All signs point to a good waterfowl season in northeast North Dakota, but hunters might find the birds scattered because of widespread wet conditions.
Muddy roads and fields also could present a challenge.
Waterfowl season in North Dakota opens Saturday for residents, and nonresidents can go afield beginning Oct. 1. Minnesota’s waterfowl season also opens Saturday.
“Wetland habitat at this point — much to the chagrin of the farmer — is really excellent,” said Mark Fisher, district biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake. “You can go by a harvested wheat field and see the ruts and water in the ruts.
“A lot of birds now are flying, the broods are reared and have taken wing, and there’s a lot of ducks that are out in flooded cropland,” Fisher added. “The wetland abundance is probably as high as I’ve ever seen it for this time of year across the landscape.”
By the numbers
According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, continental duck numbers this spring were estimated at 48.4 million, down from 49.5 million in 2015 but 38 percent above the long-term average from 1955 to 2015.
In North Dakota, the Game and Fish Department predicts a fall duck flight similar to last year, based on the annual mid-July brood count survey. This year’s brood index was 3.89 broods per square mile, up 11 percent from last year. The long-term average since North Dakota started the survey is 2.55 broods per square mile.
The numbers add up to another favorable season for waterfowl hunters.
“We’re still in what I call a ‘green light year’ for bird hunting and bird numbers — a green light year being liberal bag limits,” Fisher said. “It’s setting itself up to be a good hunting season.”
Spring started out dry across North Dakota, and the state’s water index during annual spring surveys was down 50 percent, Game and Fish said.
Then the rains came.
“It was fairly dry when we did our spring survey, but after that we started to get some good rains that helped improve late nesting and renesting efforts,” said Mike Szymanski, migratory game bird management supervisor for Game and Fish in Bismarck. “The heavy, often localized rainfall helped keep brood habitat on the map into late summer in many areas.”
Even during the dry spell, Fisher said the Devils Lake area was in good shape for waterfowl habitat because of the abundance of larger wetlands. By the end of July, wetlands of all sizes were 100 percent full.
“That’s great for duck broods, and I was seeing a good number of birds early and mallards with 10 ducklings,” Fisher said. “That’s a good thing. It was not hard to find duck broods and Canada goose broods.”
The abundance of water is keeping waterfowl numbers strong, despite the loss of habitat in many areas, Fisher said.
“There’s still a lot of good wetland habitat here,” Fisher said. “As long as that holds, we’re going to hold ducks until we get into some kind of major drought. I don’t see that happening.”
Fisher said the sheer number of sloughs and waterlogged fields might challenge hunters who prefer to set up on larger wetlands.
“It’s going to be an interesting season — the birds may or may not be there,” he said. “They have plenty of places to go. Sometimes, you like it dry because birds concentrate. I think guys might be successful, but they will have to do some more scouting, and they might be shooting ducks in some odd areas.”
Hunters targeting geese shouldn’t lack for opportunities, either, and success during the early goose season has been “pretty stellar,” Fisher said. Hunters during the early season can shoot 15 geese daily, but the limit in most of North Dakota decreases to eight during the regular waterfowl season.
“I’ve been hearing lots of positive reports on people shooting good numbers,” Fisher said. “Some of the numbers are kind of gross. I think last weekend I heard four guys went out and shot 39 Canada geese, and that’s not atypical.
“In Devils Lake, they don’t have to travel far — 10 miles from town. Devils Lake is always good. Break out from here in all directions, and you’re going to find pockets of birds.”
Watch the mud
Fisher said hunters will have to be aware of muddy fields and prairie trails and use courtesy and common sense to avoid potential conflicts with landowners.
“Farmers are not going to want people rutting up their fields,” Fisher said. “And guys driving down muddy trails to shoot ducks, that’s not a good thing and quite upsetting to the locals when people are mucking up roads.”
With opening day less than a week away, Fisher said hunters should avoid making the mistake of waiting too long before going afield.
Temperatures might be warm, and mosquitoes still could be a nuisance, but hunters will encounter a better diversity of ducks early in the season.
“I think a lot of people have the feeling you have to get cold feet for it to be duck season, and certainly there’s some truth to that,” Fisher said. “I think the volume and diversity of species early, in the first three weeks of season, and the opportunities, are probably as good or better than late season, because some of those ducks are real sensitive to the weather. When it gets really cold, they tend to get out of here.”
On the upside, if weather conditions cooperate, the abundance of water could keep birds in the area longer, Fisher said.
“When hunters come in and start pushing on them, they’re going to have a lot of places to go, and I’m thinking birds are going to hang on here despite pressure,” Fisher said. “I could be wrong — I’m just making a prediction.”
Come Saturday morning, hunters can find out for themselves.