Thursday, January 26, 2012

Duck hunting: 'Cheap, fast or good - pick two'

"Cheap, fast or good - pick two." This was a pearl of wisdom one of my students shared with me last semester.

He was a photographer with way more professional experience than I have, coming back to school to finish his degree, and we were discussing how to price photo shoots. I have a whole book on pricing photography that didn't say as much as that little six-word phrase. I'm truly blessed to have students who can teach me so much.

Last weekend, I was reminded that this principle - you can't have it all - applies just as perfectly to duck hunting.

A while back, I'd sent a plaintive email to one of my duck hunting buddies, Alison.We hunted with her a lot last season, but this year I'd hunted with her only once, on a sweet diver duck hunt on San Francisco Bay.

"Alison, we miss you! When are you going to come out and play with us again???"

She joined my buddy Charlie and me last weekend at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, where we got the low-down.

Alison used to live in Berkeley, and now lives in San Francisco, which is as far west as you can go around here before hitting ocean. She is a budding duck hunting fiend, but hunting with us - on public land in the Sacramento Valley, well northeast of the Bay Area - required her to get up at 2 or 2:30 a.m. Pretty brutal.

The hunting, though, was good. On the last day of the season last year, Alison was one duck away from getting her first limit ever when the non-hunter she'd brought along as an observer had some sort of allergic reaction that required a hasty departure. Ooooooooh, so close!

This year, Alison decided to splurge a bit, going in with some friends on a leased blind in a Sacramento Valley rice field. This blind was closer to where she lived, but more importantly it gave her two additional benefits:

One, she could always be assured that the blind would be available. On public land, it's a crapshoot, every single hunt day.

And two, she could stroll in just before shoot time, instead of two hours before shoot time, which is the norm for public-land duck hunting here. She'd now bought herself a 4 a.m. wake-up time.

So how had that worked out for her this year?

One spoonie hen. She'd missed some hunt days due to illness and travel, but when she did make it out to her blind she was getting nothing. That one spoonie hen had dropped into the decoys one day, and sat there for half an hour before Alison and her blindmates decided to take that hen out.

Alison returned to Delevan last weekend on literally the only rainy hunt day we've had this season. It was cold and windy. The flight was anemic. Alison's face and hands were bright red when I gave up and left at lunchtime.

But, by God, she and Charlie stuck with it, and she walked out at the end of that day with a full strap of ducks.

By now, dear reader, you must be thinking what an ass I am for writing a whole blog post about poor Alison. That may well be true, but not only did I check with her before writing this - I also freely admit that I did almost the exact same thing that Alison did.

When I started hunting ducks in 2006, Hank and I belonged to a "club" that leased hunting properties from ranches, which meant lots of barley fields where we could hunt pigs, and rice fields where we could hunt ducks. It cost $1,200 a year - not bad.

But it didn't take too long to figure out that we almost always got more ducks at state-run refuges and wildlife areas. I can't remember what it cost to hunt those areas in 2006-07, but a season pass to hunt them this year costs $146.62. It's likely that I'll have used this pass 19 times before the season ends on Sunday, which amounts to $7.72 per hunt.

The question Hank and I asked ourselves was this: Was it more important to sleep in, or bring home more ducks? Within two years, we'd bailed from that club.

Now, you can have an amazing private-land duck hunting experience. I know, because I've been invited to partake of this privilege, where you roll in 30 minutes before shoot time, hop onto an ATV, drive out to a blind you know no one else will have taken, and enjoy 90 minutes of fast-paced, fun and productive hunting.

The first time I hunted a place like that, I was gauche enough to ask how much it'd cost. I was told that the last person to buy into that club paid $125,000 to join, plus an annual fee that helped maintain a gorgeous Disneyland of Ducks. (If you checked out Hank's and my recent video on how to pluck and wax a duck, this was the place where we learned about waxing.)

The last time I hunted a place like this, I kept my damned mouth shut, because I was pretty sure the property was worth way more than would be remotely polite to discuss.

So here's the deal:

You can have good duck hunting that's fast, both in terms of how late you roll in and how quickly you roll out, but you need beaucoup bucks to do it. Those are your premium private clubs.

You can have cheap hunting that's totally awesome, but it's going to require a substantial investment of time and risk. That's your premium public land hunting.

Or you can have cheap(ish) hunting that's fast, but to put it politely, it's really not that good. That's your low-end private land hunting.

This is why I spend the majority of my time hunting crowded national wildlife refuges.

And perhaps it's also why duck hunters - shown below in the "migratory bird" hunting category - are outnumbered by virtually every other kind of hunter.

There ain't no easy button - you've got to want it. Bad.

Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2006 National Survey (yes, a newer one is coming out soon).

© Holly A. Heyser 2012


Mike Dwyer said...

Regarding the survery you referenced:

Our local hunting show "Kentucky Afield" did a segment on duck hunting last week. The host doesn't duck hunt very often so I always like it when they do. When they got done he was talking to one of the guys and said (paraphrasing) "I love my hunting but you waterfowlers are crazy!"

He meant this in a complimentary way, amazed at the conditions and temps we are willing to endure and marveling that he was prepared a hot meal (fried catfish) in the blind while hunting.

I guess my point is that as a sub-label of hunters, being a waterfowler is a badge I wear with pride. IMO we're the baddest of the badasses and I'm happy to be in the minority.

Ryan Sabalow said...

I wish non-profit duck-hunting organizations would spend more time lobbying to open more public and private land for public use, instead of primarily helping their wealthy donors expand their duck clubs.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Mike: I feel the same way - and I especially feel the same way about wanting to see more duck hunting on TV. Ever since Duck Commander moved to some ridiculously early (on the West Coast) time, we haven't seen ANY prime time duck hunting shows.

I'm a total wuss about cold temps - most the time here things get really comfy after the sun comes up. But if the duck hunting is good, I can put up with a LOT.

Ryan: Very interesting point! I'd love to see a pie chart of where those habitat dollars go. I know the organizations work on all three: public hunting land, access to private land, and helping duck clubs. The question is how the money's distributed.

But I think the fact will always remain that if you want that primo, exclusive experience, you've gotta have major ducats.

Anonymous said...

Hello, I just discovered your blog and this is my first post. This is a great article. Recently I was discussing the difficulty of finding places to hunt with a friend who is in his 70's. He told me that when he used to live in Indiana, he hunted all the time within a few minutes drive of his home. He also hunted squirrles on his college campus. Afterwards, when classes began, he would leave his shotgun leaning against the wall outside his classroom door!

Unfortunately, these days I think that unless you are willing to spend a lot of money, it is hard to find good places to hunt. That being said, thankfully a lot of very good duck habitat is on public land. You just have to be willing to share it with others, go on certain days, check in, etc, etc.

By the way, from what I read in my Ducks Unlimited magazine, DU seems to be doing a lot of good habitat work in California on public land. The same goes for Oregon where the Bandon Marsh Wildlife Refuge was just expanded to include land that goes all the way to the ocean.

I see trends of a lot of dollars being spent to improve and expand habitat and save wetlands and a lower amount of hunters utilizing the resource. In spite of the good efforts of conservation organizations, for many the costs of hunting, including getting up at o'dark-thirty, spending almost $4.00 a gallon in gas, spending lots and lots of time out in the field looking for places to hunt and not having access to prime hunting locations that are behind barbed wire are too much and outweigh the benefits. Therefore, I wonder if there will be fewer and fewer hunters in the generations to come?

It would be interesting to compare the statistics you posted on the number of duck hunters that there are today with those of a generation ago.

jryoung said...

This is part of the reason I have not made the jump to waterfowl hunting. Not only are there challenges of water introduced, but the timing and coordination (and being a total neophyte). I recently drove by Delvan for the first time and clocked it at 2hrs from my house.

Hopefully some day I can make it out and experience it, cause I know i'd love it...but it is a huge commitment rising that early to commute that far. In contrast to my first CA public land deer hunt this past fall where I got up at 5am, drove up Hwy 88, picked a road...picked another road, decided I was in a good spot to walk and was looking at a legal buck 5 minutes out of the car.......of course he was then bounding away.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hey, thanks for stopping by and commenting! I can probably get the stats you're asking about - I think they have gathered this data consistently since 1985.

I tend to agree that hunter numbers are shrinking, but check this out: In California, we can pay a buck-something to enter a drawing for a reservation on these public duck hunting lands. Each year, they put out stats on what your odds are of getting a reservation, and I can tell you the odds are getting higher every year, which means more people are applying for these reservations.

Is it more hunters? Or is it more hunters wanting to hunt on the cheap in this wretched economy? Who knows.

Another fun fact: When my university was founded in the late 1940s, it was infested with rabbits - we're right next to the American River, and this land used to be, I think, a peach orchard. So in the early years, they actually gave professors shotshells to encourage them to come to campus on weekends and shoot as many bunnies as they could.

Sadly, I can't even keep my gun in my car on campus if I want to go hunting after work. I even asked if I could check my gun in at the campus police station on days I want to hunt after work, and they said no dice - a gun isn't allowed on campus for even a single second. God help you if you're a hunter living in the dorms here - you're screwed.

NorCal Cazadora said...

JR: Yeah, this post doesn't even get at the major outlay required for waders, jacket, base layers, decoys and calls. I worked with a lot of new women hunters this year and I encouraged them to hunt with friends or guides as much as they could to see if 1) they really liked duck hunting and 2) they liked it enough to make that commitment of time and money. It's an expensive business!

Mike Dwyer said...

KY is working on getting the campus ban overturned. Some kids recently got in trouble over guns in the car for hunting after school. The legislature goes crazy when hunters get harrassed. Lot of good ol' boys in Frankfort.

NorCal Cazadora said...

LOL, our legislature is the one that does all the harassing of hunters! This is an urban state, and Sacramento is a really urban area. We have some country kids at this school, but most people here grew up associating guns with crime and gang violence.

Mike Dwyer said...

That's a shame. My dad grew up a city kid but went to a rural college in the late 60s. His roomate got him started rabbit hunting. If it hadn't been for that I might never have been introduced to hunting myself.

NorCal Cazadora said...

It's sheer luck that I got into hunting, too, and I am so grateful that I did.

Anonymous said...

The refuge and reservation system is just not practical as it stands. Too many people and not enough opportunities. That's way to early to get up to drive hours to fight people for the few good spots. Your time has value that needs to be included when comparing costs. With reservations up 10% this year DFG says largely due to the ease of the electronic system (I suspect more it's the economy) and less hunt slots due to the late flooding and more water issues to come... the future does not look bright.

What I think is needed (besides more and better access to existing public land) is an intermediate step. Not a no-habitat weather-dependent rice blind that every farmer uses as an opportunity to make a quick buck. And not a million-dollar manicured hunt club for the wealthy elite that gets a substantial investment of CWA, DU, and other funds. Just a decent bit of natural land with some decent cover where one can buy a seat for a couple grand and bring a guest without having to deal with all the riff-raff at 2:30 in the morning.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Interesting idea - I know some states have a system like that, where a hunter can enter a lottery to get a blind for the whole season, in natural marsh.

Given the politics of this state, though, we'd be lucky to gain any ground whatsoever - there are powerful forces lobbying against us.

sportingdays said...

Does anyone else get tired of the constant bitching about "it costs too much to hunt"?

I say B.S. It's a matter of priorities.

Folks want hunting to be cheap and easy. A license to hunt birds in California -- including all required stamps -- costs less than $100. It costs about the same to fill up one tank of gas in a full-size pickup or take your family of four to the movies or take your spouse out for a nice dinner. That's a good deal in my book for a year's pass -- or even a five-month pass -- to outdoor adventure.

I know so many California hunters who complain about the cost of hunting, yet they have no problem paying for the NFL/cable/ticket package deluxe or the unlimited text messaging service or filling up their gun safe with guns they'll never shoot.

And the fact is, as Holly's blog points out all the time, the public wildlife areas in California offer waterfowl hunting as good -- if not better -- than many private duck clubs in the state, including many top-dollar clubs in the state. What the public areas lack are all the cushy amenities and conveniences of many private clubs. But the birds are almost always there -- though you'll have to work for them and put up with some competition at times.

All the serious and dedicated public land hunters I know consistently outperform and outproduce all the private land hunters I know -- and this applies to waterfowl, big game and upland birds. That's just been my experience. And they do it at a fraction of the cost.

NorCal Cazadora said...

LOL, you won't hear me complain about the price - I feel blessed.

The gas does get spendy at the peak of season when I hunt three times a week, and have to make a trip up one other day to enter the lottery. But the fact is I love it, and it gives me amazing food that can't be bought anywhere.

Yes, it's a matter of priorities, and for me, hunting ranks right up there with photography in terms of demands on my "disposable" income. Everything else comes in a distant second.

Hunting also chews up a lot of time I could be spending on yard work or housekeeping, but that's what February's for, right?

Peebs said...

I have grown up hunting on public lands in California and after learning the ropes have done well. While my hunting is pretty much limited to waterfowl I would not feel right hunting in the heated blinds it just wouldn't feel right. If you take the time and listen to the "old farts" at the check station you can pretty quickly learn to do it yourself, the cost of hunting has gone up but what hasn't it was 50 cents the first time I hunted Delevan (that was in in 64 so yes I'm one of the above mentioned)now it's less than $20 and less if you get a season pass. The thing is you have to do like Holly and Hank put in your time learn what you can and you'll see the quanaty and quality of your hunts go up. Of course it helps to have an old fart adopt you.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Yes it does! And having lots of shells helps too.

Brian said...

Waterfowlers are also on the decline because of cost, as you know, it simply costs more to effectively hunt them ITO large spreads of dekes, waders, dogs and other gear than, say, minimalist deer hunting where you need a rifle and knife.

For the cost of some of those private clubs you mention one could take a couple trips to the central flyway/prairie potholes in the US or Canada and experience 5000+ birds everyday. I guess the exclusivity can be a nice privelage.

Brian said...

@sportingdays I just read your comment now. I do certainly agree with you and having grown up hunting in South Africa I find hunting in Canada to be very affordable, it seems much the same in the US. I do think that relative to other forms of hunting waterfowling is quite expensive if you want to do it well. Of course pass-shooting shallow marshes or flight lines on fields can be very affordable you are a bit limited in areas and effectiveness without the added gear. However considering at how much people spend on toys like quads, skidoos etc waterfowling gear becomes quite cheap!

Anonymous said...

Some months ago there was some blog post about cost of hunting. I wondered about it and cheerfully tallied up my last few years of deer and pig hunting. I believe I was headed south of $4 a pound, down to about $3, including tags, licenses, gun, and ammo.

Then I went duck hunting, twice. "Make sure to bring 2 to 3 boxes of shells", my friend said. And stamps. And waders. And passes. And..

I stopped counting.

Like you said, you gotta want it- bad. But it's already too late, I'll be back next year.

After signing over the deed to my house to Cabelas.

~Neil H

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