Somewhere north of a half-million brilliantly feathered birds better start running for cover.
North Dakota’s biggest hunting weekend of the year opens Saturday and all indications are the weather gods and pheasant numbers will be in harmony for a pitch-perfect opener.
Unless you’re a pheasant, it looks good for a successful season, in fact the best it has in years, says North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game manager Stan Kohn.
Good bird numbers last year, followed by a fairly open winter, means a lot of brood stock carried over into spring, according to Kohn.
“The number of pheasants won’t be a record, but it will be above average. People who are out there will find plenty of birds,” said Kohn, adding that if they’re not in that favorite secret spot, then they’re surely just down the road a bit.
The combination of a summery weather forecast for this weekend’s opening, plus good bird numbers, put the season on track to surpass last year’s count of 587,000 birds killed by 78,000 licensed hunters from here and elsewhere.
Kohn said he thinks this year’s hunt could reach 600,000, depending on the weather going forward and whether it’s clement enough to entice hunters out into the field in the next six weeks and beyond.
“We’ll have that surge with the nice weather. If it gets cold and snowy, then the diehards will be out with their dogs and the rest will fade back and start watching football,” Kohn said.
It’s no surprise that Hettinger County remains the pheasant hot spot, even though those outstanding habitat acreages in the Conservation Reserve Program have fallen dramatically — by about half to 1.7 million, on a statewide basis. In 2014, most birds were harvested in Hettinger County, and most non-resident hunters flocked there, too.
Curt Honeyman, a guide for the Cannonball Co. at Regent, in Hettinger County, a cooperative venture among landowners, guides and lodging providers, said the company is gearing up for one of its best years in its 25-year history.
“By the looks of it, it’ll be close to one of our record years,” Honeyman said.
The company has booked about 2,000 hunts through the season that closes Jan. 4, with a lot of activity centered on the second and third weekends.
Honeyman said the town’s bars, restaurants and lodging facilities will be humming and folks in the hospitality businesses are ready for the big pheasant phenomenon.
“Everything’s ready to go,” he said.
Kohn said Hettinger County is the epicenter for bird harvest, but that’s partly because most non-residents gravitate there for its reputation. Resident hunters have a broader knowledge of the region and may spread out into other good bird production counties, such as Mercer, Oliver, Dunn, Stark and Billings counties, he said.
In all, it’s a one-of-a-kind weekend anticipated by thousands of men and women who make a tradition out of being afield with friends and family in the great North Dakota outdoors.
Lauren Donovan is a writer for the Bismarck Tribune.