Dakota Ducks And Geese

These two Dakota waterfowlers are keen on their sport. What they know about our ducks and geese just might put extra birds in your bag this fall. (Nov 2006)

When fall rolls around and skies turn dark and stormy, things revert to the old ways on the northern Great Plains, and one of the great events that stir the blood of anyone who loves the outdoors and the hunt takes place: Ducks and geese take to the sky in anticipation of the approach of winter.

It's always been this way here. And for waterfowl hunters who live in the upper part of the Central Flyway, the rites of autumn take on a magical quality, as the good hunting still remains part of the sporting heritage here. It isn't like this in many other areas of North America anymore. But the Dakotas have so far seen good flights of ducks and geese. Fortunately, in the Dakota prairie, much suitable waterfowl habitat remains. And to the north, the environment in Canada's prairie provinces is still intact enough to produce tremendous numbers of the waterfowl that, with the cold already nipping angrily at their tailfeathers, migrate southward to us.

Herb Dittus has taken part in the annual hunt for years. As North Dakota's state chairman of Ducks Unlimited, he's also been around plenty of waterfowl hunters in what is undoubtedly one of the country's best duck and goose hunting states.

From his home in Beulah, N.D., Dittus hunts the local area, mostly for geese. In a way, it's like the old days, because hunters in the area still befriend landowners and merely have to ask for permission to hunt when the geese come in. When that happens, the hunting can be quite good.

Dittus often hunts near Lake Sakakawea. There, as at many other areas along the Missouri River and its reservoirs, both ducks and geese spend the night on the lake or its edge, and then fly to harvested grain fields during the day where they feed and stay very healthy and fat in anticipation of the frigid weather that is on the way.

"They stay on the lake as long as the water is not frozen," said Dittus. "And at the same time there are a lot on the river. They will stay until January; some stay all winter. We have quite a few wheat fields and barley fields. In the last couple of years, the farmers have been planting peas. That is the hot item. They flock to those fields."

After the fields are harvested, there remains lots of waste grain still on the ground. So the geese comb the fields and pick up enough grain to have a good food supply during their stay.

"The geese walk around and pick up the stuff that went through the machine," said Dittus. "Right now I would be looking for a pea field; that would be No. 1. A barley field -- that would be my second choice."

Dittus uses binoculars to locate the birds, but there are other ways unique to small town life. He talks with people -- farmers and folks who drive the roads -- and the goose grapevine saves a lot of time in locating the birds he likes to hunt. Although public hunting land can be found near Sakakawea, much of the hunting that Dittus likes is on the private land where the birds feed.

"The next step, that night, I get permission. And if I get it, next morning we set up decoys and wait for them to come in. We use about 50 of them; I have about 50 full-bodies, and then I use shells around the outside of those -- about six dozen of those. So I am using quite a few decoys. It takes me about an hour (to put out a spread) if I am by myself."

To do that, Dittus gets out before daylight. He wants to be in good position with his decoys spread out by the time the birds start flying.

"Later in the season, like in December, it doesn't matter if you are out there at daylight," he said. "They sit tight for a while. But early in the season, I go out earlier."

A lot of the bird-hunting interest seems to center on pheasants. And farmers are even eager to have hunters come on their land to kick up the waterfowl that eat their feed.

"I am a resident around here, so I know most of the farmers and don't have too much of a problem," said Dittus. "It is fairly good getting permission."

Residents have a built-in advantage because they should have a good network of contacts already established. That's important, of course, whenever a hunter is seeking permission to hunt on private property.

"There is really not much public hunting nearby," said Dittus. "We do have quite a bit of public land right next to the lake, but that has no cultivated fields on it. It is just tall grass that doesn't draw geese into it. We have some people who jump-shoot them as they come off the lake. They set in that tall grass. It is fairly good.

"I have lived in this town for, like, 30 years. We have always had geese. We need to have bad weather up north before they really migrate through. Last year was too nice; I had some DU people from New York come out and hunt with me."

The hunting was tough early in the season, before the bigger flocks came down from Canada. "There weren't that many geese around," said Dittus, "and those that were, were spooky. But when Thanksgiving rolled around, it was fabulous."

Early in the season, North Dakota goose hunters go after the local geese that live within the state all year. They are well established, and now make up an important part of the population of birds that are hunted by Dakota sportsmen.

"We have the resident geese early on," said Dittus. "Last year, the migration didn't really start until Thanksgiving. Then we just had thousands of them. They will stay until past the goose season. They will even stay all year; it depends on the snow. Once the fields get covered they will head out. It takes quite a bit of snow for them to leave. They are mostly Canada geese.

"We are seeing a few more snows (snow geese) every year, it seems. They will stay for a few days, and then are gone. They don't hang around like the Canadas."

The type of goose hunting Dittus likes is more in the way of open-field hunting, farther from the water. There are also hunters who pursue birds right on Sakakawea itself, or on the shoreline. It's a big lake, with sometimes nasty weather in the fall. Hunters who go out on it this time of year have to be very well prepared, or they may not come back.

"It's something that is popular with some people," said Dittus, but apparently he's not one of them. "On Lake Sakakawea there are a lot of geese that stay there until the water freezes. People take boats and decoys and sit out on sandbars and islands. I haven't done that because y

ou have to fight tough waves and stuff to get to it. They do that for both geese and ducks."

The hunting on and along the big lake can be wild and secluded. Most of it can't even be reached by vehicle, so hunters use boats to get into the best position.

"On Sakakawea they set up on the points around the shoreline and try to hide in the weeds," said Dittus. "If there are none, they put up camouflage blinds. They hide the boat away a bit, and they sit on the shorelines."

It is a hunt that's best undertaken later in the day. Sakakawea hunters often wait for the geese to leave the lake to feed in the outlying areas. Then they move in and get their setup ready, and wait for the geese to return to the water.

"They set up decoys and wait for them to come back," said Dittus. "They do it very successfully. I just don't like to venture out there when it is rough. You need a boat. Most of the property along the lake is Corps of Engineers land. And they have really restricted the travel on that property."

Although North Dakota is always a big producer of local ducks, Dittus says that not that many ducks from Canada seem to be showing up. In the past few years, he says, they have stayed north longer, and then when cold weather drives them south, they tend to fly right on through.

"We just don't have a lot of ducks showing up," he said. "They will be there in big flocks for a while, and then the next day they will be gone."

In South Dakota, Don Kallenberger likes to go to the sloughs and go after ducks near his home town of Eureka. Kallenberger is the state chairman-elect of Ducks Unlimited. He has seen a lot of hunters and a lot of hunts over the past 15 years.

The hunting in the less populated part of South Dakota is good, as it is in many of the East River areas where sloughs abound and local ducks raise ducklings throughout the summer. By fall, they're flying around in very good numbers. Kallenberger likes to go after them as they move about to forage.

"We hunt as they come out to feed in cornfields and grain fields after they have been harvested," he said.

The hunting is a throwback to another era. You can still go out and not be near another human being. In fact, Kallenberger says sometimes it would help if there were a few more hunters roaming about. That would push the birds more.

"There aren't tremendous numbers of hunters," he said. "It makes it a little harder to hunt sloughs that way because the birds aren't moving that much."

The ease of a quick hunt has tapered off a bit over the past several years, says Kallenberger. Some of the good habitat is now drying up after the prairie wet cycle peaked a few years ago.

"Hunting was really good a few years ago when we had a lot of moisture," he said. "The last few years we have had low snowfall and not a lot of rain. Combined with the fact that the weather has been so good in North Dakota, they bypass us.

"We have good numbers of local birds to hunt. There is a lot of nesting success here because we have a lot of native grass and CRP, which is really good for them."

Kallenberger mostly goes after mallards. They are the most populous species, and they remain very popular with hunters. But there are also teal and some scaup in the South Dakota sloughs.

"Pintail numbers aren't quite as great, and they want to get them boosted up," said Kallenberger. "It's mostly mallards, but some teal are still around."

As in North Dakota, the mallard is the mainstay for hunters, and it determines the overall health of the duck population in many instances. The hunting tends to last through much or all of the season, if the weather permits.

"Mallards, stay as long as any," said Kallenberger. "A lot of geese don't go that far. They go to Pierre and stay there for the winter.

"The river is open, and there is water at the capital lake. Especially for the last few years of open winters, there was so much feed available for the ducks. If there is open water, there is no reason for them to go too far."

He scouts the area to find birds before the hunt, searching both water and land. "We watch where they are feeding, and where they are going to," he said. "You generally try to get a little information from somebody -- farmers, people who work for the county highway department and have been driving.

"We head out early to get out before dawn. When we go, we're out for both ducks and geese. We want to be out there 45 minutes or more before sunup."

Kallenberger uses decoys a lot. The number he puts out varies from as few as half a dozen to 50 or 60. "If we use goose decoys we might have 100 or more," he said. "A lot of them are big shells."

He typically hides from incoming birds by using grass mats or some other type of camouflage blind.

"We just recently purchased one of those bale blinds," he said. "We haven't used that yet, but we hope to. You can get two or three people in the bale blind. Decoys are usually 30 yards away. Then start calling."

Some use boats, especially non-residents, says Kallenberger. They use a boat to travel to good spots, and then they get out and set up decoys.

"Most locals hunt shores or fields," he said. "Now that we have such low water, you are so far from the reed cover that was at shore side, it will make that harder to use a boat. Guys from (out of state) will bring boats to get there, and then use waders to situate themselves. But that will be harder with water levels down."

Lots of people use retrievers, especially the hunters who are near water.

Overall, there is much more demand for waterfowl hunting than there are licenses available for non-residents, says Kallenberger. The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Commission limits the number of licenses for non-residents.

"There are a lot of them that would like to hunt here," said Kallenberger. "We have such a low number of available licenses. There is way more demand than there are licenses.

The geese are pursued very actively, and their numbers have been more stable than ducks. The majority of the migratory geese have been Canadas, and now there is an excellent population of the local giant Canada geese. Kallenberger says that at least part of the credit for those flocks should go to local sportsmen's clubs.

"The local sportsman's club got some in," he said. "They started a population here. They started coming back, and we easily have 3,000 to 5,000 that come to nest here. They spend all their time here. You go to the lake right in town here (during summer) an

d find clutches of 12, 15, 20. You might see 200 to 300 goslings on any given day. We have three lakes connected in town here."

Kallenberger points out the ban on hunting in town. The geese are pretty wise to it, and they stick around.

There is quite a bit of public land to hunt these birds on in the prime waterfowl areas in eastern South Dakota. Federal waterfowl management areas provide hunting, as well as state land controlled by the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. Even getting permission to hunt on private land isn't hard, at least compared to the more competitive pheasant hunting situation in the Dakotas.

"It's much more difficult with pheasants," said Kallenberger. "It's not too difficult with waterfowl to get permission. There is not too much pressure, and there is a fair amount of public land. Some Game, Fish and Parks land, some federal refuge land. With farmers, once you get good numbers of waterfowl they can decimate wind rows (of grain crops)."

So waterfowl hunters in both Dakotas can, in a way, restore an earlier time when hunting could be had merely for the asking. And without paying, even on private property.

It's a mix of public and private land that creates a high-quality hunt with populations of ducks and geese that remain relatively good in the Central Flyway. And it's part of the northern Great Plains waterfowl hunt.

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