Oklahoma more than OK


VINITA, Okla. -- Lance Peck slowly bumped along in his Toyota Tundra next to a five-strand barbed wire fence, carving a path through thick prairie grass that touched the top of the truck's grill.

"It always makes me a little nervous when you can smell the grass burning under the truck," Peck said.



It was hard to see much in the dark, but the landscape didn't look like duck hunting country. Peck's headlights exposed a vast prairie, its bluestem carpet swaying in a stiff southerly breeze. Since turning off a gravel county road about a mile back, we'd seen one lonely tree jutting from the lightly rolling topography.

We were looking for a small pond in the middle of the grassland scene, an oasis that finally came into view as we crested a slight knoll and dropped into a swale. Peck recognized the spot when the lights bounced off a pair of scrubby trees. Our pace accelerated, as did our host's zeal.

I didn't share his enthusiasm. I'd seen bigger water in my bathtub.

"I know it doesn't look like much," Peck said. "But you'll be surprised."

Duck music

Expectations hadn't been high going into the Duck Trek's Oklahoma stop, the result of unseasonably warm weather and high winds that voided our original plans. Peck's first suggestion was to hunt Oologah Lake, a 29,500-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers impoundment northeast of Tulsa.

With below-normal rainfall, exposed mud flats had been swarming with green-winged teal. But 40 mph winds, big open water and small aluminum duck boats don't mix well.

Instead, we found ourselves on a watering hole for cattle, a pond that was about 250 yards long by 75 yards wide. The spot was near Peck's deer camp, which was full of hunters for the opening weekend of Oklahoma's modern gun season, and one of Peck's cohorts had seen ducks from his deer stand the previous day.

A small patch of cocklebur bushes was the only available cover to conceal two hunters, Peck's dog Nellie and Duck Trek photographer James Overstreet.

We threw out about four dozen decoys, arranging a group of mallards on the left of the natural blind and a group of teal on the right. We settled in behind the bushes, careful to avoid sporadic piles of cow dung.

Piping wings fulfilled Peck's prophesy for surprise.

"Big ducks," Peck said.

Little ducks chimed in, too. Sitting in the dark, waiting for shooting time, we heard the staccato peeps of teal over the water. They flew low over the pond and rushed just over our heads, the piercing sound of ripping fabric trailing in their wake.

"It's a good thing we're sitting down," Peck said. "They might've taken our heads off."

Several wigeon sliced the wind next, their four-note whistles giving up their whereabouts. Gadwalls joined the flight pattern a few minutes later, followed by mallards.

The symphony of duck music was complete when we heard splashing water off a small point in the pond about 50 yards from our hiding spot.

This little pond suddenly had big potential.

Oklahoma is OK

Oklahoma is better known for cowboys, country music and oil wells than for duck hunting. But while the Sooner State may not have a waterfowling reputation like neighboring states Arkansas and Missouri, its duck hunting is nothing to ignore.

Hunters in Oklahoma don't post the outlandish harvest numbers of Arkansas or Louisiana, but the state's total 2007 harvest of more than 450,000 ducks is significant. It was a banner year for Oklahoma waterfowling, with hunters bagging about 225,000 mallards, very similar to Missouri's mallard harvest that year.

Oklahoma's harvest numbers have fallen off the past two years, but hunters still took more than a quarter-million ducks last season.

The state is part of the Central Flyway, playing host to ducks migrating from the northern plains. While some Central Flyway ducks hang a left at the Missouri River and cross into the Mississippi Flyway, others continue south through eastern Oklahoma. Some move through the state and winter in Texas, others turn left at the Arkansas River and filter through the Arkansas River Valley, wintering in eastern Oklahoma, western Arkansas and other destinations.

Though Oklahoma doesn't automatically come to mind as a waterfowling hotspot, it's important to remember the state has more manmade lakes than any state in the U.S. Many of the large lakes play host to large concentrations of ducks such as mallards, pintails, ringnecks, teal, redheads and many more species.

"I grew up hunting on the big lakes, and that's still my favorite way to hunt," said Peck, who lives in Tulsa and hunts frequently on lakes like Eufaula and Oologah.

Field hunting can be excellent, too, as birds move out of roosts on big water and rivers to feed on waste grain.

And some ducks find their way to whatever water is available, including small cattle ponds on northeast Oklahoma's Prairie Plains.

Little pond, big fun

"These ponds can be real good at times," Peck said. "But you don't usually get too many hunts out them. You scout around and find a pond, shoot it a day or two, and then you move on and find another one because these ponds are so small the ducks aren't going to stick around long if there's much pressure on them."

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Our pond apparently hadn't been pressured.

Peck's explanation of pond-hunting techniques was interrupted by a group of wigeon that worked into the decoys just after shooting time. As the ducks hovered in the stiff wind, examining the gap in our decoys, Peck knocked down a drake. I threw up three air balls, failing to compensate for the 30 mph wind.

I had forgotten Nellie was with us until she took off after the baldpate. She had been so quiet and still that I thought Peck had left her in the truck.

A pair of mallards fell victim to the guns after swinging several times and making one pass too many.

We knocked down two gadwalls out of another bunch that locked up on the spread from high altitude. The next group of gadwalls showed the same interest, but then bugged out at the last minute, just in time to avoid a volley from our cocklebur-infested hiding spot.

"Goofy gadwalls," Peck said. "One time they'll come in and not think twice, and the next they act like the wariest ducks on the planet."

We moved a lot closer to our limit when a wad of teal swung low over the pond and splashed down about 50 yards away near the small point. Peck and I rose up and took down five greenwings with two shots apiece.

By 7:30 a.m., we were just two ducks shy of our limits, and Overstreet, who hadn't bought a hunting license for the Oklahoma stop, was asking us to slow down so he could take more photos.

"What time does the Wildlife Department open?" he said. "I may have to buy a license so we can stretch this thing out."

The action slowed for the next hour. Ducks were in the air over the pond, but our sparse hide wasn't as effective after the sky brightened.

A group of six gadwalls finally broke the dry spell, sailing into the wind high over the decoys. They were in the vertical demilitarized zone. To shoot or not shoot?

"We better give 'em a shot," Peck said.

I finished up my limit with two gadwalls on two shots, including a second shot that was more a credit to my Remington Versamax than my shooting skills. But I accepted Peck's congratulatory fist bump nonetheless.

"That's the way to end a day," he said.

We picked up the decoys and the last few ducks, loaded into Peck's truck, and made the drive back across the prairie. When I jumped out of the truck to open a cattle gate, scores of mallards jumped off a pond in front of a herd of cattle.

"It's pretty amazing that you can be out here in the middle of the prairie, in the middle of cattle country, and experience something like this," Peck said.

Surprising, too.