Back to Oyster Bayou Hunting Club in Chambers County, Texas, Ramsey meets with Gene Campbell during an annual blue-winged teal hunting visit. Gene has been hunting the region since back in the 60s and is a treasure trove of entertaining information. Following a great hunt together, the couple hunting buddies discuss migrating blue-winged teal–and hummingbirds–alligators, long-time guide-staff, unique habitat management strategies.
Blue-Winged Teal Migration
I always learn something because besides being a long time, avid duck hunter and habitat manager, you’re a birder, you all watch the birds and look at the birds and it’s just interesting to see these normal cycles and rhythms.
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere way down here in Southeast Texas in Chambers County, long term listeners have heard my friend Mr. Gene Campbell before we’re down here at Oyster Bayou Hunting Club where he’s been hunting for, how long have you been hunting down here, Gene?
Gene Campbell: I keep forgetting. We started hunting down here in 1974. I hunted on this ranch, as a customer when I was just a teenager in 1966, I think was the first year I came.
Ramsey Russell: 1966, that was 54 years ago.
Gene Campbell: Yeah, it was $5 a person then.
Ramsey Russell: Maybe over than 56 years ago, I got to do my math right. That’s a Mississippi State math for you. But anyway, thank you very much, I always like to spin through here and have a blue winged teal and share supper and a night with you, we got a lot to talk about every time I say it, it sounds like. And the hunting is always good, some years is better than others. But what’s going on with the blue wing in your world this year?
Gene Campbell: Well, what we’re seeing and we believe that we’re seeing, I’ve got some good information. We keep a real close track of the males and females and young birds, the males are the lead of the pack when the migration starts, they’re the first ones, they got no babies just to worry about, they just bashed her up and come on down here and they showed up a little bit late. I say about a week late from what they normally do. The females, we have seen very few females and even fewer babies. So we think that the females that had babies and the babies are dragging their feet and then you and I have talked about this, there’s a couple of different theories on that, maybe it’s just too hot and they’re not ready to come down here. Chronologically speaking, they ought to be here by now. But they got late rains up there in Canada and in North and South Dakota and late rains being a late hatch and maybe these little baby birds just aren’t developed enough for the migration, the mothers know that, I’m sure they test the babies and they get a feel for whether they are prepared to come or not, that’s my theory.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what I think it is too. I’ve been started off in Venice a week ago yesterday and I have one morning, a week ago today, one morning, put my hands on about 30% hatchier birds, but to run an average been 15%-20% which tells me that’s just those early nesters they came on down, but I’m still talking to folks up north that are killing blue wings. I’m talking north like in, Missouri, the Dakotas, Canada, that’s where the birds are. But it’s always a good hunt here, you all really lay it out for the blue wings, you all go after those blue wings.
Gene Campbell: We do. We don’t manage specifically for blue wings, but we specifically manage for whatever happens to be here at the time. So the rice fields have to come into play, I’m not a real big fan of rice fields for a year’s worth of hunting. But during blue wing teal season, that is the main thing that they’re here for that. They’re here to tank up and get enough energy and enough calories built up that they can make a final migration on down to wherever they’re going.
Ramsey Russell: To support your theory about the late migration this morning, we were in between the volleys and you and Tim both up and you point at something you all for the first one you all seen this year, which was a couple of northern harriers.
Gene Campbell: That’s correct.
Ramsey Russell: And that they should have already been down.
Gene Campbell: Absolutely. If hunting in my pond over the last 35 years, I would say that on an average morning during teal season, we’ll see 5, maybe 10, different individual harriers in our particular area and those two that we saw today, they’re very solitary, they never travel together unless they’re mating or migrating and those birds obviously just got here, they came in together. I had only seen one other harrier besides that and we’ve only seen one eagle, normally we’ll see more eagles, but most of those birds of prey that are related to the waterfowl, eagles, caracara, harriers, the peregrine and merlins, all those birds are going to be probably with the weaker of the species like the young blue winged teal and that’s the ones they’re probably going to follow down.
Ramsey Russell: That’s interesting. I mean, that’s just an interesting observation. I always learn something because besides being a long time, avid duck hunter and habitat manager, you’re a birder, you all watch the birds and look at the birds and it’s just interesting to see these normal cycles and rhythms. Jumping over here from Louisiana coming all the way below I10, one of the prevailing thoughts Gene that I kept hearing was how blue winged teal season is the new duck season for those guys. Because they still migrate, they’re good to eat, they’re fun to work. Are you seeing that over in this part of the world too? Like, when you come through the rest of your duck season is there’s something special about blue winged teal hunting.
Gene Campbell: Well, it’s the first hunt of the year for me. So, that always makes it exciting. The guides and myself that we’ve been working on these duck blinds in this habitat off and on all summer long and intensively for the month before and there’s so much emotional build-up, it’s the only time that we as hunters, as guides get a chance to hunt together, the rest of the year we’re busy, we’re with customers, so it’s an almost celebratory preparation in 105° temperature if you can imagine that. But the anticipation is there and I think that’s what makes blue winged teal season the most special for me. I love the way they work the decoys, the size of the flights just everything about them, they’re nice and early, so we’ll get some late shooting but most of the action is early and that keeps us out of the heat of the day for the most part.
Ramsey Russell: And like you say, plus or minus a late hatch or whatever is holding them up, they run like a bus schedule, they run on the calendar. They’re not waiting on a big Arctic blast, they’re not waiting on hard water conditions up north, they’re going to come on down, they’re going to do their thing.
Gene Campbell: They will.
Ramsey Russell: I know you’ve done a lot of banding, you’ve been involved with some different stuff, we got Deb Carter here collecting HPAI data and you keep your fingers on the pulse of a lot of stuff. Where do you think a lot of your blue wings are going and how they’re getting there? Where are the blue wings that are coming out here in this marsh, where are they going from here? Are they flying straight across the Gulf or what?
Gene Campbell: Okay. So, almost all waterfowl circumnavigate. They’re going to go around the Gulf of Mexico, they like to be able to stop along the way and they’re big enough and fast enough that, birds of prey and other predators, can’t catch them, they’re unlike the waterfowl, the peregrine and the songbirds, the hummingbirds, for example, they have to go straight across or all the seagulls will catch them, all the birds of prey, the death rate would be terrific. So, the waterfowl circumnavigate the gulf, they can be anywhere from just Mexico all along the Mexican coast and into central Mexico and all the way down central America, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to find out that they would go as far as upper South America would have surprised me a bit.
Ramsey Russell: We’ve seen blue wings in northern Argentina and I’m by northern, I don’t mean way up north on the border, I mean, 8 hours north, 10 hours north of Buenos Aires, we’ve seen blue wings and I’ve always wondered and I don’t think there’s any way of knowing it unless I find a band on one that can identify, whether or not those birds over flew like old Forrest Gump, keep on going at the end of a football field, I don’t know if they over flew and took up residency or if they just overfly and end up down there, that makes no sense because we see them in July and August down there. So maybe they’ve over flew and like what they see and stick up with it, I don’t know. It’s interesting how those birds will do that though, wouldn’t it? It’s like, you speak of hummingbirds and I’ll tell you what my poor wife puts out them hummingbird feeders, she might get two or three, but yesterday was a show. That was the first time I’d ever done that and couldn’t get enough of it. But you got a couple of hummingbird feeders here and there must be 20 or 30 hummingbirds fighting over the feeders. And you said, come here a minute, watch this. And I went and leaned up against the wall about 2.5ft from that feeder and sat real quiet and it didn’t take one minute when the first one showed up, all the other greedy ones came. And they were drinking so much fighting over those little portholes and they were drinking so much, you can see bubbles coming up, you must go through a pound of sugar a day.
We will see an occasional Rufus hummingbird and less occasionally a black chinned hummingbird, those are the 3 that we see here. There are some others that are seen but they’re in areas of more concentration like down at Smith Point, that gather up down there before they think that Bay is the Gulf and they want to build up before they cross it.
Gene Campbell: I’ve seen it where we’d have 6 or 8, 32 ounce bottles and have to fill them up 2, sometimes 3 times a day. Right now, there’s a good number out there, there’d be more out there if I had more feeders up. I’ve always thought that was a pretty good source of migration information, because they’ll build up you, they’ll get up to numbers that we figure could have been between 300 and 500 birds right here in this premises and then the next morning there’s 8 or 10. So they’re building up all that energy, so that they can go across the Gulf, if you can imagine that you think humming birds fly fast, but if you watch them as they steady up and start going away, they’re not going very fast and every bird out there that’s a bird of prey or a seagull or a turn catches those things, so that’s why they got to go across the Gulf.
Ramsey Russell: Their wings are beating a mile a minute.
Gene Campbell: 54 beats a minute, if you can imagine that, a second and then the heart beats 1200 beats per minute. If you’ve ever been around them and I’ve banded with the people down at Hawk Watch on Smith Point, they’ll let you hold those little birds while they’re putting that tiny little leg band on there and they’re so delicate that you just don’t feel any weight in your hand and you can feel that heartbeat and it’s almost like – think about this. So, electrical current is 60 cycles per second, so if you ever hold a 110 volts before, that’s how fast their hearts beating.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about how you catch hummingbirds? I thought that was real interesting and the bands they put on them. Because they’re tiny bird.
Gene Campbell: They’re tiny, they’re so tiny. They put this little mesh hood over the hummingbird feeder and in the sides of this hood it hangs down maybe a foot below the bottom of the feeder on the sides, it’s like a little fish trap, a little cone that goes in the birds make their way into the cone and drink all the sugar water they want. But then they don’t know how to get out, they can’t get out that cone because it has a decreasing radius as it goes into the inside and all they know how to do is fly up –
Ramsey Russell: When you walk up to it, they go up.
Gene Campbell: They go up. So it’s open on the bottom, so the bander will just reach in there with their hand and just kind of move them over to the side of the curtain and get hold of them and pull them out of there and it’s fun to watch that.
Ramsey Russell: They are such a small bird to band must be tiny.
Gene Campbell: It’s very tiny. Everything that they do when they’re banding, those birds inspecting the birds and measuring them, Sue Heath is the lady that does the banding and not just on those, but lots of other birds, she’ll put a straw in her mouth and while she’s holding that bird, she’ll blow the hair, the breast feathers back and look at the condition of the skin, see if they’re fat and it’ll get an estimate of how much they weigh and put the band on there and you can’t read the band without a magnifying glass and she wears some glasses when she’s working on them. But she can tell the condition and I can tell you now, these birds are in good condition, I’m not seeing, I saw one that landed on the ground, that’s the first time I’d ever seen that out of all the birds that have been here, that’s the only bird I saw that was in a weakened condition.
Ramsey Russell: What do you feeding them? I mean, what do you feed hummingbirds to really get them in good shape when you got that many?
Gene Campbell: Well, sugar water is probably not the most nutritious thing in the world, but they need those fluids and the sugar, that gives them some energy. But they always go up here and land in the live oak trees and the bugs that are up there that they like to eat are the little white flies, I don’t know, the species but they come out at night and they’ll be around the lights and it just looks like a swarm and you think they’re mosquitoes, but they’re not. But those are in those trees, sitting in those trees during the daytime and they go up there and eat a bunch of those, that’s their protein.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard of people trying to put honey water or different supplements, like maybe some kind of organic diet for these little hummingbirds.
Gene Campbell: I’m not familiar with that, I know that they’re going to get everything they need, they always make it migration, I’m sure there’s a lot of fatalities just from fatigue.
Ramsey Russell: Gosh, I guess so, run out of gas. That’s a long flight. Have you talk to some of these people that band them and have an idea of how long it takes them to fly from, what are we, 10 miles from the Gulf maybe from here to Mexico?
Gene Campbell: From here to the Yucatan peninsula, a hummingbird is to take them 20 hours and if they get a bad win, they just don’t make it, there’s no place for them to land, they might land on a rig, we were talking last night about that species of sharks somewhere in the world that takes advantage of the songbirds that are exhausted, end up landing a around these whales offshore structures and there’s no water for them, there’s no food for them, they just fall off, they die and the shark eat them.
Ramsey Russell: Some shark has evolved to specialize in that, isn’t that cray?
Gene Campbell: And of course they got to know when the migration is too so they can gather up.
Ramsey Russell: Getting back to those hummingbirds, so I’m sitting up against the house and I mean, there’s got to be 20 or 30 hummingbirds within arm’s reach, I mean, well, within arm’s reach within elbows reach. I’ve seen the ruby throated drake before and I’ve seen the young birds, the females, but all the different colors I could see at that distance just right there about a foot and a half away, maybe 2ft, but all I could hear was all this buzzing like big giant horse flies everywhere and I’ve got a little iPhone up and held it and videoed at it. But I wish I had taken better care of my hearing because when I came in and started playing it, I guess you all could hear it, but it wasn’t until I slowed it down, I tried to slow it at about half speed and it changed the vocalization range and I’m like, what is that? You go, well, that’s the birds singing. And they were I guess chattering with each other because they would literally come up, one of them would just land and stick that beak in and start drinking that would just come plough into them like a car, like get the hell out of the way. But they were talking and it wasn’t until I slowed down that frequency that I could hear it and I’m like, oh my gosh, what in the world I’m missing.
Gene Campbell: One of the things I noticed, when we slowed it down is when you slow it down, slow enough, it actually starts sounding like teal chattering. I thought that was really interesting.
Ramsey Russell: It does. That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. Is it just one species of the hummingbird you see right here, I hate to beat this dead horse, but it’s just so fascinating to me and you know much about it.
Gene Campbell: Ruby throats, that’s what we’ve got here. We will see an occasional Rufus hummingbird and less occasionally a black chinned hummingbird, those are the 3 that we see here. There are some others that are seen but they’re in areas of more concentration like down at Smith Point, that gather up down there before they think that Bay is the Gulf and they want to build up before they cross it. So, you’ll see a lot of species right there.
Ramsey Russell: I did something interesting this weekend, I was out there hunting near Great Lake, big lake Calcasieu, they call it with some friends I hadn’t seen in 17 years and man, what a great time we had and one of the young men has some property somewhere around there and decided he wanted to go catch some alligators and put 8 lines out, it is hot as blue blazed, the mornings are pretty right now, but it’s hot and in the evenings and they said you want to go with me and well, I mean, I’ll go around with you all, but it was unbelievable. I never pulled on ropes that pull back like it and the surprise of the day was we’ve been catching a 4ft or caught a 5ft or caught a 6ft and one of them was up on the other side of the boat, we come up, that line was tight and I was pulling, he was coming and got tangled up in all this nod, all that grass, all that mess, I’m breaking it off and somebody say, how big is it? I go, probably 5ft alligator, 20lbs alligator and 30lbs of grass when that head come up, Gene, there’s about a foot between eye ball and his mouth was open, I’m like, well, that’s a good and that about 9.5ft and I got to talk to you. I mean, that’s a big deal, you all do that right here. Somebody hit me up on social media, like, man, where can I go do a blue winged teal and alligator hunt? I’m like, I guess right here because you all do that. You all catch some big gators down here.
And he’s laying over on his side up against the side of the boat and a game warden comes up there and puts his arms over the handle of that boat and looks down in there about that time that big alligator opened his eyes and he jumps back, game warden and jumps back and pulls his pistol out, I said, oh, don’t shoot him, you’re going to shoot a hole in the boat.
Gene Campbell: Gator festivals this past weekend, it’s in Anahuac and one of the novelty things that they do is there’s a contest to see who can bring in the biggest alligator, that’s what it’s all about. The biggest alligator they brought in this year was only 3 inches shorter than the state record, it’s 14ft and 2 inches, probably close to 900 to 1000lbs. That is just a monster alligator, monster.
Ramsey Russell: They’re not always that big. I mean, you were saying something that you all did have a drought this year, what did that do to the alligator size and what not to encounter bitterly of them all it?
Gene Campbell: It didn’t affect the alligators too much, I think the drought caused some of the breeding habitat to be dry, so females that may have been doing nest building in those areas right there may have not been successful or they may just have not laid. Yeah, as far as the alligator condition goes, they’re very mobile, we saw a lot of alligators crossing the road this year and that means that conditions are making them go to water, we saw a lot of that. There are a lot of alligators in the bayou this year, a lot of the marsh dried up around us on the wildlife refuge and they always concentrate in the deeper bayou and they survive. Well, there’s plenty of turtles and alligator gar is their primary.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what they eat. I’ll be darned. This boy Jack, super guy and he stuck in PVC pipes and it seemed like he had a clothes pin and he tied the line, good heavy line up on a tree or something and the clothes pin would keep the baited hook so far off the water and I said, what do you use? He said chicken leg quarters. Is that how you all fish for them?
Gene Campbell: Yeah, chicken leg quarters. They’re a little slower when they’re fresh, but when you get the maggots dripping out of them, they’re just right.
Ramsey Russell: It’s just amazing to me that reptile can smell that and come in. So if you were going to go try to do this, you get your state tags, you get your permits, you’re going to try to go catch your alligator like this, you just go to Walmart and buy some chicken leg quarters. Yeah, that’s what we do, set it out in the sun for a few days.
Gene Campbell: They’ll put it in the sun because they don’t want the flies to blow it right away, but they’ll have it in a very warm container and they put gloves on when they’re handling it, they try to get that done and have it completely ready to go. So you don’t just ruin the boat when you’re doing all that.
Ramsey Russell: How big would you say the hook? Because I didn’t reach up and see that, but I couldn’t believe how even the small ones, the big ones, it’s just like a pool on the leash, you pull that rope and he was coming, his guts was hurting, he was coming, he was letting that tension off, he was coming right to you.
Gene Campbell: 8, I think it’s a number 8 or 16, it’s big enough and there’s a lot of them that use a little bit smaller hooks as a matter of fact, we went through a period of time that we were actually using tuna hooks, circle hooks and they’re probably about 3 inches long, it was a lot cleaner hook up, it would get caught up in their jaw and you wouldn’t stand a chance of ripping the guts out of one when you brought him in. But you had to give them time, you couldn’t just throw a chicken out there and get them to take it like you can with those big ones and we’ve done that before. You can take that hook and put a little piece of styrofoam on it, so it doesn’t sink right away and if the alligator is right there, particularly a 7 or 8 small alligator, something that’s not scared of people, you throw it out there and they’ll come get it and you give them a second or two and jerk that thing and chicken on a chain.
Ramsey Russell: Many years ago, I was hunting with Daniel teal hunting this time of year and Texas has got some great rules with regard to alligator. I could tell, it just like he had land owner tags and I had a hunting license, so he’s like, you want to go catch one, we’ll go catch one and there was a 12 footer, so one of the staff went out and put some lines out and said the next morning, we’ll come back and tell him he says, I got 12ft or 7ft, well, I want the big one. And as we’re driving out there, I go, I wonder how many billfold you can make with a 12ft, he said, not a single one. He said it’s too big, it’s too gnarly, you might make some luggage or cover some furniture with it or something, but you ain’t going to make no billfold with that stuff. And I said, well, I’ll take the 7 footer? And it was just like, literally just, I pulled him up, it wasn’t near what being out in the swamp the other day was, I just pull the thing up a little bit, go pop in the head with a 22 and that was all she rode. No drama, no excitement, no almost falling in the boat out of your clip like I did with that big in the other day and buddy you want to talk about walking on water, I don’t know what I’d have done if I fall in there with that thing.
Gene Campbell: Might have got wet.
Ramsey Russell: So that was my only alligator experience was down there with them boys and I go out the other day and it ain’t like they do on TV, it ain’t like that first time. Back behind their eyes, they’ve got a flat scale by the side of a snuff can, I’d say when you get up there and they’re still for just a minute, you can see it pop, shooting right in the center of it, some of them die and I reached down a pop him with that 9 millimeter, he just got stiff as the board and we hauled him in, grabbed a foot, hauled him in and he’s laying there on his back for 30 minutes and he might move a leg or do something because the reptiles I’ve always heard as a child snakes and turtles, their heart keeps beating until it really cools off, so it seemed regular, but we got up on the boat shed and I will say that thing had been “dead for an hour” and we got the little gators off and put them up and about that time, I watched that 10 9.5ft alligator roll over off his back onto his stomach and start blinking, I’m like, now, what do we do? Is that common, does that happen?
Gene Campbell: It does. We’ve had them roll over. As a matter of fact, we were coming out of the wildlife refuge one day and we had 4 or 5 alligators in there, one particularly good one. And he’s laying over on his side up against the side of the boat and a game warden comes up there and puts his arms over the handle of that boat and looks down in there about that time that big alligator opened his eyes and he jumps back, game warden and jumps back and pulls his pistol out, I said, oh, don’t shoot him, you’re going to shoot a hole in the boat.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s what we do with this thing right here, we got a couple of tater rakes and lifted up his chin and his mouth was open and he was growling but he had a headache, he wasn’t feeling real good, put a big piece of lumber up under his head and then hit him in the head with a 22 again, it was off. But man, I don’t know, if that son of a gun had flipped over on his stomach started growling while that boat was moving, I was sitting in the bow, I might have jumped out on that swamp. Because they kind of own the boat when they’re alive like that, don’t they? Without you telling me about having a pile up in the boat and the big one on the bottom stands up and all the other guys are sliding off –
Gene Campbell: That was probably Tim. I’ve heard that one before.
Ramsey Russell: Oh my gosh, I don’t know what I’d do. Speaking of Tim, I’ve made a note, I want to ask you about the staff down here. I come through every year, we eat dinner, we sit out there and chit chat, watch the news, whatever and it’s always the same people and these are older guys, I’d say 50 plus and you’ve been working with, a long time. Tell me who these guys are and how long you all been working together?
Gene Campbell: My brother, Bob, he hunts down the marsh, he got a great big marsh pond, it’s fantastic, he is a great duck hunter. He’s the best teal caller that I have ever seen.
Ramsey Russell: I found that out last year.
Gene Campbell: Make something out of nothing every day. He’s got a great personality, the people that hunt with him, if I can’t get him, they’ll wait till the next week or the next year, that’s who they want to hunt with.
Ramsey Russell: Your customers call up – that’s what you said this morning, which made me want to ask this question is like the gentleman we hunted with this morning, how long has he been hunting with you? 3 decades?
Gene Campbell: 1992.
Ramsey Russell: 1992 comes through every year, several times, he requests a guide. A lot of those customers you’ve got that have been around for decades, they want to hunt with a certain guy, not to say that that guide is going to shoot limit every day or whatever. But man, it just speaks volumes about the people in the operation, don’t you think?
Gene Campbell: I think it’s important to keep your customers and do whatever it takes. If it’s slow hunting, you rebook them, put them on another date. If they want to hunt with somebody, you make sure that you can do that and you have to be political about it and make sure that they get what they want, the guide gets what he wants too because they’ve got favorite customers that they like to hunt with too, there’s relationships that are 30, 40 years old with some of those guys.
Ramsey Russell: It’s just like the guy we hunt with today that had a big, beautiful lovable 100lbs lab, I’m going to say, dang near it, but for 100lbs lab, he was extremely athletic and I love that about him and on the way out there, Tim was telling a story about him at times picking up 5 or 6 teal and it just coming back, you don’t see nothing but a mouth full of head and feet and we came back for a cup of coffee or whatever and he started talking about a lot of his past dogs and you knew every single one of them from puppy to old age.
Gene Campbell: Absolutely, every one of them. There’s another customer over here that came and started hunting with me about the same time that Tim came to me and came as a result of Tim leaving another outfitter. I’ve known all of his dogs, he’s on his 5th dog right now. And I knew every one of them personally, I could tell you what they look like, how they acted, how good they were with ducks, how fat they are at the end of the summer.
Ramsey Russell: Your brother Bob been working for you since when? When did Bob join your rank and start working over here at bayou.
Gene Campbell: 1978.
Ramsey Russell: 1978. I’ve never hunted the marsh blind with him.
Gene Campbell: We got to fix that.
Ramsey Russell: I bet you don’t run a dog out there with all those alligator stories, we’re talking about.
Gene Campbell: The dogs, we run out there are big athletic dogs, you can’t put a little dog out there, they just swim their hearts out and not get anywhere. But most of those dogs, his dog, the one he’s hunting with right now Cope, he knows alligators, he don’t want to have anything to do with them and he’s never had an encounter of the wrong kind, but he reads the anxiousness and screaming from us when an alligator gets close to him. If alligator gets close to him, we’re all going to stand up and pepper that side of a gun, you got to get him away from that dog and alligator got such a little old brain, now they’re just doing what their instincts are driving them to do and they’ll go towards that dog, most of the time, they’re only seeing the head of that dog, so it could be a duck if they’re thinking about, what little thought process that they’ve got. But we’re real careful about that and when we have the season going, like right now, this is a good opportunity for us to set up with the alligator bait and catch those particular alligators that are in the ponds where we’re trying to hunt.
Ramsey Russell: What about Jimmy? How long has he been around?
Gene Campbell: Jimmy’s 75.
Ramsey Russell: I can’t believe it. I really can’t believe that.
Gene Campbell: Yeah. And he retired from Exxonmobil when he was 55 and that’s when he came to work, he got it down there at Chandler Islands with us from that time and until we quit doing it right after IKE. And he’s been duck hunting here that long, got another guy, Barry McBride, a great big guy, he’s been with me since about 1982, Tim 1992.
Ramsey Russell: Tim started in 1992 and I asked you this morning because this is leading up to the last topic we’re going to really cover a lot. I asked you this morning because Tim been with you since 1992 man and I wondered, you just kind of like, you had your blind, he had his, he saw what you were doing, he said I’m kind of interested this habitat stuff too because man, Tim is passionate about that freaking habitat, man. I mean, like OCD about his pond, OCD about that pond. I mean, did he come ready made into habitat like that?
Native Plant Duck Habitats
Gene Campbell: No, he came into it just like almost all the guys too. It’s the ducks in the water, rice fields have got food in them in the marsh on in good years, you got widgeon grass. So that’s what he came into and then when we started hunting the high ground quite a bit and a lot of that ground up there is fallow, I mean, they’re just not going to do anything with it, farmers not going to do anything with it until 6 months before he’s going to plant it and they don’t do anything. If we want to wet soil, manage a field, we have to take the initiative, bear the expense and learn from our experiences what make the best native plants come up and work. Native plants are come back quicker than anything after a hurricane they’re already in the ground, we got a seed bank, there’s no telling how deep our seed bank is and the varieties of different plants that come up out there, it can change from year to year. Mother Nature dried us out this year and we got a lot of invasives in some of the fields, it’s the strangest thing you ever saw. They’re all dried out about the same time, but there’ll be a field that’s 50 acres right here, solid switch grass. Everything that came up early, the dwarf spike rush is always in there as it dries up and then the first emergent is either wild millet or jungle rice, it’s a little millet and those will come up, they’ll mature and by that time the invasives will start to come in as it dries out, indigo weed and rag weed, we don’t get back rush very much because we just don’t let it, although it makes really good blind material.
Ramsey Russell: It does make good blind material. That’s that bush out there for you all folks listening, it got the little white flowers. Gene, I’ve really never seen anybody go after the wide spectrum of stir what you got, work with what the good lord and the season gives you to produce a desirable. So I’ve never seen anybody take it to the level you all do and I’m going to say it like this, I believe you as a Mississippi duck hunter, maybe a Mississippi accountant that want to be a habitat guy and you had a tractor at your access. When I see that flat ground out to the horizon, I’m just thinking and I’m going to ask you why you don’t, when a guy like that sees that habitat, what he sees is, boy, that might make some nice corn or that make some nice rice or I think I’m going to plant the soy beans for ducks. And maybe back when these guys started, maybe when your staff started back in the 90s and the 70s maybe there was a lot of benefit to ag but the more I do this and we talk about this in the blind this morning, which is why I want to talk about it now, the more I hunt worldwide, the more places I go, the more times I step and kill ducks and habitats like yours, the more I realize is, modern day agriculture, we got to feed the world, man’s got to make a living, I ain’t going there, it ain’t about that. I’m talking about just from a duck habitat standpoint, clear field going in and spraying round up on everything, but that genetically improved rice or soybean, that’ll take it may be great for feeding the world and a farmer’s bottom line, but it’s terrible for ducks as compared to dirty farming or a lot of more soil vegetation and stuff and it’s amazing. I mean, it’s almost like somebody said this morning in the blind, modern day agriculture is almost like the sterilization of the site to produce the target crop for cattle feed or soy beans, whatever you doing. What do you think about that?
Gene Campbell: I think it’s not almost like it, it is specifically sterilizing that soil from other plant life.
Ramsey Russell: So it’s never crossed your mind to go out and plant corn in that field out there, plant rice or plant milo.
Gene Campbell: There’s a couple of reasons that I wouldn’t do anything like that. Number one is if it’s a commercial crop, like corn, rice beans, any of those plants that or brown top millet, Japanese millet that’s all cut for hay, it’s all no normal agriculture and if you plant that stuff, you cannot manipulate it and I mean, you can’t burn it, you can’t let cows loose.
Ramsey Russell: You can’t drive your four wheeler across to the blind.
Gene Campbell: Well, you can put out your decoys and you can take a 4 wheeler and get to your blind. But then you’re setting yourself up for that game warden, maybe you smart it off to them last week and now he’s just going to watch it a little bit and all he has to do is write that ticket. And yes, you could probably beat the ticket, if you went to court and paid an attorney, the rice just not worth it, that’s a lot of frustration. It’s so much easier to work around the game wardens when they trust you and if I get a big build up of ducks, there’s a couple of game wardens that I’ll let them know. I said, look, we got a big build up of ducks if you’d like to come out and look, I will show you why, well, they know why now because I’ve got them educated to a point, they know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and we just don’t have any use for that kind of trouble. The other reason is, if you go out there and try to grow millet or corn or milo any of those plants right there, the first thing you’re going to do is you’re going to disturb the first, 4 or 5, maybe 6 inches of that soil, that hard earned seed bank that you’ve been developing over all these years and you just don’t want to do that, you don’t want to do that.
Best Plants to Attract Ducks
Ramsey Russell: I’ve seen too where a lot of the millets and cultivars, there’s just people that think if it doesn’t come out of a sack, it ain’t no good for duck. And that stuff is vulnerable to drought is vulnerable to army worms and I come out here though on you all’s place and I learn something every single time I go to a duck hole where you get the little tour, the jungle rice is the different millets, the different panic grasses, a lot of the grasses that I understand that I’m familiar with. But today and I know that filament of stuff under the water is good for ducks because I’ve seen a lot of ducks kill a lot of ducks in it, Tim was vibrating, he was excited about his duck hole because all underneath it was that and all above it was mud plant, mud plant, never heard of it and hadn’t thrown up on my radar, at a glance like the whole thing in the dark, the sun was coming up looked like the whole thing might have been covered like a water road of some sort but that is a valuable food for you all.
Gene Campbell: It is. It’s really important. It’s got a real tender shoot and root system, root systems on top of the ground, it’s like a little foot and it can also grow on top. So, it’s a good little plants, tender, everything likes to eat it, if it starts dying off –
Ramsey Russell: It’s not a seed, it’s not a big seed bear, it’s a plant. And you all said something today, I heard you and Tim talking about when the grazers show up, what kind of grazers are going to show up? What ducks you expect to kill in Tim’s pond this year?
Gene Campbell: Well, we’ll shoot everything up there but targeting – what you’re asking is, what will I see feeding out there? So, blue wing and green wing teal as rice depletes in the fields, both the teal will be in there, pintails, the primary ducks that like that are gadwall and wigeon, they really like that stuff. And then everything else, mallard will get in there, mottled ducks probably, the dwarf spike rush in the shallower areas they like it a lot and they particularly like a plant, bull tongue and so bull tongue looks like a Sagittarius and even when it comes up, it looks like a leafy airhead, the duck potato. So it’ll come up and look like that, but the difference is in the winter, it has a rosette at the bottom, it’s like a big wide green, soft veinous leaf and that bull tongue, there’s ought to be 30 or 40 leaves. And then below that there’s this potato root, some of that stuff may be a half inch to an inch in diameter and you pull it out of the ground, you take that stuff and wipe the mud off of it and chew it and it tastes a little bit like potato to me and it kind of a sweet flavor to it too. So it could be the sugar that’s in it or the starch that’s in it and of course, there’s going to be –
Ramsey Russell: It’s high energy, regardless.
Gene Campbell: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve always got my mind wrapped around trying to get sprangletop or the grasses, a little bit of discing, a little bit of water draw down in the 2nd, 3rd of the growing season to the late part of growing season to get that sprangletop, that I understand. But when I start hunting with guys like yourself and Tim that are managing for submerged aquatic, I’m a fish out of water. What did Tim do to produce that mud plant and environment that he is 10ft tall proud of?
Gene Campbell: Well, I’ve got it in mine too, but he went over his ground quite a few times, when it was dry, real shallow discing.
Ramsey Russell: It would have been dry back in June. So, it was dry.
Gene Campbell: It was dry and there was nothing we could do about it. It dried up and normally we just let the water stay in there as long as it will and that promotes the aquatics too. If they don’t die, when those aquatics, we’ve got that seed bank in there and it’s going to come up someplace every year, sometimes we can’t make it come up everywhere we want to Mother Nature, keep it too wet and we won’t get a chance to get in there and clean everything up and the timing was just so perfect. There are two things that happen in his field that don’t happen in any of the others, there is a drain that that goes down beside his field and 600 acres of rice field just to the north of it, so when they took the water off of that rice field, it’s too much for that drain and it floods his whole field. So we just put the boards in, let it flood with that stuff, it’s got some measure of herbicide in it, it’s got some measure of fertilizer in it. So I think that was just right this year. And I’ve seen this in his field every year, but I’ve never seen it this good and the reason it was, this good is because it was so clean, there wasn’t any established plant life like living plants in that field and this time of year, that’s the first thing to come up.
Ramsey Russell: It must be some kind of fine seed that’s getting down that soil because he went out and disc it in June lightly, when did he catch that water? When did that water over run into?
Gene Campbell: So, they drained around the first of August and that’s when that came on the field.
Ramsey Russell: 5, 6 weeks ago and he’s already got that response.
Gene Campbell: He had the response in 3 weeks and I flooded mine, after his was already responding and it came up and we did a little light disc on mine too, but I had a lot of other things coming up, we were talking about that, I had some of the stuff I didn’t like coming up. So we tried to get the water on there right when the invasives came in, the switch grass and a couple of others that were just a little too thick and I don’t think I got it far enough in front of it, so I’ve gotten just real good, but I’ve also got a lot of other stuff out there and we’re going to have to take the weed raisers out and clear out our hunting zones. I think what I’m going to do is leave a corridor around outside of my decoys, those ducks are always in the grass. If there’s a field, it’s got a little bit of grass in it and the food’s in the grass too, they’ll always be in the grass. So I like to have a little strip of grass around outside of my decoys that gets those birds up a little closer and then I’m going to roll all the rest of it and knock all of that, invasive stuff out.
Ramsey Russell: And what will that do?
Gene Campbell: Well, we knock the invasives out, it makes more room.
Ramsey Russell: Like a drumchopper.
Gene Campbell: Yeah, it’s about a 3ft diameter, 15ft wide, it’s got blades on it and some people call them snake killers.
Ramsey Russell: Snake killers just roll the field, mash it down.
Gene Campbell: Yeah, mash it down. It breaks the stalks on all the hard stalk stuff, the stuff we don’t want and it allows the aquatics to come on. We’re talking about aquatics now. Aquatics for blue wing teal this time of year, that’s not where it’s at. And you need to have that, it’s great habitat for them and they’ll live in it all day long, but they still need to go over and hit that rice and get that starch because they got some work to do. But once they settle down and they’re through migrating, they’re going to get in there.
Ramsey Russell: What species consume that submerged aquatic filament of stuff in there. What birds are going to get in there and how they going to eat it, they’re not going after seed, they’re going after the vegetarian part.
Gene Campbell: They’re eating vegetation. Everything, every duck at lands out there will eat that stuff, every one of them. Mallards and mottled ducks too, but they’re going to go through the bull tongue and the duck potato first, they’ll eat all the seeds, most of the seeds are all the different millets and the sprang on top and panic them, all those seeds, they’re pretty much take care of all that stuff. So when we start out at the first of teal season, want to make sure that we’ve got some rice around us, it’s flooded and we’ll roll that stubble a little bit too just to make sure they could set it for ways off, we’re not going to hunt it, Tim’s got rice around him, but we’re not going to hunt that rice, that’s why the ducks stay around him. So we’re going to just hunt the parameter and not all of it just a little bit of it. So, for 500 acres, that’s 500 acres and we manage every acre of it, we’re not just flooding to a little old ponds, that whole thing’s flooded, so the expense of manipulating the native vegetation through tractor work and mowing, burning all the different techniques that we use, the expense of the water, the expense of our time, diesel, oh my gosh, it was expensive this year. All of that expense goes in there and every bit of that you can look at my wallet and that wallet gets smaller and smaller as we get closer to duck season. Got two choices, you get that wallet, smaller advertising and have a bunch of new customers coming in all the time and you can do that around Houston, there’s no doubt in my mind if I ever chose to do that, I could stop the management just by the water and advertising get new customers. But I want the same customers I’ve always had, because I’m not spending it on advertising, I’m going to spend it on keeping those customers.
Ramsey Russell: How long have you been managing your habitat like that, Gene?
Gene Campbell: We started wet soil and then 1975, 1976 right in there.
Do Waterfowl Frequent An Area?
…I know they remember from year to year when they first get down here, they know where every blind is in that marsh and if you get a good strong blow in northern you can watch those geese, they’re going to fly up towards that duck blind and they’re either going to go around it or they’re going to go over it and they know that from year to year it’s when they break up into smaller groups, family groups and with fewer adults and more young, that’s when you can get those birds to decoy.
Ramsey Russell: Do you think waterfowl imprint on area?
Gene Campbell: There is absolutely no doubt. Allow me on this one. So Joe, a ranch for years and years famous hunting preserve and he had a rest area for fantastic rest area. He had a farm worker that walked the levies on that thing almost every day of the season to make sure he didn’t lose that water, the ducks and geese would get in there just by the zillions. And at the beginning of the year before you would flood that thing, then there was nothing special about it before you’d flood it, it wouldn’t be a drop of water in it, the first ducks and geese are going to come out there and they circle that thing and circle it and circle it looking for the water. Where’s my water?
Ramsey Russell: I asked you a question because I’ve always wondered, I believe they do too, I believe they know, I don’t know how they know, but I believe they know where home is when they get down here where the kitchen is and I’ve often wondered if you were to go out and plant a failed crop of corn for a few years or try something different for a few years that failed and wasn’t providing that kind of nourishment, I’ve always wondered how long, one year, 5 years, 10 years, how long would the duck show up and realize this is a shit show and just say, screw it, I’m going somewhere else, I’m not coming here no more., it’s got to be, you get a reasonable man would say to himself, well, yeah, I can see that.
Gene Campbell: Geese when they first get down here, I know they remember from year to year when they first get down here, they know where every blind is in that marsh and if you get a good strong blow in northern you can watch those geese, they’re going to fly up towards that duck blind and they’re either going to go around it or they’re going to go over it and they know that from year to year it’s when they break up into smaller groups, family groups and with fewer adults and more young, that’s when you can get those birds to decoy.
Ramsey Russell: Dr. Doug Osburn, University of Arkansas Monticello has been banding a lot of waterfowl in that region and tell the story about a 7 year old child shooting or a young boy shooting a wigeon, a hen wigeon 7ft from where he had been banded 3 years prior. Those ducks know where they’re going and it got to be something about that habitat that draws them in there time and time again. And over a period of time if you go and change or disturb or trying to do right and deliver a very poor habitat, eventually, I think the ducks are going to just find somewhere else. They’re going to fly over here and say, well, Mr. Gene’s putting out the red carpet, we’re going to start sticking with that, that’s what I think, they’ve got to. And we’ve all shot duck, I’ve shot a lot of duck and soy beans and rice. But that was years ago, Gene and I know there’s still a lot of teal down here, down around El Campo in rice fields. But I think overall when you look at a landscape level, when you look from Chambers County, Texas to Canada, I think the crop types are real different than they were back when we were all kids. I think they were. I think they are. The farming technology has so evolved that all things equal, they’re cutting more rice out of a field, the yields are bigger, because they’re more efficient harvesting, that’s what I think. I heard about a type of rice this year that a lot of folks planted, across the border over here, some new technology that wasn’t quite proven and heck and all on the stem, it all started to sprout.
Gene Campbell: We’ve had that in this area. I’ve seen it and most of the time they’ll just abandon that, they just walk away from it.
Ramsey Russell: What can you do?
Gene Campbell: Well, I’m not a farmer, but if I was a farmer, I wouldn’t plant that stuff anymore. These farmers, if they’re going to stay in the business, they got to know the program and they’ve got to have the contracts that come with the guarantees that come with it and rice tech, they’ll take care of their rice farmers and pay them a whole lot of money to grow an acre of rice farm to their specifications. But if they fail at their part of the job and that’s keeping it for the field free of anything besides what they’re trying to grow, like red rice, they get a penalty, it’s like, 10% to 20% penalty. So if they’re getting $1000 an acre, now they’re only getting $800 an acre.
Ramsey Russell: If I was going to farm rice for ducks, that’d be what I want. If I could get my hands on it.
What Did Ducks Eat Before Modern Day Agriculture?
…there were very few roads to get anywhere and they were eating native vegetation, what exactly what we are trying to do right now.
Gene Campbell: And then organic is pretty good too, that’s got a lot of trash in it.
Ramsey Russell: Earth is whatever, millions or billions of years old and agriculture as we know it today between Chambers County and Canada is only 125 and 150 years old, what did all these ducks eat for millions of years before modern day agriculture?
Gene Campbell: Yeah. I can tell you exactly what they ate. So 1900 we didn’t have any rice down here, nobody’s growing any crops down here at all, there were very few roads to get anywhere and they were eating native vegetation, what exactly what we are trying to do right now. So, it’s really important to –
Ramsey Russell: Do you feel there’s a huge advantage to you because not far from here as a duck flies, is a whole lot of rice, a lot of agriculture, do you feel there’s any advantage to you from a duck hunter standpoint in providing a habitat niche that doesn’t exist elsewhere? Being unique, standing out. Because we have a guy come on here a lot, Kevin Nelms and Kevin is not anti-ag at all, he believes that you got to satisfy all the life cycle requirements, he believes that the ducks feed in different things for different reasons at different time of year and that you just need the biggest mortgage board you can have, not on your property, but at the landscape level, I think he said within, I can’t remember if it’s 12 or 25 mile, where does your property fit and why they duck using your property and what can you provide them better than they can provide elsewhere? That makes sense to me.
Gene Campbell: You bet.
Ramsey Russell: Makes good sense to me. I guess, a lot of this water is fresh, I was surprised last night when Chris started talking about pursuant to the drought, the local refuge, lost some manageability because as the water dried up, salinity increased. Is that a big deal down here?
Gene Campbell: Well, it can be particularly in the captive areas, and most of the highly improved portions of the wildlife refuge are very shallow water. And yes, they’ll go dry on a regular basis but for them to have as much water in them as what they had and then evaporation, all the salt, there’s none of that salt that goes out of that water, it stays right there in the ground. Now, a lot of their stuff is fresh water, so it’s not really hard. As a matter of fact, I’ve been told and taught that a freshwater habitat needs to dry out, it needs to crack, that promotes growth of your seed bank, without having to disturb it, Mother Nature disturbs it for you. But the saline areas they really suffer.
Ramsey Russell: Do you ever have any habitat that you manage that you try to leave water on for a period of time? I mean, like all year?
Gene Campbell: Well, what my goal is to preserve the life of the wet soil managed plants as long as I possibly can, then maybe get a little crack from drying out and then it’s going to come right back, whatever, whatever puts the most seed in that ground is probably going to be what comes right back. But I also like to have water in there for all the different migrants, the shore birds, the wading birds, all the birds that use those wetlands during the migration, it’s really important for them. And I kind of like to see those baby mottled ducks and whistling ducks and we get to see those every year.
Ramsey Russell: You talked about the shorebird last time I met with you, because I know you enjoy seeing them, but we met with a Fish and Wildlife biologist, he’s over all the southeastern US, he covers and what he was explaining to me is that having, say I’ve got an empowerment over here having a pool of water just maybe not the whole thing, but just some within that empowerment, having an area that never dries up, that the invertebrate response is far greater right out the gate. Once the water starts flooding, it spreads out and emanates where you’ve got a higher invertebrate biomass, that makes sense because if I’ve got a good shorebird response, I’ve already got the invertebrate, so when I flood it for ducks, I’ve got those invertebrates they want that. I mean, that just makes perfect sense, it’s mimicking nature. Make perfect sense to me, Gene.
Gene Campbell: Yeah, I love all the shore birds, they’re just a whole lot of fun to watch, the variety is unbelievable.
Ramsey Russell: You got a good eye for them too.
Gene Campbell: Well, I wish my eyes were as good as they were used to be. But I got binoculars, that’s one of the things that you brought this up a while ago and it has to do with ducks too, all waterfowl. There’s a lot of waterfowl, if you ask the average duck hunter, tell me what the feathers look like, tell me what this bird looks like without looking at it right there in your hands and it’s not a thing that we study as waterfowl hunters, we’re hunter gatherers in that role and the way they look on a strap is what we like the best. But there’s so much more to the beauty of the waterfowl and every other bird out there that you will never see if you don’t pick up a set of binoculars and just look at it, never forget the first time, a guy that started guiding duck hunting with me the same day, we were working for the same outfitter brand new guys, we started together and worked together for years and years and we’re still best friends, he started birding about 12, 14 years ago and he was just nuts, I couldn’t stand to be around. He finally talked me and going down to High Island and on a day where there was a huge fallout, the birds were not able to cross, they were sitting there waiting to try and cross but the winds were just too horrible. So there they were, you put the binoculars up there and it looked like Christmas tree ornaments, all different colors and sizes and shapes and all the time that I spent outdoors, I never looked up, I just never saw that and as far as I’m concerned, it’s besides not starting to bird earlier in life and maybe being a little more protective of my hearing and everything, I’d like to have done that, I’d like to start earlier, but I still love duck hunting, there is almost nothing.
Duck Habitat Management for Duck Season
Instead of adding water, you’re subtracting it.
Ramsey Russell: I can sure tell. I was going to ask you one more question about your habitat because we talked about what you did, what you got, why you got, now what? It’s mid to late September, your big duck season comes in mid-November, do you leave it like it is? Do you add more water, do you subtract water? What’s the management scheme now?
Gene Campbell: Because we can only buy water once and we only get 2 fields, so you have to be cautious and unlike your rice farmers, they turn the spigot on and then when they growing, they turn it off so that they don’t have that limitation and they don’t understand the limitations that we have. So we put the water in there and the only reason we’re allowed two flushes is because I went up to the board, the Canal Company Board about 15 years ago and I said, look, these rice farmers get a second growth, they get all the water they need, it’s $25 an acre, I think you ought to let us have it for $25 an acre and all we want is two fields, before that we were not flooding for teal season because that water would be gone before the first of November. You just couldn’t do it. You just had to take rainwater or hunt the marsh, but now we can and it’s really important when you get that water that you get as much water as they will let you have and makes your plant stretch the biomass instead of being this tall, it’ll be this tall. And then up at the deep end of the field, as the season goes on, the shallow end of the field is depleted first because the dust can get to all that, they need a little bit of water out and they can move down and it progresses.
Ramsey Russell: Instead of adding water, you’re subtracting it.
Gene Campbell: That’s right.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s something I learned today. Because a lot of theory I hear is adding water throughout the growing season.
Gene Campbell: Yeah, that’ll work.
Ramsey Russell: Very good. Gene, thank you very much for your hospitality, thank you for a great duck hunt, thank you for sharing your time and walking us through Oyster Bayou History and management, I find it fascinating and I just find it so interesting, because I’ve got tunnel vision, I’m a duck hunter but tying it all in with the ebb and flow of the water of the vegetation of the humming birds and the northern harriers and the hawks and the eagles and the shore birds just really makes a lot more sense. I sometimes lose sight of the big picture by focusing just on ducks and just on what somebody told me about how to grow a duck and I learned a lot this trip just into a submerged aquatic, a totally different ball game. Thank you, Gene. And folks, thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere from Chambers County, Texas. See you next time.