Sunday, December 9, 2012

A Slow December Duck Hunt

Where has the season gone?

Between work, family responsibilities, unexpected home repairs and medical issues I haven't even hit the half dozen mark for hunts! Friday night I called all my duck buddies and deer hunting was winning the list of "things to do". I found a friend who wasn't going to chase the four legged pray until Sunday and we put together a hunt along the mouth of a small creek that always holds mallards this time of year.

We've been blessed (or cursed depending on who you are) with almost 2 feet of snow in the last couple of weeks so there is a nice thick band of the powered stuff above the high tide zone. The tides were mediocre so I knew we could hunt the edge of the snow and not need white camo.

High tide was right at first shooting light, so we'd be loosing water from the start. No problems there, it would even make picking up decoys easier. We got to the spot and hiked down to the beach. My buddy and I set up our layout blinds in the snow to start with because we got several more inches of the stuff over night, but as soon as the water receded enough we jumped down into the exposed grass.

We were expecting a pretty big storm that evening with heavy snow and wind changing to rain. I hoped the first bands of weather would be a little early but it wasn't to be. The water was calm, flat calm so shooting light came and went without any activity  For reasons I can't explain, not only did we not hear any other shooting, but no one even used the nearby boat launch, which usually produces some moment in the birds.

I just lay in my blind and relaxed as I watched my mojo turn off and on. The rhythmic hum making my eyelids heavy.

Finally the birds started to move in small spurts, but nothing was interested in swing our way. A few locals walked their dogs on the beach in the distance. I hoped they would push some birds our way.

Soon we had a single goldeneye land long and swim his way towards our decoys. He'd dive for a minute at a time as he slowly worked towards the shore. When he was within range my buddy decided to move in for the shot. He waited until it dove again and rushed to the waters edge to make up some of the distance. As he surfaced he saw the silhouette of a man and took off, living to see another day as long shot strings splashed right behind him. Darn, still skunked at this point.

We didn't have to wait much longer for a pair of wigeon to swing by. I gave them a whistle and they turned. We both sat up shooting and I knocked down the right-hand bird. I brought my kayak down the hill with me so I donned my PDF and paddled out to get him. He was winged and still very much alive. I chased him down and dispatched him quickly. I later found that he was hit in the head and chest, but just didn't want to give up.

By this point the tide was receding at a pretty good clip and our decoys were half high and dry. We called the hunt and made several trips up to the rigs with gear.

Even though I would have liked to kill a pile of mallards it was a relaxing day to spent in the field. A nice respite from the seemingly endless issues that have plagued my season so far.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The Sockeye Salmon Return to Mendenhall Lake

I was out for a walk last week and caught some quick footage of this years run of Sockey Salmon in Mendenhall Lake. The yearly return of these beautiful fish mark the approaching end of summer in Southeast Alaska and reminds me that the start of duck season just around the corner.

Now it's time for me to dust of the decoys and get the boat ready for the season.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Ultimate Off-road Kayak Trailer

Last fall, with the help of some friends, I completed the third phase of my quest to build the ultimate off-road kayak trailer.

It all started while I was attending college in Klamath Falls, Oregon.  I started hunting public land at the north end of Agency Lake because I didn't have a boat. The lake is ringed by miles and miles of levees built to drain the once lush wetlands and make pastures for grazing cattle. While the levees decimated the local ecology, they did make for relativity quick and easy access by foot or bicycle for hunters without a power boat. The only trouble was crossing the deep and potentially deadly canals that paralleled the dikes. The mud along these canals was soft and deep and could potentially swallow a duck hunter whole.

I decided I wanted to access these canals for hunting purposes, but I had to figure out how to get my kayak down the miles of dike roads. My first prototype kayak trailer was built from a salvaged golf caddy cart and some PVC pipe. It worked quite well at low speeds behind my mountain bike. At high speeds the trailer tongue would start to flex and it would develop an oscillation that looked like the "tail wagging the dog." I had intended to proceed directly to an aluminum version, but the trailer was so cheap and work well enough that I didn't bother. 

Phase 1 - Golf caddy and PVC cart

Phase 1 - Golf caddy and PVC cart

Phase 1 served me very well until it failed one dark morning in my senior year of college. The coupler connecting it to the bike broke and my kayak and trailer when careening off the levee into a batch of stinging nettles. I managed to limp it along to reach my hunting spot, but the trailer needed major repairs. At that point the season was almost over and I was busy getting ready to graduate so building phase 2 was put on the back burner.

When I moved up to Juneau, I found that levee road access was still very important to my boat-less duck hunting options. A portion of the Mendenhall State Game Refuge is bordered by the Juneau Airports "EVAR" trail (Emergency Vehicle Access Road). This hardened trail is only open to pedestrians and bikes, just like the Agency Lake trails, so I set out to build phase 2. This took a couple years of sporadic designing, but finally this new trailer came into being, constructed out of 1-1/4" aluminum square tubing.

4 link suspension
Phase 2 - Frame under construction

Phase 2 - Triangulated 4 link suspension

Phase 2 - Triangulated 4 link suspension

I decided I really wanted an off road suspension so I hit my favorite off-roading forums and read up on suspension design principle. On I ran across an excel program that computed all the necessary parameters to design a triangulated 4 link suspension. This type of suspension uses 4 links that connect at different points of the trailer frame and axle to control the movement and placement of the axle. 

The design was sound, but my execution was lacking. I had to find a way to make my own links and mounting points. I found some small rod ends that allowed the articulation I wanted, but the threaded rods  were the weak link and they failed catastrophically as I was walking back to the trail head.

Phase 2 - Pre-triangulated 4 link suspension

Phase 2 - Cart in action 
 When it became clear my triangulated 4 link suspension had some issues, I started to look at a design for off-road trailers for desert expeditions and learned a fair amount about these new off-road trailers towed behind Jeeps and other 4x4 vehicles. This off-roading crowd was building trailers that use the same wheels and tires as their vehicles with the same track width, allowing them extreme maneuverability so they could go farther than ever before.

I decided phase 3 would be an independent trailing arm design using inexpensive coil over shocks found on Wal-Mart special mountain bikes.

Another year of day dreaming and design led me to modifying the suspension on my current trailer, since the frame was still in good condition. I had a friend help me weld on some tabs to the frame and the trailing arms to create pivot points and mounts for the shocks.

Phase 3 - Independent Trailing Arms with Coil-over shocks

Phase 3 - Independent Trailing Arms with Coil-over shocks

All in all the trailer works, but phase 4 will address several issues. First, the trailing arms need additional lateral support. Any side load and there is significant deflection at the pivot points and the track width of the tires makes it pretty tippy. Secondly, the trailing arms are too far forward, so the rear half of the frame is mostly unsupported and there is visible deflection from the weight of the boat. It also makes the trailer back heavy so I have to apply downward pressure on the tongue because of the imbalance.

Phase 4 will have new trailing arms, probably in the shape of an "A" with two connection points, to resist the lateral loading and they will be set further back for better frame support and balance. I will probably reduce the overall height, either by moving the shock or using smaller wheels.

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or comments about this project.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Urban Harlequin

Working right on the water has some serious perks. There is constant boat activity and always some sort of wildlife making an appearance.

Today after lunch I was greeted by a group of 10 Harlequin Ducks. Small sea ducks, these birds need clean, rushing streams for breading and fresh rocky shores covered in muscles and other marine life to feed on. Thankfully, Juneau, Alaska still has plenty of both. In the next couple of weeks these birds will start heading back up those crystal clear streams with their mates to find a nesting spot.

Harlequin Ducks

These birds swam around driving for muscles on the bottom before they took off for less bustling areas.
6 Harlequin Ducks in Juneau, Alaska

5 Drakes and 2 Hen Harlequin Ducks

Sunday, March 11, 2012

How to Grass a Marsh Rat Duck Hunting Boat


I've had my Marsh Rat Duck Hunting Boat, made by Mallard Marine, for almost 5 years now. It started out as a plain boat with the older style blind doors. I knew I needed to find away to add natural vegetation to better conceal it in the spots I hunt. Here's what I looked like when it arrived.

12-11-05Duckhunting007.jpg Marsh Rat duck boat
New Marsh Rat duck boat

I knew I wanted something that wouldn't rot or absorb water so I went to the hardware store, walking the isles looking for something that would work. On the fencing isle I found just what I needed. I bought this roll of green plastic fencing from Home Depot. The boat is 9-1/2 feet long so I cut a 10' piece, then cut that in half length wise.

Plastic fencing for blind material

I have the old style blind doors, so I incorporated the snaps to hold the fencing. The blue tape marks where the snaps will be.
Front View

Side View

I trimmed the edges so they don't hang over the side so I don't catch my waders. This material is soft enough it shouldn't be hazard, but I cut it smooth so as not to risk a tear. 

Blind doors snapped over fencing

I took the boat out to a grassy spot and started cutting and ziptie-ing it to the fence material.  

I completed one side done before I had to head home. I filled the boat with more grass to complete it later. 

Here's what it looked like that first season. I left the grass on for the following year and it dried to a nice brown shade that blends it very well.

Grassed up Marsh Rat


Here's a view of the boat from a distance. 

On this day the wind was a steady 30mph, so I had some bare spots that needed some more grass.

Here is what the boat looked like last year. I have a base layer of grass that I leave on and then I add more when I get to where I plan to hunt.

 The Marsh Rat on it's trailer

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

"History and Future of the Mendenhall Wetlands" - A presentation by Mr. Richard Carstensen

On Thursday, February 8th I had the pleasure to listen to Mr. Richard Carstensen give a very enlightening presentation about the history and future of the Mendenhall Wetlands. The presentation background can be found on Discovery Southeast's website, also shown below.

Richard Carstensen will give perspectives from 3 decades of research on Juneau's most important and controversial fish and wildlife habitat. How can an understanding of succession and developmental changes contribute to better management decisions and to imagine the wetlands future? 
Richard has been a Juneau naturalist since 1977 and an instructor and researcher for Discovery Southeast since 1988. From 1996 through 2009, his principle research interest was Tongass-wide forest issues and biogeography. More recently, his focus has been closer to home – a watershed-based study of the CBJ, and a deepening fascination with integrating human and natural history. 
Since the mid-1980s, Richard's research projects on the Mendenhall Wetlands have mostly revolved around the Juneau Airport. Just as dairies dominated the wetlands from the 1890s to World War II, aviation has dominated since the Great War.
Mr. Carstensen also has been involved with the Juneau International Airport's Citizen Advisory Committee for wildlife issues around the airport. Most of their work looked at bird strike issues and methods to mitigate the danger large birds pose to aircraft.

During his presentation Mr. Carstensen asked the audience to rank from most important to least important the following issues concerning the wetlands: Human Safety, Public Access, and Habitat Projection. Through his work on the Bird Strike Committee he has learned a lot about the local issues that exist with the FAA's responsibility to protect planes from bird encounters while landing or taking off from an airport that is surrounded by high value wetlands, heavily used by large birds.

Mr. Carstensen's presentation was full of wonderful color photos showing how the wetlands have changed and been developed over the last century. The "flats", as it was called, was home to over half a dozen dairy's at one point. When the Juneau Airport was constructed during World War II, the rate of development in and around the wetlands increased dramatically.

The presentation then turned to identifying the various habitat zones from minus tide mud flats up to emergent Sitka Spruce stands and how isostatic adjustment (also called glacial rebound) is affecting changes on the locations and sizes of each of these zones. A major point of discussion was about Lyngbye Sedge and its importance to almost every organism that uses the wetlands. Through vibrantly colored GIS maps, Mr. Carstensen showed the historic and forecast distribution of this important plant and talked about what it could mean to see a significant reduction in its presence on the wetlands. Organisms such as Coho smolt and the local Vancouver Canada Goose rely heavily on this plant during part of the year.

After giving this background on the interdependency of the organisms on the wetlands, Mr. Carstensen turned his attention to the bureaucratic boondoggle that is the FAA's wildlife hazing policy. He outlined some of the major topics from a report he co-authored called Birds and Plane Safety at Juneau Airport. Probably the most interesting revolation in the report is that the FAA insists that all bird habitat be reduced or removed for plane safety without regard to what kind of bird will be displaced.

He gave the example of tree clearing for the realigned Duck Creek Corridor on the northwest corner of the airport. Before work commenced, the Duck Creek Corridor was a thicket of willows and other brushy trees that was only home to small song birds. The FAA insisted that this habitat be "mitigated" and it was completely cleared, creating prime open habitat for ducks, gulls, eagles and great blue herons that feel safer in wide open spaces and now have better access to Duck Creek which is a salmon stream. In all actuality, the FAA's rules have traded the dangers posed by small song birds for a new highly attractive habit for large, slow flying birds that rank at the top of the list for dangerous encounters near the end of the runway!

He also spoke of two user groups on the Mendenhall Wetlands that, in his opinion, also contribute to increased bird strike risks. Hunters and unleashed dog walkers are typically blamed for altering waterfowl movement habits, especially the seasonal population of Vancouver Canada Geese. These geese use Auke Lake as a loafing spot during daylight hours to escape hunting pressure during waterfowl season. The typical day begins with the birds leaving the wetlands and flying over Pederson Hill to sit on the lake all day. This fight puts them directly in line with planes approaching the runway over Mendenhall Peninsula and the birds tend to fly at almost an incept altitude with the planes. When the sun sets and shooting time ends, the birds return via the same course and feed on the wetlands at night. Some wetland users say that hunting should be closed for this reason.

By far the most interesting portion of his presentation came at the end where he unveiled his idea to reduce the bird strike risk posed by geese flying between Auke Lake and the wetlands. His proposal is to turn the mouth of Fish Creek on Douglas Island into a closed area to hunting and dog walkers. Fish Creek currently consists of a large tidal marsh that is bounded by natural slopes on both sides and a hard rock island at the mouth that forms a natural wind buffer. In the past two dredge ponds were excavated on both sides of Fish Creek and berms were constructed during this process.

Over the years Fish Creek has eroded the bank on the southwest pond and reopened it to the tidal influence. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game uses this pond as the release point for a very popular king salmon terminal fisheries project. Each year a net pen is constructed in the pond where juvenile king salmon are placed until they acclimate for release. These fish imprint on the pond before they leave for the ocean and return 3-4 years later. The returning fish are caught by locals and visitors either trolling in boats in Fritz Cove or by fishing in the pond. At the height of the fish run, the berms are lined with fisherman standing shoulder to shoulder trying to catch up to 4 king salmon each.

The northeastern pond is still disconnected from Fish Creek and tidal influence and does not support much, if any, fishing opportunities. Both ponds are too deep to support the vegetation preferred by waterfowl and the berms support thick hedges of Sitka Spruce. These natural barriers make the ponds very uncomfortable habitat for geese as they prefer open spaces that give them plenty of time to spot approaching danger. If nothing were to be done to the ponds and berms, geese are unlikely to use this area even if human activities were restricted.

In Mr. Carstensen's proposal, most of the berms and the spruce trees would be pushed back into the ponds to reduce their depth and open up the views so waterfowl will once again find them suitable. Public access would be limited during waterfowl season so human activities would not stress the birds and they would use this area as a refuge. Bird watching blinds would be installed so non-consumptive users could still enjoy the birds.

It's a wonderful idea, but it makes me a little uncomfortable to close part of the refuge. While I agree that it's typical at most refuges across the country to have areas that are closed to public access, Juneau's Mendenhall State Game Refuge is not your typical refuge. Because it's basically Juneau's "Central Park" there are many user groups who consider it "their" wetlands. There is a vocal group of homeowners, naturalists and others who do not want to see hunting on the refuge any more. Never mind that it was created for hunting, is funded by taxes and fees collected from hunting licenses and permits, they still try to say that it is too risky and annoying to continue to allow hunting.

Unfortunately, some local hunters, usually younger people in high school, have made some unwise decisions and each time they do, they feed the anti-hunters agenda.

I would support the creation of the Fish Creek closure if there was some way to prevent it from turning into a rally cry to close the whole refuge. I'm also not convinced that the dog owners could be trusted to respect the closure. I regularly walk my dog on several trails in the refuge and I have had to contend with MANY dog owners who have no control over their K-9's. They'll tell you their dog is harmless while it runs-a-muck, and I don't think they're responsible enough to be trusted to respect the closure. This would then create a need for enforcement and require extra resources from CBJ Animal Control.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

2011 Season in Review

The end of the 2011 Waterfowl Season closes the book on my 7th year hunting the Mendenhall State Game Refuge, located in the heart of Juneau, Alaska.

Overall it was one of my most successful seasons for ducks, but lacking in opportunities for geese. I was blessed to hunt with many friends this year and to be able to hunt both the opening and final days of the season.

One of my most memorable hunts took place on Black Friday. I was fortunate enough to hunt the storm tide with strong winds and shoot my first limit of the season! Alaska has very generous bag limits due to an abundance of waterfowl, low hunting pressure and just plain awesomeness!

I hunt out of my Marsh Rat duck boat any chance I get so this trip was originally meant to take place on one of the many islands in the refuge. When I got to my launch spot, I could tell the wind was too high and the trip out to the island would be dangerous. I opted to stay close to shore and tied up behind a log that had a nice blanket of snow that would conceal my presence.

The log concealing my boat
With the high winds (gusting over 25 knots) and the associated waves, the ducks were constantly moving and looking for secluded places to set. I had several fair sized flocks work and even dropped two of the hen pintails out of a flock of a dozen birds that nearly landed on me.

I shot my last bird just as the tide receded, leaving my boat and decoys high and dry. At that point, I was doubly thankful I hadn't ventured farther for this hunt. Dragging my boat back to my launch spot was hard enough as it was.

My limit of 4 Mallards and 3 Pintails on the bow of my boat
Here's a short video of the hunt: