The moment of my awakening Sunday morning found me grateful and eager. Grateful because my head felt fine despite staying up until 1 a.m. drinking wine with duck hunting friends. Eager because this could be one of the best days of the year.
It had been precisely 365 days since my colleague and friend Hellen had learned that I was a duck hunter and declared - without hesitation - "I want to hunt ducks!" And this was the day she would hunt.
Hellen, who's an English prof at my university, had been plugging away at this goal steadily. She started with two "training wheels" hunts. They were supposed to be opportunities to make sure she really wanted to do this before making the commitment of time and money. But it was obvious she never had any doubt.
For her first hunt - when I would take her to the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge - she bought a blind bag. For her second hunt - when she would join me, my friend Dana and her friend Jen on a river in the San Joaquin Valley - she went out and bought waders and a jacket.
In the spring, she and her friend Lucrezia went to a women's shooting clinic in Jackson. Over the summer, she did extra work at the university to come up with funds to buy a gun. In the fall, she took her hunter safety course and bought her hunting license and duck stamps. Earlier this month, she got her gun - a Beretta AL391 like mine. I raced to her house after work to help her assemble it, remembering how intimidating it was putting mine together for the first time.
All this brought us to Sunday, when she would take to the field as a huntress.
The weather was good - we had light rain and a good wind that would likely stir up the ducks while subjecting us to only moderate misery.
But I set her expectations low. It's hard hitting ducks that zoom along at 35 mph, and she hadn't gotten her gun fitted yet - a serious handicap for someone who's 5-foot-2 and shooting left-handed. My goal was simply to get her as much opportunity to shoot as possible, and to stay by her and tell her when it was safe to shoot.
Boyfriend and I met her at Delevan at 11 a.m. and even though there were eight or nine hunters ahead of us in line, we immediately got a blind that no one else wanted. "The hunter this morning got four ducks there," said Diane, my favorite DFG check station employee. I'd never hunted this blind before, but her word was good enough for me.
When we got there, we found big open water and a really dense oval clump of tules where we could hide. Good - if we sailed any ducks, it would be unlikely that they'd dive into cover where we couldn't find them.
Boyfriend took a spot on the west side of our big clump of tules, and Hellen and I set up on the north side, with me just a few feet from her right shoulder. The wind was at our back, the rain was pattering softly on our hoods and the motion decoy - a WindWhacker - was spinning about 15 feet from us, flashing black and white to simulate the wingbeat of a duck coming in for a landing.
I've got to say I'm not an expert at decoy placement, but something about our setup - and our position in that setup - was pretty good. Poor Boyfriend wasn't catching any breaks - the ducks flying on his side were flying high over him and bombing into a free roam area just to our south. But where Hellen and I sat, the ducks seemed inclined to come straight in, keying in on that WindWhacker.
Some would bank off before they got close enough, but we didn't have to wait long before something came into range. Two ducks were flying low and straight at us. I hit my gadwall call - man, I love that thing - and between meeps I prepped Hellen.
"Meep meep meep ... hold it, hold it, hold it ... meep meep ... OK, get ready, ready, ready ... meep ... OK, now, stand up!"
She stood. I ducked, knowing her shells were going to eject right in my face. She fired once, then paused for what seemed an eternity, and fired again. No ducks down.
Hellen was apologetic about letting ducks escape.
"Don't worry about it," I told her. "The goal is not to eradicate every duck on the pond - the goal is for you to get opportunity to shoot. It's OK if you miss - you're gonna miss a lot your first season."
Still, she wanted me to take the next shot, and that was fine with me, because I still need all the practice I can get too.
When a small group of gadwall came in, I stood, fired and hit one on the second shot. It sailed into a field on the east side of our pond. I locked my eyes where I saw it drop and charged across the water toward the field, relieved that at least part of my search would be on solid ground.
When I got there, I had to take just a few steps before I saw movement - a flapping wing, a futile attempt to escape. Awww, I hate that. I grabbed the bird - an enormous hen gadwall - by the head and swung her around twice to snap her neck. It was over.
I turned back toward our blind and held the duck high in the air. Hellen gave me the thumbs up, then retreated to her hidden seat.
And we went though the same drill again. Ducks on Boyfriend's side continued to frustrate him. Hellen took more shots and missed. A few spoonies came in and broke my way, not Hellen's, and I hit a hen. But she hovered high above us, refusing to fall. A resilient bird. I had emptied my gun, so Boyfriend backed me up, and she sailed straight back to that field.
Here we go again!
This time when I arrived, I didn't see movement, and that wasn't good. I was looking at a sea of dead grasses - some low, thick and yellow, others tall and brown, all of it drained of any vivid color under the gray sky. There were a million places where a brown duck could become invisible, either by dashing for cover and hiding deliberately or merely by falling dead with only brown feathers facing up.
I walked a grid, my eyes swinging in a left-to-right arc on the ground right in front of me, waiting to pick up any flash of not brown. No longer in the shelter of my tules, the wind was whipping a misty rain in my face, little droplets stinging my skin as I walked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The only white I saw was a few duck skeletons - probably other cripples that had sailed here with their last breath, never to be found by their human predators.
It was becoming apparent: I wasn't going to find her.
Crap! I hate losing ducks.
I made one last swing on the very edge of where she could have landed, and there was my flash of white, a wing splayed out. She was dead. Whew. Again, I held her up so Hellen could see.
When I got back to our little tule island, I told Boyfriend he should come over to our side, where the ducks were working better. He did, and of course, the ducks promptly started breaking perfectly where he had been sitting.
But they were still coming straight at us too. A group of three mallards was making a beeline for us, and I counseled Hellen between meeps on my call.
"Meep meep ... wait, wait, wait, wait ... meep ... OK, stand up now! ... SHOOT 'EM!!!"
She stood, fired once and missed. She fired a second time and was knocked back to her seat by the recoil.
She didn't see the duck fall.
"Hellen, you got one! You got one!"
She didn't react. Either she didn't hear me because she was wearing earplugs, or she didn't believe me. But I knew. I had seen where the duck had landed - out of sight, on the other side of our tule island - and I jumped up to go get it.
As I rounded the corner, I saw her duck on the water - head up. Green head up.
"Hellen got a greenhead!" I shouted back toward her and Boyfriend. Damn, it took me a year to get my first drake mallard.
I considered firing a shot on the water to make sure he didn't get away, but I didn't want to pepper Hellen's first duck with too much shot, so I just charged toward him. He dove under water.
But the water was only about eight inches deep, and he made the mistake of swimming my way - a blur of gray, like a very fat fish. I reached down, plucked him out of the water and took him back to deliver him to Hellen, who still didn't believe she'd hit a duck.
He was still alive. "Do you want me to finish him off, or do you want to?" I asked, holding him out.
"I'll do it," she said.
She held him as his body twitched, in awe of the big bird. I gave her a huge hug. Then I told her we needed to get back in our spots, because we didn't have much time left before sunset.
But that would turn out to be the last action we'd see. The final ten minutes of shoot time brought nothing but a peculiar light that seemed to come from the east, not the west. That and some enormous Vs of snow geese flying over us, just out of the range of our guns. At 4:48 p.m., we declared our ceasefire and began hauling in decoys.
That was not the end of our day. We had the ritual stop at Burger King just off of I-5 in Williams, where we would gratefully wolf down a hot meal. Then Hellen would follow us back to our place where I would show her how to clean her sodden brand-new gun, and where we would clean our ducks together: rough pluck, wax, gut, rinse, dry.
For one hundred days a year, this is my world, and now Hellen was a part of it. I don't think either of us could be happier.
Update: Hellen has blogged a bit now about her hunting prep and experience: Click here to read about the hunt itself (including how other hunters reacted to seeing an Asian female walk up to the check station alone), here to read about how that mallard became her $2,000 Christmas dinner, and here to see her accounting of how much it's cost her to become a duck hunter.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008