It’s late-May, the Dakota prairies are in great shape. Already there are bright yellow, little mallard and pintail fuzzballs on the scene, preparing for the flight south this fall. John Devney of Delta Waterfowl is an avid duck hunter, a natural born communicator. He and Ramsey talk about favorite North American duck species (it’ll probably surprise you) and favorite places to duck hunt in the US. Low on the water and coming in hot like decoying ringnecks, their conversation dives into lots of interesting waterfowl hunting topics. What’s going on with specklebellies in the Deep South as compared to the Pacific Flyway? What’s happening with pintails – they’re probably shooting too many in Mexico, right?! And what about all of today’s many modern hardcore hunters traveling to Canada – that’s certainly impacting the fall flight, huh? Federal stimulus dollars galore are being spent to mitigate coronavirus, but how will the 2020 Pandemic affect waterfowl conservation efforts, such as banding and censusing? All of that and more in today’s episode of Duck Season Somewhere.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. Folks, thank y’all for joining us today for another great episode. It’s late May as this is being recorded, and I hope that this cootie quarantine is starting to let up in your part of the world. I hope that things are beginning to resemble normalcy again. Thank y’all for listening today. Live from Bowman, North Dakota, I have got Mr. John Devney, vice president of Delta Waterfowl on the line. How are you, John?
John Devney: I’m doing great, Ramsey. How are you, man?
Ramsey Russell: I’m good, I’m good. Tell me what’s going on. It’s late May; what is going on in North Dakota? What’s the weather like? What’s the ducks doing? How are things going?
Current Migration Patterns in North Dakota
John Devney: Yeah, it’s been an interesting spring. Spring came pretty early, and then it got cold, and then it’d get nice, and then it’d get cold, and then it’d get nice, and then it’d get cold. For the most part, we’ve been dealing with spring since the first of May. Ducks got back here right on time.
Ramsey Russell: Which is what time?
John Devney: We start getting them back in late March and early April, typically. Then we had some pretty crummy weather, Ramsey, and it sent some of them back. The snow goose migrations screwed up like a soup sandwich this year just because the geese would push in real good, then we’d get cold weather and snow, and it’d push them back. They yo-yoed around a little bit. It was kind of interesting to watch because, where I live here in Bismarck and then east of here, we’re kind of like the absolute northern edge of the canvasback and ringneck migration. Man, those dudes were here in huge numbers, and they were here for a couple of weeks until they could get a runway to start heading further north. I haven’t been out in the field, although we’ve got lots of folks out doing research and nest dragging, but I would bet that the only species that’s put eggs on the dirt right now are bluebills. Everybody else is hard at work, and we’ve seen the first few mallard broods and Canada goose broods and pintail broods. It’s spring on the prairies.
Ramsey Russell: That’s interesting, man. I tell you what, it’s amazing to me that there’s already next year’s fall flight on the ground. These little yellow fuzzballs are already moving around.
John Devney: Yup, and what we know about those, if you go back and you look at the literature and at the science of breeding ducks, is that there is this pretty interesting trade-off, Ramsey. If you hatch early, if your ducklings hatch and hit the water early, then they have a much higher likelihood of surviving.
Ramsey Russell: Yes, I’ve heard that. How are the pintails doing in North Dakota this year?
John Devney: We’ve got great water conditions in North Dakota, and it’s pretty bloody dry in Saskatchewan, so I think we’re going to catch a bunch of those ducks. Yeah, they’re hard at it. I think both here and in eastern South Dakota, we’re going to have a pile of pintails, but we’ll never be able to measure how big a pile of pintails that we’re going to have because we don’t have a duck survey this year.
John Devney: VP of Delta Waterfowl & Lifelong Hunter
“How anybody emerges from that experience to duck hunting being the center of my life is pretty interesting.”
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. John, a couple of questions I always like to ask people—for people listening and for myself, of course— Before we get into the conversation further, we all know you’re vice president of Delta Waterfowl, but who are you as a person? What is your background? Who were your influences growing up? How do you go from a little boy, growing up where you did, to vice president of Delta Waterfowl, committing yourself to waterfowl research? How do you do this?
John Devney: Well, I grew up in Minnesota. I was lucky enough to have a dad that loved to hunt and fish. My first duck hunt, Ramsey, was when I was four years old. I grew up kind of north and east of Saint Paul, and my dad did most of his duck hunting— He loved to hunt diving ducks in North-Central Minnesota, but he had a little place that he could hunt close to home when his work was busy that he could sneak out to. When I was four years old, he took me to that little pothole and told me not to step in cow pies, threw a gunny sack over the top of me, and told me to shut up. That was my first duck hunting experience. How anybody emerges from that experience to duck hunting being the center of my life is pretty interesting. But, yeah, I grew up spending a lot of time duck hunting and fishing and other kinds of hunting with my dad. As a kid, the neighbor kid’s father was also a big duck hunter. He was a number of years older than me, and I grew up on a lake in the suburbs of Saint Paul. Every fall, we’d build duck blinds down on the beach, and we had hand-me-down duck decoys, hand-me-down hip boots, and hand-me-down duck calls. I spent virtually every fall night of my youth watching the ducks and listening to them call and trying to imitate them, reading books about duck hunting, and making decoys out of Hi-Lex bottles and two-liter coke jugs, and doing all the stuff that a kid that was caught up in duck hunting was into. I had the chance to come to Delta just before I turned 28 years old; here we are 22 years later now, and I’m getting to live out some of the things that are the most important to me in my life, both duck hunting and duck conservation. I get to do it for a living. I’m a pretty blessed guy, Ramsey.
Ramsey Russell: Where did you go to college and grad school?
John Devney: Well, just so everybody’s on the same page, John Devney is not a biologist. I play one on television. I play one on the radio. My degree is actually in political science and philosophy from a little itty-bitty liberal arts college in central Minnesota called Saint John’s University. So I don’t have a professional biological background. I’ve sort of learned on the fly from lots of great people here at Delta and lots of other professionals who have taught me a great deal over the last twenty years.
Ramsey Russell: I think that’s really important. You do a great job. You do such a great job communicating need-to-hear information that guys like me don’t know that I did assume you were a biologist. I would still describe you as a functional biologist because in the world of policy and the world of getting the word out, stuff like that— That’s very interesting. Political science and philosophy.
John Devney: So, yeah, nobody’s going to confer any honorary PhDs on my goofy ass. I can’t do math.
Ramsey Russell: I can’t either. Oh, I’m terrible. That’s my weak spot, man. But getting back to this, you brought up a couple of good points talking about growing up hunting with your daddy in Minnesota. What is your favorite hunt and your favorite place to hunt?
Favorite Duck Species to Hunt?
“My favorite duck is the next one.”
John Devney: You know what’s interesting? I grew up as a kid that thought any old idiot could shoot a mallard. We had them on every suburban lake where I grew up. They were half-domesticated. I had mallard ducklings eating bread out of my mouth as a child. I never thought they were terribly interesting. My dad’s big love of duck hunting was hunting diving ducks—bluebills, cans, redheads, ringnecks—on big water. So that’s really where my passion was as a kid growing up in Minnesota. I’d compete with anybody on your podcast to be the number one fastest decoy wrapper in the world, because I was wrapping seven dozen of them with twelve feet of cord two times a day. I was pretty good at wrapping decoy cords. I may be better at wrapping decoys than anything else in my life, actually. Today, if I had to tell you a hunt that I absolutely treasure; I love shooting green-winged teal, cherry picking green-winged teal drakes on late-October day—twelve mile an hour wind, big blue sky—in a cattail marsh twenty minutes from my house. Those are the hunts that I cherish the most. I’ve decided green-winged teal is about the perfect duck. A limit of great, fat green-winged teal is the perfect meal for my family and I. I love those little devils. They’ve become my favorite duck.
Ramsey Russell: My favorite duck is the next one. Just about every time I try to key in on what my favorite duck is, it changes with the next duck that comes in. But I really do like greenwings. Worldwide—that I’ve been, that green wings exist—they are the preferred table fare. Everywhere, every hunting camp I’ve been in in the continental United States that shoots greenwings. Azerbaijan, Russia, Pakistan, all those countries that shoot green wings, that’s what they like. In Azerbaijan, we shoot a lot of Eurasian greenwings. We shoot mallards, we shoot pintails, we shoot gadwalls, but when it comes time to cook dinner that night, they want the greenwings. That says a lot about that little bird, to me.
John Devney: Well, and they’re a sporty little duck, right? They do cool stuff. I think back on some memorable greenwing hunts I’ve had, and I’ve had some beautiful ones here in North Dakota. I had a greenwing hunt in the Bear River marshes of Utah. I’ll never forget that.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, boy. Absolutely.
John Devney: I saw rivers of green-winged teal coming over us for four hours, hunting in the shallow marsh up near the refuge boundary there. I don’t know, it’s interesting. I’ve been blessed to hunt lots of places and shoot way more ducks than a man should be entitled to. Listen, I love shooting mallards in the timber. I love shooting sprig whenever I can, and I like shooting geese. But, man, I tell you, I’ve gotten to the point where I really like shooting and eating fresh teal.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. What time of year did you shoot the greenwings in Utah?
John Devney: That would have been in late December. No, excuse me, it would have been in late November. After Thanksgiving.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Were y’all doing the classic Utah set-up where you hunt it in the black spread with the silhouettes?
John Devney: No, we did that the next day. This was a March hunt way, way up north on the Willard Spur.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Been there.
John Devney: Yeah. We were hunting back up in the marsh. Beautiful cattail and phragmite marsh. There was a big solid wind, a big blue sky, and you could hide an elephant in that vegetation, as you well know, Ramsey. We had the wind and the sun at our back. It was kind of a midday hunt. Honest to goodness, we had rivers of green-winged teal coming over us for three hours. There were four guns in the blind. I shot a mallard because I’m from North Dakota. One of the guys shot a pintail. One of the guys shot a pin-green-winged teal, but we kind of went one gun at a time and just cherry picked drakes out of these big bunches. We’d been allowed 28 ducks. We shot 24 drake green-winged teal on that hunt.
Ramsey Russell: Fantastic. Boy, I tell you what, that really reminds me. I hunted with Chad Yamane out there. I really can’t recall where we were, it may have been on the refuge, but the teal that time of year were in the alkali bulrush. That’s what they were keen to eat. We shot a few shovelers just because old Ramsey was there. We sat and waited on those greenwings, and we tried to target drakes because we could. But when you looked out in the wide open where those birds were rafting, and you got close enough that they could hear the air boat motor and get up— I’d count it as one of the five greatest sights in waterfowl I’ve ever witnessed. God, I’d say millions. There were millions of them flying. It was clouds and clouds and clouds of them up in the air.
John Devney: We can get them here. Not in Great Lake sort of numbers, but when they’re here and you’re in the right place, it ain’t five at a time. There are big, big, big bunches of them wheeling around. They make mistakes fairly frequently, and they’re fun to shoot. Like we said, they’re the most wonderful duck to peck and the most wonderful duck to eat. I have a lot of affinity for those little buggers.
Ramsey Russell: Well, y’all have got plenty of them, too. I know I have been on some really good green-winged teal hunts in the Dakotas and up in Canada, but you’re not going to shoot them out in the fields. You’re not going to shoot them in the deep water. It seems to me that when we shoot the gadwalls and the greenwings, we’ve got to find these little bitty mucky little marshes. Shallow water. If there’s still bluewings—and there usually is in September—you’ll get in the bluewings too. They select those little bitty areas that they want to hunt or that they want to use.
John Devney: The greenwings here spend a lot of time on mudflats, so a marsh that’s got a little mudflat. Even the bigger marshes, here and in Canada, big shallow marshes; from time to time, all it takes is a wind shift to change the location of those mudflats. We’re talking about crazy shallow water, and if wind blows out of the west, you’ve got a mudflat in the west. Wind turns around and blows out of the east; you’ve got a mudflat out in the east. Those greenwings seem to be right on that mud. They like rubbing in it and eating those invertebrates and then going and finding feeds in those shallow wetlands.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. I know that opening weekend in Arkansas—I hunted in a camp in Arkansas for ten years—the coveted draw for opening day was a particular pitch. Like you say, if the wind was out of the north, it was dry on the north side of the blind and just mudflat out in front of it. All those ducks needed was just enough mud to land in, to get their feet wet. They didn’t need water. They just needed mud. It was always greenwings. There was a greenwing shoot of epic proportions on that opening weekend, especially. Just those little mudflats. I guess I do like greenwings. Kind of like bluewings. I like all the ducks. I’m just a bird nerd like that. I find something beautiful in all of them. The greenwings are hard to beat. Now, tell me this, I’d asked you your favorite hunt. Now, you do travel, you do get around, you do hunt the flyways and have business meetings and travel with associates. Have you got a favorite place to hunt, or a favorite region that just calls out to you?
Favorite Places to Duck Hunt?
“The thing I love about duck hunting is that it’s so different depending upon where you are.”
John Devney: Well, here’s the deal. I was a kid who grew up in Minnesota and read about places that I never imagined I’d ever hunt. I never imagined I would duck hunt at the Great Salt Lake. I never imagined I’d hunt the Central Valley of California. I never thought I’d hunt the Susquehanna Flats. Green timber in Arkansas seemed like it was completely out of touch. Coastal Louisiana. Then you hang around an outfit like Delta for twenty years, and you get the opportunity to see these places. Lord knows, Ramsey, you’ve done a million times more traveling than I have. The thing I love about duck hunting is that it’s so different depending upon where you are. Hunting mallards in the prairies— Most guys associate it with playing in a grain field. I’ll do that. It’s not my favorite way to shoot a mallard. I’d much rather shoot them on water. But to have that experience, which is a great one, to shooting them in the green timber in Arkansas or shooting a specklebelly on the rice plain in Louisiana— There’s just so many experiences, and there’s all these different approaches and techniques and species and ducks doing different things in different places. I think that’s the most fascinating thing about waterfowl hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Same here. That’s exactly where I stand with it. You’ve got the fundamentals of duck hunting. It’s just kind of the same rules, like baseball. It’s kind of the same thing. Baseball has universal rules. Here’s how you play. But you’ve got these different species, and all these species have different lives. From the time they leave Canada to the time they get to the Gulf Coast to the time they fly back, they’ve got different lifecycle requirements, so they’ll behave a little bit differently. Then you go into a different habitat or a different type. When I think about duck hunting in terms of baseball, especially when you start applying it worldwide, it’s almost like traveling with a duffle bag—with a few baseball bats and some gloves and some balls—and going to Mongolia, going to Utah, going to Argentina, going to Canada, going somewhere; dumping it out and trying to explain it to everybody. It’s all the same, but it’s so different. When I look at the little nuances— The fundamentals are the same. The hardboiled basics are the same. When you look at the fundamentals of just the duck calls—the cadence and the sounds that people in Washington state versus southern Arkansas versus Maryland make—it’s just different. But it works.
John Devney: Well, I grew up as a kid thinking that Les Kouba was a deity. I loved Les Kouba paintings, and I lived in the places and hunted the ducks that Les Kouba painted. He painted bluebills, he painted ringnecks, he painted canvasbacks, and he painted redheads in the North. As a kid, the sky I wanted to see was Les Kouba’s sky. It was dark and it was gray and it was rough and it was all those things. Well, I remember the first time I went and hunted with guys that are now dear, dear friends and wonderful Delta Waterfowl supporters down in Arkansas, for the first time, in 1999. I remember them telling me, “Well, it’s going to be a great day. It’s going to be sunshining. We don’t have good duck hunting, the shooting doesn’t get good, until we see sun on the decoys.” Now, I look at my experiences hunting puddle ducks in Barcelona[tk 23:22], and I’ll give you a little insight, Ramsey. My wife will tell you this, too. If there’s a forecast for a southeast wind and a big blue sky on Sunday, the Devney family magically goes to mass on Saturday afternoon. Because I want to hunt that big blue sky in a cattail marsh on a southeast wind. That is the day I am going to mine a limit of nice ducks. So the Devney’s magically go to church on Saturday afternoon and go out to dinner because dad’s going to hunt on that southeast wind on Sunday morning.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I’m with you, man. Give me sunshine almost universally. The only times I’ve really seen that the wives’ tale of dark sullen skies and high winds and bitter ugly weather is true is when you’re hunting real big water and rafts of divers that are going to get off that big water to come into protected areas. I love the experiences. That’s what I chase. I’m a junkie for the duck hunting experiences. Just something new, something different. On my bucket list is a Minnesota/Wisconsin/Lake Michigan diver hunt. I want to experience that because I haven’t, but I’d like to. I’d really like to.
John Devney: Yeah, it’s funny. Jason Thorpe in our office is a dear friend of mine and our chief operating officer, and Jason’s been hunting ducks his whole life. He grew up in Bastrop, Louisiana. Jason, being from Louisiana, had found a bunch of ducks, but then, because he’s from Louisiana, he forgot that water freezes below 32°. He had this great duck spot lined up. I was a little skeptical. Growing up in Minnesota, I know that water freezes at 32°, so I had a plan B. I had a little duck boat along with a bunch of bluebill decoys. Plan A was frozen over. It looked like a skating rink. I said, “Well, I’ve got a place that’s full of bluebills. Let’s go hunt them.” I said, “Here’s the deal.” We could only shoot three apiece that year. I said, “Let’s just shoot them one at a time. There’s plenty of them. We don’t need to be in a rush.” The first flock came in, and I fell over laughing. He grew up hunting puddle ducks and mallards his whole life. Here comes a flock of bills about a foot and a half over the blocks. You could clearly see where the pattern was hitting, and it was hitting considerably behind the last duck in the flock. We had more fun that day, just sitting there watching each other miss those things coming through at Mach 9, knowing full well where we’re missing them because the water doesn’t lie when it blows up ten yards behind them.
Ramsey Russell: No, the water doesn’t lie, you’re right. I like a sporty shoot. I will say that one of my favorite ducks to actually hunt, when we get into them good down here in the South, is ringnecks.
John Devney: Oh, they’re wonderful.
Ramsey Russell: They’ll embarrass you all the time. They sure will.
John Devney: The good news is that, when they embarrass you, oftentimes they’re so gullible that they’ll come back and embarrass you over and over again. They just keep doing figure eights until they get tired of laughing at you.
The Beauty of Waterfowl Hunting in America
“A man could really spend his entire life just in the continental 48 and Alaska and never see it all.”
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. I do love them. I do love a fast-flying diver. We do travel all over the world, but America is so blessed with diversity of species, with diversity of habitats, with different hunting types, with different little micro-niche cultures, that a man could really spend his entire life just in the continental 48 and Alaska and never see it all. Never experience it all, possibly.
John Devney: Well, I’ll give you a “for instance” on that. We’ve got a great chapter in Vermont, which is never a place that I thought about a lot as a duck hunter. You think of Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, the prairies, California, East Coast, Eastern Shore, and some places like that. Well, there’s this crazy diehard duck culture in Vermont and Lake Champlain, shooting goldeneyes on Lake Champlain. That’s a cool hunt. That could be an experience that a guy who hunts in a rice field in Arkansas or a green timber field in Arkansas or a natural marsh in Kansas can’t even imagine; leaning up in a gray coat against a bunch of rocky stuff, hunting over a handful of decoys in seventy feet of water, snowing and blowing like crazy, to shoot a whistler. There’s lots of those kinds of cool hunts scattered across the country that I think we can forget about, going to North Dakota or the Platte River or the green timber of Arkansas or these other sort of heralded places.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. And I want to hunt them all. That’s just me. I want to hunt all of it. I want to experience Lake Champlain. I’ve ridden a ferry across it with a bicycle way back in 1990, thirty years ago, but I haven’t ever duck hunted it. There’s a lot of those states up in that mid-Atlantic area that I have not hunted in that I want to. That’s just me. I don’t know what it is. It just possesses me to experience and see that. Say I just wanted to chase green-winged teal. I mean, you can chase greenwings in a lot of places.
John Devney: In lots of cool places. In lots of really different places.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Lots of cool places.
John Devney: Salton Sea of California, right? That’s a crazy place out in the middle of the desert, and it fills up green-winged teal.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to find out this year. California has been high on my list, and I’m working through some clients and friends and associates. In the month of January, I’m going to spend a couple of weeks there. I might go down to San Diego on an invite, but, mostly, we’re going to hit from the grasslands North. If everything goes right, we’re going to hunt public and private, starting down around the grasslands, and end up hunting those little squeakers, the little Aleutian geese up in Humboldt County. It’s a very ambitious schedule, but California enamors me. When people think of California, they think of the Golden Gate Bridge. Well, under that Golden Gate Bridge, there’s a whole lot of scoters. Back in the backwater, there’s greater scaup and pintails and mallards and a lot of ducks around the fringes. A couple of years ago, out there meeting with some folks at California Waterfowl, it shocked me to learn that California is second only to Arkansas in rice production. 700,000 plus acres of rice production; only, because of their state laws, they can’t burn it to stubble, so they have to decomp it with water. 700,000 flooded acres of rice. That attracts ducks. To this day, there’s a lot of ducks in places. When you get outside of the craziness you see in Hollywood and Fox News and whatnot, they’ve got an amazing hunting culture. Diehard duck hunters. Really serious duck hunters, and good habitat to this day.
John Devney: Yeah. You just can’t mention the fact to your Louisiana listeners that they can shoot ten specklebellies a day.
Specklebellies Migration in the South vs. Pacific Flyway
“There’s such a myriad of factors affecting migration and behavior of waterfowl.”
Ramsey Russell: Ten specklebellies. That’s right. And ten of those little Aleutian geese. Boy, I tell you what—you speak of specklebellies—that’s a really interesting thing. I’ve got a meeting in the next couple of weeks. I know you know Paul Link. He’s going to discuss some of the specklebelly stuff down southwest of Louisiana. It blows my mind. I don’t think anybody knows for sure, but you might be able to shed some light on it. When you look at the specklebelly migration, it’s like a big old hourglass with a real skinny center right there along the South Saskatchewan River on the political boundary between Alberta and Saskatchewan. At times, there will be 750,000 specks lined up in that sanctuary.
John Devney: Yep, virtually the entire mid-continent population meets in a couple hundred square miles.
Ramsey Russell: When they come out of that area, they fan back out to the Pacific, Central, and Mississippi Flyways. Over here in the Pacific Flyway, we’re shooting ten. Idaho, ten. Louisiana is struggling. They’ve got a fraction of what they used to have. Somebody told me, one time, that they overwintered 80% of the Mississippi Flyway population at one time. Now, it’s about 18%. Something’s going on.
John Devney: Well, it’s interesting. We were a partner in that project. Link will do a much better job and cover much greater ground that I will. One of the interesting anecdotes that I saw with that project is that the geese were getting there at the same time they always have. It’s really cool because, if you draw a map between South Saskatchewan River and Cameron Parish, you draw a line right over my house. You can almost set your clock by that specklebelly migration. October 10th, I can walk out or go let my dog out or do something in the yard at night, and just hear wave after wave after wave of those specklebellies. I’ll get a call from somebody in South Louisiana in 24 hours saying, “The specks just got here.” “Yep, I know, because they just flew over my house.” The interesting thing that Link’s study showed was that those birds were coming back to Louisiana and getting into Gueydan and those places where they’ve always been. Then, once the hunting started, they disappeared. Some of them go back to strange places like Indiana. I don’t know why in the hell a specklebelly would ever be in Indiana. But those birds, once that hunting pressure got on them, they vamoose out of there. It’s pretty fascinating to see. But it wasn’t this— People talk about short stopping. Those specklebellies are migrating to Gueydan in Southwest Louisiana, and then they’re redistributing back North.
Ramsey Russell: There’s such a myriad of factors affecting migration and behavior of waterfowl. You and I were talking before the show— I’d like to get into it now or later, whatever. Anyway, a lot of people, knowing that you were going to come on and meet today, sent me a few texts saying, “Explain the transitions. Explain the migrational behavior. Explain why birds are doing what they’re doing.” Because, obviously, there are things influencing hunting as we know it today versus, say, twenty or thirty years ago. When we start looking at the hunting pressure— That’s what I’m getting back onto, hunting pressure. You and I were talking before the show about the surveys, Fish and Wildlife surveys, and all the science and all the information and how we predict and model and set bag limits and all this good stuff. It doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world. Nowhere else in the entire world does it exist at all, let alone like it exists here in America. But we’ve got to have that information, that data, because of the unbelievable amount of hunting pressure we put on the waterfowl resources as compared to places like Argentina and Mexico and Azerbaijan. It’s unbelievable.
Duck Production & Duck Numbers – Declining?
John Devney: Right. I think the good thing about it is— Listen, there’s people who don’t believe data. You know them, I know them. There are all sorts of people who don’t believe data. This is something you and I talked about, we had our good conversation down in Mississippi back, again, in February. I think the waterfowl management community— And I include Delta Waterfowl in this. I’m not being critical of others without being critical of ourselves. You look at the data we share, and the primary data we share is the primary data we’ve got. We share the breeding population, and that’s the big number. We’ve been collecting that data since 1955. But, as you and I talked about when we were together in February, the breeding population isn’t what drives success in the fall for duck hunters. It’s the amount of baby ducks those breeders make. You can have years where you’ve got a lot of adults and not very good production, and you can have years where we’ve got not that many adults but great production. Every snow goose hunter will tell you that when there’s really hardcore snow goose hunters and they’re scouting for a field to look for geese, they want to see a lot of those gray buggers in those flocks. They won’t hunt them if they’re solid white, because they know they’re going to be hard to hunt. Well, most guys can’t differentiate—well, certainly can’t differentiate when they’re flying around—between a juvenile and adult mallard. But the reality is that that phenomenon is alive and well. We know a couple of things. One, we know young dumb ducks make more mistakes than old smart ducks. Here’s the other thing, which I think we learned in a pretty significant way last summer: when you start looking at the data—especially for the south end of the Mississippi Flyway—when duck production is good on the breeding grounds, the south end of the Mississippi Flyway is the primary beneficiary of it. When we have great duck production, the southern end of the Mississippi Flyway has great hunting. When the production stinks, they don’t have as good of hunting. Interestingly enough, Ramsey, you guys are more the beneficiaries of that than we are. Because our duck seasons are short. We’re going to crop off a few just because we’re here early and we’re here right with them where they live, but you guys get the benefit of a full sixty day season. You’ve got more guns in the field, and you’ve got more hunters. It’s pretty clear that the great years in the South are years of great production on the prairies.
Ramsey Russell: Boy, it seems like a lifetime ago that myself and you and a lot of the federal and state and NGO people were sitting in Mississippi for the Mississippi Wetlands and Waterfowl symposium. That seems like a lifetime ago with all that’s happened in the past few months. But kind of how that conversation started is that it’s too easy for me, even, to look at a lot of cumulative duck hunting experiences in a season all over the country, as exacerbated by talking to duck hunters nationwide all day, every day— I’ll tell you, I’m just admitting it, man: I’ve become extremely dubious, sometimes, of the number. These are paper ducks. Look at the TV. Look at what’s going on with this whole COVID thing. Obviously, damn lies and statistics matter because they predicated this whole freaking world response on a faulty model that has proved itself to be just a little exacerbated. But I do believe numbers don’t lie. I do believe that, but at the same time it’s real hard for me, sometimes, to reconcile what I’m seeing, hunting a hundred plus days a year throughout the entire North American continent, with what is on paper and what we’re expecting. But you’ve got a lot of variables. You’ve got weather, you’ve got production. You explained something to me, in that conversation, about May pond counts and breeding pairs and how little it really mattered. It got us all hopeful, but it really didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.
John Devney: It has to do with the baby ducks that those pairs make. I’ll go back to one of the figures I cited with you. Let’s take the year 2014. Wet year on the prairie. We had a breeding population of just a touch over 10 million mallards. When we do a retrospective analysis and look at what the production was based on the harvest surveys, the fall flight of mallards that year was almost 29 million. Well, you go to 2017, where conditions started to dry out a little bit and we had a higher breeding population than we did in 2014. Ah, let’s call it the same. The fall flight of mallards was 20 million. Well, shit, man. That’s a third less mallards. If I took 30% of your paycheck out, or any of your listeners’ paychecks, you’d feel that, right?
Ramsey Russell: Oh, boy. Yep.
John Devney: So again, this is going back to my statement there earlier. We don’t have a good means to assess production across the whole of the breeding grounds until we see the harvest, until we see what hunters turn in through the wingbee after the fact. So we talk about the May pond count, and the May pond counts are important. We talk about the breeding population; that’s important. But as to what those two values mean, in terms of what it means for ducks produced? Again, the same number of breeding mallards could get you a fall flight of over 28 or right at 20. That’s a big difference.
Ramsey Russell: Yep. John, would you agree, or do y’all even have data to support, that in the last twenty years hunting pressure has increased in North America?
John Devney: Actually, the days afield for hunters has actually decreased, because we have lost a whole pile of duck hunters. We’ve lost a lot of access.
Ramsey Russell: So it’s kind of a balancing act. Go to Mississippi public land, or any public land, and tell somebody there’s a decrease in hunters.
John Devney: Well, I almost got hung and quartered talking about declining hunter numbers in Louisiana. They said, “Son, you haven’t been where I hunt.” I said, “Guys, yeah, I understand your experience, but let me frame it this way. We used to have a hundred rats in the Superdome, and now we’ve got ten rats in a shoebox. We’ve still got less rats, but you’re bumping into each other a lot more. See?” Listen, of the guys that are hunting today, a pretty good chunk of them are traveling, are better equipped, have better access to information, and, frankly, are way better at it. When I was a kid, Ramsey—and I’ll be 50 this year, it’s not like I’m 90—the Cabela’s waterfowl section was four pages. That included waders. Mac’s will have 63 pages of duck calls in their catalog. The business of duck hunting has changed. 25 years ago, how many hunters from Arkansas went to Saskatchewan? Not very many. Today? A bunch of them.
Adaptive Harvest Management & The Worldwide Hunt
“Is it possible that we are overharvesting hatch year mallards in Canada?”
Ramsey Russell: Alright, now, that’s exactly where I was trying to take this conversation. Back in the “good old days,” my granddad might have hunted most weekends. Probably didn’t hunt all weekends, but he would leave the office on Friday, go duck hunting Saturday and Sunday mornings, come back, and work. There in the Delta. I wonder what he would think about somebody like myself that just is possessed. I’d say most every duck hunter I know, especially by the time they get to their late thirties and forties, are at least going to go a few states over or get a plane ticket to go to Canada. Go do this, go do that. Now, here’s what I’m getting at. It’s all about production. It’s all about the number of baby ducks, the number of hatch year birds, flying down South. When we go back to when the current model of North American duck hunting was established— Would you say it was Adaptive Harvest Management twenty years ago, in 1998, when it was put into place?
John Devney: 1995 is the first year of the Harvest Management strategy.
Ramsey Russell: It’s pretty much still the same?
John Devney: Well, Adaptive Harvest Management, by its nature, is supposed to be adaptive. So, basically, Adaptive Harvest Management had a couple of objectives. One, it quit the chaos and the fighting that occurred in the flyway, most notoriously in the North and the South of the Mississippi Flyway. You know those stories.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Back during the Bill Clinton administration, it was written into the national budget, the extension of the duck season in the Deep South.
John Devney: Exactly. Adaptive Harvest Management was really to sort of set a framework where we make decisions without having to have a bloody damn war every year about duck regulations. That’s one thing it did. The other thing it was supposed to do was that it was supposed to answer questions. It started out with four different model weights. We’ve got this big question about duck populations, right? Is harvest additive, or is it compensatory? Is there strong or weak density dependence? So what they did is that they created four models that were “competing” as we populated them with data. We start with the number of ducks. We predict how many we’re going to kill, and then we predict how many are going to be there the next year. Then those model weights adjust over time, and it gives us the best ability to predict the outcome of our seasons. Well, the reality is that we’re not going to learn that much, because we’re not going to shoot the hell out of ducks when populations are low, and we’re not going to not have a duck season when populations are high. So we can’t run the great experiment. What Adaptive Harvest Management is saying is what the liberal season should be. I think there’s a difference between what it’s saying to duck hunters and what duck hunters hear, and I understand that. So a duck hunter says, “Well, we’re going to have a liberal season. Well, that tells me that there’s a lot of ducks out there.” But it really isn’t saying that. What it’s saying is that we can safely shoot ducks at this harvest rate without hurting populations. It isn’t the notion that there’s lots of ducks, like it used to be when we were kids in the ‘70s. When duck populations were high, we had liberal bag limits; when duck populations and production on the prairies were kind of crummy, we had more restrictive limits. That isn’t the way the system runs anymore. The system basically says, “You can have six and sixty, because we don’t think you’re going to harm populations at these population levels and at these harvest rates.”
Ramsey Russell: Okay, to which I’m going to add—to get back to this new hunter, this traveling hunter, this hunting pressure—does this connect to young birds flying all the way down the flyway?
John Devney: Yup.
Ramsey Russell: I’m just a redneck duck hunter, but is it possible that we are overharvesting hatch year mallards in Canada?
John Devney: No. Here’s what I’m going to tell you—
Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute, John. Come on now, John. It’s a slam-dunk: eight mallards a day, brown ducks, no hens—
John Devney: They shoot them in the dark in the pea field. I get it. Overall—
Ramsey Russell: Come on, it’s a gimme. Go to Canada and, practically every day you go duck hunting, you’re going to shoot you eight ducks. As compared to my granddad there, when very few ducks got shot back then. I’m being a devil’s advocate here, but I’m asking.
John Devney: So, in 1974, both Saskatchewan and Alberta shot more mallard ducks than Arkansas did. Today, Saskatchewan is shooting about 200,000 mallard ducks. So you’re right. There’s a bunch of guys getting on airplanes, hiring guides, and flying to the Saskatoon airport, but guess what? You’ve lost 75% of the Saskatchewan residents. There are years that there are more Americans hunting in Saskatchewan than there are Saskatchewan residents. You’ve gone to Mexico, you’ve hunted Mexico, and we all hear the guys scream and yell about the high bag limits in Mexico. Russell, why can we have high bag limits in Mexico?
Ramsey Russell: Mm-hmm. I get where you’re going. It balances out that hunting pressure if you take into account the hunter-harvest distribution. I guess that is it, isn’t it?
John Devney: Yeah. So what’s happened is that, yes, there are lots of Americans hunting with lots of guys in Canada, but they come up and do it for four days and go home. Yes, that is happening for thirty days or forty days in Saskatchewan every year, but what it doesn’t account for is the fact that every farm kid in a CCM or Canadiens Jersey was running around pot-shooting ducks all over Saskatchewan in the ‘70s. Honestly, look at the harvest estimates. Both Saskatchewan and Alberta shot more mallards in 1974 than Arkansas did.
Pintail Hunting Woes
“I love pintails. I love them.”
Ramsey Russell: Wow. The numbers don’t lie. That’s an interesting number to know. 1974. John, speaking of Mexico, if I—and rarely do I feel like this, but—if I just feel like I need to be beaten on social media like a rented mule— If I wake up tomorrow and I decide, “You know what? Life is going too good. I want about fifty people to hate me and ban me and crucify me as the anti-Christ of Northern pintails,” all I need to do is go hold up fifteen drake sprigs from Mexico and post it on the internet.
John Devney: Your mailbox will be cashing in by lunchtime, won’t it, bud?
Ramsey Russell: It’s infuriating. Never mind the fact that—as recently I kept up with it, a couple years ago—I can shoot eight pintails in Alaska, four pintails in Canada, one pintail—maybe two this year—nationwide in the lower 48, and 15 down in Mexico. I’ve got in my notes, on my phone, just so that, when the subject comes up, I can cite it— It’s been known since the late ‘70s what the problem with pintails is, and it’s not hunter harvest, is it?
John Devney: No, no. It’s that we’ve lost all the little itty-bitty wetlands in the prairies of Canada, and their production’s terrible.
Ramsey Russell: No-till farming.
John Devney: Yeah. Actually, we were just talking about this stuff in the last couple of days. This ecological trap of pintails believing that last year’s wheat stubble is grass. It looks like nesting cover. They nest in it. The overwhelming majority of those nests amazingly get hammered by predators. If they don’t get hammered by predators, or if they get hammered by predators and they re-nest in that same stuff, then they get whacked by the air seeder. Pintails are the only ducks that’ll mess in that stuff. Mallards wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten-foot pole.
Ramsey Russell: Has there been any empirical data or estimates done on how many millions, maybe, of pintail eggs fall to the plow or get decimated because of their wanting to nest in last year’s residual crop?
John Devney: I’m not going to guess an empirical number, but we just finished supporting a PhD or postdoc student at Colorado State University that looked at that question, and looked at pintail populations at the Fish and Wildlife Service transect by transect level. The number one attribute that they found was this ecological trap hypothesis. Pintails love nesting in that stuff. Again, everybody believed, in the late 1990s, that the fate of those pintail nests was getting whacked by the air seeder. Well, Penn Rifkiss, who did his Masters and his PhD at LSU, is a Delta graduate; now, he is a bigwig with the Fish and Wildlife Service migratory bird program. He followed the fate of those nests. The overwhelming majority of them got depredated before the air seeder ever got to them. We had never imagined that predators were out foraging in those stubble fields, but there are a lot of pintail nests that will tell you otherwise.
Ramsey Russell: Right now. Again, favorite duck. I love pintails. I love them. Boy, you talk about watching massive flocks. Just to sit on the point, on a bay near the Sea of Cortés or in parts of Mexico, and see hundreds and hundreds of pintails just working. Just to see them working. I find myself running out of air because I’m holding my breath just watching them.
John Devney: The one thing you’ll notice about pintail is that the sex ratios are completely out of whack, and the harvest data bears this out. I was lucky enough; I had some business in California, and I got to sneak in a one day duck hunt up in district 10, which is just east of the Butte Sink. There were lots and lots and lots of pintail around. Every single bunch of pintail that we saw was one hen with five to fifteen drakes.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I’m no biologist, but I do remember Rick Kaminsky saying that, at Mississippi State, the amount of energy it takes for a hen to produce a hen egg versus a male egg is substantial. If you’re looking at, maybe, a lot of the pintails we are seeing are from a re-nest or a second nest, that could be a reason why, I would think.
John Devney: Well, and the other thing that you’re dealing with is that if you’re a drake in the spring on the prairies, you live. If you are a hen, not so much. The rivalry between the drakes and hens during the nesting season is not even comparable. Drakes do stupid stuff and get caught up into a three bird flight, fly across 94, and T-bone into the side of a semi. Females get eaten, and drakes do not get eaten.
Funding Concerns for Duck Banding & Censusing
“Since 2010, our migratory bird management capacity at the Fish and Wildlife Service has been cashed out, and our refuge system has been cashed out.”
Ramsey Russell: No. John, when we were meeting in Mississippi and sitting around having a few cocktails and enjoying each other’s company, we were talking about some of the issues in waterfowl management, some of the limitations of banding studies, for example. Budget constraints, already, but remind me of what we were talking about there.
John Devney: Well, I think you had mentioned how you just don’t see the number of bands that you used to, and I hear that from hunters a lot. There’s a reason for that. We’re banding a lot fewer docks. Let’s use 2010 as sort of a benchmark year. You look at what’s happened in the Fish and Wildlife service since 2010. Listen, this isn’t a political speech. There is Republican and Democrat blood all over this issue, so this isn’t a partisan issue. Since 2010, our migratory bird management capacity at the Fish and Wildlife Service has been cashed out, and our refuge system has been cashed out. Us, DU, and others had a meeting down in Arkansas in January—which you will recognize as good timing—to talk about our policy priorities. One of the things we were talking about is the banding program and refuges and what we’re going to do about refuges. Since 2010, Ramsey, the refuge system has lost a thousand full-time staff. Now, the migratory bird program hasn’t suffered the same losses, but, proportionally, they have. So the very bedrock information that we need to manage ducks for duck hunters is waning. One of the biggest banding stations— I can guarantee you that a lot of your listeners have certificates that say “J. Clark Salyer National Wildlife Refuge.”
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely, yep.
John Devney: It’s one of the most important banding stations in the mid-continent. It’s one of the most important banding stations for pintails, period, in the prairies. J. Clark Salyer walked away from their banding program. Couldn’t afford to do it anymore. Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge—again, incredibly important refuge, in northeast South Dakota—suspended their banding program. Well, if we don’t fix that, we’re going to be dealing with imperfect data. Listen, all data is imperfect to some degree, but having more imperfect data is better than having less imperfect data. So we can find ourselves in a situation of trying to manage a complex species like North American waterfowl with less information instead of more. That’s going to make our job—making sure regulations are both meeting the needs of ducks and duck hunters in the future—a hell of a lot harder.
Ramsey Russell: Well, if I understand what you said previously, we’re assessing this year’s productivity based on harvest data, which would translate into band recoveries. We don’t really need the bands to figure out that a duck from Saskatchewan is flying to central Arkansas; we need it as a form of harvest data, right?
John Devney: Harvest and survival rate, yeah. To be able to compute harvest and survival rate.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. All I know about statistics is little, but, really and truly, the bigger your data set, the better your guess. Do you think we’re surveying enough? Do you think our pond counts are enough? You think the transects they’re flying right now are enough? Have you seen any data or statistics that indicates that, “Yeah, we would probably be better served with bigger sampling”?
John Devney: Yeah. The challenge you have— So, you’re right; at some point, more data is better than less. Let’s assume that’s fact, and that is fact. The other fact about data, though, is your ability to compare it to data in previous years. What you really want are long-term data sets. That’s what the current breeding population gives us. Listen, I recognize that there’s all sorts of folks that are skeptical about flying around on predetermined transects, counting ducks from an airplane at a hundred miles up and a hundred miles an hour. But what I will tell you is that there are other survey methods. Fish and Wildlife Service also does what they call a Four-Square-Mile Survey, through the refuge program, which we use for other purposes, not management. The numbers aren’t the same, but, man, are they tightly correlated. It’s a really good survey. It’s really robust data. When we’re talking about things like understanding how pintail populations or bluebill populations or mallard populations are changing over time, having that foundation going all the way back to 1955 is completely invaluable.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I’ve heard about the aerial surveys, about it being a little dubious, you flying transects and the way you do it. Bu, actually, when I was working with the US Fish and Wildlife service as a dumb forester, I became the guy, for a couple of seasons, that flew mid-winter waterfowl counts in our refuge in the north of Mississippi. I learned a lot and enjoyed it greatly. I was always suspecting my own numbers, because you don’t just go “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.” You just go, “Ah, that must be a hundred. Ah, that must—” I was concerned, and I said something to the senior biologist. Who, technically, was supposed to do it, but he didn’t care for it, so he palmed it off on me, and, greatly, I loved it. But what he explained to me and showed me the data of is— He said, “Ramsey, I might fly over that field and count 300. You might fly over that field and count 600. That number doesn’t matter, because this has been proven as a fact. If I fly over the next time and I see 600, you’re going to fly over the next time and count 1,200. We’re going to perceive that percent the same, and the trends up and down are really what matters. Not the number. The number is just a number. That’s just a guess.” He said it’s been proven over time, and so I gained a little confidence. One of the most astounding things I ever saw in North Mississippi—I’ve just got to say this—was the whole entire Mississippi Delta frozen up, which will tell you how long ago it was. We had a section of sanctuary. I flew over it with that pilot of that little fixed-wing aircraft. We circled at 500 feet, at 1,000 ft, at 1,500 feet. Well, I’m looking down at that section trying to count ducks and speciate it till I was just about nauseous like a carnival ride. I remember that number. When I tallied it up, it was 62,500 ducks. And I’m like, “That can’t possibly be right. That’s a duck a square foot on an acre, or more.” Three or four days later, the state waterfowl biologist for the state of Mississippi, then, had flown in. He called me up and said, “Hey, is that y’all’s property over there off 32?”. I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Have you flown it lately?” I said, “Yeah. I got sick flying over that thing trying to figure it out.” He said, “You mind if we swap notes?” Not only did we have the number the same, but our species—this many mallards, this many shovelers, this many greenwings—was the same. So I felt very good about that estimate.
John Devney: Well, just going back to the prairie experience, remember that what you’re counting on the prairies isn’t big bunches. Here’s a mallard—
Ramsey Russell: They’re in little family cohorts.
John Devney: I mean, yes, there’s indicated pairs, which means there’s six mallards sitting on a mudflat somewhere, but it’s pair, pair, pair, pair. It isn’t 20,000 here and 500 here. They’re all paired out and spread pond to pond to pond.
Ramsey Russell: John, everybody listening—myself included, you, everybody in the world I know—has been affected at some level by this pandemic. I’m not even going to get into all the tinfoil hat conspiracies, but, nonetheless, it’s affected everybody. I know people that it’s really hurting. I’m sitting here wondering what the future is going to look like for myself, for my family, for my business. How is it affecting Delta Waterfowl?
Effects of the Pandemic on Waterfowl Programs
“So we’re doing the best we can to manage through the great unknown.”
John Devney: Yeah, it’s interesting. We’re doing really well on the 28th of May, 2020. Just as any business person would do, when this thing first hit, we had to get pretty cautious and pretty concerned. We managed to the reality. We’re facing a pretty big unknown, Ramsey. I don’t think I’m talking out of school when I say our friends at DU or Pheasants Forever or the National Turkey Federation, all the critter groups that you folks support—
Ramsey Russell: All of them. Yep.
John Devney: We don’t know what the fall is going to look like. Before the show, I told you that I’m going to be pretty surprised if there aren’t 110,000 coonasses in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge in September, just because I think I know human beings.
Ramsey Russell: Wait a minute. You’re saying that you do not think there will be 100,000?
John Devney: No, I’d be surprised if there weren’t 100,000 coonasses in Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge. But here’s the thing: am I willing to bet my paycheck on it? You’ve got organizations like ours and others that are looking to the future, and we’re not allowed to hold a fundraising event under current guidelines in 95% of the country. We’re in good shape right now, and we’re taking steps to mitigate against the risk that may be coming at us this fall, but it’s a huge unknown. So we’re doing the best we can to manage through the great unknown.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all we can do, but it concerns me. How is the Fish and Wildlife Service? How are the banding activities? How are the survey activities this year?
John Devney: No surveys. The Canadian Wildlife Service shut down everything in the Arctic. There’ll be no banding activities on Arctic geese this year. We’re not counting ducks. The only duck survey that will be conducted in North America this year is North Dakota Game and Fish’s survey.
Ramsey Russell: So for the first time in the North American waterfowl model’s history, we’re kind of going into the future like a third world country. Not knowing. That’s scary stuff.
John Devney: Exactly, except for the fact that I can— Listen, it’s really wet in North Dakota. It’s really wet in South Dakota. It’s kind of dry and crappy in Saskatchewan. We’re going to have plenty of ducks. We’re going to have plenty good production on the US side of the prairies. We’re flying blind, but we’re flying blind with really good sideboards on us. We’re not going to destroy the North American duck population because we missed a survey. I wish we weren’t going to miss it, but we are. It is what it is. Yeah, I mean the banding activities are going to be down. The survey activities are shut down. We’re not going to band in the Arctic. Yeah, it’s having a really significant impact. There’s duck hunters madder than hell in Utah, right now, because the refuge managers aren’t managing water the way they think they should. Well, no kidding. They can’t work. There’s all sorts of consequences.
Ramsey Russell: You didn’t say this, I said this, but, from what I understand having spent a little time out in Utah, that issue pre-dates COVID. They need to step up a little bit, if they’re listening. They need to get out there and manage water a little bit better for some of that pond sago weed and everything else. The state biologists are doing an extraordinary, unbelievable job managing some of those state resources. I didn’t mean to interrupt you, John. I’m sorry.
John Devney: So in terms of what it means for Delta, we’re hopeful but cautious, and probably being more defensive. I think, like anybody prudently running their business, we’re preparing for the not so great and hoping for the best. Again, I think all of our colleagues in this space who have relied on membership and banquet revenue— I think we’re all sort of in the same boat. I think we’re all just hoping that life returns to normal, but that doesn’t make us much different from the rest of America.
Ramsey Russell: Rest of the world, actually. As normal as Mississippi is kind of starting to feel again, it’s weird now. I was telling somebody the other day; I’ve got to share this with y’all. My buddy calls me up and says, “Hey, we’re frying catfish at camp. Come over.” I’ve been kind of hunkered down. We drove over, and there were five or six couples. We had a couple of drinks. We sat down. He fried fish. It was the best fried catfish I’ve ever eaten. He said, “You’ve had my catfish a million times. I cook it the same way every time.” I go, “Yeah, but it tasted so freaking normal. Just to be here, with long-term friends and family, sharing and breaking bread and eating.” It just felt so normal. But at the same time, I go to the grocery store and it doesn’t feel normal. It feels kind of weird.
John Devney: Yep. I agree.
Ramsey Russell: It just feels kind of weird. That’s one thing I wanted to ask you: how you felt COVID would affect Delta Waterfowl, obviously, but also just the waterfowl conservation efforts at large. I’m sitting here watching the politicians spend money like sailors on leave, but I haven’t heard waterfowl or anything I’m interested in—other than my livelihood—mentioned. I haven’t heard conservation mentioned. Have you seen or heard anything?
John Devney: Well, we’re working on it. Yeah. We figure that if we’re going to spend all the money we’re spending, there’s a number of us trying to make sure some of it benefits ducks and duck hunters. I’ll leave it at that for the time being.
Ramsey Russell: Good. John, we really appreciate having you on today. I enjoy every time I see you, every time I’m around you and get to visit with you and pick your brain. You’re a fountain of knowledge. I’ll tell you what, I’m kind of glad you’re not a rocket scientist biologist, because I think that’s why you’re able to articulate very complicated subjects in a way that a simple guy like me can understand.
John Devney: Well, man, here’s the deal: I’ve enjoyed it immensely too. I could do this for hours and hours on end. Anytime that I can be a resource for you and your listeners, I’m delighted to do it. We’ll have more good information coming out of the prairies here in the next couple weeks that I’d be delighted to share.
Ramsey Russell: Good deal. God willing and the creek don’t rise, I’ll be passing through North Dakota this year, and I’d love to stop by and visit with you and some of your staff. We’re kind of running out of time, but I’ve just got to share this with you. It’s one more little topic we can talk about. I was hunting down in Mexico with Ben Peterson, and I had laid my gun aside. I was tired of shooting. We had a great brant hunt that morning, and I’m tired of shooting. We were just going to pick a few teal and ducks, and some of the boys still wanted a cinnamon. I was sitting there just enjoying the conversation. I’ve got a degree in wildlife. Went to Mississippi State University. I’m going to say there were five or six dozen of us that graduated that year in wildlife and forestry. Back in those days, we were all hook-and-bullet biologists. We all grew up hunting and fishing.
John Devney: Right. You all had an 870 in the back of your truck.
Ramsey Russell: That’s it. Yeah. We all grew up hunting and fishing. We all got lead into wildlife management. I got to talking to a very close friend of mine, now, and one of my professors back then. He’s now working at Mississippi State University, and he got to explaining to me that that extended wildlife program is, maybe, three hundred people. Three hundred students in that program now. He just explained to me how relatively few of them have a hook-and-bullet background. A lot of them just love nature. They want to be outside. They like wildlife. So they get into one of the various little fields they’ve got now— Matter of fact, when I was there, it was just wildlife. Now, there’s a lot of different fields and paths you can go into. Ben began to explain to me this program y’all have got where y’all are actually going into universities and exposing these young students to hunting. Because if it shakes out and they get a degree in the field one day, they will be our future policymakers. It’s kind of, sort of important that they at least recognize the value of hunting to conservation.
John Devney: Yeah. Not only did they grow up hunting and fishing in our generation, but they grew up on farms, right? And that’s over, too. So guess what? They don’t like farmers, they don’t like hunters, and they don’t like fishermen. That’s not a great recipe for our future.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve got a buddy whose daughter went and banded rails and gallinules and whatnot on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I keep up with him on social media. Her daddy’s a hunter, one of my duck hunting buddies, but, just making conversation with her over crawfish, I asked her, “Where?” And she wouldn’t tell me. She was scared to death I’d go down there and try to hunt those birds. I was like, “I was just curious where in the marsh.” I was shocked to learn— I just assumed that these clapper rails and king rails migrated, but I was surprised to learn that they spend most of their lives in that Gulf Coast marsh down there in Mississippi. They’re not migrating. But, boy, she would not tell me. Even after dinner, even after I’d made a second pass; she wasn’t about to pinpoint where those birds were. Anyway, John, what’s the best way for people to connect to Delta Waterfowl on social media?
John Devney: Our Facebook page, Instagram, and Twitter are all great resources that talk about what we’re doing. We’ve taken this opportunity— Or the challenge we’re told that it’s presented, recognizing that we’re not out in front of people as much. We produce some incredible content about why breeding ducks do what they do and Delta’s solutions. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and our websites are great. Listen, guys who want to contact me directly can just call the Delta office here in Bismarck. I’d be delighted to visit.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank y’all for listening. I really appreciate it. I hope your world starts to spin around a little bit more. Just remember: life’s short, get ducks. See you next time.