Waders shucked and air-drying on side of the truck, a pair beautiful Mexican Mallards rest on the tailgate. Closer to Mexico than to Pheonix, Ramsey Russell meets with local hunter Colin Shepherd, recounting the days’ events and discussing Arizona duck hunting while endless miles of train boxcars keep rolling past. What characterizes typical Arizona duck hunting, how’d Shepherd get started duck hunting in the state where 4 deserts converge, and what really hooked him on it? What other wingshooting opportunities exist in Arizona? How’s the local cuisine and what’s Shepherd’s favorite duck recipe? What D-I-Y non-resident hunting opportunities exist in Arizona?
Hunting Mexican Mallards and Decoying Pigeons, Arizona-style with Colin Shepherd
Arizona Duck Hunting
Ramsey Russell: Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere from Arizona. I’m sitting on the side of Interstate 8. I’m probably closer to Mexico than anywhere. I’m closer to Mexico than Phoenix, right now. Somebody asked one time, “How many ducks do you want to kill? How many species do you want to kill? How many places do you want to hunt? How many countries? How many states in America do you want to hunt?”
Have you ever asked yourself that? How many people do you want to share a duck blind with? You know what my answer is? All of them. That’s my answer. All of them. It’s never enough. That’s what brings us to Duck Season Somewhere. That’s what takes me to Arizona today with today’s guest, Colin Shepherd. We’re fresh out of a Arizona duck hole this morning. Great duck hunt. In fact, two awesome Arizona hunts, back to back, we’re going to talk about. Colin, how are you?
Colin Shepherd: It’s a beautiful morning out here. You can’t really ask for anything more out in the beautiful God’s country.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to say it’s 80°. It was probably 55-58° when we stepped out of the truck and suited up. I’m going to say now it’s 80°. Is this pretty normal for Arizona duck hunting?
Colin Shepherd: This is Arizona duck hunting. Up until about two weeks ago, we were shooting mallards in the morning, and it was 105º degrees in the afternoon.
Ramsey Russell: Back home, if it’s 80º, 90º—whatever. I know a lot of guys—listening up North—if it’s hot, you ain’t killing ducks. But it’s like I told y’all a little while ago, I held up my hand, said, “This is my kind of duck hunt weather, as long as we’re killing ducks.” You know, we go to Mexico, it’ll be 80-something degrees, and we’re killing ducks. So it’s not really the temperature in terms of migration, of what’s here. I enjoy hunting in warm weather. That -4º stuff? That’s just a little too ballsy for me. I’m going to tell you, I get uncomfortable. So this is pretty normal hunting for y’all?
Colin Shepherd: Relatively normal, yeah. It’s the beginning of the duck season down here in Arizona. So while some people are getting their fill of ducks, we are just starting to see them trickle down on in. Usually early season starts off with a bang, and then we go through the November doldrums that the rest of the country goes through, as well. The only difference is it’s still 100º down here while it’s freezing lakes up in the Northern part of the country. But this is pretty typical for Arizona. A little chilly in the morning, and by the afternoon it’s 85º and sunny. We don’t really know what wind is, either.
Ramsey Russell: I have learned that. You know, Utah experiences that. They do get some very windy days but, very typically, they’re in a valley. The wind goes flat. They got 2-4 miles an hour. Down here, the wind wouldn’t have mattered. How we set up this morning, the ducks could have worked in there any way they wanted to with no more wind than we had. I’ve seen that to be the case for the last two or three days I’ve been here. Hey, how did you get into duck hunting, Colin? Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about who Colin Shepherd is, real quick.
How’d you start duck hunting?
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir. I got the pretty typical hunting story, just like most other people living in America. When I was a kid, my dad took me out. That very first time we went out, we were chasing pheasants, ditch chickens, out in Kansas. Freezing cold, two and a half feet of snow on the ground, post-holing through the fields. Sure enough, I got a bird towards the end of the morning, and, ever since I shot that first rooster, I’ve always been hooked. So getting into it as a kid, I grew up going hunting maybe once, twice a year with my dad, chasing pheasants out in Kansas. Really, what got me deeper into hunting— I went to school out at the University of Arizona, the fine academic institution we have here. While I was spending time in Tucson, quail hunting came on the radar. Had a good family friend who’s actually an Arizona Game and Fish biologist and spends a lot of time hunting quail in his free time. So we went ahead and got hooked up with him. Pretty much once a year, my dad would come out around birthday time in December, and that’s what we would do. Little father-son quail hunt. Really, that’s what got me excited. That’s what got me hooked, and—I’m sure we’ll get into this in a little while—but it’s also how I shot my first duck. On a quail hunt, as well.
Ramsey Russell: Colin, are you from Arizona?
Colin Shepherd: No, sir. I grew up in Denver, Colorado, of all places. Little bit cooler out there. A lot more waterfowl, a lot more geese, as well, and it took me coming all the way down here to the Arizona desert to shoot my very first duck.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. What brought you here? School?
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir. University of Arizona. It’s not Harvard, it’s not MIT, but, man, is it a fun time. I came down to school, originally, just to get out of the state. Get a little farther away from my parents. As soon as I moved down to Arizona, I just fell in love with it. It’s pretty hard to beat 85° and sunny in December.
What was your first duck?
Ramsey Russell: What was your first duck, on that quail hunt?
Colin Shepherd: Green-winged teal. I remember it like it was yesterday. Normally, we’re hunting quail in between washes. We usually let the dogs go water down at some of the stock tanks. The gentleman we were with goes by the name of Mike Cross. Sure enough, he looked us dead in the eyes and said, “Hey, guys, think there might be some ducks here. Go ahead and drop your lead. Go ahead and put some steel in. Sneak up on that pond, nice and quiet, and see if there’s anything that’s going to get up and fly.” Sure enough, just like a bunch of other younger individuals, I shot my first duck jumping it off a little tank. Man, that smile on my face when the dog brought it back to me—that’s something I’ll remember forever.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you came down to Arizona, and you had some upland experience, a little rough shooting experience like that. How did you get hooked? Here’s what I’m getting at with this: how’d you get hooked into duck hunting in a desert state? That’s what I’m trying to say. That’s what I’m digging at. We are in a desert, and there’s a little bit of water. I understand how a kid growing up in the Mississippi Delta or Arkansas, where there’s a bunch of water and a bunch of wintering waterfowl— But here in Arizona, how did Colin Shepherd get hooked through the roof of the mouth into duck hunting in a desert state? What happened? What event, or events, transpired?
Colin Shepherd: It’s probably twofold. The first part was a good old hunting story. Very first time I really got a good duck shoot on. I got a phone call from a buddy about 24 hours before that said, “Hey, got an extra spot. You want to come out there with me? Got a good scout on a little pond, and I think it should work out all right.” Sure enough, I got a dozen, I think they were Hard Core decoys or something like that, kind of just amateur stuff.
Anyways, went out with my buddy, set up in the middle of the night in the dark, sat there on our little chair, and waited. About 45 minutes after legal shooting time, we had a giant group of about 25 greenheads come just dweebing down through the trees, taking the elevator. It couldn’t have been wider than about 15 yards and 40 yards long, 20-30 feet tall trees all around. Watching those birds backpedal until they hit the water, calling that shot, and just—the rest was history. Yeah, that’s really the hunt that did it. I looked around at my buddy and I said, “Whoa, we can do this down in the desert? You’re telling me there’s ducks down here? All right, let’s do it.”
Pretty much from that day on, I’ve been duck crazy. Now, the real answer to what got me hooked on duck hunting is the other duck hunters out there. My duck hunting buddies, as well. Just seeing the camaraderie, the community, and spending time out there in the middle of the night with people who you might have never been friends with before. That’s really what got me pretty hooked on duck hunting. I was pretty fortunate enough to stumble into a relatively small Ducks Unlimited chapter—the Scottsdale Chapter, out of the Phoenix area—and, really, meeting some of those individuals and seeing their passion for the whole waterfowling, that’s kind of what turned everything on to the next level.
Now, the real answer to what got me hooked on duck hunting is the other duck hunters out there. My duck hunting buddies, as well. Just seeing the camaraderie, the community, and spending time out there in the middle of the night with people who you might have never been friends with before. That’s really what got me pretty hooked on duck hunting. – Colin Shepherd
Ramsey Russell: You hit on so many different points back there. I had shot ducks when I was young, but I was in my early twenties when I went to Arkansas, on the invite of a friend, hunting public flooded timber. The limit was two mallards, and that first flock of mallards— Those boys wanted to land them. That was their game, was landing and, therefore, owning those ducks. That was the event that changed my life forevermore, was that first big flock of mallards coming into a tight timber hold in Arkansas.
I felt like I had a sense of community just having grown up around, especially, my grandfather, who got out of hunting before I started hunting with him, but, nonetheless, told the stories and cooked. It was kind of like being at duck camp. Just growing up around his house, it sure affected the way I am. But that one event—isn’t it something how just one interaction with wild ducks just changes the whole trajectory of your life? That’s what continues to fascinate me about it. That one interaction.
Hunting Mexican Ducks in Arizona
Ramsey Russell: You know, this morning we drove an hour and a half southwest of Phoenix, out here in farm country. It really reminds me more of Obregón, Mexico, than the United States, looking out here. With the mountains in the background, very little water and lots of agriculture, as far as we can see, and it reminds me a lot of that part of Sonora, Mexico.
This morning, the ducks were slow, whatever, but it was just, Bam! Bam! It was two trigger pulls, and I was ready to go to the house. We got a greenhead, bowed up, and Clint’s calling to him, and that bird just locks his wings. I’m looking, he’s fixing to hook back around to my right and come in. Out of nowhere—right on the deck, right above me—a pair of Mexican ducks sail over. I’m like, Boom! Boom! Splash. Splash. I’m like, “All right, I’m ready to go to the house.” I’m ready to go to the house. I’ve shot tons of those Mexican mallards south of the border, but, it just occurred to me this morning, I’d never shot two of them north of the border. Here in the Sonoran desert, north of the border. Do y’all shoot quite a few of those birds here?
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir, we do. It’s interesting. They decoy like mallards, they live like mallards, and, for all intents and purposes, they act like mallards, as well. But there’s something special about those Mexican ducks. They are just beautiful when they come in. Watching them, wings out, necks careened down. They’re something special. I’d say, probably, ratio-wise, we shoot one Mexican Duck for every three mallards we shoot. Something like that. But I’ll tell you, this year—to date—we have shot more Mexican ducks than we have hen mallards. Usually, what ends up happening is the hens kind of get all mixed in in a big group, and you think you’re shooting a hen mallard, dropping out of the sky. And, sure enough, it’s a big, old Mexican duck drake. Man, is that a good feeling.
Ramsey Russell: Ain’t nothing wrong with that. I like them. They are a mallard-like bird. There’s thirteen mallard-like subspecies worldwide. Mexican Duck is one of the 5 that lives here in the United States. To me, because they quack, they react, they decoy, and their habits, their habitats—they’re almost like the most unexploited mallard-like resource on the North American continent. I don’t know why. It’s like a brown mallard. But you know what? We were talking about it in the dark this morning. Talking about the possibility of seeing them, and I told you, “I feel pretty good at picking the drakes out. Especially when it’s light. I don’t know, maybe they’re bigger. They’ve got a notably darker chest. They’ve got that bright yellow bill.” Sure enough, I swung on him first and picked her up later. That’s kind of a big duck down here. That’s one of your common species.
Colin Shepherd: It is, as wild as that sounds. Mexican Ducks are one of our common species bagged. I’d say, more days than not, when we go out, we see them flying in the sky. Now, we might not see a pack of 150 flying around together, but whether it’s a pair or a small group of five or six, I’d say they’re out there pretty much every day.
Where Duck Hunt in Arizona?
Ramsey Russell: Today we hunted some private property, and it was a beautiful little hole. I would say, maybe, it was 10-12 yards from one bank to the next and a football field long. Tight little hole. It was chip shooting. Do you hunt a lot of public land, out here?
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir, I do. It’s a beautiful state for public land hunting. I don’t want to go ahead and get into specific percentages, but I’m willing to say about 75% of Arizona is all public land. Whether you’re talking state trusts, BLM land, or something in between. National forests, as well. It’s just incredible the hunting opportunities that we have in Arizona on public land, and I’m not the first person to shoot public land. There’s other people out there. There’s the general public. Obviously, there’s a little bit of competition, but the nice thing out here is it’s so spread out. There’s so much land that everybody can get their own little slice, if you will. If everything works out, you can usually not hear a lot of other gunshots in the morning.
Ramsey Russell: I live in an echo chamber, and it’s like everybody in my whole world seems to be duck hunters. So everybody I’ve met, predominantly, here in Arizona have been duck hunters. Do y’all have a lot of duck hunters in Arizona?
Colin Shepherd: No, we do not. I’d say we are the minority of the hunters in Arizona. Most people know us for the big, screaming bull elk coming through the mountains in September. That’s what you think of when you think of Arizona. A bunch of bighorn sheep, as well. Some giant mule deer running around. Ducks are really kind of a second thought. Most people, when I tell them I’m a duck hunter in Arizona, they laugh, and they think it’s a good joke. Then it’s like, “No, no, seriously. Yes, sir. We shoot greenheads in the desert.” Then it gets a little bit more serious. But a lot of the public perception around hunting in Arizona is all focused on the big game or your traditional small game, whether it’s upland rabbits, coyote, that kind of stuff.
Ramsey Russell: I hunted public land twice—just across the city limits from six million people in Phoenix—and I didn’t see another duck hunter. Granted, the weather conditions weren’t perfect. I’ve understood they wanted cloudy weather, and we didn’t shoot terribly many. Didn’t see terribly many birds. Nonetheless, we didn’t see any duck hunters. Is that pretty normal? Do you ever go to the boat ramp and go, “Oh, boy, I need to be packing me some brass knuckles, here”? At an Arkansas boat ramp. Do you ever feel like that?
Colin Shepherd: I’ve never had the brass knuckle feeling, but I have had the “oh, shoot” feeling. “There’s a lot of people sitting here.”
Ramsey Russell: Have you ever slept on the bottom of a jon boat, or slept on a creek bank, waiting on daylight?
Colin Shepherd: Never slept at the bottom of a jon boat. I have slept at the bottom of a Jet Sled a couple times, though.
Ramsey Russell: Okay. You have had to go in early and spend the night on the duck hole because you wanted to get that place. That’s probably around openers.
Colin Shepherd: Yep. Usually the duck season opener. We’ve got a split zone in Arizona, where we have a mountain zone and a desert zone. Mountain zone always opens up first, and it’s just like dove hunting. You get every single person out there for the entire season, and that’s usually when we end up sleeping in the Jet Sleds.
Pigeon Hunting in Arizona
Ramsey Russell: Colin, how was I lucky enough to meet y’all yesterday afternoon? I just remember you reaching out to me on social media. How did that come about? Why did you feel comfortable enough to invite an outsider to come into what we experienced yesterday and this morning?
Colin Shepherd: You know, Ramsey, I’d say that’s the power of the duck hunting community out there. There’s not a lot of other groups where—if you identify doing the same thing, common and together—that there’s that same unspoken bond. I think it’s something special about the duck hunting community. I remember—it was about a month and a half ago, or something—you were talking about your United States tour, coming out West. Sure enough, I saw Phoenix, Arizona, on the map. First of all, I’m thinking, “Why the hell is he coming to Phoenix, Arizona?”
Ramsey Russell: I kind of asked myself the same question, at the time, but yeah.
Colin Shepherd: At least wait till January. The second thing was like, man, if he’s coming to Phoenix, I got to show this guy what we have here. By no means are we shooting a thousand ducks a day or anything like that, or seeing giant refuges loaded up with ten thousand birds, but there’s a unique part of duck hunting in, I’d say, every single state here in the United States. I just wanted to show you what Arizona had special. Some of what makes Arizona special is not just the ducks. I’m sure we’ll get into it here in a little bit, but the first thing that I can really think of, just making sure you saw something special about Arizona, was one of those pigeon shoots.
Ramsey Russell: Oh my gosh.
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir, we went on one of those.
Ramsey Russell: Well, we got to train fixing to bear down on us. If it gets too loud, we’ll take an intermission. Yeah, it’s going to get too loud, I can tell you right now. Folks, we’ll be back in about two seconds. Hang on.
And we’re back. The longest train in Arizona just rolled past. When I say “Duck Season Somewhere” I mean everywhere. Right between Interstate 8 and a very, very busy train track. Because just beyond this train track that we walked across this morning is a hell of a good duck hole. Colin, where were we? I think we were talking about pigeon hunting.
Colin Shepherd: I think we were just about to get started with hunting pigeons.
Ramsey Russell: So you reached out to me, said, “Hey, I’d like to invite you down here, blah, blah, blah.” I’ll be honest with you, I was thinking, “I don’t know about going pigeon hunting. Going to shoot Papaw’s barn pigeons or something? I don’t know.” Yesterday, a couple of slow mornings, and you had hit me up. I’m like, “Well, yeah, I guess I’ll come out there. I’ll come out there and check it out. That might be all right.” It was about 45 minutes from the hotel, and I stopped and got some pretty sorry Texas barbecue, I might say. On the way out there, I about ran out of gas, but I pulled up and said, “Hey, I’m here.” You go, “Yeah, yeah, yeah! I’ll be there to get you. We got a hundred.” I go, “Huh?” “Yeah, meet me up there about 300 yards. I’ll come get you.”
I was like Gilligan in fast motion. Have you ever seen the Gilligan’s Island when Gilligan’s running quick? That’s how I was getting ready for this pigeon hunt. We show up, and y’all have got a heck of a setup, man. You’ve got the decoys, you’ve got everything. At a feedlot. And it wasn’t just a few pigeons. There was a lot of pigeons, and, beyond the pigeons, there were more ring-necked doves than I knew to exist on God’s big, green earth. I had no idea what I was getting into. Last night, after getting back to the hotel, I let Cooper retrieve a bunch and kind of had to go check her for a pulse. She hadn’t moved in an hour, and I was wondering if I may have killed her, fetching all them pigeons. Let’s talk about that. That’s a big deal down here for y’all. You’ve really got it figured out, don’t you?
How hunt pigeons in Arizona?
Colin Shepherd: We have got it dialed in for the most part. It’s good, clean family fun. There’s no way to not laugh and smile while you’re out there.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you put up your panel, and you’ve got some shade, and you’ve got your decoys, and the more pigeons you shoot, the more decoys you got. I know every now and again we’ll run up and toss them back out into the spread. I’ve always described wild pigeon hunting, down in Argentina, as like duck hunting with hiking boots on.
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir. That’s it. It’s not your average dove hunt, shooting birds forty yards high coming out of a grain field. This is similar to duck hunting, in the same sense. You’ve got a blind, you’ve got decoys. There’s spinners, MOJO’s, flags, and everything. You’re pulling pigeons from 300-400 yards high, pretty much on a string, straight down into your decoys, whether they’re coming in in just singles or they’re coming in big groups of eight or ten or, heck, even sometimes fifty. Man, does that get the blood flowing, watching them lock up and just soaring all the way down, just to open their wings five to ten yards out in front of you. It’s a lot of fun.
Ramsey Russell: Pigeons are unique, to me. They are pretty beautiful. The way they throw their wings so far back above them—further back than any other bird I’m aware of—and just drop straight in. Come in so gracefully. It looks like they’re just going about one mile an hour, but they’re not. They’re going quicker as they’re sailing in. But I had this question yesterday. I know the feed is bringing these birds in. They came through with the feed truck, twice, to feed them dairy cows. Where are the birds coming from? Where are they roosting? Where are they living? We’re in a desert.
Colin Shepherd: That’s part of the secret sauce. Most of these birds are living on Karen’s front porch or under her eaves. Just in a suburbia neighborhood or something like that. If I showed you a picture of where these feedlots are, you’d give me big eyes and say, “Whoa, that’s the city of Phoenix. What are we doing there?” You know, we’re safe. We’re away from schools. We’re a quarter-mile away from houses. We’re shooting over fields, as well. But these are all the pigeons that are living— They’re pooping on the solar panels. They’re living up in the eaves of the roofs. They’re sitting in the very nice neighbor—the Johnsons’—citrus tree, or something like that, and they all got to feed. They all got to go somewhere. The interesting thing that gives it that Arizona touch is—I’m talking to you right now, middle of November, and it’s about 85° outside right now. So you give those pigeons warm weather, food, shelter year round, and they will just breed and procreate like you have never seen.
Ramsey Russell: I didn’t think about that. Yeah, they are, aren’t they?
Why so many Eurasian collared doves in Arizona?
Colin Shepherd: So you were talking about the Eurasian doves—call them ringed-necks, whatever you want to call them—Arizona has a unique, I would almost call it a problem, with them. Obviously, they’re invasive. If you talk with a lot of local guys, ten or twelve years ago, they’ve never seen one in their life. Never seen one in their life. In the last twelve to fifteen years, they have really taken off. It’s not because they’re competing with the mourning doves that are out in the desert. It’s because they’re all sitting in the city, they’re sitting on these feedlots, and they’re just a bigger-bodied bird. They don’t need to migrate, and they can really establish themselves and body out some of the smaller guys. That’s what you’ve seen. They’re having six or seven clutches of eggs in a single year. It gets out of control pretty quickly.
Ramsey Russell: We saw, conservatively, two hundred Eurasian collared-doves to every mourning dove we saw in that feed lot yesterday. As I pulled up to meet you around those hay barns, I’m like, “I can just sit right here.” “No, no, no, come over here where the pigeons are.” All I can say is, there was a bazillion. There was a bazillion of those doves buzzing around. Really and truly, I showed some friends some video from yesterday, and it’s very comparable to parts of Argentina. You’ve got it right here in your backyard. How often do y’all hunt those birds?
Colin Shepherd: It all depends. During the middle of duck season, we usually only get out maybe once a month. Really what it is, it’s usually at the request of the dairy owner or the farmer. It’s kind of one of those things where you get a phone call saying, “Hey, guys, we need you out here. The pigeons are eating us out of house and home.” But in the off season, that’s really where we shine. There’s nothing better than going out in the middle of March or April and being able to put down a couple hundred pigeons on the wing. It makes it a lot of fun. The answer to your question is, it’s kind of seasonal. In the summertime, we’ll go out maybe once, twice a month. Something like that. During duck season, it gets a little bit more.
Ramsey Russell: So y’all do hunt these pigeons all year long?
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir. Even as crazy as it sounds. I think we had one shoot this year, while we were out there, and I think the high temperature for the day was about 114°.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, that don’t even sound fun, now.
Colin Shepherd: Now, it’s a little different. For those ones we’re standing in the shade. You got the big—I don’t know what you call them—they’re just giant fans, and they’ve got misters. They use them to keep the cows cool in the summertime. So we stand right in those misters in the shade, and it keeps you pretty cool.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you got that evaporative cooling. Any time you’re getting conditions this dry, and get around water, you’ve got evaporative cooling, like an air conditioner works. So I can see where that wouldn’t be too bad. It sure beats sitting by a fence post in the hot sun, like opening day of Mississippi.
Colin Shepherd: Yes, it does. If you look behind you, you got some quail running around.
Ramsey Russell: I’ll be darned. You got a whole flock of Gambel’s quail running from one mesquite bunch to the next.
Colin Shepherd: They’ll keep going. There’s probably a couple more in there, as well.
Arizona Duck Seasons, Species, Habitats
How long is Arizona Duck Season?
Ramsey Russell: Well, let’s get back on the subject of duck hunting. How long does your season go, and what comes up for y’all next? You were talking about January. The same type habitats we’ve been hunting, or what?
Colin Shepherd: Going to be a little bit different come later in the season, once the ducks move down here. So, starting off on the big part, our season is incredibly generous. We get to start shooting ducks, usually, that first weekend in October, and our season goes all the way through the 31st of January, as of this year. Yeah, we got some good folks to help us out on that one. A couple of the waterfowl biologists here locally, I know Odell had a lot to say about that, too. We got it extended, actually this year, until the 31st, which is big. That’s our season in Arizona. We get to shoot seven ducks a day. You can shoot seven greenhead mallards, if you can find them, and you can shoot them from our first week in October all the way until January 31st. It’s pretty generous, if you ask me.
Ramsey Russell: Do you shoot a lot of cinnamon teal?
Colin Shepherd: We shoot cinnamons in early October, and we shoot cinnamons in late January. Yeah, this past year, it was actually February that I saw this group coming around, it had to be a group of maybe 30-35 of them. I couldn’t figure it out, at first, because there was a bunch of these hens flying around with these small black birds, and I couldn’t figure it out. Finally, they got close enough, and one of them came and landed in front of me. I was like, “Wow, that’s not a blackbird. That’s just a really dark red cinnamon.” Beautiful birds, that time of year.
Ramsey Russell: That’s nice. We have talked a lot, in the last couple of days, about other species and other places in Arizona besides this valley—this agricultural valley, the river system around Phoenix. What are some other waterfowl hunting opportunities here in Arizona?
Where you can find water, you can find ducks in Arizona
Colin Shepherd: If you can find water, you can find ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Statewide?
Colin Shepherd: Yeah, seriously, all four borders that we sit on, there’s ducks, and there’s good duck hunting opportunities. The Colorado River, as most people know, runs on the western border of Arizona and makes the western border of Arizona, eastern border of California. That down there is some top-notch duck hunting. The river runs for about four hundred miles across the border, so it’s a little bit spread out, but where they congregate there’s just awesome opportunity. Awesome habitat and environment, as well.
Like I mentioned earlier, we’ve got the mountain zone, which is perfect for those early season hunts. You know, big beautiful lakes, swampy marshes, and you’re surrounded by pine trees. It’s a real cool setting. We’ve got some stuff out on the east side of our state, over by New Mexico. That’s where you’re going to find the sandhill cranes, snow geese, lot of Mexican mallards out there, as well. There’s a bunch of ducks pretty much on the border of Mexico, not too far from where we are. Then obviously you’ve got kind of that center mass through the middle of Arizona. That’s where most of the duck hunting takes place, on the fringes of the agricultural areas. We got a couple of big river systems: the Verde, the Salt, the Gila. Anywhere that you can find water, you’ll find ducks.
Ramsey Russell: What is the sandhill crane hunting like here?
Colin Shepherd: It’s a lot of birdwatching, unless you got a tag. We are on a draw-system tag for sandhills. If you get drawn, you get one day of hunting, and you get to shoot three birds. That’s what your tag entails. Now, this isn’t over the counter, go pick it up for $7.99, you’re actually putting yourself in a lottery. You got about a one out of five, maybe one out of six, chance to get pulled.
Ramsey Russell: Is it open to non-residents?
Colin Shepherd: I’ll have to check with my game and fish buddies on that. I’m not entirely sure if it’s open to non-residents. We are actually working with some of the local game wardens, right now, to go ahead and get the sandhill opportunities expanded. Talk about conservation—twenty years ago, there was almost no sandhills in the state, and now they’ve exploded into the east side of the state. There’s about three thousand of them on the west side of the state. Shoot, I got about three hundred of them sitting in my backyard. It’s cool listening to them fly over every morning.
Ramsey Russell: We didn’t get into the hunting part of them, but in a previous podcast John Odell was talking about setting goals. He used sandhill cranes as an example. He said, “You know, the goal was around 17,000, and once it got past that, once it got up past 21,000, 22,000, they started having problems with crop degradation, loss, and some stuff like that.” He just kind of went into that. So, apparently, the sandhills are doing pretty darn good.
Any goose hunting in Arizona?
Ramsey Russell: What about geese? Is it just white geese, or are there other geese that come down this far south?
Colin Shepherd: For whatever reason, geese don’t seem to need that wintertime vacation in Arizona. Joking aside, we do get a good amount of geese. I live up in Scottsdale, Arizona, and there’s a feed that gets going on the Indian reservation up there that’s about three thousand, maybe four thousand, large. But aside from that, there’s really not that many geese. Talking earlier about that Colorado River valley on the west side of our state, that is where most of the goose hunting in this entire state takes place. I don’t want to say it’s gone downhill because it’s not from a mismanagement standpoint, it’s just from a bigger picture standpoint. I wasn’t alive when this was taking place, but, apparently, in the late 80’s and the late 90’s, there used to be about 40,000 to 50,000 Western Canada geese that would fill down into what we call the Cibola area. That was just kind of a function of water, good habitat, farmers growing the right type of crops. As of now, if you were to drive out there, you might see three to four thousand geese, if you’re lucky. So, you know, what happened to that 90% drop? Nobody has the perfect answer, but there’s a lot of conversation out there, from people smarter than myself, that have talked about the shift in the corn-growing areas and the ability to grow corn on a shorter season which allows you to plant it going farther north. So places that historically didn’t have a lot of corn—like Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, the Dakotas—now they’re growing corn. Whether it’s dwarf corn, whether it’s normal corn, and it’s just pulling a lot of those geese out that way. Another big thing, too, is everybody knows geese love grass. A lot of the natural grasses that have the hold in the environment—it gets changed with the river and the flooding of the Colorado, depending on how many dams there are, what the water management plan is for that year. Basically, the habitat has just really gone down over the last thirty or forty years. The answer is, we don’t get a lot of geese anymore. Now, with that being said, in the last five to six years we’ve actually seen a pretty good uptick with some of our populations. So that’s always promising.
Best Burritos in Arizona
Ramsey Russell: All right. Last night, you had gone to take a phone call, yesterday evening on the feedlot, and Clint said, “Hey, you want to go eat dinner?” I said, “Yeah, you know any good Mexican restaurants?” He says, “Oh, I do. Colin knows a great place to eat.” I’m going to tell you right now, Colin, that was the best burrito I’ve ever had in my life. You said this morning that was your favorite. What was the name of that restaurant? Can you describe it? It was like stepping into Mexico. It was so good.
Colin Shepherd: It is. That’s why I go there. I hope I don’t butcher the name for everybody to hear, but I call it Taqueria El Fundador.
Ramsey Russell: I think that’s what it is, Taqueria El Fundador!
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir. It’s awesome. It’s a small family operation, and they know how to cook the food incredibly good. For anybody listening, they have some of the best asado you could ever imagine. It’s just really good stuff.
Ramsey Russell: I got the asado burrito and the carnita, and that carnita was— I wish I’d ordered ten of them. It was the best thing I’d ever eaten. I couldn’t hardly eat the two I ordered, but it was amazing stuff.
Is Arizona a good state for do-it-yourself duck hunts?
Ramsey Russell: Last question I got for you is, what are your thoughts—on anybody listening that would want to come to Arizona to check off species, check off states, check off bucket list species—what are your thoughts on Arizona as a non-resident, do-it-yourself place?
Colin Shepherd: Arizona as a non-resident, do-it-yourself place? It’s going to be a little hard, I would argue. We don’t have the public refuges that you can google or find off the back pages or anything like that. But I would argue that Arizona, do-it-yourself duck hunters, for an out-of-stater is an awesome opportunity for some of the local waterfowl community that we have here. I know myself and probably another dozen—if not twenty other people, pretty serious waterfowlers—in the state who would be more than happy to take an out-of-stater out duck hunting. Take them to the duck blind, show them what the good life is, in January, shooting mallards when it’s 82° outside.
Ramsey Russell: But y’all do have plenty of state WMAs, places like Salt River I hunted. There are places guys, if they could find it, find the water, find the access— It’s not like you need five sacks of decoys and a Ranger. Really and truly, a stringer with a half dozen to a dozen decoys over your shoulder, your gun, your dog, your whistle, and boom. And your shells. You’re good to go.
Colin Shepherd: Yeah, that’s the beautiful part about it. You don’t need a giant duck boat, you don’t need a mud motor, you don’t need, like you said, ten dozen decoys, and all the fanciest stuff. A six pack of mallards, a couple of teal, and maybe some other puddle ducks on a jerk rig. That and a good dog, that’s really all you need. For the out-of-staters, we’ve got some really cool walking areas that are just the most iconic Arizona that you could imagine. So, yeah, for anybody who’s coming from out of state, it’s a cool experience. I was, at one point in time, an out-of-stater. Was a do-it-yourself duck hunter. And in a short amount of time, it’s one of my more favorite places to hunt in this world.
Ramsey Russell: That’s great. Colin, I really appreciate your taking the time to come on and talk to us about Arizona duck hunting. I very, very sincerely appreciate your hospitality and having invited me. Between the pigeon hunt and the Mexican ducks this morning, it was truly the highlight of Arizona. It was just the experience I was looking for.
Unfortunately, it’s like the mafia. Now we’re related. Now we’re blood. Because I’m coming back. I’m coming back to Arizona. Just like I told you on the walk to the truck: I want to see it all, now. I want to go further south, I want to go further north, I want to go further east, further west, and I want to come right back here. I’m just going to have to allow more time. Folks, y’all have been listening to Colin Shepherd, Arizona. Colin, you are related with Ducks Unlimited. I know you’re very active in Ducks Unlimited. Chairman?
Colin Shepherd: Yes, sir. As of, technically, yesterday, I am the area chairman for the Scottsdale Chapter of Ducks Unlimited. I’m just one of the volunteers. One of the many volunteers, for that matter, but I do help with some of the organizational stuff. We do love putting on a good event, as well.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank y’all for listening. Duck Season Somewhere. I’m fixing to head to the house. I’m in Arizona, and I’m fixing to go to Mississippi for opening week, but I got to go through New Mexico. So I’m going to stop over and see some buddies over there, too. Follow us on social media. Stay tuned. Stay tuned to Duck Season Somewhere, and thank y’all for listening.
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It really is Duck Season Somewhere for 365 days. Ducks Season Somewhere takes me year-round to worldwide destinations where I meet the most interesting people. I’m your host Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome to Duck Season Somewhere podcast.