Delevan National Wildlife Refuge is the place where I learned to hunt alone last year. While my boyfriend was at work on Wednesdays, I would take advantage of my academic winter break, drive up Interstate 5 in the morning and see if I could get into a blind vacated by a morning hunter.
The folks at the check station got to know me because I stood out as the only female hunter hanging around. They'd try to get me into a good blind, and when I checked out at the end of the day, look at me expectantly, then with fallen faces, as they saw I was empty-handed. Again.
"Didn't you see any ducks?" they'd ask.
"Plenty," I'd tell them. "I just missed all of them."
This week, I returned for my first winter break Wednesday hunt of the year, but this one was really special: I had my colleague Hellen with me.
I blogged about her just before Christmas: Hellen is an English professor at my university. When she and I were at graduation, I'd mentioned I was a duck hunter. She pounced on me - she'd been wanting to learn how to hunt ducks, but didn't know anyone who could show her the ropes.
We began plotting immediately. I needed to get her on a hunt to make sure she really likes it before making the investment in gun, gear and hunter safety training. And to get her on a hunt, I needed to get her in waders and full camo. Fortuitously, my waders sprung a leak in the left boot the day after Christmas, so I bought a new pair. But I also bought some Shoe Goo to see if I could repair the old ones enough to at least let Hellen spend one day in them.
I told her I'd need to work on a jacket for her, but then she started sending me emails with photos of things she'd just purchased from Cabela's - waders and a jacket of her own. She was a madwoman! Two weeks ago, she didn't even know what Cabela's was. And she had not yet even watched a duck fall. But she was so certain she would want to hunt that she was already spending serious money. What's not to love about that?
We decided Wednesday would be the day, and as I prepared her in a series of emails for what conditions would be like, I was silently praying, "Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease don't let me suck when we're out there!" I wanted her to witness success and the good and bad that comes with it, and I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing.
As we headed up I-5, I pointed out enormous flocks of geese that stained the sky all around us.
"Where are they going?" she asked.
"Delevan!" I said.
When we pulled in and walked toward the check station, I spotted a small mixed V of snow geese and specklebelly geese flying low over us and stopped Hellen to show her the difference between the two: Specks have dark wings and darkish speckled bellies; snows were white with black wingtips. It's crucial information at Delevan these days: The speck season there is over; the snows are still legal.
"Oh, now you're showing people around here!"
I looked down and saw James, one of the many hunters I'd sat with waiting for blinds last January, talking about how hard it was learning to hunt.
I grinned. "Yup, now I'm the expert. Ha!"
Turned out there was no waiting - three blinds were available. I took one just south of other blinds I'd hunted in the past. I remembered watching ducks fly high over me and bomb into that blind. Perhaps we'd be so lucky today. We suited up and headed out.
It's funny - just two days earlier, I'd gone out to hunt alone so I could figure some things out for myself.
But as I explained to Hellen everything I was doing (starting with a lesson on how to fall in the water without getting soaked), I realized how much I'd learned from my mentors - primarily my boyfriend, who figured out duck hunting without any mentor at all - but also other friends we hunted with and total strangers I met on the Duck Hunting Chat.
How to get into a blind at the refuge. How to use Delevan's Island blinds, where you're totally exposed. Decoy placement. Sentinel geese. Winducks. Hiding gear. Directions ducks fly. Duck identification. Cupped and committed. Skybusters. Duck calling. Ear protection. Eye protection. How far shot travels. Stealth. Snack food. Remembering where partners are in your blind and stopping the swing of your gun well before you get to them. Wind v. no wind. Sun v. clouds. Watching ducks' behavior to see if anything looks out of place in your blind.
"It's a lot to learn!" Hellen said.
And the first thing Hellen learned firsthand Wednesday was how fast ducks fly.
I saw a spoonie drake coming right over the blind. Argh, my worst shot, straight overhead. I stood, fired, and missed.
Hellen was startled - she hadn't even seen him come in. Next time, I alerted her as another spoonie whizzed in. I stood. Fired. Missed. Didn't even take a second shot, he was speeding away so fast.
"They're so fast! And so small!" she exclaimed.
"Yeah, it's really hard to hit them," I said.
Three more times that happened. Five spoonies. Five shots. Five misses. Crap, it wasn't going to be another one of those days, was it?
I shifted position in the blind, trying to place myself where I'd have the clearest shot. I looked down at my watch: 3 p.m. Two hours to go. Things should start getting good now, I told her. Theoretically, anyway.
I saw ducks in the distance and hit my pintail whistle, exercising the call I'd fine-tuned on Monday. One was coming in from the south and looked as if he were going to pass about 20-30 yards in front of me. Perfect.
As he came closer, I crouched behind my batch of tules and carefully shifted my feet. Whistle, whistle, whistle. There he is!
I stood and shot. Missed. Shot again as he swung around to the north of our blind. Missed again.
Lead the bird, dammit! Lead! I told myself.
When I shot again, he tumbled.
"I got him!" I shouted, and charged out as Hellen watched. He was upright, but his face hung in the water. I'd hit him hard. When I got there, I picked up a gorgeous drake wigeon. Big. Beautifully colored.
And still alive. I grabbed him by the head and helicoptered him quickly to break his neck, and took him back to show to Hellen.
"He's beautiful!" she said.
Then, watching him twitch, she asked, "Is he still alive?"
I looked at him. His eyes were blank. He did not lift his head. "Nope, that's just nerve reaction," I assured her.
"Did you see me hit him?"
"No!" she said.
I had this blurry image in my mind of her standing stock still as I shot, facing me, not the duck.
But she'd passed the test. She had watched me finish him off, handled him as he twitched, and remained completely unfazed.
"God, I'm so happy," I told her. "I was really afraid I'd suck today!"
We got back into our positions again, and it probably wasn't 20 minutes before two more ducks came in on the same path. It went down almost exactly the same way: I stood. Fired. Fired again. Reminded myself to lead the duck. Fired again and watched her tumble.
"Yes!" I shouted.
This time Hellen had seen it.
I walked out and retrieved a large pintail hen. She'd dropped right where the wigeon had dropped, and her face, too, was in the water - a good sign. When I picked her up, she was dead.
What a relief! It had taken three shots, but when I hit her, I hit her right.
"Now I have to be really careful," I explained to Hellen. I'd have to make damn sure I didn't shoot anymore pintails, because the limit on them was one.
The bird action was really picking up as the sky over the coastal mountains to our west began to redden. Several more hens came in close, including one perfect shooting distance right over the blind. But I couldn't be sure they weren't pintails, so I held my fire.
Then we got strafed a few times by the really fast ducks - teal and bufflehead flying low over the water. They came in so fast that by the time I determined they were actually ducks, they were whizzing past me.
"Have you heard of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer?' " I asked her, referring to the TV show.
"Yes," she said.
"I want to be Holly the Bufflehead Slayer," I told her. "They don't even taste that good, but I want to be such a good shot that I can actually hit them."
As the final 20 minutes of shoot time passed, we were thoroughly investigated by some snow geese that liked our snow decoys, but couldn't understand why the decoys weren't talking to them. I have a snow call that I haven't learned to use yet, so I'd just have to get lucky.
I wanted them to come in for a landing, because that'd be the only way I'd get a killing shot - I didn't want to see anything sail off a mile into thick tules at sunset.
But without a call, I couldn't close the deal. And of course, while I was watching the geese, a pair of spoonies had snuck up behind me and landed 100 yards ahead on the water.
4:49 p.m. ... 4:53 p.m. ... 4:56 p.m.
"That's it?" Hellen asked.
"That's it," I told her, and we began pulling in the decoys.
When we checked out, I was triumphant. One of the Dept. of Fish & Game staffers, Diane, was waiting for hunters with a flashlight. I stopped my car, went to the back, pulled out my birds, and held them up high for her to see, doing a little dance.
"You got some!" she said.
"Yes!" At last.
Back at my house, Hellen stuck around for the dirty business, helping with plucking, learning about how we wax our ducks to remove the down feathers, and watching me remove head, feet, wings and entrails.
After I cut off the wigeon's head, she picked it up and cooed. "It's so beautiful!" she said as I returned to plucking. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw her casually flip it into the trash can.
She's going to make a fine huntress.
Check out Hellen's hilarious account of the hunt
on her blog - The Adventures of Hellek.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008