Kidder County, North Dakota. We couldn’t have picked a worse day weather-wise for our first crack at North Dakota’s pheasants. The temperature wasn’t that far north of freezing and the wind must have been blowing 25, with gusts to 40. A needle fine rain had turned to sleet, and it banged off the lids of our caps, our glasses, and everything else in its wake.
But we didn’t drive 1,100 miles to let a little inclement weather deter us from pursuing ringneck pheasants. North Dakota’s cover laid before us like an unopened book. We were staring at a copse of cattails that bordered a set of train tracks. The heads on the cattails bobbed and bowed in the bluster. Beyond the tracks and the cattails were the picked fields of corn, wheat and beans. On paper, we had an excellent cover to hunt and it stretched as far as the eye could see.
Train tracks crisscrossed the countryside. Their right of ways must have been forty yards wide. Although some of the grass between the fence-line and the tracks had been cut and bailed, most of the right of ways still provided an abundance of cover not found back home in mid-Michigan. No permission was needed to hunt the track edges. In fact, North Dakota’s rules on trespassing are quite attractive: if it’s not posted, it’s okay to hunt.
Off we went, into the gale. Shepherd (Michigan) native Jack Nartker and his ageless German shorthair “Tipper” were on one side of the tracks; me and my Brittany, “Shorty” on the other. Thirty yards into our two-mile trek, Shorty plucked the scent of game from the harrowing bluster. He slammed on the brakes and up went a hen pheasant as if it was shot out of cannon. Thirty seconds later, a rooster tried the same escape route, offering both Nartker and me a tricky – almost impossible – crack at the cackling cock-bird.
Shooting at game in those instances was a little like trying to hit a 95mph fastball with a bat the size of a paring knife. All we could do was throw our guns to our shoulder, squeeze the trigger and hope for the best.
Mr. Rooster dodged our little fusillade and coasted with the wind further down the tracks, behind us.
About a half hour later, Nartker and I teamed up on a second rooster that we managed to bring to earth. It wasn’t fast or furious action by any means but that was exactly what the biologists at the Game & Fish Department said it would be.
Every year in July and August, biologists drive the countryside and count the number of pheasants they see. All told, there were 279 survey routes, each 100 miles long. Because of brutal snowfall at the start of last winter, and the drought last spring, biologists said that pheasant numbers were down 61% from the previous year.
Even though we didn’t see tons and tons of birds, as the case with other plains states, about half of the birds we flushed were roosters. Nartker and I limited (three rooster pheasants) two out of the four days we were there. Poor shooting in the brisk winds kept us from filling our quota on the other two days.
The third member of our party, Rick Kaatz from Milford, MI. was the rooster slayer in our group. Every day he got his limit before lunch. His two English setters were superb bird finders and Kaatz’ shooting skills were sensational. No wonder his pals call him “sure death.”
North Dakota isn’t for everybody. The countryside is rugged and mostly untamed. Abandoned homesteads are almost as common as the ubiquitous rock piles, which are the only reminder to the settlers who tried to conquer the land with crude implements and unbridled grit. It’s the land of cattle ranches, prairie potholes, and waterfowl galore.
Hardly anyone lives there; only 2,400 inhabitants in the entire county. We didn’t stay at a fancy lodge or have a guide. There was no guarantee that we’d find birds but that was part of the allure. Even though all three of us could have afforded to stay at a lodge, hire a guide and “pay to play,” I doubt if we would have had as much fun. Uncertain outcomes and a sense of adventure make the most memories.
Conquering the elements, the long drive, the difficult wing-shooting made our adventure that much more rewarding.
The daily limit on pheasants, sharptail grouse and Hungarian partridge is 3 per day and 12 in possession. The season on all three game birds runs through January 7, 2018. A non-resident, small game license costs $120.00