Thursday, December 24, 2009

Getting it Right - Against All Odds

View from the Pit
So, indulge me while I rattle off the reasons why my most
recent hunt should have been a disaster. First, I visited the duck club / farm the day before my scheduled hunt to determine if the farm lane was accessible, and if the boat "ramp" was accessible (sneakboat towed by 6W gator), given the variable amounts of snow (5" to 28") in the area. That was actually a good move. I walked around the farm a little bit and took stock - a few geese standing on the frozen pond. 500 to 1000 geese sitting in the lagoon at the bottom of the cliff. It all turned bad when I drove the Gator into a snowbank that I couldn't see (looked flat & level on top, but snow depth went from 5" to 30" in about 2 seconds flat), about 20 minutes before sunset. I spent an hour trying to dig it out, but it was an impossible task for one person. Humiliated and frustrated, I might've called off the next day's hunt, except I knew I'd have to return to pull out the Gator anyway. 6" to 30" of snow in every field. No corn stubble exposed. Pond frozen. Geese roosting in an area inaccessible by land and with the boat itself covered in snow and ice, on the boat lift. Not good.
Then add in the weather. Thick snow cover, cold temperatures, and high air pressure are causing the geese to flock up and head south into Virginia, looking for food. There is no cloud cover in the area at all- no fog, no clouds, no rain. Very few hunters are having good outings. Any hunt would require walking ALL of one's gear out to the hunting spot, through the snow, from the nearest plowed farm lane or public road. It's just "not good." Not for December. Not for waterfowling. A recipe for failure.
How many times have I "known better" and tried to force a hunting/fishing/surfing trip in dicey conditions - only with disastrous results? Too many times.
But this is where "friends" come in. I called my friend Rich and invited him to hunt with me, and by the way, help me pull the Gator out of the snow, please. We talked about the only two "realistic"scenarios for a goose hunt, based on the weather conditions alone:
  1. hunt the few areas of open water with 3-5 dozen floater decoys and a few full body decoys on the shore. An ideal setup - but impossible since most boat ramps are covered in ice and snow.
  2. scrape the snow off of a corn/soybean field to make it "look" like the decoys are feeding on grain that's been exposed by snowmelt or cattle. We didn't have time to mobilize a tractor for this task. But it got us thinking: could we shovel enough snow by hand to make it work? The answer was a very exhausting, "Yes."
About 50% of the decoy spread, seen from the goose pit
With 2 rakes and one shovel, we scraped out areas that looked like "corn rows" and "holes" of exposed dirt and corn stubble. We used 4 dozen silhouette decoys and 1 dozen bigfeet, and put them in tightly to mimic geese that are feeding very aggressively (hungry birds). The goose pit had very little snow on top of it, so we used that to our advantage - placing decoys around and even on top of the pit itself - to try and make it look like a feeding area.
Around 930am the birds started moving to feed, and a few medium-sized flocks (8 to 20 birds) took a look at us, and (I think) decided that there was not enough "open ground" for them all to land. Around 10am, a flock of four geese fully committed to the decoy spread, and tried to land within 15 yards of the goose pit. And that was basically the end of the hunt.
A daily limit of geese in snowy, sunny, 24 degree weather = proud of myself!
I was really proud that the two of us - both of us goose hunting only since the Atlantic Flyway reopened in 2002 - were able (under these conditions) to think this through, execute a good, legal, and safe hunt, and actually harvest our limit of birds. We knew how and where to set up, we called "decently," and we shot "well enough." Maybe I need to give myself a little more credit sometimes.

And speaking of getting it right against all odds - here's me and my buddy - 3 months old today. Guess I'm having a run of good luck.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Maybe next time, "a little" snow.

Compare today's snow cover map to the last one I posted. We're now under 1.5 - 2.0' of snow. Not sure if the ducks and geese have left us, or are starving in the ice & snow. Plan to visit the farm tomorrow and figure out which of those two it is!
I'm planning on a waterfowl hunt of some variety later this week. Lots of factors to consider!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Socked In

Now I know why the geese were acting so crazy 3 days ago. They were flocking up and preparing to get the heck out of Dodge! No hunting for a few days now, since the farm lane is socked in & the boat has 2 feet of snow on top of it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Too Smart For My Own Good

A few geese on our spot, 12 hours before our hunt.
Got an opportunity to go out with Rich & Mike to hunt a goose field near the duck club I joined for opening day of late waterfowl season. It did not go as planned. About 1,000 birds were sitting on the field the afternoon before the hunt. Weather was pretty standard - 26 degrees (-3C), no clouds, 10-20kt NW wind, and no moon. We thought the next morning would be great.
I was really confused by what unfolded. At first light, ducks were flying - a welcome sight after many warm months. A few flocks of geese, 10 to 30 birds each, moved off of the nearby creeks as the sun rose and the wind increased. Most flocks flew between us and another group of hunters, gave us a look, and kept going. None of the geese seemed to be coming from or going to the same place. There was a steady trickle of geese for the first two hours of daylight - not large numbers that one would expect this time of year, but significantly more birds than were present just one week before. By 9:30am, the birds had stopped flying, and we hadn't shot.

Outer edge of our decoy spread - 4 dozen silhouettes and 2 dozen full body decoys - what we thought was a convincing layout really failed for us.
We hung around until 10-something o'clock and packed it in. On my drive down the eastern shore back to work, I saw bored hunters in field blinds everywhere....honestly it made me feel a little better. I also passed several farm ponds surrounded by cut corn / soybeans. Each pond had 300 to 500 geese sitting on it or around it. How did we miss this call? On a day when the geese should have been in the fields early, they spent the day on the water (which is what they do when it's about 20 degrees warmer).
We have a gigantic nor'easter headed up the coast, bringing 2 to 3 feet of snow to our area. I'm looking forward to getting out for some hunts as soon as the roads are passable again.
Snow cover map - making progress!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Learning to be a Parent

At age 11 weeks, Hank is all about....Hank.

This is a basic guide (so far) for those of you who haven't had the joy - and it is a joy - of trying out parenting. Also, you older guys will laugh at me. And that's fine. Glad you're here.

How's it been so far? It's hard to describe. Hank is a REALLY happy baby so that has been a huge help. But still, the worst of it is the lack of sleep. The amount of sleep I get rivals my most intense weeks of graduate school. Meaning that I sleep in my car, office, couch, basement...really anywhere and any time I can. Up until Hank was about 8 weeks old, I was getting 4.5 to 5.5 hours of sleep per night. A month later, it's 5.0 to 6.5. Which would rival "normal," if it were not also hunting season. Still, we are making it work. And those hours of sleep - that's not all at one time. I often take a nap from about 930pm to 1030pm, get some sleep between 1am and 3am, and usually from about 4am to 7am. And sometimes, not that much.

The feeding (at birth, every 2 hours; now, every 4 hours and sometimes longer at night) has been pretty intense but it's just one of those things where you do the best that you can. You ask, "intense? how?" Let's put it this way. A baby goes from "konked out asleep" to "starving hungry, flailing, and screaming bloody murder" in about 40 seconds. It takes about 8 minutes to heat up a bottle. You do the math. 40 seconds warning at 4am...that's what I'm saying.

The good stuff is better than you can imagine. I am not sure if Hank recognizes me, personally, or if he just smiles that big for everybody, and is playing us all for suckers. His smile makes me want to give him anything he wants. I would get it for him. Luckily he cannot talk. The sounds he does make (other than the Hunger Scream) can make your heart melt. He is growing quickly and it's hard to explain my inner conflict between loving how he is right now, and being eager for him to grow to the next level.

One thing that continues to be really tough is making myself do things that are indirectly good for Hank. Like staying in shape and not eating every meal like it's 11:55pm on Death Row, and I'm up next for Old Sparky. And trying to schedule some outtings & hunts (not at the pre-baby regularity) to keep my head straight and feel like a real person who continues to have an actual life. It's so easy for me to just sit on the couch and just watch the baby all day. You feel like you're supposed to be there, but at some point (especially if you have a partner), I know that kids need to know & recognize that while they are the most important part of your life, they are not the only part of your life. I think this would be much harder if I was a single dad, or if I really enjoyed going out to bars. Luckily, I just want to sit out in the saltwater and tell tall tales.

Being a parent has been the single biggest science experiment of my life, and yet I feel like the best advice I get is from coworkers and outdoor buddies who have had kids - not the American Pediatric Association or the AMA or anybody else. As a scientist, that's hard to reconcile.

For all the sore knees, dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and baby bottles, being a parent is already one of the funnest things I have ever done. Hank doesn't comprehend much, and his only understanding of the outdoors is based on his mixed feelings about the giant bright light in the sky, and his very serious fascination with staring at the winter treeline against the sky - the contrast of the branches, I guess. I am looking forward to getting on the water with him next summer, and for many summers after that. You'll be reading about it here - you can count on that much.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Duck Migration Still On Hold

This week's ice cover map of the eastern Great Lakes. One bay's shoreline is 1 - 10% frozen. A lot of open habitat remaining for waterfowl!

The corresponding western GL ice cover map for this week. Not much more promising. If you're still not convinced that regional air system patterns affect the migration, take a look at this picture of me taken on or about January 17, 2009:

Yeah, it was 12 degrees F that day. Freaking cold to be laying on your back in a cut corn field.

I posted at the time that some folks were reporting our first big flights of ducks from upstate NY and a staging area in Southeastern PA between the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers. Ducks were coming south right as the frigid winter weather was starting to freeze up our marshes. Here's the corresponding Great Lakes ice map from that week:

That's a LOT of ice. I have to thank the French Road Connections blog for grabbing and posting that image. Just 2 weeks before, around January 6, we were sweating in Virginia, trying to chase divers in 55 degree, sunny weather. The ducks were there by the thousands - but they were well-fed and not motivated to keep feeding.
As I've discussed before, there are many more factors involved in predicting the duck migration. The Atlantic Flyway migration is made up of over a dozen species of waterfowl who have different nutritional needs, feeding habits, and survival strategies. And news came from the USFWS early this summer that late snow and ice on the nesting grounds severely limited the hatch of Canada another factor emerges. However, the fact remains that most of the ducks that winter in the Mid-Atlantic and the coastal Southeast come from the Great Lakes and the eastern Canadian provinces, and these animals are driven by a need to expend the minimal amount of energy while consuming the maximum amount of calories. That means that birds will stay local as long as they can.
Two great (related) examples of this from last season were the late December staging of ducks in southeastern Pennsylvania, and the mid-January migratory bypass of Maryland and northern Virginia by those same birds. Several flights (perhaps 100,000 ducks or so) settled into eastern Pennsylvania at the end of December, due to cold weather in Canada, New York, and the Great Lakes. Those ducks flew an average of (let's say) 1,000 miles in 4 days. They then stayed put in Pennsylvania until around January 10th - 15th, when that thick, deep, freeze forced them quickly (2 or 3 day flight) through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia (where most ponds, creeks, and marshes were frozen) into the more southern (and unfrozen) Great Dismal Swamp area on the NC/VA border and the shallow Sounds of North Carolina. A post from Tugboatdude along the Great Dismal Swamp confirmed it, unfortunately!
The word in our neck of the woods - even from global warming skeptics, is that "Maryland duck hunting is in the past." For the past 10 years, hunters in Maryland and Virginia have had stable but low harvests of ducks due (in my opinion) to longer-lasting warm conditions in the north, followed by a quick onset of brutal winter weather right at the end of waterfowl season, forcing birds quickly through our area (and back out of our area) in a 2 or 3 day period, or at most a 14 day period.
In the end, I feel like I've done all I can to adapt to this reality. While I strongly prefer hunting in the marsh, the majority of my hunting is now in fields, for geese, because those hunts are far more productive. I harvested one (ONE) duck in the 2008-2009 season, and with the 2009-2010 season 40% over, have harvested none. I'm proud that one of my first blog posts (October, 2007) referenced low numbers of local ducks "due to mild weather," and that my 2008 "Wish List" included a goal of only "going where the ducks are - whether that's north or south." So it's not like a new revelation (to me, anyway). Without making a trip out of the flyway (Arkansas and Saskatchewan come to mind) or trying to get a standing invite or membership at a farm that has flooded corn (aka duck crack), I don't know what else to do to improve my duck harvest.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

2009 Gear Review

I have never done this before, so bear with me. Also keep in mind that I have not received any kind of discount or promotion for listing anybody's products here. Like most people, my gear selection are driving by the moving target of quality vs. price; and so much of what I have to discuss lies in "the middle of the road" in both categories. I think you'll enjoy my list, and feel free to chime in with your favorite gear - especially for the types of gear where I have yet to find satisfaction (at the bottom of the list).
KEEPING WARM: As I get older, and slower, keeping warm and dry are at the top of my list for keeping safe and comfortable in and around the water. Between work, surfing, kayaking, hunting, and fishing, I spend easily 75 days per year on, in, or around the water. This is where I spend the most money (per item) on gear, so there's a lot I've experienced. Here we go.

  • Waders - purchased the Cabela's Light Mag Waterfowl Waders ($139 on sale) and I have been very pleased with them so far. They aren't so heavy that you will overheat while setting up for a hunt, but they are sufficiently thick and armored to deal with cold temperatures, briars, and the usual stuff that non-rich guys like me need.
  • Waterfowl gloves - I'll get back to this at the end of the post, but here's my 2 cents on what I've found so's CRAP! I need my gloves to do 2 things: keep my fingers warm and be thin enough so I can comfortably shoot without feeling like I have marshmallows taped to my fingers. I started the year with Avery's Neoprene Shooting Gloves ($19.99 at Mack's), and first of all, the sizing was atrocious. I am only 5'7" and the fingers of the "large" glove only came down to my second knuckle! I called Avery directly and they kindly exchanged for an XL pair, which barely fit. They are good shooting gloves, but provide absolutely no thermal protection. Useless in temperatures below 45 degrees. Next attempt at gloves was the Gander Mountain Guide Series Waterfowl Glove ($14.99 at Gander Mtn). This is a typical waterfowling glove, I picked them up in a pinch because it was too cold for the Avery gloves. What a mistake. I can't even feel the gun through the thick, pre-formed, stiff neoprene and what's worse, the very first time I put my hand in the water, I found out that the stitching inbetween the fingers leaked! A lot! I was pretty disgusted.
  • Base layering: on this whole theme of "keeping warm," I have finally moved away from cotton clothes and wearing 6 layers underneath my waders / bibs. And if you think it's trivial that I'm talking about underwear in a "gear review," obviously you've never been cold ...I mean...REALLY cold!!! I was surprised at what I found, though. The best value for my money has been with REI's store brand mid-weight performance underwear ($25 - $40). I've also been fairly satisfied with Gander Mountain's Scent-Lock top (price varies widely from month to month)- it's very warm and I'm sure the bottoms would just roast you to death. Likewise, cheapo-technical underwear by Champion at Target ($15 - $29) has been very effective at keeping me warm, but does a horrible job at wicking away moisture. Swampy! The biggest disapointment of this group? Patagonia's baselayer products ($45 to $65) which got shredded in the wash. My patagonia stuff was expensive and effective....but only for about 6 months, when the material started fraying and falling apart.
  • Bibs - I've bought 3 pairs of waterproof bibs (Walls, Field & Stream, and Cabelas) over the last 18 months, but I'm still trying to figure out what I like & don't like about each. Nothing notable to report so far.
HUNTING: This is a shorter section, since (thank God) I have gotten to the point where I have what I need and I know what I don't need....sort of.
  • Game calls: This is just a "best and worst" category. The best call I purchased this year was the Primos Timber Wench ($21). Dollar for dollar, you CANNOT beat this duck call. It is as raspy as all hell, and the volume control is much easier than with other similar "sub-$50" duck calls I used. The feeding chuckle is not great....but hey....for $21 you can still carry your other call with you for chuckling. Now, the worst call I purchased this year is the Primos Honky Tonk short reed goose call ($35). It is crazy high pitched, and very difficult to establish consistent back pressure. The fact that I'm still learning to call well with a short reed doesn't help, but I can say for sure, "this is not a good call to learn on."
  • Ammunition: nothing exciting here. On the nontoxic side, I continue to have good luck with Kent Fasteel; shooting 3" #3's for ducks and 3.5" #1's for geese. The loads are consistent, and the shells do not easily corrode or rust when exposed to rain/snow/water. I've had very mixed luck with Black Cloud, and will likely try it again this season, even though they have jacked the price up about 25% over 2008's price. In the 20 gauge, I've enjoyed luck with both Winchester Texas Heavy Quail Loads ($7/box) and B&P F2 Legends ($9/box). I'm a very "average" shooter so it's hard for me to tell a lot of loads apart. In fact, the only load I consistently stay away from is Winchester XPert, one of the cheapest loads on the market.

FISHING: I've been doing more freshwater and less saltwater fishing over the last few years, and here are a few thoughts:

  • Spinning rods: I continue to have lots of success with my Wally Marshall light spinning rod ($35, $38 w/reel, Bass Pro). Purchased in March 2008, I've used a variety of reels on it and have found it to be very responsive and "just strong enough." New to the quiver this year were two other spinning rods: the Pflueger Razor Tip ultralight ($49 - $69) and the Berkeley Amp light rod ($29). The two rods couldn't be more different. The Berkeley rod felt very strong and steady, and casts farther than any L / UL rod I've owned. It just doesn't cast where you want it to go. It also broke in two while trying to pull a 1/4oz jig on 4lb line out of a tree. If the tug wasn't enough to break 4lb line, it should not have broken that rod! So, I will not be buying another Berkeley rod. The Pflueger is a finesse rod, and I'm having a little trouble getting used to it. It's very sensitive, which is nice when the fishing is hot, and annoying when the fishing is bad, or you're fishing in a current.
  • Reels: I use a variety of reels, but the positive standout is definitely my Okuma Hardstone ($39, Cabelas) that usually sits on my Wally Marshall rod. The absolute worst reel I've dealt with this year (I've owned it longer, never had a good experience, but keep trying!) is the Shakespeare Low Profile Baitcast Reel. It is such a nightmare that it's not even worth describing. If your choice is to buy this reel or not go fishing, don't go fishing. I'm currently shopping for low-price baitcast reels, and thinking about this Okuma ($44), the Pflueger Cetina ($89), the BPS Mega Cast ($40), or the BPS Tourney Special ($49).
  • Lures: I use a huge diversity of lures, but far and away the most successful lures per cast in 2009 have been Joe's Flies. These little lures are fantastic for using in over-fished areas where smallmouth and largemouth have seen every senko worm and crankbait in town. Their product line is pretty expansive and obviously can handle trout and panfish quite easily. Seems like a good company and I encourage you to check them out!

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The Migration Wait - Hunting the Patuxent River

Low tide exposes thick mats of aquatic vegetation - in this case, widgeongrass
So, my buddy Mike invited me on a hunt on the Patuxent River in a state blind. I was a little skeptical, but appreciated the invite, especially since Mike has the boat, and also because I knew that our duck club on the eastern shore would be overrun with Dads and kids on the weekend after Thanksgiving.
It was one of those days where we did everything right - everything. Everything was playing in our favor - the weather, the tides, you name it. And yet, we still came up empty. We saw a few scattered birds during our hunt (mallards, teal, and some geese), but all were long-time residents of the marsh who were not at all fooled by our decoy spread and calling. In fact, most of the birds did not give us a second look - they were clearly on their way from Point A to Point B, and we were located somewhere around Point F. How, in late November, could this happen?
Well, once again, we are having an early winter with temperatures significantly warmer than usual to our north. Birds of all kinds are not motivated to migrate when they have dependable access to food and unfrozen water......both of which are still in plentiful supply in southern Canada, New York, and the Great Lakes states.
And then, in mid-January with less than 10 days of a 60 day waterfowl season remaining, it got cold. Really cold. So cold that we received a huge flight of ducks and geese in just a few days, and then lost most of the ducks (to southern Virginia and North Carolina) because many of our marshes were literally frozen over. We spent the rest of the season hunting geese.
I really enjoy the experience of being out in the marsh (vs. a cornfield waiting for geese), so I hope that history doesn't repeat itself. Hopefully some migratory ducks will find their way down the Atlantic Flyway and hopefully they will stay put for a while once they have arrived. If not, I guess we'll have to do something else!

Tidal creek along the Patuxent River in southern Maryland

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