There is a place where hunters are welcome, where men in camouflage clothing and orange hats aren’t scrutinized, where the coffee pot is always on and passing cars merit a friendly wave. It is in this Oz-like land, where the most wondrous of events take places Wildlife is plentiful, the land and sky are spectacular and the people are friendly and accommodating. No, you haven’t died and gone to hunting heaven; you’ve arrived in North Dakota. Welcome.
I first viewed the prairies of North Dakota as a boy of ten, rolling toward the Badlands in an old Buick with mother and grandmother at the helm and a pile of kids in the back. The women had lived in North Dakota, and they knew what to expect out of the long roads and low skies, but I was fascinated by the newness of the tall grass prairie, sweeping vistas and meadow lark songs. We saw sharp-tailed grouse standing on the shoulders of the long highway, and once we even struck several of the “prairie chickens,” as seven or eight of the birds made a headlong dash in front of the speeding Buick. Chicken soup.
I was to cross the vast prairie many more times by train and car, but it wasn’t until much later that I realized what made North Dakota such a special hunting ground.
I started bowhunting North Dakota steadily six years ago, and I have made an annual pilgrimage to the state every year. I continue to be drawn by the large deer, incredible landscapes and friendly people. It’s no surprise the deer are big here; the current world record whitetail, shot in Saskatchewan by Milo Hanson, is the same subspecies, 0. V. dacotensis, or Dakota whitetail. These large-antlered, light-colored deer of the prairie breaks, wooded river bottoms, cuts, draws and coulees inhabit most of the central Great Plains from Alberta and Manitoba down through Kansas.
A lot of people ask me where the whitetail hunting is best in North Dakota. That’s a tough question to answer. When you hit the prairie, you realize just how adaptable whitetails really are. I’ve seen them in the open country near Jamestown and Bismarck following the tiniest windrows, where they use low, open knobs for bedding the way a mule deer might use the point of a mountain finger to safely survey its domain. The hunting surely is good there, especially late in the year.
On the other hand, in the wetlands of some of North Dakota’s wildlife refuges, like the J. Clark Salyer, whitetails use cattails, willows and alders the way a rabbit uses a brush pile. These areas hide super bucks. Then again, up in the Turtle Mountains, in the north-central part of the state, the deer use the aspen forest and alfalfa-field openings like they might in Wisconsin, and the numbers are just as high.
In the 50 miles of foothills north and east of Bottineau, whitetails cross from bald knob to bald knob down twisted oak draws on their way to prairie feeding grounds. The does carry three fawns commonly in these parts, so that should tell you something about the health of the herd. Out west near Williston and down through the creeks and river of this Badlands country, you 11 find whitetails living like canyon land mulies, and the bucks are almost as big. And there are mule deer in this western portion of the state as well. Buying an “any deer” license will ensure you’ve got a tag for a mulie, if that’s your desire.
Finding deer in these areas may be as easy as locating a prime food source. One thing all North Dakota whitetails have in common is their dependency on crops. Whether it be alfalfa, small grains or oakmast, whitetails will travel significant distances to reach a favored food. No matter what type of Dakota habitat you choose to hunt them in, keep your eyes on the food and you’ll find the deer.
If you see a good bowhunting spot in North Dakota, don’t be afraid to ask to hunt. North Dakotans have a different land and wildlife ethic than you may be used to, something more akin to what rural America had earlier in this century when wildlife was considered a public resource, not a private one. Plus, North Dakota landowners know there’s plenty of deer, ducks and geese to go around. Just try not to act shocked when the person you ask says and be sure and let him know how much you appreciate him.