Saturday, November 29, 2008

On Guides and Guiding

Last week, I had my second bad experience with a guide/outfitter in less than a year, as you may have read about on my brother's blog.

Let me sum them up:

Hunt 1 was a late season resident goose hunt (5 bird limit per person). I gave the guide a 4 day window that we could hunt (his choice). I told him that we were flexible to location (even state!) and day - we just wanted to be on top of the geese. Not difficult in FEBRUARY, right? We showed up to the location on time, and were told to start pulling grass out of the ground and to grass our own blinds (we had properly grassed blinds at home, WTF). The guide chose the location but had forgotten that the grass was green in that field. We were literally hunting in someone's yard (20 acre farmette), about 100 yards from their house, next to their pond. We scared out dozens of roosting geese (nice scouting, Mr. Guide!), and I only shot 4 times all morning. The "elaborate setup" included 4 goose floaters and 3 Big Foot Decoys. The guide was an above-average caller, which was the EXPECTATION. We had 3 paying hunters, and bagged a total of 2 geese. I've heard that the Guide is still upset that I haven't referred him to more clients. Hahahahahaha!

Hunt 2 was a mid-season combo goose/duck hunt (6 ducks + 5 geese) last week. I gave the guide a 3-day window (his choice), and told him that we would go anywhere the ducks were. He ultimately chose a spot that sounded public to me, but he assured me that the spot had no hunting pressure and that they had scouted the area VERY heavily, and "nobody can hunt there, there's no access." OK dude, I trust you.

Everything our guide, "Name Removed" told us about the hunt was wrong. First of all, the only thing "private" about the hunt was the ILLEGAL boat ramp we used on private land, to zip across 100 yards to a public island in the public Potomac River, all perfectly legal for anybody (with a MD resident license) to hunt. He told us to expect hundreds of mallards and black ducks from one direction, and a swarm of geese from the other.

We saw two single mallards (his calling was awful and he couldn't call them in), and saw our first flight of geese at 12:45pm...from the opposite direction. The guide tore the boat up and down the river (remember, "a barely hunted sanctuary"), and to my surprise, as soon as a flock of rafted birds saw the boat from hundreds of yards away, they IMMEDIATELY got up and hauled ass up the river. That is NOT how unhunted birds behave!!!! The guide encouraged us to shoot at birds from the boat, while the boat was in gear and under power (illegal), and his calling sounded like Squanto the Algonquin had carved a duck call out of a cattail. It was AWFUL. For his totally awesome decoy setup, he used a dozen goose floaters (old, chipped paint), about 10 GHG mallards, and about 4 GHG bluebills. At my house, I have burlap/hand-painted black ducks, hand-painted bluebills on Herters bases, flocked head goose floaters, and all kinds of good stuff. Why was I paying to hunt over dinged up, PLASTIC CRAP?

By 10AM, en route to a giant skunking (we had seen only a dozen black ducks, who zipped by about 200 yards up, while Dukk Man Dave blew high balls through his Quaker Boy (or whatever Wal Mart sells) Mallard call at them), the guide realized that we were extremely unhappy and started to say things like, "Hey if you get skunked, the next hunt is half price!" And "That's why they call it huntin'!" I swear, we almost sent him over the dam like they did in that movie "The Mission." Like, on a cross and the whole nine F-ing yards!!!!!!

He tried to get "on our side" by talking about all the poaching he does for deer, and how hilarious it all is to evade the Natural Resource Police - a group of people who I have an enormouse amount of respect & admiration for, even though I sure hate to see them headed toward my duck blind! PLUS the minor detail that I have dedicated my career (and my life) to wildlife conservation, and apparently it's all just a big joke to this jackass. WHO I HAD TO PAY.

At the end of the hunt, the conversation turned toward DuKk Man Dave talking about how the economy is bad and he needs all the help he can get, and then he let it slip that his "bonus from my regular job was only $11,000 last year." Homey, the after-tax take-home on my annual bonus this year was $352.00, which is less than we paid you for this pitiful excuse for a duck hunt, so....yeah....go ahead and shove it. Thanks Duck Head.

As we drove out, we saw thousands of ducks and geese roosted up on islands in the river, less than 10 miles from where we hunted. We could have easily hunted that stretch - by ourselves or with DukK Man. That is, if he had scouted like he claimed he had. At some point, when you've failed to deliver any modicum to your clients, you have to answer that either you:

1) lied to them (you did not scout or you did not have birds or you predicted the birds would leave), or

2) you're not a very good guide (you were not able to predict, in any way, shape or form, that the birds would leave the area or selected a different roost - and you missed it while scouting).

I'm sure some would respond, "Hey man, that's hunting/fishing/surfing." NO. That's "the outdoors" when you and I, Joe Hunter/Angler/Surfer, are doing it - getting totally fooled/skunked/tricked by the birds/weather/fish is not uncommon -and is often an important and worthwhile experience. However, guides get paid for their expertise and access to good areas that have not been overused. If you are a guide and you have trouble providing those services, how can you honestly take peoples' money, except out of sheer poverty or some other bizarre circumstance?

Now, I'm sure that if I booked a hunt with Tyler Johnson, who winters at least 1 million ducks and geese a year on his 2,500 acre duck farm, or Sean Mann, Goose Calling Champion of Champions, I might have a great experience.

But I don't think I'll be doing that. We have two boats (same exact boat that our guide had this time), plus two kayaks, and a total of about 12 or 15 dozen duck and goose decoys. We are decent, but not great, callers, and we understand how birds work. In the future, I'll be spending my money on food and lodging-not an idiot local guide- so we can hit the road together and spend 3 or 4 days on the same stretch of river. We'll mostly get skunked, and hopefully we'll get it figured out for one great hunt (per trip) that we'll never forget. Then we'll dry everything out, drive home, and plan on how we can do it better the next time. Harvesting game is great. But if you're doing it because you've paid for somebody else's (half-assed) recon, scouting, and local knowledge, what have you done, except shoot well (maybe)?

This goes for the other sports we pursue as well - we have the gear, and we have some knowledge, and we have TIME and a little bit of money. Let's put them to good use and actually learn a thing or two, right?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on the topic for now. Fire away, any of you guides out there. And I'm totally anticipating the line of, "sounds like you just had bad luck." But you've missed my point - I could have easily had the same success/luck, and a better overall experience (which is what I'm after), for less money, by doing it myself.

Then there's the little detail of business ethics. Guides are business owners. What ever happened to calling clients and saying, "Sorry - we just don't have birds/fish/surf/high water, and it would be irresponsible to show up there, have a bad time, and take your money. Let's reschedule for a better time or a different location - I want to make sure you come back and use my guide service every year, not just tomorrow." In any other business, that's how things are done.

But what do I know? Surely, in my 20 years of hunting, 30 years of fishing, 16 years of surfing, and 5 years of kayaking, I have not even STARTED to gain the wealth of knowledge that a "professional guide" has. What.Ever.

Cluster F*** On Ice

Air: 19 degrees, Water: 32 degrees. Ice: 1/4". What could go wrong?

Set out for an early morning out in the timber with Tugboatdude and Nate. In most years, we receive our first "true freeze" the second or third week of January. The last time we received one earlier in the season, it was the first week of January, and that was 2002! So imagine our surprise when, two days before TBD's arrival, the temperature drops to 19 degrees, and does not get above 34 for three days in a row. Since we've really only received one flight of birds so far, it was hard to know what the effects of this weather would be.

Well, we found out. We spent a half-hour slogging through 1/3" thick ice into the timber, and I think we had a nice little setup - about 8 woodie decoys, 5 oversized black ducks, 3 mallards, 3 full body black ducks, and the baby mojo. What could go wrong? Well, honestly, nothing really did go wrong. Nothing much happened at all. Saw a few single birds but they were roosting pretty hard on the river and not getting up. This is unusual because in weather that cold, the birds have to feed somewhere, even if it's just up and down the river. Geese were staying quiet on the river and were just not interested. We had a good time shooting the bull and just hanging out. Everybody was well dressed for the 23 degree morning so we were all pretty comfortable, despite the fact that we had to keep breaking ice out in the decoy spread.

I was comfortable, at least, until I smashed the ice over a beaver run. The pictures are out of order so start at the bottom.

The aftermath. And for the action shot............wait for it........
........wait for it............

The Piece de Resistance: Lost my footing and swamped my waders. Water in my right boot. Foot numb about 4 minutes later. 1 mile from the truck.

I think that about sums it up. Take away the frostbite and the cold I already had (!!!) and add a cigar, and it would have been a perfectly enjoyable morning in the swamp.

Bow Hunt #2

Still chasing the herd on the same farm. And suffered a loss at the hands of one of the most obvious rules in the outdoors - "stick with your plan until you are SURE it will fail. Change up early, and both the old and new plans are nearly guaranteed to fail."

So that's what happened. I knew from scouting that the deer were likely to use a field I'd already hunted. Problem with that hunt was that they use the field in the evening, and I was hunting in the morning. Well, here was my chance for an evening hunt. Just stick with the program.

Instead, at the last second, I broke towards one of the rear fields and a seldom-used stand because I had seen a large number of tracks through the harvested field. I had no recon on exactly WHEN those deer were moving through, but .....I don't know, I can't explain it. I was drawn to that field.

A number of factors, namely a stiff headwind that pushed my scent into the woods behind me, did not help with this hunt. Then again, I woke myself up snoring at one point around 4:30pm, so who knows? A cold snap was settling in and the deer SHOULD have been moving, but shooting time ended and I hadn't seen a single deer - a rare occurrence for a deer hunt in Maryland. I removed my arrow from the nock, loaded my pack, and climbed down, ready for the hike back up to the front of the property (and past the stand I meant to hunt). By this time, it was really dark, but there was a little moonlight.

As I crossed the front field and looked across it toward the area of the other stand, I saw 30-40 large "bumps" in the dark field. Since the field was harvested recently, and since the crop was soybeans, there should have been NO rise and fall in that field. I stood still and looked out into the dark. The bumps began to move - at least 30 deer, over 100 yards out into a field, in an area where they would have had to walk right past the stand I had meant to hunt. The fact that they were so far out in the open, 20 minutes after shooting hours ended, means that they were certainly rustling around on the woods edge (location of the stand) much earlier than that.

Oh well - I'll get 'em one of these days.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Maryland AP Goose Hunt

(more pictures soon)

Enjoyed a fun morning out with two coworkers on Kent Island, a small spit of land bordered by the Chesapeake Bay and the mouth of the Chester River in Maryland. The island has been moderately developed over the last 20 years, so in the place of large farms are now small farmettes and a few subdivisions. We hunted a 12-acre soybean field between two salt creeks where a mix of resident and migratory geese are roosting at night. To the east, across the Chester River, are larger corporate and family farms where the geese feed twice a day (and sometimes at night). So obviously, the trick is to entice these birds to use the fields near the roost. To aid us in our quest, we hunted over about 5 dozen goose "stuffers" (see above), which are stuffed geese supported by wire, and mounted on small plywood boards. For concealment, we used an A-frame blind against a hedgerow, grassed with fresh cedar branches and switchgrass.
It was a moderately cold morning (about 30 degrees) and the geese were on the move about 30 minutes after sunrise. It wasn't cold enough to motivate them to really feed, so most of the birds were getting up off of the water, flying around, and landing back in one of the creeks without setting down to eat in the fields. We shot our first birds around 9am, another triple at 9:45am, and our last bird (no thanks to my shooting) at 11am, which placed us right at our limit. Then it was back to work, on the road. Great morning & a great start to goose season!

The farm we hunted is near the southern tip of the island

Friday, November 14, 2008

Make It Stop!

So, the rut's on, duck season has been back in for a week, goose season starts tomorrow, the fish are still biting, there's good surf at the beach, and it's been perfect blustery, cloudy hunting weather all week.

So why haven't I hunted, fished, hiked, kayaked, surfed or done anything else remotely fun outside for 3 weeks? And I'm not going out this weekend, either?

Seriously, I don't have a good answer except that having two jobs (biologist by day and community college instructor by night) has actually gotten my burnt out, with no energy to pursue the things I enjoy most.

I have 2 or 3 hunts scheduled for next week, and then Tugboatdude comes up here the week after for a few days of gunning. Worst case scenario, I have a goose hunt scheduled for next wednesday that I cannot back out of. Otherwise, sadly, I might!

Monday, November 3, 2008

Allaying Wetland Restoration Concerns Part II

A (heavily monitored!!) restored wetland in North Carolina.
Courtesy: North Carolina State University
So, I started looking last time at "why we do what we do" in the field of wetland restoration. Last time, I discussed the perceived problem that wetlands attract and hold mosquitos. While it's true that any system that is out of balance (like a bucket in your yard) can harbor mosquitos, a healthy wetland should kill as many mosquitos as it creates.
Onward and upward. Another frequent issue is that people want a "wetland," but they do not want a WETLAND. And yes, folks describe it in those terms. They usually mean one of three things:
1. They would like a fish pond
2. They would like a corn field that they can flood during duck season
3. They would like a shallow, mowed/grazed watering hole for livestock
All of those things have their place in our landscape, but none of them are wetlands. Why not? Let's back up just a moment.
A wetland is a type of habitat. A healthy restored habitat should contain food, water, and cover for its intended wildlife (always start with the end in mind, right??)
So, what are the typical intended wildlife for a restored wetland?
  • wading birds, shorebirds and waterfowl
  • amphibians and reptiles
  • aquatic insects and invertebrates

All of these species need water, cover from predators, and food. Now look back at the picture at the top of the post. See how overgrown it looks? That's one mark of a sustainable restored wetland. Another mark is that all those plants should be food producing, which is a little less evident from the photo. If you review my past posts, especially my duck hunting posts, you can see that my photos zero in on waterfowl food. If you are duck hunting and there's not sufficient food (and trust me, they know it), then all you have to offer birds is open water, of which there is no shortage!

The same is true for all wildlife. If there is food, but no cover, they will visit, but not stay. If there's cover, but no food or no water, they may stay the night, but will rarely spend time in the habitat.

So look at the "old weedy mess" in the picture above, and know that even though "you can't see the water!" (what a travesty!), and it looks like a "jumbled weedy mess," having food, water, and cover together in one place is the only sustainable way to make a wild place really work for wildlife.