Ten Years After

Hundreds of sandhill cranes spewed a deafening cacophony as I bent handfuls of cattails around me to clear a spot for my portable stool.

If I didn't know better, I might have thought the big birds were insulted to share their North Dakota pothole with me. But like the red-capped cranes, I went about my business, jabbing the legs of the seat into the firm marsh muck. I quickly tested the stability of the platform, then cleared a few more stalks to have enough room to swing my barrel.

"Ready guys?" asked John Devney, senior vice president of Delta Waterfowl. "It's legal shooting time."

Normally, those words make me quiver with excitement and grip my shotgun tighter.

Whether I'm hunting geese in corn stubble or bluebills on a point, I'm nearly always guilty of coiling like a cat, eager to pounce on the day's first flock of decoying fowl. It could have been the painter's pallet of purple and pink pre-dawn skies, the mesmerizing echoes of the shrill sandhills or the brilliantly star-filled skiff ride to the chosen point that morning. Whatever the reason, I felt unusually calm.

"It has been 10 years since I hunted in North Dakota," I confessed to my partners. "I'm sure glad to be back."

I had been lured to North Dakota to learn more about the conservation missions of Delta Waterfowl and Pheasants Forever -- to witness firsthand the habitat work and easement programs not only producing more game birds, but also opening up access to hunters.

During the nightly program seminars, Devney extolled the flood-control virtues of quality wetlands and their importance to all people, whether they hunt or not. Bob St. Pierre of Pheasants Forever stressed the crucial nature of grassland cover to benefit both fowl and pheasants, and North Dakota tourism folks touted the PLOTS program, which stands for private land open to sportsmen.

Like last fall, North Dakota was sopping wet in October 1999. My father and I encountered easy access but challenging hunting conditions that year. Seems we hit the lull, a period when the local birds had moved on but before the mass migration of ducks from Canada pushed in. Still, we managed an afternoon limit of greenheads and memorable field hunt for Canada geese another morning. In between, we scratched out a few gadwalls and tumbled a couple of teal.

Ten years later, the hunting landscape looks relative the same. Sure, I observed more posted land, but easy access to good duck water is still incredibly plentiful. Work a little, and you'll find ducks to hunt.

Last fall, we hit the lull again. The hundreds of mallards that had been staging with the cranes two days earlier had ridden the wind currents to other waters. Still, our group managed to collect a few redheads, bluebills, wigeon, teal and mallards.

And I was enchanted by the North Dakota prairie all over again.

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