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Pheasant capital of North Dakota

Mott, N.D. Mark Wiegand and Bob Dahl liked this tiny southwestern North Dakota community so much they bought the convent. Not to mention 670 acres of farmland north of town. Pheasants have that effect on people who like to chase upland game birds...

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Mott, N.D.

Mark Wiegand and Bob Dahl liked this tiny southwestern North Dakota community so much they bought the convent.

Not to mention 670 acres of farmland north of town.

Pheasants have that effect on people who like to chase upland game birds.

"This is the elk of the bird family," Dahl said one day last week, holding a gaudy ring-necked rooster pheasant he shot. "They are the master."

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And in North Dakota, Mott is still the hot spot for the pheasants, even though the bird's population is down dramatically from a year ago in Hettinger County.

That's why hunters from Minnesota, Oklahoma, Indiana, Illinois, South Carolina, Wisconsin, Florida, Colorado and many other states can be found quenching their thirsts and satisfying their appetites in bars and restaurants like George's Office, the Pheasant Café and Lounge and the Poolside Drive In. All are located on Brown Ave., Mott's main street.

Blaze orange is easily the wardrobe color of choice in these come-as-you-are establishments.

"Farming is No. 1 in terms of economic activity, but pheasants have been quite important to our town," said Bill Vukelic, president of the First Commercial Bank of Mott. "Hunting has a fairly significant impact on several businesses. It has some effect on the whole town in general, but there are some key businesses it affects like the gas stations, restaurants and liquor establishments."

Vukelic gives this example of increased economic activity during the pheasant hunting season, which opened Oct. 9:

Throughout most of the year, the bank puts $5,000 a week in its automated teller machine.

"No problem. The machine holds it," Vukelic said. "Opening weekend this year we put $10,000 in it and had to go back and fill it up two days later."

The pheasant business

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Wiegand and Dahl are trying to tap into that economic action.

The Flagstaff, Ariz., chiropractors began coming to Mott several years ago to hunt pheasants and bought the town's old convent so they could have a place to stay. The Mott Motel, Wiegand said, was booked through the pheasant season for years in advance.

Last year they decided to get into the hospitality business. They did some work on the convent and named it the Tailfeather Inn. Its dormitory-like rooms, which once housed nuns, are now outfitted with bunk beds and televisions. The Tailfeather Inn can accommodate about 50 hunters at a time.

Wiegand and Dahl also own two small homes in Mott that they rent to hunters.

"We saw a business opportunity," Wiegand said.

With a group of eight other out-of-state hunters, Wiegand and Dahl also purchased two blocs of pheasant-rich land in Hettinger County. One parcel is 320 acres, the other 350 acres.

That land is set aside strictly for the 10 owners, but Wiegand and Dahl have compiled a "private fee-hunting list" they pass along to interested guests. Hunters can expect to pay about $100 per gun per day to hunt on private land. There is also ample federal, state-owned and Private Lands Open to Sportsmen (P.L.O.T.S.) land in the area.

Nonresidents cannot hunt P.L.O.T.S. land and state wildlife management areas the first week of the season. They can hunt private, other state-owned and federal lands on those days.

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"The last few years were really gangbusters. I've hunted in Kansas and South Dakota and this area was better those places," Dahl said. "It's down some this year, but it still isn't bad."

Down, but not out

Wiegand, Dahl and their partners have put some effort and money into their land in an attempt to make it as pheasant-friendly as possible. Much of the 320-acre bloc northwest of Mott is enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. But they've also planted corn, barley and trees to give the birds food and shelter.

With a cattail-lined, water-filled ditch winding through the property, the rolling southwestern North Dakota land is close to pheasant heaven.

Wiegand and Dahl showed it off to a pair of Moorhead hunters last week. And while birds didn't burst from the ample cover in clouds -- a never-ending 35-mile-per-hour wind didn't help -- there were still more than enough roosters to allow Mott to keep its unofficial title of Pheasant Capital of North Dakota.

"The first time I brought my dad out here he said he saw more pheasants in three hours than he saw in his entire life and he was 70 years old," Wiegand said.

But most everybody around Mott -- from Wiegand and Dahl to bank president Vukelic to dozens of hunters frequenting the bars and restaurants -- say pheasant numbers are down noticeably this year.

That is backed by data compiled by the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. Upland game bird biologist Stan Kohn said August roadside counts indicated the pheasant population is down 22 percent from a year ago in the area immediately surrounding Mott. Just west of the town, in the area bordering Montana, pheasant numbers are down 35 percent compared to 2003.

Kohn said cool, wet weather in the prime hatching time of mid-June is the main reason for the decline. The weather led to poor chick survival.

But, Kohn said, hunters should keep in mind that the drop in pheasants doesn't mean poor hunting.

"The numbers this year are comparable to those we had in 2000 and 2001, which were considered great years," Kohn said. "It's just that 2002 and 2003 were phenomenal years, so in comparison to that this year is down a bit.

"So instead of guys hunting one or two hours and getting their limits and seeing a ton of birds, they might have to hunt until the afternoon and still might come up a bird or two short of filling out. But it's still pretty good hunting."

Kohn said the pheasant population could rebound to 2003 levels with a mild winter and favorable weather conditions in the spring.

"If you get those things in line, you're going to have some pretty good pheasant numbers again," he said.

Feeling the decline

Gilbert and Loretta Mehrer are feeling the effect of the decreased pheasant population.

They are the proprietors of G&L Bird Cleaning, which they run out of a trailer in the West Side Trailer Park on the outskirts of Mott.

For $3 per bird, the Mehrers will clean, bag and freeze pheasants for hunters who don't want to do the deed themselves. They've been doing it for 13 years.

"Right now is the worst season we've ever had," Gilbert said. "The birds are down and this thing about keeping the nonresidents off the P.L.O.T.S. land the first week of the season is really hurting us."

Gilbert has been Hettinger County's chief deputy sheriff for more than a decade. He takes a week of vacation the first week of pheasant season so he can clean birds with Loretta. Some years the couple's oldest son, Carvel, drives up from Hettinger to help.

Last year the Mehrers cleaned 1,500 pheasants, Loretta said.

"It's fun. We meet a lot of people," Gilbert said. "One time we cleaned birds for a man from Puerto Rico. I said, 'What are you doing way up here from Puerto Rico?' and he said, 'I have a lot of money. I can do what I want.' He wasn't being a jerk about it, he was just being factual. He wanted to hunt pheasants and he came to Mott. How else is a guy from Puerto Rico going end up in Mott?"

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike McFeely at (701) 241-5580

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