The Fly­way Ram­bler



Ram­sey Rus­sell is a good-old-boy duck slayer who’s find­ing new hunt­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties around the world.

It’s 5 a.m., and we’re bar­rel­ing down a dark high­way in Obre­gon, Mexico. Rus­sell, 53, is ex­plain­ing how it would be eas­ier to sell used cars than the in­ter­na­tional wa­ter­fowl hunts he deals with in his cur­rent gig as a book­ing agent (though he hates that term). I’m pretty sure he’s only half kid­ding. “Peo­ple go in to buy a car, and they know what they want,” he says. “Me, I’ve got to sell the ex­pe­ri­ence.” Later that morn­ing, a hand­ful of other writ­ers, some reps from Benelli, and I en­joy the most epic pin­tail shoot I’ll ever be a part of. Drakes in their breed­ing plumage, long sprigs trail­ing behind, float out of the clear­blue sky and cup into a de­coy spread set along a tidal beach. Tucked into a man­grove blind, my hunt­ing part­ner and I take turns shoot­ing un­til we have our lim­its, then we sit back and watch the specan tacle of teal, wigeon, pin­tails, red­heads, and shore­birds whip down the shore­line. By the time we get picked up for lunch, we’re sold on the Ram­sey Rus­sell ex­pe­ri­ence. We’re here on the west coast of Mexico hunt­ing win­ter­ing ducks thanks to Rus­sell’s con­nec­tion to Frank Ruiz, an out­fit­ter who turned his fam­ily home into a hunt­ing lodge. Rus­sell sends his clients to out­fit­ters like Ruiz all over the world. Clas­sic wing­shoot­ing des­ti­na­tions such as Mexico and Ar­gentina are en­try-level trips for Rus­sell’s hunters. Think more ex­otic: shel­ducks in Mon­go­lia, gar­ganey in Azer­bai­jan, bar­na­cle geese in the Nether­lands, red-billed teal in South Africa. Rus­sell hunts all of th­ese des­ti­na­tions be­fore he sends clients to them. Not all of his trips are high­vol­ume shoots like the one we ex­pe­ri­enced in Mexico. On shoot only a few ducks per day. What all of Rus­sell’s hunts have in com­mon, though, is that they are a blend of ad­ven­ture travel and species-col­lect­ing ex­pe­di­tion. And the trips are not as ex­pen­sive as you might think. An aver­age hunt costs about $6,000, which isn’t chump change, but it’s still cheaper than al­most any in­ter­na­tional big-game hunt, Rus­sell rea­sons on our drive back af­ter the morn­ing shoot. His mis­sion is to cre­ate a pas­sion (and a mar­ket) for ad­ven­ture wa­ter­fowl hunt­ing. He wants to foster a shift away from the posh in­ter­na­tional hunt clubs. “Th­ese are duck hunts for real duck hunters,” Rus­sell says. “You’re not trav­el­ing around the world to smoke fat cigars and eat ed­i­ble art. You’re go­ing to hunt. If you want all that other shit, take your wife to Italy.” Alaska king ei­der hunt, for ex­am­ple, you


Like any great out­fit­ter, guide, or book­ing agent, Rus­sell can cut up with a group of new hunters as if they’re old bud­dies. He knows that if a hunt isn’t go­ing well and ten­sions are high, a good joke or witty story can save the day. Over the years, he’s de­vel­oped an arse­nal of quips: “My fa­vorite duck is the next one over the de­coys”—for when pin­tails aren’t work­ing, but shov­el­ers are dive-bomb­ing into the de­coys. “I’d agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong”—for de­fus­ing an ar­gu­ment with a client.


“It’s like walk­ing through the pages of Na­tional Geo­graphic with a shot­gun”—for sell­ing the idea of a hunt in a far-flung des­ti­na­tion. Rus­sell was born in Mis­sis­sippi, where his grandpa taught him to love hunt­ing and fish­ing. He was tag­ging along on dove hunts at 8 years old. Soon enough, he was im­mersed in the world of duck hunt­ing Mis­sis­sippi River back­wa­ters. Then, when he was 15, Rus­sell was nearly killed in a freak ac­ci­dent. He was clean­ing a paint­brush with gaso­line when a water-heater pi­lot light caught the fumes and erupted in a fiery ex­plo­sion. Rus­sell suf­fered sec­on­dand third-de­gree burns on three-quar­ters of his body, but he beat the 8 per­cent chance of sur­vival the doc­tors gave him. Most of us save the con­cept of “bucket-list trips” for the twi­light of our hunt­ing ca­reer. We’re only will­ing to roll the dice once we ac­knowl­edge that time is run­ning out. But Rus­sell faced his own mor­tal­ity when he was a kid. Dur­ing a long, tor­tur­ous re­cov­ery, the teenager forged a say­ing that be­came his per­sonal creed and would later be­come his busi­ness slogan: “Life is short, get ducks.” Eventually, Rus­sell earned a forestry de­gree and landed a job with the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. When he worked up enough scratch, he started trav­el­ing to hunt wa­ter­fowl in Canada and Ar­gentina. He made his first in­ter­na­tional trip to Saskatchew­an in 1998. Rus­sell has the ideal tem­per­a­ment to cap­tain a crew of duck hunters. He’s in­tense enough to make sure ev­ery­one brings their A-game (“Turn off the damn phone and play for keeps”), but he’s also ex­pe­ri­enced enough to know that the whole point of the thing is to have a good time—and he’s un­abashed about his love for shoot­ing ducks (“Hell yeah, shoot­ing ducks is fun, and hell yeah, it’s con­ser­va­tion”). So, Rus­sell had no prob­lem re­cruit­ing bud­dies to go with him abroad. He started bring­ing so many other hunters along that an out­fit­ter con­vinced him to open a part-time book­ing-agency busi­ness. Then, in 2010, Rus­sell went full-time with his site, get­


Rus­sell has learned some straight­for­ward lessons dur­ing his world trav­els: Don’t drink the milk in Pak­istan, and keep your firearms doc­u­men­ta­tion on your per­son when you go through cus­toms in China. But the big­gest take­away cuts deeper, to the cul­ture of Amer­i­can wa­ter­fowl hunt­ing. Gen­er­ally, we kill fewer ducks per hunt than you can al­most any­where else in the world, and yet we’re the ones ob­sessed with num­bers. That’s because the strict lim­its on how many ducks and how many of each species we can kill forces Amer­i­can waterfowle­rs to be care­ful coun­ters. Each dead bird is one notch closer to a


Set­ting up a morn­ing hunt in a wild marsh in north­ern Ar­gentina.

limit. A full limit means the end of the hunt, and com­plete suc­cess. As Rus­sell says: “It’s al­most like if you only shoot three ducks, you lost. It’s made to feel like if you’re not killing a limit, you’re not hav­ing fun.” Of course, th­ese lim­its are good and nec­es­sary for con­ser­va­tion. In the U.S., we have much higher hunter-den­sity num­bers than in other parts of the world. There are about 1 mil­lion U.S. waterfowle­rs. In com­par­i­son, only a few hun­dred Amer­i­cans travel to the Yaqi Valley in Mexico to hunt ducks each win­ter, ac­cord­ing to Rus­sell. Those few hun­dred hunters end up har­vest­ing a sta­tis­ti­cally in­signif­i­cant num­ber of ducks, even if they’re bring­ing back a whole pile of birds each day. In the rest of the world, wa­ter­fowl hunt­ing for sport isn’t as com­mon, and nei­ther are lim­its or hunt­ing pres­sure. In some cor­ners of the world, you set your own limit. One of Rus­sell’s hunts in Pak­istan drives home the point. He was in­vited by a feu­dal lord to hunt a sprawl­ing marsh along the In­dus River (one of the long­est rivers in Asia, which serves as a ma­jor fly­way). The lord had heard that the Amer­i­can was a crack shot, so he made his way down to the blind to watch. He gave Rus­sell a few boxes of shells from his per­sonal stash—ger­man-made, 3-inch lead loads—and insisted that Rus­sell take long shots that most Amer­i­can hunters would con­sider sky blast­ing. “If you want to hunt in Pak­istan, you must shoot like a Pak­istani,” the lord said. So, Rus­sell started burn­ing through shells, and once he got the long lead fig­ured out, birds rained from the sky. Rus­sell wasn’t count­ing but fig­ures he killed more ducks that day than most Amer­i­can waterfowle­rs shoot in a sea­son. Each bird was re­cov­ered dili­gently (meat doesn’t go to waste in Pak­istan), and Rus­sell was im­mersed in a to­tally dif­fer­ent hunt­ing cul­ture. To the Pak­ista­nis, the most im­por­tant as­pect of the hunt was shoot­ing abil­ity. The up­shot? You can’t travel half­way across the world and ex­pect lo­cals to have the same hunt­ing val­ues as you do. And over time, Rus­sell’s clients have de­vel­oped new hunt­ing val­ues. “In the be­gin­ning, the num­ber-one question clients would ask is, ‘How many ducks can I shoot?’” Rus­sell says. “Now hardly any­one asks that. Now ev­ery­one wants to know which species are present and what the ex­pe­ri­ence is go­ing to be like.” But no mat­ter how far you travel, in many ways duck hunters are all the same. “Mallards are the big prize bird any­where they ex­ist in the world,” he says. “It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s Mon­go­lia or Mis­souri.” Many times, Rus­sell hunts with lo­cals who speak a dif­fer­ent lan­guage from him. This min­i­mizes the small talk, but they still com­mu­ni­cate through hand sig­nals and ges­tures in the duck hunter’s com­mon lan­guage: Fix the hide, the ducks are flar­ing; tweak the spread, they’re not com­mit­ting close enough; good shot, here come some more birds. “You can put four peo­ple from any­where in the world to­gether in a blind, and they’ll have more in com­mon than they’ll have dif­fer­ences, because they’re hunters.”


On our last day in Mexico, we opt to hunt Pa­cific brant in a tidal flat of the Sea of Cortez. Shortly af­ter sun­rise, the birds bee­line for our de­coys, low and tight, fly­ing like gi­ant black teal in slow mo­tion. Af­ter two vol­leys, Rus­sell’s 9-year-old Lab, Cooper, has a pile of re­triev­ing work to do. Cooper is a regis­tered ser­vice dog, and she’s trav­eled the world with Rus­sell. This is the last big tour of her ca­reer. Next, we head to a back­wa­ter to hunt teal, and for the first time, Rus­sell sets aside his shot­gun. As we pick off teal one at a time, Cooper me­thod­i­cally plucks our birds out of the marsh. She needs no di­rec­tion from Rus­sell, and is mostly too deaf to hear him anyway. She re­trieves because it’s in her blood. It’s what she’s al­ways done. Mean­while, Rus­sell con­tem­plates the fu­ture of wa­ter­fowl­ing. He plans to tar­get mil­len­ni­als with his in­ter­na­tional duck-hunt­ing trips. This de­mo­graphic has proven will­ing to spend more on travel than any other ex­pense. He’s bank­ing on the idea that the groups of hard­core young guns you see pa­trolling the goose fields of ev­ery Mid­west town will one day want to chase birds in Canada, Mexico, or Rus­sia. Get­ting this next gen­er­a­tion of hunters ex­cited about wa­ter­fowl­ing and con­ser­va­tion on a global scale, he hopes, will be his legacy. “Some­day, I don’t want my head­stone to read, ‘Here lies Ram­sey Rus­sell: One mil­lion dead ducks,’” Rus­sell says. “There has to be more to it than that. Don’t you think?”


Rus­sell slogs through a red gum swamp in Vic­to­ria Prov­ince, Aus­tralia.

(1) A pinkeared duck in Aus­tralia. (2) Hunt­ing flooded tim­ber for Pa­cific black ducks and grey teal in the land Down Un­der. (3) The au­thor (far right) with Rus­sell and his dog Cooper af­ter a suc­cess­ful hunt in Mexico. (4) Push-pol­ing through a mas­sive wet­land in Azer­bai­jan. (5) Wait­ing for Bar­row’s gold­eneye in coastal Alaska. (6) The guide staff, who are ser­vants to a feu­dal lord, in Pak­istan.

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