The first year I hunted - all of two years ago - it was a mad dash through waterfowl season followed by a long dry spell. Waterfowling - and a little token upland game - was all I knew.
Year Two was different. I hunted and fished voraciously after duck season ended. Sturgeon, halibut, striper. Rabbits, doves, turkeys, pheasants. Feral hogs, Corsican sheep and deer. Successful more often than not.
I had changed; I was blooded in all the major types of game, no longer just a waterfowler. What would duck hunting mean to me now?
I found out on Saturday when I pulled on my waders for the first time since Jan. 27 and stepped out into a marsh as night began to give way to day.
Saturday was opening day of the 2008-09 waterfowl season in my region of California, and I found myself in a marsh on private property near Chico with Boyfriend, my friend Bob and a vegetarian named Kelly. I was lucky to be there - I had not been drawn in the lottery to hunt on public refuges, and had a good friend not been looking out for me, I might have had to stay home, glued to the Duck Hunting Chat to await reports of the day's hunts.
Our guide drove us across the ranch, deposited us at the edge of the marsh and aimed us toward our home for the day - a standup blind encased in dried grass, surrounded by patches of tules and a good stretch of open water. Covering us was a sky whose vastness would be broken that day only by a view of the Sutter Buttes, a volcanic scar on the otherwise pancake-smooth floor of the Sacramento Valley.
Bob and Boyfriend walked into the water first, followed by Kelly, then me.
The air was filled with ducks. And I don't mean the air as in what you see when you look up; I mean they were swarming around us like mosquitoes. Kelly and I could scarcely take a step without stopping to point at another flock crossing over, in front of or behind us. As we stood there, jaws agape, the birds started dropping into the water all around us like hail falling in a thunderstorm. One zoomed past Kelly just a few feet in front of her and landed to about five yards to our right. It was magical. We had to push ourselves to continue on to the blind to get in place before shoot time.
Oh ... you want to know why a vegetarian was in our hunting party?
Kelly had been a vegetarian since she was 12 because of a simple aversion to meat. And when we went to the Sierra Nevada Taproom in Chico for dinner on Friday night, she still wasn't interested in meat - she ate a portobello mushroom burger.
But she wanted to explore a bit more of the world around her and assess whether her dietary choice of childhood would stand up to review, and she planned to pick up a gun Saturday morning and take aim at her first duck ever.
Well, at least until we got in the truck at 6 a.m. to head out to the blind. She turned to me where we sat in the back seat and said, a bit wide-eyed, "I'm not ready."
"That's OK," we told her. "Do you still want to go out there?"
Yes, she said. She could watch; she just wasn't ready to pull the trigger.
So she sat with us in the blind, listening and watching as our guide called and Boyfriend, Bob and I took turns standing, shooting, cursing our misses, and cheering our hits as an old yellow lab launched into the water to retrieve whatever we downed.
It was a postcard-perfect opening day, so many ducks whizzing around that it was hard to focus on just one. And even when you could focus on one, all the old familiar calculations were still there: Quick, figure out the lead for a bird flying this speed and direction. Is that a small duck close or a big duck far away? If I pull the trigger, will it fall in a clump of tules so thick that we'll never find it, or will it drop in my lap?
And because I'm still pretty new at hunting and not the best shot yet: Mount the damn gun right, Holly. Owwwwwwwww, not on the collarbone! Cheek on the stock, moron! No bird, no bird ... oh Lord, now I've gone and disappointed the dog.
Even as I mowed through a box of Kent Fasteel No. 2s with embarrassing speed and moved onto the $2-a-shell Hevi-Shot, contentment washed over me. Beauty. Complexity. And the opportunity to redeem yourself gloriously as soon as a minute after your most recent embarrassment.
Swoon. I love this stuff.
Going into the day, I'd had fantasies of reaching my limit of seven ducks, not because I need seven ducks on the very first day of a 100-day season, but because I wanted to be good enough to hit that many.
Unfortunately, I am not. Blasting through probably about 35 shells, I hit five ducks - a wigeon and four mallards.
But my first mallard of the day was a real bruiser. Not that I'd know - I'd gotten only two mallards before this, and they both looked huge compared with the tiny teal and modest wigeon and spoonies I usually bring home. But everyone in the blind was awed, and they used words like "size of a barn" and "trophy mallard."
As the morning flight thinned out, the number seven was still dancing in front of me. I was like a gambler at the slot machines, saying to myself, "One more chance, one more chance, one more roll of quarters..."
But I could sense that everyone was waiting on me to declare the ceasefire. No one would've said a word to dampen my enthusiasm, but clearly folks were ready to go. Even me. I admitted that my milestone would have to come another day, and we packed up and left.
Was I disappointed? Not in the least. We saw the marsh at its most magnificent. We brought home a huge pile of food - 14 ducks in all, after Bob handed some of his to us, mumbling something that translated roughly as, "Enjoy the plucking, suckers!"
Which we did, for about three and a half hours. Turns out mallards take a lot more time to pluck than those lovely single-serving teal.
Still, it was a glorious day that reminded me why waterfowling is my true love.
I can't imagine hunting wild boar and bringing home all that food after shooting so embarrassingly. I can't imagine bringing home four or five deer after just one morning in the field. I can't imagine laughing at myself when a wily bull elk eludes my shot. When it's a duck, you know another will come along soon. And if it doesn't, you've got 99 days to keep trying.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008