One of the unofficial duties of the state Game and Fish Department's wildlife division chief is to set the stage for the fall seasons ahead in the annual hunting preview in North Dakota Outdoors magazine. That task currently falls to Jeb Williams, a Beach, N.D., native and a graduate of Dickinson State University. He's spent more than 20 years working in different roles with the Game and Fish Department and took over as wildlife chief during the summer of 2014.
September may seem like a month to focus on early upland game seasons like grouse and partridge, but we actually have three weekends in a row with waterfowl openers of one type or another lining up in the near future. North Dakota's youth waterfowl weekend is Sept. 14-15, the resident waterfowl opener is Saturday, Sept. 22, followed by the nonresident or regular waterfowl season starting Sept. 29.
The North Dakota legislature established the general game license in 1967, and ever since then deer hunters have needed one, in addition to a deer tag, before they could legally hunt deer with rifle or bow. Eventually, the general game license was combined with the habitat stamp, so today it's called the general game and habitat license, and you need one to hunt any game species, except furbearers, in North Dakota unless you are a landowner hunting only on your own land.
Whether it's early September archery deer hunting, dove hunting, or late season pheasant hunting, North Dakota's 220,000 acres of state wildlife management areas are open to all hunters and there is no preference or priority given. And yet, the state Game and Fish Department has a number of rules and regulations in place to balance and reduce potential conflicts, which can and do occur when areas attract crowds, or people try to preempt space.
As a kid growing up in North Dakota a few decades ago, I don't really even recall the concept of catch-and-release fishing, let alone the intentional practice. "Eaters" were kept because that's why we were fishing. Today, many anglers still fish because they enjoy eating fish, but catch-and-release, especially of larger fish of just about any species, is common practice. This transition has surprised me a little bit. Most anglers will keep a few fish for eating, and maybe save a fish-of-a-lifetime to send to the taxidermist.
Here at the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, we often talk about how the weather at various stages of the spring and summer influences upland game reproduction for the year. On the flip side, weather can also influence fish production, and this year it looks like weather did indeed play a role in the number of northern pike and walleye Game and Fish biologists were able to stock in many lakes around the state.
Given the fall hunter harvest of pheasants in 2017 was down 24 percent from the previous year, there was really no reason to expect this spring's numbers wouldn't be down in similar fashion. And they were, down 30 percent compared to last year. R.J. Gross, upland game management biologist for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, said the number of roosters heard crowing this spring was down statewide, with decreases ranging from 15 to 38 percent in the primary regions holding pheasants.
There's more than meets the eye when it comes to stocking a new lake for fishing. Just having water doesn't equate to having fish, or being able to sustain or grow a population of fish. When fisheries biologists are asked to "stock this lake," it begins a process. The first step in establishing a new lake is to ensure that the public has access.
A year ago, North Dakota was experiencing a lack of precipitation that created dire conditions for rangeland, grasslands, cattle, crops and wildlife as well. What we didn't know for sure was the direct influence this drought would have on pheasant numbers for the fall hunt, as earlier 2017 spring crowing counts provided some optimism. While unseasonably wet, cool weather is not ideal for growing young pheasant chicks, extended hot, dry weather isn't good either.
Many anglers know that the Red River that borders North Dakota and Minnesota is a nationally recognized fishery for catfish, and it's a certainly a target fishery for some residents and visiting anglers who may travel hundreds of miles to get here. While the Red River may by the catfish capital of North Dakota, the state does have many other waters where catfish can provide a different or new experience for anglers.