It's towing a fully rigged TDB (The Duck Boat), built in South Bristol, Maine, not thirty minutes from my home.But, Toto, we aren't in New England any more. We're in Minnesota, just outside of Minneapolis, and Lee's haste is disconcerting but understandable. We are racing the clock and the weather, headed for South Dakota. For the past two days Lee has been on the phone to friends in Saskatchewan, asking about the movements of the big drake mallards that hang out there until ice drives them south. In fact, I can see through the windshield of my anemic, four-cylinder compact that he's talking on his cell phone now, even as he slurps strong black coffee from a battered travel mug. Hoping that I'm not about to die an ignoble death, I slam the accelerator to the floor in an effort to keep up with the weaving truck. I know that Lee and I are in a race for the ducks. Ahead of me in the thick, cold fog, the looming figure of Bruce Prins whispers a warning about the barbed-wire fence we need to cross, and then disappears into the pre-dawn darkness. I have no more idea of where I am now than I did last night, when I followed Lee down a succession of unmarked farm roads to Bruce's Prairie Sky Ranch, tucked into the northeast corner of South Dakota. This, promised Lee, was where we would intercept the huge greenheads being forced out of central Canada by weather his friends had described as blizzard-like. What I am stumbling through now doesn't feel at all like a blizzard. There is an inch or so of snow on the ground, but the temperature seems to be about 40°-hence the fog. As I lug my shotgun and a big bag of decoys across what I only can guess is a meadow, Bruce again looms out of the darkness. "I'm sorry, boys," he says, "but this hole isn't going to work this morning. It's mostly frozen, and there isn't a duck on it. We'll have to move." And move we do. Bruce leads-the lights of his pickup doused. Lee and I follow in Lee's rig, and I can't help thinking, We've missed first light; there aren't any ducks; the visibility's impossible; and I came halfway across the country for this? O ye of little faith. Bruce's truck rolls to a stop ahead of us, and Lee swings in beside it. All I can see is the fog-shrouded edge of a pond-your basic cat-o'-nine tails and a bit of water unruffled by the slightest breeze. Not promising. Except that within seconds of leaving the truck, I hear the whistle of wings and a group of four ducks drops into the water in front of us. Bruce looks at us and grins. "Yup, this'll work," he whispers. "Let's tuck in." We slog into the tules, and I drop a half-dozen mallard decoys into the pond, as does the fourth member of our crew, our friend and hunting partner Tom Dokken. Lee is doing his best to calm his young Lab, May, and get her settled in the mud, even as he struggles with camera lenses and filters that might capture something-if it happens-in the gloom. "Mark!" hisses Tom, as a half-dozen ducks appear out of the fog, set their wings and drop toward "our" corner of the pond. I vaguely hear the crack of Tom's 20-gauge as I pick out a bird and crumple it. May waits for Tom's release command, but not by much. Once in the water, May goes to work retrieving the three ducks that have fallen to our guns. These aren't the big greenheads Lee has come for. They are gadwalls-two hens and a drake-and to my eyes their subtle colors are nothing short of gorgeous. Taking the last bird from the dog, I look over at Bruce, who shoots me a broad smile. Life is good. The birds keep coming, providing us with great shooting and May with the sort of opportunities every young retriever needs. Bruce has put us in the right place at the right time. Poor Lee has to struggle for photographs in the persistent fog, but Tom and I couldn't be happier. Every 10 minutes for the next two hours gadwalls swing over the decoys and drop in, and though we miss our share of birds, May gets plenty of work. During one of the infrequent lulls in the action, I clearly remember thinking, You're in South Dakota. Even though you can't see much of it, this is one of those prairie potholes you've always read about. And, yes, it's a duck magnet, just as the magazines said it would be. Veblen, South Dakota, isn't exactly a household name, but if you're a duck hunter, it should be. This sleepy little town sits in a land of striking contrasts: completely flat valleys with rich, dark soils nurturing valuable crops like corn and soybeans flanked by wild, oak-studded hills that rise 2,000 feet above the plains. This higher country is known as the Prairie Coteau region. A US Geological Survey Website describes the topography thus: "It is the result of stagnant glacial ice melting beneath a sediment layer. The tightly undulating, hummocky landscape has no drainage pattern; it is perforated with closely spaced semi-permanent and seasonal wetlands that create favorable conditions for duck nesting and migration." In short, there are potholes everywhere, many of them so covered with waterfowl that they appear oddly black. "Undulating" is a perfect description of the landscape, and as Lee, Bruce, Tom and I drive the county roads that lace the countryside, we agree that this is a retriever field-trialer's haven. But this terrain isn't ideal for just ducks and duck dogs. No matter where we go on our scouting missions, we see white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and raptors. In fact, hawks, owls and falcons are everywhere, and I curse myself for leaving behind my binoculars and Peterson field guide. Moreover, although this trip is focused on waterfowl and Labs, we continually spot sharp-tailed grouse-some poking their alert heads above the wheat stubble, others streaking overhead while we wait for ducks beside the potholes. Cutting my wide-ranging setter loose on these birds is very much on my mind, and I ask Bruce about them. "The sharptail hunting is very good," he says, "but success means a lot of walking. The more ground you cover, the more birds you find. A lot of our guests get worn out pretty quick and would rather hunt pheasants on our preserve." Shaky though my aging legs may be, I'd prefer trying the sharptails, so Bruce makes me promise to return with my setter. Tough duty... The second afternoon Bruce takes us down a magical lane where the trees weave a bower over our heads, and a half-dozen big turkeys race ahead of the truck. After we park, he leads us quietly through the woods to yet another pothole-this one big enough to qualify as a lake-drawn at each step by the eerie whistle of wigeon. But what we think is a group of perhaps two dozen birds turns out to be a flock of more than 200. We tuck into the tules, hoping they'll fly back into the cove we now face but knowing deep down this probably won't happen. It doesn't matter. Instead we watch as the wigeon regroup off of a point a quarter-mile away, only to be repeatedly dive-bombed and scattered by a pair of big hawks. After having our fill of this spectacle, we're all shivering and agree it's time to head home. Now I don't use the term "home" lightly. I've stayed in lodges from Scotland to Mexico, but Prairie Sky is the only one that truly has felt like home. Quite simply, that's because of Bruce and his wife, Corrine. They are a warm, open and generous couple, and their operation is first-class. An example of the treatment you can expect occurs as we return to the lodge that afternoon. First, we are greeted by Molly, the aging border collie who sleeps in front of the lodge door just in case something evil threatens Bruce or Corrine. Next Bruce guides us to the bank of coffee pots that are always full. "You guys hungry?" he asks. "Just grab anything you want out of the refrigerator and stick it in the microwave. They'll have supper ready for us in a half-hour." At first I'm amazed that Bruce is comfortable with our invading the lodge's spotless kitchen, but later when I think about it, the invitation isn't so surprising. Because guests at Prairie Sky seem more like family. A few minutes later guide Robert Rudder, obviously fatigued, pushes into the lodge in a very muddy pair of waders. Robert's clients wanted mallards, not gadwalls, today. Trouble is, despite the assertions Lee had gotten on the phone from his friends in Saskatchewan, most of the big greenheads are somewhere between Canada and South Dakota. So Robert had to take his clients into the valley, to Veblen, and they'd spent the day playing hide-and-seek with ducks in the cornfields. It hadn't been fun. Robert is a native of Arkansas and a veteran of the flooded-timber hunting that has made the state famous. As he strips off his neoprene waders, the guide has enough energy to tell me, "The duck hunting is better up here. People don't realize it, but that's why I moved to Veblen." The day before I had heard Robert work a duck call and watched as more than one reluctant bird fell victim to his seduction. This guy knows ducks-big time. For years he coaxed them into landing among the oaks of Arkansas, yet he's chosen to forego all that to be with Bruce and Corrine in South Dakota. There's no doubt that I'm in the right place. An hour later Robert confirms this when he brings out two platters of his duck-breast appetizers-each strip marinated, wrapped with a bit of bacon, skewered with a toothpick and seared over the grill. All of us indulge shamelessly. Next we dive into some of Corrine's "home-cooking," an apt term for the fresh, hearty, delicious fare that Corrine and her helpers bring to the table. The meals always include game-maybe a buffalo steak (Bruce and Corrine maintain a herd of 200 bison) or some braised pheasant from the preserve. The food is ideal for restoring the heart and soul of a waterfowl hunter after a long day of hiding in the tules. It is our last day at Prairie Sky. Tom already has headed back to Minnesota for a meeting; Lee needs to relieve his wife on the home front; and I have more work in my office than I care to think about. So I choose to not think about it. Today we're hunting ducks. In his typical understated, quiet way, Bruce says he's picked someplace special for our final hunt. But I'm not prepared for the sight that greets us as we crest a hill and look down on a huge pond, at least half of it covered with ducks. Most of the birds flush as we stop in Bruce's pickup, but many simply swing around and set back down. I look over at Bruce for some sort of analysis. There's that trademark grin again. We unload the truck-a sack of decoys, a quivering black Lab, boxes of shells-and head down the slope to the pothole. This is my kind of hunting: There aren't any concrete or wooden blinds; we simply hunker down in the muck behind clumps of cattails and wait. At Robert's suggestion, we've set up not only conventional decoys but a single Robo-duck, one of those battery-powered, spinning-wing devices that I've read about but never hunted over. They work. The gadwalls and wigeon that had abandoned the pothole upon our arrival flood back within minutes, and the animated decoy definitely pulls them closer to our makeshift hides. Suddenly, Robert, to my right, whispers, "There they are. Mallards!" Sure enough, even my 50-year-old eyes can see that this group of birds is different. They are huge and dropping lower with each circle, unable to resist the pleas from Robert's acrylic call. "Now!" he hisses, and Lee, Bruce and I fire together. Three ducks drop from the darkening sky. Three huge mallard drakes fresh from Saskatchewan. They fall in different corners of the pothole, and young May faces a real challenge. For this piece of water is not only large but lined with cattle-stomped mud as slick and sticky as that of any prehistoric tar pit. May picks up the first two ducks as if the gluey mud isn't there. Meanwhile, the third drake has drifted across the pond, at least 150 yards from where Lee shot it. Will May drive that far after two shorter retrieves? No, she won't, and Lee is clearly frustrated. But then he does what dedicated retriever trainers do. At no small risk, he slogs out into the middle of the pond, calls May to him and gives her a good, strong, "Back!" To my astonishment, this beautiful little dog takes the cast and picks up the duck. Once he makes it back to shore, a struggle of almost 10 minutes, Lee comes over to me with the big greenhead. "We got him," he says proudly, May wagging by his side. Then I feel a hand on my shoulder. It is, of course, Bruce. "May did well," he says. "And so did we. I'm glad I was here." Me, too. Author's Note: For more information on duck hunting in South Dakota, contact Prairie Sky Ranch, 44370 109th St., Veblen, SD 57270; 605-738-2411; www.prairieskyranch.com
. Chris Cornell lives in Camden, Maine, where he is the editor of Countrysport Press. He also is the proud owner of two Labs and an Irish red-and-white setter, and he is active in retriever field-trialing.