When a record-setting October blizzard hit North Dakota last week, many hunters feared that the storm would send ducks and geese packing, effectively ending the state’s waterfowl season. Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
“Any time you have a weather system like that, with big winds and snow during a full moon, you’re going to see a migration of birds, but I think we’re actually at a net neutral in terms of waterfowl numbers,” says Mike Szymanski, head waterfowl biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. “We lost some teal, pintails and other ducks, but we picked up a few too. By no means did this storm empty the state of ducks and geese.”
Szymanski adds that the overall stage of the migration is behind schedule, noting that large areas of Prairie Canada escaped the winter weather, and waterfowl can still be found in traditional staging areas taking advantage of open water and food.
That’s good news for those planning to hunt in North Dakota this season, Szymanski says. Much of the snow will be gone in the coming days, and temperatures have moderated enough to keep ice from forming on many of the state’s wetlands.
The bad news is that finding birds may prove to be more difficult than expected. Prior to last week’s winter storm, large areas of North Dakota received tremendous amounts of rain, filling wetland basins in grasslands and agricultural fields. Those recently recharged wetlands and surrounding flooded croplands contain an abundance of food for waterfowl, so birds are widely dispersed across the landscape.
“There is water everywhere,” Szymanski says. “So while you may see a wetland every 200 yards while driving down the road, you might not see a duck on one for 20 miles. Maybe more. Finding a large concentration of birds is about like finding a needle in a haystack.”
To make matters worse, Szymanski says recent rain and snowmelt have left rural gravel roads in terrible shape and driving a vehicle into a field is virtually impossible.
“If you plan to come to North Dakota this season, be prepared to walk into fields or use an ATV to haul your gear. You cannot – and should not – drive a truck into those fields,” he says.
The weather has also pushed back the harvest of crops “by weeks,” Szymanski says, with fields of small grains standing across the northern portion of the state and vast areas of soybeans and corn virtually untouched in the south.
Nevertheless, Szymanski remains optimistic about hunting prospects in the near term.
“It is still relatively early in the fall, and we’ve got a lot of season in front of us. Much of what happens next in terms of hunting opportunities is dependent on what Mother Nature brings our way,” he says.