The morning chill was every bit the 17 degrees promised by my digital truck thermometer, if not less. Almost immediately upon removing the Remington 870 pump shotgun from its case, lacy veins of frost enveloped the matte-finished barrel.
There was no snow on the ground, but a slight breeze out of the west carried the unmistakable metallic tang of a fast-approaching winter. Sunrise lit up the trailing edge of retreating clouds to the east with shades of fiery oranges, reds and pink.
Brown grass and dried cattail stalks crunched underneath as the three of us - uncle, Paul Drechsel, good friend, Andrew Thill, and myself - struck out for a day of pheasant hunting in southeastern North Dakota.
Aside from the early cold that rosied cheeks and numbed extremities, the weather was beyond ideal. The mercury tickled 40 degrees by late noon, and the constant breeze made scenting conditions perfect for the pair of German wirehaired pointers working the cover in front of us.
The only think keeping it from being a truly perfect day was the most integral piece of the puzzle: birds. Put quite simply, there weren't many of them.
It was not much of a surprise, really. The North Dakota Game and Fish department had warned of poor pheasant numbers earlier in the year. Harsh winters and wet springs do not correlate to happy conditions for nesting hens and their susceptible broods of fragile fuzz balls.
But we weren't skunked, either. After several miles on the hoof and more than one brush-busting tromp through acres of intertwined cattail stalks, we had two fat, mature roosters in the bag.
With aching soles and sore backs, we loaded up the truck and made ready for home. Even the year-and-a-half old dogs were ready to go, and quickly tucked in for a nap on the floor of the cab.
"Sorry we didn't see more birds," I said. "I really thought that first spot was going to be the ticket."
"You should be sorry," Paul said, sarcastically. "In fact, it's all your fault we only shot two birds."
He was kidding, of course, and I knew that, but sometimes tough hunting is equally tough to swallow.
As we traveled the lonesome North Dakota highways back to civilization, it occurred to me that maybe it really wasn't all that bad of a day. I'd spent a day in wide-open country, smelling that fresh country air alongside good company, and especially good dogs.
That got me thinking that, even though there seems to be a lot to gripe about in today's outdoor world, we still have a heck of a lot to be thankful for in, both North Dakota and the United States. For instance:
The grumbles among hunters typically begin sometimes in September and crescendos around deer hunting: "There's too much posted land," or "there's no place to hunt anymore."
Hogwash, I say.
Both phrases, while maybe based on personal experience, are nothing more than tongue in cheek. Yes, land gets posted up during the year. The frequency picks up the closer we get to deer opener. Fact is: landowners like to have a place to hunt. If I had land of my own, you can bet it would be posted around deer season, too.
Besides, just because it's posted, doesn't mean you can't ask permission. I think many hunters are just too darn lazy to bang on a door these days.
Granted, leased properties, guides and outfitters have locked up quite a bit of choice property. But hunters who learn to adapt and expand outside their range of comfort can be rewarded.
As for there being no place to hunt, that's just not true. While CRP and PLOTS lands are disappearing at a fast clip, North Dakota abounds with acres upon acres open to outdoors pursuits.
Compared to other states (a large southern one boasting a panhandle, in particular) there may be as much if not more public land open to hunters in North Dakota than most of the continental U.S.
What I'm trying to say is, if you can't find a place to hunt, you're really not looking very hard.
A taste for every season
If you are a modern sportsperson, such as myself, it's tough to find a time of year when there isn't something to pursue outdoors. Especially now that the early goose season begins in August, a hunter can, theoretically, chase some form of critter for six straight months.
And heck, varmints such as coyotes are open all year long, so for the true diehards, there is never not a time to don camo and send lead downrange. Even the conservation snow goose hunt in April gives bird hunters a chance to break out the scatterguns for a spring reprieve.
It all adds up.
Besides hunting, the lakes and streams in North Dakota boast some of the best fishing opportunities around. While our neighbors to the east may lay claim to more than 10,000 lakes, I'd take North Dakota's quality of Minnesota's quantity any day.
The Second Amendment
Thanks to our Founding Fathers, we hunters and shooting enthusiasts are blessed with the Second Amendment, virtually assuring our right to keep all sorts of firearms for protection, sport and hunting.
Although there are plenty of entities out there attempting to threaten that right on a daily basis, there are just as many organizations fighting to keep it just the way it is.
Gun laws may come and go, but until seedy lawmakers find a way to rewrite the constitution, responsible gun owners should be able to express their right to bear arms for generations to come.
Strike up a conversation with an old timer, and you're bound to get an ear's worth about "the good old days." Back when ducks were so thick, they blackened the sky. When pheasants were so numerous, bagging a limit took no more effort than walking the tree row behind the house. Back then, catching limits of fat walleyes or monster northern pike occurred with the most rudimentary of equipment and the most basic of skills: hook, line and sinker.
Granted, there are aspects of the past that I would love to relive. To see a herd of buffalo, one million strong, thunder across an unbroken plain of native grass and brush would be the thrill of a lifetime. A successful career could be made from spending a fall and winter running trap lines for a myriad of furred quarry.
Yes, that would be just fine.
But we have it pretty darn good today, too. After a few lean years, ducks once again filled ponds and sloughs across the Dakotas. At the brink of extinction at one point, the Canada goose has made a resurgence in a big way; even to the extent of being a nuisance in certain areas. And fishing may require a bit more tenacity and technological prowess than it used to - well it probably doesn't, but we savvy folk like to believe it does - but places like Devils Lake and Lake Oahe have never held a greater bounty than right now.
Are there things that need to change? Absolutely, especially with the impact of millions of acres of native grasslands and CRP plowed under in the name of progress. But as the economy rebounds and money once again lines coffers, we may be able to right a ship teetering on its keel.
Until then, enjoy the bounty that we have. Besides, the last time I checked, a bird has yet to be shot or a fish caught from behind a desk.
That reminds me, I kind of feel like I have a cold coming on. Might be time to use up a little PTO for a much-needed mental vacation - somewhere far away from West Fargo and deep into the belly of North Dakota's outdoors.