Comprehensive 2018 Central North Dakota Waterfowl Season Summary (Sheridan County)
Compiled by Prairie Smoke Ranch Staff
(Best to get a cold one or hot cuppa joe before settling down to read. Share as you see fit.)
Summary: Year of the swan; early weather yielded fantastic shooting, late season lull, then big push before ice-up
SELF-GUIDED HUNTS ON THE PRAIRIE
Prairie Smoke Ranch offers self-guided hunts -- our lakes and sloughs are leased by hunting groups from across the nation, which hunt the ranch and nearby properties using their own dogs, gear and methods. Their lease grants them exclusive use of our property and facilities during their time with us. What follows is a rough summary of their experiences during the 2018 season.
We went into the fall very dry. We had a wet spring, and our food plots took well but then it dried out and we began to lose potholes. By mid-season most of our smaller sloughs were dry. The waterfowl hatch was very good – lots of teal, gaddies, mallards on the small water. As the smaller water dried up the birds continued to concentrate -- to the point where some of our small ponds had 150-200 ducks on them in the evening. Our Bluebill Lake had 400-450 birds on it some evenings. With thousands of potholes within five minutes flying distance of us, less water is better.
Locally, our other big water is the Pass, and it did not lose much water compared to 2017. We had hoped the big point would grow and the pass area shrink, but it was about the same.
We had good carryover of pheasants -- ND Game and Fish predicted about the same # of birds as last year. Didn’t see many all summer but then the birds began working over the food plots and we even ran into some in the alfalfa -- eating grasshoppers. As usual our food plots were a mix of corn, beans, sorghum and fallow. It was a great year for hoppers.
Cash crops around us were poor, wheat/canola/flax was OK but corn/bean yields will be way down. Very few sunflowers around us. In general it was a dry, weedy summer.
THE 2018 YOUTH HUNT
Our four Prairie Smoke Ranch youth hunters opened the 2018 season Sept. 15 in a stiff east wind but harvested a nice variety of birds including teal, mallard, shoveler, pintail and gadwalls. Other ducks spotted but not harvested included canvasbacks, scaup, widgeon and buffleheads. Dark geese were also seen but not harvested. A total of 20 birds were taken over the two days, about half over decoys and half by jump-shooting nearby ponds on and off the property. Many cranes also moved into the area – a little later than usual. The crew enjoyed duck kabobs Saturday nite with the morning's harvest: duck breast nuggets, green pepper and pineapple. (Wrap the breast nuggets in half-cooked bacon slices before placing everything on a skewer and grilling over high heat for about 8 minutes, turn once while grilling. Oh my goodness -- delicious.)
It was a great start to the 2018 season.
NON-RESIDENT OPENING WEEKEND - Sept 29
As usual it was a solid opener. The first batch of birds through the cleaning shed included mallards, Canada geese, blue-wing and green-wing teal, gadwalls and a ringneck. No pintails, but a lot around as well as wigeon. Weather was in the 30s with scattered snow flurries – which is much preferred to 80 degrees and sunny. We had a bonus “two extra blue-winged teal” provision this year which we took advantage of. This made the early season 2018 bag limit a total of eight birds.
Cranes were in pretty thick (~ 300-400 birds) and swans and green-winged teal arrived early with the cold weather. It felt like mid-October. The blue-wings hung in there but snow in the forecast sent most of them scooting south. There were a lot of big ducks around – mostly mallards, gaddies and wigeon, few redheads or cans. Cacklers (small Canada geese) also started showing up – also early.
The weekend was good
early, with lots of birds everywhere, but after they were shot off the primary
fields and sloughs, they quickly left for more remote areas, and stayed there
unless or until disturbed. Winds were modest, often from the south or east and
so the ducks were not going anywhere. Hunting pressure around us was fair on
Saturday, very light on Sunday, non-existent during the week. Some hunters
targeting mallards on field sets west of us did very well.
We continued to lose
water around us, most sloughs were ringed with mud. The birds definitely had a
preference for certain sloughs – not too deep, not heavily vegetated. All our
local sloughs have freshwater shrimp. If you could find the slough they were using,
they would continue to return day after day until they left for good. We heard
the same held true for field sets this year. Most sloughs around us could be
waded across with waders or hippers; no need for boats. Pheasants were few,
sharpies fairly common. Lots of burrs everywhere this year.
EARLY SNOW – Oct 4
Trick question: In 17 years of hunting your area what is the earliest all the small potholes have frozen? Answer: 10/4/18. It was 21 degrees. Too early for this cold stuff!
Along with the cold we received two inches of snow, our first sighting of snow geese and the arrival of many, many tundra swans.
The snow brought in waves of birds -- then the temp
stayed a consistent 30-38 degrees day and night and if anything more birds
arrived -- including the annual arrival of gadwalls, also a bit early. Predictably,
our hunters took limits of ducks and filled all their swan tags. For some
reason, spinning wing decoys, usually effective, seemed to flare these early
birds, so we stopped using them after the first ½ hour of shooting time. Mallards
really respond to the spinners well prior to sunrise on the water sets. Bags
consisted of mallards, gaddies, wigeon, BWT, GWT, scaup, redheads, a few cans
and fair amount of pintails. Just one pheasant made its way to the cleaning
shed along with two huns, but we were short on dogs so upland hunting was a
We hunted some PLOTS with the black dogs for pheasants but only put up a handful of hens. Many local crops remained standing such as beans, corn and sunflowers so still plenty of places to hide. Still, we saw many roosters on the roadsides when scouting for ducks. Field hunting in our area was spotty -- a few big mallard flights and dark geese were using the fields but most birds were found on the water. Field hunting was much better to the north. Our first wave of cranes moved on – but they left a couple behind (delicious – cook them like you would London Broil or a thick ribeye, lightly seasoned, seared on the grill and served rare).
Our miserable sloppy
weather was replaced with even colder temps and strong North/Northwest winds and the
local birds began moving. Many of the small ponds and some smaller
shallow sloughs froze up for a second time. As a result many birds moved
out and the rest concentrated on the larger water bodies with open water.
Birds on the board were dominated by gaddies again, which continued to decoy
well, along with mallards, redheads and GWT. The wigeon seemed to have moved
A second major crane and snow goose movement started as they rode a brisk northwest wind southward. We saw several groups of cacklers, larger groups of obviously migrating mallards and more swans, which also continued to pour through. Mud remained a significant issue and those without dogs faced really tough retrieving conditions on water sets. We dropped a lot of birds into the vegetation surrounding our sloughs because of the low water, which led to even more dog work.
It finally warmed to 50 degrees, which was our warmest day for over a week. Breezy southwest wind kept the birds in place. Then temps dipped again with highs in the 30s/40s for the next few days and another northwest wind. Shooting remained solid: when would we run out of new, northern birds? Were they all coming down early?
The temps plunged again -- 15 degrees, which fit in nicely with the trend of cold weather we had experienced since the first of the month. Small water froze up again. Up to this point the hunting had been very good to great – lots of birds in, lots coming thru and plenty of shooting opportunities. Some of the best hunting we’ve had in years. The usual mix of mallards, pintails, wigeon, BWT, GWT, scaup, redheads, cans, spoonies and lots of gadwalls. Just started seeing some buffleheads; no goldeneyes yet.
Then we finally got some seasonal weather with highs in the 50s and 60s and lows in the 30s – which opened up all the sloughs again. High winds up to 40 mph for 3-4 days.
The late mallards and divers had yet to show up, swans still thick, snows continued to move thru, along with cacklers; not many large dark geese though.
Field Hunting? Nearly impossible with the high winds. In North Dakota, high winds equate to sustained 35-40 mph with gusts of 50 mph for a day or so – tends to flip boats, and toss blinds and decoys across your favorite lake. Big Foot decoys and Texas Rags don’t stand a chance. During waterfowl season we get a big blow like this about once a week on average.
As the weather moderated – sunny and 60s – the waterfowling become much tougher. A stiff northwest wind blew out many of the birds and those remaining wised up in a hurry. No real influx of new birds except for snows, which began piling into our area. Game bags this week still held gadwalls, along with redheads, GWT and a few mallards. Mergansers made their appearance on the bigger water; a few more scaup as well. Some swans remained, but not in the big numbers (e.g. 100-250 on a single slough) of a week prior. The ducks were still around – and the PLOTS water was holding quite a few -- but if busted from one hole they tended to just move to the next one over and so on – typical mid/late-season hop-scotch game.
The bright spot, at least in our local area, was the upland birds, which were more concentrated after the small grains were combined and the corn and beans were harvested. Haybales were also being hauled off the hay-ground into winter feedlots. We began seeing a lot more sharpies and huns along with the pheasants – and remaining grain fields and food plots became a big draw after the recent snow. As usual, dogs were the key to upland success. Deer were also starting to hit the corn.
Warm weather and southern winds did not improve the duck hunting, which was a challenge all week. Divers and a few mallards were the most common ducks now. One of our hunters took a greater scaup off our big lake, otherwise lesser scaup, redheads and a few gaddies and teal made it into the cleaning shed. The bright spot was the pheasants, sharpies and huns – not in great numbers but scattered around enough to justify the application of a little dog power and boot leather. Guys working new areas off the beaten path did best – some of those PLOTS and WPAs a mile or more off the main roads held good pockets of birds, especially pheasants.
Snow geese continued to ply the skies each morning and evening but we did not find their feeding areas around us. Swans still around, concentrated (~ 150 birds), on particular water. Was time to transition to field sets until more weather and new birds.
The weather pattern in late October was really unsettled – calm days, then high winds, then warm days, then 20 degree lows. No real stable pattern. The mud around the sloughs was a real pain this year – best to send the dog instead. Also had one dog into the vet after a porky encounter off property while pheasant hunting. Porkies here are found in the cattail sloughs – along with the roosters.
EARLY NOVEMBER – Nov 2
Snows were still in and joined by a new influx of dark geese and a final wave of cranes. Northern mallards began arriving along with goldeneyes, joining the many swans in the area. Snow geese seemed to be everywhere – big concentrations (5,000-10,000 birds) west, east and south of us. Very few ducks around, very poor hunting without a lot of road work. This time of year it is northern mallards, goldeneyes, buffleheads and a few bluebills…or nothing. And we had a whole lot of nothing while we waited for the final push to come through.
Pheasants came out from hiding along with a surprising amount of huns -- we saw many along the roads while scouting and the dogs put them up regularly on the ranch.
The forecast called for a rain/snow mix and temps forecast in the teens for a couple nights, which would lock down all but our largest lakes. Given these temps our hunting season for ducks would be over in 3-5 days. As is typical, the wet weather turned our Sheridan County gravel and farm roads into sloppy grease – making travel impossible without 4WD vehicles.
DON’T LEAVE TOO EARLY
Some of the best hunting of the season is right before freeze-up – typically a big wind, low temps and snow from the northwest will move the birds down from Canada -- and they will be fighting to get into open water. Such was the setting on November 5th – our small water was void of ducks and freezing over and we had snow moving in with high winds.
Late season hunting can be frustrating -- it's all about timing. Our last group at the ranch had shot their swans but had been nearly blanked on ducks -- and they left early to return home. That same morning I headed down to the Saddle blind on our Bluebill lake in the midst of snow flurries and experienced the late season mallard action we had been anticipating all year – big, colorful, blocky mallards all wanting to set in between the snow flurries. I hunted for an hour and then picked up the set for the season before it froze in. Poor shooting, really miserable weather and no partner except the black dog spared me from filling out – but these were by far the nicest birds of the year.
A cold snap shut down duck hunting in our area on November 7 – all our lakes and sloughs froze over solid – as a bonus it got down to 3 degrees that evening. Once our big lake freezes, the birds all leave – like throwing a switch. We received several calls from folks who wanted to come out and hunt – but unlike other states, when waterfowl hunting is done here it is DONE. We haven’t seen a single duck in the air since the big freeze. As is typical, winter arrives overnight here and stays a LONG time. Time to chase deer and roosters.
WHAT DID WE LEARN THIS YEAR?
1) Let the birds tell you if they want spinning wing decoys or not.
2) Either there was a tremendous hatch of tundra swans this year or the flight path has shifted dramatically – right over us. We were 100% on swan tags this year.
3) Our best hunting sloughs have changed each of the past five years – if the birds tell you they want one slough over the other -- listen to them and MOVE.
4) Less is more – we shot hundreds of ducks over the course of the season from just one of our sloughs – with only 14 decoys out. Often just a few will do for water sets.
5) Confirmed that early snow will bring early birds, and sometimes lots of them.
6) Know your pup's limitations, especially when it comes to retrieves on big wind-swept prairie lakes.
7) Confirmed that fall on the prairie really is a special time.
8) Late season mallards like to gather with late season swans.
AND LASTLY -- NEWS FOR 2019
After 17 years of waterfowl outfitting on our property, most of which was really rewarding, we are hanging up the waders -- calling it quits. Age and health issues have caught up with us and we are just not up to the physical task of lugging boats, blinds and hundreds of decoys around our 800 acres like we did 10 years ago (or five for that matter).
Luckily our habitat and facilities are in better shape than we are so we are going to continue to offer some limited ranch access on a DO-IT-YOURSELF basis. We’ll continue to provide on-site lodging and amenities along with exclusive property access and our hunters will provide the rest – blinds, decoys, gear, grub, dogs etc. Importantly, hunters at Prairie Smoke Ranch will need to do their own scouting and blind/decoy placement. In this respect we can no longer cater to new or inexperienced hunters or older hunters as we have in the past. To compensate we will effectively cut our lease rate by 50% and plan to offer more flexibility regarding lease length etc.
Our thanks go out to our hard-hunting and safety-conscious PSR hunters, especially those youngsters who will carry on our waterfowl traditions and their parents who sacrificed to get them started on the right path.
Look for complete details on our website in January of 2019 – www.prairiesmokeranch.com
Until then, have a safe hunting and Holiday Season!
The author is a former US Fish and Wildlife Service and US Department of Agriculture manager. In retirement he owns and operates Prairie Smoke Ranch, located in central North Dakota, the duck hunting hub of the northern plains. All rights reserved.