Following a 4-day stretch of daily American Black Duck limits, plenty other ducks and Atlantic brant kicked in for good measure, Ramsey Russell sits with hosts John Daffin and Jim White to sip rounds of “apple pie” and recount the past week’s New Jersey duck hunting events. What were these 2 long-time buddies hunting origins, how’d they meet? They hunt similar habitats, targeting similar species, but how do their hunting styles differ? What’s duck hunting really like in New Jersey, what are some of the unique political obstacles to duck hunting? What about the food? Pull up a chair and join in a real New Jersey duck camp-style BS session in the podcast episode of Duck Season Somewhere.
New Jersey Duck Hunting with Jim White “Extraordinaire” and “Black Duck Whisperer” John Daffin
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell. Join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. Today it’s duck season in New Jersey. The last day, for me, that it’s duck season in New Jersey. Man, have I had a great time. I’ve always wanted to hunt here, have always heard about the great hunting, the marsh hunting, the traditions and everything else. It wouldn’t have been possible without today’s guests—my two hosts, my two friends—Jim White and John Daffin, who welcomed me into their homes and fed me and took me out into the marsh and introduced me to a ton of people that you’ve heard. Anyway, guys, how are y’all today? Good, I know, because we’ve been sitting here talking and laughing the whole night. Introduce yourself.
John Daffin: John Daffin. How are you doing?
Ramsey Russell: I’m good. How are you?
John Daffin: Oh, great.
Ramsey Russell: John, how did you get into duck hunting in New Jersey? Tell us a little bit about your background in duck hunting.
John Daffin: So I didn’t start duck hunting as soon as I started hunting. I was a deer hunter for the first couple years—ten, eleven, twelve years old. My dad had stopped duck hunting when they went to steel shot, so we deer hunted for a little while. I wound up with a small boat. It’s just what I wanted to try to do, so I convinced my dad to go back to it and here we are, twenty-some years later.
Ramsey Russell: Why did he get out when steel shot came along?
John Daffin: They had their older guns. You couldn’t shoot it through them. They were all full chokes. They didn’t want to ruin their guns.
Ramsey Russell: What’d he shoot?
John Daffin: Model 12.
Ramsey Russell: Model 12. Old doughboy gun, a trench gun, as somebody called mine the other day. My dad had one, too. When they came out with that newfangled steel shot, he said, “Screw it. My time has passed.”
John Daffin: Yep. He didn’t want to do it. I still have that gun. Maybe one day I’ll shoot some BOSS shells through it.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Did you teach yourself to hunt, then, getting out in that marsh?
John Daffin: No. He taught me a lot of it, the fundamentals of it and everything, and then we butted heads about what we were going to do and not do. We kind of figured it out.
Ramsey Russell: How about you, Jim? How did you get into duck hunting, here in New Jersey?
Jim White: Well, I grew up in Philadelphia, and my cousin lived in New Jersey. I used to go over and visit him all the time, and he took me duck hunting one time. I just said, “Wow, I want to do this. This is all I want to do.” I actually taught myself how to duck hunt on the Delaware River, right in the city limits. I could see the prison. The Philadelphia Police Academy was right behind me. You could hear the police officers target practicing. You’d hear the guns going off, and I’d be on the Delaware River shooting ducks. Then, through my cousin, I met my wife. My girlfriend, then. I just started hunting Jersey and moved to Jersey. I’ve just been hunting ever since. It’s been, probably, about 45 years.
What kind of ducks are the target in New Jersey?
I have never shot a wood duck in the Coastal Zone. That’s a Jim White Extraordinaire.
Ramsey Russell: Do y’all remember your first ducks? Can y’all remember back that far?
Jim White: It was a wood duck.
John Daffin: Yeah, mine was a hen wood duck, too.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
John Daffin: Yep.
Ramsey Russell: That’s surprising. Not a black duck?
John Daffin: No. When I started hunting, my parents lived in South Jersey, but not really near the coast, so our first hunting was swamp hunting, basically, in the woods. Much like Jim, off of the Delaware River. Places up that way, up by Philly. We hunted up there for a few years, and it was mostly wood ducks and mallards up there.
Ramsey Russell: Jim, you shot a wood duck yesterday out on the bay.
Jim White: Yes.
Ramsey Russell: How common is that?
Jim White: Not real common, but it does happen.
Ramsey Russell: Was he lost?
Jim White: I don’t think he was lost. If you only go across the parkway, you’re in what we call the South Zone, and it’s all woods and ponds and flooded timber. They’re there. I’ve shot them down here before, in the meadow, but it’s not an everyday, common thing.
John Daffin: I have never shot a wood duck in the Coastal Zone. That’s a Jim White Extraordinaire.
Jim White: I’ve shot like three of them. Right here, too, in Sea Isle.
Ramsey Russell: Trifecta. Extraordinaire, you said. But y’all target black ducks when you go out there. That’s what y’all target. That’s what y’all are after. Black ducks and brant.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That’s about it.
John Daffin: That is about it.
Duck hunting & lifelong friendship
We started hunting a little bit together, and I guess that was the beginning.
Ramsey Russell: How did you two guys meet?
John Daffin: Well, it’s so unfortunate.
Jim White: I was down in Brigantine at the ramp. Me and my buddy Charlie were hunting down there with his stepfather. We would go down the ramp, and I’d see John and his dad pretty much every Friday and Saturday morning. You know, at the ramp you’re always talking, and one day we kind of just started talking. We started hunting a little bit together, and I guess that was the beginning.
John Daffin: How old were you then? I don’t think I was driving yet, so I was probably 15 or 16 years old when we first met.
Jim White: Yeah. I was probably around 21 or 22, I guess. I don’t know. I can’t remember. It’s a long time ago.
John Daffin: Yeah, definitely a while.
Ramsey Russell: Did he look a lot younger then?
John Daffin: Yeah, he did.
Jim White: I had hair.
Ramsey Russell: Was that back in the days when you were hunting out of those sneakboxes almost exclusively?
John Daffin: Yeah, that’s all we did then.
Ramsey Russell: Both of y’all did that. Everybody did it, and a lot of people still do it.
John Daffin: They do.
Jim White: I still do it.
Ramsey Russell: We saw a boat at the ramp, today, that was one of those designs. I noticed, the last several mornings—we have been hunting weekdays, but we have seen some people at the ramp—that unlike some places—Arkansas public land, for example—people are a tad friendlier.
John Daffin: Yeah, it’s not bad.
Ramsey Russell: I didn’t get out thinking I needed to have brass knuckles or suspecting that my tires are going to be cut, or anything like that, when I got back to the ramp.
John Daffin: No, it doesn’t get that competitive up here. It’s not too bad around here.
Is New Jersey duck hunting more on public or private land?
It’s all either a Wildlife Management Area or federal property.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all have hunted public your whole lives, pretty much. When you hunt coastal, it’s public. It’s a lot of public.
John Daffin: I don’t think I’ve ever hunted on private land for ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
John Daffin: No.
Jim White: The only time you hunt what I would call private land would be if you’re goose hunting on a farm or maybe a pond or something up where we live. That would be private land, and you have to have permission. For the most part, everything is on the coast here or Delaware Bay. It’s all either a Wildlife Management Area or federal property.
John Daffin: It’s the Public Trust Doctrine in New Jersey. The state owns the water, so you have the right to use the water.
Ramsey Russell: Really? There’s no other caveats or anything else? We were talking about something, this morning, in the boat. It’s different in, what, New York, or somewhere else?
John Daffin: Delaware. The rules are different. In Delaware and Maryland, you have to have permits. I forget what they do in Maryland. They have those stake blinds. If you own property, you buy a couple permits, and it wraps your property up.
Jim White: And nobody else can set up within, I don’t know the yardage, but it’s probably 250 or 300 yards, I think.
John Daffin: You would think, in New Jersey, that it would be a major problem with people setting up next to you, but it’s really not.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I was just fixing to ask that question. There were some other people out there hunting, and we didn’t have that problem at all.
John Daffin: No. If you have morals, you don’t have that problem.
Ramsey Russell: What if you get set up, you’re in a spot you want to be, and somebody shows up—ten minutes before legal, or right at legal, or ten minutes after legal—and sets up downwind of you? That never happens to you?
John Daffin: I’m not saying it won’t happen, but, usually, you can talk that out.
Hunting with hand carved decoys?
As I evolved, I wanted hand-carved decoys…It comes down to it being tradition.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. This morning, as we were leaving, we met someone that you’ve known for a long time. You said that you’ve known him since you were twelve years old.
John Daffin: Yeah. Pete Vanhouse, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: We started talking about wooden decoys and things of that nature. A lot of people still hunt like that. Jim, you still hunt with hand-carved decoys. Some that you’ve carved, some that Charlie’s stepdaddy carved.
Jim White: Well, when I first started hunting, I had plastic decoys because I was sixteen years old and it was all I could afford. As I evolved, I wanted hand-carved decoys. I started purchasing them. Then I started carving my own. A friend of mine helped me carve. But the plastic decoys have evolved so much since the beginning. They’re a lot lighter to carry. I’m 58 years old. It’s a little easier with the plastics. My theory on that is that if you’re out in the meadow and a storm comes, or if the wind kicks up and you’ve got to get the heck out of there; I’ll leave my plastics, but I ain’t leaving my cork hand-carved decoys. A lot of guys are going back to plastics now because they’re cheaper and nicer looking.
Ramsey Russell: They’re cheaper and nicer looking.
Jim White: But it is nice to hunt over your own decoys.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, it’s almost like it elevates the sport to a little more of an art. That’s what those hand-carved decoys do. I don’t think I’ve been—and I’m fixing to go hunt Chesapeake Bay— anywhere in the US since, say, October—which is twenty-something states—that hunting over hand-carved decoys is as big a deal as it is here. We’ve met a lot of guys here, just in the last few days, that hunt over hand-carved decoys. Just the other day, me, you, and Forrest hunted over yours.
Jim White: Yeah. It comes down to it being tradition. If you try to buy a hand-carved rig now, it’ll probably cost you a pretty penny. When you can sit there and buy $70 mallards and $70 black ducks, it is what it is. Times are tough, especially with what we’re going through with COVID and everything. We’re not picking up any young hunters. It’s getting tougher and tougher. We’re a dying sport, I think. I don’t wish that on us, but I see that coming with all the anti’s and the gun laws. I don’t know where we’re going to be, but I’m going to keep duck hunting.
The future of duck hunting in New Jersey and beyond
I don’t know where we’re going to be, but I’m going to keep duck hunting.
Ramsey Russell: You brought up the subject, so I’m going to go there. With respect to laws and politics—I guess we’re talking guns and hunting in general—what do you think about that, being here in New Jersey, versus other places that you hunt? How do you feel about y’all’s situation?
Jim White: In our state?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, New Jersey. Because on the one hand, you’ve got a lot of public land, a lot of nice public land. Once you get away from those boat ramps and get off in that marsh— Hell, you might as well be sitting in the 1800s. You’re just out there like it’s always been. But, man, there’s nine million people sitting in this tiny little state, and y’all are different from other parts of America.
Jim White: Well, back in the day there were a lot of duck hunting clubs out in the meadow. They’d have their houses or their shacks. It was a big thing, and there were a lot of duck hunters. The difficult thing with our government in New Jersey is that we don’t have a game commission. We have a Fish and Game Council. In Pennsylvania, they have a game commission. It’s the Pennsylvania Game Commission. So when you buy your hunting license, that money goes to the commission, and that commission puts it out wherever they need to buy land or do whatever they need to do to make the hunting industry better for the hunter. In New Jersey, our licenses, permits, and stamps all go to the state, and it goes into the general fund. Then the government allots so much money to the Fish and Game Council.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all are at the raw mercy of liberal-leaning politicians, without an appointed committee, like commissioners, that we have in most other states. That’s scary.
Jim White: We have what we call a Game Council, and it’s made up of— Well, I don’t know exactly how many people are on it, but there are people that are from the outside of hunting, there are people that are in there from hunting, and then there are biologists. But it’s all appointed by the governor. It’s appointees. It’s not voted on. Our hunting licenses are going to fix potholes on the roads, fix bridges, maybe some of it goes to welfare. I don’t know. It’s not coming to us. It’s not coming back to the wildlife and our region.
Ramsey Russell: But y’all are paying y’all’s fair share. The hunters up here are buying licenses, buying stamps, probably paying special taxes and everything else like you do everywhere. Y’all are taxed a lot, up here in New Jersey.
John Daffin: It’s a miracle that we have all the public land that we have, being that it goes into the general fund like that.
Ramsey Russell: It’s good property, too.
Jim White: Back in the day, like a lot of states, we used to buy a duck stamp. It used to be a stamp that you stuck on it, just like the federal stamp. That money from our state went into the Duck Stamp Committee. There were probably five people on that committee, and they would buy a lot of property with that money. They would either redo a property that needed some help, as far as water structure and stuff like that, or they would just purchase a new property. They wouldn’t purchase it, but they would give the money to Fish and Game to buy more property and make a better Wildlife Management Area or more bayfront. I don’t know what’s going on with that. I haven’t really been involved in that lately, but we don’t buy a stamp anymore. We just give the state the stamp money.
John Daffin: Yeah, we get a plastic stamp. That’s all.
Has duck hunting changed much in New Jersey over the years?
I think that we lost a lot of duck hunters.
Ramsey Russell: How have things changed since you two met? I see where people have evolved more from the Barnegat Bay sneakbox tradition into boats like you’re using with a surface drive. You’ve got an outboard, Jim. Just more conventional hunting methods. What about the ducks, the resource, the land? The number of people hunting out here, now. Have things changed in the past few decades?
John Daffin: I think that we lost a lot of duck hunters. Some people will say it’s crowded, but they weren’t here twenty years ago. You’d go to the ramp twenty years ago, and you couldn’t get a parking spot. You’ve seen what it looked like the past few days. There were way more people back then, even though you may get a different story from somebody else. I’m pretty sure that all the numbers were down on the hunting licenses, too, in Jersey.
Jim White: I used to be really involved in Ducks Unlimited. I always knew the duck stamp numbers. Way back when, I was state chairman. I was really involved in the Duck Stamp Committee, and I would know exactly how many duck stamps we sold in the state. Every year, it was going down, down. Then we got rid of the duck stamp. You still have to buy a duck stamp through the state. I don’t even know if it’s a stamp.
Ramsey Russell: It’s just a fee now, is what it is. It’s not a stamp.
Jim White: Yeah. The numbers are way, way, way down.
John Daffin: There’s not much recruitment of younger people.
Jim White: Yeah. You try to get young kids into the sport, and—
John Daffin: It’s expensive.
Jim White: Yeah, it is expensive. A lot of guys just don’t want to put the time and energy in, and I think it’s going to be the downfall of our heritage. We don’t get these young kids in because they’re all on their Xboxes or their iPads.
The benefits of scouting in duck hunting
My job lets me hunt five days a week, right now, so everyday I can see what the birds are doing.
Ramsey Russell: Well, besides that, marsh hunting like we’ve done the past few days is hard. It’s not just launching the boat, going out through an oxbow lake in 32 feet of water, and setting out decoys. The tides are moving. You’ve got to know where you’re going or you’re going to spend the day there till the tide comes back in, or you’re going to bust a prop, or you’re going to tear up something. Then, even if everything goes perfectly, it’s just a wet, muddy, nasty-ass mess when you get back. Everything needs hosing off to get that sticky saltwater off.
John Daffin: I think he’s having post-traumatic stress from the past couple of days.
Ramsey Russell: No, I’ve done that before. It’s not bad at all.
Jim White: We should have made him walk in some real good mud.
John Daffin: We did a little bit today. He got to it.
Ramsey Russell: We were talking about going down to Venice, Louisiana, and down there you do just what you did, but, normally, you step out of that boat and get into a pirogue. Either coming or going, you’re going to have to get out and pull that son of a gun, because the tide’s moving. You’re in that soupy-ass mud. I’d say that’s harder than what we did. You, of course, made it look easy, John. You knew just where we were going and everything else. Talk a little bit about the hunting style we’ve done. I will say that how we’ve hunted the past few days with you, John, was very unique. You knew where we were going. What were you generally looking for? To me, it all looked the same. It’s just these cuts and “cricks,” as y’all call them. I call them “creeks.” It all looked the same, but you knew there was something going on.
John Daffin: Well, I do do a lot of scouting. I spend a lot of time out there. My job lets me hunt five days a week, right now, so everyday I can see what the birds are doing. One day, they’re on this tide over here. One day, they’re on that tide over there. It’s not something that the weekend warrior, so to speak, can consistently go out and do. But if you’re there all the time and almost doing it like a job, it kind of starts to click after a while and goes together, for me.
Ramsey Russell: Every day we went, we set up, and, depending on when the tide started to fall— The first morning, it’s like, almost immediately, the birds were decoying. But then the tide has fallen later each day.
John Daffin: We lose the tide about 45 minutes a day, it gets later. Those birds want to feed on low tide. It’s no secret.
Ramsey Russell: Why? What’s going on at low tide?
John Daffin: They can get to the bottom. They don’t want to feed on the top of those salt marshes. There’s really no food up there for them.
Ramsey Russell: Does it have something to do with clean water coming in out of the drains, too?
John Daffin: Not really. They kind of go somewhere else to get fresh water. They want the snails and all those invertebrates that are in the mud. The brant want that sea cabbage. You’ll see the brant at high tide just rafted up. Then, when the tide starts dropping, they’ll start moving around.
Ramsey Russell: Yesterday really drove home your scouting and finding what we were looking for. Because we were up in the meadow. We were out of the bank. We were floating in standing grass. The tide starts to fall about a foot an hour, as you said.
John Daffin: You told me we weren’t on an axe, yesterday.
Ramsey Russell: Well, to start off we seemed like we were between F and U. Of course, you and Forrest were dialing in on the mergansers and buffleheads, getting all the misses out.
John Daffin: You got to get it right.
Ramsey Russell: They’re coming through at daylight. Then we picked up a couple of high black ducks. Until then, all the black ducks were indifferent. They were a mile high. They looked like jets on a trajectory going from point A to point B. They knew where they were going. All of a sudden, a few started working. A few worked high; then that tide hit a sweet spot, and ducks were just dumb. They were coming in like you wanted them to come in, and “Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam,” we were done. That’s a black duck limit.
John Daffin: Yep. That’s how you want them. They get to a certain point in that tide, and they know. I don’t know how they know, but they do know what they’re doing.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. You knew that was coming?
John Daffin: I knew it was coming. I just needed you to be patient.
Ramsey Russell: Well, that’s why I bring coffee and an iPhone. I’m patient.
John Daffin: Yep. It always works out.
Shooting your own decoys?
Man, you know, some BB holes in those might make them look good.
Ramsey Russell: Why the difference in how you set up and how Jim hunts, in terms of decoy spread? Jim, when I hunted with you the other afternoon, you had maybe fifteen or twenty decoys. Half brant, half black duck. You’re throwing three or four dozen.
John Daffin: I fill the boat up.
Ramsey Russell: Fill the boat up?
John Daffin: That’s it.
Ramsey Russell: Why? Because everybody I’m talking to— We had a guy on the first podcast, last week, that said, “All I needed were seven black ducks and a seagull.”
John Daffin: Maybe I needed a seagull, I don’t know. Could have used a seagull today, I guess. Who knows? I just think the more the merrier, honestly. Plus it makes Jim uncomfortable when he goes with me and I get him to throw four dozen decoys out.
Jim White: It’s more work!
John Daffin: But we kill ducks, so.
Jim White: I’m 58 years old. I don’t want to have to—
John Daffin: I went just the opposite of Jim. When I started out, my dad was hardcore L.L. Bean cork decoys and all that stuff.
Ramsey Russell: How big was his spread?
John Daffin: Not big. Maybe a dozen, but we never used them because he was under that impression that you only need a couple of black duck decoys.
Ramsey Russell: Did he have a seagull?
John Daffin: No, he did not, actually. We would have argued about the seagull, I’m sure. Since he’s stopped waterfowl hunting, I decided that it was probably a good idea to try some different stuff, and it works for me. The bigger spread works for me. It might not work for everybody.
Jim White: It doesn’t always work, the bigger spread. Sometimes you can’t put it—
John Daffin: It depends on where you’re hunting.
Jim White: Yeah, and what’s going on.
John Daffin: If you’re scouting ducks and there’s a lot of them, I like a lot of decoys. If you’re scouting ducks and there’s not a lot of them—like if you were going to hunt in a salt pond—that six black duck thing would be fine.
Ramsey Russell: A salt pond. Are you talking about the little ponds up off the channels we were in?
John Daffin: Yeah. If you’re going to do a layout blind hunt in them or something like that, you probably don’t need that many decoys, because there’s probably a few black ducks that use each one of them. They don’t need to see a lot of decoys. But if you’re hunting the way that I hunt— I want to be able to pull ducks, so I feel like I need more decoys.
Ramsey Russell: Well, as we were driving back to the boat ramp in the afternoons, there were times we were seeing singles and pairs everywhere, but then there were times when we’d get twenty or thirty black ducks in one part of an area.
John Daffin: That’s where I want to be with my boatload of decoys. The problem is that you can’t hunt all of those little ponds because some of them are only three foot by three foot, and there’ll be two ducks in it. That’s some of the problems. If they really don’t want to be where I’m at, I’ve got the power to draw them a little bit, I think.
Jim White: The big reason, though, that he has all those decoys is that— You noticed, I’m sure, because you helped pick them up. Did you see all the putty on them, and the caulk? That’s because he shoots the shit out of them.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, he shot three yesterday morning. I’m thinking, “Man, this man shoots his own decoys.”
Jim White: That’s why he puts four dozen out.
John Daffin: Well, guess what? You wouldn’t be shooting the decoys if the ducks weren’t in them.
Jim White: I try to shoot them before they land.
Ramsey Russell: I brought my lucky decoys the other day, too. He said, “Man, you know, some BB holes in those might make them look good.”
John Daffin: Character in those decoys, you know?
Ramsey Russell: Give them a little character. Is it true that you used to go to boat ramps, John, and swap boat trailers?
John Daffin: That has happened to me before.
Ramsey Russell: Tell me about it.
Shenanigans on the hunt
How did you get back at him?
I put his boat up for sale on Facebook.
John Daffin: Well, I went to go put my boat on my trailer, and it wasn’t my trailer. The guy next to me had my trailer on his truck, and we couldn’t really figure out what was going on until we figured out that Jim and Charlie were already gone and at the Rod & Reel bar. That kind of shenanigans used to happen.
Ramsey Russell: What made you think of that, Jim? It really would have been interesting.
John Daffin: A dozen Coors Lights probably started it.
Jim White: It might have been thinking about going to the bar, but it was always fun to bust on John. If you could get John, you got him, and it was always good. It would eat him up.
John Daffin: It took me eighteen years to get you back for that, but I finally settled the score.
Ramsey Russell: How else did you used to mess with him?
Jim White: I think one time we put his trailer on top of his dad’s trailer. We did that, too.
John Daffin: Yeah, that sucked.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all managed to get it off?
John Daffin: Yeah, we did. Eventually. Somehow or another. But it was like three of them putting it on there, and it was me and an old guy trying to get it off.
Ramsey Russell: How did you get back at him?
John Daffin: I put his boat up for sale on Facebook.
Jim White: I got like fifteen texts and three phone calls. “Is it really only for a thousand dollars?” It was probably worth about seven grand.
John Daffin: That was great.
Ramsey Russell: Of course, you were the only one that could take it off.
John Daffin: Oh, absolutely. I wouldn’t have that any other way.
Jim White: It was off in about five minutes after I found out it was on. He put my cell phone number on there.
John Daffin: Well, how were they going to get a hold of you?
Jim White: I got three dates out of it, though. That was pretty good.
John Daffin: Bobby Kenny.
Side-shooting ducks in the New Jersey marsh
You’ve just got to adapt a little bit.
Ramsey Russell: Let’s not even go there. I’m scared to know what kind of date you got. Tell us more about hunting out there in that marsh, John. You’re set up in a precise way. The blind. You built those blinds.
John Daffin: Yeah, I did. Because there’s no real store-bought blind that does what I want it to do. I don’t like a real high blind, and I don’t like a real low one, so it was easier for me to just build my own. Fabricate my own. Trial and error. That wasn’t the first one that I’ve had. I’ve probably scrapped and built six or seven of them to get it the way that I wanted it. You have two harder edges on one, and this one will be a little bit too low. It took years for me to get exactly what I wanted. It may just look like a blind to somebody, but I have a lot of thought process in that thing.
Ramsey Russell: Tell everybody why you built the blind you did. Because you’re not pulling up just, at high tide, pulling up in the middle of the meadow. You kept saying, “No, no, just watch the other bank.” You’re looking for that black line, looking for mud to show, and then you want to get down just below the bank and blend in it. That spartina is pretty shallow. It’s just knee high.
John Daffin: A lot of times I can’t hunt where I want because you can’t hide there. The only way to get around that is to build a lower-profile blind. It doesn’t have a roof, but I think you would lose some shooting if you had a roof on it, somehow or another. I went back and forth with the roof for quite a few years trying to figure it out.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I can see where you could lay that Fast Grass—like you had some over the front and back, where the dogs hid—over some in the middle and kind of cover up some of that gap. Because I noticed that sometimes the birds would get where they could look— You can read those black ducks. If they get to see something, then they bounce. Just like the day they were driving us crazy. It was cloudy, it was hazy—
John Daffin: It wasn’t a good day for them.
Ramsey Russell: They’d get right there where you’re starting to get ready to stand up, and then they’d bounce. Just fifteen feet too shy.
John Daffin: The only thing you can do on days like that is go home.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. That’s what we did.
John Daffin: Yeah. Well, that’s the only thing you can do. If the conditions aren’t right, it doesn’t matter what you’re hiding in. Honestly, it’s not going to help you. I don’t know. You’ve just got to adapt a little bit. We moved the boat a couple times the other day, and it made a big difference. Turn it, move it, wiggle it around.
Ramsey Russell: Right about the time the tide hit that sweet spot yesterday, the sun did too. Where we were set up—the way the wind was, the bank we were against—we were backlit and just completely obscured in a shadow.
John Daffin: Yeah. You see, when I first started duck hunting, my dad was always a wind at your back guy, no matter what. Always had the wind at your back. Never, no, nothing else. That was the way it was. My style has changed. To get that right angle, I don’t mind side-shooting them. I won’t sit there with the wind in my face, because I don’t like that, but I don’t have a problem side-shooting them to get the sun right or whatever you have to do. I don’t like them looking right at the boat when they’re coming in.
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of advantage to side-shooting, hunting a cross wind, because if they’re looking at the decoys and coming into the wind, you’re kind of in their peripheral vision where you can get away with a little more movement when you’re standing up or getting ready to shoot or something like that. That’s the way I look at it.
John Daffin: That’s exactly the way that I look at it. Sometimes you wind up with it at your back, and you’ve just got to make the best of the situation. But if I can avoid it, I do. Me, personally.
Ramsey Russell: Yesterday morning was nice because, waiting on the ducks to fly and everything else, y’all were going to town on the buffleheads and mergansers. I was just glancing around. I looked out there, and, over the big water, here comes a line of birds. I said, “Is that brant?” “Yeah, that’s brant,” and they had a Canada goose with them. That got pretty salty.
John Daffin: Yeah, it did. I had to stop making eye contact with the goose. I thought Forrest had him.
Ramsey Russell: I couldn’t believe— No, because you were saying, “Don’t shoot the big one. Don’t shoot the big one. Let’s get the brant, because it might be our chance.” Y’all didn’t hold up your side of the boat, by the way, but then that big goose came all the way back. I couldn’t believe, after all that shooting—
John Daffin: Two honks, and he locked right up. Came right back.
Ramsey Russell: Came right back and died. That was a really fun morning.
Jim White: That’s because he got hit with a golf ball on the golf course there.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. He wasn’t thinking clearly.
Jim White: He wasn’t thinking.
John Daffin: He thought he was a brant.
Ramsey Russell: What about this little ball park down the road here, John, that has so many of those banded brant?
John Daffin: That’s Jimmy’s little stash of spots.
Jim White: I’ll tell you what, ten years ago, you never saw brant land on grass. They’d stay in that meadow. They’d never leave it.
Ramsey Russell: Was there eelgrass then?
Jim White: We don’t have eelgrass. We have cabbage. John, what’s that called? It’s green sea cabbage.
John Daffin: I don’t know the technical name.
Jim White: I don’t know what the technical name is.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, that’s what they call it. Sea cabbage.
Jim White: They used to just sit there and feed on that all the time. Now, you can go to any ball field up and down these barrier islands, or school field, and you’ll have hundreds of brant in there. I think it’s their way of getting back at us, because they sit there with their leg bands, or torso bands, and they tease you because that’s the ones you want.
John Daffin: Things are changing.
Ramsey Russell: Have you shot a bunch of bands?
Jim White: I’ve got quite a few bands, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: How many have you got?
Jim White: I’m at 99.
Ramsey Russell: 99. Think you’ll pick up 100?
Jim White: I’m trying. I’ll tell you what, Ramsey, I’ve gotten more than one band in the last seven or eight years, and I’ve got a little dry spell now. I might have to go to the soccer field and dress up like a little soccer player.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Go pump one. What are most of those bands off of? Brant?
Jim White: No, I’ve got quite a few Canadian geese. My favorite band is a pintail I killed out in North Dakota, and I got a drake mallard out in North Dakota.
What bands do you shoot locally in New Jersey?
Ramsey Russell: What bands do y’all, mostly, shoot locally?
Jim White: I’d say brant, snow geese, Canadians, and black ducks. I’ve got quite a few black duck bands. I’ve killed a wood duck, banded, on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. That was my first band ever. You want a funny story with that? I don’t know if I should go there with this. I was dating my wife at the time. We weren’t married yet.
John Daffin: Don’t go there.
Ramsey Russell: Go there.
Jim White: Nah, it’s all right. I was probably about nineteen years old, and I was really worried because I thought I might have to get married early, if you know where I’m going with that. I got home that night, and I’m still worried about all that. She calls me up and goes, “How was hunting?” I said, “I killed a banded wood duck.” She goes, “Well, I’ve got some better news. You don’t have to get married yet. You’re not going to be a dad.” I went, “Whew, thank God.” It was a roundabout day for me. I got my first banded duck. I still married her, though.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Did you mount that wood duck?
Jim White: I did mount that wood duck. I got that wood duck mounted.
Ramsey Russell: Have you shot a lot of bands, John?
Jim White: I have about a half a mason jar full, but I have not counted them yet. I’m not at the Jim White status on counting them. Because I feel like, once I count them, then I’ll probably never shoot another one. We shot a couple of banded teal this year. I actually shot a banded teal the same day this year as I shot a banded teal last year on the same day.
Ramsey Russell: Greenwing?
John Daffin: Yeah. In the same spot.
Ramsey Russell: Where were they banded?
John Daffin: One of them was in Ontario, and the other one was way up there. I’m going to take a look. It was 1,250 miles away.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
John Daffin: Yeah, it was up there.
Ramsey Russell: You were talking about the snow geese today. Those are those atlanticas. Those are greater snow geese. Y’all do shoot quite a few, here in New Jersey?
John Daffin: Some. It’s a tough hunt.
Ramsey Russell: Do you shoot them in fields or marsh?
John Daffin: Some people shoot them in fields. I hunt them in the marsh. I don’t field hunt them. They’re tough.
Ramsey Russell: How tough? I mean, geese can be tough.
John Daffin: You’ve got to set up a pretty good rig in the mud. They play by their own rules. You need the weather. The whole thing. You’re not going to just go get them. They’re not duck hunting, for sure.
Ramsey Russell: We didn’t even see a snow goose.
John Daffin: No. They’re not really here really good yet. Well, what I’m calling really good. We only have about 800,000 in the whole flyway, so you’re not really going to see a lot of them.
Ramsey Russell: They’re mostly over in Delmarva.
John Daffin: Pretty much. Yeah, they like the farms over there. See, we used to get a lot of them. Maybe what, Jim, twenty years ago?
Jim White: Yeah. About 20, 25 years ago. I used to gun them a lot. I used to actually do a little guiding for them. We put out 1,500 decoys, but you can’t just put them out and leave them out. You’ve got to pick them up every day, and it’s a lot of work. Back then, if you killed fifty birds a day, because that’s what the limit was. I think it was ten birds a man, and we used to take like five guys out. Now, like anything else, it’s not unlimited, but it’s like 25, and then it goes unlimited.
John Daffin: They can make it whatever they want, so it’s not going to matter. I was just telling Ramsey, today, that I honestly can’t remember anybody killing a limit with a few guys, around here, at 25. Like, I haven’t talked to anybody that’s killed a hundred with four guys. Me and Dan had a good day last year, and we were still short on the limit, with three guys, by a few birds. But it’s something to do when duck season’s out, you know? You torture yourself a little more with that. But that’s what we do: waterfowling.
Ramsey Russell: Sure. Speaking of that, everywhere I go, among duck hunters, there’s hunting styles and hunting history and stuff like that, but there’s also food. Man, we’ve eaten like kings since we’ve been in New Jersey.
Where there’s duck hunters, there’s good food!
To be a clammer, are you mucking around in the mud, just digging up wild clams? How does it work?
John Daffin: Seafood, buddy.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Seafood. I told you I was a seafood fan.
John Daffin: Well, you have to be feeling good about yesterday, then.
Ramsey Russell: Yesterday was pretty damn awesome. You farm clams?
John Daffin: Yep. I farm hard clams. That’s what I do.
Ramsey Russell: Is there any other kind?
Ramsey Russell: There’s some other kinds up in Massachusetts. They’ve got what they call steamers up there and quahogs and stuff like that, but hard clams is what I do.
Ramsey Russell: I see. What is involved with that? How did you get into that?
John Daffin: When I was eighteen, somebody said, “You should go clamming for a summer job,” and here I am.
Ramsey Russell: Killing it.
John Daffin: Yeah. I turned it around. So I wild clammed for a few years, and then I started scalloping, lobster, and then sea bass. Probably about age thirty, I met a guy that had a clam hatchery. I went in partners with him, and I started growing clams. A few years into that, I wound up getting rid of all my offshore fishing boats and just going solid into growing clams.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you were talking about lobstering this morning, during a lull, and you said, “Once you were out there, you knew you were on your own. If shit hit the fan, weather-wise, there wasn’t anybody coming to get you.”
John Daffin: No, because when you leave the inlet, you’re by yourself. Coastguard’s not always there.
Ramsey Russell: Pretty dangerous stuff.
John Daffin: Yeah, there were definitely some days when you were saying, “Dear God, I won’t do this again,” but then you would just go right back out next week and do the same shit over again.
Ramsey Russell: Got to get that paycheck.
John Daffin: Yeah. It never really changed, but I made it in and out of the inlet for a lot of years, and now I gave it up so my life is way less adventurous.
Jim White: Now you just urinate in wetsuits.
John Daffin: I’ve got the only job where you can pee on yourself.
Ramsey Russell: What a joy. To be a clammer, are you mucking around in the mud, just digging up wild clams? How does it work?
John Daffin: No, it’s a little bit different. We plant small clams under protective netting. We’ve got a crew of guys, and we harvest. It’s a production aquaculture, but it’s just like a farmer farming his thousand acres. It’s automated. It’s not a wild harvest. It’s sustainable. We put in, and we take them back, you know what I mean?
Ramsey Russell: How?
John Daffin: What do you mean?
Ramsey Russell: You take them in and put them back?
John Daffin: No, I mean that we put them out as seed, we grow them, they’re our clams, and we take them back.
Ramsey Russell: How big are they when you put them out?
John Daffin: Six millimeters. Teeny.
Ramsey Russell: Tiny. Where do you get those at?
John Daffin: From the hatcheries. There’s a couple hatcheries in New Jersey and a few hatcheries up in Massachusetts that we get them from.
Ramsey Russell: You were showing me last night how to age those clams. Man, everything I know about clams will fit in a thimble. Those things were two or three years old.
John Daffin: I have like a two year grow-out on mine. Every time you look at a clamshell and there’s a check on it, that’s a growing cycle for a clam. In the springtime, there’ll be a check. In the fall, there’ll be another check. You can count how old the clam is by those checks. You look at a wild clam and it’s got a bunch of checks real close together. It grows real slow. These clams that we’re growing now are modified to be super-fast growers so we can get the turnaround out of them. They’re actually better. They don’t shrink on the meat, but, definitely, the brood stock that the guys use are top notch. They’re constantly selecting new brood stock.
Ramsey Russell: That’s a huge, huge industry right here. You two guys traveled down to South America with us, and you’ve told me numerous times, “I cannot go, will not go, before July the fourth.”
John Daffin: Oh, the holidays are my busy time. I can’t leave my guys like that. We’re selling to places, to supermarkets, that are not just a supermarket but a supermarket hub that services three hundred supermarkets.
Ramsey Russell: How many clams are we talking about, John? Millions? Thousands?
John Daffin: Millions.
Ramsey Russell: Millions of clams.
John Daffin: I’ve often wondered how much butter it has taken to eat all the clams that I’ve sold in my whole life.
Jim White: I never thought about that.
John Daffin: I mean, what are we talking here? Like twenty tractor trailer loads of butter?
Ramsey Russell: A couple of tankers, anyway.
John Daffin: Yeah, something like that. People eat clams. I don’t know where they all go, but, man, they eat them.
Jim White: Cha-ching, cha-ching, cha-ching.
John Daffin: That’s it.
Ramsey Russell: Forrest and I told you yesterday that we love oysters. The last time he and I sat down to really get after some oysters, they were fifty cents apiece, and we ate sixty apiece. But we showed up last night, and I guess I’ve never eaten good clams like that. How’d you cook those?
John Daffin: I just steam them. Just water, steam them. You can put some beer in there, but—
Ramsey Russell: When you say “steam them,” do you mean “boil them”?
John Daffin: No, I don’t boil them. I actually steam them. I have a strainer in there that we steam them with. They don’t take too long. I’m not a super big clam fan, honestly.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I guess if I was handling millions a year, I might not want to eat them either. It’d be like working at a pizza shop. You get tired of it after a while.
John Daffin: Kind of over it. I’m glad you guys like him. Maybe y’all can buy some. Buy some local clams, Jim.
Jim White: I always buy local clams, John.
John Daffin: That’s just a local place that had clams.
Ramsey Russell: We’ve eaten real good here. Last night was amazing because we had clams and we had oysters raw, which I love.
John Daffin: I got tired of shucking the oysters for your son.
Ramsey Russell: That’s all right, your buddy came over and cooked some really, really good crab soup that knocked me out. Man, it was like eating homemade ice cream. I was ready to go to bed after I ate two bowls of that. All kinds of good crab stuff. We came in today and, man, the house smelled wonderful, Jim, and y’all were cooking Philly cheese sandwiches. That’s kind of a big thing. I guess we drove right through Philadelphia, getting here. That’s kind of a big thing up here.
Jim White: Philly cheesesteaks. If you come into this region, most people want to try a Philadelphia cheesesteak. The cheesesteaks you ate were venison.
Ramsey Russell: I know.
Jim White: Okay. But it was a similar version of Philly cheesesteak, just with deer meat.
Ramsey Russell: It’s kind of a big deal. Everybody here—we were talking at dinner—de-bones those hindquarters and freezes them for a little bit and then shaves them. Y’all actually put up deer meat for Philly steak sandwiches.
Jim White: Yes. We’re just trying to mimic what we get in Philly but with deer meat.
Ramsey Russell: They were good.
John Daffin: Do you know that the best way to tell a good Philly cheesesteak, when you buy it at Gino’s or Pat’s in Philly, is if you can see through the paper bag for the grease. That’s how you know you’ve got a good cheesesteak up there.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. What’s the best Philly cheesesteak you’ve ever had?
Jim White: Where?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Jim White: Steve’s. There’s probably a hundred cheesesteak places in Philly, and I work up there a lot so I’m always around. Like John said, Pat’s and Gino’s are the two well-known ones. They’ve been in the movies. You’ll see them in movies, Rocky and whatever, a bunch of films. There’s probably twenty or thirty that are really, really good with them, but they’re not as commercialized as those two. I hate to say that, because they’re great places, and if you come to Philly that’s where you should go because that’s what you want to try. There’s a place called Steve’s Prince of Steaks, and they’re really, really good.
Ramsey Russell: It’s like when you go to Memphis for Memphis barbecue. Everybody talks about Rendezvous, but none of the locals do. Nobody goes Rendezvous except tourists.
Jim White: That’s why. I don’t go to the touristy places.
Ramsey Russell: Nobody goes there. We all go to a hole in the wall, maybe in a bad part of town, that just has the best food. Is it pretty similar?
Jim White: Pretty much the same. Gino’s and Pat’s are good, but, like you say, the locals don’t go there.
What to expect for the rest of the New Jersey duck hunting season
Ramsey Russell: What does the rest of y’all’s season look like? What do y’all expect for the rest of the season?
Jim White: Hoping for some really cold weather. We need ice and snow.
Ramsey Russell: It sounded like y’all have got some coming next week.
Jim White: We’ve got a couple of days, and then, the following week, it’s going to warm right back up to 50º.
John Daffin: I’m just going to make the best of whatever we’ve got.
Ramsey Russell: Being here, my only disappointment—for the first trip of many more to come to New Jersey—is that I had fun shooting mergs and buffleheads coming through, but I guess I was expecting it to be more scaup or canvasbacks or redheads or something.
John Daffin: We get some bluebills, but the redheads and the canvasbacks, not too much around here. In the salt marsh, we don’t see many, I’m going to call them oddballs, up there. Teal and pintails and stuff like that. You’re going to get your random flocks of them, but most of the time, nine times out of ten, you’re going to get out there what we shot this week. If we get some ice, that could change the game. It’s going to close off some of those potholes, close off some of the freshwater, and you will get some of those birds in there. The last redhead I shot was in Sea Isle, here, about five years ago. I’ve never shot a canvasback in New Jersey.
Jim White: I’ve only shot one, and it was up the Forked River, up at the Barnegat Bay.
John Daffin: I heard they had some last year up there.
Ramsey Russell: Black ducks and brants. That’s the big deal here.
John Daffin: In the Coastal Zone, yeah. Now, if you go to the South Zone, you’re going to get teal, wood ducks, some mallards. You‘ll get your pintails and all that kind of stuff there. Because that’s brackish water down there. Out here in the Coastal Zone, what’s here is what’s here.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I came for the black ducks particularly, and you’re a black duck whisperer, John. We got black ducks every day, and that was pretty dang amazing. I don’t think anybody else— In fact, I know the few people we saw at the boat ramps didn’t have nearly the hunt we did.
John Daffin: But you’ve got to know that I’ve been hunting for them since I was twelve. Eventually, after that many years, you’re going to get fairly decent at going after them. It also helps that I’m out there a lot.
Jim White: The nice thing is that, up there where he hunts, it’s a vast, vast marsh. Down here at the house you’re staying at, you go out to the ramp and there’s ten trucks there. Those birds are getting shot out real quick.
New Jersey brant and black duck hunting (and mostly more about good food)
If you’re going to shoot them, you’ve got to learn how to cook them.
Ramsey Russell: One of the biggest surprises to me was that, yeah, we shot some brant while we were black duck hunting, but really, to target brant, you’re hunting differently, in a slightly different location, a different point, or a different flyway. We had to move that day to get our brant.
John Daffin: Right. You can kill some black ducks where you kill some brant and vice versa, but in order to— I don’t want to say guarantee, because there’s never a guarantee.
Ramsey Russell: Capitalize on it, yeah.
John Daffin: To be in the best situation to kill black ducks, you’re probably not going to see anything but black ducks and hooded mergansers.
Ramsey Russell: You get way back up in the meadow.
John Daffin: To kill brant— I’m not saying you won’t kill some black ducks doing it, but you probably won’t kill very many.
Ramsey Russell: They want to be mostly back on the big bays.
John Daffin: On the big bays, on the sandbars. All those little places like that.
Ramsey Russell: Man, for forever—and I mean forever, for twenty or thirty years—I’ve heard that Atlantic brant were sorry to eat, that they were worthless. A lot of people, I’ve heard say, don’t waste their time hunting them because they’re terrible to eat, yadda, yadda. We came here the other night, and you said, “Here, try this.” I assumed it was backstrap or something else. It was very, very good. It was Atlantic brant.
John Daffin: Yeah. If you’re going to shoot them, you’ve got to learn how to cook them. I’ve tried them the way that everybody else tries them, and they’re not good. Then again, black duck’s not good if you’re just going to throw it in a frying pan. You’ve just got to be creative with it.
Ramsey Russell: Black ducks even here, because they’re marsh animals, get a little strong.
John Daffin: Yeah, they do. I soak mine in water, and then I marinate them.
Ramsey Russell: Tell us specifically how you cooked those brant, John. You’ve got a very specific method. They were so good that I posted them on social media, and one of your buddies wrote me up and said, “They’re pulling your leg. That’s chuck roast.”
John Daffin: Well, any ducks or brant that I shoot in the salt marsh, I soak in water overnight. I change the water a couple of times. Like twenty hours of soaking. Then, if I’m going to just cook them on the grill, they go in a marinade. I’ll put soy sauce in there, McCormick Honey Hickory rub, McCormick Sweet & Smoky rub, and then some garlic powder. I’ll let them sit in there for another twenty hours, and then put them on the grill. The problem with the way people cook ducks is that if you overcook them, they taste like liver. I don’t care what you put on them.
Ramsey Russell: Real strong flavor.
John Daffin: It’s got to be medium rare. They’ve still got to have a little blood in them. Then they’re good. There’s nothing wrong with them.
Ramsey Russell: Did you smoke those brant breasts?
John Daffin: No. I put them on a pellet grill at like 350º. They’re on there for like twenty minutes. You don’t have to smoke them. You don’t have to do them low and slow or anything like that. It’s 350º, twenty minutes, and get them off of there.
Ramsey Russell: They were right on time. That was really, really good.
John Daffin: They disappear when I put them out, so they must be good all the time. Everybody eats them.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I tried to tell you how to make jezebel sauce, and you couldn’t find any apple jelly.
John Daffin: They don’t make apple jelly in New Jersey.
Ramsey Russell: That’s crazy.
Jim White: I’ll get Chris to make it.
John Daffin: They’ve got apple butter.
Ramsey Russell: Apple butter ain’t the same.
John Daffin: I don’t even know what it is. I’ve never bought it before, but I have a half a gallon of it if you want it.
Ramsey Russell: You did teach us a little trick last night when you made that cocktail sauce. You used wasabi instead of horseradish. That was fine.
Jim White: Well, that was horseradish in it, with wasabi.
John Daffin: Well, I put the horseradish in, and it just wasn’t enough. I wanted to burn nostrils.
Ramsey Russell: Well, it did. It was good. It was just right. Just the right amount of nostril singing going on. I appreciate y’all having Forrest and I up to hunt with y’all. We had a wonderful time. It’s just like everywhere else, it seems, that I’ve been. I’ve always wanted to hunt New Jersey, but I leave here thinking I’ve just scratched the surface. I’ve just seen a little bit. Now, I want to see a lot more. Folks, y’all have been listening to my friends Jim White and John Daffin in New Jersey. See y’all next episode of Duck Season Somewhere. Thanks for listening.