Paul Sullivan, who founded Burbank Guide Service in 1977, has used his former career to hone his waterfowling methods to a science.
“I’m an aeronautical engineer,” he said. “I pay attention to details.” For emphasis, he noted he’s 65 and celebrating his 43rd anniversary with his high-school sweetheart. “I have a good eye.”
The Tri-Cities professor of waterfowl hunting allowed his students to sleep in before calling class to order.
“I consider 8 or 9 a.m. a civilized time to begin a duck hunt,” he said.
The lessons started with the slow drive down through irrigated corn and barley fields to his laboratory – the legendary Paul’s Pond.
Students were champing at the bit as the water came into view. Around 2,000 ducks were lounging on several ponds or feeding in nearby grain fields.
Sullivan seemed to torture the hunters as he eased down the road at 10 mph.
“The slower you approach the less you disrupt them,” he said, pointing out groups of ducks flushing here and there, but quickly settling back to the ground or water. “The less frightened they are the more likely they are to come back.”
Ducks reluctantly departed the area as decoys were put out on the main pond. Then Sullivan wasted no time getting hunters into the blinds. Birds were coming in already.
“We could have been here at daylight, scared off what was here and had a great shoot,” he said. “But then it might take week before we have another good shoot. By coming in late – and we’ll leave early – ducks get more comfortable with a place.”
It’s no accident that Burbank Guide Service has stayed in business 35 years.
Although he’d been guiding on leased land and friends’ places for years, he bought the land of his future laboratory in 1990 after selling his business.
“It was just a 20-foot pond below a hundred-foot-high sand dune,” he said. “This was part of a bombing range during World War II. A lot of the soil was sterilized by incendiary devices. I bought a D-8 Cat and moved sand and dirt for five years.
“Nothing I’ve tried has worked immediately,” he said. “You have to learn what ducks want.”
He created a duck hunter’s Shangri-La but readily admits his work would have largely been in vain without the national wildlife refuges nearby on the Snake and mid-Columbia rivers.
“The refuges can’t do it all,” he said, pointing out that he’s a major donor to Ducks Unlimited. “We’ve lost so much habitat, it’s a no-brainer” to support a group focused on wetland conservation and restoration. “That’s the easiest business and a personal decision I make.”
Waterfowl will tolerate hunting and stay in an area as long the birds have food and undisturbed resting areas.
“Take away one or the other and they’ll go somewhere else,” he said. “McNary Refuge provides the sanctuary; I help provide the food.”
His fields include a barley variety that grows only about a foot high. “Ducks like to be able to get their heads above the grain to see,” he said. “If it’s taller, they won’t stay in it.”
But he has to manage the amount of time he allows waterfowl into his fields.
“I plant about 100 acres for wildlife,” he said. “If you just let them be, they’d pile in here and eat all the food before January. It’s like being a rancher.”
While Paul’s Pond is reserved for his clients, Sullivan says his habitat work and food plots boost hunting success for waterfowlers on nearby public land.
“I’m always pushing birds off here,” he said. “Creative freelance hunters who do their scouting and have the right equipment can have great success on public land or water.”
His eye for detail has made him so fussy about the design of blinds and decoys he had no alternative but to make his own. He’s spun off a side business ( aerooutdoors.com) to sell the products his guides use.
Sullivan says he had full-bodied goose decoys in the field years before they were marketed by large commercial companies. The mold was sculpted by his brother, Brian Sullivan of Spokane, who’s an artist and falconer.
“They’ll out-decoy real geese on the ground on a cloudy day,” he said. “We layer the colors on our decoys and use special glue and flocking.
“Years ago I found I could not constantly fool ducks with the same decoys in the same place every day unless they have a perfectly natural look. It’s extremely important to repaint decoy heads.
“I’ve learned by observing how ducks and geese react to things, and then I react accordingly to improve my hunting.”
His blinds – refined from years of being in them – are sized for two hunters but can be linked together when more hunters are involved. The metal frames have sloped roofs. “The boxy look of traditional blinds creates shadows that ducks wise up to,” he said.
“The trick to consistent success is being hidden – and comfortable.”
Plastic mesh around the frames is filled with field vegetation and native habitat. “The light comes through the blind, making it look more natural,” he said. “All you have to do is be still inside.”
Soon he was able to demonstrate how the roof doors swing in or out for shooting.
A moment later, his chocolate Lab easily poked open the bungee-loaded side door to exit the blind for the retrieve.
With a few birds in the bag and an eager ball of wet dog fur ready for the next round, the professor continued the lessons.
• “The way your clothing fits affects your shooting,” he said. “Above all else, you must be able to snap our gun directly to your shoulder without hanging up. That’s the cause of most misses.”
• “We shoot 2¾-inch shells because they make less noise. The concussion from a 3-inch shell, and especially from a 3½-inch shell, has an effect even on waterfowl that are out of sight.”
In addition, the recoil from longer shells eventually causes most hunters to flinch and miss more birds over decoys than if they were using lighter loads, he said.
• Magnum-size decoys generally deliver the best results, but no single decoy type is best in all situations.
• Big decoys are more effective at luring waterfowl from a distance. “But if you notice they’re backwinging as they’re coming in, you might have better luck with smaller decoys.”
Sullivan believes ducks and geese use the size of a decoy to help gauge distance from the water. Thus, smaller decoys may be an illusion that can trick them into coming closer, giving hunters closer shots.
• Keep the area surrounding the blind natural looking. “Birds on the refuges have seen everything and they learn fast,” he said. “New birds drop in right now, but refuge birds circle and circle; nothing can be out of place.
Burbank Guides hunt on about 450 acres owned by Sullivan or his friends. “I could see the handwriting on the wall back in 1980,” he said. “If you didn’t have your own ground, your options would be limited. I don’t guide on leased land anymore. It’s too expensive.”
But he also knows the limits of his own land to provide a season of waterfowling.
“I treat the ducks with respect by coming in later in the morning and getting out around noon,” he said. “That leaves the place just for the ducks 19-20 hours a day.
“If we’re out of here early, this place will be crawling with ducks by evening.
“That makes a good life for the ducks and a good lifestyle for us.”