Dead End Slough
By Chris Hustad
When I look back at the hunting and fishing memories throughout the years, I can really tell how much it influenced the blueprint of my life. I can remember my first walleye, largemouth bass, pheasant, and duck to name a few like it was just yesterday. But more than just the creature itself, what often sticks out most is the place. And there are only so many places that are so, well, perfect in every way that you look forward all year to returning. And one of those places towards the top of the list was Dead End Slough.
If I were to paint the perfect setting, environment, and ingredients for a duck hole, this place had it all. It was a small 3-4 acre slough in the Devils Lake region that seemed about as far away from everywhere like so many places I enjoy in the state of North Dakota. To get there, one had to make a 30-mile minimum drive from the nearest hotel. It wasn’t a place that you could easily give directions as it requires a lot of turns, curved roads, prairie trails, and a 400 yard hike into the middle of a field. It got the name Dead End Slough because you felt like you were driving forever only to end up at a dead end with a 3-mile slow retreat to get back to where you started off gravel. The slough was surrounded by cattails and during the years we frequented it back in 1993-95 (during the beginning of the wet cycle), it was around 6-18 inches deep. It was generally round, but a point stuck into the middle from the south end like the shape of a fortune cookie. The water had a variety of weeds that the ducks liked and had a lot of open holes. No matter which direction the wind blew, we could use that point for cover and create a hole for the ducks to fill. And oh boy did the ducks fill this slough.
I understand that hunting is more than just the kill, it’s the sites, smells, friends and family, and at times when the cold front came through just right, you could almost taste it in the air. But this place was just one of those places that hailed ducks every time we stepped into it. It didn’t matter if it was a bluebird day or a nasty Canadian clipper; the ducks came from everywhere. It was at Dead End Slough where it dawned on me how ducks use certain water as a transition slough to and from their morning and evening feed.
I remember the first time we stumbled upon the place. We questioned whether or not we were doing the right thing by taking this bumpy prairie road in the first place. When we reached it, I can remember the cussing and “I told you so’s” that flew around the truck. But wait…”did you see that? About a dozen ducks just locked up and dropped in like falling stars. Look, there’s more too!” We sat there and watched a constant flight of ducks dropping in about an hour before sundown. And soon after as more came, some flew off and started dropping into a stubble field ¾ of mile to the East. The birds came and went by the thousands; the excitement was unbearable.
The next morning we drove down that dead end road and parked by a small clump of trees. 3 of us carried our guns, gear and a decoy bag each over our shoulder. After that long 400-yard hike to the NE we found ourselves at the middle, west end of the slough, and we could hear a few ducks scatter upon our arrival. At first we were concerned about the fact that only a few dozen ducks left the slough when we saw thousands the night before. “They have to come back, there was just too many not to come back” we kept telling ourselves in confidence. “Let’s just setup and see what happens.”
The sun was just starting to paint the sky to the east and it was starting to reflect on the water. We didn’t know when we first started to toss out our duck floaters that there was a point in the middle. When it showed itself in the light it was like an artist painting the perfect setup for a would-be framed and matted print. We immediately decided to abort our current plan of setting up on the west end and move our setup to that point.
With our waders on we were standing in about 12 inches of water and surrounded by cattails. They were thick enough that you could mold a perfect blind and that was just about as enjoyable creating as anything else during the hunt. The wind started to pick up, it was 20 minutes to shooting time and the ducks were already pouring into the slough. We did some last minute adjustments and opened a hole to the NW where we expected the approaching ducks to land into the SE wind. We loaded the guns and looked at the watch. And for the next 60 minutes we took turns picking out the nicest drake in every flock until we had our 3-man limit. After that we just sat and watched that slough fill like the picture of the infamous Claypool Reservoir photo. I had never felt so close to nature as that morning. We had ducks all around us and many within a few yards. When we finally decided to leave, there was a deafening sound as thousands of ducks lifted at once, some almost retreating right into us. For the next 3 years, my hunting buddies and I returned to that slough only to be surprised again on how “automatic” it was to hold mid-morning ducks.
The year 1996 spelled the end of Dead End Slough. A local guide leased up all the grounds including the section engulfing the slough. It left a pain in the gut and a lump in my throat to see a place I held so close to my heart disappear. That carrot dangling in front of your nose that you have to accept is just out of reach. I didn’t grow up in the existence of commercial hunting so I wasn’t in a position as a kid to afford such a place, nor did I really understand it. The slough was priceless, but I soon learned the reality that someone else thought otherwise. It was gone, and we picked up and moved on to find another place to startup new memories.
This story does have a happy end, however. Years later, when the snow goose migration became so stalled in Canada on waterfowl opener, we decided not to return to our ritual around J Clark Sayler in NW ND. Instead of pursuing snow geese on opener like the family did for decades, we headed to the Devils Lake Region in pursuit of ducks. On the night before opener during scouting I thought what the heck, I wanted to show my brother and father where my friends and I used to see an endless supply of mallards. After my five-year absence, I once again took that prairie trail towards Dead End Slough. When we reached the end of the trail, sure enough, it was raining ducks. And the bright sign was posted right at the end of the road that made the decision easy that it was again out of reach and that our time would be better spent elsewhere. But just for the sake of trying, I drove down that familiar driveway of the landowner just a couple miles away.
After a 20-minute talk in catching up on old times, I asked if the land was still being leased. “Yes, it’s still leased but I tell ya what. He’s not going to be around there this week so go ahead and hunt it in the morning. I can only let you on tomorrow though, I hope you understand.” I about fainted like some dramatic scene in a movie. I can’t even begin to describe the excitement that came over me. After about a dozen thank you’s we hopped back into the truck and headed back to the hotel. I was overjoyed with the thought that I could actually go back to a place that had been only a legend for years. It was no longer a myth, it was going to be reality.
We hunted that slough for the last time that opener morning. I didn’t want it to end, but it had to. But I was fully satisfied. The chance alone to share that place that I call Dead End Slough with my family ended another important chapter of my life. For those of you who know of such a special place, you know what I mean. And maybe some day I will have the chance to slip on my waders and step back into my waterfowl heaven again, and I’m hoping to have my son at my side so he can further understand who daddy really is.