NoDak!I've never been to North Dakota before. All I knew about the state was that a) It is currently enjoying one of the only budget surplus positions in the Union, due to the booming oil industry, b) it is sandwiched somewhere between here and Michigan, and c) it supposedly offers some of the best all around hunting opportunities in the world. Being an avid bird hunter, it was definitely on my bucket list, so when a coworker and friend offered me up the chance to experience it first hand, I jumped at it. I didn't learn much about their fiscal situation and I saw a few oil refineries on the interstate but I definitely was able to confirm point C--the hunting is as good as advertised.
Ahhhh...there it is.
My friend pulled up to my house in South Central Idaho at 5am on Thursday morning. We had already packed up his Tundra the day before, so I warily loaded a few items into his truck, including my trusted and beat up 20 gauge over/under scatter gun, my boots and my dog, Steve, a wirehaired pointing griffon.
We drove the 13 hours to Bizmarck, ND in a blur, with the radar detector beeping now and then and the only stops at gas stations and the Theodore Roosevelt National Park where Steve and my buddy's dog, Magnum, eagerly relieved themselves and completely ignored the picturesque views of the Badlands offered up from the view point. In Bizmarck, we stocked up on lunch and breakfast foods, liquor, beer, and advil. Then we drove the remaining 25 minutes to McKenzie to Rolling Plains Adventures, our home and hunting grounds for the next four days and five nights.
Rolling Plains Adventures is the ultimate hunting lodge for the true, working hunter. The birds are wild and not pin raised, the white tail deer are absolute specimens, the sharp tail grouse plentiful, and the waterfowling opportunities abundant. You won't find an executive chef there or any sort of a wine list. Instead, you find truly engaging hosts in Jeremy and Jay, two brothers who are converting their family ranch of several thousand acres into a hunter's paradise. I really can't say enough about Jeremy and Jay--they were the perfect hosts for our group. They didn't hold our hands nor instruct us on where we had to hunt on a given day. Instead, they offered helpful information on where they've planted what crops, where the birds have been recently, and then they'd simply let us loose for a day. Of course they offer the full guided experience with their own dogs, etc., if that's what you want, but our group consisted of experienced hunters who preferred to blaze our own trails. We opted to have the lodge prepare our dinners every night while we made our own breakfasts and lunches. The food was home cooked, hearty goodness. Nothing overly fancy but just what you craved after walking 15 miles in a given day. Both the brothers are extremely personable, funny and very knowledgeable sportsmen, but I really appreciated the fact that they respected our own experience and didn't force feed us with information.
The sunrises were just so-so at the ranch.
The accommodations consisted of a very nicely finished cabin for the six of us. The cabin had everything--washer/dryer, flat screen TV with digital cable, full kitchen, nice bedrooms and a very nice porch to drink cold beers on after your morning hunt.
Hunt 'em up!
The first morning, four of us headed out to a zone called Area 25, a beautiful plot of land a few miles down the road that had literally everything you could ask for as a pheasant hunter: Standing corn rows, a huge crop of sunflower rows, massive oak tree groves, a few different ditches complete with water and cat tails, brambles, fences, and every other form of cover you could imagine. Alas, it was time to shake off the rust. I took Steve off to skirt the corn, away from the other dogs where I could remind him of the rules and let him tear ass around since he'd been in a car for 13 hours the day before and had a surplus amount of energy. We were about 200 yards away from the truck when I looked up to flights of sharp tail grouse soaring out of the corn towards a neighboring field. They called as they glided overhead but I was slow and disoriented and hesitated, thinking at first that they were hen pheasant in the low, rising sun. Needless to say, I should have walied on them.
No shortage of cover on the ranch.
A few minutes later after rounding the corner of the corn rows, Steve suddenly disappeared into the corn field. I activated his beeper collar (a must-have for any pointer owner) so that I could tell where he was by the "beep...........beep.........beep" it gave off as he worked out of site. Sure enough, the slow pulse suddenly changed to a quick beeping--something I like to call the "bird bomb." I hustled into the corn towards the sound and found Steve on point.
Steve on his first point of the trip.
I calmly repeated "whoa" as Steve's tail twitched and walked around him, and then whooooosh....three pheasant hens erupted in front of me. Steve looked at me in his "WTF" expression after I let them fly away without a shot, and we continued on our way.
Over the next hour, we flushed two roosters but I didn't have a shooting lane. We flushed another hen. Then, while working a row of trees with nice cover, Steve began to act strangely, flash pointing but not in his normal manner. I kicked a bush and there was a skunk--tail up--who gave me a nice little musk to wear for the rest of the day. Steve ran away unscathed. Typical.
We returned to the cabin birdless and I have to admit, I was a little discouraged. This was NoDak--I was supposed to be day-drunk by now with a gaggle of birds in a pile on the porch, right? After a quick lunch, we went to a different zone that offered a wetlands landscape with tons of cat tails, water and Russian Olive stands. It neighbored a corn field and looked pretty good. An hour later, I had my limit of three roosters and my buddy had two. I was relieved and happy. After a quick beer break, we headed out to a plot right by the cabin to try and fill my buddy's bag for the day. Steve quickly located a rooster--no--a terradactyl that my buddy quickly shot out of the sky. It was a true NoDak ring neck.
Chris and a NoDak terradactyl.
The next couple days went by in a blur. The rest of the crew had shown up and we now had six hunters, seven dogs, and lot of energy. We pushed cover crop fields with blockers at the end. We would walk up to 15 miles a day, the dogs probably covering closer to 60 on a given day. We shot birds, passed on hens, and saw MONSTER white tail deer every day. The lodge offers white tail hunting, complete with tree stands, game cameras, etc. and this has been added to my bucket list based on the specimens I saw. There was a very nice gentleman from Wisconsin who was there chasing white tail. He reported being surrounded by deer every day, but it was "Mr. Basket" that he was after--an old, 10 or 11 point buck with a rack like a basket that skirted his zone repeatedly. I don't know if he harvested Mr. Basket or not as he was only on day three when we left but he was very excited about his prospects and said that it was the best deer hunting he'd ever encountered in his several years of bow hunting.
It was the final day of pheasant hunting when I had my "moment." On the long drive out to ND, Chris and I had agreed that every great hunting trip had a "moment"---that one memory created that you will always use to benchmark every trip thereafter. It's the defining kill or encounter or mishap of the trip, the split second that is permanently etched into your brain that keeps your chasing game for years to come.
For me, it was my young dog working in front of me on that final day, quartering back and forth, then obviously scenting birds. My thumb went to my safety as I shrugged my shoulders to fit my vest better, clearing the way for the butt of my shotgun. As we worked towards an old railroad berm, Steve suddenly froze in front of me. Now you must know that Steve is an odd dog, with odd mannerisms and often laughable puppy mishaps. So sometimes I think Steve has stopped on point, when he's actually squatting down to relieve himself, looking back at me like, "what's up?" When Steve froze, I glanced down at him and he was not peeing. He was literally shivering with excitement, his front leg up in that trademark pointer stance, his body all penciled out in a sideways, tweaked-but-frozen-solid position. He was pointing directly at the berm, a mere five yards in front of me. I excitedly walked around him, reminding him to "whoa." I kicked the brush on the berm but nothing happened. I then walked up the berm and looked down into the cat tails on the other side, but nothing doing. I quickly looked back at Steve who was still shaking and on point when WHOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH! About 9 pheasant exploded in front of me from the cat tails on the other side of the berm. I put a bead on a rooster and dropped him, swung, and shot another. The other seven roosters and hens flew to safety, but the damage was done. Steve hurriedly retrieved the two birds and carried on but I was frozen, grinning ear to ear, shaking my head. Just then my phone rang and it was one of my close hunting buddies calling from home to check in on my trip. "Dude," I said without a greeting. "Steve just had the nastiest, dirtiest point on a huge covey and I got the double. I could quit now and be happy as a clam."
The double. Note Steve's feet and toes--this place is brutal on dogs.
Steve had pointed several birds already that trip, including a few pairs and coveys, but for some reason that covey was just perfect. His excitement, the scenery, the confusion, the flush and the double. That memory alone will keep me hunting these damned birds for as long as I can walk. It was everything I wanted from North Dakota, unfolding in only a few seconds.
That night we stuffed our faces with delicious pasta and meat sauce, beers, cocktails and then wearily packed up. We left early the next morning and I don't think Chris nor I said a word for the first four hours of the drive back. We were content, tired and just happy.
And so I tip my hat to you, North Dakota, and I will be back---hopefully during Steve's lifetime and hopefully with a bow. It is truly a sportsman's paradise and it was everything I hoped it could be.
FootnotesA few notes and some advice to the new-to-NoDak hunter:
1. If possible, be prepared to rotate dogs. We hunted our dogs nonstop for four days and it was simply too much, even for a young pup like Steve. He got home with shredded pads, a pretty decent cut on his chest from barbwire (despite his protective vest) and has slept for nearly 48 hours. Yes, they want to hunt ALL OF THE TIME but I would put myself in a position to rest him more next time, rotating dogs between myself and my buddies, even if it slows production down. Fortunately, I brought antibiotics and always carry a K9 first aid kit in my vest. The terrain, cover and land is very, very rugged there. Bring tons of dog food. My dog ate about 75% more than his normal intake. And always take the time to stop often to water your dog, as often as they'll drink. I probably stopped every five to ten minutes to give Steve a quick drink and definitely made a difference. Remember that your dog will keep hunting long after it's dangerously dehydrated and it's your responsibility to stop them and water them.
2. Bring everything you need. These lodges are often 30 minutes to the nearest stores, etc. That takes an hour out of your day if you need anything at all.
3. Research your outfit. Call them and make sure they run the sort of program you want. If you want fancy, check their menu. If you want freedom, make sure they're not overly strict as to your itinerary. Rolling Plains was excellent but I would have been bummed had they been too "hands-on."
4. Dress for wild weather swings. The mornings were low thirties and cold. By 10am, it was in the low 60's. Rain can periodically set in for short bursts. It snowed the final morning. Obviously, First Lite wool really shines here--I was the only one who wasn't constantly shedding and replacing layers in my Labrador top and base layer system.
5. Bring a cooler and a lot of beers. Nothing is as rewarding as a cold beverage after hiking your ass of all day.