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Shoulder Season

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Women pulling sleds with fishing gear out on ice to go fishing

While the first day of spring was March 20, North Dakotans know all too well the arrival of that welcome marker doesn’t mean it’s time to stow the snow shovels or warm coats.

We’re likely all a little weary about believing that above-freezing temps are here to stay. We’re not planting gardens and it’s too early to think about dumping The Pounder in a favored pothole to chase open water fish. We’re in a shoulder season. One that finds me in a bit of a slump each year when it rolls around.

Sure, there are sheds to be found now that the snow has melted and deer have survived through the worst part of winter, and there’s some waning ice fishing opportunities (although, to be honest, I’ve had my fill by now of standing on the ice all day and staring at a hole), and the river is mostly open if you’re a die-hard (and your boat is a little more trustworthy than The Pounder), but there’s nothing really pulling me in this time of year.

But maybe that’s okay.

The lack of inspiration to drive here, there, everywhere in pursuit of whatever is in season has freed up some time these last few weekends to slow down, reorganize gear and plan for a busy spring and summer. Plus, it’s brought me happiness in other forms.

Kid scooping slush out of ice fishing hole

On one of the last days of winter, and really one of the last days of safe ice, I had the opportunity to take two new ice anglers, a mom and her son, out fishing for pike. We drug our sleds loaded with gear across the ice as the full moon set behind the ancient Missouri River bluffs. Mom and I tag-teamed drilling holes, her son scooping the slush out. I explained how the tip-ups worked, the bait we’d use and how to fight a fish when one finally bit.

Eventually, we kicked back and waited for flags.

While the wind was chilly, the sun was intense, and you could hear the ice melting. It wouldn’t be long before it was gone.

Kid holding pike he caught ice fishing


We ran at the small orange flag, and I reminded the young angler to set the hook. I helped him manage line as the fish went on runs each time it approached the hole. Finally, it emerged, we removed hooks and I handed the pike to him.

I knew then that, yeah, I’m going to miss this.

On the last day of winter, we joined friends and their kids for a little “shed hunting,” really a glorified hike. The kids splashed in puddles, we picked up skulls, bird nests and bones to entertain them and they demolished fruit snacks and granola bars because “they’re just soooo hungry.” When the hiking lost its allure, we headed back to town for pizza.

Child looking at animal skull

We hung out in the driveway for the remainder of the evening, the kids rode bikes and blew bubbles. Neighbors down the way wore sandals and were having a fire in the driveway, and many people walked by with dogs on leashes leading the way.

We were all simply shedding our winter blues and grateful to be outside (without our eyelashes freezing) once again.

And on the first official day of spring, we thawed and brined northerns speared earlier in the season to be made into pickled pike. A jar or two will no doubt be packed in a cooler for a tailgate lunch during turkey hunting. Meanwhile, the patio door to the deck was open and the grill was heating up for its inaugural use to sear venison burgers.

It may be a shoulder season and we may have snow in the forecast tomorrow, but North Dakotans will welcome spring for better or worse and always find a way to embrace the outdoors somehow.

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