Sep 30thUltimate Upland Lodge
Many hunters familiar with the fame and media coverage lavished on bird hunting in South Dakota cast a skeptical eye to the sister state of the North. We headed there this year to evaluate the hunting prospects and see just how the Roughrider State stacks up.
Weather is always a consideration for early Fall trips. Heat is the biggest challenge when relying on the canine nose to get you into the game. One of our hopes by starting so far North this season was avoiding sweltering temps which put an early end to the hunting days. According to locals, the first snowfall of western North Dakota occurred on September 19th last year. Over the course of our two week stay we experienced a grab bag of weather: nighttime temps as low as 28 degrees, daytime highs reaching 85, no snow but torrential rains lasting over 16 hours and of course the wind which rarely stops in the West, giving us gusts to 45 mph. But the average day actually worked to a hunting plan pretty well: morning temperatures in the mid 40s, partly cloudy skies, winds 5-15 mph and afternoon highs making it to 70.
The other main reason for selecting North Dakota as our first bird hunting stop of the year is species availability. The state is right in the heart of Hungarian Partridge and Sharptailed Grouse range, both opening the second week of September. Also Ruffed Grouse can be found in a tiny northeast corner of the state, and of course pheasant opens a month later.
Millions of acres are available to hunt via national forest lands, state trust lands and private property enrolled in their public access program. We elected to focus mainly on the western side of the state in the Little Missouri National Grasslands which were Teddy Roosevelt's stomping grounds when he tried his hand at western ranching. We were relying on the million plus acre size of this national resource to mitigate any hunting pressure we encountered. This land is open to grazing, so one must contend with the cattle. Because of the wet Spring this year, there was still plenty of cover around regardless the bovine buffet.
To our surprise, hunting pressure was non-existent. Opening weekend which is such a melee in so many other states came and went with barely a notice. Our entire two week visit, we came across five other hunters: two at a gas station, one local working on a back road with a dog box in the truck, and two orange dots on a distant horizon. We never bumped into another individual while hunting a section. This fact alone puts North Dakota at the top of the return visit list.
The unfortunate news for North Dakota upland hunting is that a couple of severe Winters coupled with an extremely wet Spring has negatively impacted bird numbers. The one bright spot is the native Sharptails are tough little birds and accustomed to harsh winters. The Huns and Ringneck being introduced species have a bit rougher go of it.
We were never able to locate a partridge, although admittedly we were a bit west of what is considered the prime Hun territory of the state. The Sharpy though, we found again and again. And these grouse are a wonderful early season foe. The Sharptail like to have a view and most often reside on the tallest hill in sight. And nothing strengthens the early season legs and lungs on both dog and hunter than scaling hill after hill on a quest for flushing grouse.
These early season birds tend to hold for dogs, normally a staggered flush with the smartest birds waiting until guns are empty before taking to the air. Groups of seven to 12 were fairly common. After an initial flush one can often mark down the escapees and continue pursuit, which is great for seeing how young dogs work in areas where birds are known to be. If this sounds a bit genteel for your liking then just wait a month. Once these grouse get educated and shot over, they get evil. As you approach they will flush from hilltops hundreds of yards away and will fly to the next county.
We hunted most mornings with lots of opportunity to refine rusty dog work and rusty shooting skills. And Sharptail prefer BFE so the abundance of hiking gets hunting legs back under all involved. If you need more shooting entertainment in the afternoons the dove are everywhere and jump shooting seemed viable in about every draw with scrub trees or shrubs.
North Dakota has a lot going for it. They also have an oil boom, the effects of which can already be seen. Hopefully this new economic engine doesn't cost the area it's upland oasis.
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