End of Year Waterfowl Report 2019

A challenging year

End of Year Review – 2019 Prairie Smoke Ranch, Central North Dakota

2019 will go down as our most challenging year in recent memory. Weather, weather and weather – rain, snow, blizzard and cold; we had it all. I was recently asked over Thanksgiving how the year went and in summary I said the guys who could hunt did well but the guys who could not get out due to weather had a terrible year. That about sums it up. We canceled several hunts because the weather, the first time that has ever happened in 18 years. In general it was a cold, wet, muddy fall on the prairie.

The prospects for a good season were there: wetland #’s were up, upland #’s were up, brood counts were solid, but it always boils down to the weather.

Bright Spots

We had lots of ducks in because of the mixed up weather. And this was one of our best upland years ever – unprecedented #’s of huns, lots of sharptails, lots of pheasants. Getting at them was a challenge at times, but the birds were there.

Opening Day for pheasants actually occurred on the Saturday of the blizzard, so there was very little early season pressure on the birds.

Our new (truly) self-guided approach worked pretty well; returning clients familiar with the property knew where to go and new clients figured it out pretty quick with a little direction. Unlike the previous two years, scaup were the most plentiful birds and 3-bird daily limits were not uncommon.

We harvested the first mule deer on the property.

All hunters returned safely despite the challenging conditions.

The late season rain and snow filled many of our potholes before they all froze, ensuring lots of water for spring waterfowl next year. We saw a resurgence in muskrats this year – combined with high water next year they may reach harvestable numbers once again.

Tough Patches

2019 will go down as the year of the porcupine – we had 9 encounters during the season; 7 off the property and 2 on the property. Most involving Drahthaars. The rest of the dogs – labs, setters, Boykins, chessies, spaniels came through relatively unscathed.

Very few geese around this year. Fewer swans too, compared to 2018. And fewer mallards and puddlers in general. Pintails were extremely scarce, at least over water, cans and redheads were also thin. For some reason lots of spoonbills however, and some of them colored up.

The mid-October blizzard dumped about 10” of snow and left 8-10’ snowdrifts all across the prairie. This made hunting impossible during the storm and access very tough afterward. As usual however, the birds responding and we were covered with new birds for about a week. We also got a few inches of snow on October 3 but that all melted. Some of the drifts from the blizzard will be with us until May. A couple groups busted ice and had good to very good shoots.

An early freeze – with several nights of single digit temps – in late October also put a crimp in hunting plans. Once our big lake freezes hunting is extremely tough in our area as we are about the last water to freeze and ducks leave without open water. Geese hung around for another week or so, feeding in open fields and roosting miles away. We had a lot of snows in but in most cases they were hard to pattern.

Crane hunting was very sketchy this year. Only a few came thru early and then most overflew us after the blizzard.

To Hunt or Not To Hunt

Along with waterfowl hunters scattered throughout the South these tough conditions forced us to become amateur weather forecasters. While we frequently get snow during the season, this was only the second year in 18 where we’ve been smacked with a blizzard during the season. The deep snow and wind which accompanies a blizzard always makes things dangerous for a couple days but we have learned the hunting can be excellent afterward.

As the blizzard approached we learned this: traveling during whiteout conditions is never safe and never recommended. Whenever possible hunters traveling from the south should plan to hole up for a day or two along the way to avoid these conditions. No string of birds is worth rolling your vehicle or freezing to death. Most blizzards also only last a day or two.

Snow always stirs up the birds, and you can expect good action for a day or two but it’s the cold and freezing temps which really get the migration going. It is impossible to predict if a storm front will “push all the birds thru” – a better indicator is open water in your local area; as long as you have open water the birds will stick around. We have found once your local water freezes it signals the beginning of the end – at least in your area. Go east or west (east this year) 50 miles and you may find open water and birds.

If you are field hunting exclusively you have more options in late season as the birds may fly 30-50 miles to open water from the fields they are feeding in. But you may have a hard time finding them in your area.

Combined corn fields are best for these late season hunts although this year we still have many soybean and corn fields still standing, along with sunflowers, as these are the last to be harvested.

This all translates into “Yes you should go” when eyeing up your long-planned trip to the prairie but be prepared to stand by a day or two to let a blizzard or snow event pass if necessary. Four-wheeled drive rigs are standard equipment for this late season stuff; ATVs may be your best friend.

Late Season Hunting

As noted earlier we harvested our first mule deer ever from our property this year, along with a nice little white-tailed buck which fell to the Missus’ well-directed shot. We hosted a couple pheasant hunters during this period but they had a hard time finding birds. And they jumped more hen pheasants than roosters, indicating some of these prime cattail thickets had been hunted already. Snow and mud also hampered their travels during this period. The sharptails were still around but were beginning to bunch up in large flocks as they do once the landscape turns white.

Trespass Issues

Those familiar with our ND Guides Facebook page know the state legislature very nearly passed new trespass rules last spring which would close all land in North Dakota to hunting unless posted “Open”. Every year around deer hunting time we are reminded why this is an issue as “road shooters” ply our local roads for deer in the comfort of their heated pick-up cabs. History tells us such road shooting inevitably leads to trespass issues and blatant poaching as deer are commonly shot on posted land from the road. Another form involves driving around on posted fields in search of deer, leaving ruts and a mess in the aftermath. The common response of “I didn’t see the sign” will no longer be a problem if the Legislature and landowners close down the state, and we are certainly heading in that direction.

We’d personally like to thank all those who approach their hunts – for big game or small – with integrity and respect and a measure of effort commensurate to the harvesting of wild animals by fair chase.

What’s Up for 2020?

The ND Legislature does not meet next year, so we shouldn’t see any new laws regarding outdoor activities until 2021.

We will have a lot of water going into 2020 – so add grass and look for good waterfowl production next spring.

How the deer and upland birds will fare has yet to be determined. Standing crops in the field however should provide a ready feed source provided they are not covered up by deep snow.

We expect to continue to offer “self-guided” hunts next year at Prairie Smoke Ranch although we plan to construct more blinds on our more popular sloughs for client use.

We wish our clients and all like-minded sportsmen and women a safe and productive Holiday Season and New Year.

Dan & Jeanie

Prairie Smoke Ranch

Week 5 Waterfowl Report
A Mighty Wind

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