It’s the second weekend in October, and Todd Porter is one of many who have been looking forward to it for months.
He’ll don some hunter orange, load his English setters and head to the St. Anthony area for the Saturday opener of North Dakota’s pheasant season, which runs through Jan. 5.
“We kinda do the traditional thing, get together with the same group of people,” said Porter, 59, a District 34 state representative and a Mandan business owner.
It’s a routine that’s likely similar to that which thousands of other hunters will follow this weekend. In 2018, about 37,500 nonresidents and nearly 40,000 residents hunted pheasants in North Dakota. They harvested about 350,000 roosters last year, down from the high point of a million in the days of abundant Conservation Reserve Program cover but still enough to consider it a good hunt, said R.J. Gross, North Dakota Game and Fish Department upland game management biologist. This year’s brood counts by North Dakota Game and Fish are encouraging, he said -- up 10% statewide.
And pheasants are big business. The economic impact from nonresident small game hunters -- travel, food, lodging, beverages and the like -- is $46.8 million, according to information from North Dakota Tourism. Residents hunting upland game and waterfowl contribute another $52.5 million.
Tradition for Porter means meeting up with a group of 10-15 hunters at Ohm’s Café in Mandan for a prehunt breakfast. That's followed by a safety briefing, then the group hunts on land that Porter owns and hopes will have produced some pheasants. He’s developed the land over the last 25 years, borrowing Pheasants Forever techniques to make it a haven for pheasants -- adding pollinators, food plots, trees, nesting cover -- and sharing it with family and friends. Hunters in the group this year will range from an 11-year-old who just completed the hunter safety course to one who is about to turn 80. Opening day is geared toward making sure everyone gets an opportunity at a bird.
“What’s really been exciting the last few years is the number of kids that have got to come with that we’ve got to introduce to the great outdoors,” Porter said.
The hunt is a sort of educational tool, too, a chance to explain conservation and what it takes to put together an upland pheasant habitat. A successful hunt starts long before the second weekend in October, according to Porter.
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“There’s a lot of work that has to happen on a place in order to have birds survive the winter in North Dakota,” he said.
The outlook for pheasant numbers in the St. Anthony area has changed since spring, Porter said.
“If you’d have asked me in May, I would have told you it was going to be gangbusters,” he said. There was cover, habitat and a good food supply over the winter. Then came a June hailstorm, and its effect is somewhat of an unknown.
“I honestly don’t know what we’re going to see in that St. Anthony area because of the weather situations,” he said.
Weather might still be a factor in the opener. Heavy snow fell across much of the state this week and lingered into the weekend. Porter said if his group's plans change, they'll simply make next weekend their opener.
After a day of hunting, the tradition continues with a lunch stop at Rusty’s Saloon in St. Anthony. Then it’s back to Porter’s house, where the group will, if history is any indicator, make Porter clean the day’s harvest.
“I’m not sure how that became part of this tradition,” he said. “Of all the things that I want to break as far as a tradition, that might be the one.”