Friday, December 21, 2007

Hunting with the girls

One of the best things about being a 42-year-old new hunter is the delicious, exhilarating sense of newness I get to experience all the time. It's like being a teenager again, only without the angst, doubt and raging hormones.

Thursday's hunt was a perfect example - a starburst of firsts for me - and it started literally with a journey back to my childhood: a drive down Highway 99 into the San Joaquin Valley.

Many of my more cosmopolitan fellow Californians disdain the Valley as a hot, smoggy wasteland. Having spent seven years of my childhood there in Tulare County, I view the Valley as an agricultural wonder filled with down-to-earth people and dotted with secret places where a person can revel in nature.

Wednesday night, I was heading back to that place to meet my new friend Dana, a woman from the Modesto area who's been hunting for 20 years and searching - mostly in vain - for other women to hunt with her. She found me through a hunting forum, Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors. This would be my first time ever duck hunting with a woman.

We met at a Chinese restaurant near my motel to get to know each other, and talk a bit about what I should expect the next day. It would be totally new for me - hunting on a river, reaching our location by boat.

"You probably have to shoot pretty high on the refuges, don't you?" Dana asked.

"Yeah, higher than I'd like to admit."

Her husband Bill gestured toward the wall on the opposite side of the restaurant - maybe 12 yards away. "The ducks are going to come in that close."

My eyes popped. What a delicious vision that would be!

But we'd have to start early if we wanted to see it. This was no assigned-blind situation like we have at the refuges where I hunt; the good spots where Dana hunts are first-come, first-served.

Seven hours later, we were on the road together - Dana, me and her black lab Marzee (the mom on the left). Today, it would be just the girls.

Dana zipped around this river like she knew every inch of it by heart, carefully piloting us through narrow openings that made me gasp, then whipping around bends that made me feel like I was on an amusement park ride - a good one.

We arrived at her favorite spot to find it empty, and promptly staked out our territory with a horde of mallard and teal decoys. Then we retreated to a blind fashioned from tree branches and brush with probably a good hour and a half to go to shoot time.

To non-hunters, the idea of hunting with someone you've never met before is pretty scary. I told my mom about it ahead of time, and she wondered aloud, "What if you don't like each other?"

"Mom, we're hunters. We have at least one shared passion to talk about."

And indeed, Dana and I didn't have anything to worry about. We shared the stories that all women tend to share, talking about what we do, how we met our husbands (OK, boyfriend, for me), her kids, our pets and how we became what we are today. Dana's an amazing and wonderful woman, no doubt about it, but I knew for sure she was my kind of girl when she told me she and Bill got married on opening day of the deer season and spent their honeymoon hunting.

As the sky began to lighten, it rained intermittently, and we ignored it. Rain and cold, Dana says, are the things that keep a lot of women from hunting - they don't like enduring the discomfort. To us, though, it was just the price of admission to a good hunt.

It was quiet at first, but some mallards started working. We had a loner coming in, heading straight toward our blind. She would let me take the shot.

"OK, wait ... wait ... wait ... "

Lord, I'd never had a duck come in like this. My heart was racing. I felt like a 16-year-old boy who was about to get to second base.

"All right, stand up!"

And that's when time slowed down.

I stood. Lifted the gun. Brought it back to my shoulder. Dropped my cheek on the stock. Put the duck behind the muzzle. Fired. The duck tumbled to the water. Marzee burst out of the blind. I pulled my gun back down. Tendrils of smoke floated upward from it. That beautiful smell...

Then I snapped out of my reverie. Where was the duck? I know it dropped. Marzee couldn't find it.

Dana and I scanned the water. I saw nothing. But Dana knew where to look. He'd gotten to the opposite shore. The dog being far downstream, Dana lifted her Benelli (shadowgrass - to match her outfit, of course) and fired, an insurance shot to make sure the bird wouldn't find a hiding spot in the grass. And then Marzee brought back my duck.

"It's my first mallard ever!"

Dana grinned back at me.

What a sweet moment!

It turns out Dana has a knack for delivering firsts. A couple weeks ago, a hunter came out to buy one of Marzee's pups and when Dana took him hunting, he got his first banded bird.

A few minutes later, Dana had another chance to deliver a first when she brought in three wood ducks. She fired. I fired. We missed. Oh well, that first will have to wait another day.

We got only one more chance to shoot that morning. Dana was out moving the decoys around, and this hen wigeon drifted in over the blinds, fluttering like a butterfly. I caught Dana's eye and pointed up, and she dropped down low so I could shoot.

Flutter, flutter, flutter ... and finally the wigeon got far enough from Dana that I could take a shot. Boom! She dropped.

As the day went on, the ducks just stopped flying. We stuck it out, and talked about anything and everything before conceding it was over just after noon.

Dana seemed worried that it hadn't been much of a hunt for me. But I couldn't have been more pleased. I'd fired four shots and downed two birds. I'd gotten my first mallard. I'd experienced the beauty of having a retriever hand me my duck for the first time. I'd gone hunting with a woman for the first time. And I'd made a new friend.

After we left the river, Dana took me to an area taco truck - the finest dining possible for anyone wearing wet waders. I walked into the market next to the truck to get a soda, and the woman behind the counter eyed my hat, a camo cap with "California Waterfowl Association" embroidered on it.

"You a duck hunter?" she asked.


"Did you have a good day?"

"Yup," I said, grinning ear to ear.

She smiled back at me. "Good!"

© Holly A. Heyser 2007


Anonymous said...

Well told, Holly!

I figured ya'll would have fun. Too bad there weren't more birds flying, but that's how it is sometimes... you still made the best of it and that's the main thing. Plus, your first greenhead!

Anonymous said...


I'm so glad the hunt worked out and you had a good time. Sounds like a great day.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, to both of you! As far as I'm concerned, it was a glorious day, though I sure wish some more ducks would've come in for Dana to shoot at. I did feel bad that I got the only shot at the last bird that came within range. I tried all my surefire tricks for bringing in more birds - pouring tea, wandering off to take care of business - but they didn't work.

But she and I are already conspiring to hunt again. There's always another day!

Windyridge said...

What a wonderful story! Quite a few women hunt around here, but i generally go with my husband or alone.

The part about the newness and feeling 16 again was right on. Lots of new discoveries to be had.

The Hunter's Wife said...

Sounds like both of you had a good time. Great story.