Earlier this week Erik and I stood in the pre-dawn North Dakota darkness backed against a yet night-blackened corn field edge that kept us hidden from the waterfowl still quite silent on the waters to our right. Looking skyward at an endless array of stars thoughts wandered. How many times have I stared into the same night sky feeling very small and insignificant in the grand scheme but with similar excited anticipation for the dawn? About that time a lonesome hen mallard let out with a “quack, quack, quack” in a cadence I’d associate with a call in hand, almost like a duet followed immediately by some Honkers raucous chorus then quiet punctuated by another hen mallard single “quack” to my right. Still surrounded in blackness a large number of coots that had been purring ‘n clucking must have been startled or simply decided it was time to move with a loud unison run to another part of the still dark waters. As the eastern sky took on a rosy glow groups of birds began taking off. Mallards could be seen overhead as whistling silhouettes making the unmistakable sound a hunter no matter the age never forgets. The woosh of divers roared by too. I commented to Erik that it must be a real rush to be them. I wondered what it would feel like to reach such speeds seemingly on the razors edge of out of control. Then the geese took their turn too. With wings flapping and the large webbed feet running across the water taking flight they each announced their departure with excited loud honking. Off to a distant cut wheat field for the morning feed no doubt. Legal shooting time was still 15 minutes away so together we watched and enjoyed this sight offered by the Dakota prairies and repeated on a daily basis.
I share this because we were not escorted to this place by a professional guide from Woodland Resort although many groups did take advantage of that option. We had made a conscious effort to make this to a “self-guided” hunt. Arriving 2 days before the 2013 non-resident waterfowl opener we used the time to scout, learn more about the area and the current bird activities. Armed with the PLOTS guide, a ND Outdoor Atlas, some past experience and perhaps most importantly Google Maps on Erik’s smart phone. This technology proved invaluable for navigating gravel roads, unless flooded which is now a common problem, identifying wetland shapes, field shapes and actual small waters not even seen from the roads. The technology is incredible and although I’ve introduced Erik to many aspects of hunting in the past this one was all him and as mentioned above a major part of our success. Four hundred plus tar and gravel miles were covered in the 2 days leading up to our hunt but in time we identified at least a dozen spots with lots of birds that we could hunt. Hunters arriving in Devils Lake the night before the opener had no such advantage and for the guys we talked to it showed in their bag. Most had a few or even no birds. Erik and Kyle Blanchfield of Woodland Resort commented that “scouting was 90% of the hunt” and now I too concur.
Our opening morning began bringing you Fan Outdoors live until 8:00 am so our actual hunt didn’t start until about 10. Rain and wind greeted those out early. The motel hall came alive with hunters about 4:00 am. The excited anticipation for the hunt is a major part of it but if completely honest I was thankful we’d start a bit later. Not sure if it’s age or wisdom but in any case it was reality and Erik was ok with it. Have I mentioned both my boys are waterfowl addicts? Wonder how that happened? Lol The third member of our group, and actually the most important was Acea, Erik’s Golden Retriever. I’ve owned Goldens for 35 years but she is without a doubt the very best I’ve seen. For the next 3 days she would make every retrieve finding birds that I thought we’d have no shot at. So back to our opener. On the way out we passed Jason Mitchell. He was already done. With decoy bags, shells, a couple water bottles and 2 spinners we headed for a rush-surrounded pothole. After some humbling misses and some good shots, mostly because of Erik’s shooting we managed 6 birds before packing up about noon. Next stop a pass between 2 water bodies which afforded us 6 more by 3:00 that afternoon. Done for the day we again hit the gravel till sundown in scout mode. Unlike Minnesota North Dakota allows hunting till sundown only on Saturdays and Wednesdays to afford the birds places to rest. I wish Minnesota would look at that! Back in the motel room new plans were made for the Sunday morning hunt.
Sunday morning found us on a 45 minute walk through the darkness to another pass between 2 water bodies about 200 yards apart. Divers and Puddlers alike used it but due to scouting we already knew that. By 8:00 we had picked out and dropped our 12 birds. Another limit along with 4 bonus geese! A Federal Warden met us on the road to check birds and licenses. We also had an interesting conversation about his past and some of his hunting in the area. With breakfast in front of us we headed back to eat and clean birds.
Monday morning and the pre-dawn is described above. Again the birds were there and what an experience. Another hunt I’ll never forget thanks to the Devils Lake Area www.devilslakend.com , Woodland Resort www.woodlandresort.com and the outdoorsmens meca that is this part of the world!
So if you thought the only way you could hunt ducks in Devils Lake, North Dakota was to hire a professional guide you’re sadly mistaken. With scouting, a couple dozen decoys and a willingness to get off the tar roads along with maybe knocking on a few doors to ask permission I guarantee you can have the same success we’ve had. But first you’ve got to get to Devils Lake! Be sure to take plenty of shells too!
With excited anticipation I’m looking forward to the upcoming duck opener but while scouting
the last few days more thoughts drifted back in time reflecting to days spent hunting
with dad and others who have passed or those I no longer hunt with than the upcoming Saturday. Then more ponderings to future openers especially those for young hunters and future hunters. Will there still be such excitement? Let’s begin by going back in time first. As a kid “openers” had the same importance as the one this Saturday filled with exactly the same anticipation but with one huge difference. As a youngster the opener was reserved for the adults and I’d have to wait for the second day but that was ok because one day, when a bit older I’d be included on day 1 . You probably have no idea how important that was to a 12 year old so many years ago and certainly as attitudes have changed in today’s world with “the sooner the better” popular flavor. I’m not so sure if the change is for the better though. Huntin’ spots were different too. Drain tile didn’t exist, small cattail sloughs dotted the landscape and a family could make a living on 160 acres of good ground in harmony with the ducks ‘n pheasants who made a living in those swamps ‘n sloughs too. Too many years later I remember bemoaning the fact on Fan Outdoors that I had been hunting for “the Minnesota Duck!” Yup drain tile was in some ground but not to the extent it is today. Those dry years left Minnesota mostly dry of ducks too because the wet Dakotas were just too attractive for
the webbed critters to pass up. Tiled fields run water almost as fast as Mother Nature drops it away from agricultural areas into ditches and streams to be whisked away and also into WPA’s and WMA’s purchased with hunter license dollars. It’s really no wonder the waters were ermed “degraded” often no longer attractive to nesting or migrating waterfowl with the chemicals and fertilizers arriving with the waters. But while we still hunted ducks, although
fewer of them than the past questions began being asked in adult circles. Questions wondering why there had been such a decline in hunter participation and kids wanting to join the hunting ranks? But there were still the diehards who saw value in the sport making a concerted effort to introduce their kids and still others to waterfowling because the experience really hasn’t changed all that much over the years. Darkness still gives way to dawn followed by yet another sunup and along the way there is a magical time embraced by waterfowlers.
In the still darkness a whistle of unseen wings, a lonesome hen mallard quacking in search of company, a group of birds fooled by Judas imitations with cupped wings ‘n paddles down, the autoloader in hand that’s just spent the 3rd shell with nothing but the smell of gunpowder drifting skyward following the noise and even the empty skies that will most certainly be part of this opener as in others before in the later morning. There’s also the dogs, present and past. Those who are gone who have left indelible marks on our very beings and those with us now who from time to time serve up a reminder that we’re not quite as smart as we think when from the cattails they emerge with a bird we thought was over there.
Both my boys, Erik and Chad are avid waterfowlers probably because I, like my father
did for me made time to expose them to the experience called duck hunting. A sport that in its entirety is so much more than simply attempting to down this web-footed bird. So very much more!
When talk turns to duck hunts of tomorrow I wonder where, what and how? Scouting today I passed two semis of drain tile tubing, where once there were sloughs now there’s endless corn above the perforated black plastic pipe soon to be black plowed ground. My hope for the future is that there will still be some room for these feathered creatures in tomorrows’ rural America because it’s absolutely too important to loose. The dawns, whistling wings, retrievers, adults, kids and old men who take such pride in calling themselves duck hunters are too valuable to loose for an ear of corn or an inept Washington not able to see the value of
conservation for the present or for future generations. But for the upcoming “opener” I absolutely can’t wait and it really doesn’t matter if I get ducks or not because the value
of opening day will not be measured in ducks on the ground or in dollars ‘n cents. It will have things more important to consider, friends, family, the dogs and yes another sunrise over a slough with decoys and maybe just maybe the familiar sounds of whistling wings followed by
a family meal of duck ‘n dumplings!
The State Fair is here, Labor Day just around the corner and the “early, early goose season” has come to an end yet the temp says WHAT? 90+ degrees coupled with humidity thick enough to stick a fork into! But even with a mid-summer heat wave there’s still a hint of fall that’s unmistakable. While on the water early last Saturday morning the evidence could be seen in the small flocks of ducks winging around as the sun came up and about 9:30 family groups of geese flying on the way back to loafing areas after the morning feed. Some Sumac has already changed to a bright red and I’m anxiously waiting for cooler temps to begin getting the dogs afield to begin my annual “looking around!” But that’s no secret is it since you probably already know how much I enjoy the pre-hunt experience. It’s kinda funny too because prior to a few years ago I never even gave it a thought and if the truth be told I never put much value in it. Sure I’d walk the dogs but it was mainly to get the dogs back in better shape but now I see tremendous value in the pre-hunt outings. It must be just me because I’m almost always alone on these public lands but the experience has become a special part of each fall. Of course the amount of game seen is neat but each year the landscape changes from the one before. Last fall it was the distinct lack of water in sloughs and potholes. A couple years ago it was the ability to actually put a pattern together of where the birds tended to be both early and later. Waterfowl scouting has been essential to good waterfowlers forever but I’ve added pheasants to it also. I’ll also try to add WMA’s never hunted to the experience finding out what’s on them including over the next hill. That too helps after the opener when looking for bird-holding areas. On the larger areas it also helps to know how to get around answering questions not yet asked such as can you get from one area to another without being blocked by water or where are the boundaries. In deer country too recognizing funneled areas or out of the way spots that ole mossy rack might travel unnoticed just might lead to that trophy. But if the whole truth be told I just love being afield with the dogs for the whole experience. Sometimes we just sit on a hill side in awe of it all. I know it sounds kinda sappy but the hunting experience just engulfs me each year allowing a deeper appreciation of the experience even without the OU in hand.
As I sit here at the cabin Tess, who turned 11 this month with graying muzzle and slowing legs will hunt sparingly this fall handing the reins to Snap to carry the bulk of the hunts. Recently while stroking her Golden head I thanked her out loud for all the places we’ve been together, the unique experiences we’ve had and apologized for the lost tempers and missed birds. Snap has already created a special place that is unique too. She’s indeed a special and talented dog and I do love her but then each one before her has been special too.
Now if this damn heat would give way to cooler temps we could get at it. If you haven’t tried the pre-hunt walks give it a try and maybe I’ll see ya on the back side of Coopers or Mensons or even Worsekkas! But today we’ll simply nap in the AC looking forward to cooler days ahead. Besides there’s still fish to be caught!