March 12, 2022
By Mike Gnatkowski
Waterfowlers knew 2020 was going to be a different kind of season. With the Covid 19 pandemic paralyzing the country and Canadian provinces like Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta off limits to US hunters, everyone was worried about hunting pressure and a quality experience when scads of enthusiastic waterfowlers who would normally make a trip to Canada instead descended on places like the Dakotas. The Internet was abuzz with talk that hunting anywhere in the states during 2020 was going to be a cluster and a less than satisfying experience.
Popular venues around Devils Lake, Bismarck and Garrison were sure to be inundated with hunters so a key was going to be taking the path of least resistance. It was a plan we stumbled on years before the pandemic.
The southern tier of counties in North Dakota offers the best of both worlds for hunters who like to hedge their bets. I like to hunt waterfowl and upland birds so I make sure there are options for both when I plan a trip. If you have a good morning fowling, it’s nice to be able to hunt Hungarian partridge, sharp-tails or pheasants in the afternoons. Having options is advantageous when Mother Nature throws you a curve, too. Bluebird days that are perfect for upland bird hunting aren’t sometimes the best for waterfowling and vice versa.
So far it had been our experience that waterfowlers used to hunting northern and central North Dakota didn’t venture down to the border with South Dakota. And hunters in South Dakota didn’t seem to come north to hunt North Dakota. We were praying that trend held true and had our fingers crossed.
North Dakota Does It Better
A big plus for North Dakota waterfowlers is you can buy licenses over the counter in advance. Unlike South Dakota that has a quota system for non-resident waterfowlers, North Dakota offers non-resident hunters unlimited licenses with the only stipulation being that you have 14 days you can hunt. The 14 days can be divided up into two 7-day segments. The great thing about hunting southern North Dakota is you’re close to South Dakota’s amazing pheasant hunting. You can buy a South Dakota pheasant license over the counter and just hop over the border to chase roosters. There are years when South Dakota’s pheasant population is much better than North Dakotas. Last year, there were plenty of roosters in ND that kept us busy when not waterfowling.
The trespass laws also differ in North Dakota. If a property is not posted it’s basically open to hunting. There are exceptions and hunters should thoroughly examine the North Dakota game laws before visiting.
Weather is always a crapshoot when hunting waterfowl in North Dakota. Some years mild weather stalls the waterfowl migration. The lack of cold and snow and a bounty of freshly harvested crops in Canada means migratory birds bide their time and stay farther north. Hunters are left with only locally raised, resident birds that have received an on-the-job education by late October. The other extreme is severe weather that freezes everything up. Without open water waterfowl quickly move though North Dakota to places farther south.
We were worried about the latter as we neared the Minnesota/North Dakota border. Listening to the weather forecast they were predicting overnight temperatures near zero with 6 to 8 inches of snow in the forecast. If you look at a map, the southern tier of counties in North Dakota is pockmarked with ponds, sloughs and marshes, many of which are waterfowl production areas, wildlife management areas or national wildlife refuges. In the spring and summer months the bodies of water are filled with waterfowl bent on procreation. In the fall, these same lakes and ponds host thousands of migrating waterfowl.
As we crossed the border and daylight appeared we could see that the ponds were frozen solid. There wasn’t sign of waterfowl anywhere. We continued west on ND Highway 11 and the weather worsened. We took our time on the slick roads and gawked at the frozen landscape. We lamented our luck, but were finally buoyed by the sight of a few larger lakes that had pockets of open water.
Once at the farmhouse we quickly dumped our gear and grabbed a quick lunch. Even though we’d driven all night we were too pumped to sleep so my son Matt and I decided to go look at a good-sized lake just down the road that we had permission to hunt.
You could barely make out the trail along the fencerow leading to the lake. Three-foot drifts covered the road.
“What do you think?” Matt said.
“That’s what you got this new truck for right? Put the hammer down and let’s go!” I chided.
Matt jammed the truck in four-wheel drive and plowed into the drifts. Snow flew up over the hood and the trail was but a promise. Half way down the trail we could make out the lake and we could see that two thirds of it was open. As we crested a ridge where we could see the whole lake explode in motion.
“Holy crap,!” exclaimed Matt as hundreds of ducks and geese took to the air. We broke out the binoculars. The lake was covered with waterfowl.
We frantically headed back to the house to get Dan and Larry and ready our gear. We were back at the lake within a half hour and threw out a couple dozen duck decoys in a pocket of windswept open water and put some goose decoys on the shoreline. Ducks were bombing the decoys before we had them all out. Many were bluebills and redheads, but there were plenty of puddle ducks, too.
After a couple hours of taking turns shooting, my frozen feet couldn’t take anymore. A night without sleep was catching up to me so Larry and I decided to head for the farmhouse to start dinner. Matt and Dan stayed to fill their limit.
Be Prepared for Everything
If you decide to come to southern North Dakota it’s wise to be prepared to hunt both water and fields. Being able to do so gives you some important options. Waders and a canoe can be a godsend for hunting shallow bodies of water. A boat gives you even more freedom and options.
Field hunting can be outstanding, but requires putting in the miles and time scouting. Competition for prime fields can be frustrating and success often requires putting out big spreads to be successful. Having a boat gives you access to many of the WMAs and NWRs in the area. Getting away from the public access points is key to finding unmolested birds and cooperative targets. These larger lakes are the last vestiges of open water and can collect thousands of waterfowl right before everything freezes up.
The Missouri River is a migration highway and hosts waterfowl well after the season ends. To those not accustomed to hunting big water, the Missouri can be daunting and is not to be taken lightly, but coves and bays off the main river provide havens for roosting and resting waterfowl. There are three boat launches just north of the South Dakota border that afford waterfowlers access to the Missouri River. Make sure your equipment is in top condition and take all the safety precautions before venturing out on the Mighty Mo.
Puddle ducks and geese using the river fan out each day into adjacent croplands and provide spectacular opportunities for those committed to scouting and knocking on doors. Apps, like onX can give you valuable insights into who owns what and property boundaries.
The Hunt is On
The next morning found us set up at the lake near the house. Temperatures had dipped to near zero overnight and even more of the lake was frozen. A small pocket of open water existed where we hunted yesterday. I worked at breaking ice while Matt set decoys in the water and Larry and Dan set goose decoys on shore. In short order we had an impressive spread the ducks immediately acknowledged. The same complement of redheads and bluebills bombed the spread and there were enough gadwall, shovelers and greenheads to add variety. All morning we watched flocks of bigger Canadas lift off the lake and head out to feed. We were wishing that we’d put out a spread of goose decoys in the field behind us.
By 11:00 we were close to a limit and decided to pack up. We were all standing putting away our gear when we looked up to see a lone Canada locked up silently gliding into the decoys. The goose paid no attention to the fact we were all standing out in the open. Dan picked up his gun and broke a wing on the honker sending it crashing in the ice. My Lab, Samson, had a spirited, protracted tussle with the goose before wrestling it to shore.
Scouting that afternoon provided some insights. Matt and I went west. Larry and Dan went east. Matt and I wanted to check out a lake that had some potential. A road leading down to the lake ended at a public access. When we got out of the truck at the end of the road hundreds of ducks and geese erupted from the flooded timber along the shoreline.
Just down the road we watched two long-tailed roosters sail down into a thicket along the lake. We decided to give chase. Snow pushed by a burly north wind stung our faces as we followed long-toed tracks punctuated with drag marks signaling long tail feathers in the drifts. When we reached the thicket all hell broke loose. The warm heft of a limit of roosters in our game bags felt good as we trudged threw the drifts on our way back to the truck.
The thermometer the following morning read minus seven as we set decoys in a cut cornfield across the road from a pond that 10,000 snow geese were keeping open. Swarms of ducks were using the open water too, courtesy of the geese. We watched all morning as ducks poured into the “weed” field next to us. Not one ventured into our cut corn. Perplexed by the ducks' preference we drove out into the adjacent field when we left. There were full cobs of corn everywhere. We found out from our landlord that an early season snowstorm the year before prevented the farmer from harvesting the field. We made sure the field wasn’t posted and planned our return.
An icy fog filled the air the next morning as we set decoys with the temperature hovering in the single digits. Larry and Dan put together decoys as Matt and I set the spread. It had been a decade since Matt and I had made a trip west. Over that period of time things had changed. Matt had become the head guide and I found myself more and more along for the ride. I was a taken aback a bit when Matt said, “How should we set up?”
“Well, the wind is going to be coming from this direction,” I pointed, “and the sun is going to be here. I think we set up a big question mark with a lot of sleepers up at the head of the spread and the full bodies and shells strung out that way. We’ll put the duck decoys right in the middle. I’ll set a perimeter with the silhouettes.”
“Sounds good,” said the head guide.
Bundles of kochia weed had grown up in the field during its year of dormancy and it made it easy to brush in the blinds. Scads of ducks grabbled, chirped and chuckled overhead as we put the finishing touches on the spread.
It was barely shooting time when a duck came screaming across the spread and I sat up and dropped it.
“What was that?” questioned Matt.
“A wood duck I think?” I said.
“In North Dakota?” was Matt’s reply. After several minutes, Matt jumped up and ran out to retrieve the bird.
As he headed back to the blind I said, “So what is it?”
“A wood duck,” Matt said with smirk.
Ducks poured into the spread and our heads were on a swivel. We carefully picked our shots. It wasn’t long before we each had our one- pintail limit. With the foggy conditions, duck identification was tricky and more than once we had flocks of 30 or 40 birds land in the decoys without firing a shot because they were mostly pintails.
The next morning found us in the same field with similar results. After about an hour of hunting, three birds came though the spread and Matt, Dan and I fired in unison and crumpled the trio.
“So what were those?” Matt queried slyly.
“I think they were redheads,” I said.
“In a cornfield?” came Matt’s rebuttal. He jumped up to retrieve the birds.
“So what are they?” I inquired.
“Redheads,” said Matt.
He had to admit the old man knows his ducks.
Even now that Canada will officially be open, more smart hunters will be thinking about taking advantage of the Dakota border bonus.