Ducks and geese have been luring hunters to Devils Lake for more than a century. Their dreams of skies full of waterfowl will be realized this season.
Spring waterfowl surveys show duck populations up 20 percent, according to Kyle Blanchfield, owner of the oldest operating North Dakota waterfowl guide operation, Northern Flight Guide Service. With 32 years in the marshes and fields, he shared his predictions. “It has been a very strong reproduction (duck hatch) locally,” he said. “Most youngsters are now flying, even though they’re not good pilots yet.”
Since ducks migrate south in fall, Blanchfield keeps in touch with Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Despite no official Canadian surveys this year, he has his ear to the ground, and said with the wet Manitoba spring, his friendly north-of-the-border biologists tell him it has been a good hatch. Likewise in Saskatchewan, the farmers he’s talked with are convinced it’s at least an average hatch – which is good news. “Bottom line, this all adds up to lots of ducks in the sky around Devils Lake for non-resident hunters. Season opens Oct. 3.”
Sandhills and white geese nest in the Arctic. Reports from a few scientists and oil and gas field workers have him optimistic. “My feeling is that snow geese could be decent, especially with numbers at historic highs. But the fun is when the juvenile birds head south. They decoy best.”
Locally, Blanchfield is always scouting. “Right now, there are more blue wing teal around than I’ve ever seen…a ton of them,” he said. “I’ve seen big broods of canvasbacks; more than normal.” The gadwall and ruddy ducks also had a good spring.
He’s especially excited about the mallard and pintail numbers. “This region is famous for raising lots and lots of both species, which we hunt almost exclusively. They feed in harvested corn, barley and wheat fields; that’s where we decoy and shoot,” he said. “It’s ‘in your face action’ with geese and ducks coming into our decoy sets.”
The combination of water, ducks and prairies with the entire basin still very wet makes Devils Lake a mecca for hunters. Blanchfield said in the 1880’s the rich hunters came by train, rented teams of horses, rented rooms and ate with farmers. In the post WWII era, there was a big spurt. “This area has always been a go-to hunting spot. In fact, during the duck season in the 1970’s the Minnesota license plates out-numbered North Dakota plates around here,” he said. These hunting traditions are alive today.
It was about the mid-1980’s that huge crowds of ice fishermen came for yellow perch. The 1990’s added the world-class walleye fishery to the list of reasons to visit Devils Lake. The outdoor sporting life is significant to the region’s economy.
A few wild cards exist with the Canadian border closed. Hunters, mostly from the US, will not be chasing ducks and geese in Canada. There could be more non-resident hunters in North Dakota this season; they usually average usually around 20,000. As a comparison, in 1977, there were between 50,000 and 60,000 non-resident hunters.
“Don’t be scared about more hunting competition,” Blanchfield said. “There are hundreds of areas to set-up.” He suggested that DIY hunters spread further from the immediate area. Research the Federal refuges and state land. There are more National Wildlife Refuges in North Dakota than anywhere else in the country, he noted. “Most have really good hunting.”
Hunters should also check state management areas and PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen). He offered this advice, “Then, of course, ask farmers. There are lots of nice people here.”
He operates from Woodland Resort, which he owns. His guide service is booked for the season, and those interested in guided hunting may make reservations with any of the great guides featured on the Devils Lake Tourism website. His guides escort six groups per day, every day, from the opener to mid-November. As with many established guide services, 70 percent are returning parties.
Many hunters take advantage of the great weather and fish in the afternoons. “Fall fishing is really, really good,” Blanchfield said.