If you closed your eyes and slid your fingers across a 3-D map of North Dakota, you might be surprised to feel a big bump as your hand reached the central part of the state. It's imperceptible as you drive the interstate, but when you reach Bismarck you are 800 feet higher than when you left Fargo. This ridge, which runs the length of the state, north to south, is known as the Coteau Des Prairies, French for "hill of the prairie." All this would be of little significance to you unless you are a duck hunter.
This Coteau country is where most of the ducks in North America are hatched. In fact, the biologists at Delta Waterfowl in Bismarck say this area now outranks the southern plains of Canada, gripped in a multiyear drought, as the top duck-producing area on the continent.
Walk around a typical square mile on the Coteau and you will find yourself detouring around 42 small wetlands. The 18 counties that make up the Coteau contain over 1 million temporary, seasonal and semi-permanent wetlands that cover over 1.3 million acres. These numerous wetlands and the promise of an early fall buffet of waste barley, wheat and soybeans attract millions of nesting waterfowl each year.
Not surprisingly then, North Dakota is a top destination for hunters. As the number of ducks dwindles in Minnesota and many other states, duck hunters dwindle, too. But hardcore hunters, 30,000 nonresidents of North Dakota in a typical year, are willing to do whatever it takes to find ducks, even if the price is going up. And it is. More travel time, more $3-a-gallon gas, and maybe even a charge for the privilege of hunting that certain wetland. I just returned from a hunting trip to the Coteau and this is what I saw:
More hunters, fewer ducks
Drive by the motels in Harvey and McClusky after dark and you will find them full. Trucks parked outside sport a colorful array of license plates: Texas, West Virginia, Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa among them. In addition, many small houses in these towns are available for rent by day or by week.
The cafe in McClusky keeps the kitchen open until 9 p.m. to accommodate hunters who have stayed out until sunset. I counted 40 waterfowlers one evening, all wearing brand-new attire from Cabela's or Gander Mountain. Oddly, the average age was over 60. They were not jubilant about their success. But where were the young hunters with their rolled-down hip waders, faded hand-me-down camo jackets and "Quack Addict" stickers in the windows of their trucks?
My own experience afield matched that of the diners. Sloughs that in past years had produced limits held only a few coots. My rancher friend who farms 1,000 acres pointed my partner and me to a 20-acre wetland approachable by prairie lane. There we found about 200 skittish dipper ducks. Even the gadwalls, normally convivial decoyers, were skirting our setup. Puzzled, I called a pal in Turtle Lake. Tim Larson drives hundreds of miles across the Coteau each week as a conservation officer. He confirmed what my rancher friend had told me: The spring hatch was good, but a few days before my arrival the ducks departed.
"I don't know where they went, and I don't know why they left," Larson said. I had my suspicions. With plenty of water to rest on, bountiful small grain left after the harvest and bluebird weather, there would be no reason for the ducks to leave. Except for gun pressure.
With fewer ducks in Minnesota and many other states, the market force of supply and demand comes into the equation. Ducks are normally plentiful in North Dakota. So the demand increases there, at least among the swamp rat addicts like me, and the price goes up.
For the first time in my decades of hunting North Dakota I saw a sprinkling of "Paid Hunting" signs. While these are common on the pheasant fields of South Dakota, I was not aware of North Dakota ranchers asking for per-day, per-gun cash in past years.
Gun pressure is also measured by hours per day in the duck blind. You don't drive 500 miles or more to take naps and play cribbage. You hunt. In most cases you hunt from a half-hour before sunrise to sunset. This limits the places ducks can loaf midday and rest at night. They will move about until they find safer zones.
Still the visual and aural pleasures of the prairie abound on the Coteau. Look any direction and there are Picasso images painted with 40-foot-wide brushes, the grain heads of the combines, across hundred-acre canvasses. Thousands of sandhill cranes provide daylong choruses of exotic song. Sharptail grouse time cluck-cluck calls to infrequent wing beats as they sail across the stubble fields.
The people of central North Dakota are also a draw. They are, for the most part, so welcoming it's almost embarrassing. My 80-year-old rancher friend, who still scampers up and down the ladder of his massive Steiger tractor like a young man, apologized for the lack of ducks. As if it were his fault.
So on the final morning of my hunt, with my joyful Labrador romping ahead of me into a rose-colored slough, I couldn't think of another place I'd rather be in the fall than on the Coteau Des Prairies. Duck limits or not.