There’s no telling what surprising topic the next duck blind conversation will entail. Today’s episode is proof. Before becoming a full-time Canadian hunting and fishing guide, Jason Hamilton was a marine mammal biologist in remote reaches of the Canadian Arctic. What was it like growing up in Canada, how’d he get started hunting, and what inspired him to such a career path? What’s it like working in that part of the world and what critters did he work? Why did they have to handle process polar bears within 20 minutes? What made this line of work dangerous, what were some memorable close calls and when did he decide to pursue other career avenues? Life is full of surprises, especially in a country as big as Canada.
Interesting Things in a Manitoba Duck Blind
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Getting back to Duck Season Somewhere. I’m in Manitoba. It’s the last day of my hunt in Canada for the North American Waterfowl Tour. Now, we’ve been shooting ducks and geese and all kinds of good stuff up here in Canada for y’all that kept up with us. But today’s guest, Jason Hamilton got some pretty interesting stories besides just duck hunting. You can chalk this up to interesting things heard in a duck blind. And it started during a lull on a rainy duck hunt when Jason mentioned something about polar bears. Jason that was a heck of a hunt we had today. The ducks threw us kind of a curve ball.
Jason Hamilton: They did throw us a little bit of a curve ball. They weren’t where we expected to be after the morning scout. But a few of them worked in, we got some shots, we had a little bit of fun laps.
Ramsey Russell: By Mississippi standards. Now, let me clarify by Mississippi standards, the hunt kicked ass, it was a great day. By Canada standards, it was a little slow, but it really wasn’t and when I drove by there this morning with Kevin, never in a million years, I mean the entire section was black with birds.
Jason Hamilton: It was unbelievable. And then that’s what keeps you getting up in the morning, because it’s never going to be the same every day. If it was the same every day would get boring. And we had fun out there trying to figure out how the decoys practice, make them work in a little closer and what was going to seal the deal.
Ramsey Russell: Well, by God, the ducks that came in just like nobody’s business. It’s something about the high birds didn’t want it, but there was a hilltop ridge line, I’d, say quarter mile in front of and that’s what I kept staring at. I kept ignoring the high bird because I just watched that ridge line and a little bird or five would pop over just seemed like they were hugging the terrain and they never faltered. They just come riding in.
Jason Hamilton: Those are the birds that I was thinking we’re in that field in the morning and wanted to be there. They knew exactly where they were coming. They didn’t need to fly around up high and look for something.
Ramsey Russell: It’s got to be something like that. It’s just got to be something like that. This morning slap full of snow geese and Canada geese and we didn’t see a single goose in that field.
Jason Hamilton: No, they were elsewhere. I don’t know if they got bumped out of there or they ate the field out. I mean so many birds like that. It’s not crazy to think that they could do a pretty good amount of damage on whatever the –
Hunting in Canada as a Youngster
Started off doing mostly fishing and then by six or seven he had me out shooting partridge and had me along for some water duck hunts.
Ramsey Russell: Drought type year like this where the grain may not have been over abundant. Tell me this now before we get warmed up or get too deep into the topic. Tell me about growing up in Canada. How did you grow up? Did you hunt and fish? Where did you grow up?
Jason Hamilton: I grew up in Sault Saint Marie Ontario, right on Lake Superior and was really fortunate my dad carted me out from a real young age, very, very young age, hunting and fishing, and I got to thank him for bringing me along and teaching me a lot of hunting and fishing. Started off doing mostly fishing and then by six or seven he had me out shooting partridge and had me along for some water duck hunts. We didn’t have any field hunting where I grew up like this. And so, coming to the prairies when I moved out here was just an absolute mind-blowing experience to see all these ducks and geese and these huge vistas where you can see for miles and just the sky clouded up with birds.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve been coming to Canada for over 20 years and that’s really the prize of seeing. Like even today, there were times over that big lake about a mile from us just the whole horizon was obliterated with flocks of birds. You just don’t see that in many places anymore.
Jason Hamilton: No, it’s amazing to think that biomass is so concentrated from all, it’s just like an inverted triangle. They start spread out all over the north of Canada and they start funneling down these flyways and getting more and more concentrated.
Ramsey Russell: And they stage here, this is like the staging ground, the headwaters of the flyway. They come off the Arctic, a lot of geese do, and then they come down here to this ag and they gorge themselves.
Jason Hamilton: So, they just fill right up and you’re saying some of those ducks were just completely full of barley.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t know how they flew. I mean, we picked up the chart, went out there and pick up that one green head. And when I picked it up, it literally had kernels of barley coming out of his throat. I mean that’s filled his gullet it was just solid of grain and the geese do that same thing to the snow geese have such a bad reputation for some reason I don’t understand, but I’ve literally shot them up here where they pop on impact, they’re so fat that it’s crazy.
Jason Hamilton: Just grain socks.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, it’s grain fed. What brought you out here? Why did y’all move, why did you move out here?
A Career in Wildlife Biology
I was in the right place at the right time.
Jason Hamilton: I moved from Ontario to Manitoba after college and it was to pursue a job in wildlife biology. Marine mammal biology with the federal government in Canada. And it was kind of a dream job. I mean I got to fly around all sorts of cool places in the arctic and research marine mammals, which was for a young biologist, relatively fresh out of school.
Ramsey Russell: You grew up hunting and fishing, you went into wildlife management of some sort, and I kind of call that a hook and bullet biologist. But did you intend to get start working with marine mammals? Is that why you went to school?
Jason Hamilton: No, I always thought it would be wolf or grizzly bear were the two species that I really had like a big focus on. And so, what got me interested in being a biologist was the movie Never Cry Wolf based on a Farley Mowat book. The biologist goes and lives in the Arctic with these wolves and studies them and becomes very closely involved with the pack. And as soon as I saw that as a kid, I thought, man that seems like the coolest job that you can imagine. You get to be out in the bush, you get to study animals and learn about it. You probably get to go hunting and fishing too.
Ramsey Russell: If you’re lucky.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah. I was in the right place at the right time. Professor I had in undergraduate school said, hey, I just got hooked up with these guys from University of Saskatchewan, and they’re doing a project on polar bears and grizzly bears, health indicators and their blood. And he’s like, did you want to do it? I mean I already signed the paper while he was halfway through the sentence.
Ramsey Russell: Heck, yeah. Where were you studying these animals?
Jason Hamilton: The grizzly bears were in Alberta, and it was in the foothills, boreal forest on the eastern slope of the Rockies up by Hinton Alberta. The polar bears, we did a lot of tagging and sampling on the Hudson Bay coast in Ontario. Up until that point I vaguely knew there was polar bears in Ontario, but I didn’t really put it together.
Ramsey Russell: I think they were in northern Manitoba.
Jason Hamilton: And sure enough, around Churchill is famous for them. Yeah there’s so many up there and they have like coming up to Halloween, they have all sorts of security patrols on the streets. The kids don’t get in trouble.
How to Tag a Polar Bear
They turn right around and face you down, like he was going to come and fight that helicopter, which was pretty crazy.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I bet that candy is just like a dessert prowl. You go up there to start working with polar bears. How do you tag a polar bear? Very carefully I’m guessing.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, hopefully well-tranquilized is the ideal way to do it. We went up there, it was kind of an adventure getting there. It’s a long bit of travel to get up there. We took planes, trains, and automobiles, and got up to the coast there in Hudson Bay. Got into a camp and we went out in a helicopter and we’d find a bear and then just tag it with a dart gun and a tranquilizer.
Ramsey Russell: Just fly down on him?
Jason Hamilton: Yeah come up behind it and–
Ramsey Russell: While he is running?
Jason Hamilton: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Was hauling butt.
Jason Hamilton: But some of them, especially the larger males, what they would do, they didn’t want to take any crap from anybody in the helicopter. They turn right around and face you down, like he was going to come and fight that helicopter, which was pretty crazy. That was the first time I saw an animal react to a piece of human machinery in a way like I’m going to kick that thing.
Ramsey Russell: He’s king of the king of the world.
Jason Hamilton: He’s got nobody to worry about. So, he wasn’t taking any flak from us.
Ramsey Russell: How far north are we talking about? I mean like from here because Manitoba is a ginormous. Canada is a ginormous country. It’s like I was hunting over Saskatchewan a few weeks ago with some guys from Nova Scotia, and they were further from home than I am from Mississippi. That just blows my mind but it kind of goes way up north too.
Jason Hamilton: We’re not even halfway up Canada where we sit right now. We’re about a third of the way north in Canada. So, it goes up a huge amount. Where we were doing the first bit of tagging in Ontario, it would be about 57 degrees north. Later I had worked much further. I got up, not quite to 90, but, 83-84 degrees north up on Ellesmere Island.
Ramsey Russell: Holy cow. That’s well inside the Arctic Circle.
Jason Hamilton: Yes. Yeah. It was absolutely incredible place. I mean when you were there, you can stand and you can see Greenland from the top of some cliffs. It’s 75 miles across that straight. But if you got up high enough on a high vantage point, you could see the landmass over there. It was pretty, pretty wild.
Ramsey Russell: What was the habitat like?
Jason Hamilton: Very rocky, gravelly. Not a lot of vegetation. Everything was so dwarfed, six inches or less was the typical vegetation height. And occasionally you’d have a little willow dwarf willow bush, but for that diminutive height. There was such beautiful and ornate flowers in the late summer. They have a very short and summer. But then all these bright colored flowers and things like that were there and you have, but you have to look so close for them, you have to be right down on the ground and seeing them. So that was really neat, these kind of hidden treasures, but by and large, rock and gravel and everything had been shaped by glaciers.
It’s a loud, stinky place to be. It’s sort of a one of a kind of smell and ambiance.
Ramsey Russell: What other animals you were talking about, besides polar bears, y’all were chasing walruses and beluga whales. I mean, talk about walruses. What were y’all doing with a walrus and how do you mess with them?
Jason Hamilton: You don’t want to get too close to mess with them because that’s a big animal.
Ramsey Russell: How big are they?
Jason Hamilton: Get up to 3,000 pounds. Big male will be 3,000 pounds. You can picture them standing on their front flippers and kind of propping their front body up. I’m a reasonably tall fella and I’m looking eye to eye with them. That’s how tall they get–
Ramsey Russell: How fast are they if they want to start moving at you?
Jason Hamilton: Not too fast on land. They’re pretty ungainly when they’re on land. But then obviously very good swimmers. What we were doing, we had to count the population and provide advice on what the allowable harvest for sustenance hunting for the Inuit people up there was. And what we would do is we’d dress up in sort of a walrus suit brown coveralls and we had developed a remote tag. So, we didn’t have to tranquilize them. We’d shoot that tag, would set just under the thick skin of a walrus, which is about an inch deep. The skin is about an inch thick, that tag would stay on him. And they went away to these different parts, we could direct our aerial survey to see where, because they were because they would all congregate. There very gregarious sort of species. They’re always congregating on these rocky islands or gravelly sort of sandbars out in the Arctic Ocean, and we’d fly by, and we’d take aerial photos. Then go on the computer and blow them up and put dots on all these things and then count all the dots and then extrapolate that into a population estimate for a given area.
Ramsey Russell: What’s a good population of walrus?
Jason Hamilton: The population for walrus, what I was doing, was very healthy. I think that there was in the 50,000-60,000 range in the area that that I was working in. And so, like there’s no conservation concerns obviously at all. And it was just amazing to see that many animals, like they pack in just like these sausages right up next to each other, they’re on top of each other. And it’s one of the worst smelling things is being near a walrus hollow. A lot of walrus shit, a lot of farting, and burping, and bellowing, and they’re always hitting their neighbor with their tusks. It’s a loud, stinky place to be. It’s sort of a one of a kind of smell and ambiance.
An Inuit Delicacy
I did try it and it was the most potent smell and taste that I had ever been a party to.
Ramsey Russell: Wow, how many walruses do you think are taken by the Inuit?
Jason Hamilton: I couldn’t think right now.
Ramsey Russell: And what do they do with them, hide?
Jason Hamilton: They take the ivory, they do a lot of carving with the ivory, they take the hide for various purposes. The meat is quite prized and they would do a preparation that’s particularly prized called Ignon. They would take that walrus and skin it. Then they butcher it, take the meat out, get rid of the carcass, they put the meat in the hide, and they’d sew that up, and they’d bury it in the beach gravel in June or July, and it would ferment in there. Then come Christmas time–
Ramsey Russell: Is that another word for rot?
Jason Hamilton: Controlled rot. And come Christmas time it would get pulled out and it was a delicacy.
Ramsey Russell: Did they cook it?
Jason Hamilton: No, it’s eating like it is. I did try it and it was the most potent smell and taste that I had ever been a party to.
Ramsey Russell: Good or bad?
Jason Hamilton: Memorable. It’s not coming to Christmas dinner with me.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, my goodness.
Jason Hamilton: If someone opened it on the other side of the gymnasium, you would know about it a few seconds. It just had a very unmistakable pungent odor.
Ramsey Russell: How close would you have to get to tag those walruses?
Jason Hamilton: Were trying to get, 25 or 30 yards away at the most. So, we didn’t want to–
Ramsey Russell: Did they get reactive? Did they become threatened or try to bluff you or do something?
Jason Hamilton: They see some things there. They see a different shape but if you kind of stay low like a walrus might, we could get in very close before they got nervous. If you were looking like a polar bear than, it’d be a different thing. Their eyesight is not very good. So, you could get quite close to them.
Ramsey Russell: Like if you shoot later five, right? There is a chance I could tag all five before they take off?
Jason Hamilton: 100%. Because if they feel a little pick on them, I mentioned that, each one is always hitting its neighbor with its tusks. Well we’re doing nothing compared to what they’re doing to their neighbors. So, they’ll settle down after a second and then you can just go, if provided the shots and you try and choose a cross section of the population, males and females and younger ones and things like that.
Tagging Beluga Whales in the Hudson Bay
A lot of times you miss, and then what happens is you land on top of the whale and you get the tail in the face.
Ramsey Russell: What about the beluga whale? What the world would you do with something like that?
Jason Hamilton: The beluga whale was not the smartest time in my biology career. We caught them live and what we would do, they were in close to these freshwater rivers in Hudson Bay and they were molting, they’re changing their skin in the summer.
Ramsey Russell: See, I’ve never heard about, is that oil whales?
Jason Hamilton: I believe so.
They molt? Like shed their skin like a like a snake.
Jason Hamilton: Well, it just comes off in much smaller chunks and as they grow and gets rid of all any parasites or barnacles or things that they have, and so we would get them in when they were up very shallow water. And this is 5ft of water, a lot of cases and we sort of heard one in and get–
Ramsey Russell: This is a small whale.
Jason Hamilton: A big one would be about 1500 lbs for beluga. And so, we’ve heard these buggers are in close to the shore line so we can get ahead of it. Someone would jump in holding a net, and put the net in front of their heads so they swam in it, and you try and hold them as best you could, and two other fellows would come in and they put ropes on the tail, and hold the whale. But as you can imagine, I mean you don’t start off batting 1000 on catching whales with a net on the head. So, there’s a lot of – you got to commit you’re jumping off of your jumping off of a zodiac going like 15-20 miles an hour headfirst trying to snare this thing. A lot of times you miss, and then what happens is you land on top of the whale and you get the tail in the face. It was a pretty interesting deal. I mean I think the year, the last year I worked on them, we did six or seven. It was not a big number each time. I mean because it took so long and relatively expensive to get the tags, these transmitters to put on them. So, here’s a cool beluga story. We got this thing kind of going up this estuary. We’re pushing it towards shallower water. And all of a sudden, I mean, you don’t know where you’re at. Hit a rock with the motor, the motor’s dead, lower unit’s gone. So, then we hadn’t tagged one up to that point in our field season, there’s a little bit of pressure building to make something happen. So, I jump in the water and I’m sort of in the water with the paddle so this thing doesn’t come out of this little cove we had it in. And as I’m neck deep in the water, making all sorts of ruckus trying to corral this beluga whale, white heads start popping up about 15-20 yards away, and it’s a mother and a few polar bear cubs.
Ramsey Russell: Holy cow.
Jason Hamilton: They were just napping obviously in the rocks on the shore line there and it’s like who is this idiot making all the ruckus and I became a pretty good point of interest for them.
Ramsey Russell: I bet you did. How far away were they?
Jason Hamilton: About 15 or 20 yards. I mean right there.
Ramsey Russell: Apparently, you’re still here. So, they weren’t hungry.
Jason Hamilton: They were not hungry and we’re we had a second boat So I kind of flagged them over and asked for a pickup as quickly as possible.
Ramsey Russell: Polar bears will go in the water to get stuff.
Jason Hamilton: For sure.
Ramsey Russell: They have to catch those seals and I guess walruses, they’ll dive under and grab them.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, so it was not a great place to be. It didn’t work out too bad but it definitely got my heart pounding a little more.
Ramsey Russell: Did you see a lot of – have a lot of wild Kingdom moments like that where you observed predatory behavior of polar bears? I mean did you see that kind of stuff?
Jason Hamilton: We did see a few things. We saw polar bears just capturing a seal a couple times when we did aerial surveys, and you see sort of a lot of movement near 1000ft up. But then you see sort of a red stain on an iceberg and it’s like, oh I see what just happened here. The one that was really impressive. We didn’t come on it, but he was dragging a walrus up, a full-grown walrus, and he had moved that walrus from the water’s edge up the beach about 20 or 30 feet. Just dragged a couple 1000 lbs of dead weight up there. It’s like that is that’s scary strong.
Ramsey Russell: That’s like Char dawg bringing in a Canada goose?
Jason Hamilton: Oh yeah, one of those big honkers.
Ramsey Russell: Nothing like that. What about Narwhals? It’s always been an interesting animal to me, the Narwhal and I think they’re from that part of the world.
Jason Hamilton: They are, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Is it like a whale?
Jason Hamilton: It is a whale. Yes.
Ramsey Russell: With a big long unicorn horn.
Jason Hamilton: But that’s its tooth. So, at a certain point and it’s maturing one of their teeth starts to grow out and erupts out through the front of its head. It’s a modified tooth.
Ramsey Russell: What do they do with it? Nothing just decorative?
Jason Hamilton: There’s a lot of display, mating, there’s a lot of theories but nothing conclusive. I would think that some sort of reproductive display would be the most likely option. There’s using to amplify sonar whales talk with the echolocation. So, there’s that that I think a lot of people have been looking into as well.
Ramsey Russell: Speaking of Greenland, did you ever see any Viking, old Viking settlements and stuff like that around that part of the world?
Jason Hamilton: No, we didn’t, sort of the —
Ramsey Russell: I read one time that they had a thriving trade with English traders who would buy this Narwhal horn. And then take it back to England and sell it as unicorn horns.
Jason Hamilton: Oh, really?
Ramsey Russell: It’s crazy isn’t it?
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, that is crazy. We saw a lot of old Inuit encampments and, you see the tent rings where they would hold down the skin shelters, just be these circles and the sort of middle of nowhere.
Ramsey Russell: Thousands of years ago.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, just incredibly hardy people living in those extreme conditions. There was some real cool things like old RCMP which is the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. So up on the east coast of Ellesmere Island, there’s this Alexandra fjord and about 75 degrees north, there was an RCMP posting up there.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, man.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, imagine the fellow that passed his test in Regina and then he said, okay, here you go.
Ramsey Russell: He must have pissed somebody off.
Jason Hamilton: Must have done something, that’s for sure. I couldn’t imagine as a young person just sort of getting into a career and then all of a sudden, it’s all right here you go. Here’s a dog team.
Ramsey Russell: There’s no crime up there. But here you go.
Jason Hamilton: We’ll see you in a few years.
Ramsey Russell: There may have been a lot of stuff up there. I mean you got to think historic for trading or something like that.
Jason Hamilton: It must have been for someone to I know the big push in that part of the world was for Canada to maintain sovereignty. We’ve been sort of back and forth with Russia over who owns the Canadian Arctic. And I know they really pushed hard to have presence up there.
How Did you Transition from Marine Mammal Biologist to Duck Guide?
It’s not without its inherent risks, doing that sort of remote work with helicopters and airplanes, and bad weather, and huge angry animals.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s get back to polar bears. I know you got out of it. I know now you’re a fishing guide and a duck guide. Why aren’t you still a marine mammal biologist?
Jason Hamilton: I always seem to fall back to fishing and hunting and really enjoy the outfitting business. It’s been a great job as well. I felt like I was using my nine lives a little too quickly as a young biologist. It’s an amazing place to work. It’s not without its inherent risks, doing that sort of remote work with helicopters and airplanes, and bad weather, and huge angry animals. The polar bear stuff was particularly interesting, and it kept you on your toes, because they wouldn’t always be tranquilized and go unconscious right where you wanted them to be. So you’d have to often go and put his head under water, we got to jump out and see if this thing is still sort of alive. They’d hover the helicopter 10ft off the ground, you jump out of it and grab the thing’s head, and try and prop it up and hope that sucker is going to be well on his way to being sedated.
Ramsey Russell: Don’t let him drown but hope he’s not awake enough to punch you.
The Tale of “I Punched a Polar Bear”
Then that guy had his paws on my chest and was reaching out with his mouth to give me a bite. I couldn’t think anything else to do so I punched him in the face.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, well the whole, “I punched a polar bear” was always a great pick up line. I had a bar when I was younger. So, we tranquilized mom and we saw these two cubs for from the air, thought, oh, they’re too small. They were too young, we couldn’t use the dart gun on him, it was too powerful. So, they said to Jason, the young biologist early on the job, they said, “Well you go over there and distract these bears, and we’ll hit them with a syringe on a stick, a pole syringe.” It’s like a 10ft aluminum syringe. And so, I went over there and distracted these two bears, it turned out not to be 75 lb young cub, but they were two years old and like 250 lbs. And so, they’re like black bearsize cubs and that sucker charged me. You can usually buffalo with them, you can get in their face and scream at them, and clap in their face. And I mean, it seems like a crazy thing to do, but I didn’t really know what else to do.
Ramsey Russell: You ain’t got a lot of options.
Jason Hamilton: And so, he did that about a half dozen times, and ran back and we never quite got next to the thing. Then that guy had his paws on my chest and was reaching out with his mouth to give me a bite. I couldn’t think anything else to do so I punched him in the face. I was backpedaling and then it was when I fell into a little puddle behind me that the bear spooked off. The splash scared him back away. So, it didn’t work out too bad. But gosh, it was one of the times in my life I sat down for five minutes, the adrenaline was up as high as I think it can go.
Tagging & Tattooing Polar Bears in 20 Minutes
We tried to hold ourselves to that because what happens when a polar bear’s sedated, they’re so well insulated with thick skin, translucent thick fur, and fat, they start overheating.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy. What were y’all tranquilizing them with?
Jason Hamilton: It was a mixture of psilocybin, ketamine, and ramp as a cocktail that had been developed by one of the colleagues there – it’s the safest one for bears.
Ramsey Russell: How long did it take you to process? Okay, I tranquilized the bear. Now, how long does it take to process and what exactly am I doing?
Jason Hamilton: We would try to, work as quickly as we can about 20 minutes with something. We tried to hold ourselves to that because what happens when a polar bear’s sedated, they’re so well insulated with thick skin, translucent thick fur, and fat, they start overheating. Especially if they’ve had a little activity running from you. So, you’re trying to dump water on them to keep them cool and so you can get them back up with their metabolism, so they can regulate their temperature with breathing.
Ramsey Russell: Wow, I had no idea.
Jason Hamilton: So, they’d overheat in a hurry. So, what we’d do is we’d take a hair sample, nail sample, blood sample, skin sample and a fat sample. And then on some bears, we would pull a second molar which would be a tool for aging. Then there’s what’s called the Polar Bear Bible all around the Arctic in the world. Every polar bear has number in all the countries that have bears. So, they would have a record, this bear would be X5571. And we put a tattoo in their lip and ear tags in their ears with numbers. So we could recapture a mark, do a recapture study. We could see where is this bear been captured first, where has it been, sort of how it’s interacting on the landscape. But when they when they dive in the layers for the seals, they’ll often rip those ear tags out. So that’s why we put the tattoo in the upper lip, which tattooing a polar bear seems like such a weird thing to do.
Ramsey Russell: I mean who’s going to look except another biologist? I guess you got to look up under the lip.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, to see if it’s been captured before. And that informs the studies because they’ve been doing since the 70’s and 80’s, this sort of work on bears in these areas.
Ramsey Russell: How old do some of those bears live?
Jason Hamilton: Into the mid-20s.
Ramsey Russell: You’re kidding.
Jason Hamilton: A lot of bears in the teens. And then I think the 22-23 would be a very old bear in the wild. I’m sure they get older in captivity, but in the wild, that would be the upper limit.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. And then you have to you measure them 20 minutes hopefully, boom. You got to wake him up.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, sorry. As you mentioned, I forgot to mention we would take the size and weight. We weighed these. The largest one I ever weighed was 1293 lbs.
Ramsey Russell: Godly.
Jason Hamilton: That’s incredible.
Ramsey Russell: It is. It is a big bear.
Jason Hamilton: I always remembered that because I was so gob smacked.
Ramsey Russell: How long would a bear like that?
Jason Hamilton: It was 3.1 meter. So, just like 11ft, tip of the nose to tip of the tail. And when that sucker stood up on his hind legs, you got to figure he’s up there, it was just an incredible creature.
Ramsey Russell: Magnificent. And you wake them up and then what? Run like hell?
Jason Hamilton: You wake them up and you kind of have the helicopter sort of started back up, and all the gear moved back over to it, and they wouldn’t come out of it immediately, but they lift their head up often and start to gain their senses.
Ramsey Russell: Like a Chinese firecracker fuse burn varies.
Jason Hamilton: Oh, 100%.
Ramsey Russell: Were you ever 20 minutes into it and the cocktail that put them down was wrong or weak and they start becoming active?
Jason Hamilton: Yes, I mean it wasn’t like instantaneously the bear’s on, feeding and chewing on people, but they would sort of start flailing around and you know, okay it’s time for a booster or if we have our stuff, let’s get out of here.
Ramsey Russell: With an animal that size just like swatting a fly.
Jason Hamilton: Oh gosh!
Ramsey Russell: It could break a leg or —
Jason Hamilton: The first few bears I went up to when I just started working on that project, what got me what really was so noteworthy in my head, your feeling for a jugular vein to take a blood sample. Pushing on their neck was like pushing on a piece of plywood, there’s just so much muscle, there’s no give at all and it just was an awe-inspiring animal to be that close to.
Ramsey Russell: And I mean there’s got to be very few people really that have even seen a polar bear, let alone touched him, let alone punch one in the mouth.
Jason Hamilton: I tried to get a lot of mileage out of it with the fairer sex at the bar, but it didn’t always go. You had to find the right audience. There’s a target demographic there.
Close Calls with Polar Bears & Deciding to Not Tempt Fate
And it was just sort of one of many, many sorts of too close calls, and I just thought, I think I’d like to take a step back and do some other things for a while.
Ramsey Russell: Any other close calls with them?
Jason Hamilton: We had one, sort of the closest call. I mean, and I think it was just a curious bear. We had one when we were sleeping in a wall tent up on the tundra, it stood up on the tent and collapse the tent.
Ramsey Russell: With y’all in it?
Jason Hamilton: Yes. And our guard dog that was supposed to be employed to bark when a polar bear was there was sleeping on the job and the bear had good aim because he landed right on top of the shotgun. All we did was just roll around and yell, and the other tent got up and got moving and got that sucker scared off.
Ramsey Russell: God.
Jason Hamilton: Imagine waking up just all of a sudden, the tent collapses, and what the heck is happening? You don’t have an idea and then sort of, that’s got to be a bear.
Ramsey Russell: I just assumed, y’all were like, I’ve heard of hunting camps and stuff up in that part of the world, biological stations that have fences around. Y’all were out in the bush.
Jason Hamilton: Sometimes we did, sometimes we didn’t. And from my experience those electric fences had a notorious habit of not functioning as advertised.
Ramsey Russell: I bet y’all really practice safe bear habits, like in terms of your meals.
Jason Hamilton: We tried —
Ramsey Russell: And everything else.
Jason Hamilton: –to have a little separate camp a couple 100 yards wave and where we did all the cooking exactly, and just keep the sleeping so separate from any of that.
Ramsey Russell: What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? When did you say, man, I’m on life number eight of nine. I need to think about – I need to think about another career choice.
Jason Hamilton: There was a minute there when I was scheduled to be on a plane to head up into the high Arctic, and for whatever variety of circumstances, I didn’t make it on it. And that plane happened to go down with a few colleagues that I had worked with there. And it was just sort of one of many, many sorts of too close calls, and I just thought, I think I’d like to take a step back and do some other things for a while. Maybe circle back to this because it just seemed like every year there was something like that – and not all the time – happening. It just got to be a more common occurrence than I would like to see.
Ramsey Russell: For a young biologist, that’s kind of a dream job. We talked about this earlier. When you go into wildlife management, when you go into this career, your kind of are interested in the field work, whether it be banding ducks or radio tracking deer or bobcats. I mean that’s kind of what compels you, but sooner or later you kind of say, well I need to make more money. I need to move on, and you start climbing one or two rungs up before it, you’re not getting to do that. You’re just an administrator.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, that’s the path often to it. And if I wasn’t going to do that, I mean the fieldwork was so intriguing and so captivating to be a part of it. Just the places one gets to see, and the animals, and the fish, and people you meet – I mean you just meet, just like hunting – these people are so passionate about the things that they’re doing and what they’re a part of, and then you take that fieldwork portion away of it and it just isn’t as fun. Yeah, it’s just a job. You just let live for those three months in the field where you have these adventures and now I get to have some same sort of adventures in the fishing and hunting business.
Ramsey Russell: How many of the people you work with in that field were hunters?
Jason Hamilton: A fair number actually. A lot of the people that I was working with were a little older than I was. So, a lot of people in that 50’s to 60’s, it was just a point in the turnover of the group there that you had these older folks, biologists and research scientists that had been there 20 years, 30 years and then they were sort of turning over slowly. But it was a lot of folks who loved hunting and fishing.
Ramsey Russell: I would think that your background hunting and fishing when you start, obviously, shooting the dart guns and stalking up, and getting the wind right, I mean I would think that just make it natural. It’s almost like it makes you better at that job.
Jason Hamilton: Very much so because you’ve been trained, especially archery hunting for deer, sitting quietly and you become a very much an astute observer of wildlife, and understanding all these things you mentioned, what’s going on. So, when you when you have a situation that you’re doing field work like that, these are things you don’t have to think about to notice. It’s all sort of coming naturally and I think it really did make a much more rounded field biologist to be someone that had hunted and fished. And I had to get close to animals too before.
Ramsey Russell: I would think so. Do you ever miss that work?
Jason Hamilton: I do. And the people were so incredible because there’s intelligent and passionate people about science and conservation, and just good people in the field. People that had logged so many days living in a tent, they had all sorts of tips and tricks on how to make it comfortable, and how to make it all kind of fun. I like what I’m doing now though. I really do. I’d been in the outfitting business before I did that.
Becoming a Waterfowl Guide and Fishing Guide
When winter is six months of the year, if you don’t find something to enjoy the outdoors during that time, you kind of go stir crazy or you go south.
Ramsey Russell: Well, somebody was telling me like you’re a waterfowl guide and you go way up in the Arctic and you’re a fishing guide at one of those five star flying lodges.
Jason Hamilton: Yes.
Ramsey Russell: But somebody told me that you had a ice fishing business.
Jason Hamilton: I did, yes, on Lake Winnipeg here in Manitoba. That was a lot of fun. We took people out fishing for giant green bag walleye.
Ramsey Russell: I don’t get it. I was telling somebody the other day on a podcast, I just don’t get ice fishing.
Jason Hamilton: When winter is six months of the year, if you don’t find something to enjoy the outdoors during that time, you kind of go stir crazy or you go south.
Ramsey Russell: Were you sitting out on the ice or did you have — like I’ve seen some pretty ornate cabins with a keg beer and satellite TV, and that I could go for.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, but it wasn’t quite as nice as that. But the last 15-20 years, ice fishing has come along so far. We had little portable tents we pulled behind side by side on tracks. We get six people in there, get to the spot we thought we were going to catch these fish at, and you open these tents up, a little propane heater turned on. So you can fish in your sweater and be like the temperature is in the room here right now, it’s quite comfortable. It’s just that like 10 minutes while you’re setting up, 10 minutes while you’re taking down is the cold time. But it’s a really effective time of year to target big fish.
Ramsey Russell: Walleye.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, big walleye, any sort of fish, but specifically walleye there.
Ramsey Russell: You’re on a big old lake covered with ice. How do you know where those fish are? How do you know where to drill a hole?
Jason Hamilton: That lake in particular didn’t have a lot of structure. It was very sort of a barren bottom and you were following big schools of fish.
Ramsey Russell: You could see them through the ice?
Jason Hamilton: You can as things progress. But what you just had to be out there a lot and that’s the being a guide. If you’re out there every day, you got a pretty good idea where to start tomorrow, where you left them this evening, you don’t go too far. So that was the best way. I lived on the lake, like right on the shoreline of the lake in the winter, and was out there 75-100 days of winter.
Ramsey Russell: I’ll just have to put that on my bucket list of things to do. Yeah, I’m not saying I wouldn’t enjoy it, but I just can’t imagine.
Jason Hamilton: It’s something to experience. I mean it’s pretty amazing on that lake come March, you’d have 4ft, sometimes more of ice that you have to drill through. And then you think about when you cast a lure in open water, you’re covering so much water. But you’re covering 10 inches of water out of time through this hole in the ice, you’ve got to be in the right darn spot to catch that fish.
Mindsets of Hunters Around the World
So, I think you take it a little for granted and it’s like, well we don’t have to go that hard at it, because it will always be here.
Ramsey Russell: I guess I could see that. Tell me about this. You’re a hunter. All the boys we’ve been hunting with here this week are Canadians and they’re hunters, good hunters. You deal with a lot of American clients fishing and hunting. How would you describe Canadian hunters? The average Canadian hunter out here is different or are they different from American hunters?
Jason Hamilton: That’s a great question. I think when American hunters are traveling to Canada, they have a little bit of pressure that they put on the trip for results.
Ramsey Russell: 2.5 days, 5 hunts.
Jason Hamilton: And you want each hunt to be the huge hunt, the one you dreamed of, the one that you’ve been watching these YouTube videos about and seeing your Instagram stories highlighting. I think the thing that sets us apart as Canadians, we sort of live with it every day, and we get to pick and choose our days to go out on the big hunts. And the other day when we went out and it was raining sideways and it was blowing 30 mph. I don’t know if I wasn’t guiding if I would have been out hunting. It turned out to be a heck of a good duck hunt. But, I think we get spoiled, sort of anybody that lives with any unusual – what someone else thinks it’s an unusual circumstance – it becomes common place to you.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Jason Hamilton: So, I think you take it a little for granted and it’s like, well we don’t have to go that hard at it, because it will always be here.
Ramsey Russell: I kind of see that and it’s like a lot of the local hunters I’ve met over the years outside of industry, people guides and outfitters just have a real 1970 approach to it. We go and hunt with a bunch of farmers and they’ll shoot the limits and that’s what’s given up. But nine o’clock when the hunt’s over whether they shot 5 or 50, they’re talking crop prices, the latest tractors. It’s like you said earlier, 11:00 they’re going to be in the bar anyway.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah, it’s something to do if the crops aren’t in.
Ramsey Russell: If the crops aren’t in they’re not going to be out there hunting.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: They look out their backyard and they see all these ducks and geese all the time and it’s not the same as an elk or a moose or something. We bumped in, we were scouting a field over in Alberta last week and there’s some local hunters there and it made a big old feed, 5000 or 6000 birds I’d say. And the boy does hunt with had a trailer full of good gear and full body decoys and yada-yada-yada, and these guys are going to go out there with 50 decoys of, maybe go cut some paper plates or something and throw out there and just shoot a few.
Jason Hamilton: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I think it’s a totally different mindset.
Jason Hamilton: It is yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve always said, I felt like American hunters, and I don’t know why, but we stand out almost singularly around the world, and I don’t mean to say we’re better than anybody. I’m just saying by and large, I would describe the majority of American hunters as a mindset of productivity, of gear, of guns, of ammo, of camo, of decoys. It’s almost like everything is elevated to art form.
Jason Hamilton: Do you think that’s because of increased like more competition in a lot of places?
Ramsey Russell: I think, you know what, that’s a good point. I think it could be competition. I think it could be the cost. You’ve got alot sunk into making it count. I’m saying if I’m hunting public boy you hunt some of these public areas back home and man, I would put a, I would put a real public land hunter in America up against anybody anywhere anytime. Get up and go and resolve to get those ducks. I mean you got to because it is extremely competitive. I’ve seen sweat lines miles long and if you didn’t get drawn, you just waiting your turn, you may not even get into the property till three o’clock.
Jason Hamilton: Oh wow.
Ramsey Russell: But those guys, they’re cracking to go at three o’clock the next morning just waiting for it to open, hoping that’s serious stuff.
Jason Hamilton: And I think takes so much for granted is that we’re so fortunate to landowners here are very generous and let us go on in hunting. It’s we get upset like, oh, there’s another group looking at this one field, there’s three other fields.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Jason Hamilton: Maybe that could be the reason is we just don’t have to work as hard.
Ramsey Russell: It could be.
Jason Hamilton: And it’s not to say that Canadian hunters are lazy, but it comes a little, maybe it comes a little easier.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve hunted with Canadians up here that put the birds away. I mean, these guys, they bag a bunch of birds and they don’t even own a duck call or a goose call. Wow, that’s different.
Jason Hamilton: It is different.
Ramsey Russell: That’s very different. You talked about the landowners and that’s very different too. But it’s my understanding that in Western Canada, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Alberta, is like leasing is either illegal or discouraged.
Jason Hamilton: Some provinces it’s legal, some it isn’t. And then Saskatchewan’s is particularly different province as far as land access because it has assumed permission kind of like North Dakota does unless the land is posted, you can assume as a resident hunter that you can go on.
Ramsey Russell: As a resident hunter, right.
Jason Hamilton: But, as an outfitter, you always have to secure permission and in a lot of cases it’s better to have written permission for that land. Here in Manitoba, it’s required to gain permission from the landowner to be able to hunt their fields. And that’s kind of nice. I mean, it’s nice for them to know who’s —
Ramsey Russell: I think it’d be courteous just to know who owns the land. Just to be that courtesy. I know the time we find the Saskatchewan and I do hunt with Canadians. We find the landowner, we knock on the door, we ask.
Jason Hamilton: In my opinion, that’s the way to go. It’s the right thing to do. If it was my land, I’d want someone to take the step and say, hey, I’m here, love to hunt your land if you allow that. We’ll make sure that we respect any rules because he might say, oh, I just over seeded crop on that, and I’d rather if you didn’t go in that field, but hey, there’s birds in this other field, go and go to it.
Why Is Waterfowl Hunting in Canada Declining?
I think that if people took the time to bring some younger folks or some newer hunters out each year and show them, hey, it’s not unattainable to get a dozen decoys and a shotgun, and learn a little about this, and have a little fun doing it.
Ramsey Russell: Are there any barriers to getting into hunting in Canada that you see? I mean, we all know that waterfowl hunting in general is declining, but I’ve heard it’s declining drastically up here in Canada the same as the United States. But I’ve heard it drastically declined. Why do you think that is? Is it cost barriers? Equipment barriers?
Jason Hamilton: I think maybe there’s a perception of inflated costs because it’s cool to have 100 dozen decoys and all the Sitka, and a big trailer rig grayed out for sleeping and cooking and all this. It’s not just nice to have. It would be great to have, but a lot of people killed a lot of birds with a piece of a tire and a hockey stick for a head. A lot of people killed birds doing that and you need a shotgun. It’ll shoot steel shot some way to conceal yourself and natural concealment. Willows, marsh grass is a perfect free reusable way too to do that. I think that if people took the time to bring some younger folks or some newer hunters out each year and show them, hey, it’s not unattainable to get a dozen decoys and a shotgun, and learn a little about this, and have a little fun doing it.
Ramsey Russell: It really doesn’t take a lot. I mean it does take some equipment if you’re going to hunt in water, you need waiters, you need warm clothes, you need steel shotgun and license and tags. But it’s really not that crazy, you know what I’m saying. It’s as expensive as you want to make it like everything else.
Jason Hamilton: Simplifying it and becoming a better hunter before having all the gear and the bells and whistles learning the —
Ramsey Russell: Learn the fundamentals.
Jason Hamilton: Yes, learn identification, biology, learn the conservation issues, educate yourself on how to hide and how to blow a call and where the birds want to be and how to scout and get the most out of a field. Those are invaluable lessons. They don’t cost a whole lot. There’s so many resources available online that people can learn at.
Ramsey Russell: Most expensive baseball bat at the store is not going to make a little league home run hitter unless he can hit the ball.
Jason Hamilton: Yes.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, learn the fundamentals, learn how to hit the ball and don’t worry about dressing it up, right.
Jason Hamilton: Exactly. And I think if you didn’t necessarily come out of the gates with all the gear and you have to be a little creative and spend more time learning and understanding what you’re doing. You’re going to be a better hunter for it. So, when you get to add incrementally a few more decoys to your spread or, a new call or a new blind, you’re going to be a better hunter.
Ramsey Russell: Amen. Folks, y’all have been listening to my buddy, Jason Hamilton. Not only did he punch a polar bear, he brought some bourbon for the rest of this – for our little wrap up after this podcast. Thank you all for this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. Be sure to subscribe rate, comment, share your favorite episode with your good buddies. See you next time.