by Ron Wilson
We’re hiking public land, kicking deer droppings with the toes of our boots, ducking under low-hanging limbs and parting thick brush in our path with the breast stroke motion of a swimmer.
It’s April 13 and my youngest, Jack, and I should be fishing, casting from shore, watching bobbers bob on choppy water or kicking around in float tubes in pursuit of whatever is biting. But we’re not because the myriad of small and large lakes within driving distance of home are covered in ice, with little sign of going to slush.
Hope for the open water fishing season was seen in a couple of small wetlands we passed at 65 miles per hour on our drive out here. Just seeing open water, holding giant Canada geese that looked too big for their surroundings, provides some optimism. Then again, the National Weather Service in Bismarck is calling for a snowstorm on Sunday, the biggest by far of the season, which will further delay things.
(Note: The weather folks, as we know, nailed it. Bismarck received more than 17 inches of snow on April 14, and higher snow totals were reported elsewhere.)
We tell ourselves that we’re doing more than just wandering around public land kicking deer droppings. We’re hunting for sheds, antlers dropped by whitetail bucks weeks ago when temperatures were much cooler and spring was too far out to begin fantasizing about.
We’ve picked up sheds over the years, but all were found by accident, stumbled upon while doing something else. The last was in late September while hunting sharp-tailed grouse in Burleigh County. We were looking for a downed bird, eyes trained to the ground, when the antler, deposited in the grass months ago by a young buck, appeared. Not long after, we found the bird, too.
But this day, finding a shed seems like a needle in a haystack venture, maybe because we are not that committed to it and easily distracted. My 9-year-old shed hunting partner, who has a thing for facts about U.S. presidents and asked me on the drive out here if I knew that “Woodrow Wilson was ‘deaf’ in one eye,” is alternately looking for birds through binoculars and turning over rocks to see what’s under them.
We flush two pheasants, a hen and a rooster, and despite a lot of sign, we’ve spotted the same number of live deer as sheds – zero.
No matter, it’s a decent day for a hike and we continue down a game trail on a sidehill just to see what we can see. The wild turkeys spot us first and are on the move, heading quickly east. From 200 yards, we guess the lead bird as a hen as three smaller birds, her young ones, quickly follow along as if they’re being towed by a string.
Like most people, I can identify the most conspicuous birds, turkeys being one of them. But on the whole, I’m an average birder at best, and spend some time looking in field guides to discern one species from the next.
When it comes to prairie wildflowers, I draw the line of familiarity at, say, the ball cactus and prairie crocus. It’s the latter, an early blooming harbinger of spring that opens its flower during the day and closes at night, that I’m keeping an eye out for, but not having any luck finding.
Yet, this doesn’t surprise me, considering there have been few signs weatherwise for days now announcing the changing of seasons.
A Look Back
by Ron Wilson
A concentration of anglers camping at a small North Dakota lake in spring is one of those things you don’t often see nowadays.
The reason? Twenty years ago, North Dakota opened its waters to year-round fishing, which essentially spread out early fishing pressure over several weeks. Gone, for the most part on many state waters, are the days of having to share prime shore-fishing real estate with a bunch of other anglers.
Dating back at least into the early 1930s, fishing season for game fish on most state waters was closed for several weeks between mid-March and early May.
This photo was taken in 1972 on opening day at Camels Hump Dam in Golden Valley County. At the time, Camels Hump was one of the state’s newest trout waters. The lake was first stocked with rainbows in 1969 and opened to fishing in 1971.
By 1973, however, Game and Fish Department fisheries managers found yellow perch in their nets, blaming how they got there on misguided “cream can” stockers. The lake was chemically treated in 1975 and eradicated of unwanted fish species and reopened in 1977.
In 1972, the state record mark for yellow perch was tied twice and broken twice, settling it at just over 2 pounds, 4 ounces for a fish taken from Coldwater Lake. The largest Whopper walleye, taken that year from Lake Tschida, weighed 13 pounds, 9 ounces, and the largest Whopper northern pike, a 29-pound fish, was taken from Lake Sakakawea.
The fishing outlook, reported in North Dakota OUTDOORS, for 1972 included: “People continually ask us how the fishing is going to be. They are naturally interested in what to expect when the season opens and expect us to know. We can make some predictions, tell where we believe we had winterkill, but really cannot give a lot of help … Then when we do brag about what to expect in an area, the weatherman and uncooperative fish foul us up. However, we do what we can to make your fishing successful …”
That, no matter the year, hasn’t changed much.