As the first week of October nears, my anticipation of North Dakota duck hunting begins to creep in. You never know what to expect but there is one thing for sure; I will spend nine days chasing them little rockets from pot hole to pot hole. Every year I watch the weather from the time we leave until the time we arrive. One thing I have come to understand is the water can be different from year to year. One of the reasons we left southern North Dakota was every year there was less and less water. We hardly ever were able to hunt the same place year after year, unless it was big water and big water is not easy to hunt.
It seemed last winter they had plenty of snow and the rains look like they were consistent up until June. I figured we would still have plenty of water considering the amount of snowfall and early spring rains. Unfortunately, since early June it has been really dry and actually they have had a very warm summer by their standards. Luckily, they had enough water in many of the holes, but there was still some that were dry from the last couple years. Where we are now doesn’t seem to have quite as much water fluctuation as the southern area did.
We set off on a Wednesday night to start our 14-hour journey. As we arrived Thursday morning, we could see birds everywhere. It seemed every hole had a good number of ducks on them, but we didn’t see the number of Bluewing Teal we normally do. We grabbed our groceries for the week Thursday afternoon and hit the bed early to begin scouting on Friday.
Anticipation is always high for scouting day. This year had a new meaning for a change. We had a new guy with us this year, Zach Kline. We have known Zach since he was a little kid. He is now married with kids and for the first time was able to take this adventure with us. It is always nice taking someone new. Their anticipation and excitement are contagious.
We had three trucks this year, so we split up and headed to some of our normal haunts. As daybreak arrived, we found birds in all of the normal locations. Luckily, we had most of our contacts lined up before we ever arrived. We marked multiple locations on OnX and began trying to make calls to get permission. Most of the people we had asked in previous years were gracious as always when allowing us to hunt their property, but we did run into some trouble getting phone numbers and getting permission. This has never really been much of an issue. In the past the farmers would post their signs with their name and phone number. We would give them a call and 90% of the time they would allow duck and goose hunting. They just don’t want someone killing their pheasants or deer.
What has changed? OnX. I once thought this was the best thing ever invented but after this year, I am second guessing. If you are someone new to going to North Dakota, you need to take notes. Now that OnX is required in North Dakota you will have some issues. It used to be that if it wasn’t marked no trespassing you could just go and hunt. Now you have to make sure its not posted on the property by signs and also electronically on OnX. When you get a license for North Dakota, they will give you a free subscription to OnX if you don’t already have it. The thing we have noticed since this started three years ago is most of the good areas are marked and on OnX they very rarely have their number. So you spend time googling names, addresses, and trying to get phone numbers and if you do find them they seem to be disconnected or no one answers. We are extremely lucky we have always kept list of names and numbers, so we still have enough for us to hunt in North Dakota but if you are new you have to be prepared to put some serious time in going to houses, searching for numbers, and doing whatever it takes to get permission. We had several places we wanted to hunt this year and we tried for a week to no avail. I don’t want to discourage anyone from going to North Dakota because it is an experience like no other, but I do know a few groups over the last couple of years who have really struggle to get on birds and property.
As opening day was about to arrive, we loaded our gear and prepared for our first hunt of 2023. We had a nice size pothole some of us were going to hunt and a couple were headed to the big water to try their luck. As always, the opening day shooting was great. The only thing was they didn’t fly real long. The temperatures were in the 60’s and headed to be in the 80’s on opening day. We didn’t all get a limit, but we still had a great day of duck hunting.
As the week progressed, the temperatures were remaining in the 60’s and for the first time in North Dakota there wasn’t much wind to speak of. This created some early action in the morning and then you would get a spurt every half hour or so. With five of us hunting we were getting around 30 a day. The biggest difference we saw was there weren’t as many bluewing as normal, and during the first week of the season you can shoot eight birds if you have two bluewings. We did get a few but normally about half our birds are bluewings. One of the reasons I like going the first week is the number of teal, and they taste great. Although after eating ducks every which way to Sunday I could do without eating ducks for a few weeks.
On Wednesday night the temperatures finally began to fall. The northwest winds started to pick up and you can feel the bite in the wind. We knew there was a chance with this cold snap that we may get some northern birds heading our way. As Thursday morning rolled around, we headed to a good size lake with some potholes around it thinking maybe some mallards would come our way. As we arrived the daybreak was about to hit, we were getting buzzed so bad it was ridiculous. There was a heavy fog that has set in the night before once the winds died down and by the time you saw the birds they were back into the fog. We still scratched out our ducks, but it would have been a quick hunt if the skies were clear.
For our last hunt on Friday, we had a plan. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the desire to drive 45 minutes to our spot so we stayed close to the house and just enjoyed a last days hunt. We had a great week and I miss it already. There is something magical about that place and I hope to continue to hunt there for many more years.
This year had a special meaning. For the first five years I hunted North Dakota without a dog. Don’t do it. With the cattails, grass, mud and everything else, a dog is a must. My baby girl cocoa has been on this trip the last eleven years. She is not the best trained dog by any means, but she has a drive to retrieve ducks like no other. It has been a love/hate relationship at times but only because I failed to train her properly. I will miss her sitting by me and I shed a few tears that last day knowing this was her last hunt with me in North Dakota. I will still try and get her out on a couple of hunts a year at home, but we don’t seem to get as many ducks as we used to. I know she will be ready for some woodies in a few short weeks.
In three weeks, we will have a new female chocolate lab joining our family. Her name is Lucy, and her bloodline is attached to my very first chocolate lab I ever owned Brittany. It is kind of a full circle. Ryan Locke with Locke’m Up Gun Dogs purchased one of my yellow labs several years ago and named him Chase. Chase went on to be an amazing hunter and trial dog and Ryan has kept the bloodline ever since. I feel it was fate for me to get this dog, so I am planning to make this my best hunting partner ever. Stay tuned for puppy pics and training mistakes.
Until next month. May your sunrises and sunsets be magical!