By John Bradley, NDWF Executive Director
When the alarm went off, I had already been awake for 15 minutes. I easily popped out of my bed in the back of my 4Runner and started layering up. I was off hiking with my pack and shotgun slung on my shoulder in a matter of minutes. When the sun broke the horizon, I was a half-mile from my camp without another person in sight.
Few turkeys were sounding off, preferring the silent treatment once they left the roost. The turkeys were practicing their own brand of social distancing, it seemed. While I didn’t find a tom to notch my turkey tag, it was still a great trip to the badlands, filled with long hikes, shed antlers, and the hope that only walking the woods with a gun can bring. During a time when many are cooped up in their homes, being outside and away from the city was great, finding a bird would only be a bonus.
In common with many North Dakotans, we here at the North Dakota Wildlife Federation regard the opening of turkey season as a significant date every year. It means winter’s over, and it’s time to get out to the woods again and renew the cycle of hunting that defines the year. While I prefer to chase the birds alone, many people statewide enjoy making their hunting camps essentially into family reunions — places where dozens of people gather to visit, swap tales and keep our traditions alive.
Most years, such large gatherings are fine. But of course, this year’s different. North Dakota, like all other states, is feeling the effects of the pandemic that’s sweeping the globe. There’s rising concern in rural areas of our state that traveling hunters and anglers could bring the virus with them. Some are pushing for greater limits on travel and even for full closures of our public lands and seasons. While the North Dakota Game & Fish Department has stated that they do not plan to close any other seasons (the paddlefish season was closed earlier this month to prevent people standing shoulder to shoulder on the river banks), but that could change with political and social pressure. As we head out this season to hunt, we must all remember that we’re ambassadors for the sport. The general public’s tolerance could be sorely tested if we fail to show responsible behavior.
Social distancing doesn’t have to mean staying inside; I had a little slice of the Grasslands all to myself and one more day I can stay out of public spaces and help slow the spread of this COVID-19 pandemic. It was a great reminder how our outdoor traditions and community will endure after this difficult time and how important it is to protect our outdoor heritage for future generations. Everyone has a role to play, no matter how big or small to ensure that our hunting and fishing traditions continue long into the future. And while we do our best to flatten the curve of this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of the things that are important to us as hunters and anglers.
As I packed up the rig to head home, I was thankful for a return of hunting season, and for North Dakota’s abundant wild, open spaces where it is easy to stay six feet away from anyone else.
Featured Photo: With turkey hunting season recently opening, spring has arrived just in time to give sportsmen a chance to find a place all their own. Simonson Photo.
John Bradley is the Executive Director of the North Dakota Wildlife Federation and a Dakota Edge Outdoors contributing writer.