North Dakota trip is always a success and challenge
Mid-October is the time we embark on our annual North Dakota upland game and waterfowl hunt.
This would be my seventh consecutive yearly trip out west with some members of the original group marking their 15th tour this year. Eight of us made the trip this year deciding to go a week later than usual to take advantage of more crop being harvested and also optimizing the chance at more waterfowl migrating into the area later in the season.
When hunting North Dakota, one must decide when and what one wants to hunt, and then apply for the proper licenses. The Internet has made license application a breeze. With waterfowl, the state is broken down into zones and one must be careful when applying for the correct times and zones. Two seven-day periods are allowed per license and this must be scheduled ahead of the hunt.
The small game North Dakota hunting license also comes in two seven-day hunting periods but multiple hunting licenses can be purchased. They do not offer a full season non-resident license.
Because of the hard 2008-09 winter North Dakota experienced, the pheasant population was estimated to be down 50-75 percent from last year. My hunting partner, Larry, and I decided to focus on upland game again despite the forecast. The others in the group went for the total package, including waterfowl.
With additional habitat and game fees, plus a $5 crane license, the total for our option came to $105 for the privilege to hunt both small game and the elusive crane. I consider the cost to be a fair price considering the quality of the hunting experience even in a down year.
This year, our group of eight avid hunters again rented a trailer house for the week. For most hunts, the group breaks up into twos or threes and spends the day afield formulating plans on how best to return home with a bag full of game.
While Larry and I sought out the pheasants, Huns and sharptails, the rest took advantage of a bumper crop of waterfowl and harvested a variety of species including mallards, gadwalls, pintails, buffleheads, ruddy ducks, bluebills, canvasbacks, coots, teal, snow geese, Canada geese and cranes plus a few pheasants, Huns and a lone mourning dove. Variety is truly the spice of life!
With the reduced pheasant population, we found that the available pheasants were not flocked up but behaved more like the birds in Wisconsin, allowing us to hunt them on a one-on-one basis. In the past the birds had a "flock mentality" and would take to the air in large numbers necessitating the need to post blockers to try to intercept the roosters as they flushed wildly.
With Larry's English Setter "Briar" being a year older and learning the finer qualities of pointing, we were able to enjoy a great hunt harvesting, on average, a bird an hour. This included numerous nonproductive flushes and more than a few missed shots. It was an extremely enjoyable hunting experience.
Each night, as in past years, our master chef, Gilly, served us up a meal fit for kings as he took the harvested birds and worked his culinary magic. Dishes with exotic names such as "Gilly's Special Duck or Pheasant Stuff," "Kabobs," "Duck Stroganoff" or "Italian Goose" are annual favorites. It is amazing how delectable a simple piece of protein can be made to taste with the proper handling after the hunt. When cleaning and preparation is applied correctly, there is no such thing as wild game taste for any species of harvested game animal.
Many places in North Dakota have non-paved roads and if one strays off the main state and county highways, one can get into a bit of a mess if there is rain in the offing. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are the best option in getting from one place to another under less than optimal road conditions.
The soil in the Dakotas is very dark and rich with fine particulate. With moisture added, the upper four inches of roadway turns into a greasy condition we termed "gack." Under the four inches or so of "gack" is a very hard surface upon which a vehicle's traction is greatly impaired and forward mobility is next to impossible. Two of our hunting days were of the rainy variety and once the roads get "gacked up" it takes a couple of days for them to dry out.
Learning from past experience, we stayed on the higher ground and steered clear of steep, rolling terrain. Despite our precautions, our vehicle turned from gray to a "gack" brown hue that dried on like concrete. Each stop for gas necessitated the head and tail lights of our vehicle to be cleared of this tenacious coating.
Contrary to last year, precipitation in the Dakotas has been above average forcing the farmers to leave much of the crop in the field and wait for drier weather to continue the harvest. With the increased rainfall, came a marked increase in waterfowl production which resulted in some great hunting. In the years I have been making the trip to North Dakota, I have never seen so many waterfowl in both species and numbers.
Aside from the wildlife numbers and variety, the physical vastness of the Dakotas makes this a remarkable state. The friendliness of the residents along with the majestic vistas makes one look forward for our return next year.
WPA of the Week
Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area
The Oak Ridge Waterfowl Production Area is located between County Road H and 220th Avenue, about two miles east of Star Prairie. The 385-acre WPA, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the St. Croix Wetland Management District, is located adjacent to 200 acres of State Wildlife Area managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Over the past several weeks, this 585-acre complex of wetlands, grasslands and forest has been heavily used by migrating waterfowl. In the last few weeks of October, more than 2,000 waterfowl were on the lake including coots, scaup, canvasbacks, mallards, green winged teal, gadwall, Canada geese, trumpeter swans and many other species.
These birds will use the lake to rest and fuel up for the rest of their migration south. Oak Ridge Lake is relatively shallow, only two to four feet in depth, and harbors a tremendous diversity of submerged aquatic plants, arguably the most valuable of which is sago pondweed.
According to the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Web site, the importance of sago pondweed to migrant waterfowl is so great that "...continental migration pathways of some species can be determined by the location of large water bodies dominated by the plant."
On Oak Ridge Lake, the combination of sago pondweed, hard stem bulrush and many different pondweed species creates an ideal situation for feeding waterfowl, which can build up energy needed for migration.
Although many migrants use the lake, some of our locally produced mallards and wood ducks are probably still on the lake also. Locally produced blue winged teal probably used the lake early in the fall but with the first hint of cold weather headed south.
If you are lucky you may also see the bald eagles that nested on the south end of the lake.
The Oak Ridge WPA and adjacent SWA are located within a state waterfowl refuge, so special regulations that prohibit waterfowl hunting and other types of hunting apply.
For more information on the St. Croix Wetland Management District, check out our Web site at www.fws.gov/midwest/stcroix/.