2019 Preseason Hunting Report – Central North Dakota
(courtesy Prairie Smoke Ranch)
Greetings from the prairie. We woke to 52 degrees, continuing wind and rain today. We have had 25-35 mph wind the last three days, shutting down fishing and driving home a reminder that autumn is not long in coming.
The most common question we get this time of year is “How much water you got up there?”. And while the answer has varied throughout the summer it’s pretty clear now the answer is “We are pretty dry.” As explained later that is not the worst situation but, like last year, many of our smaller wetlands are dry or holding just a few inches of water which will not last until October.
Big Picture – water and crops
USDA here in North Dakota and elsewhere report that “Prevented Plant” acres increased dramatically in 2019 – some 19.4 million acres, or a record increase of 17.5 million acres compared to 2018. These “PP” acres are supposed to be acreage that cannot be planted due to flooding of fields, and as a result the fields will generally be fallow during that crop year. Corn, soybeans and wheat in the Midwest are generally the impacted crops. It is not a coincidence however that the Tariff War with China has closed these grain markets and farmers have nowhere to sell or store their grain, and so claiming PP is an easy solution, if not strictly according to the intent of the PP provisions. As a result that wheat field you hunted for geese last year may be fallow this year.
We have not seen much PP in our area because we have generally been dry this year and fields were planted as usual. What we have seen is producers really going at the hay this year, cutting expired or eligible CRP, slough areas and lowlands which haven’t been hayed in years. Wildlife may pay for this in the coming winter because of lack of cover but it bodes well for this hunting season as there will be less cover and a concentration of birds, especially upland birds.
We’ve had two recent bad hail storms in the last few weeks which has wiped out some fields and battered others. Yields will be down in these fields. In cases where the field is a total loss the producer may be required to disk the crop down to collect their insurance payment. These areas could attract a lot of wildlife this fall, depending on the maturity of the crop when disked under.
As in 2018, our small sloughs have dried up and others are in the process of drying up right now. Expect thin water in central and northern areas. As reported earlier, many of these basins are completely vegetated, rather than just mud flats. When we do get rain, a few inches of water in this grass really brings in the ducks, so be aware that a “dry” slough this fall may have hidden birds in the center.
We have heard reports of good wheat crops but corn has been spotty and many bean fields look poor. As usual our rain this summer has come via scattered thunder storms; some fields get a good soaking and others just a few miles away get nothing. Our own beans and corn in the food plots are doing okay and holding birds and deer, but this will not be a bumper crop by any measure.
Waterfowl Production and prospects
Locally we have seen solid waterfowl production, if not a little late. Our local wetlands are literally jammed full of broods. This may be a reflection of a lack of wet real estate rather than actual production – but regardless the numbers were solid. Drive down the road here in the Coteau and you will see birds on 99% of the sloughs.
North Dakota Game and Fish biologists expect a fall duck flight from North Dakota up 12 percent from last year, based on observations from the annual mid-July waterfowl production survey.
This year’s duck brood index was up 37 percent from last year, and showed 5.11 broods per square mile, an increase of 39 percent. Average brood size is unchanged at 6.76 ducklings per brood.
Mallards, gadwall and blue-winged teal are the top three duck species that nest in North Dakota, and together they accounted for about 75 percent of the broods observed in the summer survey. Mallard brood numbers were up about 22 percent from last year, gadwalls were up about 47 percent, and blue-winged teal broods were up 45 percent. Blue-winged teal are typically the most prevalent breeding duck in North Dakota. In addition, pintail brood numbers were up 142 percent.
Observers also count water areas during the summer survey, and this year’s water index was up 11 percent from last year. Wetlands in the north central were still below average, but other areas were close to or slightly above average.
The 2019 waterfowl hunting framework calls for a liberal 6 bird daily limit with 18 in possession. Go here to access the complete small game regs: https://gf.nd.gov/regulations/small-combined .
Species limits are as follows: 5 mallards of which only 2 may be hens, 3 scaup, 3 wood ducks, 2 redheads, 2 canvasbacks, 1 pintail. Note: An additional 2 blue-winged teal may be taken September 21 through October 6 only. The daily limit of 5 mergansers may include no more than 2 hooded mergansers. The possession limit on these restricted ducks and the hooded merganser is three times the daily limit.
Lots of teal in now but we’ll see how long they stick around. We like the bonus teal provision early season; they will usually be present in good numbers the first week or so and then we will get a wave of migrators shortly thereafter. Locally we have also seen good canvasback production so plan to hit those hard before they move out.
Very few local dark geese around. We do not hunt the early goose season. Right now most geese are concentrated on the large water. Nothing on the smaller potholes.
2018 was our best year on Tundra swans ever – we filled out all tags and could have harvested many more birds. At last check there were still swan tags available over the counter after the recently held lottery – check on-line with ND Game and Fish. Limit is one per season. Swans typically arrive in our area in early October and continue to migrate through until ice-up in mid-November. They travel in small flocks – 3-8 birds – but do concentrate in large flocks on certain preferred water, which is generally shallow. They will fly over to take a look at a duck or goose spread but might just as well fly over you while pheasant hunting in blaze orange. They are not too cautious. They are however huge, with a 6-foot wingspan and weight of up to 20 pounds or so. It is common to see two adults flying with a juvenile, which is dingy gray rather than brilliant white. They are usually heard well before they are seen. A magnificent, trophy bird we are fortunate to harvest.
Upland Birds looking solid
We have regularly and continually put up sharptails from our food plots all year, something fairly unusual as they usually hunker down until fall and you don’t see them until the crops come off. Seeing a lot more huns as well but they still don’t add up to much. We expect a pheasant year similar to last year – fairly good numbers concentrated in pockets. A fairly warm and dry spring should have helped with brood survival. All the haying probably didn’t help nesting, but again, the birds you do find should be concentrated. You will find many dry cattail sloughs this year, which the roosters favor. Dry sloughs on the edge of crop fields should equal birds – if you have good dogs. Curiously, we shoot as many sharpies from our duck blinds as from our fields as they glide over to or from their feeding areas.
The “Two” Upland Seasons
Over the years we have noticed the upland season can generally be split into two very different periods. During the early weeks of the sharptail season the birds are usually in family broods and can be approached and hunted fairly easily. They will hold tight, with the mature birds generally flushing first and the juveniles flushing late. Some of these flushes can be measured in feet rather than yards. Close, tight, shooting. After the first few weeks however, and certainly by the end of October, the birds will group up – we have seen single flocks of 200 birds on our ranch – and be nearly impossible to approach. Flushes of ¼ or ½ mile away are not uncommon. They will not hold. Occasionally you will encounter a single bird or two in heavy cover, but otherwise the hunting is over.
Area pheasants can also be split into two seasons. The first season begins opening day and runs for about a week or so as the juvenile birds are flushed relatively close and harvested and “road hunters” pick off unwary birds morning and evening as they go for gravel. (Not a big fan of able-bodied road hunters.) After this the birds wise up and will run and flush well ahead of any approaching vehicle or gun-toting hopeful. About the time the cold weather sets in and the fair-weather hunters opt for living room couches and football the birds will have concentrated in heavy cover (cattail sloughs). By now all the crops are down and we may have some snow – and now the intrepid hunter with good dogs knows where to find Mr. Ringneck – and you will have the landscape all to yourself.
Regardless of the scenario we can’t recommend hunting upland birds here on the northern plains without a good dog or two, unless you just like fresh air and exercise.
Bag limits on sharpies, huns and roosters are 3 a day and a generous 12 in possession.
We plan to hit the Sandhill Cranes hard this year. They are generally in our area from mid-September to early October. A crane stamp must be purchased separate from your other licenses to pursue these big birds. Our favorite meals in the fall involve crane breasts seared on the grill.
Deer and other critters
Deer numbers are up – and our area hosts both white-tailed and mule deer. Moose are spotted fairly often as well. Firearms deer season starts November 8 so if small game hunting after that date pack blaze orange clothing. Coyote numbers are strong and we’ve seen a few badgers and (those blasted) porcupines. This has been a bad year for gophers for some reason; seems the snakes, hawks and coyotes are not doing their job. We do not have cactus or poisonous snakes on this side (east side) of the Missouri river, so porkies are really the biggest problem when hunting. And they favor cattail sloughs in the fall. We always advise our hunters to watch their dogs when working cattails – if they act curious (porky or coon) rather than determined (pheasant) pull them out of there.
Wholesale changes to North Dakota trespass law were proposed during our recent legislative session. Currently land is considered “open” to hunting access unless posted otherwise. The proposed changes would have “closed” all land to hunting unless posted “open”. The bill was narrowly defeated. So for now, land is open for hunting unless posted. This will likely change in the future. Our legislature only meets every other year, so the soonest this would change would be the 2021 hunting season.
Best practice is to ask the landowner for permission if you can find them, although most don’t live on the land they farm. The very best practice is to haul your carcass out to the field and help them with fencing, spraying, moving cattle or chores when they need it. One weekend of work could result in a lifetime of hunting access.
Remember too there are over 700,000 acres of PLOTS out there open to hunting, much of which in our area is rarely hunted. PLOTS is walk-in access only with some exceptions, so few duck hunters take the time to haul a few decoys over the fence, but the results can be fantastic. PLOTS surrounded by harvested crop fields are usually a solid bet for pheasants and other upland birds.
So What’s Your Fearless Prognostication?
Lower water levels this fall will again concentrate the waterfowl as they did last year. At Prairie Smoke Ranch in central North Dakota 2018 was one of our best years in recent memory, with birds really concentrating on certain preferred shallow basins. Bags will be skewed again toward mallards and gadwalls with plenty of blue-winged teal early season and another wave of green-winged teal with the first serious weather event. Look for a major influx of gadwalls 7-10 days into the season. We were loaded last year for a good week after they arrived. Pintails were down last year but seemed to have bounced back this year – we have not seen this locally. We are however encouraged by the number of canvasback broods locally. We expect fewer redheads but good numbers of scaup. Few ruddies around. Plenty of spoonies. Early snow last year helped keep birds moving. We hope our recent unsettled weather pattern continues – rain, wind and snow equal birds.
Summary: We are not in a drought; hunters should expect a typical, somewhat drier fall on the prairie with all the impacts and opportunities such a year provides. Much like last year.
PLOTS guide available at local gas and sporting goods stores or at:
ND Licenses: https://gf.nd.gov/buy-apply
Hunting Accommodations central ND: http://prairiesmokeranch.com