Isn’t it interesting that the oldest waterfowl hunting decoys know to exist on earth were found the the driest state in America? After 3 days hunting swans and ducks in Nevada, Ramsey meets with Nevada Department of Wildlife’s Waterfowl Staff Specialist, Russell Woolstenhulme, to discuss waterfowl hunting and management there. What’s up with swan hunting in Nevada, and how are swan managed differently in the Pacific Flyway than elsewhere? How is waterfowl habitat managed in America’s driest state, what hunting opportunities exist, what are predominate species? How might the landscape have changed since those 2,000 year-old decoys used? What role might The Harvest Initiative and “splash limits” have in future waterfowl management? When you least expect it, expect it–even while chasing waterfowl in the driest state in the US.
A Long Tradition of Hunters
We’re in the Pacific Flyway. And where there’s water, there’s ducks.
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations. Welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. I am in beautiful Nevada. Have you ever thought about coming to the Silver state to shoot duck? I bet not. We drove up through a town of the day, Virginia City and my host told me that was where the Comstock discovery was. Mark Twain wrote books there because everybody was excited about this big mining discovery and it’s still a big mining state. Why did you go out through this country now? We were in ring. No, but we go out through this country. It’s desert. I mean it just as I’m sitting there watching the sun come up over the mountains. I’m just thinking myself, what must it have been like to be on top of that mountain with a mule pack as a miner back in the day, a prospector, and all I can see forever is knee high sage brush? But it is duck hunting. We’re in the Pacific Flyway. And where there’s water, there’s ducks. And today’s guest is Russell Wuss –
Russell Woolstenhulme: Woolstenhulme.
Ramsey Russell: Woolstenhulme. That’s a tough one, Russell. For a guy like me talks with marbles in his mouth. That’s a tough one.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, that’s a long name. I’ve been stuck with it my whole life.
Ramsey Russell: Well, thank you for meeting with us this morning. What is your title with Nevada Department of Wildlife?
Russell Woolstenhulme: I am the Waterfowl Staff Specialist for the Department of Wildlife here in Nevada.
Ramsey Russell: How long you been in that position?
Russell Woolstenhulme: I’ve been in this particular position for about 10 years. A little over 10 years.
Ramsey Russell: Well, let’s start off like I always do, who is Russell, who is Russell, where are you from and what do you do? How’d you get here?
Russell Woolstenhulme: So I’m just your average guy. I grew up in the West. I grew up, I spent a lot of time in my youth between Northern Utah and Southern Idaho. My family is all from Southern Idaho. Grew up in the Teton basin, up out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, but on the Idaho side. That was my childhood passion. I love, love that place, one of the most fantastic spots on the face of the earth, in my opinion —
Ramsey Russell: Did you grow up hunting?
Russell Woolstenhulme: I did, I grew up hunting. Come from a long tradition of hunters. But it was a way of life in a small farming community where my family is all from. If you didn’t hunt and put food on the table, you didn’t have much to eat. So you hunted and it was, but it was for food, it was a way of life.
Ramsey Russell: What led you down the path of a degree in Wildlife?
Russell Woolstenhulme: I grew up doing farm work and nothing makes me happier than to be outside. And so when I was a kid growing up, there was two things that I knew I loved and it was biology because it just makes sense to me. It just, I look at it and it just comes together for me and being outside. So it made it a pretty simple decision. I can be outside and I can work with wildlife every day.
Ramsey Russell: And here you are.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Here I am in an office job. Headquarters at Nevada Department of Wildlife.
Ramsey Russell: He asked me, I texted the other day, he set up his appointment. He said, oh well you must have got your swan, and I’ve been here a couple of days. We hunted out in Carson City at the campus back club with my host and the Fraser brothers. The only swans I saw were sitting on a federal refuge, just loafing. I did not see the one in the air, although I did hear some this morning. Did not see it in the air. If you’re going to be in this game, if you’re going to come this far, especially in a drought year, especially in the dry state, you got to be willing to swing for the fences, and go back to the dugout having struck out. I mean you just got to do that, but it was still a wonderful experience. It really opened my eyes. I know I’ll come back to this part of the world, but there was a dearth of swans down here right now. And so I’ll have to come back. What’s going on with the swans right now?
Waterfowl Hunting in the Driest State
So, what happens in Nevada, we’re not what you’d call a duck producing state, right?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Well, there’s a couple of things I think that you experienced on your hunt. So one is this is an unbelievably warm here.
Ramsey Russell: It’s warm.
Russell Woolstenhulme: We’re sitting here, you were out there in the marshes, sitting in 60-degree weather and that’s never really favorable for waterfowl hunting.
Ramsey Russell: It got up to 60°. Now, what’s so interesting, we are in kind of a desert environment, the best. I mean, because you wake up now it’s 22°, that’s ice age in Mississippi. But boy, it sure warms up, it doesn’t feel like 22° out here. Right? It’s warm, it got warm during the day, quiet.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So, what happens in Nevada, we’re not what you’d call a duck producing state, right? So what we hunt here, what we see here this time of year are migratory birds, and the swans in particular, they’re migrating through there. They’ve been up in the Arctic all summer long and they’re migrating through. So Utah, that also has a swan hunt going on, or it was going on. They’ve closed their hunt because they’ve met their trumpeter.
Ramsey Russell: 16 days early, yeah.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right, 16 days earlier. This is the third year in a row that they’ve closed their hunt early. So there’s still a whole mess of the swans sitting over in Utah and there’s no weather to move them.
Ramsey Russell: About three weeks ago, the count at Freeze Out Lake, Montana was nearly 4000 birds, and it was warm, Freeze Out Lake hadn’t frozen out yet that I’m aware. And yeah, so it is kind of a warm year, right?
Russell Woolstenhulme: You know, birds are coming through, we had north of Reno here, there’s a small lake called Swan Lake. It’s within a residential area, so there’s no hunting out there, but there were 1500 swans sitting out on it week or two ago. So swans have been moving through. Like, I come out early in the morning in my house and I hear swans migrating flying overhead.
Ramsey Russell: Do they winter here or are they passing through?
Russell Woolstenhulme: You always get birds that stay here, but the majority of them are passing through.
Ramsey Russell: Down to California?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Over to California, just going over the hill, I mean, and from here to where they’re going to win her over in, in the Sacramento Valley area over there. For a swan, that’s 15 more minutes.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So getting them to stop here sometimes when conditions aren’t optimal, they’ll stop here. Obviously, we get a lot of swans. These years, we’ll survey, we’ve got a survey coming up next week for swans. And last year there were around 4000 swans sitting out here, a week from now. So that’s kind of what you’re seeing now. Another thing that I see as these birds start to figure out what hunters are doing. So this phenomenon, you saw the birds just sitting out there in the middle, just floating around all day long. I don’t know how long you were out in the marsh, but as soon as that sun sets and the shooting hours are over, they start flying all over the place.
Ramsey Russell: And we were out in the marsh all day yesterday with a one-hour breakfast and nap in between but we stuck it out. I can’t go home having sat on the couch. I got to be out.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: You know the downside, boy talk about a poor consolation, talk about kicking the cahones. My host did offer, so they said, well now we got to duck hunt, and they’re going to fly this afternoon. But we got a good shot of shooting some mallards. I didn’t come shooting mallards. And I knew it was just such a, a void in the air, and one doesn’t fly because that warm weather you talking about. So, I said no I’m going to come back, I’m going to stick it out for this swan. One of the brothers went out shot five mallards, two of them were banded. And we’ll talk about it kicking the cahones, that would have been a nice little consolation to go home and have a banded mallard.
Russell Woolstenhulme: We do a lot of banding out there out in that march. So there’s always a good chance if you’re shooting mallards to get a band.
How to Get a Swan Permit in Nevada
There’s 650 total permits for Nevada for swans. And they are currently over the counter.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. One thing about the swans here in Nevada that I find interesting is that you don’t have to you draw or apply for a permit. It’s basically over the counter. How many permits do y’all have in the state of Nevada for swans? And how did you come up with that over the counter?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Well, it’s interesting you bring that up actually. There’s 650 total permits for Nevada for swans. And they are currently over the counter. Now, until four years ago there was a draw system for those. And then once the draw was over, and the remaining tags were sold over the counter, you had to go into one specific location in Fallon during business hours to buy those. So it was quite difficult. Four years ago, we went with a new vendor here at the Department of Wildlife to sell our license sales. And that vendor, we put them online, at that time because of the huge task of getting everything online with this new vendor, those tags went from a draw to over the counter sales, just online, you can buy them, really easy to get. So part of that decision was based off the fact that the 20 years prior to that change, we had sold out in Nevada two times.
Ramsey Russell: Wow. But this year I know because my buddy Ray Fraser called me and said, “Hey, he’s going on sale by your tag and come out here.” I said, “Yeah, I’ll do it,” and he’s like, “No, you got to do it now.”
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. So that first year when we went online, all of a sudden, they went from really hard to get into the shop to buy them if you didn’t put in for the draw. And we averaged 120 of them on the draw. So like why are we having a draw? So we went online and all of a sudden it was so easy. That first year we sold out by Thanksgiving. The second year, we sold out by Halloween. Last year, we sold out by October 1st. This year, 2.5 days.
Ramsey Russell: 2.5 days.
Russell Woolstenhulme: 2.5 days.
Ramsey Russell: What’s driving that, do you think?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Two things, one is the ease of buying them. We’re going to sell them all now because they’re so easy to get your hands on, as opposed to the old days where you really have to go through some work to get them. The second thing driving it is people seeing how fast they’re selling out. Just like your friend called you and said, hey get on this and buy them now. So there’s kind of a frenzy being created. So with all that being said, we have a law within the state that says that we have a draw. So based off of that law, and we need to be compliant with our own laws, and also the fact that it’s getting more and more difficult for people to this frenzy that’s being created. We’re looking at going back to a draw. Now, that’s going to be up to our Wildlife Commission ultimately. But that’s one of the things that we’re looking at is going back to a draw system, and then if there’s leftovers, like in the old days, we’ll go back and the remainder will be over the counter if they’re not sold out. Nevada is also the only state, swan hunting state, that you can have two permits per hunter.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. How does that work? I mean you just buy one and then log out, and log back in, and buy another?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Correct, correct. You can just buy them sequentially, just like you said, and that came about because for all those years that I talked about before, the new system where we didn’t even sell out. So we got swan tax sitting here, why not let an individual having a chance for another permit? So we’re the only state that has that, based on the fact that we never sold out.
Ramsey Russell: There’s 10 states you can legally harvest swans, there’s 10 states. And North Carolina, Virginia, Delaware, Utah, Nevada, Montana.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Correct.
Ramsey Russell: North Dakota, South Dakota, Idaho.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Alaska.
Ramsey Russell: Alaska. That’s right. But Idaho is still not allowing non-residents yet.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. They’re in what we call a – what is referred to as a test hunt. So they established a hunt. This is their second year of the hunt. They only have 50 permits. I’m just limited to the panhandle, which is above that us breeding segment of trumpeters that we spoke about before in an effort to not harvest any of those. So after, they’re going to do this test for three years, at the end of three years, then they will look at the results and make a determination on whether or not they can continue that as a regular hunt from that point forward, and they’ll likely ask for more than the 50 permits if and when they get to that point.
What is the Swan Population & Harvest in Nevada?
The trumpeter population has reached a level now that a lot of those restrictions went away.
Ramsey Russell: Out of 650 permits, how many are harvested? What is the harvest trend looking like on swans in Nevada, and how close are y’all getting to the 10 quota of trumpeters?
Russell Woolstenhulme: So those are great questions. It varies greatly because of the water situation. You go back to 2016, we had a total of eight swans harvested. We only sold 100, right around 100 of the permits because there just wasn’t any water. So then we come back into the water years, the last three years in a row wwe’ve had great success. And each year we’ve had set a new record. Harvest last year was our highest harvest ever, 266 swans harvested. So on average, we’re probably 170-180 long term, I think, right in that ballpark, I think. Long term average on there. So it’s really dependent on that water. Like I said, that’s our limiting factor, always.
Ramsey Russell: And the migration, I’m guessing has something to do with it because my next question is about the hunters are reporting the swans that are killed. And so you’ve got an idea of the biologist of how the harvest trends throughout the years, looking how long is the season and how has harvest distributed over that season?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Okay, so going back three years ago, there were some changes within the flyway based on a lot of work by the flyway to make these changes. But back in 1995, there was an environmental assessment that restricted how we harvest swans to protect that breeding segment of the trumpeter swans. A lot of the restrictions that were put in place, we’ve met the requirements for that. The trumpeter population has reached a level now that a lot of those restrictions went away. One of those restrictions we had was that the season had to end. And the way that it was worded in the framework was the first Sunday following January 1st, so that it ranged from the second to about the ninth or eighth. So the changes we made three years ago, which increased the trumpeter quota that we spoke of – Utah and Idaho’s, excuse me, Utah and Nevada’s trumpeter quota – those doubled for both states. We went from 5 to 10 in that. So the season now can go clear and matches the duck framework, where it can go until, by law, January 31st can be the last day. So our hunt is expanded. We went from an average of about 90 days to 105 days. So we’ve added two weeks of hunting. What I’ve been seeing on that is that the swans tend to start moving through in late October, although it’s in limited numbers. As we hit November, the migration starts to increase, and our harvest will increase. I’ve seen a daily rise on average, the average harvest per day over the last 10, 15 years. You see that harvest rate going up as you move towards the end of November. And then we hit Thanksgiving weekend, and I’ve always kind of speculated this, and I started recently doing graphing out some of some of these numbers, and you can see a definite drop after Thanksgiving. I think, I believe that’s a result of hunting pressure.
Ramsey Russell: Everybody’s home for the holidays, goes out and gets duck hunting out of their system, goes out with the family.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. So then what you end up seeing —
Ramsey Russell: There’s a lot of incidental take on swamp. I mean, not incidental, but duck hunters that given the opportunity to swan off.
Russell Woolstenhulme: They have that permit in their pocket, and they get that chance, they’ll do it. And so people still, after Thanksgiving, people are still harvesting swans, especially the guys that really know, have done it a lot and know what they’re doing, and know where to set up, and know how to do it. But you see a lot of what you saw when you were out there, is the swans sitting out in the middle and they’re not about to move.
Ramsey Russell: Heck no.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Until shooting hours are over and they seem to know exactly when that happens and they’ll do it. Backtracking a little bit to that quota. So Nevada has never reached the quota when it was five, I thought we hit four, one year. And we still had a couple of weeks left when we hit four and I was a little worried about closing it. We never, we got one fifth the closing weekend. So we would have closed the following Monday had the hunt continued on. When we did some DNA work on those swans, we found out one of them was actually, I checked it myself, it was a signet, a juvenile bird, so it was gray. So the bill color was off. So you couldn’t necessarily see, there weren’t yellow lords on it yet. But it was the biggest thunder swan I’ve ever seen, as a signet. So the determination of species on them is we go off of bill length.
Ramsey Russell: What is that bill length? Between the back of the nair to the tip of the bill. What is that break point?
Russell Woolstenhulme: 64-62.
Ramsey Russell: 62 millimeters.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Millimeters. So if it’s greater than that, then the chances are that it’s a trumpeter go up significantly. In fact, it’s about 97% accurate. So this, we got in a signet. I measured it myself and it measured out as a signet at just under 62 mm. So I’m like, but it’s a signet. So I’m better on the safe side and called this a trumpeter. And then later when we checked the DNA, we determined it was actually a tundra.
Ramsey Russell: Just a big one.
Russell Woolstenhulme: But we’ve never, Nevada has never hit our quota. Utah, the last three years in a row, even with now doubling it from, they were 10, they are now 20. The last three years in a row, they’ve closed. And a lot of discussion amongst the biologists within the flyway is that it’s largely because people are targeting trumpeters. They want that in there.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, the species list.
Russell Woolstenhulme: And their species list. So they’re targeting the trumpeters and they’re shutting it down earlier. So a lot of guys are going with an unfilled tag.
Ramsey Russell: And Utah is a tough draw. That’s the unfortunate part of Utah. It’s a very tough draw. It’s very competitive. It’s very tough to get drawn here. You are scheduled to go in two weeks but it’s already seeming to shut down. Your name’s got to go back into no consolation.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah. Utah has 2750 permits. And they get close to 7000 applications. Almost double, more than double of what their permits are.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve considered if, if time and money allow, I’ve considered coming back in late January, and my host said, these birds will bounce back at times. But what do you think my odds are for something like that?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. So with that drop off I see after Thanksgiving, it continues to decline into early January, the daily average harvest, right? So since we’ve expanded the season length, 205 days, that last two weeks of the season, I’m starting to see them, only got three years of data. So it’s not as long as a series of data, but that data is starting to show that harvest rates are increasing again and we’re jumping up fairly high in the daily average harvest those last two weeks, especially the very last week of January because those birds are starting to migrate north again. So you’re getting —
Ramsey Russell: Kind of got that new bird effect.
Russell Woolstenhulme: New bird effect.
Ramsey Russell: Maybe a lot of your Nevada hunters have already gotten their swans. So they’re not putting any pressure on.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Not as much pressure that late in the season. Right. So these are all factors that play into it and it’s an excellent time to go out looking for swan in Nevada.
Ramsey Russell: So you’re saying I got a chance if I came back.
Russell Woolstenhulme: You have got a chance. Please come, please come back.
Ramsey Russell: I will, count on that. Let’s talk about, I won’t stay on the swan right now. So I’ll ask you this, I know that Utah, you report the swans, here y’all have check stations for swans.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Correct.
Ramsey Russell: Had I shot a swan, I have got reported at a check station. Do y’all have a cap on trumpeters also? Is there a 20-bird cap or something?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. So Nevada has a 10-bird cap.
Ramsey Russell: 10 bird.
Rocky Mountain vs. Pacific Swan Populations
So trumpeter swans are one of the great conservation stories in America.
Russell Woolstenhulme: And that’s a recent increase about four years ago, the flyway did a bunch of work working closely with Utah because they’re the other state. There’s currently four states in the flyway. Excuse me. Five states in the flyway, counting Alaska, that have swan hunts. So two of us, Utah and Nevada have a trumpeter quota. And that’s specifically based off of, there’s a couple in the flyway, a couple of different populations. There’s the Pacific population of trumpeter swans that come down the coast and there’s the Rocky Mountain population. That Rocky Mountain population comes down, follows the Rocky Mountains from Canada southward. So within the Rocky Mountain population there’s what the Fish and Wildlife Service refers to as the – I’m sorry, I’m drawing a blank right now – the US Breeding Segment. So the US Breeding Segment. So it’s a section of that larger Rocky Mountain population that nest in the United States, largely within the Yellowstone ecosystem. So we’re talking Yellowstone, we’re talking Southwestern Montana, we’re talking Eastern Idaho, we’re talking Western Wyoming.
Ramsey Russell: Is that all swans or trumpeters?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Trumpeters. The trumpeter popular Rocky Mountain trumpeter population. So the US Breeding Segment. So that particular portion of the greater population has really struggled. That is the location – here’s a little bit of history for you – so trumpeter swans, turn of the century, 1900s, turn of the century, they were down to fewer than 80 trumpeter swans and those were within that US Breeding population area, that same core area, the greater Yellowstone area is where they found them.
Ramsey Russell: I will be damned.
Russell Woolstenhulme: And a few years later they found another population, couple hundred. I’ve read varying reports from 82 to 2000. So I’m not clear but they found a second population in Alaska. So trumpeter swans are one of the great conservation stories in America.
Ramsey Russell: One of the stories I’ve not yet heard.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So they were down to handful, early 1900s. And now all the populations in the US including the eastern populations were all built off of these ones they found in the pacific flyway. And collectively across the US we’re pushing the 40,000 mark, last count I saw of Trumpeter swans across the continent. So what a great success story.
Ramsey Russell: It really is. And the Pacific Flyway states seem to kind of have seen this coming, I guess because that Yellowstone population, they saw this coming and planned accordingly. Now it is – I’ve shot some swans – it’s very difficult to tell the difference unless they’re vocal. They’re not always vocal. It’s very difficult to tell the difference in the big white birds lying in the decoys.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. I have laughed all the time. Well, there’s a size difference. Well, when you’ve got one or two birds coming at you, what are you comparing that to?
Ramsey Russell: Exactly.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So unless they’re vocalizing, it’s really difficult. So the quota is that Utah and Nevada have are based off of that US Breeding population, that segment of that. And so that is south of where Montana’s hunt and Idaho’s hunt is at. And so they don’t have quotas. The reason Utah and Nevada have quotas is because we’re south and the migration pattern for those birds, and they’re trying to protect that particular group of birds. Overall, the population of trumpeters is fine.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I mean that’s what I was thinking is I know you get out to Minnesota where some of those birds, the eastern populations from Yellowstone were introduced. Man, they are exploding. And I know somebody’s down in – like Ira McCauley down in Missouri – where those birds will go to winter, it’s just freaking swans everywhere. Do they mark those Yellowstone birds, those trumpeters in the Pacific Flyway, are they marked a certain way? Do they know this is those birds?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, there marking them in different ways depending on who’s been working on them. But there’s actually the flyway works with some NGOs, and the NGOs go out, and they gather eggs off of this particular US Breeding Segment portion, is really small portion, and they gather eggs. And they bring them back and they and they raise them themselves because what they have found is that they lose a lot of them if they’re left to be raised naturally. So they bring them back and they raise them because they get greater survival rates and then they put those birds back out on the landscape trying to increase that population.
Ramsey Russell: That reminds me of something I hadn’t thought about in years. But it seems like I’ve seen a video of somebody flying an ultralight aircraft, leading, I thought it was geese but maybe it was swans, to migrate.
Russell Woolstenhulme: There was a guy teaching geese. I’ve seen that video before. A guy teaching geese to migrate with his ultralight.
Ramsey Russell: What do they do with these eggs when they go and propagate another population with these eggs? Or are they placing them to where these birds will grow up and learn to fly with the wild birds.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. They’re putting them back out. There’s wild birds on the on the population. Swans are one of the most territorial birds.
Ramsey Russell: I have heard that.
Russell Woolstenhulme: And their there literally murderous. If you get the wrong bird in there they will literally kill it.
Ramsey Russell: Well, I’ve heard of getting way out to where there’s feral mute swans. They’ll run all the geese and everything else off.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah. Don’t get me started on mute swans. I got an issue with those. And they’re an invasive species and they’re not one that I want to see. And they’re starting to very slowly, start to increase in the Pacific Flyway. And we have concerns here because we don’t want to see what’s happened in the East.
Nevada Weather Patterns: Wet and Dry Years
We’re going back into a real dry spell and the residual water is not going to be there going into next year.
Ramsey Russell: Right. Now, that’s a that’s all very interesting to me. It really is. What do you think’s happening in a low water year like this? Kind of a double question I’m thinking through is, is how dry it is Nevada right now compared to average. And what does it do to the sago pond weed? I know that’s a very important food source out here.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right, right now we’re kind of in the middle of the road. So if you back up to like 2015-2016, that season, everything was just dry, the marshes were dry. I mean everything was just dry. And that’s the cycle of Nevada. So you hit the 2017-2018 year, and it’s the wettest year on record in Nevada. So, it varies across the state. We’re a very mountainous state, as you know. You’ve witnessed that in the short time you’ve been here. You don’t drive far without hitting another mountain range.
Ramsey Russell: I find myself huffing and puffing. I feel like I’m walking on low ground. I know we’re only at 4000 ft, but we walked out the other day and I’m huffing and puffing.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. And that’s in the valley bottom to get up on top. So we’ve got the mountain ranges create some really interesting weather patterns across the state. So it’s variable across the state. But generally speaking, like that really wet year, we got about three times more moisture in this part of the state at least than on a normal year. So we flooded things. There’s an area out in the Fallon area where you spent some time hunting called Carson Lake. That’s been a there’s been a duck club there for a lot of years. And that that club, it always has water. We have reservoirs in the West, and we store water, and we use that water to fill our marshes. Very few of the marshes are naturally occurring marshes. Now that’s all been removed because the water stored for irrigation purposes. We have to irrigate things here. So you get years where you have residual water, and that’s kind of what a little bit what we’re dealing with this year, is some residual water. There was some water in the marshes when we started the summer season. There’s some water in the reservoirs residual from past winters that we could put back into the marshes to keep them as full as they are, which is less than it was even last year. And so what we’re looking at in the way we stand today is, we’re dry. We are so dry. We’re going back into a real dry spell and the residual water is not going to be there going into next year. So unless we start getting some winter moisture, we’re just not looking that great right now, where the marshes will be drier next year than this year. So it’s a real cycle in Nevada from 3-4 years ago, having more water than we needed to do with. We had Carson Lake out in the Fallon area, which was normally, 2000 to 3000 acres of open water that is maintained was sitting at 20000. And it caused problems actually. And the all about water caused damage to, to the infrastructure, the dike system, and we couldn’t control water, and we ended up having a huge botulism outbreak out there. So everything that they know about botulism, Nevada is the poster child for. So if you’ve got a high alkaline water system, which most of our marshes are sitting in alkali applies, so you got that. And if you’ve got high temperatures, which Nevada gets high summer temperatures, and we’re just ripe for botulism. And there’s been botulism repeatedly throughout our marsh systems.
Ramsey Russell: I did not know that. Yeah, very interesting. So much of what a waterfowl biologist and manager does is at the mercy of drought or weather or climate that we’re powerless against.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
How Do You Manage Waterfowl in a Dry Environment Like Nevada?
So we get more ducks harvested than a number of states, even though we’re the driest.
Ramsey Russell: So what do you do to manage for waterfowl in this very dry environment? And somebody told me, I think Nikolai told me Nevada was the driest state in the country.
Russell Woolstenhulme: That’s right. It’s the driest dry state in the nation. I think that we’re dead last in that and I know we’re not dead last when you look at the numbers in waterfowl hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So we get more ducks harvested than a number of states, even though we’re the driest.
Ramsey Russell: Isn’t that something.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: Well, what do you do as a waterfowl manager? What are some of the waterfowl management priorities? What activities to build duck habitat or do something in a dry state in the country?
Russell Woolstenhulme: So like I was just saying that, the number one thing that we try to work on is that the water storage system because of the reservoirs. I mean, the water systems here, it’s so intriguing. You mentioned earlier in our discussion Carson Sink.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So, Nevada sits largely within the Great Basin. We talked about that on the phone a little bit the other day, but the Great Basin covers most of Nevada, some of Utah, a little bit of Oregon, into California, and the Great Basin. For listeners who don’t know, none of the water that comes into the Great Basin leaves the Great Basin. None of our rivers flow to any ocean anywhere. So it all just stops here. So that Carson Sink you mentioned, that’s determinants of one of our river systems, so we’ve got a number of systems. So the Carson River comes in, comes off of the Sierra Nevadas, passes through a number of valleys on its way to the Haunting Valley, which is where Stillwater National Wildlife Refuge, the Canvasback Gun Club Carson Lake, some of these places we’ve been discussing. The Carson Sink is the end of that Carson River system. There’s a mountain range to the north end, the west Humboldt mountain range. That’s where the famous decoys came from. Right?
Ramsey Russell: Right. I was going to ask you, yeah.
Russell Woolstenhulme: The Lovelock Cave is out there. That’s on the north end of that of that sink, which is still a marsh that still holds water, and they’re still a marsh. On the north side of that mountain range is the Humboldt Sink, which is the terminus of the Humboldt River. And so these whole river systems flow into the, they just end in these sinks, these big terminus’s, and the water sits there, and then evaporates back off into the system eventually.
Ramsey Russell: For those, y’all listening, those decoys you mentioned are about 2000 years old.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Correct.
Ramsey Russell: They’re canvas bags made from hand fashioned from to lease and canvasback skins and fellas.
Russell Woolstenhulme: And painted.
Ramsey Russell: They painted them. And I have spent a few days out here and it’s an extremely dry environment. What must it have been like 2000 years ago, I mean canvasbacks they were targeting. That’s almost back in Jesus Christ’s time. They were targeting canvasbacks up here.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: There must have been a lot of water.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah. Those systems, even early in Nevada’s history, before, because the West is so arid and all this irrigation water that’s pulled out, like I said, there’s reservoir systems and other reservoir systems were built to create irrigation water so that people could form. And so pulling that water out has impacted the marshes. And so there’s lakes, north of Reno here there’s Pyramid Lake. And adjacent to Pyramid Lake there’s a second like that Pyramid, spilled into that, it’s dry and it’s been dry for 80 years. And that’s dried up because of the water resources that are pulled out of the river systems. So the biggest hurdle for waterfowl management in Nevada is maintaining water. So we spent a lot of time working with all the involved individuals to make sure that the marshes have water to the extent possible. Now we can’t control nature. But the water we get, our management consists of how much water do we have, where can we best utilize that water to benefit waterfowl, but also water birds? So as a Department of Wildlife for the state, we also oversee non-game birds as well. So they have different breeding cycles, different migration cycles. So that’s a consideration that we have to look at. And that’s true for us. And also, a National wildlife refuge like Still Water.
Ramsey Russell: Where you talk about those different birds, non-waterfowl and, Still Water Refuge, it’s a major stop-over area for shorebirds.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Correct.
Ramsey Russell: And what’s good for shorebirds is good for waterfowl and vice versa. It’s a part of that cycle.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. And that’s true when you’ve got water all the time, management from both works for both. But when you’ve got a limited amount of water. So one of the discussions we have to have all the time is how much water can we put out early enough in the season to benefit short birds but still have water remaining given our evaporation rates in the fall? So, it’s a constant battle to try to get water properly distributed for the small amount of water we have. That’s our limiting resource, is water. And that’s true for all wildlife in Nevada. For big game we have what we call guzzlers all over the state, that we put out that our water tanks that catch rainwater to fill tanks full of water on mountains.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, on mountain ranges to water small game birds and big game animals.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, you’ve got some cat daddy big game animals out here too. I know y’all got three species of wild sheep.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Correct.
Ramsey Russell: And big horns. That’s incredible.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah. It’s – Nevada is an amazing state. A lot of people, I think just kind of look at the map and see a void where Nevada is, but there’s a lot of great resources here. It’s an amazing state. 86% of the state is public land.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Russell Woolstenhulme: One of the hardest things that I dealt with in my lifetime is, I told you earlier off the air, that I had done some schooling in Kentucky, and I was right in the middle of the Bluegrass portion, rolling green fields as far as the eye could see. I mean there’s this horse farms, there is a beautiful country. And I started getting claustrophobic because it was all private, I couldn’t go run through it.
Ramsey Russell: Everything posted.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, I want to run naked through the hills. I mean, I couldn’t, and I started getting claustrophobic. And from the West where there’s so much public land, and you can just go where you want to go, and do what you want to do. And it’s an amazing landscape here.
Ramsey Russell: We did some scouting the other day. It’s funny you say that because vice versa, being from the East and coming out here. We went across three or four different land ownerships hit this BLM, they just run forever out to the horizon. Right off of Fish and Wildlife that is just vast. And it is a tremendous amount of public land out here. It’s very different, very different.
Russell Woolstenhulme: It’s very freeing to the soul. I love it. And I think most of Adam’s would echo that spend time out in the wilds. There’s nothing better, more freeing, than just being out there and knowing that it’s just open in yours. You can just go.
Ramsey Russell: It’s good to know those kind of places are still out there.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah. It’s nice.
What Species of Duck are Prevalent in Nevada?
We get an obscene number of shovelers.
Ramsey Russell: It really is. I mean, I’ll tell you what the American government dialed in just right by big tracts of land like that, holding it in public trust. And tell me this, get back online, what species of ducks are most prevalent in Nevada?
Russell Woolstenhulme: So probably our most prevalent here is mallard, but we get, a lot of the common species were probably get, a little bit especially compared to the Eastern Flyways, we don’t have the diving ducks. We get them.
Ramsey Russell: Canvasbacks.
Russell Woolstenhulme: We get Canvasbacks.
Ramsey Russell: That’s the big duck over the canvasbacks.
Russell Woolstenhulme: We get ring necks. We do have diving ducks, but not like the dabblers that we get. Mallards are the most common breeders here. And when we get canvasback and redhead breeding, but our mallards pretty high numbers. We had huge numbers early in the season of green wing teal coming through. You see just huge flocks of them. And there’s, I talked about the Humboldt Sink, when there’s water in the Humboldt Sink, you’ve never seen teal like gathers on that Humboldt Sink. I mean, early in the season you go out there, and it’s just the teal for forever. It’s a beautiful sight. So, we get a lot of common species, we don’t get to really see ducks at all. I mean, yeah, they fly and occasionally when it comes through.
Ramsey Russell: There’s no offense in this guy.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. So, but we don’t get a lot of sea ducks because we’re an interior state, so-
Ramsey Russell: A lot of wigeons.
Russell Woolstenhulme: A lot of wigeons. We get a lot of wigeons. We get an obscene number of shovelers.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, yeah. I come to the right place then. Yeah, it’s awesome. Any Cinnamon teal?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, we get Cinnamon teal. I mean, not in huge numbers but we have Cinnamon teal. They nest here.
Ramsey Russell: Are there any Mexican ducks to get this far north?
Russell Woolstenhulme: So in the Southern part of the state. So in fact, I just was recently having some discussions with one of the refuge managers down from the National Wildlife Refuge, which is a little bit north of Las Vegas, so the southern part of the state, and he’s encountering Mexican ducks real frequently.
Ramsey Russell: So we were driving the other day and some birds were getting up out of a ditch in a no hunting area. And I just swore that was a Mexican duck. I’ve seen a bunch of them. It was way too dark for hen mallards. It could have been a hen mllard, but I just swore it was a Mexican.
Russell Woolstenhulme: It’s possible. Chris Nikolai, I know that you’re familiar with Chris. He trapped on our banding work out of Stillwater. He’s trapped Mexican duck before.
Ramsey Russell: So it could have been.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, it’s possible. It’s rare but it’s possible.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Are you a duck hunter yourself?
Russell Woolstenhulme: I hunt ducks. I’m not, I liken duck hunters to sports fans with baseball fans – they are the most rabid sports fans I’ve ever seen; I’m a duck hunter like that. If you’re into duck hunting, they’re really, really into it, then you’re rabid, you sleep, eat and drink, ducks. And I’m not to that level.
Why Do You Enjoy Duck Hunting?
And the best part of the duck hunt for me is when that sun peeks over the mountains, hits that marsh. And it’s just the beauty of that is just unbelievable.
Ramsey Russell: Everybody listen right now is not in your head, right?
Russell Woolstenhulme: I hunt ducks, I enjoy hunting ducks, I take my kids out hunting ducks, but I’m not the rabid guy. I’m not out there 60 days a year, looking for ducks every waking moment. But I enjoy a good duck hunt. I do.
Ramsey Russell: What do you enjoy about it?
Russell Woolstenhulme: For me all of my outdoor stuff that I do. Everything I do is comes back to just the unbelievable beauty of nature. And the best part of the duck hunt for me is when that sun peeks over the mountains, hits that marsh. And it’s just the beauty of that is just unbelievable. And I just, I can’t get enough of that. I could do that every morning.
Ramsey Russell: Well, you sure see it out here. It’s surreal. As you start seeing that sunrise blooming over the mountains and the sun is starting to come up in slow motion and hit those decoys and hit that that tumbleweed and that sage. It’s just totally different than anywhere I’ve ever been. It’s beautiful.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah. Mountains add a whole just unbelievable beauty to a landscape and it’s something that, as a Western boy, I can’t get enough of it. I spent my time in the South and I love it. I’ve got a brother who lives in South Carolina. Now it’s beautiful country there. I like to go down there and visit the South. My wife grew up in Atlanta. So, I’ve got a lot of ties to the South myself in this beautiful country. The planes, I did work for a few years out in the Midwest, working in the Nebraska and the short grass prairie. It all holds his beauty. But mountains, I always, that’s where my heart is. I always come back to mountains.
Ramsey Russell: I can see that’s where it’s so much where you’re from.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: Familiar, comforting.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: For me this area is very comforting. As much world as I say, doing this right here. I love Nevada. I love everywhere I’ve ever duck hunted. But boy, I sure like to be back home.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. You don’t want to ever give that up. And that’s, I think everyone feels that way about what they’re familiar with, what they grew up with and what they learn to love.
Targeting for the Table?
But the idea behind the Harvest Initiative is that our landscape is filled with food, with natural 100% organic food, and people need to be looking at that, and using utilizing that resource and putting table fare, bringing that into their home and eating that because it’s far more economical than a lot of a lot of other food sources.
Ramsey Russell: Do you target certain species when you duck hunt? I mean, what is your end goal? You got there, you see nature, your experience, your mercy. I know it makes you, it connects you enough to the resource in a different way. It makes you more effective manager. Do you eat the ducks? I mean, are you out there targeting for the table?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, nothing gets shot without getting eaten. So yeah, and I’m not really targeting anything in particular. I know there’s guys that don’t target specific species. They love the divers. They’ve got the specific ones. I know guys that that target spoonies. That’s what they want. And that’s great for everybody. I’m just there for the experience and I’m not really targeting any anything specific. I’m just hoping ducks come in and I have an enjoyable day.
Ramsey Russell: Before the recording, you were telling me about the Harvest Initiative, what is the Harvest Initiative?
Russell Woolstenhulme: So the Harvest Initiative is just, it’s an organization. You can find them online. And I’m not going to go into a lot of details because I don’t want to do any disservice because I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with it. But the idea behind the Harvest Initiative is that our landscape is filled with food, with natural 100% organic food, and people need to be looking at that, and using utilizing that resource and putting table fare, bringing that into their home and eating that because it’s far more economical than a lot of a lot of other food sources. And it’s more organic and healthy.
Ramsey Russell: Nutritious, calorie dense, and nutrient dense.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: You know, when you start getting into wild game a lot of times. It’s such an interesting thing to me because you’re exactly right. We duck hunk, we real duck hunters are passionate. I mean it’s an obsession. It’s a lifestyle. It’s every waking moment, we’re focused on it. But I do perceive this movement, and I think that organizations like Steve Rinella, Joe Rogan, a lot of the narratives that they’re propagating to the middle ground. I know a lot of the people that have reached out to us in social media around, they didn’t grow up duck hunting like I did. They don’t spend every waking moment wanted to go shoot more ducks for whatever reason. But they are, they’re attracted to it for a connection in nature, that experience we talked about, but I can foresee a future where we’re sharing our wetlands with guys that are not out there but for any other reason than just to get their hands on something good, some good table fare for their families.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: That’s different. I mean that’s a different mindset completely.
Russell Woolstenhulme: I think that’s where a lot of us came from originally. My parents, my grandparents poor dirt farmers and they hunted to eat. That was, you could go, it could be a long hungry winter if you didn’t get some meat to put on the table, and that’s what you hunted for. And it wasn’t about prestige, it wasn’t about numbers, it wasn’t about trophies, it was about feeding the family and that’s what my roots are, that’s where I came from. And I tend to hunt more that way. I’ve put in 100 more times for big game, for antlerless than antlered throughout my lifetime. And it’s because, I’ll tell you what, cow elk eats a whole lot better than an old bull. And I still get to spend my time out, I can in the hills, I like to refer to my wife to it as is armed hiking. I do a lot more armed hiking than harvesting sometimes it feels like. That’s just sort of where I came from and that’s still sort of my mindset. I mean if a guy’s rabbit, I understand these guys, there’s guys that are rabbit and I appreciate that. But I think that we’re seeing more and more like you’re saying more people starting to go back to the food aspect. And I hope it keeps going and that’s kind of what the Harvest Initiative is about, is trying to get people to look back at that resource and sort of how things used to run a little bit more than they do now.
History of Hunting in Nevada
It’s not a game-rich world where you’re surviving off of jackrabbits.
Ramsey Russell: How does that mindset or that emerging mindset play into Nevada Department of Wildlife Management? I mean, are y’all anticipating that or y’all trying to embrace that or build on that?
Russell Woolstenhulme: We are actually. There’s a lot of things that are going on. So if you look at that waterfowl in particular, the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, there was roughly 18,000 duck hunters in the state of Nevada at a time when the population in Nevada was under a million people. So now we’ve got between 3000 and 4000 duck hunters and a little over two million people. So, times are changing and, and hunting isn’t, isn’t what it was in the past. And I think that if more people, and I think that more people will, I hope more people will start looking back at this for a food source, but I think that more people will come back into it, that’s my hope, I’d like to see more people coming in. But the department, we have had discussions with the Harvest Initiative folks, and we’ve had links on our web page to it, and we refer back to it something that we’re interested in. We spent a lot of time with most waterfowl agencies, state and federal working on what they call the RRRs of bringing people back into hunting. So it’s an important thing, hunters, it is the North American model of wildlife management and is one of the things that’s the most, it’s done amazing things. You look at wildlife populations across this country and where they’re at today based on that model and how hunters have funded wildlife conservation. It’s an amazing thing. So to lose hunters, it’s more than just, I mean, it’s sad to lose that lifestyle and that way of life from a sociological aspect. But from a wildlife standpoint losing hunters would be devastating because a whole new scheme would have to be devised to come up with a way to fund wildlife.
Ramsey Russell: Right.
Russell Woolstenhulme: And it’s been successful. We talked about the swan populations going from almost extinct to having tens of thousands of them across the landscape now. That’s through that money raised through hunting, so.
Ramsey Russell: Every time I talk to a Department of Natural Resources, the State Department, that subject comes up because as hunter numbers declined, a lot of budgets are starting to shrink. And that is needed to put water on the landscape in a dry environment or to manage for public resource. I mean just to go into wildlife management so much, and I’ve just become aware that it’s not just game management that’s coming out of the hunter’s pockets, or out of those budgets. It’s for butterflies and songbirds and just nature in general. It’s all being funded by these hunters.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Correct. One of the things I’ve spent a lot of my career looking at, I won’t go down too far of a rabbit trail here on this one. But there’s an individual that has, he writes articles, I’ve read his PhD dissertation, by name, Charles K. And he looks at pre-Columbian settlement wildlife. There’s no way we can go back and get an accurate count of what wildlife was like before the settlement of Europeans in this land. But he has found ways to try to utilize what’s available in one of the articles of his. What I really enjoyed reading was he used Lewis and Clark’s journals.
Ramsey Russell: Oh, boy. Fascinating.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Yeah, to try to figure out what was wildlife like along the way. And I’ve read some of the Lewis and Clark stuff myself. I recall reading, they’re coming across areas of like the panhandle of Idaho which is game-rich. I mean, it’s just there’s moose up there, there’s elk up there, there’s two species of deer. I mean it’s just it’s turkeys, it’s game-rich up there. And they’re coming across and there with the local natives, they’re guiding them through the mountains of the panhandle of Idaho and they’re all starving. I mean there’s the entire Lewis and Clark party and about 25 Native Americans with them. And one night they write in their journal about eating two bluegrass between that entire group. And a couple of days later, they’re so hungry they off a horse and eat it because there’s no game. It isn’t that Lewis and Clark didn’t know where to find this stuff. They are with the locals. They are with the people who know. When you look at Nevada history and you’ve got guys, how hard would it be to float canvasback decoys out with a bow and arrow 2000 years ago, and try to shoot a canvasback with a with a bow and arrow. I mean, they’re flighty birds.
Ramsey Russell: I’ve heard different things. I’ve wondered, can you see a lot of these bird tips? And I did, I was in Mongolia Ulaanbaatar at the museum and I saw some Ghengis Khan-era paintings of archers shooting birds from the air.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Really, wow.
Ramsey Russell: I just can’t get my mind wrapped around Native Americans. I know they shot stuff with those little bird points, but to go out and sling arrows at flying ducks. I mean you go through a lot of shotgun shells, let along eras. And I asked that question the other day and somebody said he heard they float those decoys, and they put a bunch of pumpkins on the water, and then put a pumpkin on their head, and swim around, and hand grab them. And I’m like okay. Or maybe they waited till they were flightless and somehow we got them up into traps. I don’t know. Indians would have done something highly efficient.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Highly efficient, right. But I’ll tell you what, the water here is not deep enough to swim around underneath the water with, and it’s dry enough you’re not growing a lot of pumpkins here. So I don’t think they had. The Native American peoples of Nevada, they would make nets and do jackrabbit drives. And a lot of the clothing was tanned jackrabbit hides, and they’d strip them, and weave them together to make a patch big enough to use for their clothing. It’s not a game-rich world where you’re surviving off of jackrabbits. They’re not the best eating critter out there and they’re not the best wearing either. And the archaeological history of Nevada, you don’t see mules there in those archaeological remains. And this is some of the stuff that Charles K has talked about, looking at some of this archaeological stuff. And you get up into Northeastern Nevada where it slips out of the Great Basin and into the Snake River drainage, and there’s more deer and deer showed up in that. But for most of Nevada, really the only big game species of any significance that shows up in the archaeological remains is bighorn sheep. And again, I can’t imagine a more difficult species to hunt with bow and arrow —
Ramsey Russell: No. That’s crazy.
Russell Woolstenhulme: — than a bighorn sheep. And you see that in a lot of the West where early trappers, early journals, they talk about how many bighorn sheep they were. Well, it’s probably because they were that much harder to hunt.
Ramsey Russell: You talk a lot about those Louis and Clark. It reminded me that some of the reading I’ve done on the subject is when they cross that Mississippi River into what is now Missouri, they were already encountering Rocky Mountain elk as a plains game. I mean they were feast and famine. I mean it’s like they were literally, I know buffalo hump, buffalo tongue, which they also encountered that that far East were two of their beaver tail with their favorite real fat, but that’s what they were because they were eating everything else but over their favorite food.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. One of my TV shows to watch is Alone. History Channel’s Alone. You ever watch that enough?
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. I have.
What Real Hunting is All About
“A hungry man has one problem and a full man has many problems.”
Russell Woolstenhulme: You watch those poor folks out there trying to, trying to make it on their own. Every single one of them starving to death. And it really comes down to one. You hear this scenario of Native peoples caring so much about the environment. And I think in reality, when your day to day concern is whether or not you’re going to eat, you don’t have a lot of time to worry about conservation of anything. You’re worried about if I don’t feed my family today, there’s not going to be a family in the future to worry about conservation for. There’s an old anonymous saying it’s not attributed to anyone. An uncle of mine has told me, and I love this saying, and it’s, “A hungry man has one problem and a full man has many problems.”
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
Russell Woolstenhulme: That’s a truism. I mean, when you’re living like people of the past, and I talked about our past, recent past ancestors, parents and grandparents, being poor dirt farmers and needing that meat to survive. And that was their priority. It wasn’t about how much time, you don’t have all this time to sit around and think about, well what’s the best decoy spread? What’s the best decoy I can use? What kind of movement can I put in my spread to get more? It was like, I need to go out and I need to shoot some ducks, and if I don’t, we’re probably not going to have dinner tonight. I remember my my father-in-law telling me about when he was a boy. Him and his brother would do odd jobs around the area. Their father was a logger and they moved from logging camp to logging camp. And he was literally born in a wall tent and he’s in the ‘70s. It isn’t like, this is like, we’re talking about 150 years ago, but him and his brother would do odd jobs for a nickel here, penny or two there, and they saved up enough money to buy a box of 4’10 shells. Little 4’10, the only gun they owned. And they’d go down to these logging ponds where they’d soak logs, and one brother would hide behind the little dam they’d build for the dams, and the other brother would go flush the coots off of it. And they’d shoot coots. He says there was a lot of nights that’s the only thing they had for dinner. If they didn’t go out and shoot us coots, they weren’t going to have dinner that night. And that’s a real reality of wildlife management that I think about a lot. This whole idea – and I know we’ve gone down a long track here away from waterfowl – but that’s that idea of wildlife is as a food source that I look to and I respect and I hope that we do get back to.
Ramsey Russell: You know, Russell, that narrative of the hungry man only has one problem, and a view of wildlife at a food source, it’s really 180° at odds with the prevailing narrative that if you don’t use this brand, or this camo, or this or this, or that product, or name brand, and produce this social media pile of birds, you’re not really a hunter.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. Right. And that’s a painful one for me. That’s something I’ve struggled with my whole career.
Ramsey Russell: Accidentally, and I just, I never will forget, I never will forget meeting, I don’t know, an 18-19 year old kid up in Utah. And this boy killed some big old mule deer because that’s what his family does but he was really drawn to the duck hunting. It’s fun to go out with your buddies and duck hunting is fun, even on a slow day we don’t shoot with one duck. We had a great time. We smoked cigars, we told stories, we got to know each other. I mean it was just, it was fun. And I asked him, man, you’re out here with the great Salt Lake and all these wetlands, and all this public land just to get into, and he’s like, well, I can’t afford it. I go, what do you mean you can’t afford it? A couple of dozen decoys and some hip boots and waders. I mean, you can get out there and scratch out some ducks. Well, I need this name brand, this name brand, this name brand that cost this much, and he got done with list, I’m like, hell, I can’t afford that either.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: I mean, I can’t afford that. But it really drove home that via the narrative out there floating around this world, it had disenfranchised him.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right.
Ramsey Russell: It almost excluded him from being a real hunter. And I’m like, oh man.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So let me kind of go into this, you’re familiar with the trials that they’re doing with splash limits in —
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, I have about it. I’ve heard about that. Very interesting.
Russell Woolstenhulme: So there’s a couple of states in the Central Flyway and they’re testing a two-tier license.
Ramsey Russell: Splash limit. I have heard called that.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. So one tier is the hunting license, the rest of us buy that, you can go out and you get your three-bird limit and with species limitations within that, right? And then there’s a second tier that they’re trying in these states, it’s a three-bird splash limit, any three birds. Doesn’t matter what they are, you can get.
Ramsey Russell: Three pintails.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Three pintails. You can get whatever. But once you hit three, that’s it for the day. And the idea behind this is that there’s a lot of hunters that are being driven away by this fear of, I can’t identify these birds on the wing, and I don’t want to get myself in trouble. But I think going hand in hand with that is this concept that is prevalent now that you’re talking about of, well, if you don’t have the right gear, if you don’t have the right brand name on your hunting gear, then you’re not really hunter, and you’re kind of ostracized. And I think that those things combined really have had an impact on waterfowl hunting overall and lots of aspects of life.
Ramsey Russell: I never really looked at it. The way you just explained when I heard the concept, I’m like, wait a minute, wait a minute. Bird identification, duck identification. And I sound like my grandfather, he criticized my long hair when I was in high school. That’s the tenant of duck hunting, you got to know what you’re shooting. But I’ve never really heard it, it’s a great way to explain the way you did. It is a good way to kind of remove a barrier, let a guy get his beak wet a little bit on duck hunting and then — when he catches that fever, like we all do, he’s going to say no, no, I’m opting for the seven bird limit, I know what a mallard looks like, I know what pintail looks like. And I’m going after my seven duck instead of three.
Russell Woolstenhulme: But you got to get there.
Ramsey Russell: It’s a gateway.
The Importance of Duck Hunting Mentors
And there’s the hunters out there that take somebody out, take them out, bring someone into the sport.
Russell Woolstenhulme: One of the biggest barriers they talk about too, with hunting of anything, but in particular waterfowl hunting is having a mentor that will take you out there and teach you how to do it because to walk out all by yourself alone and figure that out. That’s a long road. So having the splash limits, the idea is that it’s going to ease that up a little bit, and if you don’t have somebody that’s going to take you out duck hunting – because that hardcore guy we talked about, that baseball fan of it doesn’t always want to take out the novice guy that might make it a little harder that day. So it’s hard sometimes to find that for the novice. So to have these systems in place like that might break down some of those barriers and make a little easier, but we also need to break down that barrier. You know what, guys used to take a block of wood and carve their own damn decoy, and paint that thing up, and it might not look anything like a mallard, but it was close, and it would float, and it would bring in some ducks, and now you’ve got to have the name brand. You’ve got to have the holy flock. You’ve got to have the swimmers. You’ve got to have it all. And it’s not true. I try to sell that story when I get the opportunity, that you don’t have to have the best gear, you just need a little bit like you said, a couple of decoys, and some waders, and the shotgun, and you’re good to go.
Ramsey Russell: Boy, I tell you what we — as you were talking about just even here in Nevada, the decline in hunters and one of the casualties of that decline has been a lot of these young people don’t have the benefit of a daddy, right uncle or a family friend anymore because they don’t duck hunt or they never duck hunted. I can remember, I know I’ve told the story before. Man, I was 15 years old before, I realized that Labor Day wasn’t a day out of high school to go hunting. You know, I thought we went dove hunting that weekend and that’s why we’re all out of school, it’s a national holiday. And I love that dove hunt, that Labor Day weekend. And I can remember my boys got old enough to play baseball and league ball, coach schedule of practice.
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. There’s competition all of a sudden.
Ramsey Russell: Because nobody else on that team and I’m in the deep South dove hunting. And I’m like, but you know, wow, so there’s a baseball team where the kids right there that aren’t being exposed to duck hunting, or any form of hunting, really. How are these kids going to learn? How are we going to recruit them into our ranks if we don’t take them under our wing, or create incentives, or somehow incentize them to become involved without having to go by the equivalent of, you know, my first pickup truck work to gear to get out there and do it?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Right. And there’s the hunters out there that take somebody out, take them out, bring someone into the sport. One of the greatest joys of my hunting life, this Fall I took my son out on his first dove hunt. It was a fantastic site. That kid went through so many shells and he never hit a dove. And you know what, when we were walking back to the track, when it was all over, he said, thanks dad.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
Russell Woolstenhulme: And it was worth it all. It was worth it.
Ramsey Russell: Heck, yeah.
Russell Woolstenhulme: It didn’t matter that he didn’t shoot a dove. He had a good time. He got a lot of shooting in and we spent time together and that meant the world to me and to him.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely. I appreciate you being here. Folks, y’all have been listening to Russell Woolstenhulme. Did I hit it right?
Russell Woolstenhulme: Close enough.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah. Waterfowl Staff Specialist for Nevada Department of Wildlife. Russell, thank you for being here, what a great conversation. Folks, thank you all for listening this episode of Duck Season Somewhere from Nevada, the Silver State. See you next time.