Sunday, November 23, 2008

Huntress hubris and the end of penance

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


Blessed said...

I'm glad to hear that your luck is changing and I know all too well how those dry runs go and feel...

Pheasants are such beautiful birds and they taste really good too! Hubby was up deer hunting where we used to pheasant and quail hunt before the populations diminished so bad that we just quit hunting them for awhile and while they didn't see any pheasants they did see quite a few quail so we're thinking it might be time to enjoy a little quail hunt or two again soon!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Pheasant has been my least favorite game bird, but that may be about to change. After a few years of dressing birds immediately in the interest of good hygeine, we are finally doing an experiment with hanging birds, un-dressed, for many days. I'm not looking forward to gutting a bird that's 4-5 days dead, but everyone says it brings out the flavor, so we'll see...

Terry Scoville said...

Good job on your Pheasant hunt.

As for hanging un-gutted birds, that is not for me. I hang mine gutted for up to a week with cold temps. I have heard that the English hang their birds the way you are trying.
Let us know the results.

Tom Sorenson said...

Ooh - I hope that it does change, Holly. Pheasant is my favorite game bird - check that, second favorite (hard to beat chukar hunting!) I think you're about to get back into the swing of it...a season that starts out so well then hits a dry spell - I see another great stretch coming your way. If not, at least I get to laugh as you turn your shots at ducks into warnings for them to "stay away." That was flat out funny!

Luck to you guys the rest of the year - I'm still waiting to pull my shotgun out for the first time this winter...and I call myself a hunter. I'm so ashamed!

Anonymous said...

Awesome job on the pheasant hunt and it sure sounded like you had a tough time for awhile. I know how you feel, I'm running through a dry patch at the moment.
It pays to keep a positive outlook and to be optimistic.

Glad it worked out.

Phillip said...

If you're not hunting, you'll never have a dry spell.

As far as pheasants, let me know if you're up for a morning in the fields in Suisun, and if you're willing to be patient with a dog-in-training, and I'll be glad to get you out there. They're not wild birds, but they fly good (no kicking them into the air) and usually hold well for the dog.

Cory Glauner said...

Great perspective on that pheasant pic. Good job.

sportingdays said...

I'd like to share a little insight on Nor Cal Cazadora and Boyfriend for the faithful readers of this blog since I had the pleasure of hunting pheasants with them Saturday.

First, combined, they killed three pheasants with three shots, none of the shots being particularly easy. Second, they both do all of their wingshooting with beautiful, fitted, 20-gauge shotguns, an especially sweet O/U in Boyfriend's case that I was hoping he might accidentally leave behind in my truck :).

I happen to be a huge fan of small-gauge shotguns since I believe they add immensely to the overall enjoyment and satisfaction of a hunt and require some discipline and skill by the shooter. These sub-gauges especially shine on a gamebird club like that we were hunting on Saturday where, in my opinion, a 12 gauge gun is unnecessary overkill.

Final point: There can't be more than 1 percent of all adult California duck hunters chasing waterfowl with a 20 gauge O/U such as Boyfriend. Think about that the next time you read about their duck hunting success.

They both deserve a tip of the camo/blaze-orange cap, I think, for their fine tastes in sporting firearms and their commitment to learning to be disciplined, ethical, successful hunters and shooters with these small gauges.

Josh said...

Alright for sub-gauges!

Anonymous said...

I love pheasant! We usually have it for Christmas dinner and it is yummy!

Glad to hear the dry streak has been broken. Sounds like you guys had a good hunt.

SimplyOutdoors said...

Pheasant is delicious. That is for sure.

This story made me miss one of the best dogs my family ever had. If she was in the field there wasn't a pheasant that was safe. She was the best dog and I miss her very much.

The bad luck streak I can relate to as well. It seems none of the whitetail deer in my vicinity want to cooperate with me this year.

Hopefully my luck changes just as yours has.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Terry: Boyfriend will write about the Great Aging Experiment - I'll give a shout-out when he does that.

Tom: Ashamed? Don't you kill elk with your bare teeth or something studly like that?

Phillip: Say the word, homie!

Cory: Thanks! I love, love, love photography. Shooting photos for Boyfriend's blogs (Hunter Angler Gardener Cook and his seafood cooking site) has given me lots of practice.

Sportingdays: You rock, man. LOVED your dogs too - not like my first pheasant hunt where the people near us spent the whole morning shouting, "Zeus! Zeus! ZEUS! ZEUS!!!!!!!!!!" to no avail. But really - Boyfriend's first shot not easy? That bird was about to do a lap-dance on him.

Kristine: When are you coming to Cali for some of Boyfriend's cooking?

Simply & Rick: I'm sending my end-the-dry-streak vibes your way. No promises though. The only 99 percent guaranteed good luck I have is getting to restaurants before the crowds. It's uncanny.

And Josh: How do those sub-gauges do on snipe?

Thanks, everyone, for celebrating my happy ending on Saturday!

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Yeah, I'd kinda hafta agree with Holly on that first pheasant: I was really shooting in self-defense because pheasant lap dances are notoriously painful...spurs, you know...

NorCal Cazadora said...

Why, HAGC, I thought you liked the spurs? Or was that the chaps? Never can keep that straight...

NorCal Cazadora said...

Update: For those who wanted to hear about Boyfriend's experiment with aging these birds - undrawn and in feathers - click here.

Josh said...

I hope you get to see how those sub-gauges do on snipe! Mine, not so good, but I'm hoping for better from y'alls.