I don't consider myself a terribly suspicious person, but I must admit I feel like I've been paying for my pride over the past few weeks.
My duck season started spectacularly last month. I got five ducks on a gorgeous hunt on opening day (a personal record), and followed it up the next weekend with an even better six-duck day at Tule Lake.
I was shooting pretty darn well, and I was pretty pleased with myself, given the struggles I've faced in my first two years of hunting. I indulged in the luxury of thinking I'd turned a corner.
Perhaps I had. But the gods certainly didn't reward that thinking with any more blessings. Here's what my weekends have been like since then:
Sunday, Nov. 2: Afternoon duck hunt at Delevan. Got a few opportunities to shoot, but missed everything. Had an incredibly good opportunity to shoot at some teal whizzing by at light speed probably 15 yards away, but was too dumbfounded to shoot. Doh!
Saturday, Nov. 8: Pheasant opener. Club planted birds in rice fields. But farmer had plowed too heavily, eliminating most cover, and the hawks got more pheasants than we did. Boyfriend and I shot simultaneously at one bird, which took 20 minutes to track down. Turns out it had only one piece of shot in it, meaning one of us missed. Probably me. Did something awful to hip and knee and spent the next week in agony.
Sunday, Nov. 9: Morning duck hunt at Yolo Bypass. The worst flight I've ever seen - hardly anything moving. The only group that came in good shooting range escaped unscathed after our entire party emptied our guns in their general direction. "Now stay away!" I yelled at them as they sped off, laughing at us.
Saturday, Nov. 15: Pheasant hunt with Boyfriend's new boss and four other hunters. Two hunters didn't show up. The hunters with the dogs. Saw one pheasant while we were out feeding sheep before the hunt, and me with my gun nowhere in sight. Of course that was the only one we saw all day. Boyfriend did get a dove, though...
Sunday, Nov. 16: Turkey hunt at a Napa Vineyard where I got my first turkey last spring. Unfortunately, the turkeys had disappeared without a trace more than a month ago. Boyfriend did cook a nice wild game dinner that night, though...
Now, we expect duck hunting to be awful in November; the resident ducks are wary and the unwary northerners haven't come down yet. That's why we filled the month with pheasant and turkey hunts.
Not that we expected to do well on every hunt.
But, dang, this was quite a dry run.
So it was with my tail between my legs that I dragged myself out of bed at 5 a.m. Saturday to go pheasant hunting at the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve, about an hour southeast of here.
Our host would be someone we'd never met: Peter. Boyfriend, Peter and I have been emailing each other for months, kindred spirits in the newspaper business who found each other online and resolved to get together sometime. We were supposed to go frog gigging this summer but had to cancel last minute. When Peter invited us to Camanche, we leapt at the chance.
Now, normally I would expect a planted-bird hunt to offer decent shooting opportunity, but I thought no such thing Saturday morning. I stuffed my pockets with more shells than we could ever need, and we set out for what would probably be a nice long hike with guns over golden hills dotted with majestic oaks.
Right at the beginning, one pheasant lifted up on a hill hundreds of yards from us and settled down in the distance.
That'll be the only bird we'll see all day, I told myself.
We kept walking.
Peter's dogs, Asti Spumanti and Dolly, headed into a dried-up water hole and got all birdy on us. We readied our guns, but the rooster never flushed; the dogs just grabbed him and brought him to Peter.
Hmmmm... at least we got to see one up close.
Not five minutes after that, Peter's dogs flushed another bird from under a scrubby little willow, and I'll be damned if it didn't fly straight at Boyfriend. He fired; the bird fell.
"Next one's yours," he said.
Maybe 15 minutes later, the dogs flushed another bird. It broke in Boyfriend's direction. He fired; the bird fell.
"OK, next one's yours," he said sheepishly.
We walked up a hill and sure enough, the dogs got all birdy again. A rooster flushed, and we raised our guns. But it was flying up the gentle slope so low to the ground that we couldn't shoot without risking hitting Asti or Dolly, so we lowered our guns. When we scoured the area where the bird had landed, we came up empty handed.
Time to go back to the cars for water and to take off a layer of clothes. As we headed toward our cars, I declared that there would be a rooster waiting for us, right there in the parking lot.
Surprisingly, I was right.
Unsurprisingly, it was another hunter who flushed and shot that bird just feet from our cars.
I was getting that familiar grim feeling.
"Wanna go up into those hills?" Peter asked. "Sometimes the birds that get away go up in there, and a lot of hunters don't go after 'em."
"Sure!" I said. What's a little shoe leather?
We made our way up into less-traveled territory, but the sun was rising higher and the dogs were getting tired, and so were we. The morning hunt was scheduled to end at 11 a.m., and around 10:40, we conceded that we'd better angle back to our cars.
We straddled the hilltop, enjoying vistas that made me break out into song like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, only much less talented. Nice walk...
And then, Asti and Dolly perked up. "Holly," Peter said urgently, "They're getting birdy, move in!"
The rooster flushed before I could get as close as I wanted, but I raised my gun and fired. The bird tumbled.
My long dry streak had ended. And it had ended well: one shot, one bird. A modest take. And I hadn't embarrassed myself.
Well, there's still plenty of time to do that this season. And now I've got one more friend who can witness it.
Epilogue: To see what Boyfriend did with these pheasants, click here.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008