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.
Earlier this year, I mentioned that I’d be involved in a mud motor rebuild / improvement for my Mud Buddy. Well, we’re officially underway.
I have to admit, I know very little about motors, grease, pistons or carbs. Sometimes I pretend to, but the fact of the matter is that just tuning up my lawnmower is often over my head. Today, in fact, found me borrowing a neighbor’s mower due to my latest re-build, which landed my mower back at Sears with a warranty claim. You'd think I would learn.
In any case, I did what anyone in my situation would do when it comes to finding a partner to guide me through the re-build: I begged my father in law, Gordy. He’s an ace with this kind of stuff. Growing up in Detroit in the '60s placed Gordy in the center of the universe for wrenching on cars. In the decade I’ve known this man, I believe he has completely built or re-built at least a half dozen hotrods from scratch. This guy assembles motors while he watches TV. I can’t miss.
I can’t mention enough the unending support offered by members of my family (did I mention that Gordy also watches my lab, Ernie, while I’m on vacation, and that Ernie is a professional pooper?). But, in addition to having a pro in my court, I’m really impressed by the support offered by the guys at Mud Buddy. This week, I chatted with Micah Triplett, who is their head performance manager. Micah made sure I understood one thing about the Mud Buddy company: everyone there uses the products, and there’s nothing he hasn’t done with a mud motor. This is a guy who not only builds mud motors, but builds the parts that build mud motors.
In any case, Micah ran me through a step-by-step of what we would be doing to complete the mod. First, we (Gordy and I…or, maybe just Gordy…) disassembled the motor. The point was to remove the heads to send in to Mud Buddy, where they will be precisely machined to offer the best flow. In addition, we will add a carb kit and high performance exhausts. While we’re at it, we will also change out the propeller on the motor.
The point of all of this isn’t to necessarily gain speed (although we should gain a little), it’s to gain low end torque. Surface drive mud motors are extremely efficient; I couldn’t imagine hunting without one. They are not, however, real good at hauling heavy loads. While my boat pops up on plane and runs about 20 MPH with just Ernie, a few dozen decoys, and me, it labors when trying to haul three hunters. I often find myself hunting with a single companion to avoid having to idle everywhere I travel. My goal is to overcome that with a motor that will plane off my boat with the extra guy. I love hunting with a group of three, as I have an extra gunner to shoot the ducks I miss, so I can later take credit for them.
So we’re off and running with stage one of the mod. We lifted the motor off the boat with Gordy’s motor hoist, and disassembled it in Gordy’s custom hotrod garage, using his custom hotrod tools. You gotta love family! I just hope he knows how to put it all back together…
Washington comes to its senses with the passage of the Farm Bill and the new Federal Duck Stamp e-sales program.
As many of you might already be aware of, the Senate passed the 2013 Farm Bill this week, considered a victory for conservation organizations concerned with our disappearing wetlands and grasslands. As part of the bill, measures to ensure environmentally aware farming practices were included. These programs, essentially, help to reduce the amount of grasslands and wetlands being converted to farmland, as well as allow farmers to utilize high-percentage areas for farming, yet maintain habitat for waterfowl. I, like many of you, am anxious to learn more about the ways in which Washington is helping the ducks. I must admit that sometimes reading through the technicalities of these bills gets a little overwhelming. I’m a lot more comfortable talking fishing and hunting than legislation and lawmaking. Thank goodness groups like Ducks Unlimited are there to help us sort through all of the mumbo jumbo, and represent a nation of face-painted swamp rats like me in Washington. In any case, this week brought good news for waterfowl.
It also brought good news for waterfowl hunters, as the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to make the Federal Duck Stamp available online. What? Are you serious? You mean I no longer have to wait outside the post office until they open at 9 a.m., to find out that they’re sold out of Duck Stamps, then travel to the courthouse to find out the same news, all the while getting text messages from buddies in the marsh as they burn the ducks on opening day? Stop the presses; we’ve made it to 2013!
On a serious note, this jump into modern times will not only make it easier for procrastinators, like me, to ensure compliance with state and federal regs while hunting, it might also add to sales of the stamp. I’ve repeatedly said that more people owe it to wildlife to buy the Duck Stamp. The funds generated by the sale of that stamp are the primary funding source for acquiring lands that become part of the National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS). Ninety-eight cents out of every dollar generated from sales of Federal Duck Stamps go toward the purchase or lease of property in the program.
A quick check of the NWRS website shows who it is that uses the refuges across the country. Hunters, fishermen, hikers, bird-watchers, students; the numbers total more than 30 million visitors annually. Yet, modern Duck Stamp sales rarely total 2 million annually. Call me cynical, but those numbers seem a little skewed. Ask yourself this: how many fishermen or hikers do you know who purchase a Duck Stamp?
In any case, online sales can only help the cause. But I argue that more can be done. Is it out of the question to think that fundraisers or kids' events can someday raise money to purchase Duck Stamps? Am I crazy to think that visitors to the refuge systems should be required to purchase a stamp for entry? Why is it that the only group of individuals required to purchase Duck Stamps are migratory bird hunters, yet 20-times that number reap the benefits?
I’d love to hear your productive ideas on ways to increase sales for the program. After all, we can finally get our stamps instantly, and don’t have to wait for the post fffice to open.
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m a little consumed by organization, order and preparedness. My wife has another less flattering term for it, but safe to say, I like my “ducks in a row” come hunting season. Being a public land hunter without the use of blinds, there is little I can do to control habitat or prepare my hunting locations throughout the year. But that doesn’t mean that less work is involved. In fact, there could be even more. Because of the grueling methods that are demanded from public land hunting, where hunting locations change daily, sometimes even hourly, and mud so thick it will drown you, demands on equipment are often severe. In addition, a lot of work must be done to ensure all of the details of the hunt are considered, as success often hinges on having everything perfect. Much of the work done in the summer centers on equipment, from re-painting boats and tuning mud motors to fixing decoys and grass mats. One piece of vital equipment that cannot be overlooked, though, is the dog.
I was happy to hear of Ernie’s weight loss because it’s essential to his health. Most dog owners don’t consider the impact of just a few extra pounds. My companion weighs in at just 72 pounds – little but mean – but adding just 3-4 additional pounds makes a big difference. Four pounds on him is like 10 or more on me (Boy, what I wouldn’t do to lose 10 pounds…). In any case, the first step toward preparing your retriever each year is to get the dog in shape. Not only does this often include weight loss, but it also includes daily exercise. Most trainers recommend short, frequent exercise (like evening runs and some bumper play) rather than infrequent “blow-outs," where a dog sits around all week and then gets run into the ground on the weekend. The former method is better for the overall health of the dog.
This also brings up the most important part of training: repetition. Having a real dominant, Alpha-style male dog, I know all too well how important repetition can be. As a puppy, my retriever quickly elevated to a “Red-zone” aggressive dog, and had to be constantly managed and trained. Even as a well-mannered adult, his “personality” interjects in everything he does. He pushes the envelope about barking, getting into the trash, or guarding the yard. Therefore, nearly every aspect of his day involves “reminders” that he is not permitted to slip. It’s like having a dog in AA. But it has taught me that repetition is the total key, regardless of your style of training.
Also involved in such repetition is the use of important pieces of equipment to get your retriever ready. I try to get Ernie in the duck boat a lot during the summer. He loves boats, and it keeps him familiar with the process. But, once summer is here to stay, I begin carrying his dog stand and ground blind along for a little refresher. Training begins from the ground floor all over again. The first day it’s just getting up on the stand and remaining still. Day two will be a few easy tosses, and so on. In my world, a calm, still, quiet retriever is far more important than one that can show off for the cameras.
Another addition to my line-up this year will be a cool little blind blanket made as part of a new Duck Commander line of products. I’ve wanted something exactly like this for several years. I’m always amazed at how so many hunters do a great job of concealing themselves, and then hunt next to a 100 pound black dog sitting out in the open. I’ve had ducks see the dog and burn me more than once. For that reason, often times I cover Ernie to aid in concealment when he is on his stand, and this should do a great job, all the while taking the wind off of him on cold days. It will double as one more barrier to the relentless mud in the truck. In the meantime, I’ve introduced the cover to him already – he’s been laying on it in the house and in the truck, and, being a constant “maintenance dog," has already chewed the corner off. But, come duck season, he’ll be comfortable having it around him.
Being an avid outdoorsman who enjoys hunting a few species, and fishing for them all, I’m always amazed at how different waterfowl is than my other pursuits. Sure, I get amped up for fishing season each spring, whether it’s crappies or bass. But duck season seems to just “live with you” year-round. Whether it’s time at the range, or time with the dog, there’s no time like the present to begin getting ready.
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.
- » Rebuilding a Mud Motor with a Hotrod Mechanic
- » The Farm Bill Moves Along, and Duck Stamp Sales Step Into Modern Times
- » Get Your Dog Ready for Duck Season
- » 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