Go back to ‘No Dak?’ You bet!
A person could get downright used to living by this mantra –
lace ’em up, leash ’em up, and load ’em up. In fact, it’s probably
a good thing that north-central Wisconsin is a good eight hours
from the nearest good North Dakota pheasant hunting, or a person
might be inclined to become a pheasant hunting bum.
Still, for six days it felt pretty doggone good to not do
anything but get up an hour before daylight so we could be standing
at the edge of a hunting spot on the brink of shooting hours.
That’s what three Wisconsin pheasant hunters did each of those six
days late last month in North Dakota. Living on coffee, burned gun
powder, and the smell of fresh pheasant blood and muddy dogs, the
three of us listened to roosters cackling each morning while
waiting for shooting hours to arrive 30 minutes before sunrise.
wasn’t a matter of whether we would hear roosters. Not at all.
The big question amounted to which batch of roosters we were going
to run after first – the ones on the west side of the road, the
east side of the road, or to the north – off the end of the road.
Some dilemma, eh? It’s nice to have that once in a while.
Still, having all of those roosters at our disposal didn’t mean
that a person didn’t have to work a little bit. We walked, and then
walked some more. Not that we’re complaining. Not at all. Nothing
wrong with having to walk. In fact, we even welcomed that part. The
parts a person could do without were the hidden badger holes, logs,
and wire. This year, though, being my second year of hunting in
North Dakota, I was more prepared for those unseen obstacles, so
there were no twisted ankles or busted shins. Just a sliced thumb,
but that came from carelessness and trying to clean birds with cold
hands, not from anything having to do with uneven terrain.
The hunting party included my neighbor, Tim Tobias, of Arbor
Vitae, and his father, Don Tobias, of Shell Lake. Tim’s black lab,
Blazer, once again provided the dog power for the trip. Tim started
hunting in North Dakota about eight years ago, so in that time he
had pioneered more than a few spots along the southern tier of
counties that paid off once again.
We hit the road early on a Saturday morning from Shell Lake,
cruised northwest across the Gopher State, hung a left at Fergus
Falls by 11 a.m., then hit the brakes in the little town of Forman,
N.D. We hunted a few spots in that area, then worked our way west
the rest of the afternoon.
Being that it was the first week of the North Dakota pheasant
season, hunting on state land or PLOTS (Private Land Open to
Sportsmen) was strictly verboten. We were “limited” to
hunting federally-owned property, such as waterfowl production
areas (steel shot required), or private land that is not enrolled
in the PLOTS program – if we could gain permission. We could also
hunt on private land (not in PLOTS) that was not posted, but even
so, we still made sure we contacted the landowner.
Despite those land use restrictions, we didn’t have any trouble
finding a place to hunt. Sure, North Dakota has more than one
million acres enrolled in the PLOTS program this year, but the
state also boasts a wealth of federal waterfowl production areas,
or WPAs. We were prepared to pull off at one WPA near Forman that
had treated us well last year, but the parking area already had a
few rigs sitting there. We winced a bit, but it was by no means the
end of the world. We just went down the road a little further,
picked out a small WPA that we had skipped last year, pulled over,
laced up, and loaded up.
It didn’t take long to start unloading. I don’t recall how many
birds we flushed from the tree rows, grass, and cattails on that
WPA, but Don shot one rooster there, and Tim added two. Blazer
contributed to the recovery effort by pounding through some
unbelievably tall cattails to find Don’s rooster. Just about the
time a person started thinking it might be a lost cause, Blazer
located the dead bird.
The next morning we started out just west of Oakes, N.D., and
worked our way through Wishek to the now familiar towns of Linton,
Strasburg, and Hague, where we spent the next 41/2 days. The
weekend sunshine didn’t return on Monday, but the rain held off,
more or less, until Thursday. Between Sunday afternoon and
Thursday, we found plenty of roosters everywhere we went. One dry
slough on private land near Hague provided quite a show on Sunday
afternoon. We could have probably just spread out in a line across
the slough and pass shot roosters as they coasted into the cover
from adjacent fields.
I did shoot one rooster that way. Cory Hummel, a local Strasburg
student and running back/receiver for the school’s football team,
joined us for the afternoon. Cory and Tim skirted the south end of
the slough while Don and I walked a brushy fencerow to the east
side of the slough, and a bit to the north end. As Tim and Cory
came around a rock pile and a couple of trees, pheasants started
pouring out of the rocks and tall grass, with most of them gliding
into the slough – kind of towards Don and I. All we had to do was
trot to the slough, dive into the cover about 20 or 30 yards, and
wait for a rooster to slide by. We each shot a rooster that way.
Then we circled to the north, lined up, and headed south through
the slough. Cory and Tim each shot a bird on that pass, but that
effort also showed us how tight those pheasants can sit. We watched
at least 50 birds glide into this relatively narrow slough. The
fields all around the slough had been harvested already, so if a
bird was going to run out, we would have seen it. Our walk might
have flushed eight or nine birds, mostly hens. Everything else had
to hold tight, or run around us as we pushed through the cover.
We saw more examples of that throughout the week. Walk an area
the first time, and birds would flush. Come back later in the day,
or the next day, and you’d find birds, but they were far less
It was a good week, though. We saw plenty of pheasants and other
wildlife, including a variety of hawks and owls that were in the
process of making a good living on the local pheasant population.
Quite often we’d find a pile of exploded pheasant feathers in spots
where the raptors had hit a hapless bird. We saw a lot of
waterfowl, at least by northern Wisconsin standards, but the local
folks said the big push had yet to get started. The warm weather
kept birds in Manitoba from moving south. There were pelicans,
sandhill cranes, and plenty of deer. Twice during the week we were
almost run over by deer that came crashing through the cattails,
spooked by another member of our hunting party. A doe nearly took
Tim out at the knees, and the same deer missed me by about 3 yards.
Another day I jumped a hellacious white-tailed buck from a patch of
chest-high weeds at a distance of less than 15 yards. I’ll tell you
what, you see a crown of antlers like that start lifting up out of
the weeds, and your old heart kicks it up a notch. That was one big
We finished the trip by getting totally waterlogged on Thursday,
but any complaining about wet gloves and soggy boots was quickly
forgotten by about supper time – that’s because Cory’s parents,
Connie and Dean Hummel, invited us over for supper on the last
night. Everything looked great, and it tasted even better, even
after I spilled a glass of wine onto my plate. We traded stories
after supper, said thanks, and good-bye, then headed back to the
motel to pack for an early leave the next morning.
We hit the Minnesota line shortly after sunrise, and that was
probably a good thing. If we had left any later and saw a rooster
after shooting hours had started, we might still be in North
Dakota. Now I know why Tim insisted that we get an early start.