Dry, cold spring
Spring Update Central North Dakota
Spring is finally here, or something resembling spring anyway as it’s supposed to snow tonight. It was 26 degrees here this morning in Sheridan County and cold and cloudy all day. At this point we will take some more rain or snow as we are pretty dry, although conditions have improved recently. We went into winter fairly dry so hard to say if we are stuck with this weather pattern for a while or not. The precipitation is cyclical here on the Coteau so we often either get too much or too little rain and snow. Right now we are not getting much.
Critters benefiting from the dry cycle
We had a mild winter, meaning cold weather but little snow. This helps the upland birds (pheasant, huns and sharptails) and the deer (whitetail and mulies) because food sources are not buried under three feet of snow surrounded by eight foot drifts. I began working up some of our food plots today and noted that every single kernel of corn had been consumed from the standing corn stalks and from the ground. It’s remarkable really – I expect the deer and coon knock down the stalks, the pheasants, sharpies and huns (and early mallards) clean up the scattered grain and the mice and other birds eat up any remaining bits.
We saw dozens of pheasants yesterday along the roadside while driving around the area, along with sharptails in the fields. I also jumped huns from the old food plot. If we remain dry this spring, and it warms up a bit, there’s every reason to expect a strong hatch of upland birds.
The flip side of a dry spring is fewer breeding ponds for waterfowl. While our county is dry, we are not in a drought like counties to the east (e.g. Wells) and west of us (e.g. Dunn). There is a band of counties from the Canadian border to the South Dakota border in central North Dakota which are only considered “moderately” dry right now. While this might change, we’ll take it as good news. It is raining right now as this is written, which will help green up pastures and help put some moisture back into cropland. It will not however, fill up any of our dry sloughs. Winter run-off seems to be the key to keeping the sloughs full from year to year.
Expect the breeding pond index to be way down, which will impact production. On a brighter note, the lakes and ponds which do exist are holding plenty of waterfowl. I surveyed our Bluebill Lake this afternoon and found it full of scaup (~200+), a couple pair of cans, a handful of mallards and teal, some ruddies, and several pair of western grebes. Notable by their absence were redheads, which in some years are the primary duck in our area. Not this year (or last).
Our smaller ponds have teal, gaddies, pintails and the colorful spoonbills or shovelers. It’s truly a shame most people never see spoonies in their breeding plumage. The drake is a grand bird of chestnut, brilliant white and gaudy green – a far cry from the drab, brown bird which drops from the October sky.
Each pond has at least one pair of dark geese; no broods yet. Cranes and snow geese passed thru a couple weeks ago. We will know more after Game and Fish starts doing their pond and brood counts.
Those pesky regulations
The North Dakota Legislature met this year (they meet every other year) and passed a handful of new regs impacting sportsmen. During most legislative sessions nonresident sportsmen, especially waterfowlers, are located squarely in their sights and subjected to numerous ill-advised and counter-productive proposals which have little to do with actual wildlife management and a lot to do with restricting non-resident opportunities and raising non-resident revenue.
The good news is that the 2021 hunting and fishing regulations will look very similar to the 2020 regulations. The “electronic posting” provision will be expanded but season dates, license availability and license fees will basically remain the same. One notable provision now allows landowners to use artificial lights for predator control on their own property all year long. For details on all the activity go here: https://gf.nd.gov/legislation.
North Dakota Game and Fish announced an increase in the number of deer tags today (increase of 3,150). This is good news and reflects the current trend of increasing the number of permits slightly each year over the last five years. Many would argue we already have enough deer, and yes, driving at night now is a much riskier proposition than just a few years ago. But we are glad to see them, and especially pleased to see mule deer established in our area. Last year I saw mule deer nearly every day while hunting but in the end harvested a whitetail.
Crops and cattle
Many fields in the area are already planted but many also remain untouched since last fall. Some neighbors are still trying to get the flax chaff burned off (it doesn’t break down naturally) so they can replant. It remains to be seen what gets planted. Last year’s China tariffs disrupted many normal crop rotations.
USDA has announced an aggressive Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) for this coming year but it pays very little in our area so we don’t see much CRP ground. PLOTS is much more popular as it is just a payment for public hunting access and doesn’t require any habitat or cropping modification. Along with federal Waterfowl Production Areas, we are surrounded by many PLOTS tracts. Precipitation remains the limiting factor on both crop and wildlife production.
It will almost certainly be a short hay year (fewer bales) and cattle pastures will likely be hammered/overgrazed unless we get significant rainfall very soon.
Were it not raining right now I would be on the hunt for an enormous black porcupine I spotted last night on our south end. Despite our lack of trees we host a fair number of porkies in our area. They tend to dig in to cattail cover. As they mix poorly with sporting dogs we have a “shoot on sight” policy. If I can’t put a 40-grain through him in the next couple of nights I will put out a live trap. Porkies are relatively easy to trap (salted apples do the trick).
Not sure how the coyotes fared over the winter as we have seen and heard but a few lately. I sent a few nice pelts in last fall and am still waiting for a fur check. From their tracks we know there are many coon about. Along with skunks, these nest robbers rank low on the acceptability scale and risk harsh treatment by those trying to facilitate the production of wild birds.
High water levels would have resulted in a banner year for muskrats, as they really bounced back last year. (We trapped over 350 on the ranch a few years ago.) Unfortunately, our low water means they will be limited to bank dens, which tend to make travel around our sloughs a challenge as the dens and runs constantly cave in.
The Missus will unleash her .17 to good effect on the many gophers which have popped up around the farmstead. If we get too many gophers the badgers will move back in, another critter which doesn’t play well with the sporting dogs.
Going hunting to Canada this year? Probably not. There’s little reason to think the Canadian border will open anytime soon. This likely means more pressure on North Dakota for waterfowl hunting. Last year was the first time in about 15 years that all the ND Tundra Swan tags were issued in the annual lottery. Usually there are left-over tags available over the counter. If you plan to hunt North Dakota this fall make your plans early, especially for any lodging.
We already started fishing a few weeks ago, taking some nice walleyes from shore using plain jigs. I started minnow trapping in earnest today, getting ready for early season fishing, and will deploy leech traps after the water warms a bit. If the weather and planting go well we hope to get out later this week in the boat on some small local lakes. We will then progress to larger lakes and then the big ones in June and early July, following the warming water temperatures. Bait book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B088C7HN91 and fishing book here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B087FC9YC1.
The answer is: June. June is when you want to fish small lakes in North Dakota. I talked to a friend tonight who was planning on some fishing in August. Bad time to fish. Spring and fall (read: cool water) are the best times.
Habitat conditions in central North Dakota are on the dry side and many seasonal ponds are dry. Expect good populations of upland birds and deer along with a corresponding decrease in waterfowl production as nesting has already begun and breeding/brood ponds will be at a premium. Cattle will hit the pastures hard and it’s almost a certainty that liberal haying will be allowed on CRP tracts unless we get significant rainfall later this spring.
In other dry years the waterfowl have concentrated on larger water bodies and in some cases moved east or west in search of same. Those areas with water will have birds, those without water will not. Similarly, a lack of cover will concentrate upland birds.
Look for a summer update in late June or early July.