Dave Faith is a New Jersey Game Warden for NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife. He previously conducted waterfowl-related field biology. He’s also an avid duck hunter. How’d he get started duck hunting in New Jersey, what motivates him, and what species does he most like to chase? How much hunting opportunity even exists in a state with over 9 million citizens (3x times the population of, say, Mississippi)? What are some of the waterfowl projects he worked on? What are some of the wildlife law enforcement challenges in New Jersey, what is “buck week,” and why’s it keep him so busy? The 2020 North American Waterfowl Tour has brought Ramsey Russell to the outskirts of Atlantic City, New Jersey, where mass civilization interfaces with incredible marsh wilderness and rich waterfowling tradition.
Conversations with Dave Faith, New Jersey Game Warden
I started trying to figure out birds, and ever since then I’ve been infatuated with it.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. I’m in New Jersey, for those of y’all that have been keeping up. Man, what an incredible state, just like I told my host this morning. We drove right under the skyline of Atlantic City. It’s like a mini-Las Vegas. You’ve all heard of its bright lights, casinos, folks in the road everywhere, just mass civilization. We pulled up to the boat ramp, we took off, and those lights kept getting further and further away. The blackness of that marsh just swallowed us and spit us back out into a bygone era. We sat there and watched the sunrise. It was crazy. It was like just being in this wilderness right here in the middle of all this civilization. We pitched out a bunch of decoys and watched the sunrise and limited out on black ducks. We saw very little other than lots of black ducks and I found it very unique. I told my host this morning, “Everything I really knew about New Jersey prior to this morning, I’ve seen on HBO, either Boardwalk Empire, Atlantic City, or the Sopranos.” Today, I got to see a really cool perspective of a new area to hunt this year. This is really the first time I’ve ever been in New Jersey, let alone duck hunting. I’ve got a special guest today, Dave Faith. He was introduced to me by several other friends. Dave, how are you?
Dave Faith: I’m good. Yourself?
Ramsey Russell: Good, good. Thank you for your hospitality, man. I love your house. Being out in that marsh is like being out in the middle of nowhere.
Dave Faith: Well, we like it that way down here.
Ramsey Russell: Dave, introduce yourself. Who are you, where are you from, and where do you work?
Dave Faith: All right. I’m Dave Faith. I’m a game warden in New Jersey [at] New Jersey Fishing and Wildlife. I live in the southern part of New Jersey, down in Atlanta County. I patrol Atlanta, Cape May, and Cumberland County. I was born and raised in the area. I’m glad you could make it and get a taste of the real New Jersey.
Ramsey Russell: Real New Jersey. So, Tony Soprano is not from around here.
Dave Faith: He is not from around here.
Ramsey Russell: He’s from up north, closer to New York City. Do you duck hunt?
New Jersey’s Public Hunting Land
Dave Faith: Yeah. I didn’t grow up duck hunting. I grew up deer hunting and squirrel hunting. It was kind of a “you shoot it, you eat it household.” In high school, I would go pheasant hunting with friends. I always thought duck hunt was stupid.
Ramsey Russell: Why?
Dave Faith: Why would I want to go get wet and cold and miserable when I could walk through a field and shoot two pheasants that the state put out for us. Then, I finally went out and we couldn’t kill anything. We sucked, but we had fun. I liked having fun but I wasn’t content. I wanted to see the birds and I’m competitive so I wanted to get them and figure them out, so I stopped hunting with some of the guys [who only wanted] to eat doughnuts and yuck it up. I started trying to figure out birds, and ever since then I’ve been infatuated with it.
Ramsey Russell: It’s funny you say about being competitive and that compelling you into duck hunting because the truth of the matter is I never played competitive sports. I wasn’t competitive at all until I started duck hunting. I grew up hunting in Mississippi on public land and I had to play a better game than the other people yucking it up out there in a wetland if I wanted to kill ducks. That made me extremely competitive with duck hunting. Do you see the same thing?
Dave Faith: I grew up playing sports. I think it’s just natural. I have an older brother. So you’re pretty much always competing or fist-fighting.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of public land hunting opportunities here in New Jersey. Do you have any idea of how much or how much is in your area? Because my host today pointed miles and miles away. He said, “Do you see all that? That’s all public land under this marsh. It looks just like where we’re hunting.”
Waterfowl Species & Hunting Opportunities in New Jersey
I think we’re kind of unique because you could probably go out in the pit and shoot six different species on any given morning.
Dave Faith: You’d be really surprised, for the size of the state and the population density, the amount of public land we have. The way the riparian rights system works on Maryland. We have all these crazy blind laws. If you got a boat in New Jersey, its tide waters, you pretty much can go wherever you want. We have over 120 miles of coastline, a lot of tidal creeks and inland lakes. There’s a lot of opportunity. The state does a pretty good job of buying public land in Southern New Jersey. We have over 370,000 acres, I believe, that are wildlife management areas. There’s fields that farmers lease out to guys who goose hunt. If you put time in there’s some pretty good public land duck hunting in Jersey. You just have to spend a little time looking.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of waterfowl hunting opportunities exist on public lands, like we hunted today, in New Jersey? There’s brant, there’s sea ducks, and there’s puddle ducks.
Dave Faith: You got a little bit of everything. The coast during the Heart of the Atlantic Flyway, [there are a] lot more hunters, so you got to work a little harder. I think we’re kind of unique [because] you could probably go out in the pit and shoot six different species on any given morning. That’s a magical day for us.
Ramsey Russell: What would be the real common species?
Dave Faith: Your biggest birds in New Jersey are mallards, black duck, wood ducks, green winged teals, and buffleheads. When you’re hunting the coast, like where you guys were out today, out in the salt marsh, [there’s], black duck, brant, bufflehead, some of the bigger days you’ll get blue bills. We call them broad bills up here.
Ramsey Russell: Any Canvasbacks?
Dave Faith: Not too many. Every once in a while you’ll see a few mixed in with the flocks of broadies or blue bills. Some of those bigger divers like cans and redheads are a trophy bird up here. Lots of Buffleheads.
Ramsey Russell: I think Canvasbacks are trophies practically everywhere.
Dave Faith: We have pretty good sea duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: What are common sea ducks in New Jersey?
Dave Faith: Right now, we just passed peaks to go to migration. You get your white wings, your commons, your black scoters, and your surf scoters. A lot of guys mainly are shooting surfs and the commons and black scoters. Some old squall or longtail ducks are starting to move in. Towards Christmas time, you’ll see a lot of guys start shooting old squall out and then letting out front notion.
Ramsey Russell: I was introduced to you through a mutual friend of ours, Mr. Tyler Coleman over at Kanati. Y’all went to school together in wildlife conservation. What did you do after that? What capacity did you work in New Jersey? What were you involved with a lot of the brant banding I’m hearing about?
The New Jersey Fishing and Wildlife Waterfowl Program
How many ducks are there using these areas during the duck season?
Dave Faith: I always was interested in outdoors and I went to Penn State to get my degree in Wildlife and Fishery Science and I thought, “I want to do Biology.” Right out of college, I started doing some tech jobs, did various seasonal technician work, working for US Fishing and Wildlife service, a few universities, and then ultimately for New Jersey Fishing and Wildlife with the waterfowl program. I got to do a lot of different projects. What I liked about working for the waterfowl program in New Jersey, if you get to meet the biologist, he likes people that are just go-getters, just give them a task and go do it. I don’t like being micromanaged. I just go out and go work. I did a lot of preseason duck banding and breeding waterfowl surveys in the spring. One of the bigger projects a couple years ago was with the Black Duck Joint Venture. They started doing the winter banding program. That was probably one of my favorite projects because it’s right at the end of the season. I felt like hunting season didn’t end. It’s a little bit different because you’re trapping them. You’re running bait and traps, running the tide a lot of long nights, running your trap lines. But that was the fun work. Then, I started getting into some of the brant work. We’re doing brant breeding surveys and they’re working on the program, whether they’re putting the locators on them or doing some of the migration studies.
Ramsey Russell: You were talking about doing those duck counts. How many ducks are there and what species? What were y’all seeing in this area? It’s a lot of humanity, a lot of civilization, but there’s a lot of marsh habitat, too. How many ducks are there using these areas during the duck season?
Dave Faith: That’s a question I don’t know the answer to. We would do in the spring, Atlantic [Flyway], to derive their seasons and bag limits. They used to use the mallard model and then we shifted to the Atlantic [Flyway]. They wanted to make, I guess in the early 90s, their own model for model population and deriving seasons and bag limits. They developed the breeding waterfowl survey and all the states cooperate in that. We have these random sample locations where you have to go look in your counting breeding pairs, solitary birds. Not slogged, that was the worst thing. Slogging through the marsh in the middle of mosquito season, trying to count breeding waterfowl. I think, similar to all the other states, they’re noticing black ducks are pretty steady. We’re still below long term average, but Atlantic [Flyway] Mallards have been in the climb. I think that’s kind of the trend every other state is saying.
Ramsey Russell: We had a wildlife geneticist on here, speaking of that. That’s gone from 1.2 million mallards to 400,000. Maybe because of old world genetics versus new world genetics. They were introduced; they weren’t here 150 years ago.
Dave Faith: There’s different schools of thought and some guys are mad that their mallards are gone. You can look at it from the other side of the spectrum. Black ducks were here first.
Ramsey Russell: That’s the thing about it, to go out to a marsh like today and see so many opportunities at black ducks, and driving over the bridges and looking at the marsh riding the boat out through the channel, all you see is freaking black ducks! It’s incredible to see that many black ducks. I love them. I don’t know why I like them.I love them and I like mallards too, but I do like black ducks. The only mallards I’ve really seen since I’ve been in New Jersey were hanging around a boat dock.
Dave Faith: That’s pretty much it. I’ll tell you, if you’re hunting up here when it was the one black duck limit and you spend a lot of time up here, you probably wouldn’t like black ducks as much.
Wildlife Law Enforcement Issues in NJ
We have the most liberal bag limits probably in the country for white tailed deer.
Ramsey Russell: I get that. I can see that. But you got into law enforcement. I guess I’m just shocked there’s so many hunters and stuff up here in New Jersey that you already have a big active law enforcement program.
Dave Faith: Going to school and then starting some fieldwork, when you’re doing technician work, that’s the fun work, doing field work. Then you see the biologist, how you move up the chain. A lot more computer time, a lot more conferences. I told you I’m a tinkerer and I’d like to figure things out. I like tangible results and you feel like you get more tangible results in law enforcement. You find a solution. Maybe you correct someone, maybe you straighten them up. When you’re doing your forestry, you’re planning for 100 years. I can’t wrap my head around that, I need instant gratification. I never saw myself doing radar, going to domestic calls. Wildlife law enforcement was kind of like a natural progression. I knew a few local game wardens and they’re like, you hunt [and] fish, what they told me that blew my mind is they’re struggling to find quality applicants that want to do the job that hunted and fished. I was like, “Well, that’s me, sign me up,” and it took me about 3 years to get hired. A little discouraging, the wheels of government are slow. But I don’t regret it one minute. It’s a different job. It’s a lifestyle, you’re not running call to call to call dealing with domestic issues. But you have to be proactive. You’re basically out hunting. That’s part of the job I really enjoy.
Ramsey Russell: What are some of the predominant law enforcement issues here in New Jersey?
Dave Faith: Well, surprisingly, we’re a pretty resource rich state. We have the most liberal bag limits probably in the country for white tailed deer.
Ramsey Russell: What are they?
Dave Faith: There are some zones where you can kill as many deer as you want. We have “fall bow, permit bow.”
Ramsey Russell: I guess it’s around urban interface.
Dave Faith: You get more urban areas and you can shoot 6 bucks a year and unlimited does. I know guys that legally kill 20-30 days a year. At a certain point that’s just work. We have a great Hunters Helping the Hungry program in New Jersey. The USDA actually just forked over a bunch of money this year to help farmers because they’re seeing a lot of crop damage, trying to encourage more hunters, shoot more does and donate them. Butchers that participate will cut up the meat and donate it to a local food bank. I’ve made a conscious effort if I seize a deer on a case. It’s an hour for me from the nearest butcher that participates, but it makes me feel better knowing it’s going to good use. I try to get it up there to the butcher’s to get it donated to the food bank. It is a unique state, where a warden in Montana might check one hunter a week, we can check a lot. We make a lot of contacts, a lot of diverse contacts, because you have 8-9 million people crammed in this little area.
Ramsey Russell: That’s three times the entire population of Mississippi, by the way.
Dave Faith: Obviously, our proportion of hunters related to the population [is lower], probably more people in Mississippi hunt on average. But we just have a sheer number of people, especially with the whole Covid thing, people were getting out of work or getting cabin fever and our wildlife areas became dog parks. Normally in the late fall or late spring and early summer, we’re transitioning. It’s a little slow, we’re getting ready for turkey season. We’re looking for turkey baits. I felt like every day I was a park ranger escorting dog walkers and answering questions as to where this little particular lake was on a map and giving people band aids. It really changed. It’s amazing the diversity of people you contact, even doing resource work. Probably our biggest thing I would say, violation wise, is fishing without a license, it’s pretty common. But we do a pretty diverse range of work. November is probably the best time to be a game warden. There are striped bass migrating down the coast. We got a lot of different fisheries happening on the coast. Guys are dealing with small game seasons, waterfowl seasons taken off, the deer and rut. For a liberal state, when it comes to hunting regulations for deer, you’d be amazed the games guys still play, not doing things the right way. We spent a lot of time doing deer work and every day is something different, which is probably the best part of the job.
Buck Week in New Jersey
It’s a lot of hunting going on in a short amount of time.
Ramsey Russell: The boys I’m hunting with up here told me that you were really busy this week, maybe unable to record a podcast, because it’s Buck Week. What the heck is Buck Week?
Dave Faith: Well, I was really hoping to hunt with you guys, but once I was told the dates, I was like, “Yeah, we might be able to drink a couple beers, but I am not going to be able to hunt.” Buck Week is our six day firearm season. It’s our general firearm season in New Jersey. There’s no rifle hunting; it’s probably not a good idea for a very small, highly densely populated state. Its shotgun, buckshot slugs are common. It’s a lot of hunting going on in a short amount of time. We start in the second week of September with archery. We have our more liberal zones in our urban areas where they want guys to shoot more does. We have an early archery season where you have to shoot does before you can shoot a buck. You still get a chance at a velvet buck that time of the year. Guys are hard after them and then we go all through October for bow season and in November, it turns into a special permit bow season. The state likes to tap you for your money. So, special permit season and we got a muzzle loader and right now we’re in our general firearm season. In a couple of weeks I’ll be done looking at dead deer. I can tell you that much.
Ramsey Russell: What keeps you busy during Buck Week? Roadside shooting, that type stuff?
Dave Faith: In this part of the state, deer drives are popular. We have a lot of larger chunks of public land that are historic. We have a lot of old dear clubs here. Guys set up drives and push deer, the way they’ve been hunting down here for years. We’re always on call because it seems like every year someone gets shot. Public safety is our top priority. We like hunting and we want people to continue hunting but we want to make sure it’s safe and if there are accidents, it’s our job to do a thorough investigation and make sure everything is handled properly because we don’t want to see hunting end. In a state that seems very touchy about firearms, it’s an important job to make sure safety is our priority. This time of year there’s a little more crunch time when you can only get six days to try to shoot a buck and you actually have two bucks this week. We tend to get more activity from guys shooting out of their truck. We’re running the decoy a lot.
Ramsey Russell: How big are the antlers on that decoy?
Dave Faith: That deer’s a baby, it may be a 100 or 115, 120 inch deer. No 160s out there. I’ve had a few people that we stopped and are like, “Man that’s the biggest deer I’ve ever seen!” Some people don’t realize it’s fake either. Like, “My God, did you see that thing?” I’m like, “Yeah, I think it’s still standing over there.”
Ramsey Russell: I got to tell this story because I did work for the federal government way back decades ago. As I was told, they brought that deer in and it looked like a Boone and Crockett sitting in the garage. It was a massive hole-in-the-horn, except it was typical. It was massive. I was like, “Anybody would stop and shoot that deer, anybody I know.” We don’t have the standard that the state has. As it was explained to me and you all correct me if I’m wrong folks. But it’s explained to me the state of Mississippi kind of puts a hiatus on putting something too tempting out there because who wouldn’t shoot a Boone and Crockett deer on the side of the road? You hope nobody, but maybe everybody would. They took this deer out and the first weekend they went out and put it on the refuges, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the game wardens there, heard a truck coming, had set it up, and it slid off into a ditch and the remote in their back pocket shorted, so the deer’s head was flinching left and right, left and right. The truck stopped and slowed down. The guy was like, “Man, why’s it acting so funny?” They could hear them saying, the guy said, “It must be one of those robots.” They were about to shoot it, but they realized that it had shorted. They got it fixed and went back out the next weekend, set up on this levee about, 200 yards off the road, and we’re sitting there back in the shadows watching this deer and waiting for a car hunter to come by and pop him. About this time, this man came out of the woods wearing an orange vest, properly suited up, like you had to be in the state of Mississippi, and walking out towards them. They’re like, “Man, I hope he doesn’t see that deer, he’s going to crap himself.” It’s like they said, the guy stopped like he could sense something and they started to open the door and climb out and started running that way. The guy looked around and had a conniption, he had his gun around strapped up and they said he was about to kill himself trying to get his gun off. Before they could holler at him to get his attention, “bam-bam” he had shot it four times between the eyes. They showed the picture Monday morning at the office. That guy was shaking when they ran up to him. He was out of bullets and they said, “You know that’s a robot,” and he said he still wanted to pose with it. “That’s the biggest deer I’ve ever seen in my life.” He wanted to pose with it. I really don’t remember what happened to that deer after it got shot four times between the eyes, but anyway, I think it’s funny. I was just curious, do you have a lot of people up here shooting off the road?
Dave Faith: You know we get calls, it happens. In law enforcement, like you said, it’s your natural instinct to see the good in people. In law enforcement, can’t be naive, you have to think it’s happening because you hear about it. I personally haven’t had it shot yet. I’ve been on for six years and last year was my chance. I had a guy, I didn’t think he was going to shoot, he sat there honking his horn at this thing for five minutes. He drove almost across the road in the ditch, put his headlights on it, and he’s flicking his high beams and he’s honking his horn. I don’t know what to do. I’m just twitching the remote and I keep shaking the deer’s head back and forth. I know he’s got to figure it out, he can’t be that dumb. Finally, he drives off and I radio my supervisor and say “Go grab him, he needs to be stopped.” He pulls out the woods road and he was like,”Brake lights, he’s turning. I’m on the road already, there’s nothing I can do but go and grab him,” and they cross paths in front of the decoy as the guys on the brakes. Then he realized he saw the police going down the side of the truck. He takes off, he goes around, stops him. He’s a young guy, like 20, just shaking, gun shells rolling all over the floor. “Step on out, son.” He’s like, “I wasn’t going to shoot that thing. I was just looking at it.” Then after about a minute he’s like, “I was going to shoot. It was the biggest deer I’ve ever seen. Did you see that deer?” I’m like, “Are you kidding me? Yeah he’s right there.” He just got tunnel vision and that’s what happens to some guys. I think the best story I have was right before I got hired, some of the guys in my district had a decoy out and they had this guy. It’s always young guys in their 20s. It’s the prime age, full of testosterone and wanting to show off. He had this big jacked up truck and they said he stopped. He just started revving the engine and he just sent it. He put it to the floor and he destroyed the decoy. Plowed it with his pickup truck. Heads flying, legs flying. He was convinced that it was a sick deer and he had to put it out of its misery with his pickup truck.
How Prevalent Are Waterfowl Violations In The State Of New Jersey?
I think a lot of it is some just naive guys that didn’t grow up doing it and I’ve dealt with guys rallying and they had no idea that they were doing anything wrong.
Ramsey Russell: That reminds me of a Jeff Foxworthy joke about his daddy or somebody who used to sit at a deer crossing and floor his Cadillac when he’d see a deer. I’ve asked that question many times. Somebody said to hit the deer, I said “How far off the road do you have to get to get him?” That’s funny. Let’s talk about waterfowl violations. How prevalent are waterfowl violations in the state of New Jersey?
Dave Faith: It depends on the violation. We talk about different types of violations. You have paper violations, like stamps. You see that all the time. I’m not a big paper guy, I like to sit and watch so I’m more apt to let paper stuff slide, especially this day and age where you buy your license right on your phone, other than your federal stamp, while in some states you buy that online now, too. But you forget your HIP number, its $2 for a HIP number in New Jersey. It’s just a registration fee. I’ll just make them buy it on the phone. If they’re polite, I’m polite. We can square up. Everyone buys everything on the phone now, so that’s really common, guys forgetting their license in their wallet or something. They can’t show it to you. It’s a little harder to check when you’re out on the boat. You don’t have your computer handy, you have to do a little more leg work. The one thing I’ve noticed in the last couple of years for me and my areas, rallying, is guys running up the on the coast, diver hunting, hunting buffleheads and bluebills and the birds aren’t fine. Guys get bored so they want to go run the boat around, make them fly. As a duck hunter, I don’t diver hunt a lot anymore, but that’s pretty irritating because if you wait long enough the ducks take on natural habitat, the tide flips, they’ll start bouncing around. When you start running those birds, that just keeps pushing them and then they’ll sit up in the middle of the day and then they don’t want to move. A boat will run through them and they’ll get up and sit down and it screws it up for everyone. That’s the key for me. Some guys don’t like to complain, especially with resource stuff. It’s like, “It’s just a duck,” but I’m like, “He’s screwing you, he’s ruining it for everyone else out here trying to do the right thing and just making the quality worse.”
Ramsey Russell: As a duck hunter, you know.
Dave Faith: I’ve dealt with that and it tends to be some newer guys. We’ve been seeing a trend, especially this year with Covid. Everyone wants to go get groceries and there’s none at the grocery store. We got a lot of new hunters this year. You tend to see that. Some guys [causing problems] because they didn’t grow up doing it and if you look at the rulebook, there’s about eight million different rules when it comes to duck hunting. I think a lot of it is some just naive guys that didn’t grow up doing it and I’ve dealt with guys rallying and they had no idea that they were doing anything wrong.
Ramsey Russell: Are those same guys aware or abiding limits?
Dave Faith: I have fewer limit cases. Those guys tend to not see that type of issue. They see the limit is six ducks. Sometimes they might not have the right ducks or they might have a greave or cormorant, but they generally know the number.
New Jersey Brant Hunting
They get a bad rap, brant, for being dumb.
Ramsey Russell: What about those poor brant when they come decoying like they do the brakes and slide together like a big accordion? The limit is only two.
Dave Faith: brant can be a little tricky. I had editor of Delta Waterfowl, Kyle Oberstein, came down to do a hunt. I was talking to him. I had an open invite. I said “Come down, and I’ll show you New Jersey and also we’ll do brant, black ducks.” He finally had a window. He called me, he’s like, “I can come down.” I was like “All right!” We had a date picked, the beginning of January. I called him on the second week of December. I said “I got weather, we’re going to shoot birds. Our refuge is going to freeze, we’re going to get color birds out in the bay. Can you come down in three days?” For a man with two little kids, that stuff. He’s like, “Yeah, sure.” He came down. I’m a puddle duck guy, so first things first, we’re out shooting our wigeon and our gadwall,a great puddle duck hunt for the coast. My wife’s with me and she’s like, “He came to brant hunt.” I’m like, “Yeah, I know, we’ll get our brant.” The day wears on and we didn’t go set up on brant because where we are at is blowing about 30 [degrees Fahrenheit] out of the west and were cold and soaking wet. The next day we did another big hunt. We’re shooting, he shot some pintail and snow geese. She’s like, “You know, he came to write a story about brant,” I’m like, “All right, fine, we’ll go brant hunting.” It was in the afternoon of the second day. He had to go home in a couple hours. We go set up for brant and I set up real quick and they start flying. The first flocks, about five, crossing left to right, 20 yards chip shot. I was like, “Shoot him, Kyle!” He pulls his gun up, he swings, and he puts it down real gently. I was like, “What’s up?” He’s like, “Dave, after all those stories you told me about how easy this brant dies, I’m a little intimidated hunting with the game warden.” They get a bad rap, brant, for being dumb. They are a unique species. They breed basically at the North Pole. They are very gregarious species. They’re flock oriented. It lends them to decoy. I have a soft spot for brant, they’re just unique to the area. They’re fascinating birds and they definitely die easily. I swear, sometimes you just shoot and just out of sheer fear they just fall out of the sky. You shoot the lead bird and five birds fall back and you’re like, “I can’t be that bad of a shot,” and then it gets up and flies away like nothing happened. They’re silly birds, but they’re definitely special to the area. That is one thing I try to stay on top of as a waterfowl hunter. I like to get out and watch guys brant hunt because growing up in a, like I said, “you eat what you shoot” household. That’s a violation to stay on top of. I don’t like seeing guys shoot stuff and not take it out. I’d rather you own up if you accidentally shot an extra bird or two. Just own up to it and take it home. I’d rather you come out like a man to me than mud stomp a bird. There’s nothing more disrespectful to a bird than to just let it float out, or just mud stomping and not bringing it back with you.
Ramsey Russell: We shoot black brant out on the Pacific Flyway and from Isanbat Lagoon, clear down to Mexico. Every black brant I’ve eaten is really, really good. They’re very good. I have heard for decades that these Atlantic brant aren’t worth a flip to eat. I don’t understand. What are your thoughts on that?
Dave Faith: I think they have eelgrass beds on the west coast.
Ramsey Russell: It’s withering, but Alaska, Azimbek, has got one of the largest eelgrass beds, if not the largest eelgrass bed. Those birds key in on eelgrass. And I know that in the Atlantic Flyway 10% or less of the native eelgrass beds remain because of sedimentation. and everything else. But I had some brant last night that one of my hosts prepared that was excellent. It was very good. I’m like, “Wait a minute. This can’t be brant, they’re not supposed to be good.” What are your thoughts?
Dave Faith: Like with all critters, diet is everything. I’ve had some black ducks that would make brant taste like filet mignon. It depends on what they eat. The brant I’ve noticed when I first come down doesn’t tend to be as strong in Southern New Jersey. I don’t think we have any native eelgrass beds left. Up towards Long Beach Island and north there’s still some native aquatic vegetation beds, eelgrass beds. My wife’s grandfather always had this story that there’s a road that cuts across the coast of Barnegat Bay, old route 72. He always told me, “You shoot brant north of 72 they are okay. You shoot brant south of 72, they are dog food.” They started getting out of eelgrass and they started getting on all those big diets,like sea cabbage, and down here, that’s what brant are eating. You’ll see that green, slimy looking stuff on the Thai drops and there’s the clam bars out in the bay. You’ll see him picking away at that. They started getting that strong odor. They just smell very strong, like the bay.
Ramsey Russell: Forrest and I stopped downtown at a soccer field or baseball field today and watched 100 brant, mostly banded, feed on turf grass. We watched them until I figured we’ve seen all the brant we could stand. I can see where that would affect how they taste.
Dave Faith: They’re very oriented to the coastline. They’ll go into soccer fields and ball fields on the coast, but you don’t see them going inland much more than a quarter mile. They’re all just getting on grass fields when they’re moving. Speaking of friends, Tyler Coleman, after a hurricane, a few [brant] must have went off course and he found some in central Pennsylvania. He looked at the rule book and he said, “Well, brant opens in a couple of days in Pennsylvania. I can’t imagine too many guys shoot them but I’m going to.” So, he shot some Central Pennsylvania brant. He was proud of that one. That was up by the college he went to.
Ramsey Russell: It’s like an old friend used to say, and it’s true, “There’s no fence in the skies.”
Dave Faith: No, no, no.
Ramsey Russell: Those birds are liable to go anywhere. The same friend actually told me he shot black brant from the Pacific Flyway and Atlantic brant, banded nonetheless, in the Texas Panhandle back in the day. Those birds can end up anywhere.
Best Waterfowl Hunting in NJ?
I like different species but I’m kind of a sucker for pintails.
Dave Faith: That’s the best part of water fowl: the mystery of where these things come from and finding some of those unique species that shouldn’t be in a certain area that you think, or a band with just crazy history to it.
Ramsey Russell: What is your favorite duck to hunt?
Dave Faith: I love brant. I don’t brant hunt as much as I used to just because I got really in the puddle duck hunting. Overall, it’s better table fare. I like different species but I’m kind of a sucker for pintails.
Ramsey Russell: Really? Do y’all shoot a lot of pintails here?
Dave Faith: We don’t, they’re a trophy bird. There’s some areas that get pintails and, like what I was saying earlier, my thing is the adventure. There’s certain parts of the state where I know I can find pin tales. I know I can get on some wigeons. There’s not too many spots where you can just shoot everything in one blind. That’s my thing, but pintails are probably a coveted bird in New Jersey and there’s a few spots that historically hold them. They can be a tough bird around here to hunt. I know some of the guys out in California on the other side of the country that get tired of looking at pintails. Probably kind of like how you get tired looking at black ducks when you shoot your two and that’s all you see all day, hundreds of black ducks.
Ramsey Russell: That’s okay, like Brer Rabbit said to Brer Fox,
“Don’t throw me in that briar patch,” because black ducks are special. I really don’t see too many back home in Mississippi and it’s like I told my host, “I’m just here really to shoot black ducks and brant.” Four birds a day, that’s all I care about.
Dave Faith: It’s amazing the perspective of people on what you don’t have in your area. Last year we took some guys out and the guys asked if I could help them out. Some folks were doing the East Coast tour. That’s what they wanted, black ducks and brant, we’re over here drooling over pintails and wigeon and they had enough of them out in Washington that they wanted their black ducks and brant. It’s amazing the smile on the faces that you get. Man, you really take some of these things for granted. Brant can be really underappreciated here just because we’re used to them and you’re not paying attention to them. Just like I said, sometimes people get them a rap that they’re dumb birds, but they’re special to the area. That’s why I do like them and am going to rank them up there as one of the top birds to hunt.
Ramsey Russell: Do they migrate much? Will the brant we’re seeing here continue migrating much further south?
Dave Faith: They’re pretty much here in New Jersey and Long Island in winter. I believe it’s about 70% of the population of the Atlantic Flyway. Up where you were today up towards Atlantic City is the epicenter for brant in New Jersey. You get more down South. Guys down in Virginia, coastal Virginia down around Chincoteague, like to shoot brant, too, but nothing like where you are today. You want brant, it’s Jersey or Long Island where you want to go.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, y’all have been listening to my buddy, Dave Faith, New Jersey Division of Fishing and Wildlife. We’ve been talking about New Jersey hunting and conservation and his job in law enforcement. Y’all tune in next week. We’re going to have some more conversations from here in New Jersey. You won’t want to miss it, see you next time Duck Season Somewhere.