2020 Preseason Update for Central North Dakota
Hi Guys and Gals:
First a shout out to our friends in Louisiana and Texas dealing with the aftermath of the hurricane. We hope clean-up goes well and they recover as soon as possible. Looks like a mess. It’s going to be 45 degrees here tonight and there are ducks sitting within a quarter mile of me right now that will be heading down there shortly. Regardless of where you hunt in the US it’s good to remember where our ducks come from (right here in the Coteau) and where they winter (on the Gulf Coast and on the Chesapeake).
As I mentioned in earlier posts the Corona virus, which North Dakota as a state had largely avoided, has recently hit our area hard. We just heard today one of our local business owners was put on a respirator, and the town of Butte is under various stages of quarantine right now. Appears it all started with a wedding a few weeks ago and then spread fast.
This does not bode well for small, previously-isolated, North Dakota towns across the duck hunting range this fall. A prevailing thought among hunters seems to be “I’m not afraid to get it.” While that may be true a more considerate approach would be to ensure you don’t pass it on unknowingly to someone else, someone who IS afraid to get it because it might kill them. Statistics tell us some of us reading this have the virus right now.
Obviously it isn’t the hunting activity in the field which puts everyone at risk, it’s the process of getting here and then dining, shopping, lodging etc. Most major retailers and grocers here now require masks for entry into their establishments, so bring some along if you plan on shopping.
As you may know Prairie Smoke Ranch DID cancel hunts this year as we have staff and support folks “at-risk”. As for the rules put in place by other guides/outfitters I can’t say. The smart thing to do is to check on your lodging and accommodations just before you leave home. I don’t even want to speculate what would happen if an outfitter/lodge/motel had a confirmed case on-site before your arrival. Right now North Dakota does not have any mandatory quarantine period for domestic travelers. International travelers are subject to a 14-day quarantine.
I’m all for the virus to magically go away but I suspect we’ll be right back to implementing some common-sense measures before the corner is turned and we can get back to normal. The timing is just bad, and it’s a mess. Enough of that -- now on to the critters.
Here are the regs: The daily limit may not include more than: 5 mallards of which only 2 may be female, 1 scaup, 3 wood duck, 1 pintail, 2 redhead, 2 canvasback. In addition to the daily bag limit of ducks listed above, an additional 2 blue-winged teal may be taken from September 26, 2020 through October 11, 2020.
It’s been a good production year. We estimate we produce 600-800 ducks on our ranch each year on about 20 larger lakes and sloughs and the associated uplands, and we harvest on average about 500-600 in a good year, depending on the number of hunters we have in. This year it will just be the Missus and me and a few family members, but we are long past the point where we are out to shoot limits of anything anyway. And of course most of our birds fly south and most of the birds we actually harvest are from Canada.
According to ND Game and Fish, brood counts were up this year and we have had ample if not excessive rain in our area. As a result there are plenty of birds around. They are hard to see however, because conditions this year have resulted in a thick ring of vegetation surrounding most potholes and smaller lakes, with some new cattails and bulrushes in places where they haven’t been before. Hiding won’t be the problem, seeing the birds and retrieving them, especially if you drop them on the shoreline, could be tough. It will be another good year for dog work. We have generally been dry this summer but the rains have been timely. Roads are in relatively good shape. No flooding right now.
Hard to tell what’s up with geese; we really haven’t seen many in our area but that is not unusual, and we don’t hunt early season. We expect they will come thru as usual – bigger dark geese first, then smaller dark geese (cacklers) and then snows in late October.
For the first time in about 20 years all the Tundra Swan tags were awarded in the ND Swan Lottery. If you don’t have one already you are out of luck. I can only assume that Canada will remain closed to US hunters this year because of the virus (closed now until Sept 21) and that may be putting more pressure on US habitat.
Upland birds have been a bright spot all year – with good numbers of pheasants present, more Huns than usual and strong sharptail production. We see Huns and sharpies regularly on our roadside walks. There seems to be fewer grasshoppers around this year, which is an important food source for upland chicks, but bird numbers seem solid. Brood, and now covey and flock numbers, are strong.
Have not seen or heard Sandhill cranes yet but fully expect to see them start coming through in the next week.
The cash crop markets are still a mess with the tariffs and so we are seeing more emphasis locally on small grains like wheat, flax, and some canola. Not much for sunflowers or beans, corn acreage seems about the same. For some reason (likely market rather than weather related) we are also seeing more “prevented plant” or basically fallow acres, this year. Farmers are paid by USDA even though they can’t/don’t plant these acres. These fields are typically full of weeds or grass and generally don’t hold a lot of birds; doves and Huns might be the exception because they dine on small weed seeds.
The wild crop – chokecherries, hawthorns, juneberries, snowberries (and to a lesser extent plums) has been very good this year. The sharpies really go for these berries and will frequent these areas once the weather turns colder.
We’ve got plenty of them. The deer herd has bounced back nicely after a period of several tough winters. We have whitetails everywhere and an expansion of mulies. Because of our deer draw system, few nonresident firearms hunters will possess tags. But anyone traveling the state needs to know we are back to the “Buck Bumper Bingo” game, where deer of all stripes jump out at you from ditches each evening trying to see who can inflict the largest possible insurance claim against your vehicle while it’s located in a far-away state. You will need to be careful while driving anytime near sundown and after dark.
Nothing new this year to speak of. Bag limits for ducks have changed slightly, with only one scaup allowed. Upland bird limits and license fees/structure are the same as in previous years. Currently no new restrictions due to Covid.
PLOTS and Public Land
The Private Land Open To Sportsmen (PLOTS) guide is available and updated – check out the ND Game and Fish website. Hard copies seem to be harder to get but most sporting goods stores and larger gas stations will have them. Seems we are losing PLOT acres each year but there are still hundreds of thousands of acres out there, most of which see little or no pressure once you get west of Fargo or north of Bismarck. Federal WPAs are also open for walk-in hunting as are State Wildlife Management Areas. As usual, PLOTS and state areas are closed to non-residents the first week of pheasant season (opens Oct 10 this year) but federal WPAs (paid for with your Federal Duck Stamp $$) remain open for all legal hunting. It’s a poorly kept secret that much of the best public upland bird hunting is on these Waterfowl Production Areas, especially those with upland areas.
Low-down Sneaky Varmints
(For two-legged variety see next section) It’s been a good year for coyotes. We’ve seen them around the yard and frequently while driving around the area. Nearly each night we are treated to a canine chorus shortly after sundown. There are several packs around us – to the east, north and west. Trapped in November, their pelts will be worth some money when stretched and dried properly. Early goods or those harvested with a firearm will have little or no market value. Coyotes and bobcat are really the only furbearers paying decent money in the current market. Coon, muskrat, mink and fox will barely cover fuel expenses.
We have captured several coons on our game cams. Based on their droppings they seem to travel our driveway and farm road every night. Most of these wayfarers are big fearless boars which can hold their own against a coyote or two – these big boys think they own the road, and I guess they do until they run into a Chevy half-ton or #1 ½ coil-spring trap.
Last year was our worst in recent history for porcupine/dog encounters but we have seen nary a hair (or quill) of the bristle pigs this year. Here on the treeless prairie the porkies tend to hang out in the thick cattails, causing problems for dogs when pheasant hunting. Never much of a problem for duck hunting though. Some dogs tend to learn after their first encounter with porcupines and some…do not.
Porkies are relatively easy to live trap if you want to scrub your area in the pre-season: Set a live cage trap near any likely slough or brushy hillside and bait with an apple cut into quarters and rolled in table salt. Put a couple pieces of salty apple outside the trap and a couple inside behind the trigger plate. Unfortunately ground squirrels also like this set up but if there are any porkies in the area you should catch them within 2-3 nights. A .22 in the noggin while in the trap will put them down. Then the problem is hauling their stinky carcass somewhere where the dogs won’t find it. A hole works well if you like to dig.
(For more trapping go here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088BDC7CT)
Posting and Trespass
I suspect these will be looked upon as the “good old days” when North Dakota potholes and fields were open to hunting unless posted, so enjoy them while you can. The ND legislature just barely missed enacting some new trespass rules in the last legislative session which would close all access without the requirement of posting. By and large landowners don’t want to be bothered by hunters during harvest season. Period. You wouldn’t want to be bothered at work either. And even if you’re a nice guy, you’re still bothering them by interrupting their work/harvest day by asking for permission. And of course all the goodwill is lost by that one miscreant who rips up the farm roads to access fields and then leaves his Burger King bag/beer cans from lunch and bird guts/feathers scattered across the field access. “That guy” will ruin it for everyone.
North Dakota is testing some electronic posting via their website and OnX this year. If you use it, please let them know how it works. Such a system may be the only way to preserve our current liberal access rules. However, without significant improvement in hunter behavior there’s little reason for optimism at this point. To be fair, this is as much a problem caused by hunters from in-state metro areas (i.e. Bismarck) as out-of-state hunters.
Favorite Excuses We Wish Trespassers Wouldn’t Use
“My GPS said there was a road here.”
“(Non-landowner Name) said I could hunt here.”
“I didn’t see the sign.”
“I just needed to get across your field.”
“Isn’t this a section line?”
“My GPS said there was a road here.” (worth repeating twice)
This will be a challenging season for everyone – hunters, landowners, rural residents and rural business owners. While much is beyond our control, everyone has the ability to make it better or worse for those around them. If traveling to North Dakota, consider acting like the guest you are rather than “that guy.”
Most hunters are courteous and grateful for the opportunities still available – to hunt when and where you please, to pursue wild birds on their terms, and to enjoy a good meal you harvested yourself in a timeless setting of grass, hills and wetlands. It’s not landowners, other sportsmen and women, Game and Fish, or state legislatures who are tightening the noose on your hunting activities – it’s “that guy,” the trespasser, the game hog, the litterer, the guy pissing off every landowner and real sportsman in his path. We don’t tolerate it on our place. Do you? It’s simple: If sportsmen and women don’t police our own behavior someone else will, on their terms.
Be well, shoot straight and have a safe hunting season – and take a kid if you can.