The North Platte River winds it’s way snake-like through the tumbleweed-infused Wild West on its eventual passage to the Gulf of Mexico, making this part of Wyoming a waterfowl-rich area that attracts many mallards and Canada geese. But it’s not the only reason this region has exceptional waterfowl hunting. Wyobraska Waterfowl’s personable JJ Randolph has been hunting and guiding along the North Platte River near here since forever. An incredibly articulate storyteller, he describes the local hunting and culture to Ramsey between the volleys. Fantastic episode!
A Waterfowl Paradise
I heard at one point in time there are 500,000 Canada geese roosting on the North Platte River …
Ramsey Russell: I’m your host, Ramsey Russell, join me here to listen to those conversations.
JJ Randolph: One of my customers named Todd. Now, Todd is an artist. He’s a very good artist. He works with art galleries all over the world and all over the country, and he travels a lot, and he is a duck hunting fanatic. So everywhere he goes, I can find a duck hunting guide and he gets a guide and goes on a hunt. So he has had probably more guides than anybody I know. I mean, a lot of guides, some were good, some not so good, some experiences good, some not so good. So anyway, he’s got to go down somewhere down in Tennessee to do something and so he’s going to book a trip on Reelfoot Lake. I mean going down their famous Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee, I went to hunt there. So he starts calling some guide services down there and he’s not having very good luck, most of his phone conversations don’t go the way that he wants him to go. Finally, about the sixth or seventh call, this lady answers the phone and Todd says yeah, I’d like to come down and go duck hunting, you got any ducks down there right now? And the lady says, we got a blue million ducks boy, let me tell you, we got a blue million down here right now, you should see all the ducks. So Todd thinks, my God, I don’t even know what a blue million is but that sounds like a lot of ducks, I’m going with this lady, right? So he books the trip, she says meet on the dock at this boat ramp, be there at six o’clock. The guide will meet you there. So Todd gets a little lost finding the place and he rolls in like 6:03. The boat’s already running, there’s two other customers sitting in the boat. The guide is standing there, they’re all giving him the stinky eye, let’s go get in the boat, get in the boat. Nobody says hi or anything. He hops in the boat and off they go. So out into the middle of Reelfoot Lake – if any of you have hunted there before – apparently there are blinds placed a couple hundred yards from each other all over out in this area. Todd’s going by these other blinds and they’re all getting ready and he’s thinking, man, this is interesting. And as they go through the decoy spread to his blind, he notices that all the decoys, the heads are painted orange or they got an orange stripe on them on the heads. And they go into this blind and crawl up the stairs, and into the blind, they get in there and Todd steps in, and the other guys are in there, and they’re talking to the guy. It’s obvious they know the guy, they’ve been here before, and Todd says, “Good morning, I’m Todd Norsteen, how are you doing?” And the guys look at him and say, “Boy, where are you from?” He says, “Well, I’m from Minnesota down here on some business, thought I’d go duck hunting.” And one of the guys goes, “I knew it, damn Yankees down here to shoot our ducks.” I’m not all that welcomed here right now. So things get a little quiet. Next thing that happens is the guide says, “Are you ready boys? I think it’s time, are you ready?” And the guys, they’ve hunted with the guide, they said, “Yeah, we’re ready, we’re ready.” Guide says, “Okay, hold on a moment.” He goes under his bench, pulls out a big old Tupperware full of water and there’s a big long duck call soaking in the water. He pulls that baby out, rings it out, starts blowing on it. Todd says actually it wasn’t too bad, I thought well we could get a duck today. So the other guys are excited. They’re like, oh yeah, oh Betty, she’s out, we’re ready to go. But the next thing that happens here comes some ducks and they go by them, and they go by this other blind over here, and somebody’s going “hank hank”. Todd says, “Hey, what’s going on over there? What are those guys yelling at? They are yelling at their kids or something, what’s going on?” And the guy looks at him says, “No, it’s hanging them in.” Todds like, “I’m sorry, what?” The guide says, “He’s hanging them in.” I’m sorry what? I’m sorry I’m from up North. Nothing personal, you talk a little fast, I can’t quite understand you. And the guide says, “They is hankin them in hank, hank, hank,” and Todd being from Minnesota says, “My God, I’m sorry,” he says, “Does that work?” And the guy says, “Well, hell yes it works.” Okay, great, I can’t wait to see it work. So they’re sitting there, here comes a flock of ducks. The guide gets out all Betty, we the ducks are coming. Todd says they’re coming, everything’s going pretty good, they’re out there about 80 yards cupped up and the guy drops old Betty and goes hank, hank, and when he does, the ducks flare up, and he says, “Get them boys, get them.” Todd says holy crap, the other two guys grab their guns, and they come up, and they are shooting and Todd goes, I guess I might as well shoot at this duck that’s 90 yards, he hops up, he says, “JJ, I aimed over the top of his head, and I lobbed it, and I pulled the trigger, and I rainbowed that shot in there, and that was about 90 yards, and I tipped its wing tip. That thing sailed out on the horizon at the Reelfoot Lake, it’s gone.” The guy doesn’t say a word, he’s down the steps, he’s in the boat, wow, disappears in the horizon in the boat, way off in the distance they hear, boom, pretty soon. Here comes the boat. Back into the slip, guide crawls up the stairs, throws the duck in Todd’s lap and says now what do you think of hanking them, son? Now they don’t see another duck the rest of the day. At the end of the day, Todd can’t stand it anymore, says, “I got to ask you, I really like to know things. Why do you paint the heads of all the decoys orange? That orange stripe on there.” And the guy looks at him and says, “So nobody steals them.” Okay, that makes sense. Thanks. I wouldn’t want to decoy with orange heads.
Ramsey Russell: And welcome back to Duck Season Somewhere. I am in Wyoming, Winton, Wyoming down the North Platte River, not too far from Fort Laramie, looks like Dances with Wolves when I’m driving down the road, just all the prairie out here. But the sky is full of geese and ducks. It’s one of the most amazing spectacles in North America, I think. Because you just don’t expect great numbers of waterfowl, at least I don’t, in this part of the world. JJ, am I hitting that right?
JJ Randolph: I mean the Platte River traditionally is a pretty major flyway, always has been. I think when the first guys came up here in canoes or whatever, jetted off the Missouri and came up the Platte, they were seeing waterfowl and it’s a major winter holdover. I heard at one point in time there are 500,000 Canada geese roosting on the North Platte River in Nebraska. That is a lot of Canada geese. Now, that’s the whole North Platte River but that’s a lot of birds. So it’s a traditional holdover, but we got a lot of corn. It’s Nebraska, we’ve got a lot of corn, and ducks like corn, we’ve got refuge, we’ve got water. The weather here is nice for waterfowl, once it gets cold up north and they get down to here, this is the destination, they really stick in this area.
Everything You Need to Know About the North Platte River
And my duck blind’s never in the same place it was the year before because the sandbar changes, the channels change during high water.
Ramsey Russell: It really is a proverbial waterfowl paradise. It blows my mind JJ. This is bison country, this is elk country. There’s some moose there, there’s a lot of mule deer, there’s a lot of whitetail, it’s where the deer and the antelope play, big old pronghorn out here in Wyoming. We were talking about that up and pile up on North. I spent some days in the last couple of podcasts and man, it really is a well-kept, not maybe too well-kept, but it’s a great secret of how good the waterfowl hunting is. And partly because of nature, but partly by design. I mean it’s like — first question, I’ll ask you, let’s talk about — talk about the river, the North Platte River. Where does the North Platte river originate? I know that this water going by the blind eventually runs right down Vicksburg, Mississippi on the Mississippi River, we’re in the Mississippi River watershed as far as I am from home. Where’s the headwaters of this thing?
JJ Randolph: So it starts in the northern slope of the Rocky Mountains. This is a cool river. There’s a lot of water that comes down through this starts up by Steamboat, Colorado.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
JJ Randolph: Runs north off the north slope of the Rockies. Okay, comes up, now, listen, there are six reservoirs on the North Platte River and I mean big reservoirs. A lot of water starts out with Seminole Reservoir just into Wyoming, runs through Seminole Reservoir fills up the Pathfinder Reservoir, Alcova Reservoir right before it gets to Casper, and it goes around Casper, turns south and then it goes down, fills up Glendo Reservoir. Comes out of Glendo turns east, fills up Guernsey Reservoir, and then runs across the state of Nebraska, the panhandle there, and into Lake McConaughey, which is the biggest one in Nebraska. And Lake McConaughey is huge and roosts a lot of waterfowl. I mean always, Lake McConaughey is a big body of water with a lot of waterfowl. Comes out of Lake McConaughey, goes about North Platte Nebraska where it joins up with the South Platte, which comes up out of Colorado. Comes up joins the South Platte and then it becomes the Platte River, runs from North Platte now all the way across about 20 miles south Omaha, runs into the Missouri River, a place called Platt Smith right where the Missouri runs into, or the Platte runs into the Missouri. And then, of course, it flows down in the Mississippi and Gulf of Mexico, and she’s gone.
Ramsey Russell: That’s amazing to me.
JJ Randolph: It’s pretty amazing with its little creeks and springs and stuff, but the majority of snow melt out of the Rocky Mountains, that’s what fills those reservoirs and keeps the water running through here all the time. Because traditionally, now, think about it, when the pioneers came across, and the buffalo, and all those times were here and you didn’t have those reservoirs, it probably flat out dried up in the summertime, be full of water in the spring. I mean, be ginormous and in the winter, just be kind of a trickle down through there.
Ramsey Russell: It’s funny you say that. We were up north here, got up on this mesa as far as far as him and I could see was just nothing but tumbleweeds and little bushes, sage bushes.
JJ Randolph: Sage bush.
Ramsey Russell: As far as you can see. And on the one hand you think man, the first guy that ever just parked his old covered wagon here and mopped his sweaty brow took a look, what he must have seen – but he was looking for water. He was looking for a drop of water. And most of the communities you see were built around the water.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, they had to be. Fort Laramie was like the first trappers’ trading post out West here.
Ramsey Russell: Really? And became a Fort?
JJ Randolph: I mean, yeah, that was and then it was it started out as a trappers trading post way back, I don’t have a year right now. But then, yeah, and then after that it became the military forts and that but it was originally for trappers, a trader’s post. I think it’s one of the very first one, that’s where that trappers and trading stuff started. And I mean the beaver, the buffalo, the everything that was out here for those guys at that point in time. I’m a pretty good day dreamer, I could daydream about it pretty easily, stand up on that ridge you were talking about, and picture that buffalo herd out there, and the way the river might have looked. And where I guide fly fishing in the summer time? One of the cliffs down there was a buffalo jump.
Ramsey Russell: Really?
JJ Randolph: Yeah. And the landowner told me, oh that’s the buffalo jump, and he’s found all kinds of artifacts and buffalo skulls, and all that kind of stuff. And every time I go by it with customers, I go, well, that was a buffalo jump. And they go buffalo jump? What’s that? And I explain to them well, the Native Americans would herd the buffalo off the cliff and that that’s one of the ways they hunted them. And everybody goes, but that cliff goes right into the water. Well 200 years ago it was probably ground, this river changes channel.
Ramsey Russell: Meanders.
JJ Randolph: Meanders, it’s still every year I go down to set my duck blind, I go down there in the summer and the water’s high. I got to wait till end of October to see what that river is going to look like for the winter. And my duck blind’s never in the same place it was the year before because the sandbar changes, the channels change during high water. And I mean, back then that river went everywhere. Down where my river blind is now, you’ve hunted it before, okay, so I lease a mile of that property. And I’ve walked all through those trees on both sides of the river down there. And Ramsey, you can’t believe the old duck blinds that you’ll find 100 yards back in the trees from the river, because maybe in 1950, that was a channel back there. My boy and I found one, we’re cutting canary grass and my son says, “Look at this dad.” We’re 80 yards back from where the main channel of the river is and here’s an old duck blind sitting there that was ancient, just, I mean, who knows?
Ramsey Russell: Describe what that ancient duck blind from 40-50 years looks like.
JJ Randolph: Well, you could see that there was a channel like there was a low spot, you could see there was a little channel that went through there at one time, and there was just this little high spot here, and these guys had made kind of a semi-pit blind deal. It was like halfway in there. I wonder if they didn’t dig it with shovels or something. But it was like halfway down it and it had all been dilapidated and broken down.
Ramsey Russell: Kind of like lumbered up wall?
JJ Randolph: Yeah, lumbered up. It was wood and it was lumber, and then there’s one on the other side I found a few years ago. It had that style, you could see it had a roof on it that came over the top and was open in the front, kind of came up in front of you this way, kind of traditional style duck blind. But it’s neat, there’s a lot of duck hunting history down there. I don’t know how long guys have been hunting the Platte River but a long time apparently.
A Lost History?
They were hunting duck. I wish I knew how.
Ramsey Russell: Well it’s funny you should say that because I got in a conversation, just last episode, got in a conversation about Native Americans, buffaloes, and deer, and antelope, and the pioneers. But these rivers were loaded with waterfowl, it wasn’t hunting pressure like we used to have. And I mean surely, they ate them, surely all them fat rich waterfowl, but I know they got these bird tips. But I just can’t see a man spending all winter and it’s cold TP napping out airheads and then pass shooting up mallards on the fly. But I wonder how they hunted them? And it doesn’t seem like it’d be very profitable to go out there and just shoot 50 arrows to kill 1 or 2.
JJ Randolph: No, no, they had to do something. I’d be honest with you, I have not heard any stories about the Native Americans waterfowl hunting.
Ramsey Russell: But I bet they did.
JJ Randolph: I know the oldest decoys ever found were in Nevada in that case, we talked about that. So guys have been making the decoys since the first guy looked up hunting, there’s a duck. How do I get them to come closer? And made a fake duck.
Ramsey Russell: They were hunting duck. I wish I knew how.
JJ Randolph: I wish I knew how too. That would be interesting for sure.
Ramsey Russell: I was up in Manitoba hunting with Paul Conchatre of Birdtail Outfitters, and in his kitchen, he’s got a couple of old guns. He said he took one off the wall and handed it to me, says, I mean it’s very crude, like you cut the whole stock and forearm out of a piece of two by four or something. Whittle it down and shape it down. Had like a piece of pipe for a gun and just an old hammer. Very crude gun. But it was an Indian gun at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
JJ Randolph: Oh yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And as I got to looking at it, I go, is this a shotgun? He goes, it absolutely is.
JJ Randolph: No kidding.
Ramsey Russell: It was a shotgun. I’m going to tell you what about Little Bighorn, I’d probably want a shotgun instead of a rifle myself. But then it made me think, maybe when the advent of guns came along, that old Indian said, oh yeah, baby loaded up with some gravel or sand or something, you go out there and make some numbers on some ducks. But I don’t know, it’s like a lost piece of history.
JJ Randolph: It is a lost piece of history. They had to utilize that resource had to somehow. And you hear a lot of stories about them hunting buffalo and all those, but I don’t hear much about them.
Ramsey Russell: Will you talk about those buffalo jumps, and it wasn’t just any cliff they chose. It’s like, if you get up on top of the slope and then go off, it’s like somewhere where there’s an optical illusion to where at some point all those buffalo can see, they don’t see the fall, they just see more prairie in front of it. It’s an optical illusion, and they would just corral them, or light fires, or corral them up and just run them off the cliff into massive piles. We all know Native Americans used every part of the buffalo, but they didn’t use every part of every buffalo. There’s no way a village of 50 or 100 could have gone through and made use of 300 buffalo. But that’s how they hunted. They were very practical people, like just back on that duck thing, I wonder how they — see that’s how Native Americns would have done buffalo. That’s how they would have done ducks too. And I just don’t think the little bird points were out there duck hunting. Although when I was in Mongolia I did see some ancient drawings of the Genghis Khan empire and archers were depicted shooting swans and cranes out of the air, but I don’t know.
JJ Randolph: I don’t know either. I almost think they probably had like your banding deal, had some kind of trap or something. That’s what I think.
Ramsey Russell: Some kind of crap.
JJ Randolph: Again, I don’t know. But that seems up their alley.
Ramsey Russell: Things you wonder.
JJ Randolph: Things you wonder.
What’s a Verbal Agreement Refuge?
So the refuges and the 1:00 closure allows the whole county to be a refuge in the afternoon.
Ramsey Russell: Talking about this river, you’ve also got and how about your least how much your location along the North Platte River. I know that a couple of weeks ago your clients were hunting on the river for ducks and now they ain’t, now we can’t. Now we’re hunting sloughs and waterways and fields and agriculture for those ducks. What happened?
JJ Randolph: Well one of the couple of my properties that I have are along a refuge on the North Platte River, and it’s actually a goose refuge. So you’re allowed to hunt it before goose season opens, and so you can hunt ducks there until the season opens, and then it becomes a reserve the rest of the year.
Ramsey Russell: This is not a state or federal refuge.
JJ Randolph: This is not a state or federal refuge. This one is actually a landowner agreement — verbal agreement refuge for this group of landowners.
Ramsey Russell: How many landowners are involved in that stretch of river? And how big is that stretch of river?
JJ Randolph: It’s about 5.5 miles long. And I’m going to think for a second, there’s going to be 10-ish landowners along there. Maybe a few more. I’m not exact on that, but not very many. In 1976, a guide George Rex Straw kind of got goose hunting going in this county. Decided this would be a good idea and he was very much correct that we needed refuges on the river and more refuges in the county. He developed a refuge out south of town on a lake there. And then in this section of the river, he went up and down the river and shook people’s hands, and said, I think this would be a good deal. And people bought into it and said, let’s give it a try, and guess what? It worked. When you don’t hunt a piece of river for a long time, then it’s going to become a refuge.
Ramsey Russell: Half a century later, that refuge is still intact. That’s what’s so amazing is 10 property owners and their heirs or whoever have kept the ball rolling.
JJ Randolph: God bless them. Waterfowl hunting in this community, well, around here is a very popular thing, very family oriented. It’s a big part of our community and we would not have it without these refuges and what’s going on. Another thing that this county does is, only hunts geese till 1:00.
Ramsey Russell: Countywide?
JJ Randolph: Countywide, you can hunt geese all day on Wednesdays and Saturdays the rest of the week you’re cutting off at 1:00. Now that’s controversial.
Ramsey Russell: This isn’t a governmental mandate, this is not a federal or state government saying you must do this. This is a community coming together, saying we got a resource we’re going to protect.
JJ Randolph: This is the hunters in Goshen County coming together and saying we want to protect our resource, we want to have good hunting and this is what we’re willing to do for it. So the refuges and the 1:00 closure allows the whole county to be a refuge in the afternoon.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
The Less You Shoot at Birds, the More Likely They are to Stick Around
And what that does for us is it makes them easier to decoy, so we can get good and close, good kill shots, and it keeps them in the area.
JJ Randolph: And those birds can go out and be unmolested and not shot at. And what that does for us is it makes them easier to decoy, so we can get good and close, good kill shots, and it keeps them in the area. When you shoot at them all day every day – we also have a smaller limit, by the way – we’re four geese here where our neighbors in Nebraska are five geese.
Ramsey Russell: Mm-hmm.
JJ Randolph: This is all a little bit of personal opinion, but I base it on observation, the less you shoot at birds, the more likely they are to stick around. So you can go over the state line and it’s a five bird limit. Now you got five guys in the blind, or say you’ve got four guys in the blind and you’re trying to kill 20 geese. And you’re shooting all day long trying to get your 20 geese. Now, if you’re not taking good close shots, you’re not getting birds within range and you’re taking pass shots or whatever. You might shoot at a lot of birds by the end of the day to get those 20 geese. Now we step over where the limits four and it’s closed in the afternoon. Those birds aren’t getting shot at all day and they’re getting shot at less.
Ramsey Russell: And the difference in one goose is nothing.
JJ Randolph: Nothing because now we need 16 instead of 20. That’s going to be at least one flock or two or three – depending on how you guys shoot – that don’t get shot at. So when you come over here, I believe the birds are easier to decoy because of that. And I just really believe it’s a great deal. I think it keeps the birds around here. It keeps them more gullible and it really enhances our hunting.
Ramsey Russell: I started out the podcast talking mule deer, and elk, and big game, and bighorn sheep. It’s a proverbial big game paradise. And up where I was around Powell and up, most of the community big game hunts. Both the last two guests talked about, well my daddy and my granddad, I mean, they were big game hunters. Are there a lot of other, is this like the waterfowl corner of Wyoming, or would you still say it’s relatively few hunters?
JJ Randolph: Yeah. I don’t think we have a big hunting pressure around. No, we don’t have hunting pressure is one of the things.
Ramsey Russell: Do you have a lot of goose hunters relative to the rest of the state?
JJ Randolph: We have.
Ramsey Russell: Or would most of these cowboys around here rather go shoot elk and not goose?
Canada’s are Coming to Stay
They’re the ones that this is their destination. They’re coming to stay.
JJ Randolph: Oh, everybody still likes to go shoot elk but we have our goose hunters around here, to everybody, goose hunting in our community is a big deal. We’ve got a charity goose hunt that we do every year called the two-shot goose hunt, and it brings a lot of money into the community, and that’s very helpful for that. I help put on a kids’ hunt every year. We take 50 kids hunting in the community. That’s a big deal. There’s a couple of other community goose hunts around here for fundraisers for people over the years. And so it’s a big part of our community. There are other guide services in this part of the state besides myself. And I think we bring a lot of business in for the community as well. You’ve been at the cafe, my guys have breakfast, I got 25 guys and they’re having breakfast everywhere. That helps. They all go up to the restaurant at night to eat, they stop in the gun store and buy a gun, buy ammo, they stop at the gas stations, get gas, go to the grocery store, buy steaks to cook. I mean there is definitely some money coming in the community from the goose hunting as well. So yeah, it’s a good part of our community and it helps out and brings a lot of people together as well.
Ramsey Russell: Absolutely, it does. The idea of 10 landowners having a sanctuary and then the entire county getting together and saying, heck yeah, we’re going to shut it at 1:00, I mean that, and y’all have geese all season.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, we do. Our goose season goes till Valentine’s Day at least. And we’ve got great goose hunting right up until the end.
Ramsey Russell: And is it big geese? Little geese, middle sized geese?
JJ Randolph: Early in the season, it’s little geese, cacklers, and they come through and they’ll stick around for a little bit, but not real long. Once it gets cold here, they’re heading on their way and then we get the right weather up north and the big Canada’s come down, and that’s kind of our bread and butter. They’re the ones that this is their destination. They’re coming to stay.
Ramsey Russell: The big Westies.
JJ Randolph: Yep. And they will stay here for the winter and they’re not going anywhere else, and they’ll go back north from here. We see them late February, or they start clearing out and heading back north sometimes early February, depending on the weather.
The Art of Quiet Goose Calling
If they’re not talking, you don’t need to talk much.
Ramsey Russell: Speaking of cacklers, I got to tell the folks this one right here, I was at the cafe last night, I got in about seven o’clock and the one place open on Sunday night was the truck stop. I got me an omelette and two guys in camo walked out the door and walked back and said, I know you’re from Mississippi. And they’re from Mississippi. Turns out they were out here hunting with y’all and they hunted the blind yesterday that we hunted this morning. They said, y’all seen that? There’s a little goose out and spread the whole day, and we shot, the dogs went, they shot limits of mallards and some Canada geese. And the first thing they asked me when they stepped out of the truck and I’m going to eat dinner to go, “Y’all didn’t shoot that pet goose?” So we get there and there’s a cackler in the decoys, and they keep doing this thing, and we go to hunt and we killed that one cackler. I sent Char and as she’s swimming through the decoys, that goose starts swimming. So she gets off mark, starts chasing, he gets up, gets two feet off the water and does a little circle. And my impulse was to kill him, just because, and I didn’t. And he kind of went a little way off and settled in. She got back on her mark, got the bird, brought it back. He swam back up in the decoys and we’re down in that very comfortable line we’re going to describe here a little bit. When you’re sitting down, and talking to Michael, and talking to folks, you don’t really see the decoys, you’re looking up, you’re looking up, but I would hear that bird start barking. That little cackler started barking like a little, I mean very faint, and as soon as I hear him start talking, I hear a goose up in the air.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, he was kind of warning.
Ramsey Russell: He could hear a lot. He was like a little watchdog out there.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, he was kind of like a little watchdog. I kind of have a – this is my own rule. I’m not much of a killer anymore. I enjoy the hunt. I see plenty die. I don’t pull the trigger a whole lot and I got kind of a soft spot, and if a bird makes it into the decoys without getting shot at, I don’t shoot him. Those that come in, land, and we didn’t get them before they landed, he’s safe. And these cacklers, they are a hard bird to decoy. I’m telling you after they’re here a week or two, buddy, they get tough, they get tough. But when they land in the decoys as a single, or a pair like that, for some reason, they just stay there. And my belief in my head is that they’re such a flock-orientated bird, they’re like a snow goose, kind of, they do whatever the flock is going to do, and the decoys aren’t leaving, and nobody’s leaving, and they just figure, well it must be safe, nobody else is flying. They hang out.
Ramsey Russell: I was kind of disappointed when we all got out of the bathroom, take a break and everything else, and he took off.
JJ Randolph: He did.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, he left. Stayed there for two days.
JJ Randolph: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: But what a little watchdog he was. He could hear those geese before we could.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, he could. I noticed that too.
Ramsey Russell: Couldn’t believe how quiet he would talk to them, so they must have really good hearing.
JJ Randolph: They have pretty good hearing. That’s why I think you got to be careful with your calling sometimes and not just be blasting, especially on a quiet day. Watch those birds come, listen to them first, especially with the big Canada goose. If they’re not talking, you don’t need to talk much. They’re talking a little, you can talk a little. I always take that approach with big Canada’s, I want to baby them in first before I blast them in. The baby in doesn’t work, then we’ll start blasting them a little. But first they don’t — a few honks, little moan, a little cluck here and there, and a lot of times that’s about all you need.
Dry Field Waterfowling
And they are back and forth all day long, water to food, water to food, water to food.
Ramsey Russell: In a predominantly dry state. You’ve got the North Platte river running all which ways through Wyoming, you come down in your part of the world, we’ve got this massive sanctuary, the whole county is an afternoon sanctuary for Canada geese. And then you’ve got the third part of the equation which is agriculture.
JJ Randolph: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And it really is, it’s good agriculture.
JJ Randolph: It’s corn, winter wheat, so ducks and goose favorite food there. And there’s a lot of agriculture here which holds the birds. We do a lot of corn field hunting, a lot of mallards corner. You’re here when we get a snowstorm, and you’re hunting with me, chances are pretty good we’re going to be in a dry cornfield, and it’s fantastic. I get a lot of guys from down where you are, Ramsey, from the South that look at me like I’m nuts when I say I’m going to go hunt a dry field. The fact of the matter is that’s what those ducks want when it gets cold and it starts snowing, and the most sense I can make of it is they’re going to get that food before it gets covered up by the snow. And they are back and forth all day long, water to food, water to food, water to food. And I know a lot of places are this way, but that’s when we have some of our best hunting, it’s definitely during storms, snowstorms, and that kind of thing. But that mallard field hunting is, it’s a lot of fun.
An Ideal Blind
Well, ducks are up in the air, they are looking down, and they can see that hole in the blind. So my lid system completely covers up the top.
Ramsey Russell: It’s quite a blind you got. Your blinds are — how tall are they from Florida? The top of the ceiling, 3.5-4 feet?
JJ Randolph: Yeah, they’re more like 4 feet, 10 inches, I think.
Ramsey Russell: Built out of wood?
JJ Randolph: It is.
Ramsey Russell: Lumbered up like a little like a little clubhouse. What are the floor dimensions on that thing?
JJ Randolph: It’s 8 feet wide by 16 feet long.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah, and sunk into the ground. The whole back wall has got gas heaters.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, usually four or five. We didn’t need them today but actually put four or five heaters in there. It does get cold here. I know it wasn’t today, but it does get real cold here at times and you want to be out there in that because that’s when some of our — I’ve got warm water creeks, I got ponds, I got cornfields, you name it. We keep the ponds open with ice eaters. The warm water creeks never freeze and when you get 10 below zero and snow on the ground, corn fields, warm water creeks, that’s where you want to be. But it’s cold out there. Nobody ever said you had to suffer during this duck hunting. I know people think you do, but you don’t. And you can build a nice blind and you can camo that thing so that there’s no way in the world you’re going to see it, and be in their dry and comfortable and still shoot ducks.
Ramsey Russell: Well, we’re sitting in very nice comfortable office chairs, in my office chair even had it boat fishing, and it was extra comfortable. And then you’ve got these little two by two, I guess little wireframe lit on rollers at that site, and I can pull it, shut, open it up, get out of my way quick time to shoot. But most importantly, I can look through it and watch the birds. I know where they are as you’re calling to them.
JJ Randolph: So I think more ducks are spooked than anything when they go over the top of you and look down and can see that hole in the blind. Everybody camouflages the front of their blind. Well, ducks are up in the air, they are looking down, and they can see that hole in the blind. So my lid system completely covers up the top. You’ve got camouflage netting, and of course, we put canary grass and stuff in there too to help break it up. But you can see through that netting, you can see the birds but they can’t see you. And yeah, it works pretty good. When I first came here to Warrington, I met this guy named Tom Harpstreet who was the big kind of goose guru in the area, if you can say that. And Tom and I became very good friends, and I still lease property today from his wife. Tom’s passed away. But Tom invented those blinds and he must have built 50 of them for other people in Goshen County.
Ramsey Russell: Was he a guide also?
JJ Randolph: He did some guiding. Yeah, he and I kind of —
Ramsey Russell: That’s a lot of blind for one man.
JJ Randolph: Well, he built them for just normal. I’m telling you, a lot of people hunt geese here in Goshen County, and that’s great, God bless him. And they would come to Tom and say, I need a blind, you’re the best blind builder around. And he built these blinds and so I’ve just kind of taken that and run with it, and really not made many adaptations to them. Kept them pretty much the same as when Tom built them. But they were great for what we’re doing. The birds can’t see from the top, but you can see them when it’s time to shoot, you slide that lid back and come up and shooting, and it works great.
Ramsey Russell: They’re very nice and comfortable blinds. Last time I hunted with you, it was cold.
JJ Randolph: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: It wasn’t as cold as it gets, but it was cold and it was windy, and I was down there toasty. Would have my jacket on the floor, had my bibs off, and was just sitting there basking in a sauna. Boy, did it cool off, and I jumped up to go get a goof.
JJ Randolph: People don’t know this. I did half of this for me, I hop in there, I go, you guys need a little heat? Why don’t we turn the heater on?
Ramsey Russell: You get out of the blind today, you were wearing Crocs?
JJ Randolph: Yeah, it was 75° today and the ground’s dry. So Crocs are comfortable, but I’m always the first guy to shut that, turn that heater on and the last guy to turn it off. All my guests are going, no, we don’t need any heat. And I go, well, I’m turning it on.
Ramsey Russell: That’s right. Why be miserable? Right there towards the end of the day, I got a phone call from a museum curator, and I stepped out to talk to him. He’s not a duck hunter. But we got talking, he asked me, where are you? I said, well, I’m down here, and I said, matter of fact, I’m a half mile from a headstone that reads Grattan Massacre. And he knew exactly where I was. Oh, he’s in that big Cody museum. He knew he knew exactly where I was. And we talked about it too. The first time you told me this story, it blew my mind. It’s a big goose hunting right where it all started.
From Peace to the Grattan Massacre
Well, it all started right here on property that I leased for goose hunting.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, the Grattan Massacre. So people have heard about Red Cloud’s war. And of course, the Battle of Little Bighorn, and the Plains Indian wars. Well, it all started right here on property that I leased for goose hunting. And there was camping Native Americans there, always has been. Where the Platte River was, this was their home before we came here, so they had always been there. And at this point in time — I’m trying to remember the year now, 1856, I think. Sounds about right. Anyway, everything was peaceful at that time with the settlers.
Ramsey Russell: Settlers weren’t worried about being attacked. They weren’t having to circle the wagons and all that kind of stuff.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, at that point in time, everything was okay. And the story goes that the Mormons were coming across here, all settlers, pioneers and Mormons were coming across, as well as big on the Mormon trail, and one of their cows got loose, wandered into the village. Of course, natives are hungry, they killed the cow, ate the cow. There was — the guy who headed up Fort Laramie at the time was, Grattan was his name. And these settlers rolled into Fort Laramie and went to Grattan and said, hey, guess what? The Native Americans stole our cow and I want you to get them or whatever. Well, Grattan at the time was trying to make it in the military, and back then, if you did some battle or something, that was big. So I think he might have gone down there looking for a little bit of a fight. He took 27 of his cavalries with him and he went down there on this site where I goose hunt, and he got up on the hill, and they had a Gatlin gun, maybe, and put it up on the hill with the gun and all the cavalry guys. And there were, I heard, anywhere from 400 to 1500 Native Americans.
Ramsey Russell: The story I heard, normally they were just a small band kind of state.
JJ Randolph: Something brought them together. There was like 400-1500 somewhere in there, way more than 27. Well apparently, they had an interpreter who didn’t know Sioux very well, or any Native American language, and kind of botched the conversation.
Ramsey Russell: Who were they talking to?
JJ Randolph: They were talking to Conquering Bear who was not a chief. He was like a holy man or village spokesman, whatever, but he was the guy talking for the village. And they talked to Conquering Bear. Grattan said, I want the guys who stole the cow, and Conquering Bear said, well, we kind of all ate the cow, and I’m not going to give you those guys. We’ll trade you some horses for the cow. And Grattan said, turn him over now or there’s going to be trouble. And whatever happened, Grattan told his men to open fire. Somewhere in the conversation things went bad. And the guys on the hillside, the cavalry, opened fire. Well, they killed Conquering Bear. They shot Conquering Bear and killed him, and I believe another Native American too. And then of course, the village, they’re not going to get killed. So they ran up on the hill and they took out Grattan and his men, took them down. So that’s the Grattan massacre. Now, legend has it that Crazy Horse was up on the ridge watching this. Now, I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I’ve read a couple of books that mentioned it, and so they think as a young boy, a teenager, he was watching this Grattan massacre which fueled his fire. Now, that of course got back to Washington. Of course, Washington was upset with that. Next spring they send General Harney to Blue Water Creek, which is down by Lisco, Nebraska – which is, again, a very popular hunting area and great mallard hunting down there as well. And there was a peaceful village camped on Blue Water Creek. Women, children, old men, apparently the warriors were off somewhere. And General Harney came in and wiped out that whole village.
Ramsey Russell: It’s retribution.
JJ Randolph: Yep, revenge or whatever you want to call it. I believe that Washington probably said, look, you’re going to go show those Native Americans that we’re not to be messed with and they pull this again, this is what’s going to happen. Well, that didn’t do anything except infuriate them, which I don’t blame them. And this is where Red Cloud got involved and it became Red Cloud’s war. And this is kind of what sparked the whole Plains Indians war and Red Cloud’s war, is the Grattan massacre followed by General Harney doing that. And then the whole thing exploded. And there was the Fetterman Massacre coupled with Rosebud, and it all led up to the Battle of Little Bighorn eventually, and that’s kind of where that all started and culminated.
Ramsey Russell: It was inevitable. But it started right here.
JJ Randolph: It was inevitable. But it started right here. That’s a neat piece of history.
Ramsey Russell: Last time Forrest and I were here, we got to a picture hanging on our camp house holding goose limits right by that monument. I mean, it’s just kind of cool. You just don’t expect to be right there in the same ag field with this thing.
JJ Randolph: No, you don’t. No, it’s a cool area, I guess back in the ‘70s or whatever, the landowner told me the archaeologists or whatever you call them, all those guys went through there with a fine-tooth comb, getting artifacts and all that, and found a bunch of stuff. I think it’s been pretty cleaned up now.
Ramsey Russell: Probably over in Cody, Wyoming.
JJ Randolph: Probably at the museum in Cody, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: It’s actually seven museums in one building. It’s the most impressive thing, part of the Smithsonian, I’ve ever seen.
JJ Randolph: I’ve heard it’s amazing. My buddy who went there told me — he flat out told me, if you go for two days, he said at least two days, you’ll never see it. Can’t possibly get it all in one day.
Ramsey Russell: My wife is a museum person and she’s going to read everything in there. You have to allow two weeks for her, which means she’s never going to Cody, Wyoming when I’m here. I like to look at that stuff but I ain’t going to spend two weeks reading everything. We were walking out today and you’re talking about how cold it gets in this part of the world previously. But we were walking out, they were parked on this little branch, Little Creek, this little ditch I’d call it, by Mississippi standards, just can’t be 5 feet wide. It’s right there next to the corn field. So I’m just assuming it’s an irrigation ditch, but it’s a warm spring that never freezes. And the point is, you got a duck blind right freaking there up in the trees. Are there many springs like that around here? Warm springs?
Mallard Destination Central
But those weather changes allow good hunting.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, there’s actually quite a few of them. Some of these springs — one of the creeks that I hunt down in Nebraska bubbles right out of the ground at 48 degrees. It’s 48 degrees year-round. Never changes just right up out of the ground and runs down the hill 48 degrees. I don’t care how cold it gets, that baby never got a speck of ice on it.
Ramsey Russell: Do you see duck? Do you think they’re ducks that terminate their migration in this region?
JJ Randolph: Absolutely.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
JJ Randolph: No question about it there, this is absolutely a destination for mallards. 98.7% of my duck shot every year are mallards. We get occasional wigeon and occasional pintail here, and the rest mallards, but there’s no doubt they come — and there’s a lot of birds that go through this time of year. I believe this first push of birds goes on through. I’m not going to say where they go, but south of here, Colorado, down into Texas, I don’t know. But they’ll stay here for a little bit and then they kind of move on. But the next push of birds that comes – when we get the big storms up in Alberta, Montana, and whatever – that next push that’s coming is they’re going to stick around, and now when I say that, I mean stick around on the North Platte River. I don’t mean they’re going to just be in my area. They may go from here all the way to Lake McConaughey and hang out at Lake McConaughey for a couple of weeks, and they get a big snowstorm down there, and they’ll move back up here. Say they get snow down there and we didn’t get any here, and guess what? Boom, all the ducks will come back up.
Ramsey Russell: It gets cold here. Do you get a ton of snow accumulation?
JJ Randolph: It doesn’t stick around a long time. We usually will get a cold week followed by a warm week and then a couple weeks later, another cold week followed by a warm week, which for me, if I could keep that roller coaster going – if you get into a pattern of anything for too long, the ducks get tough and they get stale. If it’s 10 below for two weeks, the first week is going to be great. In the second week, they’re getting patterned up and figuring it out. When it warms back up, that changes their pattern a little bit and they’re going to spread, go to some places we can get at them again until they figure it out. So that roller coaster of weather changes and sometimes I need it to warm up. Sometimes I needed to be colder. But those weather changes allow good hunting.
Ramsey Russell: Change is good in the duck hunting world. New ducks, new behaviors, new patterns.
JJ Randolph: When it stays in one weather pattern for too long, they get stale. They get patterned up, they figure out where the safe spots are and it gets tougher on you. You have a weather change and they move to new locations for a while and you can get them again.
Goose Hunting Events for the Next Generation
It’s called the “Tom Harperstreet Memorial Youth Hunt.”
Ramsey Russell: Talk about this children’s hunt, these kids hunts, y’all do every year, because I know it’s near and dear to your heart and last year you didn’t do it because of COVID.
JJ Randolph: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: But I know that Benelli USA was involved. They were going to donate a gun.
JJ Randolph: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: I know they’ll do it again this year.
JJ Randolph: They have donated guns to us in the past as well. And I mentioned earlier about my friend the goose guru, Tom Harpstreet who made the blinds that I now hunt out of, and he passed away, I think it’s been 12 years ago now. And Tom’s biggest passion was goose hunting, and on top of that, his biggest passion was taking kids goose hunting. He loved taking kids out. And so when he passed away, his family and myself got together and said, we want to do something in Tom’s honor and started this Goshen County kids goose hunt. It’s called the “Tom Harperstreet Memorial Youth Hunt.” You can even go online to “Tom’s Youth Hunt” and see it on there and register your kids. So in Tom’s name, we started doing this, and it’s been a big hit. We take 50 kids every year, the end of January and like I said, God bless them, it’s a goose hunting community. Sorry, sometimes I get a little emotional talking about this hunt, it is special.
Ramsey Russell: He was a mentor to you.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, he was a big-time mentor and best friend. But anyway, so we take 50 kids and I get all my friends in Goshen County, we get 25 goose pits together. Two kids to a pit, we don’t want to put four in there, two kids to a pit. We start ages – like you got to have your hunter safety is what is required.
Ramsey Russell: Yeah.
JJ Randolph: Somewhere in there, got to have hunter safety, that’s the requirement. Two kids to a pit and we take them hunting goose hunting until noon. We bring them back up to the Bucking Horse restaurant where we have our banquet and we do goose calling competition, a couple of different age divisions, and we hand out prizes for that. And then we got a big raffle so every kid walks out of there with a goose call, a box of decoys.
Ramsey Russell: Somebody with a shotgun.
JJ Randolph: Shotguns gave away 3, 2 years ago. And let me tell you, for people who don’t like guns, you ever seen a 12-year-old win a 20 gauge? I’m going to tell you what, it’s the best thing. I mean unbelievable. So when you see that, you’ll be like guns are good, and whatever. So it’s a great deal and we do it every year.
Ramsey Russell: Talk about a legacy to leave behind. What a way to be remembered.
JJ Randolph: Yeah. Well he deserved it, he did. He helped a lot of kids. I still have – well, they’re not kids anymore, now they’re in their thirties – come up to me today, and Tom and I took hunting when they were 10 and just go —
Ramsey Russell: God. Started them on a path.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, come up and tell me, thank you. And that’s pretty cool. Pretty cool. So yeah, Tom was a good man and we do that hunt and honor him, and the kids and the community love it, and it’s really been great, and we’re hoping to do it forever.
Ramsey Russell: Do most of those kids come from this area?
JJ Randolph: You know what, one year I had five different states.
Ramsey Russell: Wow.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, most of the time it’s kids from this area, but we got people here who maybe they – like one year, a guy brought his grandson, lives in Arizona, brought his grandson up to hunt – and we get kids from Utah quite a bit because some of them hunt with me and then they come back from Utah.
Ramsey Russell: You welcome youth hunters from anywhere. Anybody listening, y’all want to, you can put your kid on a world class goose hunt. Here’s your opportunity.
JJ Randolph: Here’s your opportunity and you go to Tom’s Youth Hunt and get on the list and do that, and it’s just a one-day hunt, it’s great.
The Ultimate Goose Call: Carlson Champion Calls
And so you’ve got four duck calls in one call, basically.
Ramsey Russell: That’s fantastic. Talking about goose hunting, goose calling reminded me of this morning. That was a great group of guys to hunt with, and you’ve been hunting with some of them awhile. Ryan owned Carlson Champion Calls.
JJ Randolph: Carlson Championship Calls.
Ramsey Russell: And the boy called duck, and I’m going to tell you right now, I put my calls on me, just so I had the whistle to blow at Char if I needed it. But now that was some good calling y’all were doing down.
JJ Randolph: Yeah.
Ramsey Russell: You blow a Carlson’s call?
JJ Randolph: I’ve been blowing Carlson calls since I was like 10 years old, and Wendell Carlson’s the guy who started the company. Then Jim James, who won the World Championship in ‘96 with the Carlson call, I think took it over from Wendell. And now Ryan has had it for quite a while now, and and he took it over from Jim, and I just, I love that duck call. It’s a Volo choke, it’s got three different chokes. So if you’ve got a quiet day where there’s no wind blowing and you’re in the trees, you can screw in a quiet choke, and if it’s on a loud, windy day and you need a loud call, you take your quiet choke out and screw in a loud choke. And so you’ve got four duck calls in one call, basically. And so that’s a good concept. But I got to hunt with Wendell once when I was a kid, but a lot of guys who blew that call in Nebraska and Iowa area, and I grew up hunting with them, with my dad, and learning from some of those guys. That’s a great call, I like it. And Ryan and I have been buddies for a while, and he makes my calls and does a great job, and he’s a hell of a duck caller. He blew in the World, and won a lot of competitions, and he’s a hell of a caller.
Ramsey Russell: I talked to him today about I want one of wood, and was like, he was blowing with the violet choke, and I’ve got one of the brown plastic ones.
JJ Randolph: Bolo choke one, yeah.
Ramsey Russell: And this doesn’t have a screw-in choke. It just got a single hole.
JJ Randolph: Oh, okay.
Ramsey Russell: But I remember the big deal, I guess Mr. Carlson, was like the musical properties of it and it’s like, it’s one way to blow that call. And if you’re blowing that call like it’s supposed to be blown, you’re blowing a duck call right?
JJ Randolph: You are blowing a duck call, right? And it sounds like a duck and it works and it takes a while to get to learn that. But that duck calling system, any duck calling system Wendell makes, it’s pretty simple and they’ve got a CD and everything that you can learn from. Makes it pretty simple. But when you can you master that call, buddy, you can call ducks, you can reach out and touch them. It’s got a high ball like no other, ring that and you can break them down for miles, and you can get them in and finish them real soft with a little, and it does it all. I would have been blowing that call since I was a kid and I hunted with really good duck callers who blew it. I hunted with Dick Schultz, who he was a World Champion like in the ‘70s, I think, but my dad knew him when I was a little kid so I got to hunt with them. I’m out here hunting with a World Champion duck caller, sitting in a blind boat on the Missouri River just thinking holy crap, and I tape recorded them. I got all these duck callers and I’d sit there as a little kid and tape record them, and go home play that tape back and try and imitate them all, and stuff. It was great.
Ramsey Russell: It was a good childhood.
JJ Randolph: Yeah, it was a pretty good childhood.
Another Favorite: Tim Grounds Goose Calls
I’m no goose caller but I can call them in with that.
Ramsey Russell: What kind of goose call do you blow?
JJ Randolph: I blow a Tim Grounds. And Tim was really the first one who came out with the short-reed. Rest in peace to him. He was a great guy, and I started blowing that thing, he made the Half Breed or whichever the first one was. And I had one of those immediately and started blowing that. And there’s a lot of — I know a lot of good goose calls on the market and they all got that short-reed system though that Tim came up with.
Ramsey Russell: I like that Super Mag. That’s the only call I have been blowing for 30 years. I’m no goose caller but I can call them in with that.
JJ Randolph: That’s what I blow is the Super, hard to beat the Super Mag and the Pro, Super Mag and Hunter. His kid’s doing it now and still making the greatest calls ever. That’s a goose call. I blow it just like him.
Ramsey Russell: What are we going to do tomorrow?
JJ Randolph: We’re hunting the river tomorrow.
Ramsey Russell: Okay.
JJ Randolph: Yeah. Meeting for 4:45 at the Maverick. We’re going to go down and hunt the river. And I always love hunting the river when you break a flock of mallards down from up high and get them to come finish down on that river, it’s quite a treat. So I’m hoping we get to do that.
Ramsey Russell: JJ, how can folks get in touch with you?
JJ Randolph: You can get in touch with me at my website, it’s wyobraskawaterfowl.com and email is email@example.com. My phone number is 435-901-3825. If I don’t answer, please leave me a message, I will call you back. I might be in the blind. And email us, my stepfather Michael handles all the reservations, and he is great to talk to, and if you don’t get a hold of me, get ahold of him and he’ll take care of you.
Ramsey Russell: Well, folks, y’all have been listening to my buddy JJ Randolph, WyoBraska Outfitters. They’re a US Hunt List affiliate. The number is on there, you will talk to Michael, and he’s a fine fellow as I ever met. Really great hunt up here in Wyoming and also, as the name implies, Wyobraska, they do jump over into Nebraska some and hunt at the North Platte River. Great duck hunt, great people. You’re not always going to shoot ducks, limit ducks. I have been here when we just have to defend ourselves with the geese and the ducks. I’ve been here when it’s just duck hunting but I always have a good time. Some of the conversation levels we have, the comfort levels we have, it’s just a great hunt, great experience, and a lot of people – I think this is especially for deep South hunters. It’s unique because it’s mallards, it’s Canada geese, it’s wild birds in a beautiful part of the world.
JJ Randolph: Ramsey, we really do have amazing waterfowl hunting, you have experienced it, but our operation really wants it to be not about how many you kill, but about the experience. I think we do that.
Ramsey Russell: Y’all do, y’all hear, y’all nail it on the head. It is absolutely a wonderful experience. Thank you all for living this episode of Duck Season Somewhere from Wyoming with WyoBraska Outfitters. See you next time.