Stalking the Wild Puddle Jumper
Hunting Migratory Birds
I’m standing in predawn darkness at an undisclosed private property in New Hampshire. Randy Drago and his uncle Tony have been here before, hired by the owner to remove various unwanted creatures, including a pesky muskrat. Today, the Dragos are hunting geese and ducks. It’s one of the coldest days of the season so far, and even though I’m wearing gloves and camo gear over multiple layers of clothing, my teeth start to chatter.
Randy, 26, a hunter since boyhood, killed his first pheasant at the age of 11, but it wasn’t until he got his driver’s license and the freedom to go wherever he wanted that his interest in hunting became all-consuming. Plus, the car gave him a place to practice his duck calls.
The night before our hunt, he worked second shift as a welder. This is typical — he often hunts after only a few hours of sleep.
While Randy is quiet and reserved, Tony, 51, a Raytheon employee and former hunting educator, is warm and talkative. His depth of knowledge makes him sound at times like a lawyer, storyteller, lawman and backwoods philosopher. He often hunts and traps every day, even though he has a full-time job.
“If you don’t feel anything when you take a life,” Tony begins, “you shouldn’t be out here.” He reels off information on gun regulations and bag limits for different species. For a man who is quick to cite “Live Free or Die,” the New Hampshire state motto, as a guiding principle, he makes clear that he will play by the rules, whatever they may be. He reports poachers to the fish and game department. He doesn’t fire on legal targets if doing so doesn’t fit his moral code, whatever the law may be. As we walk, he reaches down to pick up trash left by previous visitors.
He explains to me, “The wilderness will teach you things every time you go out.” Duck calls, blinds (the various constructions hunters use to conceal themselves), weather patterns, lures — mastering hunting requires constant study. Animals survive based on their intelligence, and they are quick to adapt. The lessons of nature constantly shift.
This is no simple hobby to pursue. Aspiring hunters start with a hunter’s education course, usually offered free by state governments. There are additional requirements and licensing, and the equipment isn’t cheap. While the price of certain items has come down — Tony tells me that today’s plastic bird decoys would have been affordable only to affluent hunters when he was younger — they are still not inexpensive. Decoy packs start at $60 and, generally, the more you use, the better your chances. On the day of our hunt, Randy and Tony both carry $1,200 12-gauge shotguns. There’s the cost of ammunition, which has risen steadily.
A good pair of camo waders (ducks have exceptional eyesight, so all gear must be camo, or at least matte finished) can cost over $200. The birdcalls? The better ones run over $50. Gas, material for blinds, boats? All of these turn hunting into an expensive hobby. And that’s before you hit the open air. Even though the Dragos supplement their income as field guides and trappers, they rarely break even.
Attention to detail is strict. Randy says migratory birds might be driven away by spotting an out-of-place tinfoil wrapper on the ground. On this day, he’s convinced we’re having bad luck because of our photographer’s shiny black camera — wildlife photographers learn to wrap their lenses and cameras in camouflage. Still, photography is a welcome aspect of the hunt itself. When Tony meets people who aren’t interested in hunting because they don’t want to take a life, he tells them, “That’s fine! But you can get out anyway. Hunt with a camera!”
Waterfowl hunters collect bands taken from birds — these are critical for monitoring duck and geese migration and populations. After reporting them to the Bird Banding Laboratory of the United States Geological Survey, some hunters add these bands to the necklaces they use to carry duck calls. While hunters may go years and only collect one or two bands, Randy’s necklace holds more than 40.
Randy is a natural hunter, but he also enjoys teaching. He works with children, helping them to learn hunting and fishing skills. This work is difficult, given his tight schedule, but passing on his knowledge to the next generation is part of the hunting tradition.
I ask him if there is any time of the year when he can’t hunt or fish, and he tells me there’s a period in March between seasons. “You must be crawling out of your skin,” I note, but he shrugs this off and says it gives him time to work on his boat.
As geese fly overhead, I stand still as instructed. Randy calls, and four geese are lured to the pond. They are at the limits of his range, but he decides to fire. The birds burst into flight, uninjured. It is only the second time in my life that I have ever seen a shot fired at a living thing (the first time involved a deer that had been struck by a car and left for dead before being dispatched by a police officer).
I anticipated this moment, and spent the week before wondering how it would feel. With plain honesty, I feel something that must hint at the split mind of the hunter: As the birds rise in flight, time seems to stop. The icy November wind is forgotten. The sunrise flight seems almost like a miracle, and this feeling spreads through me like joy. And yet, at the same time, I’m disappointed they have gotten away.
As Tony explains it, people who grow up only knowing wildlife from television and movies sometimes have a hard time directly experiencing its complexities. If wildlife populations grow out of control, they do more than tarnish the pretty landscape with droppings. They bring disease, the destruction of homes and threats to other species. A trapper, he is hired by people to remove wildlife for many of these reasons. When possible, he practices trap and transfer — caught animals are brought to new locations.
He gives away meat to food banks and friends and uses unpalatable scraps to bait coyote traps. He labors to eliminate waste.
Hunting helps control animal populations and aids conservation efforts. In many places around the region, if you hike on public land for free, you have hunters to thank. Ninety-eight percent of the money raised by the Federal Duck Stamp Program, which started during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, goes to conservation. If you are over the age of 16 and hunt migratory birds anywhere in the United States, you are required to participate.
For the second time this morning, the Dragos hold up their hands and silence me. They hear geese. I listen closely. Silence. I begin to think they are mistaken. And then, I hear them off in the distance. The tension rises as the birds come into view. Guns are raised. The birds land on the pond. Randy draws a breath and fires.
The birds erupt into the morning air and my ears ring with the sound of quacking geese and echoing shotgun blasts. “Oh well,” Randy says, “at least they won’t be staying here all day.” The property owner would be happy even if the Dragos headed home without having caught anything.
The hunt over, Randy drives me to Stateline Guns, Ammo & Archery in Plaistow, N.H., where I had parked my car. The store’s owner, Gene Rochette, was the person who suggested I should take my first hunting trip with Randy. I was hoping to find someone who could both hunt and cook, and Randy’s pulled wild goose recipe has been the object of much admiration at the gun shop ( we’ll post his recipe here later today, so check back ). Before parting, Randy gives me his recipe and some frozen goose breast. He explains how to search for and remove shotgun pellets before cooking — something you don’t have to worry about if you’re using store-bought game. Still in our waders, we drive off to meet the day.
Tony Drago, Southern New Hampshire Wildlife Control
Stateline Guns, Ammo & Archery