Thursday was quite possibly one of the coolest days of my life - so amazing on so many levels that it's hard to figure out where to begin.
Perhaps it's easier to start with where it ended: Four women (three huntresses and one huntress-in-training), a well-traveled wooden wigeon decoy, four mallards, two teal, one wigeon and some really tasty burgers at the Stevinson Bar & Grill.
It started at 1:30 a.m. Thursday at Dana's house with four tired girls.
Dana and I had met at 4:30 a.m. the day before at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, spending about seven hours in a cold, windy, rainy, muddy marsh to bring home seven ducks - a drake spoonie and six scaup, which were the first scaup either of us had ever gotten.
Jen had driven in straight from Sacramento, leaving before midnight after a mostly futile attempt to get some sleep.
Hellen had been too excited to sleep much the past two nights, this being only the second time she'd gone on a hunt. She's not licensed yet, so she was just along for the ride.
How we all found each other ... well, that's a long story. Just click on the photo below to see the connections.
The reason for the ungodly hour of our meeting was that Dana's favorite hunting spot is pretty popular, and we really wanted to make sure we got it for an incredibly special hunt. It's not every day you have an all-girl hunt - even the two dogs with us were female. But today we had a special guest: Bald Pete, a wooden wigeon decoy who's traveled all over the country, floating all over the North American flyways in preparation for being auctioned off at a Ducks Unlimited fundraiser.
We were the second hunting party to arrive at the river. As soon as the other hunter was off, we all piled into Dana's boat and sped off up the river, our faces slapped by a cold, wet mist, our way lit by the waning moon.
Soon, we passed the place where the other hunter had set up. Dana shot me a thumbs up - we were in! We'd get our spot.
We arrived nearly five hours before shoot time, and that's when we learned that Dana knows how to live. Soon, she'd set up propane camping heaters, and about an hour before shoot time, she was making breakfast over one of the heaters - sausage and potato burritos! There is nothing quite like hot sausage and potatoes on a cold, dark morning. We ate them ravenously, then set up decoys.
We hadn't seen many birds flying as shoot time approached, and it remained quiet for a while, except for the sound of the yipping coyotes that seemed to be all around us.
Dana, Jen, Marzee (a black lab) and I sat in the front of the blind, covered by willow branches over our heads and a shield of grass and branches in front of us. Hellen sat behind us, kicking back on a huge log and shooting video from time to time. She was kept company by Sam, a yellow lab who joined us because she was in heat and driving the boy dogs crazy back home.
When birds finally started coming in, they worked cautiously, staying just out of shooting range. Finally, a flock of teal came in. We stood and fired. I downed one on my second shot, sending it tumbling through a nearby tree. Marzee leapt out of the blind and fetched her as I breathed a sigh of relief.
As a new huntress, I still don't hit birds nearly as much as I'd like to, and I define success as going home with at least one bird.
But I wasn't alone today, so success wasn't complete.
More birds started working, and some even came low enough to shoot at. But we were on a streak of bad shooting, so none dropped.
At one point, Dana needed to avail herself of the field behind our blind. "Great!" I said. "That always brings the birds in!"
She scooted over and spotted them.
"On the count of three, let's stand up and take 'em. ... One ... two ... three!"
We stood. The birds lifted. We fired. And fired. And fired. And finally one of them dropped on the other shore. Marzee sped off, scrambled around, and brought us the bird.
"Was that your shot?" I asked Jen. "I don't think it was mine."
Score one for Jen. Now it was Dana's turn.
We got a small group of mallards working, circling over us again and again, cautious after 15 weeks of being a legal target for the legions of camo-clad hunters. We stood and fired.
OK, Dana and Jen fired. I had that little problem I get from time to time where I press the safety really hard and wonder why my gun isn't firing, then realize I'm not actually pulling the trigger. Man, I hate that.
But Jen had downed a drake, and Dana had downed a drake and a hen. We got the drakes fine, but the hen was disappearing down the river. The dog searched the riverbanks and finally found the nearly invisible duck, bringing her back to us. Bravo!
"Is that a duck?" Dana whispered.
I looked. "No, I think it's an otter."
"Wait, are you sure that's not a duck?" Jen asked.
There was a hen-colored thing leading the wake.
"No," I said. "I'm sure that's an otter."
Then I looked up.
"But that's a duck!" I said, standing to fire at a bird that must have been equally distracted by the otter not to have noticed us gawking.
I fired. They fired. We all missed.
Oh, the shame!
But before long, we had another bird fly right down the river. We stood and fired, and I swear each of us hit the bird before he finally dropped. But he was what we really wanted: a drake wigeon, just like Bald Pete!
"Man, we all hit that!" I said when Dana took the bird from Marzee.
She looked around, saw her two mallards, Jen's teal and mallard and my lone teal, then handed the wigeon to me. Sweet!
We started talking about when we should leave. We wanted to meet Dana's hunting buddy, Dawnyel, for lunch. And all of us wanted to get some sleep.
We'd call it quits at 10:30, we said.
At 10:45, we said 11.
At 11, we said 11:30.
But there were no more birds. At least none that we hit.
A couple of Dana's buddies came motoring down the river, and she invited them to take our blind because we were leaving, and by the way, could they give her a lift to her boat?
"Leave your guns loaded," she told Jen and me as she hopped into their boat.
"Yeah, I'd like to get just one banded mallard," I said.
We all agreed I should do that, and Dana left Jen and me standing watch.
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Dana pulled up in her boat and began rounding up her decoys, and naturally, a group of mallards started working. I hit my wigeon whistle. Dana hunkered down in the water, chuckling on her mallard call.
The birds circled, then went behind us. Jen and I strained to see if they'd circle back. Then I looked forward and saw a lone mallard coming straight in for us.
"Take him!" I said, and we stood and fired.
He went down!
Marzee fetched him and brought him back to us and we all waited to see. Would our last shot of the day be made to order? Would he be banded?
But at least I'd go home with a mallard.
But there would be no more. We piled into the boat and off we went down the river.
We met Dawnyel at the Stevinson Bar & Grill, clomping in in our waders, unwilling to let anything get between us and our burgers.
As we ate, we discussed our grand plans for sleep.
Well, most of us. Not Dana. "I'm gonna go out again tomorrow," she declared. "Wanna go with me?"
"Are you nuts?" I said.
I was exhausted, and I had work to do, so I really couldn't. "But hey, more power to ya!"
Back at Dana's house, we did our own take on the traditional and usually unglamorous tailgate shots. This was Pete's only all-girl hunt, and it was important to document it thoroughly. For a group of women who'd started out so exhausted, we were remarkably full of pep.
It's pretty amazing what a good day of hunting with new friends can do for you.
As I was penning this tale, my phone alerted me to an incoming text message. It was Dana. She had just gotten back from hunting the same spot.
"Bill and I slammed all mallards," she wrote.
Hellen has now weighed in on her blog. Check out her really interesting perspective on the hunt here. In addition to her usual insights and wit, she has decided to share with you a picture of me drinking tequila in bed the night before the hunt. Ah, so flattering.© Holly A. Heyser 2008