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Nonresidents flock to N.D. for quality of hunt, quantity of ducks

Richard Hinton-Tribune Minnesota hunter Jim Slechta hangs another duck to dry after a cleaning session Sunday in Medina.
By RICHARD HINTON, Bismarck Tribune
Tom Padgett and Doug Howell were among the dozen or so airline passengers participating in an annual ritual of fall Thursday afternoon. The North Carolinians were retrieving gun cases, along with other luggage, at the Bismarck Municipal Airport.

They had came to North Dakota to open the nonresident duck season Saturday.

Padgett hunted ducks here last season, and the experience so enchanted him that Howell, a self-described hard-core duck hunter, decided to join in.

Common threads bring Padgett, Howell and thousands of other duck hunters to North Dakota each fall: The quality of the hunt, the quantity of the ducks and the great people.

After enjoying two morning hunts, the North Carolinians' opinions of North Dakota were just as favorable -- if not greater -- Sunday afternoon.

"It's all I thought it would be," Howell said as he cleaned ducks outside a motel in Medina. The opener was so good, he said, that he spent much of that morning just sitting back and watching the ducks work.

So far, Padgett said, they had no problems finding ducks, water or hunting access.

The difference this season, Padgett said, was that they were having to move around more. "Last year we hunted the same spots," he said.

A group of Twin Cities-area hunters, who have been coming to North Dakota for seven or eight years, are seeing differences as well.

Land accessible for hunters is diminishing each year.

"Lots of land we found the first three years is leased now," Mark Slechta said Sunday afternoon. He was on a duck-cleaning detail with his brother, Jim, and father-in-law, Vern Schwalbe. He also was using the duck-cleaning facilities at the motel.

What pulls Mark Slechta back to North Dakota, he said, is the variety of ducks.

"We see mallards and teal," he said of his Minnesota hunting spots. "The farther west you go, you see different species and even get a shot at pintails. It's neat to see those things."

Proximity, if nothing else, makes these Minnesota hunters well aware of the contentious issues that out-of-state duck hunters have become. But changes in the nonresident license fee structure, the new zones and nonresident limits on hunting time in two of them and the week's delay on the nonresident waterfowl opener certainly weren't a deterrent.

"We don't have a problem with any of the rules," Jim Slechta said.

He said he can understand why some resident duck hunters get upset about the decline in their quality of hunts, but he wondered if out-of-state hunters are the cause or simply the most visible target.

He suggested a survey of local hunters. Find out how their duck season went. If their bag went down, find out why.

"Until that point, you're shooting blanks if there's no evidence," he said.

Greg O'Daniel of Fort Wayne, Ind., was sipping a cold canned drink on the front steps outside his motel room Sunday afternoon. He said he and members of his hunting party always say they are from out of state when they ask permission to hunt, and they have had no problems getting on. The early October spell of warm weather dispelled their notions of spending the afternoon in pursuit of sharp-tailed grouse.

Relaxing outside with O'Daniel were Kevin Smith of Mishawaka, Ind., and Chris Haas of Kalamazoo, Mich. All are hunting in North Dakota for the first time.

"It's lived up to our expectations," O'Daniel said.

Others in their hunting party have been coming to North Dakota for years, Smith said. And their high praise for North Dakota's hunting swayed the three to join up.

"They said it's a nice place to come, and there's good shooting," O'Daniel said. Residents are friendly, he added. "They even wave at you when they drive by."

The only unfriendly thing they've found were some of the ducks, Smith joked.

None minded the resident-only first week of the season or any of the other changes.

"It's nice they closed it to nonresidents the first week," O'Daniel said. "There are plenty of birds to go around."

Through duck-hunting chat rooms and the Internet, Howell and Padgett also have kept up with the nonresident hunting issues here.

"The last thing we want to do here is interfere with local hunters," Howell said. Most of the other hunting rigs they've seen bear out-of-state license plates. "Mostly Minnesota and Wisconsin," Padgett said. But there haven't been enough other hunters to cause overcrowding.

So they've been able to go out early, be set up before legal shooting time, sit back and enjoy a leisurely, relaxing duck hunt, one in which killing a limit of ducks isn't a high priority. Cynics might note that coming short of a daily limit adds to the days hunters can spend in the field. Once hunters fill their possession limit of ducks, which is twice the number they can shoot in a day, their duck hunt is over.

Sitting back and enjoying the ducks is part of the fun, Jim Slechta said. "The ducks are just a bonus."

"Seeing ducks in the air is 90 percent of the hunt," Howell said. "When you get older, you appreciate seeing ducks."

Padgett described their week in North Dakota as a vacation, a way to get away from phones, PCs and laptops.

Counting airfare and their rental SUV, they estimated the cost of their trip at $1,000 to $1,200 apiece.

"It's not cheap," Howell said. "We save up money during the year."

O'Daniel, Smith and Haas, who drove to Medina to hunt, estimated their cost at $500 to $600 apiece.

All three said they would come back next year, cost and nonresident issues notwithstanding.

""Everyone complains about out-of-state hunters in their back yard," O'Daniel said.

Howell and Padgett intend to drive if they come back next year. That way they can bring their dogs and some gear they wish they had with them this year.

Their biggest concern is that their North Dakota hunting may suffer because of the anti-out-of-state hunter sentiment or a possible border war between North Dakota and Minnesota.

"It's a lot harder for us to come here than someone from Minnesota or Wisconsin," Padgett said.
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