North Dakota Yields Waterfowl in Big Numbers
Lehr, N.D. - In the first light of dawn, we could just make out the motion of distant wings above tree-tops on the gray horizon. “Divers,” Tom Waite whispered to Tim Mader and me. “Big flock coming in.” We hunkered down in clumps of tall grass with the wind at our backs and watched.
The ducks stretched out in a long line, then bunched back together as birds jockeyed for position. When the flock drew near, the ducks cupped their wings to come down for a closer look at our decoys. That’s when I caught my first glimpse of the black-and white markings of a drake bluebill.
The flock swooped low and to the left, then hooked around behind us and circled back overhead, even lower, and we heard the stirring sound of wings cutting through the late October wind.
When the birds descended, their feet outstretched for the water, Waite said, “Let’s take ‘em.” Guns sounded, ducks folded and dogs hit the water.
So began what turned out to be the best diver duck hunt of my life. We shot mixed-bag limits of bluebills, ring-necks and redheads. It also served as a perfect introduction to the waterfowl hunting paradise of North Dakota.
According to Stan Kohn, waterfowl biologist with the North Dakota Game and Fish Department in Bismarck, record numbers of ducks in this prairie pothole country have attracted many hunters from Wisconsin in recent years. “Wisconsin and Minnesota probably contribute the largest group of non-resident hunters who come here,” Kohn said. Last year, 25,000 non-resident waterfowlers visited North Dakota. The duck numbers illustrate why.
Between 1992 and 2000, North Dakota’s mallard harvest jumped from and estimated 39,200 to 222,400 ducks. During that time, the gadwall take went from 6,500 to 132,900 ducks. In addition, Kohn said, “The last three years we set records for the number of ducks produced.”
The reason so many ducks are using this region is simple: water. Following drought years in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, huge amounts of rain began to fall on North Dakota, expanding existing lakes and marshes and creating new potholes. “We were certainly at record high water conditions last year,” Kohn said. “Essentially, all of our wetlands are full.”
In 1992, he said, the state had 4.1 wetlands per square mile compared with 12 today. The estimated duck production increased from about one brood per square mile to 623 broods during that time. The abundant wetlands combine with about 3 million North Dakota acres enrolled in the federal Conservation Reserve program to make some of the best waterfowl habitat in North America. The program pays farmers to keep grasslands, which creates nesting habitat not only for ducks, but also for pheasants and other wildlife.
Our group of Wisconsin hunters made the 12 hour drive west, hoping to take advantage of all those trends. We were not disappointed. The group included Waite, of Wind Lake; Mader of Mayville; Dave Matthews of Menomonee Falls, Frank Liska, of Greenfield and me. Cody Zilhauer, of Wishek, ND also hooked up with us for some of the hunts.
Waite and Mader are both professional dog trainers. Waite operates Dale Creek Gun Dogs in Salem and Mader runs Blue Grass Kennels in Mayville so there was no shortage of dogs. We had pointers, flushers and retrievers- a mix of both young and seasoned dogs. Of course, I also brought along my two goldens, Buck and Buddy, for water and upland work and for good company.
Our game plan was to split up into two groups each morning and set up decoys on open water for ducks. Then we’d reassemble in the afternoon to walk the fields for pheasants, sharp tailed grouse and Hungarian partridge till dark.
Pheasant numbers up
Pheasant and sharptail numbers are good this year, Kohn said. “Pheasant numbers are quite high right now south of I-94,” he said. “For sharptails, traditionally, the southwest corner of the state has been best. But this year, the southeast and south central have been better.” Hungarian partridge numbers are down. “The Huns took a beating during the drought in the 1980’s and still haven’t recovered,” Kohn said.
We covered a lot of southeastern North Dakota, both in the trucks and on foot, and we found at least some birds- ducks, pheasants, sharptails or Huns- just about everywhere we looked.
A non-resident small game and waterfowl license costs $93.
Written by Bob Riepenhoff
Milwaukee Journal- Sentinel
November 4, 2001
Category: Gundog Articles