Timing Seems To Be Everything

How did your season go last year? Was it better than in 2015? Better than six years ago in 2010? I have to scratch my head a bit to think back more than a couple of years. It all becomes a blur until I see photos from seasons past and recall how we fared in those hunting campaigns.

No doubt, the weather/climate has affected your hunting one way or another. It has affected ours. In the north country, the duck season opens before the end of September, so when that 60-day clock starts ticking, we know we’re up against it. We had only one night the entire month of October with the kind of frost, 26 degrees, that might bother your tomato plants. And that night was preceded and followed by days of balmy weather. This is not ducky stuff by any means!

In another sign of the times, wood ducks, notoriously thin-skinned birds, were still hanging around in the first days of November—just not right. In years like this—too wet, too warm—more than ever, a hunter really needs to be precisely where the ducks are, because there’s not enough spillover to make hunting good over a wider area. Our wild rice failed mostly due to heavy summer rains and high water, and so did our flights of birds. But in those areas where wild rice is farmed and water levels controlled, birds were congregated.

Other than that, a person just had to wait for birds to move, which really didn’t happen. We found the same thing in the Dakotas—spotty bird locations. A person could drive and drive and see few ducks, then, if lucky, happen upon a small concentration of birds that was keyed to some kind of food coupled with a roost area with a high level of privacy.

It seems, and I am just basing this on a sense of things, not hard numbers, that the places that lately have the best hunting are those with longer seasons, or severe splits in their seasons, that allow them to offer seasons later in the year—the later, the better these days. The Pacific Flyway with its 107-day seasons is able to stretch across a range of bird movements. So also states, or parts thereof, such as Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas where seasons align with the flights, though not always, as some would note. Parts of the Atlantic Flyway run late enough to catch late birds, but it can be frustrating there too.

Let’s face it, there is something to be said for hunting a bit later these days. Heck, our duck season in the north country is only open until the first week of December, although I must admit it is typically dead frozen by that time, but there are places along the northern rivers where a person might actually find some pretty good cold-weather hunting. Montana, with its season extending into January, certainly does.

Maybe it’s time to rethink some of the hunt dates in some states, to correspond with the seeming new regime of waterfowl. More days? Bigger splits? More emphasis on zones? If the climate wants to change, why not follow its lead?

The author with an unusual prize for late November in the Dakotas. A white-fronted goose, A.K.A. specklebelly.

Is This The New Normal?

(Published Dec. 1, 2016)

Waterfowlers in our neck of the woods have put another stinky October weather pattern in the rearview mirror. A month of 60-degree high pressure on the prairies does nothing for duck movement. Call it climate change, or not, it’s just out-and-out weird.

Warm weather has an effect on ducks that’s been really interesting to watch over the past four out of five years. Mid-season ducks now seem to avoid high-energy foods, especially corn, because apparently they generate too much internal heat. Instead, they feed on invertebrates and greens and seeds in the water, which means they don’t move much. When they do choose to fly, it’s usually nothing more than an exercise run—getting up and stretching their wings and setting back down again in the safe water. Sand Lake NWR in South Dakota, in the last week of October, reported a half million ducks on the refuge, but said, “The birds aren’t leaving the refuge much.” Granted, many of these birds are gadwalls, shovelers, wigeon and teal that don’t field feed as much as mallards, but some had to be pintails. Come late October it begs the questions: Why are these earlier migrators still in northern South Dakota? Where are the mallards?

We can always blame Canada, because parts of Saskatchewan and Manitoba had especially wet weather in the late summer, early fall. We saw this in Manitoba in early October, where swaths of grain were still in the fields, some floating, and food and water were abundantly available. Why leave Canada? Guess what? They didn’t.

I’m guessing the season is going to play out like last year again. Those in the midst of U.S. refuges with managed water and food are going to see migrants that are just about on schedule, perhaps only a bit late. The rest of the countryside is going to see nothing, until the last big surge, in which the bulk of the birds will skip the northern tier of states in favor of secured habitats and food farther south. The upper Midwest may get a week of catch-as-catch-can hunting, and then it will quickly be over. The Deep South will suffer its own new legacy.

This pattern, and it is becoming one, is less like the patterns of old and more like the patterns we saw for species like lesser scaup. Once upon a time, in the Midwest, there were giant scaup migrations that went through states like Wisconsin and Minnesota and down the Mississippi and Illinois rivers into Illinois and Iowa, where the shoot lasted about a week, before just as quickly coming to an end. In that week the word went out, the bluebill decoys were dusted off and hunters on just about any water that could float a bluebill were treated to the aerial assaults of willing scaup. No more.

Today, our mallard migration is appearing much the same. A week of falling temps, changing barometer and oncoming cold brings mallard flights into and out of an area, providing some memorable times for those at the ready, but not quite what they were in the past. And then it’s over. What’s happening to the traditions of migrating ducks? Is this the new normal?

The Great Misdirection

Astronomers have detected a planet the size of Earth that is just the right distance from its sun to support water and, possibly, life, orbiting the nearest star to our sun, Proxima Centauri. Exoplanet researchers at the European Southern Observatory reported the discovery last week. They named the planet Proxima b.

The discovery is a significant achievement for the relatively new field of exoplanet astronomy, the study of planets orbiting stars other than our own.

Under closer observation, the researchers noted patterns of movement at intervals above the planet’s surface at first thought to be dust or particle storms, but later ruled out particulate based on random intervals and common direction. They likened the phenomenon to masses of flying creatures, “behaving almost like birds.”

Both water and land appear to dominate the planet’s surface, and they speculate that the presence of an apparent atmosphere could mean that life might exist in abundance, both on land and in water.

Imagine the implications! One day intrepid outfitters might be guiding hunters to Proxima b. The thought of it conjures pictures of what Earth once looked like—a pristine place with unimaginable landscapes littered with herds of animals and flocks of birds.

Imagine what fishing might be like! Silvery schools of sleek, naïve fishes roaming the seas and crowding the rivers, ripe for the taking.

Perhaps another Earth! The thought of it makes all our problems seem smaller. It means, perhaps, that the author Thomas Wolfe was wrong when he inferred, you can’t go home again. The discovery of this familiar planet off the shoulder of Proxima Centauri may be the home we recall and idealize.

Alas, what I have written here is greatly embellished. A planet wasproxima-b-aretists-rendering discovered off Proxima Centauri, and it is a “Goldilocks” planet, perhaps capable of sustaining life. But even if we could go there, we would not recognize it. Proxima Centauri is a red dwarf star, smaller than our sun. One would not enjoy blue skies on Proxima b, because the sky would most likely appear red. The planet has an annual orbit of 11 days, as opposed to our 365 days, and is thought to have strong radiation that would suggest a climate quite different from that of Earth. Proxima b is 25 trillion miles away.

Nonetheless, the discovery set off a wave of excitement in media outlets, fueled in no small part by a commissioned painting of a beautiful sunrise over a rocky, cloud-swept Proxima b. It’s a beautiful piece of imagination, nothing more, but it reflects the excitement all humans seem to share in the dream that somehow we will find another Earth, a perfect unblemished Earth.

The so-called science of exoplanet research seems a great misdirection. Proxima b, researchers say, is the most Earthlike of the planets they have found, yet it appears to be nothing like Earth. Perhaps our yearning for another Earth would better be focused on the Earth we call home, before war, overpopulation and damage to our natural resources render it nothing like the Earth of our dreams.

Suspended Evolution

Hunting methods have been evolving throughout man’s existence—think club, spear, arrow, gun—but it is only in the modern era that it became necessary to devise a new threshold called “fair chase,” essentially self-imposed limitations on the means and methods of the hunt. The limitations of fair chase seem obvious when considering the vast arsenal at man’s disposal, including not just modern guns, but motorized vehicles, airplanes, radios and even drones.

Fair chase may be self-imposed by the individual, or mandated by law, but it is always at its best when born out of the heart of the hunter. Yet hunting methods continue to evolve right along with other solutions to meet all of life’s demands. This forward movement is in our nature. In the process, fair chase sometimes becomes an impediment to reward, instead of the reward itself.

Examples of shifting attitudes and the associated traditions of fair chase are everywhere, yet in waterfowl hunting, the traditional methods of chase seem stable. Why would this be so?

We used to think of big game hunting as man versus beast (think old poster of charging bear), yet among rifle hunters, new loads, better optics and improved guns have made long-range shooting the latest craze. One western hunter I met proudly told me that he shot a deer at 1,000 yards. That’s one heck of a shot, well over a half mile to the target, or as some would say, “in the next zip code.” Muzzleloaders have turned into easy loading, longer shooting in-line guns that ply the special seasons reserved for “primitive” weapons. Compound bows and crossbows with scopes are now integrated into the seasons originally reserved for the simple stick and string recurve bow. Yet despite all this change, waterfowl hunters still engage their quarry with the same limitations imposed almost a century ago: three shots and no bore larger than 10 img_2604gauge (special spring white goose conservation order excepted when magazines may hold more than three shots).

There is a simple reason that waterfowl hunting stands out as “unchanged” over so long a period of time. Simply put, federal law requires it. Long ago, and in the face of tremendous pressures on the resource, that is, ducks and geese and other birds, the feds imposed the rules we still have in place today for the taking of migratory birds.

No state can usurp the migratory bird rules, no industry can lobby them away. I, for one, am happy for it. As waterfowlers, we may have to worry about water quantity and quality and numbers of breeding ducks, but we don’t have to worry about our traditions and how we’ll be hunting in the future. We’re still quite capable of missing birds at 30 yards and running out of ammo after three quick shots. As it should be.

Is Hunting A Sport?

 

Is Hunt Sport

I often wonder about words, and choices of words, especially monikers aimed at me by someone who really doesn’t know me, or my name. I have never minded “bud” too much, as in the guy at the auto-parts store who asks, “Hey, bud, what can I help you with?” But I really dislike being called “friend” by someone who is not my friend. I find “boss” even more offensive. What does that person really mean, since I am certainly not his “boss”? Is this some sort of passive-aggressive behavior?

“Sport” is another, as in, “Hey sport.” Do I look like I’m going to play tennis? Probably not, unless tennis outfits now include jeans, a well-worn long-sleeve T-shirt and dirty high tops with the laces untied. Webster calls this jest, or mockery—more passive-aggressiveness?

And how did we hunters come to be referred to as sportsmen (and women)? Sport, in the strict sense of the word, refers to competition, either between individuals or teams. Sport is a pastime that is a diversion, according to Webster. Likely the closest hunting comes to “sport” is classic fox hunting, where lords and ladies mount their horses and follow the dogs over hill and dale on a fox hunt with no intention of actually capturing the fox! That’s not hunting. If it were, the fox would be hung on the barn wall at the end of the day.

I’m guessing that this whole “sportsman” thing crept into our vocabulary by way of fishing. Fishing truly is a diversion, a relaxing pastime that takes the user away from the frantic pace of everyday life, meeting Webster’s definition. Who doesn’t love a day on the water where you don’t have to do anything but sit and flick a rod and enjoy the scenery? “Sportfishing,” it has been called. (Not to mention that fishing today also qualifies as competition, thanks to tournaments—truly making it a “sport.”)

But you don’t hear the word “sporthunting.”

That’s because hunting is hunting. There is no catch and release in hunting. The goal in hunting is not to beat the other guy, it’s to bring home the bacon (or duck or turkey or venison, etc.). It is not a diversion and it is not a competition; therefore it does not meet Webster’s definition. Granted, there are the “shooting sports.” Diversion? Yes. Competition? Yes. You can also throw pastimes like prairie dog shoots and pigeon shoots into the same category. They are “sport,” plain and simple.

I prefer to refrain from calling hunting a sport, or hunters, sportsmen and women. No one called the ancient hunters “sportsmen,” and the people that I know who hunt, hunt for two reasons—ritual and food. The hunt is no sport; it is not diversion, but rather immersion that touches our primal roots. There is no competition, only the test of self. Hunting is about a state of being in the natural world, as predator seeking prey. If true for you, then you are a hunter. Let no one say otherwise.

“Rightfully Ours”—Right On

National Wildlife Refuge Logo
National Wildlife Refuge Logo

 

I’m never really far from my desk, or at least a computer, yet I do get to spend a healthy amount of time outdoors. But when it’s production time, that same desk becomes an anchor bound to my leg. So after a great fall and early winter of making new hunting memories, I’ve once again donned my leg iron.

Now that I’m back and in a reflective mode, I find myself still bothered by January’s takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon by extremists, because of its wider implications. By the way, I’m not alone on this. Waterfowl chat rooms on the Internet were buzzing throughout the occupation, and why not? The more than a month-long standoff eliminated the last 23 days of the waterfowl season on ground paid for and maintained at least in part by Duck Stamp monies.

Funny that we didn’t hear any condemnation during this period from those organizations that purport to represent waterfowl hunters and seek our dollars. Not so with the group Back Country Hunters And Anglers (BHA), which strongly criticized the assault on our public lands throughout the conflict.

When the scofflaws were finally arrested, BHA stated, “Now is the time to turn our attention to the Bundys’ allies: the politicians, backroom funders and other radicals who would divest citizens of our public lands heritage and take what is rightfully ours. Sportsmen must take a strong stand on behalf of our American birthright.”

I’ve led a pretty lucky life. I’ve hunted in 26 states and on a whole lot of public land. Public land IS our birthright. It’s what separates our hunting traditions from the old European traditions in which land, game animals and hunting belonged to only those wealthy enough to afford it. Granted, it’s not a perfect world for me or you. There are a whole lot of places I can’t hunt because they are beyond my economic sphere, and I’ve been on public land where I wasn’t any happier to see another hunter than that hunter was to see me, but nobody could deny his, or my, right to be there.

BHA is spot-on when it says “Rightfully ours.”

Best Of Jay Strangis – The Great Distraction

There’s so much going on in the world that each day is a cascade of tumultuous events, overwhelming to the average person. My Web browser is set to open to one of the national news outlets by default, so each time I search for something, up comes a rash of intriguing headlines.

Did you know Bristol Palin is pregnant again? I was just itching to click on that to find out the latest dirt until I saw a photo of one of my favorite actors with the tag, “People We Lost.” I’m too savvy to get sucked in there. They often put up the photo of a famous person even if the person who died was that famous person’s elderly father. Been there. Not going there.

But there’s plenty more to be “concerned” with. Beheadings here, mass murders there. What the heck is this world coming to? About the only thing that happens in our little corner of the world is the occasional meth lab blowup resulting in Kentucky fried drug dealer.

My problem is that I go to my Web browser with good intentions—usually to background some subject, look up a new product or check a writer’s use of a proper name or spelling—then I get sidetracked by the headlines. By the time I’m done reading them, I’ve forgotten entirely what I came to the browser to do!

I pretty much behave the same way at an outdoor or sporting goods store—now what did I come in here for again? The sheer volume of outdoor paraphernalia is overwhelming these days, and I love that. There’s so much good gear to choose from that I’m much like that five-year-old at the grocery checkout who is melting down over the well-placed candy rack. I totally relate.

As anyone who has ever hunted with me will attest, I love gear, and I don’t like to be without it. Yes, I have been accused of having a sporting goods store in my motel room on more than one hunt. You just never know when that one situation will arise that requires that special set of clothing, those specialized decoys, that specialized blind, the other shotgun and more of this and more of that.

That’s why putting together the American Waterfowler giant Gear Guide issue is so much fun for me, and I don’t think any of the writers who put together the gear sections are any exception. We all want to see what is new, tweaked or improved for the coming season.

But we realize that, like us, readers of the magazine probably get a little overwhelmed by all the gear out there, especially because the marketers of that gear do such an effective job of getting in all of our heads.

But hey, like my distraction with the headlines, it’s not like I don’t somehow welcome it. There must be some corner of my mind that seeks out the sensational. But there are more corners ready to pounce on a bit of news about a new decoy or specialized boat. I think for most of us, waterfowl hunting IS the great distraction. And we’re all on board.

Best Of Jay Strangis – How Lucky We Are

IMG_1088-3Last fall I picked up a sweet little black pup from K.T. British Labs in Elbow Lake, Minn. She was promptly named Piper by my daughter, and why not? The name is far better than anything I could think of—and came more quickly. My last Lab’s name was Buddy, so that should tell you something about my regard for dog names.

Piper is highly bred, of course, and came ready equipped with that quiet nature, soft mouth and great nose developed in her forebears. Naturally, she and I had to go through all the puppy nonsense of where and when not to poop and what is and isn’t her chew toy—including my kids’ cats.

It’s amazing how fast you forget all the work that goes into a dog. Only a little over 10 years ago I was going through these same stages with another black dog. You build on lesson after lesson and soon forget how much your dog didn’t know coming into the world, until finally, your grown hunting partner is a push-button machine that knows all the routines. For a while, and it’s never long enough, you get to enjoy a kind of hunting with your partner that’s really quite effortless.

But not now. Now it’s back to the basics, and some days it’s back to the basics again and again.

The good news is, Piper’s a little hunter. She shows all the characteristics of her good breeding. She’s got a great nose, she’s a born retriever and she delivers to hand as if we’d trained it. She’s also extremely smart, which helps a great deal when learning new tricks from an amateur trainer. Like her predecessor, Buddy, she’s got more natural ability than I have as a trainer. And so, as usual, the only limiting factor is ME.

But there is a big difference in this dog, and me, compared to my last—this one’s a girl.

Now, I hope I’m not accused of sexism when I say that girl dogs ain’t boy dogs, but either I’ve forgotten the sensibilities of girl dogs, or my Piper is just a bit more of a girly girl than the female I raised and trained 25 years ago.

My first clue came when she piddled every time somebody bent down to pet her. My second came after a scolding when she feared coming to me for a day or two. That was puppy stuff, though, and now half grown, she’s well past those odd behaviors. But it was a good reminder that this isn’t the thicker skull of a male dog I’m dealing with.

The advantage of her “sensibility” is that Piper doesn’t require much in the way of reminding to get back to doing what’s expected. That’s a real joy. I had planned to train her with positive reinforcement methods anyway, so getting into that mode early put us on good footing. Credit all the dogs I’ve owned before her to my being able to read Piper’s nature. Sure, I’ve made plenty of mistakes with dogs, but each new dog taught me something to benefit the next generation. Piper and I are just learning how lucky we are.

The Best Of Jay Strangis–Normal Is A Dangerous Word

Normal Is A Dangerous Word

Ducks are migrating later, or so it seems. Many hunters suspect this and research has been put forth to support it, but are late arrivals at points south a trend or an anomaly? Are recent observations following a long sloping curve, or a short bump on a fairly straight line?

As hunters, my own observations and those of my friends tend to agree with the hypothesis that the big mallard migrations in our part of the world are getting later, at least if you can call the last two years a TREND. We’ve adjusted our hunt schedules accordingly, moving our planned annual “late” week of hunting back a bit, but we’re responding to climate change, not so much bird change. We want to land just in front of freeze-up, and freeze-ups have been a bit later in the past few years. We were spot on with our timing two years ago but got caught between two pushes of birds last year.

But last year was an odd year. A drought was in play. Birds had open ground to find waste grain up to and beyond Christmas on most of the northern prairie. And the amount of waste grain is staggering these days with record corn acreages now pushing up to the Canadian border. Yes, it got cold. But ducks and geese will hold water open by their own mass and movement when food supplies are plentiful, and we witnessed that up here. When judging migration timing, I believe last year has to be tossed out simply based on the dry conditions.

The previous year, 2011¬–12, was also an odd one. The week after Thanksgiving, after many hunters had retired to deer hunting and Sunday football, portions of the northern prairie teamed with late-arriving mallards. Again, it was dry, and this snow-less respite lasted past the season’s closing day. I hunted in Mississippi in late December that year. Not surprisingly, it was slow by their standards because their late birds were still up north, but soon after they had excellent hunting, corresponding with northern, winter snow events.

When I hear comments about late migrations, I have to wonder about those birds that migrate earlier. We seldom hear about early teal seasons down south suffering for lack of birds; as a matter of fact much the opposite is true. Same with the general duck season openers in Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas where they shoot gadwall, pintail, teal, wigeon, and mallards (migratory birds). I hear favorable reports each year about those events, most described as good to excellent when the water is right. Many ducks migrate according to day length and only need the right weather to cause them to move south.

Massive waterfowl migrations are a different story. They require a combination of factors, not the least of which is a major low-pressure event. The last time these factors aligned perfectly was October 27, 2010. If you had your eyes on during that week anywhere in the Mississippi and Central Flyways, you WOULD remember it.
I hunt, so I’m subject to the same frustrations as everybody else. But I’m also skeptical that birds are changing. In the scheme of things, our memories are short, our research sparse and “normal” is a dangerous word when it comes to bird migration.

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