Annual North Dakota hunt deemed a success
Mid-October marks the opening of pheasant season. Wisconsin's opener was set for Oct. 20 and that was the same day we were leaving for a week of hunting in North Dakota. Wisconsin's season extends through the end of the year so my dogs and I would still have plenty of time to try to outsmart a few of our local birds.
Early that Saturday morning, my hunting buddy Larry and his dog Briar were on the road for our seven-hour trip to our North Dakota destination. Our plan was to put in a few hours of hunting upon our arrival. Anticipation was high and we looked forward to another great hunt.
This year marked our ninth year hunting with the group. Seven hunters made up our party and as a rule we usually break up into smaller groups for our hunting forays. We rent a double-sized trailer house with all the amenities. Dividing the cost of the rental by seven and figuring in license, gas, food and ammo, the trip is very inexpensive for what opportunities we are provided.
Hunting is very much like that experienced in Wisconsin. We don't post standers and drive the pheasants but let the dogs do the work for us. I much prefer this type of hunting. Larry and I purchased the upland game license while the rest of the group bought both upland and waterfowl licenses.
A crane license can also be purchased for an extra $5 which allows the hunter to harvest three cranes per day. The cranes out in the Dakotas are "lesser sandhill cranes," a subspecies to our Wisconsin cranes, which are classified as "greater sandhill cranes." The lesser cranes are quite numerous and are either decoyed as they leave their roosts in the morning or waylaid as they return to feed in the grain fields. Despite looking like a very large stork, they are actually the size of a small goose. Long necks, wings and legs exaggerate their size. They have dark meat and are extremely tasty.
Pheasant numbers last year proved less than optimal following a very hard winter and wet spring, but this year was a different story with numbers up due to a milder winter and a good nesting season. Numbers of sharptail grouse were also up and our group was able to observe a few coveys of Hungarian partridge.
Hunting was very good for both upland game and waterfowl. The pheasants were scattered in small family groups and most of the harvested birds were juveniles. The majority of the crops were harvested which aided in concentrating the birds.
We had an opportunity to observe lots of wildlife and Larry, who is an avid birder, was able to get some great photos. While waiting at the edge of a cattail swamp for Larry and Briar to flush a pointed bird, a large male coyote ran out within 10 feet of me. A second coyote exited soon after. The expression in their eyes as they passed by was priceless. That was the closest I have ever been to a living, wild coyote. What a magnificent animal.
While driving another cattail slough, we roused six whitetail does. Shortly after, we caught sight of one of the largest bucks we have ever seen as he crossed over the ridge, his massive antlers silhouetted against the sky. It was evident that the six ladies seen earlier were part of his harem and he was keeping a close eye on them.
Every pond held ducks, geese and swans. The majority of the waterfowl were gadwalls, northern shovelers, mallards and coots. Every imaginable species could be sighted if one took the time to do so. Muskrats were also very numerous with most waterways sporting swimming rats and lots of rat houses.
Each evening after slaving over a hot shotgun, we would return to camp to be treated to some of the best wild game cuisine imaginable. Steve "Gilly" Gilbert, a northern Wisconsin fisheries biologist, was also our camp chef and would prepare meals of duck, goose, pheasant, sharptail and crane. Entrees like "Gilly" Duck Stuff with wild rice soup, pheasant Alfredo and Italian crane with all the trimmings made sure that no one went to bed hungry. Washed down with a Leinies Original these were meals that could be served at the best restaurants.
Our week flew by quickly and plans were made for our 2013 North Dakota excursion. North Dakota is a land of desolate beauty and bountiful wildlife. It is truly a sportsman's paradise.
Lead vs. Copper
On Oct. 28 the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, in cooperation with the Willow River Rod and Gun Club, held a demonstration comparing the dynamics of lead hunting bullets with non-toxic copper bullets. Lead can be highly toxic when ingested by birds and other animals, including humans. Even though the high velocity lead bullets are coated in a copper shroud, the lead core still poses a very serious health risk to any animal exposed to bullet fragments.
For the demonstration, lead core bullets were first fired into a paper target at 25 yards to make sure the rifle was properly sighted-in. The rifle was then fired into a series of water-filled milk jugs set in sequence to simulate the flesh of an animal. Animal tissue has a water content of 80-90 percent. Water is drained from the ruptured jugs and filtered through a paint filter to remove the intact slug and any bullet fragments produced in the firing. A copper round was also fired for comparison. Several volunteers on hand fired different caliber rifles along with a shotgun which fired a normal lead slug and saboted copper slug for comparison.
The same set of bullets was fired into a paraffin wax cylinder to determine the dynamics of that medium. The wax will show the bullet tract and also retain any fragments lost in the firing.
The comparison between the bullets was dramatic. Along with the lead bullet slugs retrieved intact and showing very good mushrooming, there were hundreds of small lead shards visible to the naked eye.
The copper bullets also showed excellent mushrooming with each of the expansion petals intact indicating perfect expansion. No fragmentation was noted with the copper projectiles. The lead bullets produced the same bullet fragments in the wax cylinders and showed a "vapor cloud" that was extremely small lead particles imbedded in the wax. The copper bullet left nothing except the perfectly expanded round.
The rifled lead slugs produced different results, however. The lead slug was retrieved intact but there was little fragmentation evident in the washings. This could be due to the much lower velocity achieved by the one ounce slugs compared to the much faster high powered rifle rounds. As a side note, saboted slugs should only be utilized in rifled slug barrels to attained required accuracy.
Prior to the demonstration, DNR Wildlife Biologist Harvey Halvorsen provided an introduction that documented the detrimental secondary effects of lead core bullets. Photos of packaged venison showed lead contamination upon X-ray and whole animal scans detailed lead fragments some distance from the fatal shot's entry site.
Graphs indicated that there is a marked increase in the number of eagles that are afflicted with fatal lead poisoning over the time period following the deer gun season. Gut piles containing lead fragments, left in the woods, are scavenged by the birds and other predators. It only takes a small sliver of lead to produce toxicity in birds.
I have followed the discussions on non-toxic bullets ever since the issue was raised in a North Dakota study in 2009. I must admit that I was initially highly skeptical of the study's conclusions but, after seeing the results of the demonstration, there is no doubt in my mind of the toxic potential of lead core bullets. The ballistics for copper bullets are equivalent or superior to that of the lead variety also.
A special thanks to Biologists Harvey Halvorsen and Gary Wolf, Warden Paul Sickman, the range officers and the Willow River Rod and Gun Club for hosting such a remarkable demonstration. I am now a believer.