ABERDEEN, S.D. -- The countryside surrounding this bustling prairie town pulses at this time of year in ways more populous parts of the nation can only imagine.
Combines run day and night, filling long grain trucks that wind along dusty roads before finding one of the hundreds of storage bins that rise against an endless prairie sky. Also there are pheasant hunters, thousands of them, orange-clad and from every corner of the country, staying up late (shooting last week didn't begin until noon) and spending money as if they had it.
Duck hunters by contrast -- the few of us there were in South Dakota in recent days -- are necessarily more industrious. We rise earlier and stay in the field later. This is particularly true if you haven't scrounged for waterfowl in this area previously and are puzzling things out as you go. Ducks are here, yes, lots of them. But putting yourself in their path, and them over your decoys, is another issue.
First, of course, a nonresident South Dakota waterfowl hunting license must be won by lottery, an event that happens (or doesn't) in summer. Long a sore spot among hunters and even game managers across the United States, South Dakota generally limits to a few thousand the out-of-staters it allows to hunt ducks and geese here. Also, some permits are good for only three consecutive days, so possibilities for return trips are few. A hassle, this, and exactly opposite the red-carpet treatment South Dakota offers to nonresident pheasant hunters.
I was thinking about all of this when I rolled into Aberdeen at midnight on a recent Wednesday, heavily loaded. My two sons were with me, and also in the truck were field as well as water decoys, goose and duck both. Additionally, we had three coolers, three blind bags, a large water jug, three guns, a dog crate, dog food and a Labrador retriever, Ben.
Trailing behind us was a johnboat with mud motor, on top of which we had strapped a canoe.
"Bring it all," we had been advised by friends who had hunted ducks in this part of South Dakota. "You don't know where you'll find birds, or what you'll have to do to get to them."
Daybreak Thursday, the night short, and the sun just now climbing over the eastern horizon.
We were parked on a blacktop road, the boys and I, alongside a large marsh perhaps 20 miles from Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which lies northeast of Aberdeen a half-hour's drive, and which at times in spring and fall can be a magnet for migrating waterfowl.
That hasn't been the case this fall. Only a relative smattering of birds have visited the refuge, thanks to the inordinately temperate weather that has beset not only South Dakota but the entire Midwest, Minnesota included.
Many northern birds have yet even to leave Canada.
That said, the ducks we saw lift into the early morning sky seemed part of an endless parade of birds, most of which were pintails, others gadwalls, with a smattering of teal, buffleheads and shovelers.
"There, look, mallards, too," Trevor, the older boy, said.
Using a map book produced by the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department, and also a detailed atlas of the area, we had identified the marsh as a state game production area, open to public hunting.
Yet the exact layout of what appeared to be a vast tangle of cattails, bulrushes and shallow water remained a mystery, shrouded still in the morning's half-light as it was. So we waited until the sun rose still higher before finding a watercraft launching site, and put the johnboat to float.
Wondrous as field hunting for ducks can be, particularly for mallards that descend upon land-based decoys in whirlwinds of cupped wings and outstretched feet, marsh hunting for the same birds is no less seductive.
A pair of gadwall were the first ducks over our decoys, and neither escaped, one somersaulting and landing to the left of our makeshift blind, the other arching in the opposite direction, its last flight.
There was no wind. And by rights this would not be a day for duck hunting. The sky was clear, and soon the warmth of the coming day would suggest an endless Indian summer.
Still, so many birds were on this marsh that in time a single or a pair or a small flock of them traded back and forth, waterfowl on the wing.
Some of these were fooled by our decoys. Others passed over us high and uncaring.
The boys and I each shot a couple before, at midmorning, the ducks mostly stopped flying.
Because South Dakota has so much water this year, as it did last year, ducks are scattered. Some, like those we found Thursday morning, laze on large marshes.
Others -- perhaps most others -- are gathered on private-land potholes hither and yon, available for the taking, perhaps, if you can get landowner permission to hunt.
That permission would be difficult to obtain if the quarry were pheasants. But so relatively few people hunt ducks in South Dakota (residents included) that landowner access for waterfowling is easier to come by.
Or so we hoped as we watched a wetland of perhaps 10 acres through binoculars about 3 p.m. Thursday.
On it were maybe 500 gadwalls, pintails and green-winged teal, interspersed with a few mallards.
"Sure, go ahead," the man who owned the land said when I asked if the boys and I could hunt the wetland that evening.
This was a big property owner we spoke to, a friendly type whose thoughts on recreation were slanted more immediately toward a high school football game his son was playing that night.
The hike into the wetland was a chore, a distance of about a mile or so across corn and bean stubble, carrying all of our gear. You want to not be too old and try this, I thought, and recalled then I wasn't getting any younger. Decoy-bag straps bore into our shoulders, also there were the guns, the shells and, for me, the cameras.
"Look," Cole, the younger boy, said.
Hearing us approach, the birds -- far more numerous than we thought -- rose into the air in a thunderous flutter of wings. Most of these were big ducks, except for the teal, which darted low to the water, then higher and higher still, squadrons on missions.
So startling was the beauty of all this that if we never pulled a trigger the prairie and its rising moon and setting sun would have been excitement enough.
But the ducks came back, gadwalls mostly, and in this middle of nowhere the crack of our shotguns broke the still air.
We completed our daily limits of six birds apiece. Then for a good long while we watched as the marsh's full contingent of residents descended to roost for the night.
To the west, the South Dakota sky was a bruise of fiery coals, a palate of reds and oranges that in time succumbed to midnight blue, then black.
A dozen ducks heavier, we nonetheless light-stepped it to the truck, a good day well done.