Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Last Day for Ducks!

The great thing about sporting dogs is that not only are they amazing, loyal companions, but they love to work. Jack is on edge, waiting for his chance!
I received a much-courted invitation out to a farm around "Goose Ground Zero" once again. The farm has a wetland and a pond on it, both surrounded by corn, so I was intrigued by the chance to not only pursue geese, but also ducks. The weather has warmed from the single digits to the upper 20's, so we were hoping that some ducks would stop in - recent reports were that the ducks had skipped Maryland's frozen shores during our polar snap, and had headed south to southern Virginia and North Carolina. I would not have predicted that...which is the very nature of fishing, hunting, birdwatching, surfing, etc. You just never know.

We started with about 9 dozen full body geese decoys, a dozen full body duck decoys, and a spinning-wing duck decoy out in the corn field. This "Delmarva Standard" A-frame blind is well hidden, effective, and much more comfortable than a layout blind, I assure you. The other neat thing about A-frame blinds is that their sturdy construction lends them well to relocation, pulled behind an ATV or a tractor. If the geese are using another part of the field, you just move the blind that afternoon and hunt the next morning (and hope they don't move again!).
A flock came into my end of the blind right after shooting light. I hastily raised my gun and WHIFFED three shots into the air...nothing. The landowner is an amazing shot, and he just stared at me in disbelief. 5 minutes later, three geese came in around my end of the blind. I shot twice and killed two geese. My first ever "double" on geese! The landowner was much happier and I got to relax....8:00am and already bagged out for geese! The action slowed down a little bit, and for some reason, geese started lighting on the half-frozen pond, instead of coming into our setup. To make things difficult on ourselves, we decided to pick up the field setup and relocate to the pond. I think 3 of our party were short of their limit.

View from the pond blind
Afternoon shooting was slow on the pond. We saw more ducks than any of us had seen all year, but they were in no way interested in coming down to visit. Slowly, the guys killed their remaining geese and we all got more comfortable with the fact that there would be no real duck hunt for the 08-09 season.

Here they come!
I'll write a longer summary of the hunting season but I'm happy with how it went. I was lucky enough to harvest a bag limit (usually geese) about half of the times I hunted, and had very few true debacles all season long. I had some great mornings and afternoons with friends and families, spending time in the outdoors in nature's most challenging season. Thank y'all for reading - it won't be long before you're reading about gardens, fishing, and trips to the beach on the good ol' River Mud Blog.
The morning's harvest from the corn field

Wow, maybe we should have stayed in the corn field?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

The (Coldest) Hunt of Lifetime!

At $350 per dozen, full-bodied goose decoys with flocked heads are the industry standard for dry forage areas with moderate hunting pressure. "Convicing" spreads range from 3 dozen to 10 dozen.
With waterfowl season winding down and hunting opportunities trickling down into the single digits, it's definitely time to get serious. Tug, I, and our buddy Rich cancelled a duck hunt due to weather (5 degree air, 30+ mph winds), and planned for another hunt just 24 hours later. With polar high pressure setting in, dawn air temperatures were between -5 and 0 degrees farenheit, we were not getting a lot of help from the weather, but the wind had laid down to around 5-10mph as some sort of consolation prize. Cloud cover had increased, which would help our cause, but we were concerned that the combination of dangerously low temperatures and highly-educated geese might make for an uncomfortable and unproductive hunt.

Rich returns to the decoy spread with a goose that had been shot but "sailed" for a hundred yards until falling dead in the far corner of the field
We arrived just before dawn, knowing that the geese would probably not fly until late in the morning. The three of us worked deliberately (but kept it slow enough to prevent sweating) to get everything set up so we could hunker down in our layout blinds and try to remain semi-warm. We joked about hoping to limit out in a single flock, and generally kept very still....thermometer still reading 1 degree below zero.
Geese did not begin flying until around 11:45am and boy, were they wary. Many were clearly stressed and tired, and some were missing feathers from being shot at previously. Around 1:30pm, we killed our first goose. Our work and our luck was slow but steady after that, and by 4:00pm, we had scratched out 5 geese, 1 short of our total limit (I only shot one on this hunt).

Calling at groups of geese in the air behind our setup

Thoroughly wind-burnt and frozen, we hastily picked up our decoys and blinds and headed home to meet my wife, the indomitable Sadie Priss, a few more friends, and some nice hot Andy Nelson's Alabama Style Barbeque. Tug headed home the next day, and I still wished that we could have hunted for some ducks, and had my friends Robert & Alex up for that adventure, but given the frozen marshes and extreme conditions, we had as positive an outcome as we could have possibly expected. A few days of down time and two tough, but good, goose hunts ....hey, I'll take it. Only one more hunt remains before the end of the season....the birds are only getting smarter, and the weather's not getting any warmer. This could be interesting!

My single goose for the day

Tug's bag limit for the day

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Managing Body Temperature

T-Dogg's Got To, Got To, BEAT IT!

Yes, this is just an excuse to post the above montage that I created last night. Tugboatdude felt that it was not funny enough for him to comment on when I distributed it via email, so now you can all watch him in action, with his sassy moves.
But, his stupidity illustrates an important point. When air temperatures are below 35 degrees or so, the naked human body almost immediately starts to show signs of "exposure," which is just an inability to manage body temperature and bloodflow. Our bodies, for the first several minutes of exposure, foolishly pump warm blood through the most remote veins and arteries, trying to warm us up (this wastes valuable energy). When this fails, circulation begins to withdraw into the core of the body, which then begins to overheat, causing sweat.
The sweat collects on the body and transfers even more heat away from the skin into the atmosphere. This is going great, isn't it? Finally, your body begins to run out of energy to fuel its "furnace," and your core temperature begins to drop. When you start shivering lightly but uncontrollably, and have trouble using your fingers, your core temperature has dropped to about 96 degrees....the onset of mild hypothermia. As your temperature falls below 90 degrees, all shivering stops, since your body realizes it cannot possibly produce enough heat to keep you alive. Fatality is normally around 88 degrees.
So how do we avoid these things? The smartest thing I've started to do in the last 2 or so years is to BE CONSCIOUS of my sweat production......previously I only thought about it during archery season but it's so critical to having a comfortable and safe hunt during late hunting / early fishing seasons. Move strongly and deliberately, but don't rush. You may miss shooting light. Too bad. You should have gotten to the parking lot earlier.
Manage your body heat and sweat during the hunt. This is hard to do if you're up in a tree. Move around, flex your toes and fingers, and take a few quick laps....walking....around the blind. Take high protein snacks with you to eat at maybe 2 hour intervals - protein bars, nuts, even jerky....protein generates quick heat.
Third....please don't wear cotton. Another wise thing I did about 5 years ago is to give up all cotton clothes when I'm hunting, fishing, or surfing in cold conditions. Those comfy drawers will suck an unbelievable amount of heat out of you....whether they're holding sweat (mmm, tasty) or water from the outside world. Under Armour is expensive, but worth it. Even better, be like me and get the off-brand Under Armour at your favorite Hunting & Fishing Mega Store. I'm sure it's not as comfortable but it's about half-price of the real stuff.
OK those are all my wise tips for today. Make sure to use T-Dogg's picture above as your screensaver for the next two years.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Smart Birds and Biting Winds, Part I

Your host...."It's frickin' freezing in here Mr. Bigglesworth!"
Well, what can I say. Waterfowl season is almost over in the Mid-Atlantic and it has been frustrating, rewarding, and educational, all in ways that I would not have predicted prior to the season.
Our resident ducks were chased out by an early hard freeze in November, our first flight of migratory ducks arrived around December 23, only to be chased out by cold weather around December 30, and every body of water less than 500 feet wide froze into sheets by January 2nd. Diving ducks showed up right around that time, but hunting restrictions on them are really tight this year. On the other hand, the geese have been plentiful, and hunting them this year has been really challenging but pretty rewarding.

So the Seaworthy Seamonkey, also duckless in Virginia, decided to come up and chase a few geese. We (and two more friends from North Carolina) had planned on a 4-day duck hunt across the eastern shore, but with high temperatures ranging in the 5 to 12 degree range, all the marshes were freezing, ducks are gone, and the marsh is no place for southerners not used to breaking ice and having to thaw out duck calls before blowing them (insert joke).
I was able to get the New Hunting Partner to let Tugboat hunt with us on the field that they secured this fall in northern Maryland. With highly educated and heavily hunted geese, extreme temperatures, and the physical exercise & stress of layout blind hunting, we know it would be challenging.

Backs to the 20kt NW winds - trying to keep warm
Four of us set out at pre-dawn for the field. With low temperatures in the single digits and high temperatures in the upper teens, and with all of the creeks, rivers, and ponds frozen, we really had no idea when the geese would fly. However, we knew that the fat, lazy birds had been eating corn (which provides good calories for survival, but almost no calorie accumulation for birds), and as a result, they would have to eat more corn! Bad for them, great for us.
The first geese didn't fly until nearly 10am, and most of the flocks that came in were extremely wary. It was clear that they had been hunted before - many were missing flight feathers and if they chose to commit to a landing, chose a landing zone right on the edge of the decoy spread. By about noon, we were competing with a flock of geese who had decided to set down in a nearby cornfield next to a highway. And I mean, literally, 10 feet from the highway. Almost all of our incoming flocks chose the very loud and very lifelike flock down by the highway, instead of our sketchy spread of still-life plastic jumbo geese. If there's one thing I've learned from hunting birds, it's that you cannot compete with real live birds. So we packed it up - 5 geese for 4 hunters - short of our bag limit of 8 but well-earned (and yes, one of them was mine).
Tug and I had two more hunts scheduled....with the birds growing ever smarter and the temperatures only growing colder. That'll be a more extensive update for later...tune in, y'all will enjoy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

First and Last Diver Hunt of the Season

Bringing in the gang rigs, January 2009

Fish Neck natives represent! TBD, your host, and Nutty - mini duck camp 2009.

I love hunting diving ducks for several reasons. First, hunting takes place out in the salt marsh, oyster beds, and open bays, the types of places that I refer to as "home." Second, the birds are, or used to be, plentiful, and fly all day up and down the coastline. Third, the first several "private" duck hunting spots that I locked up as an adult were diving duck spots, which means that it's the part of duck hunting about which I know the most.
Unfortunately, it's gotten a little complicated lately. Our primary diving ducks (canvasbacks, redheads, and bluebills) are all having their own issues, and our bag limit until January 2 was restricted to 1 redhead, 0 canvasbacks, and 1 bluebill. Add that to the issue of the still-thawed Great Lakes and Finger Lakes, and you have a lot of constraints on what historically was a gear-intensive, but productive and fun hunt.
Tug and friend Aaron, hunting an oyster bar for buffleheads and bluebills.

A last minute business trip in the middle of January sent me to Virginia Beach, and despite the full moon, 45 degree bluebird weather, and unpredictable diver flocks, I called Tug to set up an afternoon diver hunt. We set off in his buddy Aaron's boat, since our boat The Shocker is having outboard issues that make it incompatible for an open-bay run. We set off with about 5 dozen bluebill and bufflehead decoys, 2 dozen black duck decoys, and some goose floaters.

"Be Somebody Beach" in a January sunset.

On our trip across the channel, we noticed that the problem we predicted - the large flocks of wintering divers had not yet arrived - would be supplanted by a new problem - the flocks - around 10,000 bluebills, scoters, and buffleheads, had arrived in the last 48 hours, and were hunkered down in the middle of the channel, about 800 yards offshore of our hunting spot. There was absolutely nothing we can do about it, so we went through the motions, put out lots of decoys, got the boat wedged up in the marsh, and enjoyed the mild, sunny afternoon.

A few stray pairs of buffleheads came by to check out the decoys, but the hunt was basically a bust. As we dragged the decoy rigs (15 decoys per rig) back to shore after shooting light, dozens of small flocks followed the lines of decoys all the way to the beach. At the end of it all, we all had a relaxing weekday afternoon on a decent beach in January. No gear, dogs, or hunters were banged up, and we retired back to Tug's residence, to be joined by The Nuttiness, for a warm bonfire and to tell tall tales. I've had worse mondays.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Curse You, Late Waterfowl Season!

Ahhhh....the Atlantic Flyway. Do you see Maryland? No, you don't, because on the map, Maryland is completely blackened over with ducks. It's more simple than it looks when it comes to waterfowl in the mid-Atlantic - we get Atlantic Population (AP) Canada geese from Quebec, Newfoundland, and Labrador. They used to winter further south, but now (due to changes in farming practices and/or global warming...full post forthcoming), Maryland is as far as they typically go in large numbers. And really, they only go as far as snow cover makes them. Our diving ducks (primarily canvasbacks, scaup, and buffleheads) come diagonally across the continent from the Western Boreal Forest, stopping quickly at the Great Lakes for some food and rest. Remember that. Our primary puddle ducks, which are black ducks, mallards, and a lesser mix of pintail, wigeon, and gadwall, come south from their nesting grounds in the Great Lakes and eastern Canadian Provinces.
Sounds like an outstanding setup, right? Then why have Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina experienced an insufferable 5 year downward trend in waterfowl harvests?

You can't like your odds when the creeks fill with ice before the ducks arrive.
Patuxent River, January 2009
The answer, in my opinion, lies at the intersection of waterfowl biology, climate variations, and how waterfowl seasons are set. Let's look at each. Waterfowl, and most birds for that matter, have almost all of their behaviors dictated by two factors: hormones / internal clocks, and energy / calorie conservation. While spring migration is entirely driven by hormones & internal clocks within birds or flocks of birds, fall migration is dictated by a bizarre mix of internal clocks and caloric conservation. Also keep in mind that while the fall migration may take weeks or even months to finish, the spring migration typically takes a week or less to cover the same 2,000 miles or so. For our purposes, let's remember the original question, "Why has the hunting been so awful?" and realize that we're focusing on the fall migration.
Birds, even resident birds, become quite agitated in September and October and become aware that they must go somewhere. At the same time, many northern areas start to experience frost, snow, and a decline in naturally available bird food (even if you call corn "naturally available", it eventually gets eaten up). So birds fly south. Without getting into a discussion about their bizarre migratory routes, let's just focus on the areas where they stop. In the case of most waterfowl and shorebird species, these stopover locations include the Great Lakes, the Upper Mississippi River, Hudson Bay, Long Island Sound, and the St. Lawrence River. Birds use these areas along their routes to rest, preen, and gorge themselves on carbohydrate-rich foods (or snails in the case of diving ducks and black ducks).

Icy boat on the ramp - Patuxent River January 2009.

And this is truly where all of those factors come together. Ducks settling in these locations do not have to move any farther south unless they either run out of food, or they lose their sources of open water. Remember - the birds know that they must conserve energy all the way through the winter to return north. And there's the rub.


As we sat, freezing on the Patuxent River (famous for stands of wild rice and nice flocks of teal, black ducks, and mallards) last week and wondered where the hell the ducks were, the ducks were still sitting on open water in the Great Lakes. In January. I saw a Weather Channel update that afternoon - open water on all of the Great Lakes. ALL OF THEM. In January.


In fact, I hear there's still open water in parts of the St. Lawrence River, and in fact, that's where a few million ducks are sitting right now. Content to hedge their bets that maybe, just maybe, they won't have to fly any farther south.

Hunting in icy conditions presents the spectre of hunting over iced-up decoys - the shimmer in the dawn sunlight off of these icy, plastic beauties will scare ducks away for miles.
Meanwhile, our most productive winter duck habitats, shallow wetlands and upper tributaries of creeks, are frozen over with thin sheets of ice. This means that if, by some miracle, the Great Lakes do freeze over before the end of hunting season, ducks and geese will bypass the highest quality, and most heavily hunted, habitats for open water on our major rivers, where they'll have little hope of finding high quality food (and where it's very difficult to hunt them). In the last 3 years, our first major flights of ducks have come between January 19 and January 25. What's wrong with that?

Air: 17 degrees, Water, 32 degrees, floating rice seed and no ducks in January
This is where the whole debacle engages with waterfowl management and the setting of duck seasons. The USFWS and Flyway Councils meet to set the Federal Guidelines for Migratory Bird Hunting every July or August. The Council guidelines have three major aims: create bag limits that will not adversely affect bird production in the following summer, provide sustainable hunting opportunities, and prevent "high cost losses" to bird populations, namely, to prevent birds from being killed once they have successfully wintered and are on their return migration north. This is very important to bird conservation and the management of bird forage, or "bird food" across all of the flyways and the continent as a whole.
As a result, the Feds "recommend" that Atlantic Flyway seasons end by somewhere January 20 and January 27 every year, and our individual states set the waterfowl seasons accordingly (they can go more stringent, but rarely less stringent). That sounds great, but remember that for 5 years, we've received our main flights of waterfowl between January 19 and January 25. At which time, most ponds, wetlands, and creeks have been frozen for about 2 weeks (most years). The result is that out of a generous 60 day waterfowl season, only the last week, at best, is highly productive for most hunters. And although I have no data to support this, I'm pretty confident that most duck hunters have "hung it up" for the winter prior to January 20.
I don't know where this leaves Maryland waterfowling, but it's not good. More and more hunters are targeting geese, with goose leases ranging from $2,000 to $30,000 per farm. Also not very helpful to "Average Joe Hunter." It's become apparent to my peers and I (hunting biologists) that until this climate trend turns around, which could be next year, or in 10,000 years, Maryland and Virginia are basically DOA for duck hunting. I can hardly imagine it - the cradle of American waterfowling "goose and sea duck only."
Looks like we'll be heading north or west by 1500 miles or more next fall.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Goose Ground Zero

Copyright Myself, 2009. Here's where the geese are going in the winter. I'll save the analysis of this map for a post-hunting season discussion!
I received an invitation to a field goose hunt at a farm in Chestertown, Maryland; generally recognized as "goose ground zero" for the last 50 years. Especially in years when the AP (Atlantic Population) geese are dominated by 2- and 3-year old birds, hundreds of thousands of Canada Geese, and well over a million snow geese, descend upon the same rivers on the eastern shore of Maryland. These rivers - namely the Chester, Sassafras, Wye, and lower Choptank, are surrounded by large acreages of open farms (not small fields) where "corn is king." Recently, government efforts to decrease agricultural runoff into the rivers has taken shape as a "cover crop program," where farmers are paid to plant a crop of rye or wheat after the corn is harvested (rye and wheat were not historically important crops in this area). So in the last 3 years, the geese have had an additional source of food in mild weather - the green cover crops. And let me just say that it is very difficult to hunt geese who are feeding in a 100 acre field of 2" tall green grass. But I digress.

Bag limit by 9AM - not shabby!

In Maryland, we let the geese really "commit" before taking the shot. Guess how far one lucky goose was off the ground?

It's all about having the right food, on the right day, in the right wind. Debating over who's wearing MAX-4HD and who's wearing Mossy Oak Duck Blind is pretty silly. Just stay still and don't call if you're not confident with your calling skills.

The setup - 8 dozen silhouettes and 3 dozen fullbodies
We were set up well before sunrise and due to an incoming cold front (set for about noon), the birds were antsy, but not moving off of the nearby salt creek. Around 8:30am, they started moving in pairs and triples, and headed right for our setup. We got our first larger flock (8) around 9:00am, and shot horribly, only killing two birds. After punishing a few more singles and doubles, we got the first big push - about 30 geese swirling over the blind and the decoy spread. We allowed most of the flock to leave, and let a few land in the spread, before finishing out our bag limit with the few stragglers trying to land, about 25 yards out and 3 feet up in the air.

It was a great morning, and went easier than any hunt really should. I can't wait to go back!

Monday, January 5, 2009

Northern Maryland Goose Hunt

Layout blinds - the ultimate in fashion...and comfort!
We've locked up a small field in the lower Susquehanna River drainage near the Maryland / Pennsylvania border. The area doesn't get a lot of hunting pressure, so our success is limited to the number of geese in the area, minus the dumb mistakes we made. On this hunt, both factors kicked us in the rear. We were hunting in advance of a cold front - normally a very wise move, since birds (and most wildlife) feed heavily in advance of a cold front. Unfortunately, the best hunts are about 12-18 hours ahead of a cold front, and we were only about 2 hours ahead of the front for this hunt. Most of our geese flew south (or east, or somewhere) the night before our hunt. Smaller numbers of birds never helps your odds.

Small setup by 2008 standards - 3 dozen flocked bigfoot decoys and 2 dozen flocked shells
We got set up with plenty of time to spare, and we knew, laying there in the dark, that the 33 degree air was the warmest that it would be all day. I tended to my layout blind, trying to incorporate as much corn stubble as possible into the 10,000 loops covering the blind.

The view from a layout.
Everything about hunting from a layout blind is tricky. Shelter is minimal, visibility is poor, and the shooting is challenging. Calling is done on your back, and you must balance stealth with safety (mainly, not shooting off your own foot). So, we got setup and the sun was immediately too bright, putting a brilliant sheen on the decoys - again, not ideal. We quickly noticed that the few flocks of geese moving in the area were smaller, and farther between than they'd been the previous several days.

Setting up in the headlights of two trucks - common sight on a Maryland January morning.

A thick black line of clouds appeared on the horizon and headed our way, bringing wind and snow (perfect for convincing geese to set down). Unfortunately, these ideal conditions - the cold front itself - only lasted about 10 minutes before giving way to an even BRIGHTER sun, frigid temperatures, and 35kt winds that were "hanging birds up" in the air over our decoys. Not convinced to drop in vertically, and with too much wind to glide in gradually and safely, the birds chose to hover in the wind over top of us, like kites on strings. The wind began knocking over decoys (a guarantee of failure when hunting waterfowl), and then our hunt was predictably doomed by the awakening of the resident geese on a nearby pond, who were calling to all the migratory geese in the area. It was disappointing, but it was also my first hunt in about a month, and it was really great to get out and clear my head. With more hunts on the calendar, and the weather only growing colder, things look like they will improve for us in the Mid-Atlantic!

Sunrise, looking toward the Chesapeake Bay

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