The boyfriend and I had plans for the morning of New Year's Eve: We were going to head up to Amador County with our friend Evan to hunt rabbits, squirrels, pigeons, quail and pretty much anything else that moves.
But I'd had an unsettling hunt on Sunday where nothing seemed to work right for me, and I needed to hit my reset button. So I sent my boyfriend off to Amador with my best wishes, and packed my car for a solo hunt in a little flooded rice field north of Sacramento.
The conditions were not good. The weather forecast had called for a good north wind, but when I arrived just before 6 a.m., it was deadly still and clear as a bell - horrible duck hunting weather. Seven hours later, I would leave empty-handed, having never fired a shot.
But I would be just as excited about my day as my boyfriend was about this odd little strap of Amador County game (three rabbits, three pigeons and a squirrel).
Usually I'm pretty big on deferring to the advice of those around me - learning from their experience, trusting their judgment, following their orders.
But sometimes, I just need to figure some things out on my own - without advice or interference - and in that respect, my little day in the rice field was a huge success.
One of the things that has been bugging me about our rice field hunts is that there are fixed decoy spreads. That's one of the perks of our club membership: You don't have to haul out a ton of dekes, just the specialty dekes, like geese or standups. But I've always had the sneaking suspicion that those things are like billboards: Duck blind here - beware of hunters!
My goal had been to move the whole spread a bit and hunt from outside of the pit blind, but it was just too big of a job to manage before shoot time. So I shifted things around a bit and foraged for as much cover for the steel pit blind as I could find, pulling up clumps of grass and plopping them all around me to obscure the obviously manmade shape. Then I sat back.
There were a few flights of spoonies here and there, but no good shots to be had. And as the sun came up, I was starting to have a real problem.
On a bright day, I have to wear sunglasses or my eyes will be fried by the time I'm done. But I've had glare from my glasses flare birds many, many times, so I've learned to face away from the sun. Doing that, of course, ensures that ducks fly in from the direction of the sun, meaning I don't see them until they're speeding away from me. Maybe when I'm better at this I'll be able to react quickly enough to get those ducks, but I'm not there yet.
What could I do?
I needed netting over my face, but all I had was my decoy bag, and I could just see throwing that over my head and getting my gun tangled in it. That could get ugly.
I looked around me and noticed another hunter had left some pipe insulation in the blind - the flexible black polystyrene tubing that wraps around pipes to keep them from freezing in the winter.
I pulled it out, wedged the ends between the edge of the pit blind and the earth to form a small arch, then threw the decoy bag over it.
Wow! I couldn't see through it well enough to spot ducks, but it covered my eyes and let me search much more of the sky than I'd been able to see before. It was fantastic.
Lesson No. 1: Get some flexible tubing and buy more netting - cheap, lightweight, effective.
Now I could see the ducks better without flaring them, but I was still having a hard time closing the deal. Nice flocks of pintails were coming in for a look, but they were still were flying along the opposite check - about 75 yards from me - well away from my decoy spread.
What the hell, I thought. I'll just get up and sit on the other check. Since there's no one else back in the blind, and no other shooters in this field, we don't have to worry about shooting each other.
So I sat on the opposite check facing my blind and started hitting the pintail whistle hard.
It was getting to be midmorning - a deathly slow time at this place - but because it was so quiet, the sound of my whistle was really carrying, and I actually got some pintails to take a look.
Closer and closer they came. They whistled. I whistled back, each time altering the flutter of my tongue, the tension of my mouth, the duration of my whistle and the length of the slide tuner on my call (a Mickey Saso 8-in-1) until, by God, I sounded just like they did. I can honestly say I've never heard any other hunter sound so perfectly like a pintail.
Lesson No. 2: Remember this sound. It's perfect. They're totally responding.
Around and around they went, circling me, probably wondering where the whistling pintail on the ground was.
Lesson No. 3: Bring a couple decoys with you when you decide to go galavanting, you moron.
I could hear them getting closer, but I couldn't see them. They must be behind me. I turned my face a bit, hoping to catch a glimpse without catching the sun on my glasses.
Finally, I saw one out of the corner of my eye. It was in shooting range! But it was behind me, and the only way I'd get a shot would be to fall on my back and shoot from the ground, because there was no way I could stand, find solid footing and get in the correct position in time to shoot. Hold your fire, I told myself. Maybe they'll keep working and come around again.
But they didn't. That was it.
Lesson No. 4: Just shoot from the ground next time.
I looked back at my blind and admired my netting arch looked from a distance. Lord, it was beautiful.
Better get back to that blind, I thought, so I know I can stand, swivel and shoot if I can get these birds to come in again.
I started hitting that pintail whistle hard again, and sure enough, I got another group to come back for another look. That never happens in this place - we always watch them lift up, then settle back down, at great distance.
One hundred yards away. Across that check. Right where I'd been sitting.
They dropped into the water, about 75 of them, and started feeding and whistling away contentedly. Three more started coming in. I whistled at them, but they obviously preferred a large flock of moving, whistling ducks to a large flock of plastic ducks. They bombed in with the others.
I might be able to get out of my blind unnoticed, but there was no way I could walk across that water to get close enough for a shot without getting their attention. I whistled in vain for a while, then decided to call it a day. It was 12:30. Time to pack up and go home.
But it was an amazing day. I'd found a low-cost solution to my sunglass-glare problem. I'd perfected my whistle. I'd determined that the birds were much more willing to work away from the fixed spread. It had been a fantastic investment of my time.
When I hit the road, speeding toward my favorite burrito joint, I dialed up my boyfriend to see how he'd done. He was excited about his unusual small-game strap (read about his hunt and a good rabbit recipe here).
How'd you do? he asked.
I didn't get anything, I said.
Oh, I'm sorry!
No, I said. Really, it was wonderful!
© Holly A. Heyser 2008