A Day with a Hunter: Ridgefield Refuge Manager Learns Lessons With Conservation Mentor

By Juliette Fernandez, refuge manager, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Juliette Fernandez on her first hunting trip with Daisy and Rich. USFWS photo: Juliette Fernandez
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Juliette Fernandez on her first hunting trip with Daisy and Rich. USFWS photo: Juliette Fernandez

I didn’t grow up hunting. I was more inclined to hop out of a moving vehicle like an action hero to save a crossing tarantula.

When I started as the new refuge manager at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in 2020, I was informed that the relationship between hunters and the refuge had been challenging in the past and that the requests, needs and functions of this program would be different from my past refuges. I also knew I was a good listener and looked forward to building bridges and finding our commonalities.

I have friends who are hunters so I framed my approach to this new hunt program with them in mind. My hunting friends are some of the best biologists I know, and they are some of the most passionate conservationists I know. They love challenging their outdoor skills and being outside. All of that applies to me, too. When I arrived in my new position here, I met with the hunt community and learned that, for many of them, they felt the same.

I started having monthly check in meetings with the Washington Waterfowl Association and learned they were immensely friendly and really wanted to help. I went out with them to “camo up” the refuge hunt blinds before the season started and humbly asked them to teach me all of their tricks. I made it a point to come to the early hunt at 4:30 in the morning on five occasions through the season, just to wish them luck as they picked their blinds for the day and congratulated them as they checked their birds back in. At the Veterans Day hunt lunch, I served them food and thanked them for protecting the lands I am honored to manage.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Juliette Fernandez helped hunters put camo on blinds for the waterfowl hunting season. USFWS photo: Juliette Fernandez

All of these things were tiny tokens, but our relationship shifted from adversarial to friendly. But there was another step I needed to take — I wanted to go with them on a hunt.

I asked an avid hunter if I could join his adventure one day. Rich happily agreed to share a blind — and his experience — with me on a cold morning last January.

My alarm went off at 3:45 a.m. and I was off to the races. Two pairs of wool socks: check; long underwear: check; cargo pants: check; dark puffy jacket: check; rain jacket: check; headlamp: check; mask: check; gloves: check; warm hat: double check.

I got to the refuge gate and 15 trucks were already waiting for the hunt gate to open. As the arms of the gate started to move, diesel engines woke the night air once again and a caravan of lights crept to the hunt unit.

We were the 15th lottery pick, so I waited in my car to hear our number called on the AM radio. Resting my eyes and listening for my turn, it was both peaceful and exciting. Rich and I went through the check-in process as if I was a member of the public so I could walk in his shoes.

We picked our blind, and made our journey into the dark, marking the dark road with our boot prints. Daisy, our four-legged hunt companion, had on her camo vest and a collar with a tiny green light that shined like a minuscule beacon that helped me locate her in the dark. She obediently walked with me and Rich down the muddy road and led the way to the blind. To the faint tune of adjusting leaves and settling damp branches, Rich and I set up more camo, placed the decoys on the calm water and ran a string from several of them to our hunt blind. “This,” he said while pulling at the string, “is a non-battery way for us to give movement to the decoys, mimicking a wingbeat and creating a ripple.”

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Juliette Fernandez (right) went on her first waterfowl hunting trip with Rich and Daisy in January. While they only harvested one duck, it was still a wildly successful experience. USFWS photos: Juliette Fernandez

He gave me a small heater, and told me he brought me apple cider and snacks. I crawled into the concrete hole and peered out through the camo at the still waters as the sun began to fade the stars into memories on the cold morning. I asked Rich what got him hunting. “I didn’t grow up with it, but my grandmother read me Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a child, and I knew conservation was my path. It got me interested in hunting, so I taught myself.”

Species that I was familiar with from my biology classes, and from casual appreciation, soon took on new personas as Rich shared their qualities with me from a hunter’s perspective.

“Teal are tiny fighter pilots zigging this way and that. They are really fun to watch.” It evoked memories of the old Snoopy cartoons and his adventures as Red Barron. “I don’t take bufflehead often,” Rich continued, “they are too darn cute and don’t taste as good. I don’t shoot anything I don’t eat.”

I thought of the meat I get at the grocery store for my son to eat. I look for ethically farmed animals with no artificial additives. Essentially, we eat meat, but we like happy meat from well-treated animals. Rich likes free-flying ducks that he harvests and takes straight home to his family’s dinner plates.

“Pintail are very wary, circling around and around until they are ready to land,” Rich shared. I noticed that Daisy, Rich’s dog, also circled about four times before she laid down on her mat to rest.

The view from the hunting blind at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo: Juliette Fernandez
The view from the hunting blind at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. USFWS photo: Juliette Fernandez

Rich and I spent six hours together. Geese flew in the distance but it was a pretty quiet hunt day. Rich seemed disappointed that there wasn’t more activity, but I was very content. Hot plumes of steam floated off my coffee container, swirling and waning, and I heard the refuge wake up. Fidgety sparrows hopped around us, tiny beads of dew dropped from the grass blades, a train in the distance hummed along with the wind through the trees. I was happy. Rich and Daisy went home with one duck that day. “I’ll bring you some duck breast with a recipe for a great way to make it for your family,” Rich said.

We walked back to the car, Daisy, wet and paws muddy, was satisfied from another day out with her dad.

The experience was enlightening and gave me a new perspective.

I may still be inclined to hop of out a car to save a tarantula, but I have a new understanding and appreciation for a different color of nature enthusiast. Like most hunters, Rich is a conservationist. He loves the birds, he respects nature and that balance, he eats his dinners in the most natural form, and he calls the refuge home.

We both are excited for another waterfowl hunt season at the refuge this fall.

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Juliette Fernandez (right) helped hunters put camo on blinds for the waterfowl hunting season. USFWS photo: Juliette Fernandez
Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge Complex manager Juliette Fernandez (right) helped hunters put camo on blinds for the waterfowl hunting season. USFWS photo: Juliette Fernandez

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USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

USFWS Columbia Pacific Northwest Region

Conservation stories from one of the world’s most ecologically diverse regions.