A Good Idea, With A Hitch

In the October ’23 issue we recalled the days of the point system, specifically when you could, legally, shoot 10 pintails in one day in Texas (see “When Pintails Were 10 Points” on page14). It was an interesting time, and bears discussing.

The point system arose as an antidote to the premise that the established bag limit system required hunters to do something that many of them weren’t very good at—identifying birds before shooting them. The point system, on the other hand, did not make such a requirement, as long as birds were scored “in-hand.” The point system was first tested in 1968 in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. It was expanded to a few other locales the following year and debuted on what would be its largest scale in 1970 as a “regulatory alternative.”

Many lifelong waterfowlers remember those days in the early 1970s when the point system was tested in New Jersey and Florida in the Atlantic Flyway, Iowa and Illinois in the Mississippi Flyway, and all Central Flyway states except North Dakota and Kansas.

Instead of offering a total bag limit of a given number of ducks, the point system put a numeric value to separate species that could be included in a bag not to exceed a value of more than 100 points. Each drake mallard, for instance, counted as 20 points, while a hen mallard counted as 90 points. If you shot the hen mallard first, you could take only a single bird (including another hen mallard) before being limited out. If you shot a drake first, and then a hen mallard, you had exceeded 100 with the second bird and were limited out for the day, though still within the rules.

Of course, if you shot nothing but 10-point birds, which at that time included drake pintails, gadwalls, wigeon, shoveler, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, scaup and goldeneye, you could have yourself a heck of a day getting to the 100-point limit.

The point system did what it was planned to do. Hunters who couldn’t identify ducks on the wing weren’t required to ID them until in hand (although if that ignorance led to a hen mallard, hen wood duck or other 90-point bird in the bag, plus any other duck, their day was done). It allowed experienced hunters to take more of what were deemed to be expendable birds on a population scale, such as drake mallards, drake pintails or other 10-point birds.

Unfortunately, the point system failed to pass the enforcement test. In other words, a lot of cheating went on. Commonly, hunters reordered their birds to maximize their bag. For example, they might shoot a hen mallard first, but then keep shooting 10-point birds up to a score of 90, simply saying that they shot the hen last, which, by that telling, would have masqueraded as legal.

Without the ability to enforce the rules, wildlife managers couldn’t justify continuing with the point system. Many wildlife professionals compare it to today’s “party hunting” infractions—when a group comprising multiple hunters shoots a full limit in which several hunters shoot the bulk of the birds for the larger group. Not cool. Not legal.

The Challenges Of Following A Migration

Each year we provide a “season summary” for the magazine, which requires sending some of our regular contributors and a few notable hunters a survey, asking them to summarize their season past. In addition, we do a bit of research of our own by dissecting some of the online comments posted on websites and chat rooms during the season past.

The danger of the online investigation is, obviously, that one may run across half-truths and outright lies. This is the Internet after all, and contributors to some of these sites may not be required to identify themselves, other than perhaps offering a clever chat room nickname.

That being the case, it’s often more reliable to look for the “honest” reports. But how would one know that a report is honest? We have a theory. The hunters who are completely frustrated never lie. If Joker911 says his group has been hunting for four days and shot two ducks, you can be pretty sure this is absolutely accurate. When someone says the hunting has been “terrible,” it’s got to be true. No one lies or exaggerates about laying a goose egg.

Want to see WHEN the birds showed up? Don’t believe just a single, stand-alone comment. If there were birds around, more than one guy would likely be talking about it. Go through the days of comments and watch as the remarks become more positive. You can almost map the migration by these comments because multiple commentors will start chipping in with the good news. If a solo poster is the only one who “slaughtered” them, he’s either fibbing or lying through his teeth—your choice.

One of the comments we have had trouble with on the DU site is “incoming.” DU offers the poster the opportunity to report an “Activity Level,” presumably the activity level of the ducks, not the hunters (although in some areas activity level of the hunters would be helpful).

Years back, when we first saw the word “incoming” in a report, we thought it was positive. But as we saw it more and more, we wondered why the posters all used that same phrase, especially after saying that there were few ducks in the area. Were there actually birds INCOMING? How did they know?

As it turns out “Activity Level” choices, tend to put words in people’s mouths, so to speak. “Incoming Low Numbers” being the lowest descriptor available. In our research we learned to avoid the “Incoming Low Numbers” altogether because it seemed like “incoming” became a pseudonym for what the poster really wanted to say, which was “low numbers” or perhaps something even more descriptive like “zilch” or “zero.”

But “incoming” definitely sounded better than some of the descriptive words everyday duck hunters might be tempted to use when the hunting is bad.

In DU’s favor, they have modified their “Migration Map” site and, of late, the posters have become more descriptive in explaining the status of waterfowl in their areas. It definitely can be a useful tool.

We wish you all the best in the new fall season. May you truly have INCOMING ducks and geese.

Not That Old

There’s been much soul-searching, gnashing of teeth and activism via youth recruitment over the past decade related to the aging population of waterfowl hunters in the U.S. It’s hard to place an exact number on the “average age” of U.S. hunters, but most authorities place it at about 50. It continues to climb.

But we should take heart. We’re not alone, and an average age of 50 may not be as bad as it sounds. Turns out America itself is graying. Median age, the average age of all 322 million of us, has been going up too. It now rests just a tick under 40 years.

As a writer in the New York Times recently quipped, if you’re a millennial who is 38, seeing the median age at 40 probably makes you feel really good about yourself. The truth is, 40 is an incredibly old median age for any country.

A climbing median age doesn’t just happen overnight, just as declining number of young hunters don’t disappear in one fell swoop. Statisticians point out that the climb in our nation’s median age has been noteworthy going back to 1980 when the median age was 30. By 2000 it was 35.

Many of us feel threatened, or we see hunting itself threatened by this graying in our ranks—and we should. It challenges our industry, the waterfowl-hunting industry and its related business models.

These businesses include not only big corporately owned types, but the small businesses that make many of the products you see in this issue. It includes the magazine you are reading right now, one of the few in the outdoor industry that is not corporately held. It also threatens the huge conservation dollars that hunters generate through taxes, licenses and outright donations.

Of course, it’s not all about us. An aging population threatens everything from the country’s work force to the greater economy.

What drives this median age? Quite simply, birth rates. We’re not having enough kids, which also fits with the waterfowl hunting recruitment model we see and lament.

But take heart. If you’re 40 or older, which I am safely assuming the majority of those reading this column actually are, don’t you now feel a bit better about yourself? If the average age of hunters is 50 and the median for the entire country is 40, well heck, we’re in the ballpark. Maybe the average age we tap out at just went up too. Just keep hunting!

Photo: Our friend and fellow waterfowler Boris Popov.

Remembering Bud

Bud Grant, the legendary football coach, passed away on March 11 at the age of 95. I admit to having been a hard-core Vikings fan in the Grant years. I would never have thought that one day I’d be sitting with him in a prairie wheat field postulating about ducks and life.

Most people who watched Grant on the sidelines took him to be a stern taskmaster, a tough guy, but he wasn’t either of those personas to those who knew him. Yes, he was somewhat quiet, a no-nonsense type, but only in the sense that he was extremely practical.

Bud loved to hunt waterfowl.

My hunting partner Boris Popov somehow knew Bud and invited him to come along with us on a North Dakota goose hunt one year. Big flocks of the small cackling Canadas were in the area, and the limit was two geese at that time.

On the first morning, a large flock of cacklers attacked the decoys and the four of us doubled after the birds tried to land in our laps. We were counting birds when we noticed Bud with a ninth bird under his arm. “She caught it live,” Bud said, looking at his female black Lab with a smile. He tossed the bird in the air to fly away. “Catch and release!”

That night, a Monday, coincidentally, a Vikings versus Chicago Bears game was broadcast on Monday Night Football. What a privilege it was going to be watching the game with the storied coach; or so I thought. Assembled in front of the television at the little house we rented, we watched the entire game without Bud saying more than a few words. I do remember one thing that he said. “Guys, it’s a stage, not a stadium.”

On a freelance hunt with Bud along, he and I drew field duty one afternoon. With few birds flying and plenty of time to talk, Bud told me of the day of the great Armistice Day blizzard that killed 85 duck hunters. Bud had been duck hunting alone that morning in the hinterlands of Wisconsin when the snowstorm struck in all its fury. He was just 12 years old. Wet, nearly frozen and unable to find his way in the whiteout, he stumbled across a railroad grade. He said his decision to follow it through the snow for what seemed like miles saved his life. It eventually led him to a home that took him in.

On a South Dakota spring snow goose hunt, we stopped by a Hutterite colony to ask to hunt their land. I drove in with my truck while Bud and others chose to stay in their trucks out on the county road. Referred to the leader of the colony, he asked me if we were the guys who were seen at the town café with Bud Grant (small world!). When I confirmed, he said we could only have permission if Bud came in to meet his men.

I thought Bud would complain, but surprisingly, out from under his truck seat came his folder of Bud Grant photos, his signing pen and the Bud Grant “show” was on! He put on an engaging meeting with his fans, and they loved him. RIP Bud!

Below: (l to r) Bill Buckley, Jay Strangis, Darrel Brandt, Boris Popov, Bud Grant

Cost Vs. Benefit

Most waterfowl hunters have a connection to the places they hunt. Some guys hunt in the same blind(s) all season long. Some hunt the same one or two refuges or management areas via reservation or walk-on. Some hunt public lands across their state.

Then there are the travelers. Some hunt regionally, within a familiar quadrant, say 1,000 square miles of a state or province they’ve become familiar with over many years (sounds like a lot but it’s only 40 miles by 25 miles). Some hunters only hunt with outfitters, but they may hunt multiple states or Canada in a single season.

Do people that travel the most shoot the most birds? Sometimes. How about guys who go only with outfitters? They do pretty well. Some guys are incredibly successful on the same old public lands or waters, right? Yes, because they’ve learned all the ins and outs. How about guys who strictly travel and freelance on public or private lands? Boom or bust, is their code. Duck club members or owners? They have good years and bad, but most hunters would trade for a good club’s bad year in a heartbeat.

One of the hidden costs to many hunters is time, and I’ve noticed that most hunters don’t consider it, but perhaps they should. I once traveled two full days to get to and from eastern Montana for a three-day hunt.

Consider the travel time of a trip to Canada. Consider all the travel and windshield time freelancers put in. Now compare that to a guy who hunts public close to home. You don’t get to count having your behind glued to a car or airplane seat as “hunting time.”

There are realities to deal with in all of the hunting scenarios previously mentioned. The first reality is money (you know, that root of all evil stuff). Owning a duck club can be costly. Being a member also has its costs. Hunting with outfitters isn’t cheap either. Cost per bird? It gets lower as the shooting increases, depending on limits.

Freelancing also has its costs. The mobile aspect can be huge. Capable trucks, big trailers and all the gear inside them amounts to huge dollars. Then there is the fuel, motels and meals. Same for freelancers with boats. Floatin’ ain’t free and the best waters aren’t always near home. Don’t forget that freelancers probably have the worst hours traveling versus hours hunting ratio.

Hunting with outfitters could be considered a cost control measure—you know your costs before you go. But do you really? Don’t forget the travel, the tips, the meals and the motels. If you stay at a lodge, it’s a different story. Lodging and meals included.

Of course, all this is highly personal. Some guys just prefer one sort of hunting strategy, others have a different take.

The guy who probably has it best is that hunter who hunts public lands or waters, or private land with permission, close to home. Cost per bird here is as low as it can get. Travel costs are low and time afield versus time traveling has the best ratio. Here’s to that guy! He may not be swatting away ducks in a faraway wheat field, but he also doesn’t have a calloused behind and a wallet full of receipts.

The Shot!

Hunting’s not all about the shooting. If it were, we’d have quit duck hunting and settled for sporting clays or simple trap shooting long ago. Considered in the scale of time we put in with travel, scouting, hauling and setting decoys, brushing blinds and waiting for birds, trigger-pulling barely registers.

Yet the shooting certainly can be memorable. Most hunters seem to remember their first duck with surprising clarity—and as well, those noteworthy shots of us or our companions that become stamped upon our memory.

Shooters, I’ve noticed, each have a signature way of going about their business. Some are lightning fast on the trigger, others more deliberate, and some always last in line or choosing not to shoot at all. This range of styles demands “calling the shot”—that all important method of creating equity and best results in “working bird” situations.

Calling the shot is often seen as a privilege, but truly, it’s more a responsibility. It takes a team leader with experience and good judgement. By default, an outfitter or guide becomes the shot caller on guided hunts.  Within an informal group of friends, it falls to the most capable. There are times when a shot caller performs indecisively more than once and must be replaced. It’s all for the greater good.

But even with calling the shot, there are going to be some shooters who always seem to be ahead of the pack when it comes to folding the “fat” bird—that greenhead that’s front and center and commands everybody’s eye as the birds drop in.

How do these guys get their shots off so fast? Lots of sporting clays? It’s impressive, but it’s not my style. I got cured of racing for the fat bird on an industry hunt in Alberta years ago. Two guys from one of the gun companies, good fellows, were so quick that there was no way to beat them to the fat birds.

Instead of racing to shoot the same birds, I started looking for the “other” birds in a flock, that greenhead a little behind and off center, that I knew nobody else would be shooting at initially. It worked well and since then it’s helped me create some memorable shots of my own.

My buddy Jack is one of those quick-shot McGraws. I remember a late-season mallard hunt with a cold prairie sun illuminating the birds as they came in left to right. Jack, to my right as the shot was called, dropped a lit-up drake wigeon from the back of the flock to my left just as I was pulling up on the bird. Was Jack out of his lane? You bet. Was it a great shot? Yes! And I told him so. At a certain age, it’s more about the result than the who did what.

Those memorable shots, our own, and those of our companions, are what fill our memory banks over a lifetime of hunting. We might not well remember the miles and the work, but we remember the birds and those bright moments when it all came together.

Photo Will Massey

Private Land Getaways

When looking for private hunting land, most people assume that they will need to pay a high price for an entire season’s access. But what if a hunter could simply lease the property by the day, or series of days, and still reap the benefits of totally private access without the high price tag? Back in 2020, the founders of Infinite Outdoors had the same thought, and set out to change the way hunters gain premium access.

The start-up’s service gives outdoorsmen and women day access to high-value experiences on private property, while giving property owners a hassle-free income by providing access to their land. Infinite Outdoors’ easily accessed website and mobile app let users search for a wide variety of outdoor activities, including properties that offer access to hunt waterfowl, pheasants, turkeys, big game, fly fish, and more. The Wyoming based company currently offers access to nearly 500,000 acres across the country and continues to grow.

While the company focuses on creating great hunting and fishing experiences for outdoorsmen, they also believe in prioritizing landowner benefits. The platform ensures that landowners will be protected and never lose control of their land. With the help of on-staff biologists, the Infinite Outdoors team assists landowners with setting hunt quotas, establishing rest days and offers conservation consultations that improve the private land hunting experience for everyone. Their system allows private property owners to move away from the standard leases of the past and move toward a more manageable day lease system.

Their system benefits everyone involved. Hunters and anglers can be assured that the property hasn’t been overused by previous sportsmen and the landowners can see exactly how much income they are bringing in each week.

Within this unique platform, hunters both new and seasoned can visit several properties throughout the season and hunt a variety of game without the stress of multiple leases or pressure from other hunters. Infinite Outdoors allows sportsmen full access to book any Infinite Outdoors property and hunt it as many times as they would like, within established open days (and booking availability). The platform also allows new hunters and kids a great place to get a good first experiences in the field without public land pressure or the high price tag of guided hunts. Youth hunters and anglers also get steep (if not free) discounts on all adventures.

To top it off, the team is centrally focused on promoting conservation. Whether assisting landowners in habitat improvement or donating to various conservation non-profits (member’s choice) affirming that without conservation, this platform or nor any other hunting or fishing would exist.

To learn more about Infinite Outdoors, become a hunting or fishing member or set up a consultation with the team about property enrollment, visit infiniteoutdoorsusa.com or download the Infinite Outdoors App.

Turning A Page

So much goes into a hunting season. So much planning, so many expectations, so many dark mornings, so many memories made, and then, with one sunset, it ends. All that a year could bring wasn’t enough, could never be enough, a lifetime could never be enough.

Duck hunters don’t live forever. It’s hard to remember that, especially on an October morning under a peach-colored sky, alongside firm friends with ducks over the decoys.

There’s been a spate of hunting types passing out of this world lately who happen to be just ahead of me in life’s strata, which doesn’t make me nervous as much as it makes me sad. Some were old acquaintances, some friends, but they all touched my life in one important way or another.

The most recent was George Trulock, the founder of Trulock Chokes, who passed away in June. George was brilliant, always accessible, and always had time to explain the complicated nuances of choke development. His booth at the annual Shot Show became a regular stop for me for many years, much like a classroom, and I was all ears. His sons Scott and Jerrod will carry on. Rest in peace, George.

An even more personal loss was the passing of my friend Randy Bartz, The Flagman. I first hunted with Randy back in about 1994 and again two years later. We became friends and stayed in touch. Randy was the consummate innovator. He singlehandedly brought flagging to its rightful place in the waterfowler’s arsenal, and he had a tireless eye for any new way to fool ducks and geese. Much of the motion we utilize today, we owe to Randy. He passed away in 2020, that awful year when we all stayed home. I never got to see him again.

Randy was once the caretaker of a well-known honey hole in northwest Minnesota, The St. Paul Pass Duck Club. Known for canvasback and diver hunting on its famous “Pass,” a spit of land that extended out into North Ten Mile Lake, Randy saw another opportunity for the club. Canada geese had made their dramatic comeback and northwest Minnesota saw a lot of migratory Canadas throughout the fall, so this got Randy thinking. How could they get the mile high migrators into gun range?

Randy’s solution: geese like parks! Why not create a park-like setting at the base of the point, replete with mowed lawns, full body goose decoys and picnic tables? At the same time, the water on both sides of the point could be filled with Canada floaters.

I was invited to hunt with a couple of the hotshot young guides Randy had hired to do the goose calling. The results were impressive. One of the guides was a cigarette smoker. The geese we were calling to came from so high that when we started calling the kid lit a cigarette. He smoked the entire cigarette before those geese made their last turn to come into the decoys. Game over. Miss you Randy.

“I thought we could sit forever in fun. But our chances really, was a million to one.”—Bob Dylan

Artist, Cartoonist Bruce Cochran – Our Friend

Artist, Cartoonist Bruce Cochran—Guest Post By Dave Zumbaugh

Bruce Cochran, 86, passed peacefully on Monday, August 22, in Jacksonville, Fla. Cochran fashioned a 63-year career as an independent cartoonist, illustrator, painter and writer, and was considered a trailblazer in outdoor sports humor. With a fine-tuned appreciation for the absurd, his brilliantly funny cartoons reminded sportsmen and women not to take life too seriously. His art was published in American Waterfowler, USA TODAY, Playboy, Field & Stream, On Wisconsin Outdoors and dozens of other publications.

Cochran was an award-winning lifetime member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America. In 2017, he earned the OWAA’s most prestigious honor of Excellence in Craft. He also authored 15 books, selling more than 100,000 copies. Despite his barbed and funny creations, Cochran had a serious love for the great outdoors and was happiest when he was fishing with friends and family or hunting alongside one of his black Labrador retrievers.

Born in Oklahoma City, Okla., Cochran spend most of his life in the Kansas City area before moving to Florida in 2019. Cochran was a loyal and loving husband, father, grandfather and lifelong friend to many. He was passionate about the conservation of natural resources, which he championed through contributions to Ducks Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy and others. Thanks to Mr. Cochran’s granddaughter, Heather Physioc, for contributing to this reporting.

A Loss To Hunters — Guest Post By Craig Bihrle

Jay Strangis’ editorial column in the August 2022 issue of American Waterfowler Magazine hit home a bit, here in central North Dakota.

Just a few days before the magazine arrived, I took a country drive on a familiar stretch of gravel road some 30 miles from Bismarck, with a primary purpose of photographing whatever animals and scenery I might run across.

Part of the route is flanked by prairie potholes of varying sizes and it’s typical in mid-July to see many duck broods. That evening I saw dozens of broods of varying species, some just out of the egg, while others were nearly full grown. My observations mirrored Jay’s comment about the good water conditions in North Dakota this spring, and “… a hopeful breeding season for ducks.”

But down a different road, the news was not so hopeful. The habitat loss that Jay highlighted in the editorial is occurring in that area as well. The accompanying before and after photos show a wetland and surrounding landscape. In the “before” version, the wetland is surrounded by Conservation Reserve Program grasslands. The landowner had also enrolled the tract in the North Dakota Game and Fish Department’s Private Land Open to Sportsmen program. I took that photo in October of 2012.

The recent “after” photo from the same angle, taken on another drive in mid-August, 2022, shows the wetland is still there, but this year it is surrounded by soybeans. I’m not sure exactly what year the land use changed, but most likely the CRP contract had expired and the landowner either couldn’t get the acreage back into the program, or it made better financial sense to plant row crops.

Either way, the loss of that grass hurts ground-nesting birds like ducks and pheasants. In this case, it’s also a loss to hunters because the land was taken out of the PLOTS program, which provides walking public access.

When we talk about habitat loss, this is just one example of what it looks like.

August 2022 – Inconvenient Facts

Amassing the giant Gear Guide issue is an absorbing task. We hope that you, like us, enjoy learning about the new for ’22 products and will favor the fantastic industry partners that make this issue possible.

As much as we enjoy new gear, we realize that what keeps all of us so passionate about waterfowl hunting are THE BIRDS! So, perhaps it’s worth spending a few moments discussing ducks and geese, the backbone of our common obsession.

I recently noticed that the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) will turn 50 in the coming year. In the early 1900s, wild turkeys were at a low point, down to about 200,000 birds due to overharvest and loss of forests. Founded in 1973, NWTF dedicated itself to assisting restoration efforts for wild turkeys that had by that time, through protection, rebounded to about 1.9 million birds. Continuing efforts by state and federal agencies, often funded by NWTF, have brought wild turkey numbers to more than 6.25 million birds. Congrats to NWTF and 50 years!
As waterfowl hunters, we too have organizations dedicated to waterfowl conservation, and many of us are members. But waterfowl conservation and turkey conservation are two very different worlds, primarily due to a singular but striking difference—habitat.

Put simply, turkey habitat is seldom controversial and was naturally returning to favoring turkeys after the early 1900s. Waterfowl habitat is almost always controversial and has been going in the wrong direction, vanishing ever faster since the mid-1900s.

The decimation of the hardwood forests in the U.S. during the 1800s had much to do with the decline of the wild turkey. However, as those forests were allowed to regenerate in the 1900s, turkeys found new, essential habitat. With habitat aplenty, turkeys only needed to be protected and reintroduced.

The decimation of the prairie pothole regions of the U.S. and Canada, the drainage of wetlands, the conversion of prairie grasslands to agriculture only began rapid expansion after about 1950 and has accelerated since. It continues today.

Conservation organizations targeting hunters have offered a bright picture of water on the North Dakota prairie this year and a hopeful breeding season for ducks—all true, all good. But these press releases citing the recent 2022 Breeding Duck Survey, conducted by the state of North Dakota, seem to have left some important information out, as follows…

“Nesting cover in North Dakota continues to decline. We are seeing substantial changes in grassland conditions, with many areas that were formerly grassland being converted into agricultural land. Expiring CRP contracts and other factors are pushing these conversions. We continue to note many large tracts of grassland/CRP and native prairie that had been recently converted to cropland or were in the process of being plowed. Wetland drainage and wetland conversion to cropland, including drain tiling, continues to be an expanding occurrence…”
It continues, “…the loss of critical breeding habitats will be disastrous for breeding ducks and hunting opportunities in North Dakota.” And, “Waterfowl breeding habitats are under extreme pressure in North Dakota and these developments can only further reduce waterfowl production in the state.”

Turkeys are easy. Ducks are hard. Ignore the facts at your own peril.

Life After Lead

We’ve been hunting waterfowl in the U.S. without lead shot for 30 years now. Has it been that long? Seems like only yesterday that we were young fellas getting visited in our blind by a game warden with a magnet. And, if memory serves, lead bans on state managed waters began years before the nationwide ban—at least in Minnesota.

A Rocky Start
Truth be told, the evolution of nontoxic shotshells following the lead ban had a rocky start. Traveling at speeds that produced deadly results with lead, steel shot seemed at first, well, more like shooting Styrofoam, especially when it came to things like swatting winged birds on the water. But credit the shotshell industry for making the adjustments that brought us steel loads so effective that, today, we don’t think twice about using them.

Credit also the innovation that brought us a range of nontoxic shotshell products that perform as well or better than lead once did. Bismuth, tungsten, special buffers, copper plating, load blends, special powders and better components have given us a range of effective shotshell options not seen even IN the “good old days” of lead pellets.

A Different Frontier
What brought all this to mind was a recent letter from a reader concerned with the use of lead shotshells in Argentina. The man, a waterfowler, noted that some writers promote Argentina as a place to return to the “good ol’ days” of shooting lead. That narrative bothered the man. He pointed to Argentina’s lead “problem” and the difficulty the country is having addressing it.

A little research revealed that shotshell ammo, lead shot, certainly is cheap and accessible in Argentina. A box of shotshells at a lodge costs about $12 for dove loads and $15 for duck loads. A 2019 study documenting the use of lead shot noted that, in the top dove hunting province, between 210 tons and 480 tons of lead is scattered afield each year. Conservative estimates in a major waterfowl hunting province between 2007 and 2009 said that at least 56 tons of shot were added to wetlands.

And lead is showing up in livestock and people in Argentina. Of specific concern was evidence of lead found in the baby teeth and in the bloodstreams of local children.

Efforts to curb lead entering the environment in Argentina faces hurdles. A primary hurdle is that the country does not have the industry to produce nontoxic ammo. Regulations to curb lead use are weak and, in some cases, unenforceable. Consider one report that describes lead shot restrictions as “encouraged and underway.” Consider also a rule that requires shooters to curb their lead ammo use by 25 percent. But who’s counting?

Moving Forward
Back in the U.S., waterfowl hunters stopped their kicking and screaming about lead shot bans a long time ago. Industry responded with a solution, as industry usually does. Now the lead controversy has moved into the realm of rifle ammo and fishing tackle. Likely, we will have to again adapt, and industry will innovate. I’m just glad I don’t have to go back to hunting pigeons with my Wrist Rocket slingshot. Although, come to think of it, I kind of miss that!

Photo: Apex Ammunition TSS Tungsten Super Shot. www.ApexMunition.com


But Who’s Counting?

Two springs without a survey of the continent’s waterfowl breeding population, followed by a summer of severe drought on the same survey grounds, would suggest a giant blind spot in waterfowl management. Most of us have a measure of faith in those minding our duck and goose stores, but perhaps now we should call it blind faith.

It’s not that we don’t appreciate not having had a major change in season length or limits in more than 20 years. But many of us remember those lean times that called for fewer days and smaller bag limits. This makes us wonder. Considering the carnage of last year’s drought, the proposals for this year seem, well, pleasantly, and generously surprising.

Here’s what we appear to be headed for in the fall of 2022. (This is not final, check your local listings later).

What To Expect

Unless there’s a shock wave, frameworks are calling for another 60-day season in both the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways. Central Flyway hunters can expect another 74 days, and Pacific Flyway hunters another 107 days. Status quo.

Don’t expect a change in mallard limits because there doesn’t appear to be any coming. Bad news again for those in the northeast with their two bird (one hen) mallard limit. If you hunt the middle of the country, you can shoot four again in the Mississippi Flyway and five in the Central. In the Pacific, it’s still seven (two hen max in all, of course).

Our scaup problem isn’t going away. Can we help it that bluebills seldom come in as singles? It appears that if you live near the coasts, you are getting two bluebills, at least for a portion of the season (east coast), but everywhere else it’s again one bird.

Canvasbacks have been christened “okay” apparently. At least okay enough to move the limit from one to two nationwide. Who would have thought we would see the day when the canvasback limit was higher than the scaup limit?

Pintails, those elegant birds that, surprisingly, so many hunters reported seeing in numbers last season (could just be hearsay) are still going to be a one and done, nationwide. Sorry, Pacific Flyway friends (some Central Flyway hunters also feel your pain).

Black ducks will be afforded moderate regulation in both the Atlantic and Mississippi Flyways, with a daily limit of two. Worth it for a Sunday morning worship at the altar of an eastern salt marsh?

A blue-winged teal bonus of two birds beyond daily limit should apply to those places that forego early teal seasons. This includes Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming during the first 16 days of the regular season. Come early, supplies don’t last.

Based on our shared experience, if these frameworks hold, it seems we’re getting off easy in a time of major drought. Maybe the weather this spring and summer will prove the store minders right. We shall see.


Last fall, the fall of 2021, will be remembered for many reasons, not the least of which will be freedom from the limitations a toxic virus placed on travel and gatherings just one year before. It’s no secret—2020 stunk.

Now, travel is unrestricted, lodges have reopened, big family gatherings are in vogue, Canada has unlocked the gate and hunters who may have cancelled plans the previous year have been back on the road. Was 2020 even real? It seems like some sort of bad dream.

Not that the aftereffects aren’t showing. Travelers to Canada still need tedious and timely health credentials to enter—a protocol that turns what should be excitement at crossing the border into worry and stress.

Then there are the shortages. Need a new this or that for this year? Backordered, or out of stock” seems to be a common warning  on many websites. If you order a product that was made somewhere across the Pacific, it’s no doubt sitting in one of those ships waiting outside the Long Beach Harbor, or perhaps waiting for a truck that can actually haul it. Or, as you may learn from our April/May 2022 issue, pretty much all new boats require getting on a waitlist—though if you shop you can probably find one “ready for fall.”

Which brings us to ammo shortages. Need shotgun shells? It’s getting better, but thank goodnessI

And speaking of  back to Canada,. My friend and American Waterfowler contributor, Jack Hirt, returned from his annual (except in 2020) trip to northern Saskatchewan. Snow goose hunting was excellent, Jack reported. The flocks of snows and Ross’ geese were on time and packed with juvenile birds, making for epic hunts. It’s good news for spring and fall snow goose chasers on this side of the border.

Jack said ducks were present too, maybe not in the numbers of previous years but in plentiful supply, nonetheless. Being close to the semi-permanent wetlands of the boreal region and somewhat immune from the prairie drought, that made sense.

In our conversation, Jack mentioned a morning in a field where the five of them shot 40 pintails. You can imagine my surprise when the Saskatchewan limit was four pintails as recently as last year, and one pintail across the U.S. “Yeah, I’m not really sure what that was all about, but that was the new limit, eight pintails per day,” Jack said. “And most of them were brown birds.” Which translates to, it was difficult to pick out drakes versus hens. Canada places no such distinction within their limits, but I’ve hunted plenty with Jack, and I know he’s a drake shooter when offered the choice.

That reminds me of a September when I was in Alberta hunting mallards and the flocks were full, it seemed, of “brown” birds. Sometimes a flock of 30 would come in and there would be only one visible drake. I held off on a lot of flocks, but with a bunch of other shooters, a lot of brown was hitting the ground, including hens. I asked the outfitter, a former DU biologist, if the practice of shooting so many hens might have a negative effect on mallard production. His answer, “We don’t shoot enough ducks in Canada for it to matter.” I wasn’t sure if that was the truth or a statement of convenience, and I still wonder today.

Here’s to 2021. We hope you had a great, or at least good, season!

The Past Is Prelude

The word “drought” seems to be the flavor of the month. Not one news cycle or news source can carry on without it. The current drought is bad news, no doubt. No sane person could discount its horrendous effect. But it might be prudent to look at the current U.S. drought in historical context.

A Brief History Of Modern Drought

This is the sixth drought in a cycle going back to 1890. There was a drought in the 1930s (the grandaddy), another in the 1950s, a less severe pair in the mid-60s and late 80s, a more significant drought in the early 2000s and now this, the fairly severe drought of the early 2020s. It is true that we still don’t know where this current drought will bottom out, but historically, they all have a bottom, some worse than others.

Droughts are tough, as we are now seeing again. They are hard on agriculture, including both crops and livestock. Droughts can and have led to terrible fires and losses of personal property, and there are untold costs to society as a whole. They are also hard on wildlife populations, particularly those critters that depend on water for rearing the next generation. Waterfowl would be high on that list.

But droughts, as well as wet years, are part of a cycle that nature is well equipped to handle. Ecosystems, including their plant and animal life, have been dealing with these cycles for millennium. Some seeds, microbes and invertebrates actually rely on such cycles and flourish because of them.

Droughts And Waterfowl

There is no doubt that the current drought cycle will have an effect on what waterfowl hunters will see in the skies this fall. How that plays out is yet to be seen. Nothing’s really changed as far as limits go. Perhaps we can be thankful that we aren’t back in 1962 when there was a 23-day season and a two-bird limit (one mallard) in the Mississippi Flyway.

My friend and occasional hunting partner, Jack, is a long-time prairie hunter. Having that in common, we talk a lot about good years and bad, cycles of wet and dry. “When there’s water, there’s birds,” Jack likes to say. It sounds too simple, but really, it is that simple.

We like to harken back to 2009. We were moving forward in a wet cycle on the prairie following the nasty drought of the early 2000s. Then in a freak series of weather events, northern South Dakota and a portion of southern North Dakota got gobs of rain. Cattle in barnyards were standing in knee deep water, soybean and corn fields were flooded, ditches collected so much water they looked like marshes, and the countryside was covered with ducks and geese—and I mean, covered. How sweet it was!

I’ll spare you the stories of glory, but just end with this: The past is prelude—we’ve seen this before and we will see it again.

Duck Hunting Democracy

My native state just changed a bunch of rules intended to protect ducks and geese in season, some designed as management tools to keep birds around longer, protect overnight roosts, soften impacts on smaller lakes and wetlands and take pressure off early-season birds. The “rules” that were dismissed by the DNR were originally designed to IMPROVE hunting. And there is no doubt that in a state with a whole lot of duck hunters, the now discarded rules did just that.

One lifted rule, for example, had previously barred goose hunters in specific areas from hunting over water. I’ve seen this type of change firsthand. I lived in the Brainerd area when goose hunting over water was banned, and I also lived there the ban was lifted. When the ban was lifted the goose hunting took a dramatic nose dive. Why? No refuge for locals or migrators.

I could go on about a new Minnesota early teal season (Sept. 4, five days), opening the same day as early goose opens, adding another day to the youth hunting opener (Sept. 12-13) followed by the regular season opener (Sept. 25)—good luck finding a willing duck on the opener.

What puzzles me more is the justification for the changes. Those who have hunted for a number of years know that waterfowl hunting rules always have been created and enforced for the benefit of the birds. Banning lead shot, closing canvasback hunting, shortening the number of days nationwide, and on and on. Nobody asked for our approval in making these changes. Until now, apparently.

Steve Cordits, the Minnesota DNR’s waterfowl coordinator, pointed to a rushed public opinion survey that supports his rule changes. Okay, maybe. The entire survey leaves a lot of gray area. Only about a thousand people participated in the survey (there are more than 60,000 waterfowl hunters in the state) and the “vote” for changes was carried by only a small fraction.

Here’s the real problem. Hunting’s regulatory body should be regulating, not pandering to every person that buys a hunting license. The job of state and federal agencies charged with managing and protecting our natural resources is to manage and protect those resources. This is no place for a democratic system—majority rules. What’s best for the RESOURCE is best for the resource, and ultimately best for the end user—hunters.

Look at the states with the best big game hunting. Then don’t set quotas based on random hunter polls to appease the majority. Hey, two elk for every hunter! Great suggestion!

Want to know why Minnesota has lost so many duck hunters? Fewer ducks. A poor job of managing the resource—that is what’s real.

Agencies like the Minnesota DNR are frantic over diminished license sales and thus diminished staffing and funds to support their departments, and we need to find a solution that helps them. But giving away the resource in order to sell a few more licenses, if it even works out that way, is not the answer. Managing a resource should consider hunters’ opinions, but management can’t be a democratic process. Taking a vote on how we should regulate waterfowl hunting is not sound wildlife management. Heck, in that case, raise your hand if you like punt guns!

Everything Changes

Greg Hoch’s article on page seven of the June/July issue of American Waterfowler, “Routes That Were, And Are,” unleashed in me a flood of memories of time and place and birds.

I have a daughter, now mostly grown, who is a sensitive soul. When she was very young, she would melt down in tears of anguish over events no one could control like the loss of an aged, great uncle she barely knew, the passing of an old, neighborhood dog that was far too long for this world or a favorite neighbor moving away. I would tell her, “Honey, everything changes. That is the nature of this world. Nothing stays the same forever.” But bless her heart, these were, to her, incomprehensibly sad events.

And so perhaps it is, as we go through life and witness those things that stir our hearts, that we seldom stop to think, “I may never see this here again.”

I think about the bluebills that once rafted on the vast waters of Lake of the Woods. How we used to hunt them every deer opener because we knew the bays they liked to feed upon would be free of hunters and we’d have the good gunning to ourselves. How one November, while working on a book project and seeking photos, I hired a float plane whose ancient pilot coaxed the slow-moving yellow bird out over the vast lake until we were looking down at a rolling mass of black dots—a vast, living carpet of bluebills, some 600,000 strong.

Everything changes. Today there is no “great raft” on Lake of the Woods, and there are no great migrations of that many birds through the Minnesota lake country—an event similar to a five-alarm fire that lasted one or two weeks for the many duck hunters who answered the bell.  The bluebills moved west, apparently, to the ever-growing body of water called Devil’s Lake, where freshwater shrimp thrive (no doubt the shrimp are more dependable than cyclical rice crops). Lesser scaup also suffered a mysterious decline continent-wide, their overall numbers now just one-third what they were three decades ago.

And what of the snow geese that used to blanket North Dakota in the fall? Flocks once so thick, so enormous in size that a hunter did not need decoys to enjoy a morning’s pass shooting. Those that had the moxie to decoy the birds did even better. But the birds were pushed and prodded from sunup to sundown and apparently grew tired of the game. Up in Bottineau County, the Bottineau shootout raised money for Ducks Unlimited as teams of snow goose hunters came from long distances to participate. But that died too. Now only a smattering of the vast white flocks stop in North Dakota in the fall.

Yep, everything changes. Fortunately for us as waterfowlers, when one door closes, another seems to open—somewhere. Aside from the anomalies, duck production has been good in the past decade. Canada geese have never been stronger, and snow geese, though fickle as ever, continue to take up a lot of space. The traditions of ducks and geese have changed with the landscape, and hunters will continue to adapt. As sad as the passing of waterfowl traditions are, nothing stays the same forever. It’s the nature of this world.

Eukanuba Champions Exertional Heat Awareness In Gun Dog Training

This summer, Eukanuba is focusing its attention on keeping dogs safe while running in hot, humid conditions. There are two types of Heat Related Illness (HRI), non-exertional and exertional.

Non-exertional HRI comes when dogs are confined in hot areas and can’t cool down. Exertional HRI comes when a dog’s activities generate excessive internal heat and the hot summer heat won’t let them cool down fast enough. To get gun dogs ready for Opening Day, owners need to work in the heat. Proper hydration combined with identifying the three progressive phases of exertional HRI is important.

Says Russ Kelley, the Science Lead Nutritionist at Eukanuba’s Pet Health and Nutrition Center “high temperatures and humidity makes it difficult for dogs to cool down. Their normal core body temperature is a range that accounts for different sizes and breeds. Normal core body temps vary between 99.5-105.5 degrees, and as those temps climb above 104 degrees then dogs may be impacted. Heat stress is the first stage where their tongue tips are wide, and they have white pasty foam on their gums. Heat exhaustion is when they lose focus and start wobbling while running. Heat stroke comes with vomiting, diarrhea, and possibly a coma. Being aware of the signs is important to keep dogs safe while preparing for Opening Day.”

Eukanuba Pro Trainer Chris Akin from Webb Footed Kennels in Jonesboro, Arkansas, says, “It’s tough to train dogs in the summer, especially if you’ve got a lot of personal and professional commitments. It’s best to wake up early and train. Everything in the morning is the coolest it’ll be that day. Dogs adapt more easily to rising temperatures, so get your butt out of bed in the morning and get after it.”

Here are five of his quick tips:

  • Wide open spaces. “Work dogs in more open areas. Cover traps heat while open space circulates air. Even the lightest breeze helps dogs cool down.”
  • Made in the Shade. “Keep all dogs staked out in the shade when they’re not running, especially black or chocolate dogs which absorb more heat than lighter colored ones.”
  • Cut feeding as workloads decrease. “Reduce your feeding and feed only in the afternoon. Digestion causes an increase in internal temperatures, so they’ll run cooler on an empty stomach. Also, float their food in water to help prevent dehydration.”
  • Watch their tongue. “Rounded ends, long tongues, and tongues coming out of the sides of their mouths means back off. Lack of focus, wobbly legs, and excessive panting means cool ‘em down. It’s a long way until duck season so take your time, work slowly, and build up progressively. Keep a close eye on your dog and keep him safe.”
  • Keep Labs dry. “You’ll want to run them in the water to keep them cool, but make sure they’re dry before you put them in their box. If a Lab’s under coat stays wet the heat will cause them to develop a fungus.”

There is a lot more information on HRI on Eukanuba’s Sporting Dog website, www.eukanubasportingdog.com. Be safe, train smart, and help your gun dogs prepare for the upcoming season so you’ll have a great time in the woods and waters.

Is Easier The Answer? Don’t Think So

Having had the good fortune to hunt ducks and geese for all these years, I would be lying to say it wasn’t also a lot of work. But hey, for those born with the waterfowlig curse, what’s a little work if you get a chance to shoot a few. And when I say “a few,” I mean that literally. No matter how acclaimed the waterfowling Mecca, and I’ve been to some dandy places, there are days that don’t live up to the hype. But, a few is better than zero, a number I’ve notched plenty of times as well. Of course, I’ve also been rewarded with days when limits more or less fell into our laps. Work equals reward in waterfowling, and though the work is steady, the reward isn’t guaranteed.

When our group of compadres sets out on a waterfowling freelancing venture for a few days or a week, we have a saying that if we get one really good shoot for every three days of hunting, we’ve had a great trip. Some days, we are just plain in for a win, but the ducks have to win some too, otherwise there wouldn’t be many ducks.

Being a born and raised Minnesota boy, I’ve watched the hunting quality change there over the years, I was around when there were easily 200 percent more potholes than there are today, when South Dakota grew more cattle than corn and North Dakota grew almost entirely small grains so that southbound ducks out of Canada seeking cold-weather fuel in corn found it first in western Minnesota. Times change. It is, without question, tougher hunting today.

I’ve heard lately that the brain-trust that is the Minnesota DNR is considering making it easier to hunt ducks by softening long-standing regulations intended to shield ducks and geese from excess pressure, keep them around longer and help maintain the traditions of waterfowl that move through the state. There’s no need for these foolish changes, in Minnesota or anywhere. Discouraged by falling license sales, they want to abolish guard rails in an effort to get more cars on the road.

They misjudge waterfowlers. Waterfowling is about traditions, not ease and convenience. And part of that tradition is WORK.

When hunting got tougher because of drought, lowered limits or shortened seasons, waterfowlers didn’t stop hunting. They just worked harder. When the spring white goose conservation season was established some two decades ago, fish and game departments envisioned that with relaxed rules everyone would chase white geese. It didn’t happen, mostly because it’s really not part of “everyone’s” waterfowling tradition. It’s a SPRING season, and it doesn’t include ducks. It maters not that they have taken all the “regular” rules out of snow goose hunting to make the hunting easier—it’s still SNOW GOOSE hunting—something only a slice of waterfowlers get excited about.

Changing waterfowl hunting to somehow make it like picking up drive-thru won’t bring more waterfowlers into the fold. On the other hand, it wouldn’t hurt if entities like the Minnesota DNR and the federal government did a better job of protecting wetlands and conserving grasslands to help ducks. We’ll do our part. We’ll keep hunting.

When Birds Social Distance

If you would have told me nine months ago that the world as we know it would take a 90-degree turn, I would likely have thought you to be kidding, a conspiracy theorist, or completely mad (as in crazy). But here we are. If you had told me that the U.S./Canadian border, something that has been a part of my life since a young child, would be closed for perhaps a year, I would have laughed—not possible. But here we are.

Over the past eight months, the world has been redefined and we’ve adapted to new realities not by choice but by necessity. And we’ve done a good job of it, in many cases. Even our terminology has changed. Terms like “essential workers” and “front-line workers” now define diverse groups of people in the important roles they play for a working society. Online learning is no longer an outlier method of getting a degree; it has become standard fare. Social distancing? Who ever heard of that? We’ve adapted in the workplace, with more telecommuting, more online meetings. We’ve adapted in business, with empty spaces becoming outdoor cafés, and box stores and restaurants combining online business with curbside pickup.

Personally, I’m impressed with how much a society can change in so short a period, but do I like it? No. In so many ways it’s inconvenient as heck—especially when it comes to hunting!

I had plans for a couple of trips across our northern border—both cancelled. Minnesota’s Game Fair, a fun August event—cancelled. Shot Show, a January industry even—cancelled. NWTF, a February event in Nashville, cancelled. As I write this, I’m still trying to figure out what our trips to the prairies are going to look like when motels and restaurants and travel in general are factored.

It’s all a pain in the behind. Yeah, I get that some alteration in routine is required in these unusual times, and yes, I want to keep my family safe and intend to follow guidelines to do that. But let me be clear—I can’t wait to turn the page.

On the other hand, I think the ducks and geese might be liking this, at least those north of the Canadian border. I hear this from my contacts up there who have found hunting to be tough this year. According to reports, the birds in Canada are having a party—one to which you and I weren’t invited.

To start with, weather early was unusually warm—never great for hunting. Add to that a landscape with an endless buffet table and too few hunters to keep the birds honest. And finally, for goose hunters, too many adult geese are in the flocks, which means fewer mistakes by the birds and tougher decoying for the hunters.

One source reported watching scouted birds feed in four different fields in the same afternoon, with the hunters completely vexed by where the birds might go next. I don’t know about the hunters, but it sounds like the birds are doing a great job of social distancing! www.waterfowler.com/subscribe

Three Days When?

Waterfowl hunting sits so strongly on traditions. I’ve been hunting with the same core of guys for years, and unless someone dies, God forbid, there seems to be no reason that tradition won’t continue.

We don’t have a club, we rarely see each other in the off-season, and we don’t always go to the same destination year after year to hunt. We do stay in touch. We break the season into two segments, early and late, and our goal is always to hunt twice together, though that doesn’t always happen. But the “early and late” give us a framework.

Is this sounding familiar to anyone else?

Perhaps like other friend groups, perhaps not, we each have a tolerance for the number of days we are willing to plan. I’m more or less wide open. I’ll hunt as long as anyone else wants to hunt. Others have their own limitations. One of my partners commonly says, “I’ve got four days [or five, or whatever]; that’s all I’m in for.” Putting a strict limit on things. Another partner never says anything when it comes to planning, except, “When and where are we meeting up?” He is notoriously vague and may pull out of the hunt at any time with any number of reasons or excuses. Call him noncommittal. Another is dependable, but he’ll always have his own vehicle available to suit his pace. He may jettison himself from the group, but always with a heads-up and sound reasoning. There are outlier members of our group too, from time to time. All good.

We are northern hunters, so we don’t enjoy the luxury of managed wetlands and private properties that can draw and hold ducks for weeks or months in the heart of the season. It’s catch as catch can for us, like a jigsaw puzzle that never seems quite finished. Sometimes you have to move forward without those few pieces that fell on the floor and got swept away.

The biggest challenge for our group is timing our two trips. An early trip taken too late may miss opportunities on local birds. We try to avoid opening day crowds, but rather focus on local birds that are still available, perhaps in larger groups, that offer bigger rewards with less competition. It’s a fine line to walk, but when we get it right, it’s so right.

Our late-season timing is even more challenging, primarily because it’s so hard to predict weather more than 10 days in advance. We want to hit the thick of things, when new birds are arriving daily and opportunities are popping. That’s a short window. We have some tricks for estimating this, but if you’re like us, then you already know that timing has changed over the last couple of decades. Migration windows can swing wildly. We’ve seen bitter cold in the first week of November, or, in contrast, mild temps trailing into Thanksgiving.

So we make our best guesses and anchor our plans. Usually we focus on three days of hunting, perhaps four. We set the optimum days, then build the prepping and travel around that. Some of us enjoy the process; others just want to know, “Three days, when?” No matter where they fall, they are always some of the best days of the year!


Perhaps like you, I’ve been hunkered down for a while now. I’ve gotten some major projects done around the homestead, but have limited my trips away from home. Sure, there’s the gas station and the grocery store, but it’s in and out. Not the right time for idle chitchat. That’s too bad, because a proper chitchat is good tonic once in a while.

I’m not a kid anymore, and I’ve got teenagers at home, so my vagabond instincts have pretty much fallen away. But I wonder, what must it be like for that 18- or 25-year-old, chomping at the bit, like I once was? Where would I be right now if I had to safely and responsibly navigate the world as it is today? There are probably ways to do it.

When I was just shy of 20, I built a box on the back of my early model red Ford pickup and headed to Montana. When I got tired, I found a place to pull off the road and made my bed in the back of the truck. Couldn’t afford motels. That would work just fine today, except for the fact that part of that lifestyle is visiting with strangers you meet along the way. Okay, so you have to pack a face mask.

Again, in my 20s, a friend and I did an extended backpack into the high country of one of Montana’s wilderness areas. Driving from Minnesota to a trailhead on the Wyoming border, the trip consumed about three weeks. In all our time on the trail, we saw only one other hiking party. We saluted views from the top of the world. We fished high-country streams and lakes that few ever see and feasted on trout and grayling at every opportunity. That trip was not for the novice backpacker, but it certainly fits today’s times.

Also in my 20s, I fulfilled a promise I made to myself at 18—building a cabin on family wilderness property in Ontario’s lake country. I spent six weeks of one summer cutting, skinning and stacking carefully chosen logs on the site, a week in the winter hauling in materials over the ice by snow machine, then another spring and early summer building the cabin. Rarely saw another human in that wilderness, other than the few people who shuttled in and out to help with the project. I guess I couldn’t do that today, because the Canadian border is closed, but there’s plenty of wild country in the U.S. to chase a dream.

Wanderlust never sleeps. For many years I traveled solo every year to a rare, wooded area of North Dakota for two weeks of archery hunting for deer and shooting ducks and geese. I rented a little cabin. There was a lot of alone time involved. I guess a person just has to be comfortable with that fact. Perhaps lovers of the outdoors are somehow uniquely suited.

Perhaps a young person could look at this time as an opportunity, not an inconvenience. A perfect time to chase a dream—to find a seam that can be safely navigated, and jump on in.

Unprecedented Times

Let me first say to you, gentle reader, that I hope you and yours are well. These are unprecedented times, and we, like you, are very interested to see what form the 2020–2021 hunting season takes. We share your ambition to get back under the open skies and among the marshes again.

Like other businesses, we have had to cut back on some services during the recent shutdowns. Perhaps you had noticed that a person did not answer the customer service line. Instead we encouraged you to leave a message and that we would get back to you as soon as possible. We apologize for this temporary inconvenience. We are now answering the phones all day during regular business hours. But it’s worth reminding you that you can easily subscribe or renew online at our SUBSCRIBE page. You also can get a FREE American Waterfowler Canvas Hunting Cap if you subscribe or renew now at a special rate on our website.

As the entire country has gone through slowdowns, so too have some of our partners. We’re all working together to get back to full bore. In the meantime, when it comes to the magazine, we harken back to the immortal words of the greatest showman, P.T. Barnum: “The show must go on!”

In keeping with that spirit, we at American Waterfowler continue to produce our cornerstone magazine; you can depend on that. The June/July issue is the second we have released during the current crisis, and we are proud to bring it to your door as promised. This one is special in several ways.

We’re calling this issue an ENCORE EDITION, because it features several stories pulled from past issues, brought back into the spotlight because they’re worth retelling. Each article has been edited again, but if you’ve been a reader of American Waterfowler from our beginnings more than a decade ago, you may recognize some of them. For us, revisiting these timeless stories provided as much entertainment as when they were originally submitted.

There are also new offerings in this issue, of course. Lefty’s Blind Bag on page 12 covers six exciting products you might consider as the 2020 season approaches. For those of us who haven’t tested them already, they’re in the lineup for this coming fall. Another current topic of coverage is Jarrod Spilger’s Shotguns column on page 18. To Super X shotgun fans like myself, the news of Winchester’s new 20 gauge SX4 brought a smile to our faces. I already have two cases of 20 gauge dove loads and another case of duck loads ready to run through what will be my new special order SX4. The fun never stops.

While we navigate this time together, we will continue to bring you the best of the waterfowling lifestyle. Up next, you can look forward to an all-new 2020 Gear Guide issue, packed with the latest products and great storytelling. In the meantime, we hope that you get outdoors, buy new gear and continue to move the needle for the outdoor industry and its conservation partners. Your support for our waterfowling traditions is essential at a time like this. Thank you for your business and commitment.

Finding Small Blessings In Strange Times

Lately I’m feeling a bit depressed. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but every time I think about my cabin in Canada that I won’t be able to visit this spring. The Canadian government, due to the current corona virus crisis, has closed the border to non-essential visitors. I could argue that I am a landowner, that it is essential that I tend to my property, but that would be futile. I’ve crossed that border hundreds of times and know that they are particularly deaf to perceived rights of American citizens.

You see, each spring, in May and on the same exact date, I head across the northern border to visit the cabin I built decades ago on land that has been in our family for more than 100 years. It’s a roadless area, across a beautiful lake the property borders, requiring a pack-in on a crude trail followed by a lake crossing in canoe or kayak to reach the cabin.

It’s peaceful there, wild as wild can be. It’s Northwoods for sure. Bear, wolves, lynx, moose, deer, beavers, eagles, they’re all part of the neighborhood. One never knows when or where they might appear, sometimes in a sign, a track or a fleeting glimpse, other times in plain view, as if they are as surprised and interested in you as you are them. The fishing is outstanding too, but it’s the peace of the place that grabs me most of all.

The property was staked out by my great grandfather at the turn of the last century. A timber cruiser, he thought there might be a wealth of gold there, but it never came to be. No amount of gold could match what it means to me.

It’s interesting too, to think about my great grandfather at these times.  His daughter Hazel, then in her 20s with two very young children, died in the 1918 flu pandemic. What a burden to carry. The girls were raised in part by Hazel’s sister, my grandmother Rubelle. One of those young children, Eldyne, was a baby at the time that her mother passed away from the flu virus, and she would become like a second mother to me. These are the ties that bind us.

I’ll get to Canada, sooner or later and probably much later—August? September? But I’m counting on it, just as I’m counting on hunting this fall on all our usual hunting grounds. Meantime, I’m getting work done on the magazine, tackling outdoor projects I’d been putting off and spending a heck of a lot of special time with my wife and kids.

What’s interesting is, just at the time that my two kids are starting to find their parents less and less interesting, we’re now bound together at regular evening dinners with time to spare. Nobody’s rushing to get away from the table, the kids are more involved in meal preparation and cleanup and we’re finding small reasons to enjoy each other’s company—not always, but for the most part. The dog’s getting a bit more quality time from me too. All good.

God puts small blessings everywhere we look. We just have to find them.

Three Inconceivable Things

Spending time in a duck blind with a hunting buddy on a slow day, we had plenty of time between shooting opportunities. Everybody knows this drill– conversation turns to this and that and the flow and pace make birds almost an interruption, though a welcome one.

So, we got to talking about duck numbers, agreeing that times have changed, how we still have good, even great, hunts, despite the hunting grounds taking on new shapes, with new rules, new challenges, lost prospects and in some cases new opportunities.

Pontificating about the world of today, we wondered aloud about the world of tomorrow. What would it be like? What best-case scenario for ducks and duck hunters could be imagined, and what might the worst look like? What could we tolerate, and what would be intolerable?

Best case, we decided, would be 10 times the number of canvasbacks. That settled, we moved to broader (less selfish) states of affairs: A country extremely protective of the value of wetlands as a resource integral to clean water, as insurance against major floods and for maintaining diversity against a monoculture, development-prone landscape. In this brave new world, the citizenry and the government would strictly enforce laws that protect wetlands, and landowners would be compensated for the value their wetlands bring to the landscape and the population as a whole, much like CRP. Violations against wetlands would be prosecuted vigorously.

That settled, we came across three intolerable things the real future might hold:

  Prairies without potholes. What is a prairie without potholes? It is simply a plain, as in the Great Plain. Iowa and Minnesota represent the most shameful examples of wetland destruction, with Iowa eliminating 99 percent of its former wetlands and Minnesota 98 percent, most done under the supervision of government and its programs. NOW, not in some imagined future, both Dakotas continue to drain and tile while county agriculture agents defy Swampbuster rules with a wink and a turned head. The Dakotas without wetlands seems inconceivable.

Privatization of hunting. This is the European tradition, not ours, but it is becoming our way too. The boom in buying deer hunting property in the Midwest was just the start. Pheasant hunting in South Dakota is mostly fee hunting. Waterfowl guides must now tie up sections of land to assure access for their clients. There may be no way to avoid this, but it certainly is unlike the old days when posted signs weren’t hot sellers at the local hardware store. Could we be less than a generation away from a predominance of fee hunting? It seems inconceivable, but….

A kid who wants to hunt, with nobody to take him hunting. There’s no telling what youngster is going to get bitten by the hunting bug. It doesn’t take having a dad to own a slingshot and stalk starlings and chipmunks. But how’s that kid going to get to go on a real hunt when he’s 12 to 15 and can’t drive. As hunter ranks shrink, so do the number of mentors. An apple tree can’t grow up straight and strong without a little guidance, and neither can a kid. It’s inconceivable that a kid wouldn’t have the same opportunities we grew up with, or is it?

Oh well, wishes and worries aside, we shot a few ducks that day, too.

It’s Our Future

Being a Minnesota native son, I’m sad to hear that the curtain has closed on the Minnesota Waterfowl Association. As of last fall, the MWA IS no longer. Founded for all the right reasons, the organization did some good things in its 52-year life span, but it lost touch with today’s young waterfowlers at a time when the old guard was passing. That’s not a good combination. Aside from harkening back to those board members I watched and respected, and the wins, both big and small along the way, I’ll remember it most for its Camp Woodie (wood duck), an annual, weeklong retreat for youngsters that taught hunting and conservation in a hands-on way. We published a story on Camp Woodie some years ago in American Waterfowler and got a lot of positive feedback from readers.

Perhaps it was just the MWA’s time to pass away. But it brings up an uneasy feeling that’s been percolating in me for a while. It’s a feeling that perhaps too many of us today don’t take seriously just how fragile our resource really is.

It makes sense that we might think otherwise. We hear about big survey tallies, Canada goose comeback stories, overabundant snow geese and perhaps think, “Well, everything is great.” We see bird limits unsurpassed in modern times: 15 Canada geese per day in the early season in North Dakota, with a 45-goose possession limit; eight geese per day during the regular season; 50 light geese per day in North Dakota in the regular season; unlimited white geese in spring season. Even six ducks per day with 18 in possession is a gift (make it seven per day in the Pacific Flyway) to those waterfowlers who remember the two-duck limits.

Less talked about is that pintails have crashed. Once they outnumbered mallards nationwide. Canvasbacks now are number 15 among birds most harvested, when historically they once vied for top of the list. Hello! On the East Coast this year the mallard limit is two. Only one can be a hen! Maryland’s Canada goose limit is one per day. The pintail limit is one nationwide.

And yet we are buoyed by Instagram and Facebook posts of giant piles of birds. “We got this,” we seem to say. “No problem. Lots of birds where we hunt.”

Is the conservation message somewhere buried under these enormous piles of birds? Are we fooling ourselves into thinking that we’re riding an endless gravy train?

Lots of guys, myself included, send their $35 each year to Ducks Unlimited. Perhaps half of those might attend a DU banquet. Or not. But our dedication can’t end there. It’s got to be part of our lifestyle. WHERE DUCKS COME FROM should be our mantra. And we need to make ourselves the gatekeepers—in the way we live, the way we favor breeding ground conservation and the way we use our votes. That wetlands and grasslands come first must be the basic tenant of our waterfowling faith. Wetlands aren’t dumb. They aren’t boring. They’re our future.

What Kind Of Waterfowler Are You?

By Jay Michael Strangis

What kind of waterfowler are you? There’s no right or wrong answer. No judgment. Everybody’s different! And really, that’s the point. Every hunter has his or her own unique style, goal, expectations, reaction and tolerances when it comes to waterfowl hunting. Some of these traits change over time, with age and experience. Some are just part of the ingrained nature of individuals. How would you answer the following questions?

Are you a Sunday hunter, or an everyday grinder? Some hunt as often as possible; others meter out their season with one or more well-planned hunts.

Are you primarily about the process, or the result? Some guys enjoy all aspects of the hunt: the planning, the scouting, the decoy work and just being in the blind. All want to shoot a duck, but for some the “process” is an annoyance to be tolerated but not enjoyed.

Are you a fist-pumper, an end-zone dancer, a hoot and hollerer, or a set-the-ball-down-and-walk-off type? We know it depends on the situation, but some hunters lean more one way than the other on this.

Are you about quality or quantity? For some, a good morning is time enjoyed outdoors; for others, it’s limits or bust.

When it comes to facing dangerous hunting situations, are you a risk taker or a live-to-fight-another-day type? Some jump right in, regardless of conditions; others consider the consequences thoroughly and adjust accordingly. Put another way, on cold-water hunts, do you insist on wearing a lifejacket while under power?

Do you have a relationship with your decoys, or are they completely inanimate? Some guys have nicknames for specific decoys, some hand-carve their own, and others swap out the lot every two years.

Is waterfowl hunting a means to an end, a fleeting hobby, or is it the journey? Some people outgrow waterfowl hunting; some never do.

Are you tolerant or intolerant of large groups in the field? Some people won’t hunt with more than four gunners; others think nothing of 10-gun salutes.

Do you look at waterfowl as a resource, or a commodity? Some are givers, some are takers, some are both.

Is waterfowl hunting strictly social for you? In other words, if you could not find others to hunt with, would you hunt alone? Some have to have the social network; others just have to hunt, regardless.

Is the quality of your hunt influenced by your personal involvement? In other words, do you get as much from a successful guided hunt as you do from a successful do-it-yourself hunt? This goes back to the process, and is different for everyone.

Do you have any self-imposed rules? Some people do not shoot hens, some clubs levy fines for hens, and some groups give ducks that sneak into the decoys and sit down a free pass. Some hunters simply shoot what the law allows.

Remember, every possible answer to this survey is the CORRECT answer. We’d love to hear your thoughts on what kind of waterfowler you are, at Info@waterfowlermag.com.

As diverse as our approaches may be, there is one certainty—we are all bound by our love of the birds and the places they lead us.

Waging War On Wetlands Again

This column was written in May, 2019

By Jay Michael Strangis

When someone says “Cool your heels,” I don’t think they mean literally freeze your feet, which is about what the spring season wrought across most of the country with snow, wet and cool temps holding back the inevitable summer that is finally finding its way. The strangeness of the whole mess is not the late snowstorms or rain with a freezing winter mix but rather the oddity of having such events followed by 75-degree days. I’m trying to “cool my heels” as I think about all the opportunity that a year of plentiful water and good duck production might bring come fall.

The benefit of all that snow and cold rain, as waterfowlers well know, is WATER! It’s been almost five years since the northern prairies got a good drink, and it seems to have come in spades this year. Good moisture is good for ducks, and it will be interesting to hear the pond counts once surveys come out this summer.

Of course, lots of water is a double-edged sword. Farmers, like my friend Ian in North Dakota, aren’t particularly fond of it, but most take it in stride, farming the low patches in dry years and going around them in wet years. It’s the corporate farms and developers that want to wage war on temporary wetlands.

“I know you like it,” Ian told me the other day while reporting that the ponds were full this spring, and he’s right. I think back to all the glorious days we’ve had on the prairie when the ponds were full, the ducks were right and the choices were many. Some amazing things can happen when you just add water.

I think about the time we targeted small dark geese, the mini-Canadas of the Central Flyway, when these birds and sheetwater were both spread across the countryside in a hodgepodge. Unlike trying to decoy 300 of these crazy, flighty geese at one time, we were able to use water sets to decoy small bunches, double and singles in what turned out to be some memorable hunts.

I think about the shock of seeing one slough covered shore to shore with gadwalls. What a strange sight. We set up on a sheetwater patch a quarter mile away and decoyed gadwalls and teal that were flying when we arrived and still flying when we departed. Repeated the game again a couple of days later too.

I think about the sodden edge of a soybean field where we sat in shoreline trees and shot mallards that came in like they owned the place, and in the process discovered a wet patch in a standing cornfield that drew mallards like flies to honey. We got permission and had one heck of a morning in the corn, at times able only to stand wide-eyed as birds attacked the spot while we waited for the dog to catch up on his work.

Of course, all of those spots also are the places where, early in spring and summer, ducks get busy with the business of raising their broods. Those temporary wetlands wouldn’t be there in a dry year, or if a farmer had tiled or ditched that spot and sent the water south. And now, as if returning to the dark ages, the federal government is going after temporary wetlands by rewriting WOTUS. Google it. You can do something about it. Oppose the action for the sake of the next generation of waterfowlers and the memories you want them to have. Support Ducks Unlimited, which is taking up the fight in Washington, D.C.

Give Me D.I.Y.

If hunting ducks was simply about nothing more than shooting ducks, I’d have quit the game long ago. Not that I’m ALWAYS shooting ducks, much the opposite. Sometimes we win, sometime the ducks win, and that’s the way it should be. But a lot of people assume that because I’m the editor of a waterfowl hunting magazine, I simply go from outfitter to outfitter, shooing piles of ducks, or geese, everywhere I go. That sounds interesting—for about 10 minutes.

Not that I don’t like shooting, or winning—if you knew me well you’d know I like both. But I get little satisfaction from being simply a triggerman, which is what guided hunts amount to, for the most part.

Naw, I like the process. I enjoy scouting. I enjoy the challenge of coming up with a plan. I enjoy the process of executing that plan and all the work (and perhaps suffering) that comes with it. Finally, I REALLY enjoy the results when a plan comes together. Shooting? It counts most when it comes with the satisfaction that WE did it ourselves. We don’t always get it right, which makes it all the sweeter when we get it oh-so-right.

Do-It-Yourself (DIY) means being willing to “own it” when a plan doesn’t work out so well. Perhaps we misjudged the X, perhaps we caught a bad wind, perhaps we came up against birds that really weren’t as committed to a spot as we guessed they might be. Or, perhaps we made a fatal miscalculation (well, not actually fatal fatal).“As in, assuming that a flock of ducks in a field on an evening feed in the late season would be back on the X in the morning—forgetting the cardinal rule that as daylight decreases and temperatures plummet, ducks can suddenly changeover to a once a day feeding forays, always in the afternoon when temps are warmest. Yep, stuff happens.

I enjoy hunting with outfitters because they offer a new experience, a way of doing things a bit differently than we might. I enjoy sharing info back and forth and learning from their experiences. And of course, I enjoy the bullshitting. What I don’t enjoy is having the decoys set for me, the blind pre-prepared and the calling done, because that leaves little to do except pull the trigger. If the hunt goes slowly, all the better. Every minute in the blind is a minute to be experienced, another minute under God’s great skies. The longer it takes to limit out, the more time that gets to be enjoyed in the great outdoors.

Unfortunately, that’s not the way many, outfitters see it. You see, hunting is their job—a job they can leave early if the pile requirements are met. You may not be hunting tomorrow, but they will be, and they know it. I recall a goose hunt in Alberta where 4 of us shot 32 honkers sin 26 minutes. When the last bird hit the ground, the guide stood up and excitedly hollered, “32 in 26 minutes! That’s not a record!” The poor souls who set the record! I went from exhilarated to empty. Less than a half hour in the field and our morning was over. We packed up and were trucked back to camp to hang around doing nothing for the next 8 hours just waiting to get out and get after some ducks in the evening.

So. if you’ve never hunted with an outfitter, you might be surprised to learn that I encourage you to do so. There are many good reasons; first among them that outfitters have access to land and birds! There’s the comfort of not having to scout, not having to be responsible for the decoys or blinds and being able to relax and enjoy hunting. It’s a real treat, especially if you are with a kid. But beware, the highs are not as great as when you succeed at DIY hunting.

Getting Under The Ducks

Many of us pride ourselves on our ability to read weather, but rarely can we correctly guestimate any long-range prediction. What’s the fall season in 2019 going to look like? Who the heck knows?

I do have a bit of knuckle polishing to do, however, for the offhand prediction I made at this time last year, fully eight months in advance of our annual prairie arrival. “I’m betting we break the mold this year and get back to an October that shows a little more character—a gamble I’m doubling down on,” I said in this column in the April/May 2018 issue.

Lucky guess? For sure. But I was playing the odds based on several years of Octobers that had looked more like Augusts. I mean, when you are 10 miles from the Canadian border in late October and suffer heat waves that spawn massive thunderstorms, you have to wonder what planet you are on!

But last fall truly was different. On about October 12, the temperature in North Dakota began to drop. For the next few days, lows were in the teens—the low teens on the 14th. In Saskatchewan it was colder—much colder. All those lazy, mid-migration ducks that had been basking in balmy October temps for years were suddenly forced off their game. The Central Flyway and parts of the Mississippi Flyway south of Canada started seeing the ducks they had been missing for the past few Octobers. To say the hunting was good is an understatement. For those in the right place, the time was ripe.

Of course, hunting pressure, highest at this time of year, soon wore out the birds that had moved in, and hunting, as it does, got a bit tougher. But unlike the late Octobers of previous years on the northern prairie, birds were available for those with the moxie and wherewithal to find them.

As the season wore on, the meccas in the midsection of the country, places like Missouri near the big refuges and Nebraska along the Platte River, saw some powerfully good hunting. The problem seemed to be in the far south, where hunters in Louisiana and Arkansas complained that the really cold weather came too late to benefit them with a strong push of birds.

In the Atlantic Flyway, nobody was bragging until things really got good in the second week of January. It was then that a massive cold front froze waters across a wide swath, sending birds to any open water they could find, including to the waiting arms of hunters from Pennsylvania to South Carolina.

Amid the West Coast’s long seasons, mild weather made hunting less productive than it might have been. Hunters in Washington complained for lack of birds. California weathered a ho-hum season, seeming to be missing the mallards that had become a sizeable part of the bag in recent years, but closing strong on green-winged teal and wigeon. Overall, total numbers of ducks seemed to be down a bit.

What does it all prove? Ducks are always “somewhere.” It’s getting under them that’s the issue.

Staying In The Game

If you’re a member of a California duck club, or of one in Arkansas, you can stop reading this column now. But if you’re just a guy, young or old, trying to shoot ducks on your own, then we need to talk. Times have changed. It’s tougher than ever to be that guy who finds ducks on public or private ground, gains access and throws out his own decoys. Maybe you’re thinking of giving up duck hunting? I’m going to tell you why you might want to reconsider.

Yeah, it’s tough out there. Just because I’m the editor a waterfowl magazine, don’t think I, and the guys I hunt with, haven’t felt it. We’re DIY guys too. We’ve had to adjust our sights for any number of reasons. Some places are too dry. In some parts it’s tougher and tougher to get permission on private land. Then there’s hunting pressure, always a factor. Finally, maybe the weather’s got you bamboozled. Several years of summerlike Octobers and Novembers can do that to a hunter.

The good news is, there still are ways to find unfettered birds, avoid the crowds and have some darn decent shooting. Sometimes it just takes an attitude adjustment, and a bit of recommitment. Remember, duck counts are at record numbers, so they are out there! Here are some tips to get yourself back in the game:

Stop comparing yourself to others. Social media can create the false impression that everybody’s shooting lots of birds, except you! Not true. Everybody has good and not-so-good days. Stay positive.

Stay flexible. As each new season approaches, have a plan, but stay flexible. If you’ve got dates set, have backup plans for those dates. If a week before your hunt, Plan A doesn’t look right, launch Plan B.

Don’t whip a dead horse. If the area you hunted successfully for 10 years starts declining, there is a reason. Focus on a new area.

Accept that weather and birds are cyclical. Ducks and geese are waterbirds. When planning, be willing to forsake entire areas during times of drought. Follow the water, find the birds. Are crops flooding somewhere? The Internet has made this easy to do.

Avoid the outfitters. Sure, you can see more birds in the skies above traditional waterfowl Meccas, but outfitters have all the land locked up. Avoid these areas. Widen your scouting.

Update/organize your gear. Having better gear makes for more efficient and effective hunting—period.

Buy a new gun! If you haven’t shot a new gun lately, you have no idea what you are missing. Time to rack the old blunderbuss.

Take a waterfowling vacation (Mr. Selfish trip or Ms. Selfish trip). Every year, treat yourself to one bucket-list hunt with a reliable outfitter. Golfers do it; baseball fans do it. Spoil yourself. Make memories and feed your passion!

And always remember, a bad day in the duck blind is better than the best day at work! Good luck hunting!


The Rest Is Just Life

After just finishing a year-long construction project culminating in the bare-walled, semi-finished office I occupy as I write these lines in early October, I admit I haven’t had a chance to get out and get after the ducks—yet. That’s all going to change in just a few days when I head to my first hunt of the season.

What I have had time to do in these chained-to-my-desk days while others send photos of full duck straps is to ruminate on some of the great hunts I’ve been on and the great people I’ve met and hunted with along the way. There’s a great community to be found in the brotherhood, and sisterhood, of waterfowlers.

You know it when you meet them, those people with their eyes to the skies and the mud on their boots. Tossed together at small-town lunch counters, rural gas stations or outside ma and pa motels, even on phone apps, these straight-up duck hunters fashion their regular lives around the thing that matters most to them—waterfowl hunting!

Then, of course, there are also those in the brotherhood who’ve carved out careers in the waterfowling industry, including the gear makers, inventors, entrepreneurs, artists, photographers and outfitters. Some are, quite frankly, celebrities in their own right, or on their way to becoming celebrities in the hunting world. I could name drop, but the list would be long and beg elaboration, because even without their names, many of us certainly have come in contact with the products of their ingenuity and talent, coupled with their love for chasing ducks or geese.

Many of the personalities behind this trend setting are still around today, though not all of them. We heard of the passing of Tim Grounds just short weeks ago. We can’t go back. And there have been others, now gone, who contributed greatly to the waterfowling world. It’s a fellowship, and when we lose one we lose a little bit of the fellowship, a little bit of ourselves along the way. But we never lose that thing that they were known for, that they invented or championed. It lives on in us, in the ways we hunt, the ways we subscribe to wild things and wild places, and in our collective consciousness.

But it’s not celebrity this column is about. It’s about waterfowlers and their unique passion for something that, frankly, a lot of people might view as strange, bordering on insane. Truly, the fellowship of duck hunters doesn’t belong to a handful of hunting celebrities. It belongs to all those foolish enough to get up long before dawn, to toil in the mud and the wet simply to capture a moment in time. For us, to live is to hunt, and to hunt is to live. The rest is just life.

The Best Gift Ever

Working on a huge issue like our 2018 Gear Guide might be compared to diving into the sea—the vast sea of products and people, trends and innovation, ideas and influencers that make up the wonderful world of waterfowling. It’s a journey I look forward to every year. A chance to steep myself in the rituals that symbolize our passion, because the gear is part of the ritual as much as predawn anticipation, holy sunrise or the formation of birds against a kaleidoscope sky.

It is these symbols of waterfowling that carry on throughout our lives. When I have the opportunity to work at one of our booths at shows around the country, I am constantly reminded of the importance of our symbols. When the ancient fellow shuffles toward the booth with his head cocked, grinning, just to say hello and reminisce about his waterfowling days, he is attracted by the icons, the dramatic artwork and what is contained within, the feelings they bring alive in him once again.

Now, I’m no ancient fellow, but I must admit that my earliest waterfowling days have a bit of dust on them. Still, I can vividly recall so many of the touchstone moments that shaped my world as a young hunter.

When I was 12, I had been, to that point in life, nothing more than a bird dog on pheasant hunts and duck hunts, brought along by the kindness of elders who clearly saw where my priorities lay. I didn’t come from great means, though we were also never wanting for what we needed in our home. That meant that even though I was afield a lot, I really didn’t have a scrap of clothing that was designed for the outdoors.

We had a custom of opening a few gifts on Christmas Eve from our parents, and we were all gathered in the living room following dinner, engaged in our annual ritual of singing, and reading from the Bible, followed by the youngest placing a figurine of the baby Jesus in his crib. When it came time to pass out presents, I received a flat box that had all the earmarks of a sweater or a pair of jeans, my mom being a practical gift giver tasked with keeping us looking decent at school.

But in that box was the best gift ever, one so unexpected that it brought a tear to my eye. It was a canvas hunting coat—the real deal—kid sized. With a shoulder patch for a gunstock, a corduroy-lined collar, and shell pockets. I know my reaction made my parents as happy as I was—I could see it on their faces. I never went afield without it, and when I outgrew it, my mom never had the heart to throw it out. She loved that coat as much as I did, for what it meant to me. It still hangs in my closet in a dry cleaning bag. Once in a great while I take it out to look at it. It’s an old friend, an icon of who I am. Hunting gear can be like that.

A Rumbling Heard In Canada

By Jay Michael Strangis

In this issue’s Hunt Book introduction, we present some fascinating facts on a topic near and dear to my heart, where ducks come from. When you read “Ducks, Flyways and Outliers” (page 5), one point becomes obvious: The migratory waterfowl we hunt connect us to far-reaching corners of our continent, and to ignore conservation issues near and far is to ignore our own future as waterfowl hunters.

To their credit, most duck hunters do support conservation. Yet while showing up to the local .org banquet is a good thing, we must do more. We must inform ourselves and hold politicians accountable. The threats to wetlands, clean water, and ultimately waterfowl continue to make inroads on ducky habitat in so many places that steady declines in duck production become inevitable. Civilization can only chip away at something for so long before it is all but eliminated.

Have you ever been to Minnesota and seen its “10,000 Lakes”? Do you know that Minnesota was and still is a part of the prairie’s famed “Duck Factory”? Did you also know that Minnesota today has only 2 percent of its former wetlands? Lakes and wetlands are not the same thing. Lakes don’t support the food needed to grow ducklings. Shallow wetlands do.

Turning to the rest of the original Duck Factory, Iowa used to have wetlands too, 5 million acres of them. Now 95 percent are gone. North Dakota and South Dakota are headed down the same road, slowly but surely.

The latest news in the wetland wars comes from Canada, Saskatchewan specifically, where for years we’ve been hearing complaints from hunters and outfitters that the province’s wetlands have been disappearing. Seems the Saskatchewan prairie is suffering from the same affliction as the U.S. prairie—wetlandphobia.

Wetlandphobia occurs when so-called ag PhDs, bought and paid for by the agribusiness industry, preach the tile and drain land ethic in terms an evangelist would envy (remember, every extra acre of land sowed equals extra purchases of seed and chemicals). Further stoking the frenzy are campaign-financed politicians hanging their hats on the evils of “environmental regulation”—in this case, wetland protection. You see, wetlands have a great deal to do with the environment in that they filter pollutants like ag chemicals from upstream runoff, recharge groundwater supplies, help control flooding and reduce sediment runoff into downstream rivers and lakes. Conveniently, for us, they also produce ducks.

Most hunters view Saskatchewan as a kind of breadbasket of waterfowl production and hunting, but even this motherland of waterfowl production has its own soft underside of easily extracted wetlands.

Now, in Saskatchewan, two farmers are suing a provincial agency for flooding on their land caused by “unauthorized drainage.” These types of lawsuits have seen little success in the U.S., where a landmark Iowa case surfaced in 2017 but was dismissed by the courts. Canada might be different, however. Depending on the outcome of this small suit brought by a couple of Saskatchewan farmers, the playing field could change. Let’s hope!

The Pause That Refreshes

So many of the issues society faces today get a gut reaction from the public—myself included. Not surprisingly, my first reaction typically stems from limited facts and my personal bias toward whatever the subject may be. Truly understanding an issue requires an open mind and some serious thought.
Take, for example, the African elephant issue that sprang up recently. It made even our president pause—something rare for a shoot-from-the-hip guy. I had to do much the same. At issue was whether, amid the current crisis that faces threatened African elephants, the United States should allow African elephant trophies to be imported into the country from two African nations.
I’ve always been a big fan of elephants, since childhood, really, so one could say I’m biased toward elephants. Not the small-eared Indian elephants in the circus, but rather the giant big-eared beasts that make no bones about staring down trouble.
I’ve been to Africa a few times, and I’ve had some encounters with wild elephants, but no big trouble: a cow with calf on a dirt track that challenged my seemingly small Land Rover, a giant bull that hung around too long near my flimsy bowhunting blind, and a herd of 30 that cut short a spot-and-stalk bowhunt for warthog on a dry riverbed. When an African professional hunter carrying a .458 rifle says, “We need to get the hell out of here, now!” you get a sense of the respect elephants rightly command.
I met an older, local man who walked six miles each way to work each day on a remote road, mostly in the dark, in an area known for lion prides, and asked him if he wasn’t afraid of being attacked by a lion. “No,” he said. “It’s not the lion I fear, it’s the elephant.”
I have never been opposed to the legal hunting of elephants, or trophy hunting in general, as long as it is fair chase. I have a few African trophies of my own, mostly the horned kind. But I have been alarmed and saddened over the past decade at the illegal slaughter of elephants for their ivory. Let’s be clear, the road is crumbling under the African elephant. From about 5 million animals a century ago, there are now an estimated only 400,000—falling at a rate of 64 percent per decade. A study in 2014 concluded that 100,000 had been killed in just the previous three years.
I don’t know if trophy hunting helps elephants, as some claim. It will not be cited as a reason elephants disappeared, if that should come to pass. Trophy hunting does offer a positive boost to protection efforts for some species in some places. But in these times of wholesale illegal slaughter, it’s not surprising that the legal import issue would be a sensitive one. The president’s posture reflects this. Whatever he decides, his pause may be a hopeful sign that he would be willing to give further consideration to other conservation issues—like critical wetlands or protecting public lands—with an open mind and some serious thought!

Where Tradition Is Birthright

By Jay Strangis

Most of us would say we hunt for food, but few modern hunters could be termed “subsistence hunters.” That claim would take us back many years to the days when the country was first settled, and predate that to the Native Americans, some of whom still hunt and fish today in a manner more akin to subsistence. It is doubtful, however, that any human in North America today is going to starve for lack of hunting.

So hunting, really, is more tradition than subsistence, and it is also apparent that the traditions of today’s hunters don’t look much like the traditions of yesteryear.

But if you want to take a step back in time without leaving your 21st century easy chair, let me recommend a new website to you: Atlanticseabirds.info, a project of three seabird ecologists with the goal of conveying the unique Nordic way of life in the region’s peripheral zones.

As the authors state, “The circumstances around seabird harvesting may have changed, but the harvest takes place almost like millennium ago. The opportunity of harvesting the Goods of Nature is still considered a fundamental birthright in many small places in the Nordic region.”

This may not be “waterfowl hunting” as we know it, but if you are a hunter at heart, you can’t help loving these incredible images and the stories behind them from Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands. Follow puffin hunters on their annual quests; see and read about harvests of eiders, eider down and eider eggs; see an image of a young girl on the ice with a harvest of king eiders; and much more.

A total of 25 seabirds breed in Iceland, and currently 17 species can be harvested. In icy Greenland, a total of 19 seabird species can be harvested (though you probably won’t be gunning for guillemot on the cold winter seas—or maybe you will, God help you!).

On the remote Faroe Islands, seabird hunting has a long tradition, and the annual take is between 50,000 and 250,000 birds, a wide range because it is only estimated with no actual reporting taking place. As the authors report, “On land the traditional way of fowling is by using the fleygastong, a net between two thin arms on a long pole, and the method is used for puffins and fulmars. At sea newly fledged fulmars are picked up from boats using a landing net. Shooting occurs at sea in winter, and the species hunted are shags, common guillemots, razorbills and puffins.”

I few years back I hunted waterfowl in England with some fellows who had visited Iceland to hunt the greylag geese that summered and bred there. Their greatest impression of the country was that most anything with feathers was fair game. Once you’ve seen atlanticseabirds.info you’ll be convinced the Brits weren’t far off in their assessment. Some traditions are just downright more TRADITIONAL than others.




Limiting Public Hunting

By Jay Strangis

As outdoor types, and Americans, we take for granted that there will always be places to set a decoy spread, wet a line, flush an upland bird or explore the backcountry. And why not? Many states and the federal government provide us with public lands and waters that are accessible for the benefit and uses of the many. These privileges are a large part of what makes America such a great land. But lately, both overt and covert threats to these freedoms seem to be mounting.

It may be more comfortable to live in a shell, do whatever it is we do and ignore the world beyond our doorstep, but it’s not wise. Erosion begins as a slip of sand that evolves into a landslide.

Need examples of the threats? Consider the challenges to BLM lands in the West. The Bundys didn’t just want free feed for their cattle. They were backed by politicians who see public lands as a waste of space that could be developed for mining, oil, resorts and housing developments. Testing the resolve of the government and people to defend public lands served a political purpose.

Further testing the resolve of government and the American people, Bundy cohorts decided to occupy a National Wildlife Refuge.

Montanans continue to see sustained legal efforts aimed at portions of their public rivers that would mean touching the bottom with a foot or a paddle would be an act of trespass.

In a new twist, and one that takes us into uncharted waters, South Dakota has ruled that nonresident waterfowlers in 2017 may not hunt public lands in portions of the state. Whether the state actually has a legal basis for such action remains undetermined. Certainly, it has the right to restrict the number of nonresident waterfowl hunters, and has done so for decades, but the question I would ask is: Aren’t some of those public lands purchased and maintained with cost sharing from federal dollars, duck stamp dollars and perhaps even inputs from national nonprofits such as DU and The Nature Conservancy?

Arkansas also put limitations on nonresident waterfowl hunters on public lands for the coming season, but its action seems a bit less egregious in that it merely requires nonresidents to purchase a permit for specific public areas and limits the number of times they can hunt a specific area in the same season.

It’s easy to see that both South Dakota and Arkansas have refined their nonresident requirements to benefit resident hunters. And it seems reasonable that states should be able to manage their own lands (if the lands truly are their lands and not the product of federal spending) as they see fit.

But waterfowl, being protected by international treaty (and with seasons and limit guidelines established by the federal government) are not deer or pheasants. Framers of the Migratory Bird Act clearly stated their view that no state has jurisdiction over migratory birds. Is limiting public hunting on federal lands for migratory birds lawful? It would be an interesting challenge if some entity chose to take it up.

Where Ducks Come From

We brethren of the waterfowling world see plenty of each other at boat landings, gas stations and cafés in proximity to popular waterfowl-hunting destinations. Tipping our caps, we might be of the assumption that we all have the same investment in the resource, both emotionally and intellectually. But apparently this is a mostly false premise.
One might assume that most duck hunters are aware of specifically where ducks come from and the challenges those habitats face today, but don’t count on it. One might also assume that hunters know where the $25 spent on the required Federal Duck Stamp goes. Surprisingly, a recently released Human Dimensions of Wildlife study revealed that a majority of waterfowlers responded that they did not know how duck stamp funds were spent. We detail more about the study in this issue on page 9.
The study was conducted in two parts, 13 years apart (2002 and 2015), enabling researchers to conclude that over time the percentage of hunters who selected no answer other than “Don’t know or are not sure how the funds are used” increased by 6 percent from 2002 to the 2015 version. Scores are obviously going in the wrong direction.
These results are disconcerting, considering the challenges ducks face today. On our breeding grounds, wholesale land conversion is threatening future fall flights, and waterfowl hunters are needed to stand up as conservationists. Still, it’s hard to blame the hunters in the survey for lack of knowledge. Perhaps it’s just not talked up enough.
The fact is, for those interested in sharing it, that 98 percent of duck stamp funds are used to purchase and enhance habitat on wetlands.
Obviously, the USFWS and state agencies need to do more to make waterfowl hunters aware of just how positively duck stamp purchases affect conservation efforts directed at waterfowl. Thanks almost wholly to duck hunters, more than $850 million has been produced through duck stamp sales to date for wetland habitats.
I’m a hunter and a conservationist, and I’ve found by experience that in some circles those two labels are considered in conflict. I disagree. Hunting has brought me a deeper respect and understanding of the natural world. Ecology has taught me that natural systems are fragile and interdependent.
Living most of my life on the edge of the prairies, I’ve personally watched the destruction of dozens of my favorite duck marshes. Witnessing such short-sighted land uses has motivated me, over the years, to make others more aware of what, for better or worse, will become our society’s wildlife legacy. “Remember where ducks come from!” I often suggest to those I meet who are most enamored with bounteous fall flights, because, whether we are acutely aware, casually interested or completely oblivious, the assault on wetlands is persistent and will be ultimately disastrous.
But being aware would be enormously helpful.

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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