Monday, January 31, 2011

"Interview with Master Decoy Carver Jode Hillman"

When the idea to develop this blog initially struck me, I knew there were a few goals I had to meet.  One was the overall development of this site into the most well-rounded online magazine I could possibly make it.  That, for better or worse, means I simply have to have content from other people, opinions and styles not my own, which in turn allows for growth.  Up to this point, I've had modest success in the category, being able to print stories from my friends while they hunt "Magellan".  But, that's not enough.  It's not enough to just "talk hunting" if you want to be the bottom line for someone looking to spend time online.  I've always said I want this place to be an online "campfire" of sorts.  A place where one may wish to read about any form of outdoor living, and be able to readily find it here.  A place not solely for the hunter, which is quite frankly not our absolute target audience given the broad generalities of the defintion of "hunter" today.  Rather, a place for the "traditionalist" who gets more out of the hunt, who chooses to walk a different path, and who's life is enriched not by numbers but by the overall experience.

Today, I'm one step closer. 

I'd like to introduce Jode Hillman who carves and paints what I consider to be some of the most elegant, stylistic, individualized decoys in the modern era of carving - for both the hunter and collector.  And, he's also one of the first to help a new carver with a problem - trust me on this, I speak from experience.  Sitting around one day I realized I wanted to talk to someone about decoys, and show you more than my sad representations of the art.  I looked no further than Jode.  Upon the request, he graciously accepted and answered all the questions in short only regret is that I didn't ask more.

While you will see a few of Jode's decoys here, please do yourself a favor and go to:  or click the link to the right of your screen "Jode Hillman Decoys" under the links of interest and spend some time looking at his work.

I truly hope you enjoy reading this article as much as I enjoyed watching it come to fruition.

1) When and why did you start carving?  I started carving in the late '90's ('98 or '99 if I remember correctly).  I started for the same reason alot of guys do.  I wanted better decoys than were available commercially, and didn't have the money to spend on the custom birds I liked. Plus I already had alot of the tools to carve, so I figured it would be easy...boy was I wrong on that!  LOL!

PINTAIL DRAKE - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

2) Is there a carver (or carvers) that have had an influence on your style of decoys?  Is there a "region" that has had the same?   I was fortunate enough to have a chance meeting with carver Sean Sutton early in my carving career. We became friends, and it opened a whole new world to me. I was totally clueless as to the excellent carving history all around me, even though I live in probably one of the best areas in the country for old birds, gunners, and the like.

The biggest influence is Sean's advice to always keep it fresh. Even though I am largley known as a Delaware River carver, I enjoy making everything from Woodpeckers to Herons. I think alot of guys get stuck in a rut. They find something that works, and get afraid to deviate from it. From an artistic perspective, unless you are trying out new ideas and outlets, you tend to stagnate and get burned out.

EIDER PAIR - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

3)  How would you describe your carving and painting style?  I think every carver goes through various stages of being enamored with carving, then painting, then carving again. I like to keep my carving to the simplistic side, and focus on proportion and gracefulness.  On these simple shapes I like to dress it up by using semi-impressionistic oil painting techniques.

To me, it doesn't have to look exactly like the duck I am portraying, but capture the "feeling" I get when thinking of my subject.

COMMON GOLDENEYE PAIR - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

4)  What specie do most collectors associate with you?  It varies from person to person, but I make more Pintails and Wood Ducks than anything else. I had a few years where I felt like all I made was preening pintails LOL!

DRAKE WIGEON - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

5)  What is your favorite specie to carve and hunt?  Green-wing teal. I guess it is guilt by association. I spend so much time around Green-wings and Black Ducks I can't help but love them. Green-wings are such great little flyers and are at the top of my list as table fare as well.

BLUE WING TEAL PAIR - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

6)  What is the most important concept for a beginning carver to become proficient at and master?  Most new carvers are timid in the way they approach their blocks. They are afraid of removing to much wood or doing something wrong, hence ruining their decoy. However this often leads to blocky, squarish decoys. Round, round, round, is the mantra I preach to anyone getting started. Forget side pockets, cheek muscles, fancy feathers etc. If a newbie can produce a nicely rounded, well shaped duck it will look better on the water 9 times out of 10 than a poorly exectued more complex pattern. For the beginner, master the simple first before you move onto the more complex!

HOODED MERGANSERS - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

7)  What do you consider the most difficult part of carving and painting decoys?  It used to be finding time to carve and paint!  Carving is like anything else, the more you do it, the more proficient you become. Having days and weeks between sessions is like a weightlifter who only trains once in a while...You may make some gains, but you give them back in short order. I am fortunate to be able to carve and paint full time, and it is amazing how much more satisfying it is when you keep your mental and phyisical tools sharp.

Besides time, the most dificult part is determing what messsage I want a particular carving to convey. Relaxed and resting puddle duck? Ok not to hard...but how about an inqusitive owl getting ready to hunt? Body positions, facial expression, and color scheme all lend themselves to the emotion a carving will convey to the viewer.

WOOD DUCK PAIR - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

8)  What do you consider to be essential equipment for carving?  Whatever tools you happen to have! While I was learning the only tool I was allowed to use besides a bandsaw was a utlity knife!  You can make it as complicated or simple as you want. Most old New Jersey carvers used a hatchet and a pocket knife to turn out some very refined decoys.

My personal list would be a drawknife, spokeshave, detail carving knife, and a bow sander (think of a bow with sandpaper for the "string").  With these tools you can master the basic shapeing of most decoys.

DOWN-EAST SCOTER - photo courtesy of Jode Hillman

THANKS to Jode Hillman for taking the time to answer these questions!

Hope everyone enjoyed this as much as I did.  Check back often and have a great week, Justin

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"L'anguille Lounge and My Last Hunt"

The last hunt of the season is always bitter sweet for me.  I typically find myself with a few friends for the occasion, and spend much of the time reflecting over the season.  I always think about the good hunts and bad ones, the retrieves and the birds, this year being no exception.  This year I got to spend the last couple of hunts at the one place I hadn't made a hunt on this year - L'anguille Lounge Duck Club.  My time spent there is always an enjoyable time, if not for the birds, for the time spent with people I've come to know as great friends.

This year I had in my mind I wanted to do a few things via my hunts and over the internet.  I wanted to honor the tradition and heritage of the hunt as well as possible and I also wanted to highlight the friendships that are forged through the hunt and all that goes into wild game pursuits.  The photo below really fits the bill:

Left to right: me, Patrick and Stephen Pitt with a limit of mallards in Riley East

The "pickin' shed"

Trapper - photo courtesy of Kjartan "Fred" Lorange

Me and Trapper - photo courtesy of Kjartan "Fred" Lorange

Me, Trapper, and our last bird of the year (Drake Pintail) - photo courtesy of Kjartan "Fred" Lorange

I've often said, you can search as long as you'd like, but you will not find any aspect of life (short of military service) that creates friendships and bonds the way sharing the outdoors does. This past weekend proved that to me once again. I had never met the Pitt's friend from Iceland, Kjartan. But after a few drinks and stories, I realized what a unique and interesting character I was dealing with, what a great friend I had made. I'm pretty sure I made up some interesting names for my buddy Kjartan, but I've decided to settle on "Fred". It's just easer for me.

Fred, if you read this, it was a pleasure hunting with you and discussing the hunting over in Iceland. Hope to see you again someday!

***My apologies but my computer is acting up and I can't access my photos right now. Please, check back tonight as I'll post up a photo of the "Arctic Coonass" himself***

Hope you enjoy, please check back often, Justin

Friday, January 21, 2011

"Eiders For Everyone" by Stephen Shepherd

As I said earlier in the week, I knew I had a good friend going up to Massachusetts to hunt eider, and wanted my decoy to make it's way up with him.  Stephen Shepherd goes by many names, Steve or Shep come to mind, but I know him simply as, Georgia.  Loud and rambunctious when sober, unruly when having a few drinks, we were bound to hit it off.  I've since come to know Georgia not so much as a fellow member of L'anguille Lounge Duck Club, but simply as a good friend.

Eiders For Everyone

We really didn't know what to expect as we started to unload guns and gear off of the skiff onto the breakwater wall in the predawn light. The rocks were covered with slippery green algae and the only thing that saved us from sliding into the cold waters of Boston Harbor were the barnacles that cut our wader boots and cold hands. Adam shouted over the humming 4 stroke engine that powered his boat, "Steve....I want one person out on the point and two others stretched out back to the West about 20 yards apart....make sure you have the last person on the back side because that is where the Scoters will come from."

It felt kind of odd trying to settle in for a hunt with jets screaming over head and Boston proper serving as the backdrop! Nestled into rock crevices and sitting on boat cushions, we sat motionless just as our guide had told us. As the sun began to breach the horizon, the radio given to me came alive. "Steve, you got your radio on?" "Yes sir," I replied. "I'm going to sit back here off of the beach about 1/4 mile. If you knock down a bird and it's not dead, KEEP SHOOTING........these things dive and are liable to come up 500 yards away........It's not like shooting mallards!," Adam said firmly. "Yes sir," I replied. I had been given the same advice and other pointers in the weeks leading up to our hunt by my good friend Justin Harrison.


The first shot came from my right and took me complete surprise! A single immature drake landed on the outskirts of the long line directly in front of Claude. The thunderous roar from Claude's 12 gauge claimed the first Eider of the trip! Flocks of Eiders and Scoters begun to stream off of the ocean and into the harbor. "Out front, here they come......Out front......Out front." I sat still straining my eyes looking toward the horizon trying to find the birds. "Shoot em', shoot em'!" someone yelled from down the line. "Shoot what, I don't see any damn birds!" I was thinking to myself. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM......I turned my head and scanned a line of decoys in front of us just in time to see Tim crumple a mature Eider directly over the decoys.


With Tim and Claude having and Eider a piece and dad having not fired his gun, I yelled to dad, "Move over to the other side.......just get between Tim and Claude!" Dad slowly made his way across the rocks and found a place to stow his gear out of the way. "Here comes 2 birds Dan, get ready," Tim said quietly. A single hen Eider was flying less than a foot above the water and directly down the line of Eider decoys straight toward dad. At 20 yards, her wings began to flutter and with her feet only inches from the water, dad fired the first shot. The bird hit the water hard but, she still had her head up. "KEEP SHOOTING!," I yelled. 4 shots later, dads first Eider was lying motionless on the water.


While waiting on Adam to come pick up the 3 birds that layed in the decoys, I poured a cup of coffee in silent celebration of my dad's first Eider. The small radio that Adam gave me at the start of the hunt began to crackle. "Steve, are you there?.......There are a bunch of Eiders behind you toward the beach. When I come toward you to pick up the birds, be ready to shoot," Adam said. Eiders started to trickle out from the inner harbor in front of Adam. Every few birds that came from behind were closer than the group before. When the birds got inside the 45 yard threshold, I got ready to shoot. "SHOOT HIM, SHOOT HIM......IN THE DCOYS!" Tim shouted. I cut my eyes back to the south and a single drake Eider was stretched out landing in the decoys only 10 yards from me. I shifted my weight and turned 90 degrees and squeezed the trigger. "BOOM".......I crushed my first drake Eider at a little over 10 yards. At that moment, the world stood still. I was in a new place, shooting new species of birds with my dad and sharing fellowship with friends!

The action was hot in Boston Harbor that was Eiders for everyone!


Everyone knows that I'm unapologetic about my love for sea ducks and hunting them.  In my opinion, your waterfowling career is not complete until you hunt these birds.  Likewise, it's always fun to watch and read about a buddy's first experience on these birds.  I'm very happy for Georgia and Mr. Dan, and appreciate their story and the photos they provided.

Hope everyone has a safe and great weekend, Justin

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

"Deer Taken at 1325 Yards" by Blake Ward


I am a Nurse Anesthetist employed by the Department of Anesthesiology at a large hospital in Jackson, MS. I also run our family farm in Onward, MS that has been in our family for 64 years. In 1996 I established a duck and deer hunting club on the same land and named it South Delta Hunting Club. Our farm is made up of 1200 acres of large, expansive fields where we farm cotton, corn, soybeans and rice. These fields are flat as a tabletop due to millions of years of MS river flooding. Growing up hunting this property I was fortunate enough to kill my first as well as several more deer over the years.

I have no military experience. I have never shot rifles competitively or attended any formal shooting schools. As a teenager I was armed with 2 things: a Ruger .270 Winchester and my eyeballs. I learned very quickly that attempting to judge distances across these long, flat fields was nearly impossible with the naked eye. One afternoon while sitting in "the corner", several deer walked out in front of me. By looking at them "I figured" I needed to aim about a foot over their backs to compensate for bullet drop. Not knowing anything about my bullets trajectory or even their approximate distance, I proceeded to unload round after round. After sending each shot downrange, I noticed in the scope that not only was a deer not on the ground but in fact they had not even moved. Once my 5 rounds were spent they started eating again and I subsequently had to "shoo" them out of the food plot because they were in between me and my ATV. It was that day that made me realize that before attempting those shots again, I needed to learn much more about ranging and ballistics.

After that eye-opening experience as a teenager, I have concentrated my hunting efforts on establishing food plots and shot opportunities at reasonable, known distances. Our longest food plots are 150 yards long and anyone with a rifle appropriately sighted-in is instructed to simply "hold right on the shoulder". Upon completion of Anesthesia school at The University of Tennessee and establishing a family I wanted to learn more about why I missed those shots so badly as a boy. It was then when I became interested in long-range shooting approximately 3 years ago.

The internet is a wonderful tool that we didn't have when I was a kid. I found that there are several great websites that specialize in shooting and ballistics that provided me with many hours of education. Two binders and lots of printer paper later I felt much more educated on the subject and I was ready to begin my efforts to shoot better and farther. After reading forum after forum and link after link I decided on the necessary equipment such as rifle make and model, caliber, barrel, stock, bullets, optics, mounts, rangefinder, weather station and ballistic software. I shipped my new rifle-build all across the country getting this done and that done until I was introduced to a Machinist named Alton Britt in Brandon, MS. Alton is a Master Machinist, hunter, gunsmith and award-winning competition shooter. After meeting Alton I asked him to re-barrel my factory .270 WSM with a new competition barrel and re-chamber it in 7mm WSM. Needless to say his work is amazing. After getting to know Alton and finding we had so much in common, we decided to combine our efforts and establish Dixie Precision Rifles, LLC and begin testing our handloads and products.

I am lucky enough to have several friends that were interested in the subject and together we built a shooting range across one of our soybean fields. Our tractor barn is located on the north end of this field and I felt like it was the perfect location for a covered, raised shooting platform. Over a few days we built a solid shooting platform in the barn and installed a sliding glass window overlooking the range which is 1500 yards long. I then took several 4x8' sheets of plywood, stapled targets to them, held them up with 2x4's, placed them every hundred yards from 100 to 1000 and started practicing. Over the next few weeks I had recorded my adjustments which would allow my vertical to be dead-on at each yardage out to 1000 yards. Over the course of shooting and documenting my adjustments I noticed that the adjustments that my ballistic software was telling me to use were slightly off. I recorded my actual data and re-worked my inputs in the software to generate the same numbers I had obtained in the field. I then had the program extrapolate that data out to my maximum range of 1500 yards but I knew in the back of my head that a margin of error would remain present with the software.

The day of the shot:

On the afternoon of January 5th, 2011, two friends of mine, Tim Kelley and Brian Turner, both of Tennessee and amateur shooters themselves, wanted to sit with me at the new platform now known as "The Krowz Nest". We set up the rifle, spotting scope, binoculars, rangefinder, wind meter, and video camera. I then took a few minutes to go over what would be required of us to make a shot on a deer if one presented itself that afternoon. We took time to go through a couple of "dry runs" to practice each of our responsibilities and to go over the terminology we would be using during the ranging process. The weather meter was showing the wind gusting from 3-9mph at directions between 300-360 degrees so I decided to split the differences and set the "dope" for a 6mph wind at 330 degrees. I dubbed them my "spotters". At approximately 5pm 2 does walked out into our food plot. Brian was able to consistently range them at 1400 yards. Since we got the same numbers 3 times, we felt like that was an accurate distance. We then went to the software and made the stated elevation adjustment of 148 clicks (1/4moa each). I then placed the largest doe in my crosshairs and collectively we decided to attempt a shot. Facing to the right, the deer remained in my crosshairs after the shot so subsequently all three of us were able to see the bullet impact the dirt at the base of her back foot. Being so close to the deer, the spray of dirt startled the deer and she ran into the woods. The smaller doe appeared confused and when she stopped running around she had come 75 yards closer to a range of 1325 yards and began eating again. Brian once again was able to obtain three separate ranges on this deer between 1325 and 1328 yards so we felt again that this was accurate. Since the wind was off of my back right shoulder and the bullet impacted the back foot of the deer, I decided to give myself one more 1/4 moa click into the wind. We then went back to the software and obtained the recommended adjustments for 1325 yards. I now suspected that the software was inaccurately calculating my bullet drop approximately 30 inches low. I read that the calculated bullet drop at 1325 yards was 463 inches. Since the height of a whitetails back is approximately 30 inches, and seeing the bullet hit at the base of the previous deer, I decided to add 30 inches to that calculation and predict that instead of dropping 463 inches my bullet would actually drop 493 inches. I then looked at the moa adjustment calculated for a 493" bullet drop and adjusted the elevation down from the 148 clicks that I had dialed in for the 1400-yard shot to 138 clicks for the 493" bullet drop at 1325 yards . Now with a new windage and elevation adjustment, we felt that we could make an accurate shot on the other deer. I then waited for the deer to turn broadside, put the crosshairs on her shoulder and pulled the trigger. All three of us waited during the 2-second bullet flight time with anxiousness and somehow it instead seemed like 2 minutes. Once again, the deer remained in my scope after the recoil subsided and all three of us watched as the deer fell in her tracks. To say that we were excited would be an understatement. It was an amazing experience.

The video camera was rolling the whole time with the intention to get the shot on video and we felt great about what we recorded. When we replayed the footage, we saw that my elbow had bumped the camera just out of the frame of the deer sometime in between the first and second shot. Devastated that I missed the kill shot, it made me feel better when I reviewed the footage and saw that the deer is easily seen standing and eating in the food plot, then the camera was bumped, the shot was taken, and then the camera is adjusted back to see the deer laying dead where she once stood. We then recorded the ATV drive from the barn to the spot where the deer now lay dead. Upon arriving to and examining the deer we see that the bullet traveled precisely through both shoulders making it a perfectly placed bullet. I took several pictures of the entry and exit wounds to examine bullet performance at that distance and velocity.

This was a very exciting and educational experience for the three of us. For me, it was an achievement that culminated from many years of thought, education, practice and determination. I am extraordinarily happy that I was able to experience it with two of my close friends. My hat goes off to Alton Britt and Dixie Precision Rifles of Brandon, MS for giving me the equipment necessary to "drive tacks" at any distance from 100 to-now a whopping 1325 yards.

Happy Shooting

Blake Ward

Heres the youtube link

Monday, January 17, 2011

"The Ironbound Eider Visits The Swampers"

When the "Traveling Rig" idea first came to me, there were a few birds I knew I had to carve. Of those, the most important in terms of spent carving time was the "Ironbound Eider". As most know, eiders are my favorite bird, from the simplistic plumage, to their flight patterns and decoying, to their heftiness once in hand, I love everything about them. Consequently, to this point, the "Ironbound Eider" is my favorite bird I've carved.

Most seeing this have read about my experience on East Ironbound Island, and hunting from a Nova Scotia duck tub, if not, "CLICK HERE."

Other than my hunt, I knew a good friend of mine was going to hit Massachusetts in January, but I also wanted to get the bird with Captain Brian Rhodes who runs THE SWAMPERS guide service (SEE TAB UNDER "LINKS OF INTERESTS"). Having been on a few hunts with Brian up in Alaska, I know the type guide he is - he's safe, he studies his birds and their habits in order to keep his guests in them, and when all else fails, you can bet he'll stay out as long as it takes to find birds. All 3 are traits I value in a guide, and are the reason I wanted the Ironbound Eider to finish out the season with Captain Rhodes.

Here's what Brian wrote about the hunt. Understand, he's self admittedly not a writer, but in my opinion, a very good photographer. What this entry lacks in words are more than made up for in photographic content.

Hasn't been the warmest here the last few days. Despite getting a truck stuck and having to shovel a little snow, we had a couple real good days this past week.

Also had a cool decoy sent to me by a friend, Justin Harrison, he is doing a little project with 9 'traveling' decoys. Feel free to check out his blog for more info on that.

Hard to believe there is only one week left of the RI season.

Here's a few pics from the past couple days. Not the best light, but I worked with what I had!


Hope you enjoyed this as much as I have. Check back later this week, as we'll have more travels of the Ironbound Eider, as well as a long range rifle shot that's really something special.


Friday, January 14, 2011

"High Winds, Swift Currents, and Hopelessness"

Have you ever said something you wished you could take back, but couldn't, for whatever reason? Sure you have, and I've done it more times than I care to think about. But this was different, this wasn't a fight, and I didn't say anything out of anger. Nope, I simply released Gauge for a retrieve. I simply said "BACK"!! A retrieve that I'll never forget, that was probably the most incredible retrieve I'll ever witness, and a retrieve in which I thought I was going to see the death of my main man, Gauge.

Like I said, I'll never forget it. How could I? I had been planning a week and a half long hunting trip to Montana with a good friend of mine for months. We were going to freelance the North Central part of Montana for ducks, geese and pheasants. It was my first trip that far away to hunt, and I had no idea what to expect. I had even less an idea what to pack, so we basically looked like the "Clampetts" as we traveled north and west. What was so strange about that trip was the weather when we arrived. When you think of Montana in early November, sunny and 70 degrees is not what comes to mind - at least to my mind anyway. But, that's just what we were met with, and the trip started off with less than barrel melting shooting.

That all changed on day 3 of the trip. Hal and myself awoke to temperatures in the mid 40's with a wind out of the North at 5-10 mph. That was the last time we would see the temperature get above 15 degrees, and the last time the wind strength would be in the single digits. Throughout the day, the skies got darker, the temps got colder and the winds got stronger. It was as if something very big was slowly waking up after a long nap. I remember thinking the ground itself was shaking. The shooting was phenomenal, and our daily bag changed from wigeon and teal to nothing but greenheads. Overhead, the fabled "grand passage" was taking place as tens of thousands of birds of every flavor (ducks, geese, swans, and cranes) high tailed it South. For about five days, the skies were never empty.

On day 4, we awoke to temperatures in the single (and negative) digits, and hurricane force winds blew from the North. I guess the fact that the locals were buying gas, water and canned goods should have clued us in. It didn't though, we were just having too much fun. We had to hunt hot springs and flowing water though, as everything was beginning to develop heavy ice. It was so cold in fact, that the birds we killed were freezing to the ground if left long enough, and the neoprene decoy gloves froze to my shotgun. Bottomline, it was a miserable type of cold I've not experienced before nor since. Thankfully, the hunt lasted just a few minutes, and Hal and I elected to go get some breakfast, take a break from the pheasant hunting, and do some scouting for the next day.

The local contact I had put me on a little unnamed stretch of the Missouri river that had fast moving water, stayed open all year, and consistently held birds even in the poorest of weather conditions. Hal and I never had to make it to the river to know where we where going to be hunting the next morning - just above the cottonwood trees that lined it's banks, the sky was full of mallards trying to get the wind right so they could land. By the next day, the winds had dropped to a manageable 20 mph, though the temps held and it had begun to snow. Visibility was around 100 sweat, right? Wrong.

Before I go on, let me just say I've been asked on several occasions "when is it too cold to take a dog?". My standard answer has always been that if you can get them out of the water, for the most part, it's really "never" too cold - within reason of course. Nowadays I add the caveat that the environment may lend itself to not being worth taking your dog out. Several situations come to mind where I may leave mine at home these days, but the big one is ICE. Even in a rice field in Arkansas where the risks for drowning is unheard of, ice scares me. It's tough on dogs even when they can break it as they run - think of it like someone slapping a 2x4 across your chins everytime you take a step...same thing. I'm not pompous enough to sit here and say "I don't hunt my dogs in ice" because I do. What I absolutely don't do is hunt the same dog in ice 2 days in a row. I'll switch out Trapper for Gauge or vice versa. I'll bow them both out if they are too stiff, letting someone else take their dog. But, the following is not about being stiff, it's about not thinking things through and quite frankly, being stupid. It's about watching helplesssly as your dog does what he's been trained to do. It's about how these dogs, with hearts the size of pumpkins, are willing to give so much - they're willing to give their last ounce of energy in fact. In the end, everything worked out this time, and I learned a valuable lesson - a duck/retrieve ain't worth my dogs.

The area of the Missouri we were hunting held enough swift current to keep the river open for the most part, save the slow parts of each bend. And that's exactly where the little goldeneye fell. I didn't think anything about it, I mean, the bird was stone dead just at the edge of the ice. Plus, it was Hal's first goldeneye. Just as Gauge hit the halfway point in the river, the goldeneye rolled over, shook his head and flew a few feet further in and fell (again, appearing dead). I didn't realize until Gauge got to the ice just how bad this situation was about to get. The ice was too thick for him to break through, but it didn't matter as the water was too deep for him to get any leverage and get on top of the ice. Horror striken, I started blowing my "come in" whistle. Whether it was the wind, water, or his own desire to retrieve the bird that was just out of his reach, I don't know, but he wasn't coming back.

After struggling at the edge of the ice for what seemed like hours, Gauge finally managed to hoist himself up on the ice. At this point, I'm about to pass out from all the whistle blowing, but he never looked my way. Every step he took caused the ice to break, placing him back in the same situation as he was at the start. Couple that with the goldeneye attempting another break for it, and you can imagine how the exertion was beginning to take it's toll on Gauge. He would climb up on the ice and just lay in one spot for several seconds. As bad as the visibility was, I could still make out the heaving his chest was making from his labored breathing. He made one final lunge just as the goldeneye made one last attempt at escaping, and both disappeared into the cattails on the far side of the river...and, everything got very quiet. Why I remember this, I don't know, but I remember dropping the whistle from my hand. I also remember thinking, "Mega Whistle my ass."

I'm not sure how long Gauge was out of sight, but it must have been a while as Hal later told me he had decided Gauge was "gone". In fact, the next sound I heard was when Hal cleared his throat in what I'm sure was fixing to precede "Justin, I'm sorry", but as I looked up, I saw that big, hard-headed dog come rushing out of the ice still in hot pursuit of that goldeneye. Where he came out must have held a thicker sheet of ice because it held just long enough for him to finally run that bird down. Then, as he picked up the bird, the ice broke again and this time he went under.

I remember thinking a merriad of thoughts, but the one at the forefront of my mind was how cruel a joke had just been played on me. Those thoughtts and Gauge underwater just lasted a split second though, as he came up, and started clawing at the ice with his front paws again all the way out to the flowing water.

By the time all this was over, he was physically spent, and swam just strong enough to stay afloat, allowing the current to push him way down the river...and, I walked every step of the way keeping pace and encouraging him, begging him to come to me. When he made it to shore, he literally collapsed onto the river rocks, taking in big gulps of air...but you know what? He had that goldeneye.

Mr. Sam Milton once told me "never brag on your dog til you drop the last shovel full...because as soon as you do, they'll make a liar out of you."  While that may be true, I'm not too worried about personal embarrassment - I do that just fine on my own.

What I would like to do is honor our retrievers (whatever the flavor) for what they are - hard working animals that put themselves on the line for the only thing that matters to them - our affection.

5 years later, we're both graying, but both still at each others side

HRCH Harrison's Eight Gauge - Gauge

Please understand, this story is less (much less) about that retrieve, but rather my testimony on a lesson that was learned the hard way - but not near as hard as it could have been.

Hope you enjoy and have a great weekend spending time outdoors, Justin

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

"So Much More to a Hunt"

What would happen if one day someone took all the piles of dead animals away? What about the photos of the birds? What if everything was gone in an instant? Would you still be able to look back at particular hunts with fond memories, or is the long and short of your hunting career the dead birds and accolades you received from the photos?

Nine years ago this past September, I realized I needed more than a bloody pile of dead animals to draw upon. I brought home a hard-headed puppy I affectionately name "Harrison's Eight Gauge". My friends know him simply as Gauge. Pretty much at that moment, 8 Gauge Studios was born, I just didn't know it yet.

That puppy that has become an elder statesman and symbol of sorts has lead me down many paths. Some strange, some were failures, some were meager successes, but all were wonderful in their own right. Several years later while coming home from a week and a half hunting trip to Montana, I picked up another puppy. Eight Gauge's Mountain Man isn't near as rambunctious as his older counterpart, but all the more hard headed. Again, Trapper as he's called along with Gauge have seen as much as any two dogs would ever hope to see. My hobbies have gone beyond the dogs now, into call making for a short time, now decoy carving which I enjoy immensely, but the dogs are always present, always at the forefront. Simply put, THEY ARE 8 Gauge. Without them, nothing else would be what it is, no hunt as special, no ear to scratch waiting on shooting time, and no post hunt burger to share.

Considering my hunt yesterday, this was going to be about the shear volume of working birds I saw. That was, until one of Trapper's retrieves. I had shot a canvasback, and while Trapper was in route the bird (as divers tend to do) flipped over and dove. For the second time this year, I told myself "Trapper's not the dog for this", and for the second time this year, my little dude made a believer out of me.

The canvasback surfaced about 20 yds from where he went down and just as Trapper was getting to him, dove again, and again, and again. Finally, Trapper had enough and dove with him. Completely submerging himself, underwater for a couple of seconds and came up with the bird.

As we both spent the rest of the day shivering in the cold, I thought about what I ask my dogs to do. Sometimes, it doesn't seem fair to be completely honest, but they don't complain. They are just content to be spending time with me, waiting on the next retrieve.

I haven't killed enough canvasbacks in my time to be able to shake off losing a bird, and yesterday I didn't have to. Not because of me, but because of the one thing that makes the hunter in me who I am. Take the calls, take the decoys, take the photos and the birds, and none of that will matter. In the end, it's the black dog sitting next to me that matters.

Me, Trapper, and an all drake limit (canvasback, scaup, and shovelers)

Hope you enjoy, check back often, Justin

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

"Ironbound Seafood Chowder"

It's no secret that my favorite time of the year begins in early October as the leaves begin to change, the prevailing winds shift out of the North, football is in full swing, and the bourbon keeps you warm around the campfire.  Around the Harrison household, my wife Megan and I have a tradition of making a seafood chowder on the night of the first true "cold front" to make it down to Mississippi.  It's a special recipe for me because I ate my first real bowl of chowder on my first seaduck hunt.  I'll never forget the little hole-in-the-wall shack called "The Woods", which sits on the docks at Plymouth Harbour, selling $11 lobster, and homemade clam and lobster chowder.  At the time, I had never eaten a real chowder made by people that know how to make it.  After that first experience, I searched high and low for a recipe of my own, so that I could experience that chowder whenever I wanted.  Finally, a friend of mine send me a recipe from Mystic Seaport in Rhode Island.  The recipe was really great, but I ended up changing it around to fit my tastes - a practice I typically employ.  Just puts my "stamp" on it.  The original recipe was called "Old Lyme's Scallop Chowder".  This is my take on the original.  Please note, I use scallops, shrimp, and lump crab meat in my chowder, but any form of seafood will likely do.

I've named my recipe the "Ironbound Seafood Chowder" after enjoying a  haddock and lobster chowder on my recent Nova Scotia Eider Hunt.  The end product tasted very similar to my own recipe, though the haddock gave it a slightly different taste.  It was wonderful, particularly after the 20 minute boat ride to get to the island, in freezing temps, and in the dark.

"IRONBOUND SEAFOOD CHOWDER" - serves approximately 4 hungry folks
  • butter (original recipe called for 2 TBS - bah.....I just dump it in until I feel good about it)
  • 1 large potato (Idaho or russet), peeled and diced to 1/2-inch
  • 1/2 cup chopped onion
  • 1/2 cup chopped celery
  • 1 bunch of green onion
  • 2 1/2 cups whole kernel sweet corn
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1/2 pound peeled shrimp
  • 1/2 pound scallops
  • 1 cup of crab meat
  • salt, pepper and old bay seasoning to taste
  1. Melt butter in a heavy pot over medium heat.  Add potato, onion and celery, cooking until potatoes are soft
  2. Puree 1 cup of corn with 1 cup of milk in a blender.  Add to potato mixture with remaining corn, milk, and cream.  Season to taste and bring to boil.  Once at a boil, reduce heat, and stir often.
  3. Add seafood on last 2-3 minutes.
  4. Serve

I've made this for alot of people over the years, and have never had anyone not enjoy it.  Be sure to serve with good garlic bread.

***To really add to the chowder, serve with a side of smoke deer/venison sausage - the saltiness of the sausage as a side item adds so much to the sweet flavor of the chowder***

Hope you enjoy and please check back often, Justin

Monday, January 3, 2011

"That Ain't Hunting...or...Them's Trash Ducks!"

We've all heard those phrases said, generally multiple times, and typically thrown in the direction of someone who does things differently, enjoys a different method of hunting, and overall appreciates more than the 'status quo'. Click on any semi-busy internet waterfowl talk forum, and you'll see much the same - diver hunters taking jabs at guys who prefer to hunt puddle ducks out of pits and in the timber, calling their main quarry (mallard ducks) "park ducks" or "bread eaters". Or, maybe it's those same puddle duck hunters calling a diver hunter's brace a "bunch of trash ducks", unfit for the table. Either one couldn't be any further from the truth. Having hunted many different areas of the country, under many different circumstances, I thought I had turned the corner with my attitude towards ANY duck or ANY method of hunting. There's just too much in the way of quality gunning experiences to be hamstrung by a closed mind. There are too many adventures to be had that can never be duplicated. One simply can not appreciate a group of 50 strong mallard ducks slapping wings against pin oak limbs as they drop into the timer. Likewise, I know of few instances in waterfowling that are more heart stopping than a squadron of divers making the turn into the decoys. The sound of the wind shear of those wings is truly remarkable. Yep, I got it licked. That is, until my good friend Kris asked me if the ruddy ducks were on the catfish ponds. The conversation went something like this:

Kris - "Hey man, ya'll got any ruddies up there?"

Me - "Aah, yep, they are everywhere...but, who on their right mind would want to shoot one of those stinking birds? Ain't nothing you can do with them but look at them after you kill one."

Kris - "I'll probably eat them."


That pretty much ended the ruddy duck talk for the day. We probably started talking about the new year, or any number of other topics, just so long as I steered the conversation away from ruddy ducks.

As luck and happenstance would have it, this conversation took place on my drive in to work. And, as sure as I'm sitting here, not 3 hours later I can across a thread on a waterfowl message board entitled "Six Dollar Ducks". The title peaked my interest, so I clicked on the link. Little did I know, I would soon thereafter be looking for some water to wash my "crow" down. The author of the post had shot a couple of ruddy ducks and took one of the coolest photos I had ever seen - the 2 birds laid across an old side by side with spent bismuth hulls just above them. Just a fantastic shot. Then, I started reading what the author had to say about ruddy ducks in general. Basically, the ruddy duck was called a "dollar duck" during the old market hunting days we all look back on with fondness. And, why exactly were they known as 'dollar ducks'? The answer lies in what a ruddy duck brought a market gunner back at the turn of the century - around one dollar, which was pretty good money back then. Now, ask yourself what our highly prized pintails or teal (widely lauded as great table fare today) went for? Around 30-60 cents per bird the best I can tell. Yes, you read that right - the ruddy duck brought more to the pocket than our prized birds.

For more reading on this topic (market hunting prices, ruddy ducks, and cooking wild game in general) check out this link:

Where am I going with all this?

Hunting is hunting, and every style or method used along with every bird taken is unique in and of itself. Every bird, every hunt, and every experience should be savored and remembered as unique. I learned that this week myself.

This year, I have yet to get up to my camp (L'anguille Lounge) to hunt, nor have I hugged a tree in order to shoot mallards, gadwall and wood ducks in the timber. All I've done is sit on an old catfish pond and pick endless shots at scaup, shovelers, a couple of canvasbacks, and yes, even some ruddy ducks. I have stepped out of my comfort zone and hunted under different rules, employing a different style, and taken birds most consider "trash ducks". And, I've had as enjoyable a duck season as I've had in a long long time.

Next time you see someone's strap of 'trash ducks' or 'bread eaters', you may want to take notice - you may just be missing something.

OPENING DAY SCAUP...and yes, they were eaten as part of a nice gumbo

Here's to an open mind in the new year, hope you enjoy, Justin