January 13, 2023
In brant-like fashion the flock came in low. Their streamlined silhouettes stood out as I’d seen so many times, but in other places. When they dropped their feet and cupped into the decoys, my buddy and I raised up and shot.
I fired twice, killing two brant. My friend also doubled. I was done for the day, even though I could have shot three more. I took my camera, backed up 30 yards behind the blind and took pictures of Gary Kramer as he finished his limit. Looking through the telephoto lens at these magnificent birds against the sandy dunes in the background, a sea of blue shimmering beneath them and a warming sun ascending the horizon, I was spellbound.
Snapping shots of the rudimentary blind made of palm leaves is when it hit me: I was finally hunting brant in Mexico. As a kid I read about this place but never thought I’d get there. The fact I was hunting with the Gary Kramer made it even more special.
In 1976, Kramer completed his Master’s thesis on winter ecology of black brant in San Quintin Bay, Mexico. In 1974, while studying brant in the Baja, Kramer became the first to document the nonstop brant migration from Cold Bay, Alaska to San Quintin. “At sunrise on Nov. 5, 1974, the first significant departure of brant at Cold Bay occurred,” Kramer recalls. “The refuge manager in Cold Bay sent me a telegram the minute the birds left. I watched closely for the brant to arrive, and they did, on Nov. 8. It took the brant 60 hours to travel 3,000 air miles. That’s an average of 50 MPH. Over the years, this impressive migration has been confirmed with modern technology, multiple times, but it was pretty special to be a part of it long before the days of radio tracking.”
Where Kramer stayed while studying brant in San Quintin in the 1970s was remote and there were no phones. Anticipating the departure of the brant from Cold Bay, Kramer made the drive on rough roads into town to check if any telegrams had been sent to him, alerting him of the brant’s departure from the North. He did this multiple times a day.
A decade later Kramer was in San Quintin doing work as a federal biologist. Here, he and a biologist from Alaska collected a sampling of brant. A week or so prior, the biologist had collected brant in Cold Bay in order to record pre-migration body weights. When the mass migration of brant from Cold Bay began, the biologist headed south, hoping to beat them to Mexico. Kramer picked him up at the San Diego airport and they drove to San Quintin. Sixty hours after the brant had left Cold Bay, they arrived in San Quintin.
“The brant we harvested after that long flight lost about 20% of their body fat, which is remarkable over a 50-hour timeframe,” Kramer shares. In addition to decades of studying brant, Kramer has more than 1,000 days of hunting Mexico under his belt.
“Brant arrive in San Quintin in November, then spread out into six other bays, the farthest being about 1,200 miles south, down the Baja,” continues Kramer. “Then in January they start slowing, moving north, back into San Quintin Bay, which is the best time to hunt them as you’re targeting fresh brant that haven’t been pressured.” There’s only one other bay in the Baja where brant receive any sort of hunting pressure. “The brant travel slowly on their move north, stopping in multiple bays in California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to feed on eel grass,” says Kramer. “They move slow to conserve energy, retaining the highest amount of fat possible for nesting.”
“When brant arrive on their northern nesting grounds, the weather can be terrible, and nesting delayed for days, even weeks,” adds Chris Nicolai, Waterfowl Scientist at Delta Waterfowl who completed both his Masters and PhD on Pacific black brant.
Birds of a Feather
Nicolai was also on the brant hunt with us in San Quintin. One morning I hunted with Nicolai. There are few people I’ve yearned to hunt with; Nicolai was one of them. With a couple dozen floating decoys set, we hunkered behind a pile of volcanic rock. Nicolai was calling with impressive realism, and turned just about every flock of brant into our spread. We were done in 20 minutes.
The last brant we shot was a double. I shot the bird on the right, Nicolai, the one on the left. When Nicolai waded out to get the dead birds, he held them up and shouted, “Look at that, they folded right into the hand-carved decoys!” In addition to being a world-renowned waterfowl authority, Nicolai is also an avid hunter and accomplished decoy carver. He carved some brant decoys just for this trip.
In all, 14 members made up our group of hunters. “We only hunt four to five weekends, total, in January and February,” points out Arturo Malo, owner and outfitter of Baja Hunting, who hunted here for the first time in 1986. “We have seven blinds, run seven boats, and hunt two people per blind.”
When I told friends I was going brant hunting in Mexico, most assumed there were no limits. Wrong. Our daily bag limit was five brant. “In the old days we ran 15 blinds and hunted most days of the week,” Malo continues. “But our management plan changed as we realized we needed to take the pressure off the birds and provide better, quality experiences for hunters.”
Malo is the sole concession owner in San Quintin, and all brant hunting is run through him. There is a union of locals who help advise Malo. “We only have a limited number of good tides, so our brant season is short and our harvest is closely monitored,” confirms Malo.
In our hunting party there was an Ivy League professor, an LAPD officer, a forestry engineer and 10 well known waterfowl biologists. Twelve of us held Masters degrees, several had PhDs in waterfowl biology and management. It was an educated group who simply loved to hunt.
Every meal conversation centered around waterfowl hunting. Whenever there was a quiet moment, someone sparked conversation that delved into duck or goose hunting, and often wildlife management issues, past and present. I’ve made my living as an outdoor writer for more than 20 years, have been on hundreds of hunts all around the world, and this camp was the most enjoyable I’ve ever been a part of, thanks to the people.
Their sheer passion and knowledge was spellbinding. I have a biology background and a masters in education, and I honestly looked forward more to listening to post-hunt conversations with them than actually hunting brant. The brant hunting was good, but nothing like I’ve experienced over the years in Alaska, especially with noted guide, Jeff Wasley of Four Flyways Outfitters, in Cold Bay–no brant hunting in the world comes close to that.
“I’ve never seen you like this before,” smiled my wife, three days after I’d been home from the Baja brant hunt. “Whoever those people were, you need to go hunting with them again!” she encouraged. Those people were biologists. They were hunters. Many were educated decades ago, however, their eagerness to learn and acquire important, accurate information has never stopped. Though most were retired, every one of them was up-to-date on the latest waterfowl counts, studies, trends, hunting reports, and more. It was a camp that I wish every hunter who is skeptical about biologists and their role in hunting and wildlife conservation could have been in. Like many of us who love to hunt, these biologists learned to do the same at an early age. In fact, for every one of them, it was their love of hunting which led to their seeking degrees in the sciences and careers in waterfowl management. They’re all on our side, with the best interest of the birds and future hunters, closest to their hearts.
Soon after Nicolai and I gathered our brant we were in the boat, heading back to camp for breakfast. Other members of our party were going the same direction across the bay. As Nicolai shuffled his feet about, he paused. Reaching down through the pile of brant decoys in the bottom of the boat, he pulled up an old one pocked with holes. He grabbed it, looked closely at it and smiled. It was an awkward silence. Then he looked at me. “This is the first brant decoy I ever made,” Nicolai piped, over the noise of the boat’s motor. “I brought it here on my first hunt, 17 years ago, and left it with the guide!” Nicolai’s initials were still clearly etched in the wooden keel.
Come to find out, the guide had retired and passed along his brant decoys to a younger, upcoming guide, whom Nicolai and I hunted with. That morning, no one left the breakfast table for three hours, as Nicolai’s find and the stories it spurred, generated much conversation.
Shared were countless hunting stories, along with life-and-death encounters many of them had faced when working with brant in remote, harsh Alaska. It was a fitting end to a hunt I, as a young boy, only dreamed of.