GRAND FORKS -- Whether talking about duck numbers or wetland conditions, the upcoming waterfowl season in the Devils Lake region is looking “kind of average.”

But in the Lake Region, “kind of average” is still pretty darn good.

North Dakota’s waterfowl season opens Saturday, Sept. 26, for resident hunters and Saturday, Oct. 3, for nonresidents. Minnesota’s waterfowl season also opens Saturday, Sept. 26.

“As far as the puddle ducks go, there was nothing special with pintail production, but mallard production was pretty good,” said Mark Fisher, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Devils Lake. “And generally speaking, I think waterfowl production was good in this area. Let’s just say that it’s kind of an average year; you can find birds around.

“Wetland conditions, of course, drive everything, and it was a normal to above average year as far as water goes.”

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The COVID-19 pandemic prompted many natural resource agencies across the country to cancel traditional spring survey work, but the North Dakota Game and Fish Department was able to go ahead with its annual spring breeding duck survey and its midsummer duck production survey.

This year’s spring survey, the 73rd annual, tallied a duck index of nearly 4 million birds, up 18% from 3.4 million during the 2019 survey, the department reported. The spring’s wetland index was the sixth highest on record, and the breeding duck index was the 13th highest; both were highs since 2014, the department said.

Results from the department’s mid-July duck production survey also were favorable, and Game and Fish last month said it expects the state’s fall duck flight to be up 9% from last year.

This year’s duck brood index was comparable to last year’s estimate and showed 4.5 broods per square mile, 52% above the long-term average since 1965. Average brood size also was similar, at 6.8 ducklings per brood.

The state’s water index was up 11% from last year and 49% above the long-term average, the department said. Game and Fish also conducts a mid-September survey to assess wetland conditions going into waterfowl season.

No North American survey

Among the pandemic’s biggest wildlife survey casualties was the annual spring North American Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey. For the only time since launching the survey in 1955, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Canadian Wildlife Service didn’t fly the survey because of COVID-19, and the Devils Lake FWS didn’t conduct its annual four-square-mile waterfowl count, either, Fisher said.

Mark Fisher, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Devils Lake. (File photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)
Mark Fisher, wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Devils Lake. (File photo/ Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald)

The North American survey in 2019 tallied an estimate of 38.9 million breeding ducks, 10% above long-term averages. Anecdotally, there’s plenty of cause for optimism, Fisher said.

“We started off in the spring with good conditions,” Fisher said of the Lake Region. “There was a lot of water, a lot of little small potholes, and birds came in real nice. I didn’t get out and do a lot of surveys like I normally do, but I do remember when I did get out, I was seeing a lot of broods and not necessarily mallards, but a lot of other ducks, a lot of gadwall.”

While not necessarily prized among waterfowl hunters, ruddy ducks appeared to have a record year of production in the Lake Region, Fisher said.

“It doesn't do much for duck hunters, it’s just kind of a neat factoid,” he said. “I’ve never seen the number of ruddy duck broods I saw this year. People don’t shoot ruddy ducks – at least no self-respecting duck hunter does.”

Ruddy ducks aren't necessarily prized by most duck hunters, but broods seemed to be especially abundant this summer in the Devils Lake region, biologists say. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Ruddy ducks aren't necessarily prized by most duck hunters, but broods seemed to be especially abundant this summer in the Devils Lake region, biologists say. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Ahead of schedule

Rainfall in the Lake Region has been sparse in recent weeks, and conditions are trending toward average, Fisher said. Large wetlands have water but smaller wetlands are dry. On the upside, harvest of small grains crops such as wheat and barley is ahead of schedule.

That bodes well for hunters who favor field hunting for species such as mallards, pintails and Canada geese, the latter of which also are abundant across the region, Fisher said.

“I don't think anybody wasted much time this year as far as getting everything off,” Fisher said. “It’s kind of rare now to see a standing wheat field. If it’s standing today, it’s going to be gone tomorrow.

“If a guy goes out and spends time looking, and if you like to hunt the fields, you should be able to find plenty of locations where birds are feeding in fields.”

Nonresident influx?

There’s been speculation that the ongoing closure of the U.S.-Canada border to nonessential travel will mean more nonresident hunters who traditionally hunt in Manitoba or Saskatchewan instead will hunt in North Dakota.

If that happens, Fisher said, the resulting increase in hunting pressure could drive birds away from accessible locations to spots that are harder to reach.

“It doesn’t take much,” he said. “When there’s a lot of hunting and when the nonresident numbers go up, birds have a tendency just to kind of disappear, and there are a lot of empty wetlands.

“I’ve seen it many years where prior to the season, you drive in areas where there’s a lot of wetlands and you see a lot of birds, and after the resident season opens, and then the nonresident season opens, birds just kind of disappear.”

That could be the case this year, Fisher said.

“It’s going to be tough,” he said. “Guys are going to have to scout and really put some miles on.”

Given that scenario, the earliest part of the season could offer the best hunting prospects, Fisher said. That’s especially true for nonresidents.

“Two or three weeks into the season, hunter numbers get higher and higher, and oftentimes, that’s when the birds start disappearing,” Fisher said. “It seems like hunters who are around here in the first and second weeks of the season probably do better, on average.”

For more information on the coming waterfowl season, check out the North Dakota Game and Fish Department website at gf.nd.gov.

Favorable wetland conditions contributed to another strong year of duck production in North Dakota, the Game and Fish reported in its annual mid-July production survey. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
Favorable wetland conditions contributed to another strong year of duck production in North Dakota, the Game and Fish reported in its annual mid-July production survey. (Photo/ North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

North Dakota duck hunting units. (North Dakota Game and Fish Department)
North Dakota duck hunting units. (North Dakota Game and Fish Department)

Rules of the hunt

Here’s a look at waterfowl hunting regulations in North Dakota:

  • Hunters may take six ducks per day with the following restrictions: five mallards of which two may be hens, three wood ducks, two redheads, two canvasbacks, one scaup and one pintail. Hunters can take two additional blue-winged teal from Sept. 26 through Oct. 11. The daily limit of five mergansers may include no more than two hooded mergansers. For ducks and mergansers, the possession limit is three times the daily limit.

  • The hunting season for Canada geese will close Sunday, Dec. 19, in the Eastern Zone; Thursday, Dec. 24, in the Western Zone; and Friday, Jan. 1 in the Missouri River zone. The season for whitefronts closes Sunday, Dec. 6, while the season on light geese is open through Jan. 1.

  • Shooting hours for all geese are one-half hour before sunrise to 1 p.m. each day through Saturday, Oct. 31. Beginning Sunday, Nov. 1, shooting hours are extended until 2 p.m. each day.

  • Extended shooting hours for all geese are permitted from one-half hour before sunrise to sunset on Saturdays and Wednesdays through Nov. 28, and on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays from Nov. 29 through the end of each season.

  • The bag limit for Canada geese during the regular season is eight daily and 24 in possession, except in the Missouri River zone, where the limit is five daily and 15 in possession.

  • The daily limit on whitefronts is three with nine in possession, and the light geese limit is 50 daily with no possession limit.

  • In accordance with state law, nonresidents are not allowed to hunt on North Dakota Game and Fish Department wildlife management areas or conservation PLOTS (Private Land Open To Sportsmen) areas from Oct. 10-16.

  • Hunters must be certified through the federal Harvest Information Program before going afield. That can be done when buying a license or adding later on the Game and Fish website at gf.nd.gov or by calling (888) 634-4798 and recording the HIP number on their printed license. Those who registered to hunt North Dakota’s spring light goose season, the August management take or the early September Canada goose season do not have to register with HIP again, as it is required in each state only once per year.

  • Hunters should refer to the North Dakota 2020-21 Hunting and Trapping Guide for further details on the waterfowl season.