What’s in Your Waterfowl Go-Bag?

Seven Tips for Toting Gear to
Your Waterfowl Blind 

By Mike Marsh

A buddy calls. “Let go duck hunting – I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.” Will you be ready?


A good blind bag will keep gear and ammo dry and secure for many years of use, even in the toughest hunting conditions. (Photo: Mike Marsh.)

If a friend invites you for a waterfowl hunt at a moment’s notice, it pays to be prepared rather than scramble around to collect all the necessary gear. The best way to pull off a last-minute hunt is to have everything you need already packed inside a “blind bag” – your go-bag for waterfowl hunting.

Years ago, I made-do with military surplus bags. Today, so many styles are available that no one needs to be without a properly equipped, dedicated bag. Avery Outdoor Products makes several good ones. Here’s what to consider:

  1. Water, water, everywhere.
    You’re duck hunting, right? So you’ll be dealing with water. Lots of it. So get a blind bag made of waterproof polymer fabric with watertight seams. Two-way zippers assure they open and close in salty or muddy conditions and endure many seasons of hard use. A flap that fits over the top and closes with snap straps creates a redundant seal and allows zippers to remain open during the actual hunt for quick access to gear when rain isn’t falling or your retriever isn’t shaking dry or nosing inside to help himself to a snack.
  1. Go for deep pockets.
    Having plenty of exterior pockets as well as interior compartments will help you to keep from overpacking. Outside pockets should hold small gear such as flashlights, spare batteries, heat packs, calls, cripple loads, spare gloves, cell phone, toilet paper, sunglasses, binoculars and a Havalon knife.  The more pockets, the less your gear will be buried inside the main bag.
  1. Lighten up.
    The inside main compartment is the place for heavy items like shotgun ammo and bulky items like food packed inside a watertight container. Using the exterior pockets will keep bulky items from crowding out smaller items. I was preparing for a do-it-yourself hunt at a public game land in a state where I was not intimately familiar with all regulations. My blind bag contained four or five boxes of ammunition from a previous multi-species hunt—making it rather weighty. I lightened the load by packing several shells of each type inside a single, 25-round plastic shotshell box. Later, I read the regulations again and discovered that each hunter could legally carry only one box of shells. On the walk to the blind, l was doubly happy I had reduced my load.

Items in this blind bag include: silicone-impregnated cleaning cloth, Ballistol cleaner and lubricant, calls, waterproof matches, hunting gloves, waterproof gloves, paper towels, shotgun shells, flashlight, binocular and lens cleaning tissues. There is still plenty of room for more gear, but is it necessary? Add some spare gloves and a cap for padding, but don’t pack it with more weight than the bag and strap can take. (Photo: Mike Marsh.)

  1. Strap it up.
    Choose a blind bag with elastic straps across the top. I use them to hold a ski mask, towel and my Avery neoprene floating duck strap. The straps will also help you add that last-minute item without opening and rearranging the contents of the bag.
  1. Heed the calls.
    Most hunters carry several different calls. The place for them is in an outside pocket of the bag where they are safe and easy to reach. Calls placed in the main compartment can roll under ammo boxes, which can crush them, or they’ll get loaded with debris at the bottom of the bag. I doubt you want to dig trail mix, sand, or other rubble out of a call before you can use it.
  1. Pack some heat.
    Carry a can of Sterno jellied alcohol when hunting in cold weather. Have two means of lighting it—back up a butane lighter with a box of waterproof matches. Use it to heat lunch or tea, warm a blind or thaw frozen gear. If you fall into the water in cold weather, the heat from it can save your life. A poncho or Mylar emergency blanket also fits easily in a blind bag and comes in handy in a downpour or an emergency.

Store small gear items such as calls, heat packs, flashlight and binocular in outside pockets where they won’t be crushed by shotgun shell boxes. Notice the two-way zippers which ensure easy access and redundancy in the event the zipper on one side of the track becomes broken or stuck. (Photo: Mike Marsh.)

  1. Choose carefully.
    My seventh tip isn’t what to bring, but what to leave out of your blind bag. What you leave out can be as important as what you put in. Blind bags have a way of accumulating more and more gear, so make sure you sort your gear between hunts (not at the last minute) to keep your bag from becoming overweight. That’s what my buddy didn’t do. As we loaded the boat for an early season teal hunt he handed me his bag. I grabbed it with one hand and it nearly dragged me out of the boat to the muddy bottom. With a normal load, a well-designed blind bag floats, but an overweight bag can sink like a rock.

Avoid adding weight and taking up extra space in a small boat by getting rid of squashed, out-of-date granola bars, old or dirty shotgun shells, and dead or corroded batteries. Consider doing without a vacuum bottle—if it leaks inside a watertight bag, your calls and ammo will be swimming in coffee. Also avoid overloading it with calls you never use and the myriad pieces of gear that keep money flowing out of your wallet.

It’s wiser to invest your dollars in a proper bag. It will pay off because a good bag will protect the investment you make in your gear—and keep you from missing out when a buddy calls at the last-minute and says, “Let’s go duck hunting—I’ll pick you up in ten minutes.”


Mike Marsh outdoor writer headshotMike Marsh of Wilmington, N.C. has written thousands of hunting and fishing articles for newspapers and magazines plus four books (Fishing North Carolina, autographed, inscribed, $26.60; Inshore Angler—Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide, $26.20; Offshore Angler—Coastal Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide, $22.20 and Carolina Hunting Adventures—Quest for the Limit, $15. (Prices are postpaid; send check or money order to: 1502 Ebb Drive, Wilmington, NC 28409). To contact Mike, read his latest Barbs and Blasts or order his books online, visit www.MikeMarshOutdoors.com.

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7 Ways to Sort Out Deer Trails

By Mike Bleech

Active deer trails are the key
to hunting success — here’s how to
find them!

Buck in the woods walking on a trail

This 8-point buck is about to walk through a downed fence section. This may be a good funnel to set up at any time, and likely will be used by both bucks and does once the rut is underway. (Photo: Mike Bleech)

Any whitetail hunter — even those at the novice stage — will know heavily used deer trails are easy to recognize, and good places to wait for deer.

“Big whoop!” you say. “You’re telling me what’s obvious.” Am I? Yes, both of us know if it was that simple we would always fill our deer tags. Well-worn trails can be good places to hunt, but what you really need to know is how, why and when deer use them.

1. There’s the rub

The rub I’m talking about has nothing to do with actual rubs bucks make on trees with their antlers. The rub is that deer trails are notoriously unpredictable. That’s the first lesson in sorting out deer trails. The woods are not a static place — when something changes, deer change. It may be easy to find a deer trail, but it isn’t so easy to know when deer are using it, or if they have abandoned it. Changes in food, human intrusion, the rut, predator activity, weather or almost anything else can cause deer to switch trails. In other words, yesterday’s trail is not necessarily today’s trail. When you discover a trail, ask yourself what may have changed since it was made.

2. When the apple cart is upset

Hunters get excited with bumper crops of apples. Trails leading into apple orchards are often hot in the early season, but once apples are gobbled up deer don’t stick around. Hunters can get caught holding the bag if they rely only on trails in the vicinity of orchards. That’s also true if the apples aren’t very tasty. Deer abandon trails when food sources change, so hunters must keep up with the changes in deer activity as apples disappear, crops are harvested and acorns fall.

3. The golden funnels

Deer use funnels throughout the year, and discovering one gives you a golden opportunity. Nowhere can you learn more about the deer in any given area than at a funnel. Usually funnels are just sections of longer trails. A funnel usually has a physical barrier — water, fallen trees, steep banks, field corners or other terrain features — that forces deer to narrow their travel routes. At certain times the use of funnels by bucks may be limited. While antlers are growing bucks may avoid certain areas altogether in order to protect soft antlers — keep that in mind when you place trail cameras in the summer. In other cases, all deer might change patterns for various reasons. Perhaps land use has changed, or a favored trail may require deer to use too much energy in winter. A strategically placed trail camera can give you a handle on the number and size of bucks, especially after velvet is shed, and whether they’re coming through day or night.

A deer at the top of a slope

Trails will often run along the top of a slope. This gives deer a quick escape route if they sense any danger. (Photo: Steve Sorensen)

4. Different strokes for bucks and does

From the time antlers harden until the rut nears its peak, bucks and does generally travel different trails. Not always, but often enough that it is important to determine the difference before choosing a stand location. Usually doe trails will be much more well-worn, and therefore much more obvious than buck trails because does and fawns outnumber mature bucks. Two does, each followed dutifully by one or two fawns, can cut a deep trail if the ground is soft. Bucks tend to move along a less defined route. So, the most obvious deer trails are probably being used by does and fawns.

5. A parallel world

Those less obvious routes bucks use often run roughly parallel to doe trails. Bucks may, after all, be traveling to the same food sources or bedding areas. Buck trails will often take the prevailing wind into account — their parallel path will be downwind somewhere between 20 to 50 yards, so the bucks can use their noses to keep track of does as they anticipate them coming into heat.

6. When the rut heats up

During the pre-rut, understanding the differences between buck trails and doe trails is critical to hunters. If you are hunting specifically for a buck, then a doe trail won’t be a good place for a pre-rut stand. Instead, set up where the buck can monitor the doe trail. But once does start coming into heat, bucks seek every opportunity to scent-check does. For the last couple of weeks before the peak of the rut, stands that are close to heavily worn doe trails may be very productive.

7. Back to the funnels

During the peak of the rut, a period that may last only a few days to a week, hunting funnels makes a lot of sense because does lead bucks by the nose. Bucks won’t sleep when does are on the move and ready to breed. If you find a high-traffic funnel, head there during the rut.

Snow in the woods change the way deer move

Snow will change deer movements, funneling them to easier travel routes. They’ll move along more deliberately to feeding areas because they won’t find as much to nibble on as they travel there. (Photo: Steve Sorensen)

Always keep learning

There you have it — seven ways to sort out deer trails. Wherever you find trails, examine individual tracks. Judge how recently they were made. Consider size — big tracks with little tracks in them are does being followed by fawns. Bigger tracks, especially those that have rounded points or splayed toes, are probably bucks. The successful hunter is a student of deer trails and the deer that make them.

About Mike Bleech:

Headshot of outdoor writer Mike BleechMike Bleech has been a full-time freelance writer/photographer since 1980 with more than 5,000 articles published in more than 100 publications. He is the outdoor columnist for the Erie Times-News and the Warren Times Observer. Over the years he has become an accomplished trout fisherman and an expert at hunting the Allegheny National Forest and other public lands.

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Sidebar: Take a Picture — It Will Last Forever

By Darl Black

Six simple tips will give you expert pictures!

Angler with her trophy fall bass

A great trophy photo has no clutter and captures a smile. The shoreline provides context (in this example it could be closer). Note the angler is supporting the heavy fish with two hands. (Photo: Darl Black)

Earlier this week, I mentioned how bass anglers often don’t eat their catch or mount their trophy. Instead, they take a picture!

Today it seems like everyone uses a cell phone to take pictures. Many people get remarkable shots without controlling for proper exposure and F-stop settings. Yet many anglers still end up with poor pictures because they fail to consider composition or lighting — the things outside the camera. Here are six quick tips to help you take better fish photos even if all you have is your cell phone.

  1. Slightly hazy overcast days will likely produce a better “hero shot” than extremely bright overhead sun. Avoid taking photos out in the middle of the lake on a bluebird sky day. If possible hold the fish in an aerated livewell and take photos when the sun is lower in the sky. If you must shoot mid-day under bright sun, seek the shade of a tree, bridge or overhang of some sort.
  2. When taking photos with sun low in the sky, keep the sun behind the camera, or slightly to the left or right of your shoulder. Unless you have a camera where you can control exposure or have a fill-flash setting, do not place your subject between the camera and the sun.
  3. When possible, use a shoreline as a background rather than open water. It’s more interesting.
  4. For a hero shot of a trophy fish, fill the frame with the fish and the face of the angler. Do not stand so far back that the entire person appears in the frame and the shrinking fish becomes a mere “accessory.”
  5. Look for clutter before you snap the shutter — a rod or line crossing the face of the angler, or for any odd object that may distract from the big bass message of the photo. Get rid of any distractions — it’s all about the fish.
  6. To prevent severe damage to the jaw of a bass, do not cock the jaw open at an angle when holding it out of water. Instead, in a one-hand vertical shot, position your wrist so the bass hangs straight down. For a horizontal shot support the bass with two hands. And if your photo session takes more than a minute or two, put the bass in the water to reduce the stress on him. Remember, he’s tired — you just beat him in the battle of his life.

About Darl Black:

Outdoor writer Darl BlackDarl Black is a lifelong freshwater angler and veteran writer/photographer. Darl tackles a wide variety of fishing related stories for print publications and websites. Of all fishing, angling for smallmouth bass is his favorite pastime.  He may be reached for assignment at darlblack@windstream.net.

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Location and Lures — The One-Two Punch for Big Fall Bass

By Darl Black

Solve the puzzle of big fall bass, and
haul your personal best into the boat!

The author's favorite baits for fall bass fishing

The author’s favorite baits for big bass in the fall. Left column: dog-walking topwater; lipless rattle bait; Flat-sided crankbait. Right column: swim jig; swimbaits including a 5-inch model on a leadhead and 3.5-inch model on an underspin head. (Photo: Darl Black)

Trophy hunting isn’t solely for wild game in the fall. It’s also the best time to hunt for trophy largemouth and smallmouth bass across the continent. A big difference is that when an angler captures a big bass, he more than likely snaps a photo and releases the fish to provide thrills for other fishermen. (More on that later this week.)

As water temperature begins its gradual downward slide in the fall, bass instinctively begin feeding heavily in preparation for the coming winter slowdown. Bass which have been spending the summer prowling deep structure or shadowing suspended baitfish schools will now follow those open-water preyfish into shallower water for a feeding foray. In situations where largemouth bass spent the summer sulking in the deep weeds, the cool down is the signal to move more freely around shallower weeds in search of prey. All this feeding activity creates an opportunity to catch your PB bass (Personal Best).

Punch #1 — Fall Locations

Angler with his largemouth bass caught in the fall

Fall is a prime time for a really big largemouth bass. (Photo: Darl Black)

With northern tier waters cooling first, bass may begin their move in late September or early October when water temperature dips into the 60s. Schools of native shiners migrating to the shallows trigger the move. In southern states, lake temperatures begin cooling a little later. Here gizzard shad are likely the dominant baitfish in most reservoirs; shad schools move up the creek arms of large reservoirs and into shallow water with bass close behind.

Where bass go

Largemouth and smallmouth bass — particularly bigger specimens — are moving to feeding flats in shallower water than they are typically found most of the summer, therefore making them more accessible to the average angler.

Impounded waters (natural lakes and man-made reservoirs) differ substantially across the U.S. Therefore, the location of actively feeding bass is best addressed in general terms. In natural lakes, this may translate to largemouths actively feeding in shallower portions of weedbeds, or to smallmouths moving to gravel bars and rock piles nearer the shore. In some large reservoirs, largemouth bass will move into the major creek arms and then into the cover on adjacent flats. Smallmouth bass in reservoirs may move shallower on rock-studded flats, rip-rap areas or bluff areas. In smaller northern reservoirs which lack major creek arms, bass simply move to main lake shorelines.

The cover they like

In the big mid-fall picture, largemouth bass will generally be around relatively shallow weeds and wood cover while smallmouth bass favor more rocky or gravelly bottoms — often interspersed with weeds. Basically, if it’s fishy-looking cover in water less than 10 feet deep, fall is the time to target it.

The temperature they want

The party’s over when water temperature drops below 50 degrees. That’s when bass will begin to disappear from the shallows and make their way to winter haunts in somewhat deeper water.

Punch #2 — Fall Lures

Big smallmouth bass taken on a swim jig

Big smallmouth bass taken on a swim jig. (Photo: Darl Black)

With the focus on larger bass, skip the finesse baits you may have been using all summer. Bass are chowing, so go big in the fall. Although water temperature is in that magic range and baitfish are abundant in the shallows, bass will not feed ravenously every day. You’ll have to deal with non-aggressive fish at times. However even on slow days, stay shallow and keep checking different areas for active fish.

The type of lures selected should allow you to cover water quickly. Use baits which allow you to make horizontal presentations over weedbeds and across flats while bumping hard cover. Don’t spend a lot of time soaking baits in one spot.

Having chased autumn bass in both northern and southern states, often with guides or professional tournament anglers, I have settled on a handful of essential lures. My picks account for a majority of big smallmouth and largemouth bass I’ve taken during mid-fall in shallow water.

Food options for bass in the fall typically include shad, shiners or minnows — and in some northern smallmouth waters, schools of young perch. Therefore your lure selection should be representative of these preyfish.

Topwater dog-walking bait

Bass chasing baitfish in the shallows cry out for topwater. My favorite big bass lure is a cigar-shaped dog-walking topwater — one that sashays left and right with properly executed rod snaps. You’ll find many on the market today, but I’m old school so I go with the Zara Spook.

Lipless rattling crankbait

Big fall bass seem to be attracted to the tight wiggle and rattling vibration of this special style of crankbait. Interrupt your steady retrieve every few feet with a pause of several seconds. Don’t let the popularity of the standard sinking model cause you to overlook using a suspending model for fishing over submerged weeds in natural lakes — the pause does not entangle vegetation.

An angler catching her personal best smallmouth bass during fall

Anticipate a PB (Personal Best) smallmouth during the fall shallow water bite. (Photo: Darl Black)

Diving flat sided crankbait

When I work points, rocky banks, rip rap or stump-lined banks of a secondary creek channel on a reservoir, my go-to bait is a flat-side coffin-lip crank with a depth range of 6 to 8 feet. Of the many very good ones on the market, Rapala’s DT Flat model is one of my favorites. In clear water, I’ll go with a shad or shiner finish, but in dingy water I turn to Old School (intentionally faded chartreuse) or Golden Shiner.

Swim jig

Imagine a cross between a spinnerbait and a traditional jig with a trailer, and you’re thinking of a swim jig. A swim jig has the line tie in the tip of the nose and sports a thinner stranded skirt with a twister-style grub as a trailer rather than a craw chunk. A swim jig can be worked with subsurface swimming like spinnerbait. However, the jig gets in and out of cover better than a spinnerbait. Also, a swim jig can be slow rolled along bottom cover, bumping stumps if desired. Many swim jigs are offered in baitfish color schemes. Terminator produces one of the best swim jigs, including Silver Shiner, Emerald Shiner, Perch and Sunfish patterns.


A soft plastic swimbait with a shad-style thumper tail is about as realistic as it gets in presenting a lifelike preyfish lure to bass. I like to rig a 5-inch Lunker City Swimfish on a ½-ounce fish-shaped leadhead for largemouths. For smallmouths, I’ll slip a 3½-inch Larew Sweet Swimmer on a Road Runner ⅜-ounce Classic Runner (an under-spin lure). These swimbaits have pretty much replaced traditional spinnerbaits for me in the fall. I can work these baits in the open water above a submerged weedbed or deeper over feeding flats. The profile and action of a swimbait seem to have more appeal to bass than a skirted spinnerbait.

Now you have both pieces to the puzzle — location and lures — so… go fish!

About Darl Black:

Outdoor writer Darl BlackDarl Black is a lifelong freshwater angler and veteran writer/photographer. Darl tackles a wide variety of fishing related stories for print publications and websites. Of all fishing, angling for smallmouth bass is his favorite pastime.  He may be reached for assignment at darlblack@windstream.net.

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How to Handle that Cumbersome Crossbow

By Mike Marsh

Six secrets to taming your crossbow’s
balance and weight!

Hunter with crossbow finds a comfortable shooting spot for the day

Jerry Simmons hunts from an elevated stand with a crossbow. The sturdy rail keeps the crossbow steady and ready at all times to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable hunt. (Photo: Mike Marsh)

Hunters who use crossbows during archery season know that their accuracy and power come with some big tradeoffs. They lack the lightweight portability of a hand-held vertical bow and the easy maneuverability of a firearm. Plus, the length of the stock combined with the width of the limbs take up a great deal of space. And it’s cumbersome when carrying it to your stand.

Some hunters wonder why a crossbow needs to be so blasted heavy. The simple answer is that it needs a beefy frame to be powerful enough to take big game while handling its impressive release energy — without flying apart. That’s why a crossbow is heavy and cumbersome, which can nullify some of its advantages. Here’s how to deal with it.

Hunter with crossbow slung over his shoulder

This hunter is carrying his crossbow over his shoulder. Not only is it uncomfortable during long trips to the stand, but it also poses some risks. A better way to carry it is with a sling or inside a soft case that has a shoulder strap and hand-grip. (Photo: Mike Marsh)

1. Case it

Many hunters have learned to carry the crossbow in a soft case by the case’s shoulder strap when moving through the woods. Make sure your case has a handgrip as well. It will make it easier to maneuver through tight spots, or to hand off to another hunter. Wait until you arrive at your hunting site to remove the crossbow, cock it and load an arrow. The case will put an end to losing vital gear, and protect the crossbow from weather, spills and hard knocks. A case makes the entire weapons package much easier to carry.

2. Sling it

When travelling open country, carrying a crossbow with a sling is a convenient option. I use a padded sling with silicone rubber applied to the gripping side to keep the strap from slipping down my shoulder. I loop my cocking rope through the thumbhole stock and carry the crossbow with the quiver attached and the bow de-cocked and unloaded.

Hunter goes inside his ground blind with his crossbow

Chris House enters a ground blind with his crossbow. Many hunters discover that maneuvering a crossbow inside a ground blind is easier than in a tree stand. The trick is to pick a large, hub-style blind that allows you to shoot in any direction. (Photo: Mike Marsh)

3. Rail against instability

Every elevated stand I use for crossbow hunting has a rail for resting the crossbow’s forearm. Resting the forearm on the rail and the butt on my thigh allows me to control the crossbow at all times. Crossbows are front-heavy, and horizontal limbs make it unstable if you lean it against the side of a stand. It can suddenly rotate and bump the scope when you attempt to pick it up.

4. Don’t quibble with quivers

If you think a crossbow is cumbersome, why would you add a quiver and make it more awkward and unwieldy? The quiver adds weight and restricts maneuverability due to the nock-ends of arrows sticking beyond the bow. The easy solution is to remove the quiver before you cock the bow. Tie it to the treestand or put in the side pocket of a ground blind.

5. Go large

I usually hunt from a roomy, hub-style, cube shaped blind that has ample room to shoot from the front and strong side if I am sitting in a folding chair in one corner. I do not use a chair with arms because they interfere with resting and moving the butt and pistol grip. If game is approaching and far enough away to risk movement on my part, my blind is large enough that I can slide the chair around or kneel to take a shot in any direction.

A homemade crossbow rest for ground blind hunting

The author usually hunts from a ground blind when using a crossbow. He uses a rest made from the top hub and metal supports of a beach tent canopy with a piece of a kid’s water noodle that has a section of PVC pipe through it center-bolted to the hub. The rest holds the crossbow at the ready and rotates 360 degrees. (Photo: Mike Marsh)

6. Give it a rest

When you are inside the blind, use a rest to hold the bow as well as stabilize it for shooting. A four-legged metal walking cane you can purchase at most drug stores for about $20 makes an inexpensive rest. The cane has a 90-degree, foam padded handgrip that’s perfect for resting the forearm of a crossbow. Its telescoping shaft has push-button stops to make it easy to adjust for height. I also have another favorite rest I made from a discarded beach tent frame with four metal supports and a plastic hub at the peak. After drilling a hole through the hub, I bolted in place a piece of a kid’s water noodle with a section of PVC pipe slipped inside it. The four-legged rest easily adjusts for height and rotates 360 degrees. I rest the forearm of my crossbow on it and hold the butt stock on my upper thigh, always ready to raise it smoothly and quickly to align the scope and take a shot.

Sometimes hunting with a new piece of gear is just a matter of learning to manage something you haven’t used before. And I’m betting if you get out, you’ll add your own tips to these six ideas that make hunting with a crossbow easier.

About Mike Marsh:

Mike Marsh outdoor writer headshotMike Marsh lives in Wilmington, N.C. and has written thousands of hunting and fishing articles for newspapers and magazines plus four books (“Fishing North Carolina,” autographed, inscribed, $26.60 ppd; “Inshore Angler-Carolina’s Small Boat Fishing Guide,” $26.20; “Offshore Angler-Coastal Carolina’s Mackerel Boat Fishing Guide,” $22.20; and “Carolina Hunting Adventures – Quest for the Limit,” $15, check or MO, 1502 Ebb Drive, Wilmington, NC 28409). His columns appear in Fayetteville, Raleigh, Wilmington, Goldsboro and other newspapers. To contact Mike, read his latest “Barbs and Blasts” articles or order his books online, visit www.mikemarshoutdoors.com.

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