Wednesday, October 28, 2009

On Guides and Guiding, Revisited

Leisurely afternoon stroll through the game plots at Pintail Point Plantation
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So, with this whole "newbornbaby situation," and my resulting current sleep schedule (1030-1130pm and 4am to 7am), let's just say I was not motivated to organize any duck hunts leaving my home at the usual early season time (230 to 315am). However, I really wanted to blow off some steam, and I knew that brother T was coming into town, so I thought, why don't we try something different? So, against my own best intuition, I looked around for an upland bird shoot (if the birds are domestic, PLEASE don't call it a hunt!). Upland bird hunting, except for doves, is basically a dead tradition in the Mid-Atlantic, as a result of land use changes, farm management changes, lack of fox trapping, and the explosion of the coyote and feral cat populations in rural areas. A great subject for a future blog post!

I finally settled on a place on the eastern shore of Maryland, only an hour from Baltimore and Washington DC, called Pintail Point Plantation. Shooters pay for the birds, and the Preserve provides the fields, a guide, and dogs. Sounded easy enough - and with this little sleep, EASY is what I need - but I was wary about my last two (only two) outtings with guides. Let's summarize those really quickly:
  1. In both cases, we were deceived ("lie" is such a strong word) about the amount of preparation the guides had put into the hunt;

  2. In both cases, we asked the guides to reschedule our hunt date (for extra $$), if it looked like the birds or conditions would not cooperate. Both declined, leading to a 70 degree, full moon hunt in October and a 45 degree full moon hunt in February. Both assured us, "we're on birds....BIG TIME!" Between the two hunts...I shot 5 shells? With a total bag limit of 6 ducks and 10 geese.

  3. In both cases, we were assured that the guides were "on top" of the migration and local hunting pressure, and we would be taken somewhere that took advantage of both. Don't want to use the "l" word, but let's just say they were not being as honest as they could have been about their level of hunt preparation & local knowledge.

  4. In both cases, we were "taken" by licensed guides who were SIGNIFICANTLY more concerned about getting paying warm bodies on site, than whether we turned into repeat customers or references for their business, or God Forbid, have an actual good hunt, or even a good time. Both have expressed "shock" that we have not referred more customers to them. Amazing that they didn't think of this before or during the hunt....

My expectations for professionals - of any field - but particularly of guide services - remained unsatisfied, and for the record, were:

  1. Preparation - knowledge of "how things have been working lately"

  2. Gear - should be of higher quality than that of a non-professional

  3. Customer Service - customer safety & satisfaction should absolutely be the #1 and #2 goals...the money will follow.

  4. Vested interest in repeat business...this should go without saying, but has been ignored by most folks I've met in the hunting/fishing guide business, from Florida to New York.

Oh, and for the record, those two lists were definitely not gleaned from hunting trips with these guys or these guys. I'm sure they are both two awesome guide services. Like, seriously.

SO, obviously, the decks were obviously stacked against the guys at Pintail Point. We were paying less for this Preserve Shoot than we would for a hunting guide, but still....we had low expectations, and we still assumed they would not be met.

Boy, were we wrong. Two days before the hunt, the Plantation Manager, Stephanie Whiteley, called us to confirm our shoot, and gave us a rundown on when to show up, what to bring, and the other activities (trap shooting, golf) that they had going on, and ran through their "bird packages" ($xx for 30 chukar, 10 pheasant, etc). I was undeterred in my cynicism ("they just want to sell us more crap"), but the call was nice and very professional. When we arrived at Pintail, we checked in with the receptionist, who called our guide to kennel up the dogs. Stephanie then came out and greeted us, told us to make ourselves at home, and of course, asked us if we needed anything. We hung around and looked at the various bird guns for sale (including, of course, the ubiquitous Silver Pigeon...what a dream!), and all of the Orvis and Beretta items for sale in the upscale "gear shop." Not really our scene, but whatever. Always fun to look at nice stuff.

About 15 minutes later, our guide, Jack Turner, showed up. Jack is also Pintail's Kennel Manager, so I was starting to actually get excited about having a fun and professional shoot. Jack drove us out to one of the fields, which was planted in 12 row strips of alternating corn, millet, sunflower and sorghum, with paths mowed through it. The birds had been released into the field earlier in the day. Jack explained to us how the afternoon would work, and the differences between the techniques of the two dogs he'd selected for the afternoon. Tug and I set out with Jack and the dogs, and within 10 minutes, we were shooting. Jack was diligent about working the dogs and making sure that we were working the field safely and effectively....and suddenly....I realized that I was relaxing. WOAH. We worked the area thoroughly, and Jack entertained a lot of questions from us about upland birds, preserve shooting, and working dogs in uplands (again, this is something we know very little about). Ultimately, we got up 8 pheasants (we paid for 10), got shots on 7, and killed 5. Besides our poor shooting and very tall heavy cover, I think I was hampered by my choke selection (extended improved on my 20 gauge Gold Hunter), particularly on some longer shots going away. But one of the 2 escapees was just a poor miss - I sent tail feathers flying and nothing else...and forgot to put a 3rd shell in the chamber. Oops.

Near the end of the shoot, one of the Pintail staff rode by in a Jeep and asked if we wanted our birds cleaned & bagged for $2 each. On a 70 degree day....no brainer! Jack and the dogs continued to work the field with us in search of "our" last two birds, working for over an hour with just 1 flush (a runner, at that). When it was clear to everybody that we had done as much damage as we could, Jack called the shoot and we rode back up to the lodge. The lodge staff (again) was very friendly, and both Stephanie and Jack seemed like they were highly interested in whether we had enjoyed our afternoon at Pintail Point. Paying them was very low key and they made it feel like it was of minimal importance to them (of course....it's NOT!), which is similar to fishing guides I've had in the past, but VERY dissimilar to hunting guides I've had... The next day, Stephanie called to follow up and see if she could help book another shoot for us, and about a week later, we received a thank you note in the mail (who does that anymore?), thanking us for our business.

So let's review our previously unattainable goals for guides and guiding:

  1. Preparation - no question here. The folks did what they were supposed to do PRIOR to the shoot, which is the first time I've experienced that (other guides have lied to us and said they were prepared) . As a result, I didn't have to think/worry/obsess about it, which is a main reason why I hire a guide. We had no "expectation" to harvest birds, and yet, Jack had every expectation that we have numerous opportunities to do so.
  2. Gear - again, no question. The fields were in awesome shape - some of the best bird habitat I've seen - and the dogs, while not perfect, worked really hard and ultimately, did their job better than my old retriever could have ever done. I would say they met, but didn't necessarily "exceed" my expectation. It could have been better, but I was pleased!
  3. Customer Service - very clearly, the staff's goal was for us to have a safe and fun time, and they worked hard to make sure we did. My expectations were exceeded.
  4. Interest in Repeat Business - this was clearly another main goal of Pintail's staff, and they will be successful. We will be going back to Pintail Point at the River Plantation. They far exceeded my expectation, and I have already spoken to other friends about shooting at Pintail this winter.

I feel compelled to thank Jack Turner, Stephanie Whiteley, and the rest of the staff at Pintail who worked with us, simply because they "did their job" and did it very well, unlike many of the charlatans and hooligans I've come across in the guiding industry. I left their property relaxed, happy, and excited to return and give them more of my hard-earned money. Isn't that the way capitalism is supposed to work? And no - they neither paid for, subsidized, endorsed, or have approved this post!

This is what a good afternoon looks like!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Goals & Dreams for the 2009 - 2010 Waterfowl Season - Part II

Someone in our party cannot be accused of shooting early...I think that goose was probably pretty low!

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So, after a little bit of reflection about the 2008-2009 season, I can say that it was successful, but it definitely did not go how I believed it would. I think that statement speaks to my naivety and my wisdom at the same time. Being flexible really worked for us last year.

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So, what's changed in a year? A few big things:



  1. I have a baby in the house, and I'm getting 4-5 hours of sleep per night


  2. I joined a hunting club (primarily goose) on the Eastern Shore of MD


  3. I have a new job with more money, but a tight leash re: time off

So.....those are not insigificant things! I've really had to think over the last few months about how I can successfully manage my life and priorities, and also strive to have an enjoyable hunting season. So what type of goals should I aim for?


1. Make a point to "be present" when I am at home - be happy to take care of the baby all day on a sunday so my wife can do her thing....knowing that later (usually in the same week), I'll be afield. Be happy to be a father, even when it means staying home on an ideal hunting or fishing day.


2. Keep it safe. This should be on the top of everybody's list. No crazy risks.


3. Conduct hunts in the most stress-free ways possible. Plan well, execute well, have a backup plan.


4. Get to know my new hunt club and its members, and share significant time afield with them at the club. Try not to overextend myself by accepting invitations to hunt on other members' property. Grow the relationships for benefit of future years.


5. Be more openly gracious to the property owners who allow me to hunt on their land.


6. Follow up on last year's successes hunting where/when the birds are (and the correct species), instead of wasting a morning on an accessible duck hole where no ducks are hanging around.


7. Evaluate my current (excessive) gear load, and be prepared to sell/donate some of it prior to the 2010-2011 season.







Goals & Dreams for the 2009 - 2010 Waterfowl Season...Part I - Assessing 2008-2009

Waiting for geese foolish enough to cross the PA/MD border, January 2009
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To answer your first question, no, I do not have enough energy to work up an original blog post right now! But it's that time of the year where I spend a lot of time outside...pursuing fish, birds, waves, and sometimes deer, so let's get our priorities in order.
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As part of this effort, I realized that I never re-visited my goals for the 2008-2009 season....so let's take a look:
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1) Avoid any preventable serious injuries or damage to hunters, dogs, and gear.
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2) Be conscious of my shooting - avoid lapsing into bad habits.
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3) Follow the birds, instead of following my own habits and favorite spots. Be willing to travel as far north or south as required, especially during the late season.
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4) Evaluate invitations a little closer - don't waste a day off on a horrible hunt. It's OK to graciously decline.
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5) Take advantage of waterfowl hunting on state forest properties. Regulations and hunting pressure are far less than they are on nearby wildlife management areas, and the habitat isn't all that different.
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6) Enjoy the hunt. Don't go just to go. Make real memories. Be patient and make it count.
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OK, so how did I do?
1. We had a safe season. Only a mojo decoy (broken foot) and a cell phone (fell in the drink, same day) were busted up. We hunted some extremely cold days, but were well equipped.
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2. I shot OK, but not great. Since last season started, I bought a used 20ga. Browning Gold Hunter and have shot that extensively to work on my lead-in (I frequently shoot behind birds).
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3. We did this to some extent, but late open water on the Great Lakes prevented a serious migration into PA, MD, or VA, until a severe freeze in early January sent all the birds from NY, MI, and Canada straight to the NC/VA border and beyond. At that point, we decided to forget duck hunting and focus on geese for the rest of the season, which was not what we really wanted to do....but it was an excellent decision in retrospect. We paid attention, and it paid off.
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4. I got burned a few times by hunting with buddies (their rigs) on warm, moonlight mornings, and then started to stick to my guns. I hunted in the rain, hunted in the snow and ice, hunted in the cold, and tried to avoid hunting during the full moon and during warm spells. Seemed to work, as our harvest was much better in poor weather.
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5. Refer to #3. We didn't really go chasing ducks like we had planned, because we never had a significant flight of ducks to really take up residence in Maryland for any significant length of time. So pursuant to #4, instead of "pushing the issue" and trying to hunt places were "ducks should be," we paid attention to the migration maps, weather maps, and others' hunting reports, and stuck with geographic areas and species (namely: geese) that we thought were most likely to produce.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Two Full Weeks of Parenthood

Hank is not easily bothered
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So, if you stop by occasionally, you already know that my beautiful wife gave me a son a little over two weeks ago. Being 35, and with most of my friends already "with children," I tried really hard to anticipate what my life would be like. After two weeks at least, it seems like I had it nailed down, to some degree. What are some things that I didn't anticipate?
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  1. How the #1 goal in my life suddenly became "to grow this baby," especially given how horrible I felt when the pediatrician says he's not gaining enough weight so far.
  2. How much coffee I actually need to survive day-to-day. Mind-blowing!
  3. How "sleeping inbetween your baby's feedings" is a joke, if you have a baby who squeaks and mumbles in his sleep, like ours.
  4. How productive I actually am with 3, 4, or 5 hours sleep. I thought I would be a zombie.
  5. How excited I am to go home from work and find out what Hank did that day, even though his activities are generally confined to sleeping, barfing, pooping, drooling, eating, and going wherever Momma wants to take him.
  6. That I have rarely felt as useless as when (luckily this is only about once a day) Hank is upset and there's nothing that he "needs" to make him un-upset...and there's nothing I can do for him.
  7. How about the sick amount of sports I am watching on TV - since half of the time I am saddled with a sleeping 10 lb sack of potatoes on my chest? From "Spanish Fly" light tackle salt water fishing to college football (GO HOKIES), the NFL, World Cup Soccer, and of course the MLB playoffs (Go Bombers!)
  8. The amount of love in my heart.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

So You Think You Can Garden, Part II - Adapt or Die (your plants, anyway)

Hostas love shade and poor soil, while deer love shade, poor soil, and hostas. Picture from a Michigan blog called Stitches of Violet.
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In my first large post about gardening, I discussed how to "start gardening, and stop worrying about failing at gardening." I discussed the need for any gardener to establish realistic but desirable goals for planting and managing garden beds, food plots, and other planted areas. I also spent quite a bit of time describing some of the common "sideboards" that serve as common sense limitations to plantings, including soil pH, USDA zone, and pests.
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As a summary, I also wrote that, "in some cases you will learn that your primary goal(s) may not be achievable, given outside constraints.....be adaptable. Change your objective, change your budget, or if possible, select a new site that could help you meet your original goal." Those are the topics I'd like to delve into today.
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So let's talk about failure. You established a goal for your piece of land - whether it be a 10 gallon pot, a 10' x 10' cold frame, or a 10 acre woodlot. You solicited professional advice on how to best achieve your goals. You followed the advice...or your best instincts (often, just as valuable). And you failed.
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The first instinct of most gardeners and wildlife managers is to do one of two things: try the same thing again, or immediately try something different, no matter how ill-advised. Both of these actions fall under the heading of, "I can't afford to lose this growing season!" And both of these actions can be valid....in time. After a failure, the first thing you need to ask yourself is "why didn't this work?" The most common answers to that question are:
  1. planted / fertilized incorrectly
  2. did not anticipate pest, bird, or herbivore damage
  3. freak conditions during growing season (flood, drought, late/early freeze)
  4. poor site selection

Regardless of your answer to "why," once you have a good answer, it's important to move on fairly quickly and decisively to do one of two things:

  1. change your methods to achieve your original goals/vision for the site
  2. revise your goals/vision for the site to reflect the reality "on the ground."

This approach, often called "Adaptive Management," is gaining a huge amount of popularity in wildlife management circles. While it drives bureacrats and project budget managers insane, it's often the only way to guarantee a positive outcome for a garden or habitat site. The reason why is a virtual Pandora's Box of philosophy and ecology: traditional "static" management does not work in most locations because natural systems have been altered so significantly that wilderness / pioneer-developed theories about plant production no longer apply, and resources (time and money) do not exist to study the "new ecological reality" of most places.

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This is basically reflected in the US Department of Interior's Adaptive Management Initiative, which allows agencies to "make complex land management decisions...with uncertain or incomplete information," as opposed to the traditional decision-making process, which is entirely based on long-term comprehensive plans that may be 30, 40 or 50 years old. If the old plan shows that "Field 101C" is a "deer plot," and the geese eat all the deer food every year, that's too bad, because The Plan tells us we must manage it as a deer plot. Under adaptive management, the managers could choose to aggressively manage the geese to limit their ability to damage the deer plot, or plant an experimental food plot that might not be of interest to the geese, or admit that the site should not be managed for deer at all.

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So, back to gardening and small plot management. And back to your failure. Here's the bottom-line series of questions for you to answer, before moving forward:

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  1. How important is it for you to achieve your goal, whether it's to grow pumpkins for Halloween, or to grow turnips for deer food?
  2. Will there be a significant cost (time, money, opportunity) to trying the same thing again (see #4)?
  3. If solving the "problem" requires more time or money, are you willing to invest it?
  4. Are there small changes you can make to improve your site's performance? Particularly things like innoculation of legumes, addition of organic material to soil, etc.
  5. If the answer to #3 and #4 are "no," have you thought of another site that might produce your desired benefits? And can you think of another "site objective" for your failed site?

There are a lot of other ways to ask these questions, but the important part is that you critically evaluate what you did, how hard you're willing to work (or spend) to make it a reality, and whether you should explore some other options for gardening and wildlife management.