We wanted migrating waterfowl in North Dakota; El Nino didn’t

ring-necked duck
Ring-Necked duck. (By CheepShot [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

DEVILS LAKE, North Dakota — El Nino must of gotten up on the wrong side of bed because the strong-winded weather changer has wrought havoc on the traditional temperature and winds one expects to find. This time of year in North Dakota ought to be chilled to the edge of freezing and northern winds ought to be challenging, but do-able for a couple duck hunting fans who have driven a far piece to enjoy a few days of Devils Lake waterfowl action.

We took what has become an annual visit in hopes of finding the expansive lake filled with diver ducks, our favorite fast-flying, birds. Indeed this road trip is a highly anticipated event as dropping Canadian temperatures should be filling the air with migrating waterfowl, flocks and more flocks that always find Devils Lake a fine resting spot before pushing further south.

Who would have thought El Nino would change the minds of ducks and geese that lounged in the far north well into what normally would be the foul beginnings of just another bone-chilling winter. But the high altitude jet steams did just that and the reports from duck hunters about a missing migration fights were and continue to be disappointing.

But one doesn’t drive half way to an oil change just to turn around. No way.

And even with unseasonable temperatures, morning fog as thick as a slurry of mud, and just a smattering of waterfowl, we found enough divers to make a good trip out of what could have been far less.

Like most waterways and reservoirs in the Midwest, Devils Lake took a hit this summer from the high temperatures and lack of rain that have ravished the West. Given the fact that Devils Lake is a natural lake that has swollen unchecked for decades, flooding over land, buildings, and woodlots, there is always a need for caution by boaters. Stumps, structures, and all sorts of partially submerged objects can eat a prop or bang a hull in an instant.

Our favorites

Diver ducks, as a group, attract our attention over all others. Blue bills are among the most numerous, with ring necks, red heads, buffleheads, filling out the menu.

Even with the Dakota migrations stalled, we found the numbers to be good enough for a few enjoyable morning hunts. We use a one-person layout boat, called a pumpkin seed, so that we can hunt well away from shorelines where divers are more apt to approach at their normal sub-sonic speeds.12.03 tontimonia

The game is simple enough. The pumpkin seed is hauled across the gunnels of a deep V aluminum boat that also hold a few dozen decoys. The deep V, camouflaged boat serves as a “tender” after launching the layout boat and stringing the decoys.

Divers tend to fly upwind over or close to the long string of decoys, at time swooping low enough to nearly touch them before swinging away and into the wind.

The skill of shooting from a bobbing layout boat can be a challenge and requires more instinct than thought. A bull blue bill diver can reach speeds of near 60 mph and a passing flock of 10 or more produces a very noisy rush of air.

There’s no reliable way to call a diver and the only way to attract them is to show them a line of decoys to check out. The North Dakota daily limit is six ducks and just three of the six can be blue bills, so a learned ID of approaching ducks is required so not to exceed the limit.

About the region

Devils Lake is the largest of all North Dakota’s natural lakes. It’s big, real big. It’s also a lake of a very limited access with just a handful of launch ramps. And it is a lake renowned for its excellent waterfowl hunting, a fact that is hardly arguable.

But then there is this El Nino things and the 50+ winds that shook loose our determination to get one more day of shooting in.

A wind that chased us home through Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana, and finally Ohio to the tune if the highest gas mileage imaginable while towing a loaded boat.


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Mike Tontimonia has been writing weekly columns and magazine features about the outdoors for over 25 years, a career that continues to hold the same excitement for him as it did at the beginning. Mike is a retired educator, a licensed auctioneer and marketing consultant. He lives in Ravenna, Ohio and enjoys spending time at his Carroll County cabin. Mike has hunted and fished in several states and Canada from the Carolinas to Alaska and from Idaho to Delaware. His readers have often commented that the stories about his adventures are about as close to being there as possible. He is past president of the Outdoor Writers of Ohio and a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. Mike is also very involved in his community as a school board member and a Rotarian.



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