Autumn is usually incredible for field hunting ducks and geese in North Dakota, but this hard-boiled collection of dedicated diver duck hunters march to a different drum beat, choosing to chase canvasbacks, bluebills, redheads and more over a massive spread of traditional, hand-carved wooden blocks. Following a brisk morning in the blind, Ramsey Russell joins die-hard diver enthusiasts Jeff Pelayo, Eric Smith and Texan Mike Hruby for conversations about why this kind of hunting most appeals to them.
Diver Duck Hunting Where?!
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere from North Dakota, been out on a lake hunting divers, shot canvasbacks, bluebills, buffleheads, maybe a free redhead hadn’t seen them shoot a few puddle ducks. And when you think of North Dakota, you don’t think of coming diver duck hunting. When you think of diver duck hunting, you normally don’t think of hunting over 100 or more hand carved wooden decoys that set out from opening day to the end of season. Listen, I get them. But then if you ain’t thinking that way it’s because you ain’t been up here in North Dakota hunting with today’s guest Mr. Jeff Pelayo. Jeff, how are you buddy?
Jeff Pelayo: I’m good, thank you Ramsey.
Ramsey Russell: Man, what a heck of a trip. This is my second time up here and I’ve had a great time. I kind of get my diver fix up here, I was telling you. This is kind of where I get my diver fix.
Jeff Pelayo: Right.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about this Jeff, I don’t know where to start with you man, I mean you’re in North Dakota, which is the holy grail of field hunting mallards, and pintails, and Canada geese, and snow geese, and you’re sitting out here on this great big body of water chasing divers, what’s up with that?
Jeff Pelayo: Well, part of it is a situation when I moved here 10 years ago, I was lucky enough to find this place I live on this farm that is on a really nice productive body of water. And when I first moved here, I knew it was going to be good, but I didn’t realize how good it was going to be. And I have exclusive access to this point that we’ve been hunting. You hunted it last year this year. Like I said, 10 years now I’ve hunted the same spot. And although I’ve seen it change over the years, it’s been consistent. We shoot lots of diving ducks, we shoot just about everything off there.
What’s the Draw of Hunting Diver Ducks?
They’re an amazing bird to chase and the wing shooting is challenging.
Ramsey Russell: Why divers? What is it with divers that compels you Jeff?
Jeff Pelayo: For me, I love hunting water. I love dogs working on water. And it’s chasing canvasbacks and bluebills and redheads.
Ramsey Russell: When you think duck hunting, you think hunting water, at least I do in the southern–
Jeff Pelayo: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: Now folks, you honestly go check out AWA waterfowling and because he posts a lot of pictures of his den/mud-room/decoy storage band, it’s a museum. It’s a historical museum of prints, and paintings, and decoys, and books and all kinds of memorabilia that stretched way back. I’m looking at some freaking old antique shell boxes here and all the prints have got ducks over water hunters on the water and stuff like that. Is that kind of where we’re getting at here?
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, for diving ducks, specifically canvasbacks, there’s so much history and lore with that specific bird, and I don’t get tired looking at those birds, them working the decoys, having them dead in my hand. I mean it’s just, I’m still excited after all these years of chasing them before I even moved here. They’re an amazing bird to chase and the wing shooting is challenging. Out here you’ve experienced it and you could see how they work the decoys and all that. That does a lot for me, although I love field hunting too and I love shooting mallards. My first love is probably diver hunting divers here on big bigger water.
Ramsey Russell: Do you think that has to do with having worked up there on Delta marsh?
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah. Yeah, that’s certainly —
Ramsey Russell: Is that kind of what hooked you into it, like the Ducharme decoys and stuff like that?
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, that’s certainly part of it.
Ramsey Russell: Who was the Ducharme?
Jeff Pelayo: Duncan Ducharme was a decoy maker that carved decoys on the Delta marsh. Him and his family, they were all decoy makers.
Ramsey Russell: For the Bell family?
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, for the Bell family and others. They carved decoys for others. But probably most notable was for James Ford Bell, back in the 20s. They’re historic decoys made by him. They’re very well known today. And those are some of the decoys I collect from the Delta marsh is also because of my association with Delta Waterfowl. Having been a Delta graduate student doing my research in Minnesota, Manitoba during the late nineties with ruddy ducks. And I have spent time at the main research station there before it got flooded out years ago. Did some work there. So, what an amazing opportunity it was in place and obviously Delta back then and to me still today. Canvasbacks is very much associated with Delta. Their logo, that they had their earlier logo, things like that.
Ramsey Russell: The best logo, I think their best, was canvasback head. No offense Delta, but I really did like the canvasback. To me, it’s one of the most iconic North American species. More so than a mallard, I think.
Jeff Pelayo: I agree. Like I said, the history of canvasbacks, how do you ignore that? What an amazing story they have from back in the market hunting days until today. They’re just incredible birds. And I think they seem to take a backseat to the mallard at times as other ducks too.
Wooden Decoys vs. Plastic Decoys
Folk art they’ve become, but only as an old man looking back in retrospect and watching modern day duck hunting stream across my social feeds.
Ramsey Russell: Jeff, it’s very impressive coming to your setup. It’s a permanent blind, more or less. And the decoys, and why wooden decoys? I mean these are works of art. They’re not, they’re not plastic, disposable, relatively cheap decoys. This is a sizable financial investment – you’ve made functional art out there on this body of water. I mean, why in this day and age doesn’t a man just go pitch out plastic?
Jeff Pelayo: That’s the whole thing, right? Our society is disposable. Everything’s disposable these days. But for me, I love history, I love tradition. These are the things back when I started hunting that drove me to want to do it. Drove me for my passion for waterfowling and waterfowl in general. But back then, I used plastics, absolutely, I couldn’t afford wooden decoys.
Ramsey Russell: I still use a lot of plastic but you said the word disposable.
Jeff Pelayo: Uh-huh.
Ramsey Russell: And I’m remember growing up back in the 70’s. And I’ve heard stories and maybe 10-15 years before that my ancestors were using wooden decoys, and different decoys, and then came the progression to plastic, and paper mache, and different materials that really don’t – like you’ve got decoys in here 100 years old or older in your museum and you see these old decoys and I know they were built for hunting. I know that those carvers that were carving them for $5 or $10 apiece, never dreamed they’d be worth $100,000 some of them. Folk art they’ve become, but only as an old man looking back in retrospect and watching modern day duck hunting stream across my social feeds. Can I maybe go here and follow up with what you’re saying on disposable? But I don’t think my granddad, I don’t think that generation regarded duck hunting or ducks or the resource or the tradition like they do today something they just did. They didn’t go out with this heavy metal grind, got to get my limit, got to get my limit or I ain’t going to be nobody at the office money. I got to, they just went out. I mean I asked my uncle recently about limits, and ducks, and how many they killed and he couldn’t remember. He grew up hunting with my grandfather, but he doesn’t remember all these years later the numbers of birds. He remembers falling in the ice. He remembers the retrieve, he remembers one time particular my grandfather missed, that’s what he remembers. He don’t remember nothing about the ducks in terms of numbers. And so, I’m just throwing this out here. I’m asking you because you used the word disposable. I wonder if in my lifetime the last, let’s just say 40-50 years as the world, not just duck hunting, but the world to include duck hunting, progress to this disposable everything. Disposable clothes.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, certainly.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, I’ve got jackets hanging somewhere at home that belonged to my grandfather. I don’t wear them anymore, but they’re still there.
Jeff Pelayo: Sure.
Ramsey Russell: Well, do you think a lot of synthetics are going to be around in 70 years? The decoys. I mean, I’m asking myself and I guess I’m asking you or asking the listener, is it possible that that our cultural use of purely disposable products has transferred for some of us to a value system like this disposable mentality for the ducks itself? I’m just asking myself when I watch these social media feeds, I wonder if some of these people today piles and smiles and hero shots feel a connection to that resource like our ancestors did.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, even for me, I’m grateful that I had brothers that took me hunting and showed me the value of hunting. It wasn’t just piling up birds. It was the whole process. It was waking up early to go take a road trip and go hunting and shooting one bird, and admiring it and not tossing it in the mud and respecting the resource and keeping it beautiful. I think I mentioned to you the other night, the refuge I hunted in southern California, the Imperial Valley wildlife area, three hours east of san Diego, had a refuge system, the Wister unit that I hunted and from day one hunting there and then going to the check station. And they always asked me, your birds look alive, you keep them so nice and beautiful when you come check them in at the station. I said, yeah there’s so they are beautiful and I respect the resource and so one bird back then, I didn’t have that problem mentality. It was the whole process of water fowling not just killing birds. Being with my brothers traveling, all of those things involved setting decoys, all of those things I’ve carried on to me today and I still love it. And I think part of that is why I love tradition. I wasn’t one to change much with modern waterfowling, I appreciate it. But here hunting with wooden decoys, old browning auto fives, all those things, I’m kind of like in my own little world that I used to read about and I enjoy that. Today I’m able to do that financially, I wasn’t when I was younger, but I still have keepsakes from back then from when I was hunting. And hunting over these wood decoys, like I said, it’s my own little world and I’m happy to share it with people who are like minded, who appreciate hunting over wooden blocks, all those things. And there’s one thing for sure. Plastic decoys don’t write as nice as wooden decoys.
Ramsey Russell: No, they don’t, they really don’t. I sit there and look at all the — it’s been relatively slow the last few days. I think we’re waiting on ducks to come down with the weather. It was hot last week. It’s for whatever reason, it just doesn’t seem to be the ducks on the lake in the world last year. Not just, I mean shot canvasback three days in a row, no complaints, but, nonetheless, I find a lot of entertainment value sitting there in that blind and looking at each of those decoys floating in the water, the different styles. They’re all canvasbacks or that Ducharme style is very, very unique. And then then I’ve seen some other carving styles and different. Who are some of the carvers represented in your spray?
Notable Wooden Decoy Carvers
I hope that someday someone wonders, “I wonder where these birds were used?” because whenever I pick up an old decoy, you can’t help but wonder about the story that decoy saw.
Jeff Pelayo: The bulk of my spread is made of decoys made by Pat Gregory out of Illinois. Pat makes a really durable bird and soaking them all season like that. They rarely get anywhere unless they’re bumping up against each other. Another maker is Top Monton out of Missouri, he makes another durable decoy. Marty Hanson, I have a handful of decoys made by Marty Hanson. Marty is very well known in the decoy world. So, these guys are also my friends. I love supporting their art, but one thing’s for sure, no matter if the decoys, $150 for one or $1500 for one, they serve the same purpose to be hunting decoys, to be gunned. I’m not one to worry about a dent scratch. Yeah, don’t shoot my decoys, it happens. But do your best to not shoot my decoys. I’m okay with that. They get a pillar to, you might not get invited back, but that doesn’t bother me. They’re out there being working decoys. I feel like I’m trying to write my own story as a waterfowler and this is the way I’m going to do it. Someday someone’s going to end up with my guns, all my decoys, they’re going to have scratch marks, but they’re going to tell a story my story and that’s kind of what I feel like I really want to achieve here by using these old decoys, old guns, old clothing, old waterfowl clothing. I hope that someday someone wonders, “I wonder where these birds were used?” because whenever I pick up an old decoy, you can’t help but wonder about the story that decoy saw. If it could talk, what it would say to you? So, for me, these are, these are tools the other thing, which is nice is, yes, they may be tools for me during the waterfowl season, but in the off season they’re beautiful pieces of art without a doubt and, they adore my shelves and I get to enjoy them on my shelves as well.
Ramsey Russell: Functional art.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, functional art. Again, I’m not worried about cracks and scratches and things like that. These decoys were made to be gunned. The decoy makers that made them are happy that they’re being gunned versus just sitting on the shelf looking pretty. They’re functional, they’re functional, they’re made well. And you know what, I want to look at beautiful decoys on the water. I want to shoot a nice gun, old gun. They’re reliable. These old guns are reliable. We just don’t seem to be making things like they did in the past. Things don’t last like that. From clothing, to decoys, to guns and I’m not going to say anything bad about modern guns or anything cause there’s some fine guns.
Ramsey Russell: I shoot modern guns now but I love, I do love an old gun. I’ve got some and I’ll give them a shout out thanks to ball shot shells contemplated. I’m able to take those safe queens back out to the field. I mean my goodness, Jeff, you were shooting 1950s era humpback, Sweet 16 the other day when that big flock of cans came.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, and I’m able to boss has two- and three-quarter inch one-ounce number five loads and fantastic, perfect marriage for these older guns, and I don’t have to worry about them.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to rest just a little bit, because, what do you think about that one-ounce load because I just got to say it.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I shot him for the first time 10 days ago out in the field from kind of a chair back seat. I didn’t hit worth a ding dang and I wasn’t too happy with them. I was like, oh, I don’t know about these, but since then maybe it’s just the angle them ducks were me sitting down or maybe my timing was off that day. But since then I’m like holy cow, holy cow, these things are putting a whooping on them.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, they throw a beautiful pattern and when you’re declined birds, they knock them down. I’ve shot plenty of snow geese with my 16-gauge. One ounce loads one is number fives. Everyone’s shooting bigger loads and this and that and just downing them. I’m a believer in them and that’s why I shoot them, not to mention their light on your shoulder much lighter on your shoulder.
Ramsey Russell: Beat up to that square load.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Which is a lot what to go back, which is a lot like those loads of yesteryear.
Jeff Pelayo: Right, right.
Ramsey Russell: They were nice square led loads. This is 86-87%, kind of like lead density and it is the good old days. I got to tell you, I was thinking yesterday I probably won’t be buying those heavy loads. We’re probably going to stick with these little one ounce, one of the eight-ounce loads. Now that’s what we’ve been shooting down in Argentina, parts of Mexico, other parts of the world, them little light lead loads like target loads and I’m like, wow, these are not tightened up a little bit. I went to, it improved my before and it’s all I want out of it.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, they’re fantastic. I’ve shot everything from teal to swans with them with my 16 gauge and those one-ounce five decoy the birds and range. Take those good shots, you’re going to bring them down and you’re not getting beat up all day. I’ve gone through that over the years. And so, I’m a big fan of Boss Shot Shells. I’m so happy I get to shoot those shells out of my old guns. I recently bought an old Parker shotgun that I’m hoping to take my swan with this year and using those new two- and three-quarter inch one ounce, number five Stinger loads. Again, it’s going to take a nice decoy shot to get that. But I’m willing to wait it out and it’ll be something to be able to take it on my side by side.
Ramsey Russell: Well, sooner or later, the swans that just started moving into North Dakota four or 5 days ago.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Sooner or later they’re going to get on this lake. They like these big bodies of water last year. It was a parade of big tundra swans coming through and we’ve just seen a few starting to show up here and you’ll get your shot. When did your season go out?
The North Dakota Diver Duck Season
I’m done at least on this body of water hunting once it freezes over.
Jeff Pelayo: Oh, shoot. I think our duck season – to me, my seasoning goes out when this freezes over. And that can be the first week of November. I won’t put my dogs on it so once it starts freezing pretty solid and it can happen overnight and that really surprises me. I used to think, oh, when it gets cold, it’s going to take a little while for this to freeze over. No, it’ll freeze overnight once it’s in the negative. It’s crazy. So, I’m done. I’m done at least on this body of water hunting once it freezes over. In the past we’ve gotten all of November hunting, but in recent years you’re looking more at early November and it’s frozen over.
The Future of Hunting Lives in the Past
These old traditional values, not necessarily old stuff, old decoy, old guns, old stuff, but that traditional value, that respect for the resource for oneself, for the game itself.
Ramsey Russell: So, you talk about respect, you talk about tradition, you talk about likeminded people. And that’s one thing is, looking at your calendar, it’s a parade of “likeminded” people coming through your house this time of year. And who are these people? I’m asking this because you never know who you’re going to meet here. I met carvers. I’ve met just a different mindset. Every time I’m here I meet people I knew. I meet biologist. I meet the president and chief biologist of Delta Waterfowl. I meet their staff. I meet different decoy carvers, different old school type enthusiasts. But I’ve also in the last few weeks, people know I’m coming over here. I’ve talked to some young people in their twenties that have reached out to you in social media. It they’re drawn to your story being written, so to speak. This story you’re laying out here on the water, they’re drawn to. I’ve always felt that, I’ve always said the future of hunting lives in the past. These old traditional values, not necessarily old stuff, old decoy, old guns, old stuff, but that traditional value, that respect for the resource for oneself, for the game itself. I know that may sound to some people like granddad talking, but that’s just kind of how I feel.
Jeff Pelayo: Water fowling is old and that tradition is still there and it’s wonderful and that’s what attracts me to it. And, as far as folks that come through and hunt with me, I love sharing this with folks. Don’t get me wrong, if I can share this with someone and them see a different side of it that they never realized was there, wonderful. I feel that success and a great thing to share that with someone and maybe they will have a similar passion someday for the past and tradition and things like that. I think part of who I have here too is my association over the years with decoys as a waterfowl biologist. My association with Delta. So, I’ve certainly been in different parts of the industry and have met lots of people who appreciate all this old stuff and hunting over decoys and wooden decoys. Not everyone does it, right? Not everyone does it or may not have not even —
Ramsey Russell: It’s really not when you boil it down.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: It’s really kind of not even traditional gear. It’s traditional mindset.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I mean traditional value system.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Jeff, who out there really me and you for the last four days who goes out to shoot one duck or two ducks?
Jeff Pelayo: And is happy.
Ramsey Russell: I mean it’s like, I told you I just don’t want to canvasbacks or two.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And bluebills icing on the cake.
Jeff Pelayo: I think you really have to have a love for these birds to be able to go out and shoot one bird and be completely content and have your dog retrieve one bird and call it a wonderful morning.
Ramsey Russell: It’s my diver fix.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: It’s my diver fix of the year. I will shoot divers, ring necks, a lot of ring necks, bluebills, some canvasbacks, who knows what else. I will shoot divers elsewhere throughout these tours and throughout the season, but this is all in diver hunt.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah. I’d like to say it’s special. Hunting over all those wooden decoys, you’re not going to find many folks doing that have that opportunity. Again, I’m happy to share it with people who reach out to me and I can tell the folks who really want to do it to experience that. Because it’s not every day here you’re going to pile them up. Don’t get me wrong, I love fast and good shoots, but I also appreciate the people I have out conversing with them about —
Ramsey Russell: The conversations and the stories are unbelievable when you start getting that collection of people from around the country from the different fields and stuff like that coming around. You never know what we’re going to talk about over dinner and what we’re going to eat for dinner.
A Traditional Approach to Diver Hunting that Reflects Old School Values
I’m all for folks getting into it and finding a passion for waterfowling later in life, it’s never too late.
Jeff Pelayo: That’s right. I love all of that. Again, to me, it’s all about the process. It’s not – waterfowling to me is a lifestyle. It’s not just during this season, I’m always doing things 365 days a year that is completely related. I don’t know anything else. I love my retrievers and so fortunate to have dogs, and working with dogs, and so to me this time is very important to me, and I wait all year and brave the cold and the hot summer and blah-blah-blah just for this time period to be out with my dogs, switching them out and hunting, and hunting with good people that will enjoy it. That don’t want to just come out and kill things it’s not just about that and they realize that. And I’m really grateful that all the folks I’ve had out are on that same mindset and enjoy themselves when they’re here, not just because we’re shooting a bird here and there, but everything. It’s really a good thing and I think we need more of that.
Ramsey Russell: We live in an echo chamber, especially this day and age on social media. I mean it’s an echo. I feel like I live in an echo chamber. And we were talking the other day and you were talking about likeminded and just certain thoughts, and I’m like I think about hunting in general. We hunters kind of like preach to the choir about the value of hunting. It’s very difficult to get outside of preaching to the choir and reach a neutral congregation out there that neither hunts nor anti-hunting and really kind of draw them in, it’s just difficult. And when you start thinking about a mindset like this that’s what I wanted to talk about this on the podcast for was its diver hunting but it’s a traditional approach to it that really reflects old school values. Maybe somebody listening says, man, that’s kind of cool. I’d like to maybe try that. Get outside your comfort level and find a little more value. I know from talking to a lot of biologists from being the last month on the road in the prairie pothole region of Canada and the Dakotas, I’m going to tell you right now, I’m scared shitless about what the duck season is going to look like later this year down south. What it’s going to look like next year after the government’s get up and do the pond counts, and do the spring counts, and do the stuff? I don’t think, I just don’t think that in 2022 we’re going to enjoy a 66 in the Mississippi Flyway. I don’t know if I can’t go out and kill six ducks and I can only go out and shoot two or three like we have in the past. I better love duck hunting for what it is and what it ain’t and I better find just a little more into it than just duck numbers and it’s very disappointed.
Jeff Pelayo: And I think that’s the problem when you lived here, I’m going to give you an example. When I was young hunting three hours east of San Diego, that’s a six-hour drive round trip. But our pintail limit was one. I’d make that drive to go shoot my beautiful pintail and I’d pass on birds until I found that right one to shoot at home, three hours later home. That’s how much I loved it. I loved the birds, I loved going, I loved the whole thing. And I think in order for hunters today to survive something like lower limits like that, they have to love it, they have to love everything about waterfowling and not just the killing part, there is so much more to it. And I realize not everyone is fortunate enough to be mentored by your grandfather or your father. I’m all for folks getting into it and finding a passion for waterfowling later in life, it’s never too late. For me, it’s just my hopes that maybe on social media, someone sees what I’m doing and becomes inspired by it, right? And I know it has happened. It just depends on the person, you can’t force people to be a certain way, but if you show them what it’s about and lay it out there. And that’s kind of what I feel I’m doing. And you can influence one or two people here and there, that’s a great thing. Because we are certainly – there’s not enough of that, that’s what I’m saying.
Ramsey Russell: Jeff, I’d be a liar if I said I didn’t like to shoot ducks. Yeah, I don’t go out there to watch the sunrise.
Jeff Pelayo: Sure.
North Dakota Gumbo and Other Food Talk
Ramsey Russell: Eric and I were talking the other night, he was cooking a North Dakota gumbo. And he makes his gumbo and it’s the same ritual. And that’s what we were talking about is how – I don’t make different kinds of gumbo, I make my gumbo and it’s a whole ritual that starts with chopping up the holy trinity. And then the duck fat or bacon grease and then browning it and then it flavors. So, I got my roux and then I add the veggies to it and then start adding the duck stock back to. It’s a ritual. It’s an hour long ritual. And the gumbo is same gumbo pretty much every time. But when I commit myself to it, it really ain’t about dinner, it’s about me cooking that gumbo, the way I cook gumbo, it’s a ritual. And I think of duck hunting, a lot of what we do, gosh, I’ve been on the road a long time I do this damn too much. Really, sometimes I think some days are good and some days are bad, some days or chicken salad, some days it’s chickenshit, but it’s all chicken now. It’s that chicken ritual that I love. I look forward to opening day like everybody else, my opening day kind of goes year-round, but like getting back on the road after a couple of months hiatus, let alone a year and a half height because of Covid. It took me a while to get everything in its place to where now, load up shell belt, and that’s really all I got to do to get ready for the next day’s load up. The shell belt, 28-gauge, no, 12-gauge, no, goose loads, yup, what I’m saying? Just that’s all I got to do. Everything else is in its place, get dressed and go hunting, but then put out the decoys and make the game plan and do this and do that and play the game, whatever. Just that ritual —
Jeff Pelayo: That’s what’s wonderful about it, right?
Ramsey Russell: And I’m happy I can go out and shoot six ducks or I can go out and shoot one. But it’s just another day of having got to do it.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, I mean, I’m going to be honest for me. I’ll always hunt, no matter what the limits are and still appreciate that process, and that’s what it’s about for me. And I think all waterfowlers started out young, and if you stick with it and stay in it, and this is my 38th year waterfowling, you change and you realize what’s really important to you. And for me it’s not shooting a limit of ducks, pretty simple in that shooting a beautiful canvasback is a great morning. And we talked about that and I know you feel similar about that. And my dog got to make a retrieval – hunting with retriever really raises waterfowling to another level and I enjoy that just as much and I know my dogs do. So yeah, I mean I hope we don’t end up there with super low limits because unfortunately, the cost is going to be possibly loss of hunters that really see waterfowling only for the kill and the social media picks. And if they don’t have that, will they stick with it?
How Waterfowler Hunters Influence Duck Populations
Our traditions, our actions, our money, the waterfowl exists because of us, not because of some government agency.
Ramsey Russell: Some of them probably won’t. I feel like most of the people listening, most of the people I come in contact with through a blessed lifestyle will. I think they will, but we need hunters excited, we need hunters committed, we just do. Man, duck populations are really doing pretty damn good despite the drought. I mean they really and truly they are, it’s hard to believe they are, and but things are changing, and we hunters have got to stay the course and commit ourselves to it. I mean we’re carrying this thing. Our traditions, our actions, our money, the waterfowl exists because of us, not because of some government agency. I can tell you that, because of us.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah. And regardless of where you are as a waterfowler, we need to really show respect for the birds, and because there are non-hunters watching and we want to cast a good light on what we do not a negative light – we have enough issues and I see that stuff a lot on social media. You never saw that stuff before social media, right? I and now it’s kind of a —
Ramsey Russell: I see a lack of disrespect though, be it to a teacher, be it to a resource, be it to others. When I see disrespect, disrespectful behavior, what I really see beyond that is lack of self-respect. And that’s why I think it’s important. If you’ve got – if you’re a self-respecting duck hunter and conservationist, you respect this resource. How do you kill something you love?
Jeff Pelayo: Right.
Ramsey Russell: Exactly.
Jeff Pelayo: Exactly. So yeah.
Ramsey Russell: Jeff, you know I will be back next year.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah. I hope you are.
Ramsey Russell: You’re not going to let me take his couch home with me, are you?
Jeff Pelayo: The question is, will your wife let you have it?
Ramsey Russell: I’m just moving in while she’s gone, so I don’t find somewhere to sleep. I’ll tell you what, there’s a comfortable couch and I’ve enjoyed sleeping on it. You’ve got an empty bedroom upstairs, but I’d lay down here one night. I’m like, I think I’m going to sleep right here.
Jeff Pelayo: Looking forward to having you back.
Ramsey Russell: I’ll be back, don’t worry.
Jeff Pelayo: We still have lots to talk about and more memories to make, with our dogs.
Ramsey Russell: I’m going to tell you who would like this hunt?
Jeff Pelayo: Who’s that?
Ramsey Russell: My old buddy Lee Kjos.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: That’s who I’m going to have, I’m going to have to twist his arm to get him down here. He got a busy schedule. I’m just going to have to, we’re just going to have to insert a few days here.
Jeff Pelayo: Yeah, I think that would be a real, real pleasure to have him out here. And he’s one of our like-minded individuals and I think he’ll definitely enjoy this and I will enjoy hearing his stories as well.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. Folks, we’ll be right back. Jeff, thank you for having me. Jeff Pelayo, y’all can look him up on AWA waterfowling on Instagram check him out, y’all enjoy what he post up. We can have another one of our like-minded North Dakota diver hunting guys come on board and talk about it. Eric Smith, North Dakota blue bill enthusiast. But that ain’t how I met you.
Meet Eric Smith, North Dakota Blue Bill Enthusiast
I’m a freelance hunter in North Dakota.
Eric Smith: It’s not.
Ramsey Russell: I met you over there, I met you with Nick Marcy and very memorable introduction to you because you’re the guy that went to go get the truck when Nick said he’s gone, let’s draw for the band.
Eric Smith: If that’s exactly how it went, it’s not the story he tells me, give me more —
Ramsey Russell: That’s just how I remember it.
Eric Smith: I figured I’d go get a cup of coffee and it was apparently the wrong time they thought I was there. So, I didn’t get in on the band drawing.
Ramsey Russell: Second time I’ve seen you over here at Jeff Pelayo’s. What do you think about this setup?
Eric Smith: That’s why I come here, man. I’m a freelance hunter in North Dakota. I’m not a spot hunter. And at Jeff’s weak sort of spot hunt because, he’s busy with his dog business and he takes really good care of the dogs of, not only his own, but his client dogs. He can’t really stray far. So, it’s the camaraderie and the friendship that we do out here, we do shoot a lot of diver ducks out here, but probably most importantly, it’s a heritage thing. We both love hand carved decoys. I make hand carved decoys. And so, we love shooting diver ducks over them.
Ramsey Russell: I was going to ask you about your hand carved decoy. When did you get into carving them?
Eric Smith: I started in, I think 2015 was the year then I started making decoys. A lot of these decoys here that Jeff hunt’s over, a guy named Pat Gregory of Illinois. And he’s a prolific carver, he carves more decoys than breaths he takes in a day, it seems like but Pat used to help us band bluebills on pool 19 of the Mississippi River. Yeah, he used to come over because he’s a hunter conservationist and he really cares about the resource and he’s been a huge help. And then he offered, when I came to grad school there, he said, hey, if you’re coming to grad school here, he should come over because you want to learn how to carve decoys, I’ll teach you. That’s how it went.
Ramsey Russell: Really? I’ve never heard this story.
Eric Smith: So, I came over to his house and he lives in the Bloomington Normal area. So I drive about an hour and a half over there to spend time with him in the shop and he showed me the basics and always provide a good encouragement. And still to this day, I’ll text him, hey man, what are you using today to seal your decoys and stuff like that, cause he likes to switch up an experiment even after I think Pat started carving the early eighties. So, he’s been doing it forever. He’s still looking for new ways.
Diver Duck Decoy Carver
We both love hand carved decoys. I make hand carved decoys. And so, we love shooting diver ducks over them.
Ramsey Russell: Beautiful decoys by the way, I tell you, do you specialize in diver duck decoys? Is that kind of your thing or do you just carve whatever?
Eric Smith: I would carve whatever I’ve got. I’ve got plans. I mean the thing with me and decoy carving is I love doing it. It’s just time. I’ve got a young family and I work a lot. So, I get to carving spurts and I wish I had more time to carve. But I actually have only carved diving ducks.
Ramsey Russell: You got to watch them spurts because I carved a long time ago just mallards, black ducks, which was just my black ducks and mallards. I didn’t want to paint this mallard. So, I just ran out of time and paint them as a black duck and green winged teal, which I love. That’s what we shoot a lot of back home. And two years ago, I painted some that I had carved in a spurt 20 years ago, 20 years preceding. Now, I still got eight. I look at reminded me they need paint. Those birds get further and further apart, the busier you get sometimes. I heard you and Mike talking today about swapping out some bluebills.
Eric Smith: Yeah. So, one thing that I like to is to collect too, I don’t have the collection that Jeff has here, which is one of the best, especially, if you like Delta marsh decoys. I mean he’s got a ton of them. And, yeah, Mike and I were talking about, let’s pick a species and do a decoy swap. So that’s one cool thing to do with carvers is basically like, hey man, let’s do a swap. Let’s do a bluebell or a bluebell parent will swap them.
Ramsey Russell: As a freelance hunter jumping around in different areas, hunting puddle ducks and divers and geese and you don’t always cast out of hand carved spread, I’m sure, do you? I mean that’s a lot to carry around.
Eric Smith: Yeah, I know. I think at some point, like I have plans to have an entire puddle duck rig for these small prairie wetlands that I hunt which will probably largely be made up of wigeon, teal, gadwall and then a couple mallards, and so I’ve got plans to make those, but yeah, a lot of times I still bring plastics. I mean it’s just more convenient and sometimes we’ve got big numbers of decoys out. I just don’t have that many hands carved decoys.
Ramsey Russell: When I hunt over my own decoys just once or twice it’s usually a boat in or a super small spread.
Eric Smith: Mm-hmm.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of times in the deep south basically later in the year when those birds get stale. A big spread or no bueno, just one or two decoys is all you need.
Eric Smith: Just something for them to look at and can on it.
Ramsey Russell: For them to see and no pattern to it. Be a mallard 30 yards over there and a pair of something else pair of teal or another pair of mallards 30 yards the other way and don’t talk to them.
Eric Smith: Sometimes you got to go back to the roots of being real basic, no modern stuff, no spinners, nothing like that. They see so much pressure and they see so much of the same thing that you deal with the dull birds after a while they start to, and you get birds that have been in an area for a while.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Eric Smith: They can get stale and then get smart about it.
Ramsey Russell: Last time you’re on a podcast, and of course would you and Jeff Pelayo last year, I became aware of the bluebills and your passion for bluebills, and well we talked for days and recorded a podcast about what’s up with bluebills. But that’s kind of your heartbeat those bluebills. Man, you get passionate about those freaking scalps.
Eric Smith: I do. I just —
Ramsey Russell: Like nobody I’ve ever seen.
For the Love of Bluebills
Eric Smith: Yeah. Like we talked in the last podcast that goes way back to my early days of hunting and they were the abundant duck. My dad hunted them all the time. And so I don’t know, I was always enamored with when you’re a kid, a duck is a duck right until you actually go out and you start seeing that they’re all different. And that was one that I just liked the way they work decoys, it always seems to be that mid-October, end of October that they’re coming through the Northland and they just coming in these giant bunches. The way they work a decoy and the way they are so acrobatic that they just kind of took me back then.
Ramsey Russell: Hunting might have layout both very different and hunt them over sets like we’ve been doing the last few days. I mean when divers come in, they’re like a roller coaster train. They’re all moving together, the flock’s kind of moving together like a roller coaster train just, and they’re assertive, and their fast wing beats and they’re direct. It’s not like slow ducks coming in lollygagging with their feet down slow motion fixing the land. These son of a guns are coming, they’re coming in hot.
Eric Smith: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And boy, I tell you what, it’ll wake you up quick and you don’t have time to go through a slow-motion game plan. Like here they come, you better get your hand on your gun and get ready.
Eric Smith: You better be ready to shoot and you better be ready to lead them.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right, get out.
Eric Smith: How many times, you ever see, you and your buddies are out and you got a big flock of bluebills or canvasbacks whatever and they’re set and they’re coming, but even when their wings are set in their cup they’re still moving so fast. And you see that first volley, they’re hugging the water. You see that first volley is like 6ft behind them from everybody and you got to quick and just in and make your kill.
Ramsey Russell: Get out in front of them.
Eric Smith: Get out in front of him, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: We had some good gumbo last night. Where’d you learn to make gumbo, Eric?
Eric Smith: Kind of winging it a little bit. But when I was been in bluebells and doing my research with scaup and graduate school, I hired a technician and he’s from Lake Charles, Louisiana. His mom knows and stuff. So, she shipped us up a bunch of gulf shrimp when we got there. I mean she’s an awesome lady. But yeah, John, he showed me how to make all the way his family does it and what they do, and how they make gumbo, and all that kind of stuff. So, I started with the holy trinity base and just kind of I call him for pointers. But, I always like to cook and I like to cook waterfowl. So, it’s something I just kind of built up over the years. But yeah, John gave me the base on how to do Cajun cooking. And so yeah, I don’t know. Everybody seems to like it. They always make me have me come over and make it. This is I think this is like the fifth time I’ve made it this season already.
Ramsey Russell: I sure enjoyed it.
Eric Smith: Yeah, it’s good. I like eating it.
Ramsey Russell: Fresh canvasbacks.
Eric Smith: Nothing better. Canvasbacks are good no matter what you do with them. And yeah, this is the first time I stocked cans in a gumbo in a while, but they’re good.
What Kind of Water is Best for Diver Duck Hunting in North Dakota?
Well, a lot of times there’s overlap with all the species because they all eat a lot of the same things. We’re looking for high-quality wetlands.
Ramsey Russell: What do you look for when you’re hunting wanting to target divers. What kind of body of water do you look for in North Dakota versus going out for mallards or wigeons?
Eric Smith: Sure. Well, a lot of times there’s overlap with all the species because they all eat a lot of the same things. We’re looking for high-quality wetlands. That high-quality wetland for a canvasback is in North Dakota, here is going to have a lot of probably sago pond weed. And so, you got to do a little scouting and you got to kind of know what you’re looking for, but you find those wetlands that are high quality that have good resources. The birds are going to use them. It’s not random across the landscape that they’re going. They’re being very specific. And once they’re on them, I look for sago pond weed for canvasbacks. A lot of times if you have a really good quality wetland, let’s say it’s in a pasture or something like that where it’s not receiving a bunch of runoff where it’s been drained or anything like that. Find those good pristine wetlands, they’ve usually got good veg and when you’ve got good veg, you’ve also got the associated aquatic inverts that the other ducks like, right? So bluebills are, I’ve talked to you about before, they’re amphipods specialists. They really like – they can feed on a lot of things – but they really like amphipods. Gamerous lacustris like this is the one that we have in North Korea, that’s a very large what people call freshwater shrimp. When you’ve got good, high quality wetlands with good veg, that’s good habitat for amphipods. If it’s good habitat for amphipods, it’s good for ducks, especially bluebills. So, you look for those things if you ever hunt a slew, you pull up your decoys at the end and they’re all over the strings, all over the decoy strings and all over the bottom of the decoy.
Ramsey Russell: Good sign.
Eric Smith: Mark a pin, remember that spot. Because the ducks will repeatedly use it as long as it’s good quality, they’ll use it year after year.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. It’s kind of tough to be a diver with blue bill peers with the limit being one in North Dakota, isn’t it? It’s one of a lot of places. And I don’t understand it. I talked to a lot of biologists, talk to a lot of people and I just really don’t understand, Eric, why there’s open to 4.5 million bluebills and we’re shooting one. I don’t understand that.
Eric Smith: Yeah, it’s a hard thing to wrap your head around and like we had a whole podcast about its last year. I’ll just say that, it sucks. Especially in North Dakota when we could have had the option of having to for part of the year whatever. But essentially, it’s set by the feds, and the states operate within that, and they basically offered up a split. You can have two for portions of the year and we’re unfortunately one here all year long. It’s hard to when you’re here–
Ramsey Russell: I want to ask because not many people targeted. That’s what I’m wondering is.
King of the North American Ducks: Mallards or Canvasbacks?
If you see old invoices for wild ducks that were being sold at market, canvasbacks were top of the list most expensive.
Eric Smith: Yeah, I’m not sure what the States–
Ramsey Russell: So much of the season. So, I mean mallards drive the machine. Who don’t like to shoot green head? We all do, but there’s way more species than just a mallard in North America, and mallard, they steal the show.
Eric Smith: They do. They drive–
Ramsey Russell: Drive the science, drive the management, drive the seasons, drive the funding, and there’s so much more to it.
Eric Smith: Hunters drive that what the hunters want.
Ramsey Russell: But then if you look at these prints, these over 100-year-old prints from all over the country: canvasback.
Eric Smith: Mm-hmm.
Ramsey Russell: That’s what drove it back in the day, back in the dawning of American duck hunting was these canvasbacks.
Eric Smith: They’re the king and they always were, they’re still the king. That’s all that anybody cared about back in the day, these canvasbacks, look at the market hunting prices. If you see old invoices for wild ducks that were being sold at market, canvasbacks were top of the list most expensive. For good reason, especially back then, they had a lot better habitat they’re eating a lot of value. Canvasbacks used to have a lot better habitat and they were eating a lot better food sources and things like that. It’s no wonder they brought a good market price because there’s a bunch of their area that’s freshwater tubers.
Traditional Diver Duck Hunting Over Wooden Decoys
Their interpretations of the species and just seeing how they look on the water.
Ramsey Russell: As a decoy carver, and on this note as a decoy carver and somebody that comes over here is what Jeff calls a like-minded guest that he shares his spread with? What speaks to you about traditional diver hunting over these wooden decoys? I mean, what speaks to you loudest about that?
Eric Smith: For me, it’s probably the little bit of variation from artist to artist, carver to carver. Their interpretations of the species and just seeing how they look on the water. It’s just cool to hunt over a traditional spread like that where it’s like, hey, here’s a handful that Marty Hanson made, and they are just really beautiful paint job, super detailed but super good quality gunning decoys. They’re going to hold up to the elements versus like he come to a Pat Gregory and Pat’s all over the spectrum with the kind of decoys he carves. You can always identify like a Pat Gregory, but sometimes he’s got more of an Illinois river style with no eyes on the decoy and real simplistic and then sometimes he does a lot more with his paint, and he’ll do feather stamping that’s more Michigan-inspired. I like the versatility, but it’s always no matter what, Pat sort of delving into with the style and where it comes from, you can always pick out a Pat Gregory decoy, they’re unmistakable. He has a certain look to the heads and the bills that you can pick out. And then obviously I’m a big Delta marsh decoy carver. I love Duncan Ducharme, and Tory Ward is my favorite carver. I get to hunt over rewards and I can pick out a Tory Ward decoy out of the whole flock. But it’s cool to have that variation out there.
Ramsey Russell: It gave us a lot to talk about this morning how that canvasback and that canvasback look subtly different, but they’re canvasback.
Eric Smith: Yep.
Ramsey Russell: And the ducks don’t care.
Eric Smith: Ducks don’t care. Ducks want to see a bunch of their species out there feeding, and that’s what they’re looking for, feeding or resting. They want to be with their kind. So, we’re talking about those feeding pods that we put out there. Just those tight rafts of one’s bluebills and one’s cans and how they’re working in that little bit of wave that was out there today. And they look so realistic. Those Duncan Ducharme decoys look so realistic, his canvasbacks off in a nice tight little feeding pod looks amazing.
Ramsey Russell: But one of my favorite views, I love to sit in the blind and just look out there at the wooden decoys bob, and the different styles, and the different expressions and everything. But boy, when you’re coming down that hill walking to the blind and you’re just a little bit above it, you see all that spread out there. The little pods, the little lines going, and the whole collection just kind of doing its thing. I don’t know, it’s just kind of impressive.
Eric Smith: It is.
Ramsey Russell: It’s unlike any other decoy spread I walk up to throughout that entire year.
Eric Smith: It’s awesome. And that’s why I come out and hunt with Jeff because he appreciates that he’s very much into waterfowling heritage, of being just this sort of traditional style hunter. That’s how he is. We don’t put Mojos and stuff out there, like we’re going old school, and we’re using hand carved decoys, and it’s a real treat to hunt over them. We have our days like today where they just weren’t flying and stuff, and the fog kind of killed us. But you have other days where it’s like just nonstop bluebills and canvasbacks and redheads coming into those and you don’t even have to shoot. I mean at some point you’re going to get your limit with 2, 2 and 1, but it’s just awesome to just keep watching them work those decoys.
Ramsey Russell: It takes a certain mindset to commit oneself to that spread to go out and shoot one or two. I mean more ducks, but you got to have all the redheads and bluebills and canvasbacks and bufflehead in here, killing it to get a six-bird limit. I mean, so normally you’re going out to shoot two or three ducks.
Eric Smith: Usually.
Ramsey Russell: Two canvasbacks and a bluebill.
Eric Smith: Yup.
Ramsey Russell: Maybe five ducks and some bufflehead or something like that come in and that’s just a whole different mindset.
The Best Wingshooting & Questions About Bag Limits
If the population will sustain a bigger bag limit to support the culture that is footing the bill for this waterfowl, why not?
Eric Smith: Yeah. Since you’ve been coming out here and I’ve hunted with you out here, it’s been one bluebill. So, go back a couple of years ago and it was three bluebills. I mean, we have so many bluebills around here and especially like a couple years ago when they were just all over this lake. We’d shoot 3,2 and 1. You’d shoot three bluebills almost guaranteed you’d shoot your three bluebills, and then you shoot a can or two, or a redhead or two, and then one or the other, or occasionally a ring-necked duck. You get your Pochard Slam, and that was awesome hunting; all great eating birds, best wing shooting you’ll get.
Ramsey Russell: I get a lot of my diver fixed coming up here and hunt with y’all. But, we really don’t back home target a lot of these birds. We don’t really target these species. I appreciate it. And you were saying today in the blind, a lot of your buddies that are big layout boat hunters really are just, they’ve either retired or just salted away their boat until the season picks up. And I mean I see that up in the Northern tier, especially the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay, wall to wall canvasback, you shoot one. Well, there’s just not a lot of people willing to go through the effort it takes to lay out boat and hunt those birds for one.
Eric Smith: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I’m just trying to say, man, it’s like the death of a culture. If the population will sustain a bigger bag limit to support the culture that is footing the bill for this waterfowl, why not?
Eric Smith: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: That’s where I stand on this, I just hate to see some of this culture of duck hunting die because of, I want to say mismanagement, but that’d be a bad word. But I don’t understand that there can be up to 4.5 million bluebills that are so important to many parts of the country, half as many or fewer ring necks and the limit is six, I don’t understand.
Eric Smith: Yep. It comes down to, I mean, if I’m going to tell somebody what can we do to like eventually maybe get more than two redheads or one scaup or whatever, it’s not that simple. So, the ones with the most restrictions, the most restrictive bags, are wetland obligate species. What does that tell you? That we’ve had declining wetlands for a long time to the point where it doesn’t support the same populations of birds anymore, right? So, ducks and geese, like take the mallard, the pintail, Canada geese, snow geese, we’ve seen their populations be really robust over years. Well, since modern agriculture really kicked in, they’ve adapted to feeding and fields and all that stuff, and obviously we know all that. But they’re not as food limited. Well, if you’re a canvasback, you’re going to get food limited. Are you going to do as well? Are you going to be laying the same clutches and being in the best body condition if you’ve been eating other food sources than what you’ve traditionally been eating? If you’re relying more on animal matter eating and inverts and things like that, snails, whatever, it’s not the same. So yeah, wetland quality would be your likely suspect right there. They’re dependent on high quality wetlands. And if they’re not as good, they’re not going to survive as well. They’re not going to do as well.
Ramsey Russell: But the blue bill population seems to be doing very well.
Eric Smith: Yeah, I’d say it’s stable over time, but there was a long-term decline. Our estimates of scaup in the sixties and seventies were definitely higher than they were —
Ramsey Russell: –Higher back then. A lot of it was. I mean, it’s just like the guy, the biologist, Klamath Basin being a special case. But to hear it said that in 1958 there were more pintails in the Klamath Basin than exist in the world today, makes me wonder.
Eric Smith: But there were more scaup – they were arguably the most abundant duck in North America. They had some pretty high breeding population estimates. And they declined for a long time. And I got to talk to you before you can’t pinpoint one thing. But there’s been some research has shown poor female body condition, poor female survival, linking that to wetland quality. But being a wetland obligate species, meaning they can’t go to the corn fields with the mallards and get some high carb stuff to keep them fat over the winter. It makes good logical sense, that’s what’s going on. There’s plenty of evidence that kind of points in that direction from scientific perspective. So what I would always tell your listeners and anybody that I talk to is you’ve got to support conservation efforts. If you’re that duck hunter and goes out, I mean all within your means and stuff, but if you’re hunting ducks, buy two duck stamps, buy one for every one of your family members, we know that a lot of that dollars goes to directly to wetland habitat conservation, 97 cents on the dollar I think is what they say. And then support Ducks Unlimited. They do a lot of habitat work, man, they do a ton of habitat work, support Delta Waterfowl. They do a lot for hunters, they do a lot for research, and they do a lot for habitat as well. Get into those groups. Even if you’re a duck hunter, let’s say, you’re a duck hunter in North Dakota and you don’t really care about pheasants, it’s a hunting opportunity for somebody. I don’t really care about pheasants that much, they’re a nonnative bird. But know what a pheasant does? They keep a lot of grass on the landscape. Grass is good for all ducks, nesting ducks, they need that. So, support your conservation organizations, go to their banquets, going to raffles like me and never get anything out of it. I never win raffles.
Ramsey Russell: I never do either.
Eric Smith: But even if I do, I always tell Terry, my friend who runs, he’s the regional director for Ducks Unlimited, and I always tell Terry, just keep it. Auction it off the next time, keep the money. That’s what I try to tell people to do, but certainly buy a couple of duck stamps every year, just to say you’re doing your part, because the reality is we get more and more people and we’re more and more taxing on resources, our wetland habitats are going to continue to —
Ramsey Russell: Keep on fighting the fight.
Eric Smith: Yeah, farmers got to farm, there’s more people, right, we’re going to lose that land and lose the quality of the wetlands. So, we’ve got to make sure that we’re doing our part to take care of it.
Ramsey Russell: Eric, I appreciate the gumbo and I sure have enjoyed hunt the last couple of days and look forward to seeing you next year.
Eric Smith: Yeah, Thanks for having me on Ramsey. It’s good to see you again too.
A Self-Proclaimed Duck Nerd: Mike Hruby
That’s why I like hanging around you guys that are all biologists, although I can’t keep up with some of the conversations, I understand enough to know what’s going on.
Ramsey Russell: Mike Hruby in North Dakota son. I’ve kept up. Well you feel like I’ve known you for years, Mike. And go figure, I’ll meet you up here with Jeff Pelayo shooting canvasbacks, bluebills, what about that?
Texan Mike Hruby: Well, I tell you – and it’s funny because like we talked about earlier, we actually crossed paths in Dallas with one of your booths. I was judging the duck calling. So we kind of sort of – but it’s always cool to follow you. I love your adventures, I love to travel and go all over, and it’s all about the experience of camaraderie and meeting people like you, and that’s the life we live.
Ramsey Russell: But what brings you, a Texas boy, up here to Jeff Pelayo? Now, Jeff just told us about having only like-minded people up here. What brings you up here to Jeff?
Texan Mike Hruby: My relationship with Jeff goes way back to me hunting Chesapeake Bay, and my decoy affinity with collecting and carving. He owned a shop at the time called the Canvasback Gallery, and we wanted to go see. I’d never met Jeff and we walked in there, he was by himself in his store. Imagine you see his house, his store was 10 times that. It was really fascinating. And he had an old Lab in there that I got to take a picture with, Jessie. She’s passed away now. Well, we stayed in touch over the years. My dog died, Jeff started training dogs. I thought, I can pay the same thing back home where it’s 100 degrees and they can train two hours a day. Or I can drive her to North Dakota and he’s got, can train all day. So, I said we’re going to do that. So, we did that and he started Dixie for me and I got to come back up and pick her up and hunt over here, and everything else. We just think alike. We have a lot of mutual friends and all my stuff is like this, it’s just not that I’m only into the sea ducks, you know that. So, but we talk all the time about stuff, and text, and everything, and you’re a duck man. That’s what we do, we’re duck people.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. Here we are hunting divers over this classical decoy spread and I know you carved decoys, but first you’re a sea ducker.
Texan Mike Hruby: Oh, I love it.
Ramsey Russell: Like nobody, I know you are mad. Like they hurt your mama at the freaking sea duck.
Texan Mike Hruby: I love me some, love them.
Ramsey Russell: You love them, why?
Texan Mike Hruby: I’m one of these ones. So, my personality is like, I climbed poles for a living for 36 years. I got a couple of years left, been in the Marine Corps. I tend to take things to the extreme and–
Ramsey Russell: You like the hard stuff.
Texan Mike Hruby: I do like the hard stuff. So, when I started hunting Chesapeake Bay, a buddy of mine from Texas moved up there, married a girl from up there and I started going up there – which is a whole other podcast and story – and that’s historical, really serious country up there. We were sitting in an offshore blind gunning blue bill, they call them blackheads. And I’m sitting there and at that point in time in my hunting career I’ve never seen a sea duck, and two old squalls fly by and it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I didn’t even fire a shot. He goes, “You’re not going to shoot.” I said, “What?!” I just had to watch him that trip. I ended up getting old squalls, surf scoters, and from there I just got hooked on it. There’s not as much information about sea ducks as there is as mallards and all your whatever. Most I see is like normal people. I started out doing what everybody else does. But I’m a duck nerd to a certain extent. That’s why I like hanging around you guys that are all biologists, although I can’t keep up with some of the conversations, I understand enough to know what’s going on. I tell you what, I’ve just got the first time I saw, I did my eiders backwards. Most guys get Commons, then they’ll get Borealis if they can get up there and then they’ll, if they can get to Alaska to get a Pacific, and the King’s probably the pinnacle. Well, I did mine backwards. I went King, Pacific, Common and then Borealis. I got one more to get if I can get that trip lined up. I’m going to Hudson Bay hopefully before, I leave earth. I got to get that last one.
Ramsey Russell: How many times have you been King Eider hunting?
Texan Mike Hruby: I’ve been to St. Paul Island three times and all three times I’ve been fortunate enough to get full limits. Two of those times they were all drakes except two, I wanted to get my first pair. And then after that I harvested a pair for a museum. That kind of didn’t work out. But long story short, I’ve gotten four. I’ve gotten 12 Kings. I’ve been to Alaska. I’ve been to Nelson Lagoon twice, Cole Bay once, gotten four of the Niagara, which is the largest duck on the planet. So I just enjoy going and I’m not a wealthy man. But when you do the things you have passion for, you work and you save for your plan and that’s what I do.
Chasing Adventure with a Passion
But Alaska is an adventure and to me – this sounds odd to some people – but the birds are kind of the fringe benefits.
Ramsey Russell: But I’ve hung around with you the last few days. I’ve kept up with you long enough to know it ain’t just to duck you’re chasing.
Texan Mike Hruby: No, it is not Ramsey. To me, it’s all about the adventure. And sometimes just getting to where sea ducks are huntable, that’s an adventure in itself. Because sometimes you get there, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes the weather likes yet, but I look like Cole Bay is a place. We’re talking about this when I first got up here in my retirement here. If somebody told me where would you go if you could only make one trip a year and for the species in the different months you can fish.
Ramsey Russell: Brants, divers, puddlers, sea ducks.
Texan Mike Hruby: Yes, got it all. You can watch brown bears and I am into beachcombing Alaska and I love glass balls. I can spend hours going out there looking for those glass balls which are Japanese and Russian fishing floats from way back. But Alaska is an adventure and to me – this sounds odd to some people – but the birds are kind of the fringe benefits. So, if you go into it looking to have a good time, meet some people, a lot of times everything else just falls into place. It just does. And hey, sometimes you’re going to get them, sometimes you’re not going to get them. Just like this year up here, it’s an odd year, but what I shot canvasbacks yesterday. I know people have never even seen the canvasbacks.
Ramsey Russell: We were set up yesterday. The only wind right there that could possibly be bad was blowing.
Texan Mike Hruby: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: It changed just a little bit. I did not and I saw those canvasbacks and when they got out there about 100 yards and banked and I could see that drake’s back, I go, I reach for my gun.
Texan Mike Hruby: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: And the next thing I know bam the drake was behind, he was on my side, bam. You come in and got yours and wow, I’m like, I just teamed up on canvasbacks with Mike Hruby.
Texan Mike Hruby: I tried to shoot drakes most of the time, but I’m a duck hunter. We like to eat them, they both ended up in the gumbo pot last night. They’re part of the limit and that’s just the way it goes. I’m not ever – we’re out here shooting ducks.
Ramsey Russell: It’s kind of weird, like somebody brought up last night, it’s kind of weird that the only duck that there’s a hand restriction on is a mallard. That’s kind of weird, isn’t it?
Texan Mike Hruby: It’s insane because —
Ramsey Russell: I never thought about it, but it’s true.
Texan Mike Hruby: I’ve learned so much from you guys. Like I said, I tell people all the time, I’ve been doing line work for 36 years it’s been good for me. It’s afforded me to take the trips, buy the decoy, it’s been my lifestyle and let me live it. But I missed my calling. I would have loved to go into school like you guys did and get out there, see where they live, why they do this? What makes him do that? Why aren’t they that just fascinated by it? And that’s when he brought that up. I’ve never, ever, ever thought about that because the mallard’s a money duck. Hey, if I’m in the timber, I’ll roll them up like a window shade.
It’s Not All About Mallards…For the Love of Gadwalls
Ramsey Russell: I like mallard. But don’t get me wrong. But that that’s just one of five dozen sub species waterfowl in North America.
Texan Mike Hruby: Sure it is. And I’ll tell you what, one of my favorite puddle ducks where I’m from on the Texas Gulf coast is gadwall, I love gadwall them all morning long.
Ramsey Russell: They kind of become the mallards of Mississippi.
Texan Mike Hruby: Gray ducks, man. Yes.
Ramsey Russell: Mike, tell that story about, you told me in the truck when I picked you up at the airport. We were going to Walmart and you got to tell me about going up and shooting borealis. Where was that? Where did you go shoot borealis?
Texan Mike Hruby: Okay, me and a really good friend of mine from Louisiana that traveled together for years. We went to Newfoundland.
Ramsey Russell: It was like going to Mexico, just sounded bright, warm and fuzzy.
Texan Mike Hruby: See because when everybody, I’m going to tell you what, I can take some cold weather and I’ll get into that just a minute. But everybody, when they think of Eiders, they think of the Atlantic Eiders, the Massachusetts, Maine and New England Eiders. And there’s four sub species, the Common Eiders in North America and there’s a European sub species. But when you go, hang out down so you get your commons around New England. Well the Northern Borealis or the Northern, obviously you got to go a little bit farther north. You’ll kill some on occasion.
Ramsey Russell: They kill deep down but they like it further–
Texan Mike Hruby: Oh yeah, there and but I’ll tell you what, I can take some cold weather and we show up in Newfoundland and man, oh man–
Ramsey Russell: What time of the year was it?
Texan Mike Hruby: In February because the season is open till March. And I was hunting with a taxidermist who didn’t do it for a living, but for 40 years he’s been doing world class taxidermy and he kind of helped me out. He skinned, was skinning all of our birds have made a really nice traveling. And we get up there, and it ain’t nothing but frozen saltwater. I’m talking big eyes and the Bering Sea is dangerous. It can be very dangerous. But in my experiences in North Atlantic is the most dangerous body water on the planet. It’s just insane. And the way they hunt them up there is, they like to eat them, and they have different limits up there, and that’s part of what they eat, they’re allowed to shoot other types of sea birds, and they eat all that stuff, and they love eating Eiders. And I just wanted to get a really couple nice drinks. Well, we go up there the way they hunt them, you go offshore upwards to 10 miles in a fisherman’s boat, and he’ll have, and he’s got a skiff, you get in that skiff after he anchors somewhere safe. And you run up on these rocks, got an inch or so of ice on them because all that – the ocean’s breaking over them. Well, you wait until it’s conducive to run the boat up on a place where it’s not going to hurt it or hurt anybody in it. You throw all your gear up there and then as the waiver season come he backs the boat back out and then you too. All right boys, when I run up there this time, one of y’all jumping out now. So he ran it up there, and we wore these big old spikes on our waders or rubber boots, whatever you had on, and they made us buy commercial grade fishing suits because when you sit up there, sometimes you’ll get a rogue wave, and you’ll be covered with that. Instantaneously it’s all over your gun, and that’s salty water, and it’s eating everything up. So he runs a boat up there, you jump off and you found a place, but it ain’t for the faint of heart. That’s hard-core Eider gun and I’m ready to go back and Covid kind of messed that up a little bit. But I’m going back to Alaska this next year, but I’m definitely going back to back. I got to see what the people if there are some of them.
Ramsey Russell: They target the hands.
Texan Mike Hruby: Oh, they call them brown ducks because I asked them why. He said, well, they’re easier to pluck. And they pluck the whole thing and they have this really unique method, I’ll show you a video later, and they can run through about 20 of them in about 30 minutes. It’s and that’s the whole thing and then they gut them all. Then they hang them and then they freeze them and that’s what they eat, man. They love them.
Ramsey Russell: I know you carved decoys because one of Jeff’s swan decoys that he leaves out all season is one of yours and you’re up here swan hunting.
Texan Mike Hruby: I got a tag. Hopefully I’m going to get one this time.
What’s the Appeal of Hunting Over & Carving Wooden Decoys?
It’s heritage, it’s history, and that’s what they did.
Ramsey Russell: I think you will. We’ve been seeing and heard one this morning that sounded real close course. Couldn’t see nothing in that fog. And what is it Mike, that speaks to you about hunting over these wooden decoys and carving these decoys? I mean, coming up here and I hunt over a lot of plastic, a lot of foam, a lot of different kinds of decoys, and no qualms whatsoever. But man, it’s just something special about coming and sitting over that spread of wooden functional art out there bobbing on the water. What is it? How would you describe that to somebody?
Texan Mike Hruby: Well, I tell you what, so for me, and this kind of goes back, like I say, the shot I fired with you the other morning. This kicked off my 50th season, I’m 56. My dad took me when I was six years old and I got a really cool story to tell you about that, a couple of years after that when he bought me my first single shot 410. But anyway, to me, you have duck hunters and then you have ones like us. It’s heritage, it’s history, and that’s what they did. Back then, they didn’t have patterns, they didn’t do all that. They needed ways to lure. This goes all the way back to the Native Americans in Nevada and Lovelock Cave where they found the oldest decoys in history, and they look just like canvasbacks. They weren’t on a shelf. They were throwing them out there to lure or hold canvasbacks to kill them for food, which is what we still do here. So, once you start learning decoy history and all the different parts of the country and everything else, it just ties into the life we live. It’s all about the motto, it’s Duck Season Somewhere. I started carving because that extends my duck season all year long. And so, I work with my hands and everything and I’ve been really fortunate enough to know and meet a lot of guys with my personality and they’ve helped me out along the way and I make gun and decoys, therefore hunting. They’re not ultra-fancy. I’m not an artist, okay? I’m a duck hunter that makes hunting decoys, not an artist that some of these guys are, the guy coming up here in the next couple of days makes some of the most beautiful decoys in this country. To me, this whole thing, it’s heritage and its history, and I hope this generation now understands that because we need waterfowl, we need people to keep hunting buying duck stamps, and they need to learn about all this stuff.
Ramsey Russell: And I would encourage anybody. I’m by no means compared to any decoy in this room or any decoy city floating out there to my decoys. I mean, look, like anything more than just crude chunks sitting out there on the water, but they kill ducks.
Texan Mike Hruby: Absolutely they do.
Ramsey Russell: And it’s a very rewarding experience to me to have carved that block into something that will kill a duck. It connects me at a different level. I tell anybody go get the material and try carving a decoy and don’t worry that it doesn’t look realistic like a world class artist, just go do it and kill a duck.
Texan Mike Hruby: Absolutely. I mean, you hear pictures of some of the old timers hunting over black milk jugs, all kind of stuff like that. To parts of the country, they make them out of crab pot buoys. You’re going to increase your chances a hundredfold if you got decoys out there that look like them. It’s a really cool thing to do. And you’re right, once you create something with your hands that you already have a passion for, and you get it ready to go, and you throw it out there, and they start coming, and you pull that trigger, and you see it laying there, and your decoys then eyesight, ain’t nothing like it.
Ramsey Russell: I was talking earlier to Jeff about the ritual of duck hunting, like, the ritual of making gumbo, and back in the day that I used to carve. I did it in batches. I might carve a bunch of heads, and then shape a bunch of heads, and then shape a bunch of bodies, I kind of did it like that. But my fondest memories of carving, I was sitting there with that Fordham tool burning, that Atlantic white pine to smell like a beautiful perfumed woman, and just being lost for hours thinking about duck hunting. It was so relaxing, it was so conducive to just sitting there chilling out and just thinking about the duck I was going to kill, and the places I’ve hunted, the people I’ve hunted with, the dogs, my granddaddy and the whole drama. It was just like climbing off into a time warp and just by carving, it just put me in this frame of mind.
Texan Mike Hruby: That’s what I do like I have, I also collect them and I’ve got some of the old timers birds. I love the old Nova Scotia Eiders and some of them, I got a couple of them over 100 years old. And I always have them around me, because I can look at him and just imagine what he felt like creating that. It’s just the whole ambiance of the whole thing is just really, but what it does, it puts people that are like-minded together. We’re duck hunters, we dug hard, this is what we do. It’s a lifestyle for us. It’s what it is. It’s a healthy lifestyle I think. You’re teaching young people. And my dad’s, well let me go back to my dad. He took me 50 years ago this season, six years old to a rice prairie west of Houston. It was nluebird day and is the greatest thing I’ve ever done. He used to hunt over cloth rags and for until I was 8 or 9 years old, I was his retriever. And I’d go out there and he’d say son, what is that? And he would teach me, he said, you’re going to learn what they look like. And then as time goes by, you’re going to learn what they sound like, you’re going to learn how to mimic that to the best of your ability, and then you’re going to learn more. Most importantly, what they look like in a silhouette, because you need to know what you’re shooting at. My first shotgun was a booming HR410 single shot. In fact, I still got it and so the first time I ever took it out, same kind of scenario. My dad’s family were rice farmers in the tractor business and the rice prairies west of Houston and we go out there, and worst goose hunting where you can imagine, crystal clear. No, when sitting there and slow as all get out, well, of course, I’m like a kid in the cancer. My eyeballs’ big around as half dollars. I’m just waiting to see something. He tells his buddy, he tells the basis, look if something comes, let him shoot and then we’ll just follow up and kill it. Well, about 15 minutes later here comes a single specklebelly that was either hung over or just out cruising around and it locked up. And he told me, he said, son, I’m going to tell you – you’re going to – he said, you stay down, I’m going to tell you when I tell you to raise up, it’s going to be right in front of you raise up and shoot and we’re going to follow. I raised up with a single shot 410 lead shot and folded that sucker up. And he looked at his way, I went, my God. And on that day, he created a monster.
Ramsey Russell: He’s proud of this moment.
Texan Mike Hruby: He really did and we took it back to his aunt’s house. They were rice farmers and all that and she baked it for me and just that whole, I can still remember every second of it vividly. It’s a special thing, man. It really is. This is a grand lifestyle we live, man. Some of the best people I’ve met in the world. I’ve met through hunting trips.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a tradition worth preserving.
Texan Mike Hruby: Oh yeah. And it needs to be, and that’s what I’m — what I got left going on there. Hey, you know what, I support all these conservation organizations, do you? I donate what I can to help out. They need the habitat work. We need these biologists like, y’all you guys, we need a pipeline of them coming up always keeping on top of this, always.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for this episode of Duck Season Somewhere. Mike, I’m looking forward to hunting with you again.
Texan Mike Hruby: Absolutely. I’m going over your catalog. I didn’t see a couple I’m interested in. So, we’re going to talk about some point, that.
Ramsey Russell: I ain’t going up there on the North Atlantic right now. That ain’t my cup of tea, but I sure enjoy soaking up the conversation.
Texan Mike Hruby: It was a pleasure and honor hunting with you and Char. She a good dog.
Ramsey Russell: Folks, thank you all for listening to episode of duck season somewhere, North Dakota diver hunting mindsets. Think about it. See you next time.