Joe Balog was born and raised on the Great Lakes, where he's earned a living as a charter boat captain, pro bass fisherman and outdoor communicator. As waterfowl editor for Realtree.com, Balog was bitten by the duck bug while hunting the world famous St. Clair Flats. Between duck hunting, fishing, and dog training, Balog spends some 300 days a year on the water.
Out of nowhere, as if sent from the heavens themselves, came a big group of wigeon. In my part of the world, we’re fortunate enough to get a fair sample of all puddle ducks, but large groups of wigeon are very uncommon. I tried to identify the ducks as something else, but they were in fact the little whistling devils. And they were coming right for us.
Being a big believer in multi-species set-ups, I had placed a good sized group of wigeon and teal decoys off to the side of the main spread, in a sloppy duckweed soup that looked just perfect. The group of ducks, led by a hen and followed by several full-plumed masked bandits, headed right into the set. They cupped their wings, just 15 yards off the strong side of my hunting companion. He rose up, swung his gun and fired three times. All the ducks flew away. Normally, missing the only opportunity of the evening would be grounds for some serious bashing, possibly followed by an all out cuss fest. But, in this case, it was simply a time to join my partner in several minutes of gut-busting laughter. At only eleven years old, it was his first shot at a duck. That memory will last longer for both of us than if he had shot a triple.
Each year I participate in a local youth hunt or two. Our draw-style state-run hunts include a few opportunities each season that are set aside for hunters who include one member of the party 16 years of age or less. The intention is to introduce youths to hunting, but what I feel is really accomplished is the introduction of adults to taking kids hunting. Whether or not this is the intended result is debatable. But I’m always surprised at how large the turnouts are for these events. The kids, each given a gear box, introductory duck call, some camo gear and the like, are fed a hotdog and given a quick tutorial on duck hunting. But the actual hunt lies in the hands of their mentors. Having no children myself, I’m often called upon to bail out a buddy or two and take theirs, and I gladly volunteer. Truthfully, it's one of the highlights of my year. In the back of my mind, I somehow feel I’m training one more future duck hunter to do it the right way, and that the world will be better off. In reality, I’m just remembering how my dad “trained” me.
I’ve never spent much time waterfowling with my dad, although I plan to do more in the future. He’s a deer nut, and we share some time each year together at deer camp talking about things that deer hunters talk about, like racks, grunt calls and doe urine. I mainly attend to eat a bunch of comfort foods and sleep in a tree stand. I’m always amazed that I can gain five pounds a day deer hunting. But, the point is to spend time with my dad. He was the one that ingrained in me several traits that can be applied to any outdoor pursuit. Put your time in, keep confident, taking no shot is better than taking a marginal shot; never waste what you kill. I’m reminded of that each year that I set out on a youth hunt.
One thing I’ve come to learn about duck hunting with young people: even though it’s never boring for adults, it can be for a 10-year-old. For that reason, I always place the dog somewhat near the kids, and give them their own call. Most times it’s something simple, like a whistle or a drake call; something they can just blow into. You’ve never seen interest until you’ve seen a kid believe he helped call in the ducks, whether they end up on the strap or not. That, alone, will hook ‘em for life.
Another piece of advice: gun safety must be ingrained in young hunters from day one. I’ve experienced “marginal occurrences” with shotguns while hunting, and it’s almost made me want to quit the game. It’s important to realize that we are dealing with life-threatening weapons at very close ranges. Accidents are rare in the waterfowl world, but, when they happen, they are often very bad. I remember hearing the old adage “a gun is always loaded” when I was young, and it has stuck with me. I tell all my hunting companions the same thing, young and old: “never point your gun at anyone, including the dog. Guns are only loaded when all hunters are in the blind, and are immediately unloaded when shooting hours end." There are no exceptions to these rules, and everyone feels better when the youths involved follow them the closest.
I feel lucky in that I still remember how it was being an outdoorsman as a kid. I find it hard to believe that anything in the world is met with the same enthusiasm as hunting and fishing. Maybe I’m partial, but I don’t remember my friends telling me how they couldn’t sleep the night before a soccer tournament or a day at the movies. I was fortunate to be born into an outdoors family, including both sets of grandparents, uncles, aunts, sister, mom; everyone. Youth hunts help us remember how the outdoors are meant to be viewed: with childlike enthusiasm and wonder. Take part in one this year, and you’ll be the one that benefits.
Despite all our technology and cool new gear, ducks still find ways to beat us
My hunting partners and I had done the legwork. We paid special attention to our decoy spread, and were hidden in the thickest cover around. All of us were decked out in flawless camouflage, and had painted our faces. The dog was hidden, too, and we had not overcalled. Yet, time and time again, approaching ducks flared; in essence giving us the feathered finger. I thought I was going to lose my mind.
Every duck hunter has been there. Regardless of how smart we think we are, we’ve got nothing on Mother Nature. Any outdoorsman who thinks he can out-smart his quarry every time is a fool. Until the day comes that a duck can speak English, everything we know about hunting them is really all just based on theory.
After several hours of frustration, tweaking the spread, and trying every trick known to man, I had had enough. My water bottle was back in the boat, which was hidden about 50 yards from our hunting location in some dense reeds. I was thirsty. As I approached the boat, I immediately saw what was wrecking us all along: the boat, nearly invisible in its incredibly dense cover, was facing to the west. That meant that the propeller, just visible above the waterline, was facing east. And that prop was shining like new money, as they say. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Right there, just a stone’s throw away from my flawless set-up, was a stainless steel beacon flashing: “don’t come in here” to the ducks. I fixed our little problem, and we started killing birds.
I’ve been burned by overlooking other similarly small details. More than once, the shadow of the blind or boat spooked waterfowl. And of course, the dog is easy to blame because he doesn’t really care whose fault it is, and he can’t defend himself. One other time, while hunting in sub-freezing weather, I had two decoys freeze together, and, try as I may, I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with my spread. When I discovered the problem and corrected it, I was amazed at the difference it made. It was as if I completely changed my setup, however I had simply “unglued” the two decoys.
I’m always blown away by things like this, but hunters and anglers see it time and again. Anyone who’s done much fishing can attest to the time that his buddy had the secret lure. It may have just a slightly different hue or action, yet the fish bit it like it was minnow-flavored candy. Ducks and geese are often the same way. We all know how powerful it can be to set up on the X, but often, other small variables make the difference between a poor and productive day. As humans, we have a tendency to think like humans, and you would think that something as small as having a couple decoys touching each other wouldn’t really matter. I mean, when I observe ducks in nature swimming around and feeding, I often see them very close to each other, or momentarily touching one another. If I hadn’t been there that day, I wouldn’t have believed it myself.
Folks, we are but students of the game. Try as we may to fool waterfowl using the latest technology, they still find ways to beat us. And, while I’m a strong proponent against putting too much technology into our hunting approaches, I feel secure that we will never totally outsmart the ducks.
I was recently assigned to do an equipment review for Wildfowl Magazine, and luckily, my portion of the pie was the mud motor section. While I've always felt that mud motors are incredibly useful pieces of equipment, I realize that the high-end modified monsters aren't going to result in any more ducks in the bag. In order to up the odds, wise hunters spend their money on better guns, ammo and decoys. And I look into the new guns each year and study all the latest ammo, all the while shooting the same old set-up. But at night, I dream of mud motors.
I feel as though, as I get older, I’m going to be one of those guys that take this to the next level, despite having no good reason for it. Living near Detroit, I’m constantly reminded of the “gearheads” who dump money into their hotrods; we have car shows every weekend around here. The mudmotor love affair for many is just like that, except the drag races are in the swamp.
As I dove into all the latest and greatest for my review, two traits became apparent across the board:
- The day when manufacturers offer reverse in nearly every surface drive mud motor on the market is almost upon us, which will make them much more user friendly..
- Manufacturers are interested in making mud motors less expensive at entry-level sizes and price ranges.
I’m really excited to see where this takes us. If you’ve never owned a mud motor, and are thinking of looking into it, now may be the time. I’ve owned a MudBuddy Mini 23 for several years now, and I can’t imagine hunting without one. I also really can’t believe the thing still runs. My crew and I have literally beaten it to death in mud and, even more drastically, ice. For winter hunting in the north, nothing compares to these units, as they’re air-cooled and can run in temperatures far below zero. I must say, it’s been a learning experience, though. I once ran up in a remote lake where there was no way out, and ended up high and dry. These things will go through all kinds of nasty mud, but they will not run on land, that I’m sure of. My gear was there for several days, but that’s another story.
This summer, I’m going to do some modifications to my motor to tweak it a little. The words “more better” seem appropriate. At the same time, I’m going to film a few videos to show how to really get the most out of these units. Look for those here during the off-season.
Duck season never closes in many of our minds. This time of year, my thought process naturally shifts to the subjects of breeding pairs and spring ponds. A stroll at the park yesterday, complete with the relentless honking of paired geese, revealed a number of mallard pairs enjoying themselves in the recently flooded grassy areas. My area of the Great Lakes continues to suffer from incredibly low water levels, but the rains are helping. The habit, naturally, is to concern ourselves with our immediate areas’ water levels and habitat when thinking about the upcoming nesting period. In reality, much of our hunting success is driven by the spring conditions in Canada.
I just finished briefing a story on the Ducks Unlimited website about the current habitat conditions up North. Be sure to check it out here:
As we all know, the amount of water in the breeding areas each spring determines the overall duck numbers come fall. And, it appears, that this will again be a very strong year for duck production. As hard as it is for many of us to believe, even us Yankees here in Michigan, many parts of the continent still have quite a bit of snow. Friends of mine ice fished last week in Minnesota. Now I like ice fishing and all, but I know when to quit…
In any case, long periods of snow and cold this time of year have a tendency to increase the amount of water on the ground, and that’s good for ducks. I’m guessing we’ll be awarded with liberal limits from the Feds, and six ducks a day will be the overall norm. What a contrast to the limits imposed just a short time ago.
After attending a waterfowl meeting recently, I was given a really interesting booklet by my local DNR, which detailed all of the laws and regulations related to the waterfowl limits of Michigan, dating back to 1859. I enjoyed flipping back through the records of yesteryear – those around the turn of the century when limits were practically non-existent. In 1905, not only could hunters kill 25 ducks a day, they could do so in the fall (September through January) and again in the spring season in March. A spring season? Are you kidding me?
What I really found intriguing, though, was that, in recent history, limits were much more stringent than they are today. I guess I never knew that. As recently as the 1990’s, the duck season here in Southern Michigan was just 30 days, with a three-duck-per-day limit. Compare that to the six ducks a day, 60-day season of today. I never realized we had it so good.
In any case, recent weather trends have led to an overall increase in the number of ducks flying down this continent. But that alone, isn’t all that is responsible for our good fortune. Each time I brief the DU website as I did this morning, I’m blown away by the habitat programs they’re working on. They, and other groups dedicated to increasing the overall number of waterfowl through habitat restoration, are just as much behind our upturn as the rains are. Combining their efforts with the very watchful eyes of those counting ducks each spring, allows us to continue to have banner seasons, even at a time when habitat loss is such a concern. Like many of you, I’m anxiously awaiting another great year, and hoping it rains like heck up North all spring. But, while I’m thankful for the rains, I’m equally thankful for all of those helping to manage one of our most precious resources, the duck.
Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending what may have been the most significant waterfowl meeting I have ever been to, held in the St. Clair Flats area of Michigan. There, the local waterfowl club, the Harsen’s Island Waterfowl Hunters Association (HIWA), shares a joint venture with the Michigan DNR in managing property owned by the State of Michigan. The property is set aside strictly as a waterfowl refuge, with adjoining area managed for draw-style hunts offered twice daily throughout the season. This area, in the incredibly important Great Lake’s migration corridor, is planted each year with buckwheat and corn, which is then flooded for hunting purposes. The hunting, as one can imagine, is often excellent.
The meeting included some of the monotonous features that any club meeting will: reading of the treasurer's report, breaking down equipment repair costs, considering non-profit status for tax purposes. But, when a vote was held to get opinion on a potential spinning wing decoy ban in the area, things got interesting. The DNR supervisor at the meeting stated very clearly that the DNR would strongly consider the results of that vote when setting policy. In other words, the DNR was going to determine the rules for a public area, open to all hunters, based on the beliefs, opinions and preferences of the private individuals. Again, it’s important to remember, this is a public area that the DNR is governing, not a private club owned by its hunting members.
I thought this was awfully daring of the DNR. Now, granted, I agreed with their policy. Who better to ask how to run this hunt than the guys who hunt there everyday? But to think that the DNR was, in essence, going to “govern” based on the public’s opinion seemed almost wrong. I needed further assurance in the form of hard, biological evidence, and I also needed to know what I could actually print, so I cornered the supervisor. When asked if I had the facts straight, and whether I could quote him, his answer was definitive. “Heck ya – write whatever you want. This is a social issue, not a biological issue” he said. “If it were a biological issue, I wouldn’t be asking anyone for their opinion. We would handle it.”
Essentially, what I was told was that the DNR is more than willing to work with the local waterfowl clubs to set policy based on what those clubs want to see out of their hunts. It’s the hunting experience we’re talking here. The Feds and State set limits, and they control season dates based on what they feel is best for the population, biologically speaking. But, when it comes to the ways in which those numbers are reached, the Michigan DNR wants us to have a say.
Michigan has some wonderful waterfowl opportunities at several State owned properties. And each is unique, and is now being managed that way. If your local governing body is unwilling to do this, suggest they look into the methods being employed in Michigan. After all, these governing bodies work for us, are funded by our tax and license dollars, and claim to want to increase participation of our sports. Well, in Michigan, they’re doing just that.
- » The Joy of Youth Hunts
- » It's the Little Things that Ruin Duck Hunts
- » Balog on Mud Motors
- » Habitat Report: Spring Conditions Look Good for Ducks
- » What You Don't Know About Your Duck Dog
- » Jase Robertson on Duck Calling
- » The Truth About HeviShot and Speed Ball
- » Duck Hunting's Greatest Generation