Today is the anniversary of getting my first duck ever, and much to the chagrin of my boyfriend, I'm going to share the story with you.
For those who are not hunters, or who are not stout of heart, or who lack a sense of dark humor, you might want to hit the "back" button on your browser and skip this post.
Still reading? OK, it went like this...
I got my first hunting license several weeks into the 2006-07 waterfowl season, which means I started duck hunting in our early November slump. The resident young-of-the-year ducks were either educated about hunters or in someone's freezer already, and there were days when we didn't see anything but hawks and Southwest Airlines flying over the flooded rice fields we hunted north of downtown Sacramento.
But one Wednesday, a stiff north wind came in. I mean a stiff one - 25-30 mph gusts, and cold (by Northern California standards, anyway). Duck hunters know what that means - it pushes new ducks down the state, and new ducks don't know where we lie in wait for them.
So off we went to the rice fields that morning, and when the first good flock of birds came in for a landing, we stood up in our pit blind and fired.
I'd always wondered how you figure out who dropped which duck when both of you were taking shots at the same time. This morning, I learned how: You pull trigger. You hear bang. You see duck drop.
That's what happened. I heard the crack of my 20 gauge, watched a duck tumble and felt that jubilation of actually hitting what I was aiming at. I watched him sail into the water.
I got one!We don't have a dog, so my boyfriend hollered back:
Go get him!I jumped out of the blind.
Take your gun!I grabbed it. I knew I might need to fire a finishing shot. Then I started walking.
Now, up until this point, my waders had not touched water. Because we hunted in rice fields, we always had a strip of land - the check - on which to walk out to our blind. All I'd done is walk in mud. Now it was time to actually get wet.
Holy crap.The farmer who owned these fields had plowed the earth just before flooding the fields, so it wasn't just walking through a foot of water; it was sinking into eight inches of mud beyond that. I took approximately two steps before losing my balance.
Oh no oh no oh no...Doof! I fell on my butt.
Not realizing that it doesn't hurt to fall in a flooded rice field, I'd broken my fall with one hand, and my jacket sleeve was now soaked, my fingers icy. Lesson learned! At least my gun was dry.
I lurched up and out of the water and started stepping more carefully. But the more carefully I stepped, the longer I spent on each step, and the longer I spent on each step, the more I sunk into the mud, so when I went to lift my foot and the mud sucked me back down...
I fell again. This time I had the presence of mind to fall to my knees, giving me a little more control. Gun dry! Jacket dry! I was getting good at this.
But my duck was getting away.
Injured but not dead, he was swimming to the next check, probably 75 yards from our blind. I got up and started power sloshing as the he disappeared into the tall grass on the check. I was almost there when
I picked myself up again and practically hurled myself at the check. On dry land at last, I looked around.
I saw nothing.
I walked up and down the check, looking for him. I still saw nothing.
He's an injured duck. He should stand out...But he didn't.
Despair was beginning to sink in when I looked down and just inches in front of my right foot, there was my duck, hunkered down, looking small and brown and camouflaged.
He didn't even try to get away and he was utterly beautiful and cute and dear God I knew what I had to do. I apologized to him, and snapped his neck. Then, with the duck in my left hand and my shotgun in my right, I made my way back across the water to the blind.
I fell twice on the way back too, but by this time it was old hat.
As I neared the blind, I held up my duck for the boyfriend to see, beaming.
That's a young drake wigeon!I felt a throb in the palm of my left hand. It wasn't me.
Honey, I think he's not dead...I snapped his neck again. It didn't work. My boyfriend snapped his neck and set him down next to the blind. That seemed to do the trick.
Until the duck moved again.
This was getting disgusting. I had no idea it would drag out like this. Life force is strong. Why do we forget that? It was making me sick knowing I had not finished off this bird, that he was just suffering. It was impossible to feel proud of this. I turned my head away for a moment - just for a moment - when I suddenly saw something out of the corner of my eye go flying past me and into the water.
It was my duck.
I looked back at my boyfriend.
My duck's head was in his hand.
Later in the season, I learned that "helicoptering" is in fact the quickest and most merciful way to finish off a duck that is not dead. Grab by the head, swing around two full circles, and you know the neck will snap.
More than two or three twists and you're likely to decapitate it.
Which is precisely what my boyfriend had just done.
DAMMIT! THAT WAS MY FIRST DUCK EVER! I WANTED A PICTURE OF IT AND YOU TORE ITS HEAD OFF! DAMMIT!!!!I will never forget the expression on my boyfriend's face. He looked like a sick dog that had just vomited on an expensive Persian rug. He knew he'd done something very, very wrong, but he didn't mean to do it, and it was too late to do anything about it.
I could see this. I knew he felt bad. He was trying to help! But I continued to swear at him every few minutes anyway.
Please understand that my boyfriend and I are not trophy hunters. We hunt for meat. But your first duck is special. It's a rite of passage. After years of not understanding the utterly disgusting pictures of hunters fawning over bloody carcasses, I'd finally understood, and I wanted my picture too. But how could I show this photo to anyone?
DAMMIT!!!!!We got back into the blind and waited for more birds. Periodically, I'd look at my beheaded duck and swear at my boyfriend again. Then, it occurred to me... maybe there was a way.
I stopped swearing at him and handed him my camera phone.
Let's try this!It worked.
Later that day, I posted that photo on the Duck Hunting Chat, and the congratulations came pouring in from fellow duck hunters across the country.
One, who clearly didn't notice I was a chick, advised:
You should mount your first duck, bro. Something I wish I had done.That's when I had to confess that there had been a problem. A flood of laughter followed. But they all understood. It made me feel a little better. It wasn't that I didn't still feel like a monster for failing to dispatch this duck quickly - I did. But I knew this was something many fellow hunters had gone through. We laugh for the same reason all people joke at times like these: It provides relief.
Like most duck hunters, I wanted my first duck to be a Norman Rockwell moment. But as with most events we want to be picture perfect - job interviews, weddings and losing your virginity (especially losing your virginity!) - something went awry. And that's OK. Now I can laugh about it.
And, for better or for worse, it's still the story of my first duck ever.
© Holly A. Heyser 2007