When surfer Nick Woodman grew fed up with the inability of video gear to capture great moments on film in the violent breaking waves he loves to ride, little did the now-billionaire know he would revolutionize the way waterfowlers enjoy their sport.
And it has happened quickly. In 2012, jumping in a duck blind full of guys, you might see a hunter with a GoPro once or twice a year. Then last year, I hopped in a goose blind in Colorado with guide Steve Hazlett and a bunch of his guide buddies from Colorado Wingsport, and the blind looked like it was under government surveillance, he had so many surrounding the hide.
A month later, I visited Tony Vandemore for a spring snow goose hunt. Tony typically looks like an air traffic controller when in the layout because he has a GoPro extended from either his long arms or somewhere on his blind. But this time it wasn't just him. There were nine or so guys hunting, and all but two had GoPros strapped to the blind, their heads, or their guns. Tony wouldn't let me bring a TV crew film for "World of Beretta," because full-sized cameras are so hard to hide from the wary white geese. But he has no problem with the tiny GoPros.
Next thing you know, GoPro has sponsored a duck hunting camp (along with Yamaha and Camp Chef) on the Great Salt Lake, where spokesman Ryan Chuckel spent a few days trying to get writers to start riding the big wave that they know is about to break across the hunting world. GoPro-style cameras have moved from surfing into all action sports, and hunting is certainly an action sport full of zealots who want to relive our greatest moments.
Woodman's invention makes sense for us. The only tougher environment to film than waterfowling is probably surfing, where you have to stick the camera to a wet surface, then film on a fast-moving wave from a rapidly moving board on the rolling avalanche of the ocean...ending in the explosion of a crashing wave. And from that, pull video that works?
Tall order, but GoPro nailed it, and in so doing created a camera that can survive the waterfowler's world. Namely, stepping on it in the watery bottom of your boat, your Lab chewing on it, being strapped to your dog for a muddy retrieve, being pounded by 12-gauge recoil'¦or mounted to your banging, vibrating boat as you bounce off trees or bomb across a bay.
We are no longer spectators. We want to star in our own films, and more importantly, we want our kids, friends, dogs and ducks to star in them.
The mini-cams are not just durable. Their compact size and extremely wide-angle lenses enable hunters to get super creative. On the Great Salt Lake, we deployed them on layout boats, on the transom of airboats and mud motors, on decoys and dogs, capturing odd angles for video and unique still photos. We even shot cool macro wide-angles of Matt Anderson cooking up a massive shore lunch. (Note: Many of the images in this feature don't reflect the quality the newer cameras are capable of because we ripped them from video; they were not shot as stills).
"What I like about GoPros is the versatility and hands-free operation, which leaves you open to call and shoot," says Vandemore. "They can be set up over the shoulder, out in the decoys, off to the side, in front of or facing back at the blinds'¦anywhere you want to put them you can, and you don't have to worry about hiding a cameraman. I enjoy having the footage to look back on during the hot summer days when all I can think about is the upcoming season."
Hazlett, another early adapter, has good advice from his experience. "Once you familiarize yourself with the settings, they are user friendly, that's the cool thing about them," he says. "You experiment to adjust to whether you are filming things flying or not'¦I pretty much leave mine on the 960 setting and that seems to work for birds."
He is typically running four or five at a time; on each side of the pit, out front on a remote, and two out in the kill hole, to get cool angles of birds landing right by the camera." (To see some his clips, search YouTube for coloradowingsport DKC).
It is not a perfect technology. "They don't carry a long-lasting charge. You have to remember to turn them on and off," Hazlett says. "And in the cold they drain quickly. I buy extra batteries and keep pumping in the new ones, but that's more than most people need. I'm trying to film a lot to make videos."
Downloading is simple, with a USB port wire plugging straight in like any modern camera.
"I download them into a file and title it something like 'Field duck hunt 1' and review them, see which I like, delete the rest. It's pretty easy'¦ you just keep messing with it and you'll figure it out," Hazlett says. "Then you can go into your trash and delete all the info right off the camera and clean them out for the next hunt."
Steve uses the hard plastic housing GoPros are sold in and paints them up to hide the cameras, leaving a "window" that lets you see your screen so you know the amount of run time left, battery life, and so forth. He even paints them white for snow or tan for corn.
Hunter and GoPro spokesman Chuckel says the cameras can add a lot to the waterfowling experience, and has plenty of advice.
"GoPro cameras and all the mounts we have created are designed to tell the entire story of a hunt. The great thing about waterfowl hunting is that it is about way more than just shooting a duck. It's the adventure and the whole experience that drives most waterfowlers," he says. "It's the truck ride along a sketchy dike road, jumping a beaver dam in your skiff to get to that hidden pothole, the dog working, putting out dozens of decoys and then picking them back up. It's all part of the story. And done right, shooting a hunt on a GoPro or two gives you the ability to remember and share every part of your most epic and maybe not so epic days in the field."
The Money Shot
There are two main mistakes he sees most novice GoPro users make. First off, don't just throw on a headstrap and let it roll all day. Shoot as much content from as many angles as you can. Get creative. "If you only shoot from one mount, you might come back with some cool footage, but it will all be from the same perspective," Chuckel says.
"The more points of view and elements of the hunt you capture, the better a story you can tell when you go to edit. Do a time lapse of setting up your decoy spread. Get video of your buddy eating the last jelly donut. Never underestimate the value of everything other than killing the bird. The money shot is great, but it's not the whole story of your hunt."
The second mistake is that you have to realize it's all about managing battery life. "A GoPro is a small, lightweight camera, which means that the battery has limitations," he says. "It won't last for an entire day of hunting, so be prepared. Bring an extra battery or two. Or one of our Battery BacPacs. And GoalZero makes some great solar chargers that can charge up a battery fairly quickly in good sunlight. A good 64 GB micro-SD card will give you the ability to shoot hours of video but you need to think about how you plan to power the camera for whatever period of time you intend to shoot."
He suggests hunters start with a few key items and then decide what other set-ups they want to try and then get the mounts that might help them get there. He recommends the HERO3+ Black Edition, because of the Wi-Fi Remote. The ability to connect and control the camera remotely is critical for hunters because crawling out of a pit to go turn on a camera attached to a decoy will probably tick off your hunting partners. You can also use the free GoPro app on your smartphone or tablet to control your camera.
For mounts, try the Jaws FlexClamp, which is extremely versatile and the new Sportsman Mount, which allows you to mount a camera or two on your shotgun or rifle barrel.
"Have fun and don't be afraid to try new things. Some of the best footage I've seen is from people who came up with a new place to mount the camera and struck gold," he says.
Maddie Estrada of Garmin says the super-user friendly VIRB camera adds to the overall hunting experience.
"Being able to share experiences is huge. There are so many hunting shows out there, but with VIRB, you're the star, and are easily able to share (and brag about) what happened," she says. "Usability was a big factor when Garmin created the VIRB. There have been many instances where users go out into the field with other action cameras and come back with only one still image because the camera wasn't on the right setting. With VIRB, people won't have to worry about that. The slider-switch to record video is essentially fool-proof, so they'll always know when the camera is recording."
New ways to utilize these awesome action cameras in the field are cropping up weekly.
"One of the really cool features of VIRB is the connectivity with Garmin products," Estrada says. "Early in the day, the camera can be mounted out of arm's reach — to get the best shot of the action, then can be connected to a Garmin watch or handheld. This way, users can start or stop recording without having to move, and they'll get all the action recorded."
With the looming leaps in battery life and other improvements down the pipeline, your ability to get creative is in its infancy. You will soon start to see your hunts differently.
My neatest action cam stunt happened on an Argentina dove hunt. We drove by a water hole and hundreds of doves took flight. So we stopped, stuck a GoPro in the mud, went hunting elsewhere and downloaded dozens of unique photos of birds so close some of them splashed the camera.
And I'm still bummed about the one that got away. Hunting at Habitat Flats last year, we had a surreal evening moment against a hard black storm sky with a big flock of snows coming in close, low and shock-white against the dark clouds. Crazy cool enough, and then lightning started crackling behind the birds, silhouetting them. Oh to have caught that one!
My buddy Mike Schoby strapped a GoPro on a spear before stabbing a wild boar. Not for the squeamish. But even if the shots you get are not that slick or original, it doesn't matter. If it's you, or your kids, you're going to love them anyway.
And, of course, your compact action camera will go with you on many other non-hunting adventures, maybe even for that original purpose, ocean photography. There are certainly a few duck hunters who surf, like Matt Cagle of Rig 'em Right (who does it beautifully) and myself (who does it badly, but loves it dearly), but there probably hasn't been a lot of overlap between the sports...until now.