Friday, October 31, 2008

For women: Gearing up for duck season

Of all the challenges facing a woman who wants to learn to hunt, which one is the toughest? Not learning to shoot. Not buying a gun. Not taking hunter safety. Not even facing the incredulous stares of men.

Nope, the toughest part is finding hunting clothing that fits, and no where is that problem more striking than in the arena of waterfowl hunting.

There's actually a fair bit of women's hunting clothes for big game, safari and upland game hunting - just check out the Women's Hunting Clothing list on the right side of this web page. But you won't see much from those companies for waterfowling.

There is, of course, a reason for that: There are just 131,000 adult women waterfowlers in America, compared with 2.2 million men waterfowlers. More than twice as many women hunt small game (presumably needing upland clothes), and nearly eight times as many hunt big game. (Click on the chart to the left to see it in detail.)

Through this blog and my volunteer work for California Waterfowl, I find myself constantly talking to women who want to go duck hunting and need advice on how to gear up. My answers are never satisfying, because they often involve advice on how to get by with men's gear.

But once a woman has decided she wants to join the world of duck hunting, nothing can stop her. If you're one of those women, this is my advice for you.



Gear: The total package

For the sake of this post, I'm going to assume that you have a gun, a license and a friend or mentor who can take you out into the field and handle the duck calling. That means all you need to worry about is clothing, which means waders, jacket, undergarment and a few accessories that make a woman's life in the blind much more comfortable.



Waterfowl waders

There are precious few waterfowl waders made for women. Cabela's makes some (click here), as does Ducks Unlimited (click here to see a model my friend Susan was checking out the other day). Based on conversations I've had with folks at Cabela's since I wrote about my recent shopping trip there, I can tell you they're very interested in improving their product offerings for women, which is good news for us.

But unless you're very lucky, you're not gonna find this stuff in your local hook-n-bullet store. You will have to order your waders online, which means you need to know what the return policy is because you can't try them on until your credit card has been charged and the package has arrived. For a hilarious account of my friend Hellen's experience with that, click here.

If you are pretty small, children's waders may work for you. And if you are tall, pregnant and have big feet, men's waders will fit you pretty well. (I'm two out of three of those, and NO, I am not pregnant - I'm 43 years old, people!) But you have to watch out for some problems with men's gear.

If you have a womanly figure - I'm talkin' about that generous hip and thigh that gives us those lovely curves - I can tell you that Hodgmans aren't a good choice. When I was first shopping for waders, I tried on Boyfriend's Hodgmans and hated them because they were so tight on my butt and thighs. They're made for guys who are all gut and no butt.

I ended up with Columbia Backwaters, which have way too much room in the gut for me, but plenty of room for the curves I do have.

One very important note about waders: When you try them on, pay attention to where the buckle sits - you'll often find it's right where you need to mount your shotgun, and I can tell you that has wrecked some shots for me out in the marsh. Why is the buckle there? Because men's waders are made for taller people, which means they come up pretty high on us, and that's the only place left for the buckle.

Cabela's makes women's waders with a Velcro strap (see the photo at the top of this post). But if you don't have those, you might find that you need to leave one buckle undone, hip-hop style, during your hunts. That or break out your sewing machine and replace the buckle with Velcro.

Terry Scoville at the Women's Hunting Journal has another tip: Avoid waders with a steel shank in the boot, because that steel makes your feet awfully cold.

And if you're waterfowl hunting without waders (something I have never done, but I know it happens), she has a boot recommendation for you here.



Waterfowl jacket

There are two basic kinds of waterfowl jacket: One that goes outside/over the waders, and one that tucks in.

When I started duck hunting two years ago, I bought a Gamehide outside-the-waders jacket. It is a fantastic jacket - quiet, water resistant, removable fleece liner and loaded with useful pockets. But I had two problems with it.

The first was that where I hunt most often, I usually end up standing, sitting or crouching in the marsh, and I found the bottom of my jacket - including the pockets filled with shells - was dipping in the water all the time. If you think you'll be hunting in a place like that, get an inside-the-wader jacket. But if you know you'll be hunting out of a dry stand-up or pit blind, or out of a boat, the over-the-wader jacket is fine.

The second problem I had with my jacket was size. It was a men's medium, which turns out to be the smallest men's jacket most companies make. That meant I had way too much loose fabric, and I found it was really messing up my gun mount by snagging the butt of my gun.

So what's a woman to do?

Again, if you're small, try children's jackets. If not? Improvise.

There are also precious few women's duck hunting jackets. Cabela's makes an over-the-waders model (click here), but I haven't found any women's inside-the-wader jackets.

Fortunately, I recently met a student at my university, Matt, whose girlfriend is a duck hunter, and he told me that Drake makes men's smalls. Drake, it turns out, has a very broad offering of waterfowl jackets, so I was able to find exactly what I needed there. The men's small is still a bit large for me, but it's the best fit I can find.

And side note, Drake customer service rocks. I recently ordered this jacket and chose shipping that would get it to my house before I left for a Klamath Basin hunt. The next business day - a Monday - I got notice that it wasn't in stock. Yikes! Now it would be really hard to get something in time.

But I called customer service, and the guy told me they had the same jacket, same size, in a different camo pattern (Mossy Oak Duckblind), so I took it, and he rushed the shipping to get it to me before I had to leave for my hunt. Good people! Nice jacket too - I love it.



Staying warm

One of the things that makes waterfowling especially tough on women is the cold and damp. Our extremities seem to get colder than men's, and because the cold doesn't seem to bother men as much, they often don't have advice for us on how to deal with it.

But it bothers me, and I can tell you there are a couple things you can do.

Undergarments - shirts and leggings. Your options here are numerous because you can wear cold-weather hiking or running gear - it doesn't have to be for hunting. The important thing is that it's warm, and that it wicks sweat (which running and hiking gear does well). I have plenty of good stuff because I once trained for a marathon during the winter in Minnesota. Gotta love those 10-mile runs when it's -1 outside.

But I recently succumbed to gear lust and bought something my friend Dana recommended: the Cabela's women's union bib. This will keep your legs and torso warm, and it has one added feature that you may really appreciate in an icy wind: the Quick Relief System, which is Cabela's language for a girl fly, a second fly that opens up the crotch of the pants.

What that means is you can pull down your waders to take a leak, but you don't have to bare your butt - you just unzip. Now, I'm not averse to doing what I have to do out in the marsh. But I can tell you I've done one hunt that was so icy cold and windy that I called it quits for the day so I could pee in a portapotty rather than bare my butt in that wind. I could handle 30 seconds of discomfort if it were just that, but I knew once I did that, I would never warm up again for the rest of the hunt. Never again, baby - I'll wear these next time I'm hunting in those conditions.

Another tip for taking a leak that a reader on the Duck Hunting Chat has reminded me about: If you think you might not have access to toilet paper, just wear a pantiliner. It'll get you through the hunt without that I-just-peed-my-pants feeling.

Terry Scoville has reviewed some other undergarments in her Women's Hunting Journal - here's the Icebreaker 260 Tech Top review.

Socks. This is easy - buy warm and breathable Smartwool. It doesn't have to be camo - any hiking socks will do, and you can buy for whatever temps you're hunting in.

Gloves. I prefer "glomitts", a fingerless glove that has a mitten flap that you can wear over your fingers most of the time, then push away when it's time to shoot. A friend of mine swears by her neoprene gloves, which allow her to push just her trigger finger out of a small opening when it's time to shoot.

But be warned: Many women need a men's small, and it's not always easy to find men's small gloves.

And truth be told, any gloves are an imperfect solution for cold fingers. Why? I'm constantly taking them off to retrieve or handle wet ducks, and once my fingers get cold, they stay cold. That's why I've started using...

Air-activated warming packs. I recently bought some in preparation for that Klamath Basin hunt, which I knew would be colder than my usual October hunt. These are easy to find at your local hook-and-bullet store.

Footwarmers line your wader boots just like any insole insert, and while they don't make your feet blazing warm, they really do stop the cold coming up from the ground, boat bottom or water. This is a problem I've had even in moderate weather. I hate cold feet. One note for women with small feet: The ones I've gotten are one-size-fits all, meaning they're women's size 9. I'm not sure how they'll work in a smaller boot - and I do know you're not supposed to trim them.

Handwarming packs are great too, but it took a little longer to figure them out. Last year a friend shared some with me, and when I put them inside my gloves, I felt great. Then when I took my gloves off to retrieve a duck, my warming packs went flying out into the marsh. Brilliant.

Last weekend, though, I got the hang of it: I just put the hand warmers in my wader bib pockets, and when I wasn't shooting, I shoved my hands in my pockets and my fingers warmed right up. This allowed me to remove my gloves earlier in the day and never get what I dread: fingers so icy and stiff that they can't work the gun.

Don't forget a cap. I did when I first wrote this post, but a reader alerted me to her favorite - an Elmer Fudd-style number - with ear flaps and all! - from Cabela's. It's not a women's cap. But I think we can all agree that caps are pretty gender-neutral.

***

So, that's my duck hunting gear line-up. I would love to hear from other duck huntresses about anything I haven't mentioned here: women's duck gear you've found, mens' or children's gear that works pretty well for you or tricks you've learned for staying comfortable in the marsh. Just hit the comment link below, or click here to send me an email.

And if you know a woman who wants to go duck hunting, please pass this along. The more of us there are, the more market demand we create, the more manufacturers will make just for us.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Road trip: A girls' duck hunting getaway

It could've been any old girlfriends roadtrip: Two women in a packed SUV heading north on Interstate 5, taking so many stops on the way that a five-hour drive became, literally, an 11-hour journey. Drop off the dog here, breakfast there, store here, another store there, lunch at the headwaters of the Sacramento River, bird-watching...

The only tipoff that this wasn't your ordinary girls trip was what was in the car: shotguns, camo and ammo. Lots of it. Tracey and I were headed to Tule Lake for an early season hunt.

You don't actually have to go that far from where we live to hunt ducks, but Tracey’s colleague Brent has become something of a hobby guide who specializes in taking women waterfowl hunting, and he'd invited us up for the weekend.

He had a boat, a black lab named Sage and a single-wide he calls home during duck season, and he knew the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges like the back of his hand. Who could say no to that?

The only thing I had to worry about was my shooting.

Of course, that was no small fear given that I fired my first shot as a hunter less than two years ago. I dream of great shooting, but somehow that vision has a way of evaporating in the field far more often than not. So I usually approach each hunt with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

But this trip was different, and that had to do with where we were.

I've been all over this enormous state, but I had never been to California's upper righthand corner, and I didn't know what to expect.

We headed up I-5 through my golden Sacramento Valley - the location of every duck hunt I've ever been on - and climbed into the green, forested mountains after passing Redding. We hung a right at Mount Shasta, and very quickly the coniferous forest morphed into a stunning high-desert volcanic landscape.

Now, my section of California is shaped by plate tectonics - you can clearly see the straight-line ridges and valleys that give away the locations of fault lines.

Volcanic regions are something else entirely - broad, gently sloped valleys ringed by perfect single-cone mountains and interrupted occasionally by old lava flows that had gushed out of a mountain and hardened in place, like very thick paint spilling from a can. In the high desert, everything is covered with pale green sage brush and sticky-looking scrub, and you can just feel how every plant you see has become an efficient user of what water it can get.

But the Klamath Basin isn't just a pretty geologic feature - it's got some interesting history. The basin was once filled with water, the 96,000-acre Tule Lake and an 88,000-acre lake-marsh complex in the Lower Klamath Basin. But following the misguided wisdom of the day, the U.S. Reclamation Service started draining it in 1905, clearing vast swaths of agricultural land that are farmed to this day, producing root crops such as potatoes and horseradish.

There's still water, though - about 25 percent of what used to be there - and the basin is an important stopping point in the Pacific Flyway. It's a staging ground for birds that will later come down into the Central Valley and a winter refuge for a fair number that stick around Klamath.

At the end of our long drive, Tracey and I zipped across the Oregon border to meet Brent in Merrill, a tiny town where storefronts actually have signs that say things like, "Welcome Hunters!" Take away hunting and agriculture and this town would probably dry up and blow away inside a year.

Brent's home was a virtual museum of hunting oddities. First, there was the enormous ring of bands hanging on a lampshade. Tracey and I marveled at them, and he casually mentioned that there were many more - he just hadn't gotten around to stringing them up. Then he showed us a band from a bird that he had banded himself. Then he showed us one of those $100 bands that Hunt, Eat, Live! wrote about the other day.

Then there were the ducks. OK, lots of hunters have taxidermied ducks, but Brent's were just plain weird. There was the funny looking pintail that turned out to be a pintail-mallard mix. Then there was a palomino-colored mallard-domestic mix. And another mallard mix - maybe wigeon? I'm losing track now. But the theme was clear: Those mallards are wild and crazy ducks.

Perhaps the oddest of all was a Canada goose with a waddle - like a goat waddle - hanging from its chin. Brent speculated that it had been damaged as a fetus; Tracey thought it was one of those partially formed conjoined twins - just like the one on Nurse Gollum in that episode of South Park! Of course, I neglected to take a picture of it, so you'll just have to settle for Nurse Gollum here.

After the introductions to the dead duck collection, we wandered over to the neighbor's place for some delicious venison tacos. What else would we have? Everyone in this place hunts, and you just don't find a lot of meat in polystyrene trays there.

The wine was great, the conversation was great but we didn't stay long - our alarm would go off at 4 a.m. the next morning, and it was time to get some sleep.

***

At oh-dark-thirty, every duck hunt looks the same. Groggy people stumbling around in camo, their hands stuffed into their pockets to ward off the chill as they wait for the morning draws to be announced. Pile into the truck, zip out to the boat ramp, then zoom out to the perfect spot that you never tell anyone about, watching the reflection of the stars rippling in the boat's wake. Set up dekes. Make quiet small talk in the boat while you wait first for shoot time, then for the flutter of wings that tells you: Game on!

The night before, Brent's neighbors - Gina and Murray - had told us what a stellar caller Brent was, that he knows exactly how to talk to the ducks. Hunting puffery? No. This man really had a way of bringing them straight into the boat.

"This one's your's, Holly."

Coming in, coming in, coming in, almost floating like a butterfly...

I stood calmly, mounted the gun to my shoulder perfectly, dropped my cheek on the stock snugly, put the bird behind the muzzle, pulled the trigger...

Poof. Drop. Plop - dead on the water, about four feet from the boat. Instant death, the merciful death I pray for because nobody wants to watch them suffer.

Sage burst out of the boat and retrieved the bird, swimming around to the other side of the boat to hand it to Brent.

Good girl!

I dug in my bag for a liver treat. I don't have a dog myself - as we say in our house, "We are the dog." But I keep liver treats on hand to reward dogs that do my work for me, when I'm lucky enough to hunt with them.

Wigeon. Pretty little bird.

I was filled with the warm glow that follows a rare perfect shot. It's a lot like the feeling of contentment that follows rollicking, good sex. Somebody get me a cigarette, quick...

Of course, it was my only duck of the day. Brent brought in plenty more birds, but he and Tracey were doing all the hitting. And we had a rash of really bad luck, losing three birds in thick tules where even Sage couldn't find them.

Oh well - with only three ducks to pluck, we'd all have time for a good nap before dinner.

***

Truth be told, I was discouraged by my shooting on Saturday, after that one perfect shot. It was the same old thing - miss after miss after miss.

But Sunday morning, I had a good feeling. I packed the tripod in Brent's truck so I could use my remote control to take a picture of all of us together at the end of the hunt. A dangerous temptation of the fates.

On this day, we would be hunting out of pit blinds in the middle of flooded grain fields. Brent had heard a lot of shooting from this direction on Saturday, and he wanted to give this area a try. When we launched the boat, we could hear them everywhere - mallards, pintails, wigeon, teal. It sounded promising.


And as the sky began to lighten, we could see the landscape was stunning. Normally when you hunt ducks, you establish points of reference so you can alert your hunting partners where the birds are coming from. This is 12 o'clock, this is 6 o'clock, etc.

Here, our reference points were much more beautiful. Mount Shasta. The dome. The pyramid. The petroglyphs. The silo. The willows.

Shoot time arrived in dead silence, but pretty soon the birds started coming in - not like my hunts where I'm lucky to bring them in range for a pass shot, but straight to the blind - so close you could see them scanning the water to find the source of that magical calling.

Brent got the first duck of the day, and then the birds started really piling in.

On Tracey's side of the blind.

Maybe I wouldn't need the tripod and camera remote control at all.

But I was having a good time anyway, because as soon as the sun came up, we heard stirrings in the blind.

"There's a mouse in here!" Tracey announced.

We all looked down.

"No, there's two!" I said.

Wrong again. Actually, there were five. Brent and I donned gloves and chased them around the little pit blind to see if we could eject them. We really didn't want any of them hitching a ride home in our bags.

I got off my stool and found three of them were already forming a nest under the legs. Clomp! "Gotcha!" Out they went.

Wait, what's that sound? Frog. My, my, busy place, this blind.

Click on photo to enlarge

While all that was going on, something strange happened: The birds shifted directions and they all started coming in on my side.

Shoot. Drop. Shoot. Drop. Shoot. Drop.

Holy crap, I had never shot like this!

Not all perfect shots. Some I dropped in one shot. Some took my more usual - and embarrassing - three shots. At one point, Brent was off with Sage retrieving a bird, and a pair of teal came in. Tracey and I dropped both just a few feet in front of us.

By 9:30 a.m. I had downed six birds, a new record for me. Four wigeon, one greenwing teal and a greenhead. Tracey and Brent had brought in another six.

We couldn't hunt all day because we had a long drive ahead of us, but I didn't care. This was, for me, an embarrassment of riches. Now all I have to worry about is whether I've become spoiled in the last two weekends of waterfowling, or whether I really am getting better at this.

I'll find out soon enough, because it's duck season - game on!

Tracey, Brent, Holly and Sage after a great hunt at Tule Lake.
Good thing I packed the tripod and remote!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hunters: Helping the critters we hunt

Interesting confluence of events: Just Monday morning, a non-hunter commented on my weekend blog post, asking whether hunters care about the animals that we wound and lose. We actually had a great discussion about it in the comments section, well worth reading.

Then this morning, I'm going through my news alerts, and what do I find but this story from an Omaha TV station, WOWT, about a duck hunter trying to rescue a duck that's all tangled up in fishing line.

The hunter, Felix Recek, had been trying to help the bird, and his daughter called the Nebraska Humane Society. Now, regular readers know I'm not a fan of the Humane Society of the U.S., which has a vigorous and often disingenuous anti-hunting agenda. But many local humane societies are actually dedicated to helping animals, and this one used the opportunity to tell the public that leaving trash out in nature can really harm wild animals. Good call.

The TV reporter, of course, focuses on the fact that the man trying to help the duck might normally be shooting at the little guy. It even shows a picture of Recek wearing a strap of ducks from a successful hunt. I think any non-hunter would find the juxtaposition just as odd.

But there isn't a hunter out there who would find Recek's explanation odd: "I'm a duck hunter," he tells the reporter. "But I don't like to see animals suffer."

One of my students, Karina, came to me last year with the same confusion. She'd just married a duck hunter, and she was astonished one day when they were driving someplace and he screeched to a halt. Ducklings were crossing the road. He quickly got out of the car and herded them to safety.

Karina couldn't wait to tell me the story. "I don't get it, Holly. He's going to kill them later," she said.

I explained that just because we kill some animals certainly doesn't mean we hate them. What it usually means is that we have heightened awareness and concern for the overall well-being of wildlife. She took my word for it, but I could see she didn't understand.

In one more odd confluence of events, though, Karina came to my office Monday afternoon at the precise time she could catch both me and Boyfriend there. She was, once again, breathless. She looked like she was about to burst.

"I went duck hunting this weekend!" she said.

She had gone out with her hunter husband on opening day to see what it was he loved so much about it.

"What did you think?" we asked guardedly.

"I LOVED IT!" she exclaimed. "I want to hunt!"

I think she's starting to get it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

After the kill: Eating the WHOLE duck

Sometimes I accidentally create the illusion that I am a master game chef, just by writing about how well Boyfriend and I eat.

In reality, though, I'm merely the No. 1 Food Photographer and Taste Tester for the real chef in the house: Boyfriend.

Boyfriend does lots of fabulous food writing in his blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, all the time. But today's post is something I wanted to share because it goes over how to eat the whole duck.

It's something we're asked about all the time, particularly when I do things like post photos of piles of duck feet and innards, as I did in this weekend's story of our opening day hunt. So if you've been dying to know what happens to those feet, now's your chance to find out. Just click here.

And speaking of that opening day post, if you haven't checked out the comments section on that one, it's worth going back to take a look. We had quite an interesting discussion after an anonymous non-hunter weighed in to ask how hunters feel about crippling and losing animals. I think we all came out of it with a little more understanding for each other, and a good reading list for people who want to understand the minds and hearts of hunters. Good stuff!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Waterfowl: Just first love, or love for life?

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.


Our take - plus gifts from Bob - for Opening Day 2008: a pile of ducks, a collection of offal that Boyfriend will transform into something wonderful, and a container of duck feet that will enrich our broths with duck-flavored collagen.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Jamie Gonzales

The past few days here have been hell.

Publicly, I've been writing about joy in the face of waterfowl season's beginning on Saturday. But the world outside of this comfortable blog has been filled with unimaginable grief.

One of my former students - an editor at our student newspaper - died Tuesday night. Jamie Gonzales was diagnosed with rectal cancer this spring, and doctors quickly found that it had already spread to her liver. The cancer stole her away from us with lightning speed. She was just 25.

Jamie had a boyfriend James. That's them together in the photo above. They were together the entire time I knew her, a rock-solid couple. When doctors said she had probably two years to live, he did not run away; he proposed to her, and they bought a house together.

Her goal was to get married next year. Her dream wedding? A NASCAR wedding. Jamie loved NASCAR. Then a couple weeks ago, her doctors told her that a summer of chemo hadn't worked, and she had less than two months to live. Jamie wrote about it here in her cancer blog. She moved wedding plans up to November. Her friends rushed to plan a bridal shower for this Saturday.

On Monday, she developed an infection and her doctor said her body wouldn't be able to fight it. She had less than a week. The Saturday bridal shower was pushed up to Thursday night, and it would be for all her friends from the newspaper, not just the girls.

One of the newspaper photographers and I went to see her after school on Tuesday. Our friend Jamie was almost gone. Through morphine and pain, she could recognize us for a few moments at a time. We held her tiny hand and told her we loved her. Jamie brightened for a moment each time we said it. She died a few hours later.

As a former newspaper reporter who's written my share of obituaries and talked to plenty of loved ones left behind, I know that the death of a young person is always more difficult than the death of an old one who's lived a full life. But for some reason, I was completely unprepared for how this would feel. I knew it was coming. I thought I was ready. I wasn't.

So we've all come together, everyone from the student newspaper, to comfort each other in whatever way we can. We're not sure how, but we're going to try.

And for my part, I'll be thinking about Jamie a LOT this hunting season. Jamie loved wild game. One of her uncles is a hunter. When Boyfriend came home once with more elk than we could eat, I took packages of it to school, and Jamie was thrilled to take home an armful to eat with her boyfriend. Her favorite preparation for any hunk of meat was to marinate it in beer and cook it however, and that's what she did with the elk.

When she was in the hospital the first time this spring and couldn't eat solid foods, I took her a Thermos of wild game broth. I don't even remember what kind, but she appreciated it.

Nate Miller, the student who was editor in chief for Jamie's last year at the newspaper, has spearheaded efforts to start a memorial scholarship in her name. My boss tells us that if we raise $25,000, we could have a self-sustaining scholarship that will contribute $1,000 a year toward one of our student's education. It is a poor substitute for a human friend, but one of the best ways to ensure Jamie is remembered by generations to come, and I'm proud of Nate for doing this.

So, dear readers, I know the economy sucks right now. But if you have it in your heart and your wallet, maybe you could send a few bucks to help get us started. I know it's a lot to ask of people I've (for the most part) never met. But it's really the only thing I can think of to do at the moment. Because Jamie's gone, and nothing can change that.

If you're interested, you can make checks payable to "University Foundation of Sacramento State," and to ensure your money goes to the right account, write "Jamie Gonzales Memorial Scholarship Fund" in the memo line. Checks can be mailed to:

The Jamie Gonzales Memorial Scholarship Fund
c/o The State Hornet
Sacramento State
6000 J St., University Union-2nd Floor
Sacramento CA 95819-6102

And if you can't send money, we'd be equally grateful for your prayers. Jamie will be fine now, but her family and her fiance have a tough road ahead.

Jamie on the left, with fellow graduates Brandon, Ben and Amy in 2007

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, October 13, 2008

Deer hunt: Me, Trailfeathers and ... OMG!

You'd think with all the animals I've hunted so far - ducks, geese, pheasants, doves, pigs and Corsican ram - that I'd've bagged a deer by now.

Until this weekend, though, I had never hunted deer at all. I just couldn't fit it into my schedule.

What changed it? This summer, I went to my mom's house up in the Gold Country foothills to help her with a little roofing project, and when we were done, we decided to take a walk around the less-traveled portions of her property. And what did we see?

Poop. Massive piles of deer poop. Obscene amounts.

"Mom, can I hunt here?"

"Oh, sure." Mom never lets me down.

This weekend, it was time. And boy was I lucky. I'd been meaning to field test my new fleece Trailfeathers double-fly pants and jacket that I'd gotten last month, and this was the weekend that weather would finally turn cold - I could wear the outfit without dying of heat stroke.

Boyfriend and I went up on Saturday afternoon, looked for a spot and settled into some buck brush to see what would happen between then and 7:01 p.m. - the end of shoot time.

What happened was nothing. Lots of little birds flitting through the brush. Lots of honkers flying over. Lots of braying animals from neighboring farms. A very, very small hawk that swooped about a foot over Boyfriend's head. But no deer.

No worries. I had a better feeling about the morning anyway. Boyfriend would sleep in, and I would hunt alone.

Can I just say what a glorious thing it is, waking up, using a real bathroom, pulling on your clothes and walking a mere 75 yards to go hunting? Glorious.

It was also cold and dark - 28 degrees, and the waxing moon had already set. I knew where I wanted to go, but in the dark, getting there would be perilously loud. There was lots of dead scotch broom lying all over the place, and that stuff is dry and flimsy, snapping with the slightest provocation.

There was a good chance this was an active bedding area, so one bad step could blow my chances for the morning. I went through the gate, and made a quick decision to set up in the crook of a big boulder nearby. Then I waited, listening to the sounds of birds flitting through the brush and straining to hear anything that might sound like the deliberate footsteps of a deer.

Flit flit flit.

Flit flit flit.

Scrape! Snort! Scrape scrape!

Oh. My. God.

It sounded like a horse. Thunderhoof?

Whatever it was, it sounded like it was no more than 30 yards away.

My heart started thumping I'm sure my eyes bulged out as I scanned the brush to find what surely must be a monster buck. A doe wouldn't sound that aggressive, would she? You can't shoot does here in California.

Scrape, scrape, snort, scrape.

I turned my gun in the direction of the hubbub and flicked the safety off.

Click!

It was so loud.

I waited for the buck to burst through the brush into the small clearing in front of my boulder.

But he didn't. In fact, after that click, I didn't hear any more of that aggressive deer posturing. I didn't hear him crash off in the other direction. But nor did he come my way. And I sat there for nearly two more hours.

I had to admit it was over.

No deer.

But what a thrill. For the rest of my life, I will never forget that sound.

I learned a few things too. We need to clear out some of the dead brush to make walking quieter. We need to clear some shooting lanes. We need to set up a tree stand in a conveniently located pine near that boulder. And we might even need to get a game cam, which makes me laugh, given that I have bashed game cam marketing in this blog not once, but twice. Doh!

And I got a chance to try out my Trailfeathers clothes.

Guys, this is the point where you can stop reading, unless you're looking for a really nice Christmas present for your hunting wife or girlfriend.

Ladies, here's what I can tell you so far:

Warmth: Trailfeathers owner Wendy Butler told me this outfit is her coolest, which she knew I'd need for deer hunting in September. Too bad I had to cancel that September hunt. But the fleece was still super cozy and warm. I probably could've used long johns, but I was OK without them.

The only problem I had with the cold was the classic chick problem - fingers and toes. I was wearing thick wool socks and my new Cabela's Glomitts with 150g of Thinsulate, but obviously I need heat packs for still hunting. Lesson learned.

Comfort & fit: Like so many hunting outfits made for women, my Trailfeathers pants and jacket fit beautifully.

One thing worth noting: These pants have the highest waistband of any of the other hunting pants I've tried so far. It was actually near my waist (yeah, the beautiful part of the body that has been lost in an ugly sea of corpulent muffintops for the past five years or so).

I am high-waisted and I hate low-waisted pants, so I was thrilled with this. And it was very comfortable because the pants have elastic in the back of the waistband. If you hate high-waisted pants, that elastic band might mitigate any discomfort you'd have.

For reference, the lowest-waisted pants I've tried have been Prois and Filson; and the middle territory is occupied by Foxy Huntress and SHE Safari.

Another note on fit: I'm one of those chicks with a small waist and (ahem) some serious thighs that I make even worse with an aggressive hill workout on the treadmill. I tend to buy pants one size larger than would be indicated just to accommodate those thighs, and the result is often a waistband that is way too huge for me. However, that was not the case with these pants. If you've got the same body type as me, you will LOVE these pants.

Function: In addition to hand-warming sweatshirt-style front pockets, the jacket has a bib pocket that's handy for holding binoculars. I didn't need binoculars in this place, but I found that pocket was a very handy place to keep tissues, which I always need when my nose gets cold.

Workmanship: I gave this outfit the Mom Test. Mom, you may remember, is a textile artist and former seamstress, and she has super high standards. She was very impressed with the workmanship, and very pleased that the outfit was made in the U.S.A.

Remaining testing: There are two things I haven't done with this outfit: I haven't hiked a long distance or done anything vigorous in it, and I haven't tried the fantastic "double fly" that allows you to take a leak without pulling your pants down. Neither of those activities was called-for this weekend. After I've completed field testing, I'll come back with a full review.

Click here to read my gear review policy and disclosures.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Women's hunting clothing in the news

OK, so I don't intend this to become one of those blogs that just does news roundups all the time, but dang, there's a lot going on out there. Here's what I mean:

ABC jumps on the bandwagon

After the recent Wall Street Journal story about women hunters, everyone seems to be jumping on the bandwagon: The latest is a piece on ABC News.

What makes this story interesting to me is its apparent confusion about cause and effect.

The story is about the recruitment of women to bolster the number of hunters, but it counts among those efforts pink camo clothing, "fashion lines with names like 'Foxy Huntress' " and pink rifles.

Unfortunately, capitalism doesn't work that way. Entrepreneurs like Keli Van Cleave (Pink Outdoors) and Shelah Zmigrosky (Foxy Huntress) create products to cater to a demand, not to create social change. And from the consumer side, geez, you don't take up hunting because someone has finally made hunting pants for you. That just makes it easier once you've taken the plunge.

Oh well. Guess I should be grateful for the fact that it's at least a positive story.

Speaking of huntress entrepreneurs...

My old friend Chris Niskanen at the St. Paul Pioneer Press did a story this weekend about a Minnesota woman with an online business specializing in women's hunting clothing, called shehunts.com.

Eileen Hachey's story is familiar: "The company was born out of Hachey's frustration with finding properly fitting hunting pants and shirts," Niskanen writes.

My favorite line? "One thing Hachey does not sell is frilly camouflaged undergarments," Niskanen writes. "She said she takes her clothing seriously. Besides, it is men who buy most camouflaged bras and underwear for their wives and girlfriends."

You'll notice that Hachey's company is now on the women's hunting clothing list on the right side of the page here on this blog.

Denver Post weighs in

The Denver Post also had a piece this weekend about Gunnison, Colo., hunter Kirstie Pike and her clothing line, Prois Hunting Apparel.

Apparently, the Post was so smitten it devoted three whole paragraphs to its native daughter.

Holy cow, there is just a tiny handful of women's hunting clothing companies in this country, and that's the best the Post can do? I'm sure Kirstie appreciates the ink - free publicity never hurts - but dang, that's lame.

Speaking of women's hunting clothing

I wore the fleece Trailfeathers pants and jacket that I previewed last month on my first deer hunt ever this weekend.

But telling that story now would probably exacerbate the insomnia that's got me writing at this hour, so I'll save the hunting story and the preliminary gear review for tomorrow.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, October 10, 2008

Huntress roundup: Cabela's responds, Brenda Valentine goes mainstream and Sarah Palin goes two-dimensional

Cabela's responds!

A week ago today I went to Cabela's in Reno with some girlfriends and we all left disappointed. We'd thought there would be a (relatively) fabulous selection of women's hunting gear, but it wasn't much better than stores that are substantially closer to us than Reno.

I blogged about the Cabela's trip on Saturday, and by Thursday morning - literally! - I'd gotten an email from Cabela's Product Manager Rob Burnett, who actually apologized for our disappointment, welcomed our feedback and proceeded to start talking about ideas for improving Cabela's women's hunting clothing.

This was not entirely accidental. It turns out a friend of mine is a Cabela's investor who didn't like the idea of our little pack of huntresses trotting off to the newest Bass Pro Shop in search of sartorial fulfillment, so she sent a letter to Cabela's.

But I'm still impressed, because it would be much easier to say, "Sorry, girlie, there just aren't enough women waterfowlers for us to cater to your whiny little self." Instead what I heard was, "What do you think of this idea? And this? And this?" Good stuff. And don't be surprised if you see cool new stuff for women from Cabela's somewhere down the line.

Brenda Valentine goes mainstream

Brenda Valentine, "the first lady of hunting," may be well-known in our community but not in the non-hunting world.

That changed on Oct. 1 when she was featured in a front-page article in the Wall Street Journal about women hunting. Since then, she's been trotted out in the mainstream media as a representative of huntresses - highly relevant at a time when we have a controversial huntress on the GOP ticket.

The Women's Outdoor Wire did a cool interview with her about the experience of going on mainstream media. The topics range from adjustments (being "miced up" in a studio instead of a tree stand) to how people reacted (not at all hostile, very open, but not the least bit knowledgeable about hunting). Definitely worth reading.

Speaking of Sarah Palin...


There was a funny piece in the New York Daily News recently about an artist who created an installation of a fake dead caribou and cardboard cutouts of Sarah Palin, her daughter and a rifle. People can pose in the set to have their picture taken with the GOP veep nominee.

The artist, who admits she is not fond of Sarah Palin, says both fans and foes alike are enjoying the piece.

I didn't howl in protest when I read it - I'm trying not to let myself get upset when confronted with ignorance about hunting. I just found the piece interesting and amusing.

If you check it out, be sure to watch the video and look for the gunshot wound on the fake caribou. It is comic-book funny, like a shattered windshield.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008



Thursday, October 9, 2008

Gear review: Irish Setter women's boots

When I asked some of my female hunter friends about problems they’d had with hunting boots, I heard tales of woe: Too heavy. Not waterproof. Not enough insulation.

A new boot unveiled this summer by Irish Setter – a brand of Red Wing Shoes – may be what they’re looking for.

The Ladyhawk is a 7-inch waterproof boot that comes in three levels of insulation: none, 600 grams and 1000 grams. At 2.75-3.1 pounds per pair, the Ladyhawk is lighter than comparable waterproof women’s hunting boots, and at $105-120 (depending on insulation levels and the retailer), it is on the affordable end of that spectrum.

Since I do most of my big game hunting in fairly warm California weather, I got a pair of the uninsulated boots and tossed my Lowa hiking boots into the closet for the rest of my hunting season.

I’ve worn the Ladyhawks to the gun range, on two big-game hunts and in a tile-floored outdoor kitchen where I helped the cook with a marathon two-day wild game feast, and here’s what I’ve learned about these boots:

Waterproof: I haven’t hiked through snow, but I’ve given these boots two water tests.

The first was when I was dressing a Corsican ram in a skinning shed and the guide with the hose decided to wash down my shoes while he was cleaning the concrete floor. (Thanks, Bob!) A prolonged, hard squirt at close range didn’t penetrate the boots.

Somehow, though, I didn’t feel that was enough of a test. Given the drought in Northern California, it will be months before the ground here gets really wet, so I filled an old plastic tub with water and stood in it, wiggling my feet around and lifting my heels to stand on the balls of my feet – a good way to stress the fabric. Nothing came through.

Comfort: These boots definitely feel light, so weight was never an issue. But there were two other issues relating to comfort:

First, I have high arches, and while some shoes have decent arch support (my Lowas are fine, and my Dansko walking-around shoes are fantastic), the insoles in these boots were far too flat for me. A pair of SuperFeet arch supports fixed them right up, but if you’ve got high arches, doing that effectively adds $35 to the cost of these shoes. If you have normal or flat arches, though, you would probably be fine with the provided insoles.

Second, my feet were sweating a lot in these shoes, and I’m not the kind of person who normally has sweaty feet. After a couple hours at the gun range in these shoes on a 100-degree day, my socks were drenched. But the first time I took these boots on a hunt – traipsing about on a feral pig-rich piece of property – my feet felt a lot better.

And when I spent hours upon hours on a hard tile floor doing dishes and prep work at a wild game feed, it didn’t seem to be a problem either. Not only did my feet stay reasonably dry, but they felt pretty good at the end of the day, which is more than the cook could say about his feet.

The upshot? Moving around increases the breathability. Sitting still for a long time in hot weather, though, is no bueno. I won’t be wearing these to the gun range again.

Fit: I have narrow-to-normal heels, but my feet are wide in the front, and the fit on these boots felt fine. I tend to be a 9½ or 10, so I got these in 10s to accommodate wool socks, and the fit was very comfortable from Day One. I did have a little irritation at one spot on my heels that tends to be a problem in about half the shoes I buy, but it never got to the point of blistering – and I’ve taken a good hike up and down some steep hills in high-90s temperatures in these boots.

Flexibility: These shoes flex well at the balls of the feet, so it doesn’t feel like your feet are encased in tombs when you’re wearing them. The key question is whether that flexibility will translate into wear that diminishes the waterproofing – and that’s a question I can’t answer yet, having had them for only two months.

The real test: Sometimes I give away products that I’ve received free for review, but if I think they will be useful to me in my hunting, I keep them. These boots? I plan to keep them and wear them for fall deer and turkey hunting, because the provide better ankle support than my Lowas, and overall they’re pretty comfortable.

If price is an indication of quality, there may be better women’s hunting boots in this class. One of those friends of mine raves about the Kenetrek Women’s Mountain Extreme 400s that she just got, and says she’ll never wear anything else. But the Kenetreks retail for $325, three times as much as the cheapest Ladyhawks. If price is an issue for you, the Ladyhawks could be a better deal.


WHAT'S ON THE MARKET
Click image to enlarge.


Click here to see my policy and disclosures concerning gear reviews.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, October 6, 2008

Hunters, religion and politics

Data huntress strikes again!

About a week ago, I wondered out loud where hunters fit on the political and religious spectrum. What sparked the question was news that Lakota Industries had introduced a "Sarah Cuda" bow honoring Sarah Palin's "historic achievement" and "all the women who bear the responsibility of family and work while strengthening the moral fiber of society."

How many hunters would that message appeal to? I wondered. What percentage of hunters are potential Sarah Palin supporters (i.e. conservative)? And what percentage are, like Palin, evangelical?

Today I got the answers from Mark Duda, executive director of Responsive Management, a Virginia-based outdoors research firm. The firm did a survey in 2006 that asked precisely those questions as part of its research on hunters' and anglers' attitudes toward global warming.

Now before I present the data, I'm going to confess one sin of data crunching.

Responsive Management only surveyed hunters and anglers (1,031 of them, to be precise). But I really wanted to know how our numbers compared with general public's numbers, so I went out and got the best data I could get.

Unfortunately, it is a no-no to mix data collected through different methods, because you can't achieve a precise comparison. But I figured it was better than looking at our numbers in a vacuum, so I did it anyway. And some of the results are kind of interesting. I'm curious to hear what you folks think of it.

So here it is, with a few comments here and there. If you find the type too small to see clearly, just click on the image to get an enlargement:

Evangelical Christians: This one didn't surprise me at all.

Political leanings: What surprised me here was how closely our conservative and moderate numbers matched the general population's. Then I remembered 7 percent of Duda's respondents refused to answer this question - those people might add to the conservative numbers.

The other surprise here? One in ten hunters/anglers is a liberal. (Probably all those catch-and-release folks right? ;-)



Voting rates: Hunters and anglers hit the ballot box (or at least tell surveyors they do) in MUCH higher percentages than the general public - and the difference is big enough that I'm not terribly worried about my apples-and-oranges data comparison here.

Interesting: Less than a week ago, U.S. News & World Report published a story about McCain's and Obama's efforts to woo the hook-and-bullet crowd. This data shows why we matter: We can have a disproportionaly high impact.


Presidential pick in '04: The only surprise here is that 29 percent of hunters and anglers admitted to voting for Kerry - certainly a much higher percentage than those who describe themselves as liberals. (And by the way, I made these charts in Excel and could not for the life of me figure out how to make Kerry blue and Bush red on this chart - for once, I was not being intentionally provocative.)

(A quick postscript in response to a couple comments: Sixteen percent of respondents in the Responsive Management survey refused to say who they voted for in 2004 - that's a pretty big question mark in the results.)

So what do I take from all of this? I keep going back to what former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman told me about how there are 10 million self-described liberals in America who own guns. This data supports the notion that gun owners, hunters and anglers are not a conservative political monolith.

And I think that's really important for hunting, because I want both parties beholden to us, particularly in California, where Democrats have a substantial majority in the Legislature. If Dems knew how many hunters and anglers were on their side - and that they're more likely to vote than the buy-it-shrinkwrapped-at-the-grocery-store crowd - perhaps we'd get more respect.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Crossing Donner Summit to go to Cabela's

When I woke up yesterday, I checked the forecast for Reno. Severe storm alert. Gusts up to 50 mph expected. The first storm of the year.

What a great time to cross Donner Summit! Somewhere in the back of my head, I remembered a history lesson. Something about silly white people trying to cross the summit as winter advanced. Didn't they end up eating each other for food?

I threw tire chains and an extra jacket in the back of my car and headed up anyway. I was on a mission: a pilgrimage to Cabela's.

I've been meaning to take the 117-mile journey to Cabela's since the store opened 11 months ago, but dangit, they opened in the middle of duck season, and my weekends are taken that time of year.

When the Sacramento Bee wrote about it back then, I was smitten. A company spokesman had told the Bee, "We know that the fastest-growing hunting and fishing population is female, and we have clothing, for instance, actually made for women, not just made for undersized men and sold to women."

Finding hunting clothing that's sized and cut for women is a big deal. Most stores don't carry much for us.

And with duck season just two weeks away, this is an issue for me right now.

The Gamehide duck jacket I've been wearing for the past two seasons is a men's jacket. I loved it at first, because it has great features - water-resistant Hushhide shell, removable fleece liner, nice pockets. But by the end of last season I realized a men's medium is too big for me - the over- sized collar and unneeded extra fabric was getting in the way of a smooth gun mount. I'm sure I could make a men's small work, but none of my local stores ever carries men's small. (And don't even suggest kids' sizes - I'm tall, and I have long arms.)

I've seen women's duck jackets in the Cabela's catalog, but I've never bought them because I'm the kind of person who needs to try something on. That's why I needed to go to Cabela's in person. Even if I didn't like the women's jackets, I figured a company whose motto is "World's Foremost Outfitter" would at least have some men's smalls in stock.

So I hustled up to Reno yesterday, where I would meet up with some friends who were attending the White House Conference on North American Wildlife Policy. Bernadette and I were hunting for jackets and anything else we could get. My friend Sarah was hunting for waders, and her boss, Bob, wanted to find some waders for his daughter too. Tracey came along too, eager to see the Mecca of modern hunters.

We arrived in two groups that somehow never met up in the enormous store. Sarah, Bob and I stocked up on ammo and then meandered to waders, where we immediately saw, of all things, Cabela's women's waders!

These waders were brilliant. Why? Men's waders are often too long for us, so those big plastic buckles for the straps usually sit right about where we need to mount our guns. Bad news, man. I've just taken to hunting with my left strap unbuckled, hip-hop style, to avoid sloppy mounts and painful recoil problems.

These waders? They had Velcro straps, so there was no buckle problem at all. It also looked like they'd provide some recoil protection!

But they were 5mm neoprene, which is way too thick for the kind of hunting we do in the Sacramento Valley. If you're not lucky enough to hunt from a boat or on some chi-chi private property where you can drive right up to the blind, you usually have to walk anywhere from half a mile to a mile and a half to get to your spot. And with lows that rarely dip more than a few degrees below freezing, 5mm neoprene would make that feel like walking in the Sahara.

OK, so where's the 3mm ... ?

There was none in this model. There was another women's model, but it had the infernal buckle. Why on earth would they get it right for the 5mm model, but not the 3mm model? The latter was exactly what that Cabela's spokesman promised the store wouldn't carry: a scaled-down men's model.

Sarah reluctantly put the inferior waders in the cart, and on the way to the jacket section, we talked about breaking out our sewing machines to customize our waders.

Meanwhile, Tracey had called my cell phone to let me know she and Bernadette were leaving. "It was a bust," she said. "We're disappointed."

When I went to the big hunting camo section, I saw why. We found help, and I told the man what I was looking for: if not a women's duck jacket, a men's small - the slim-line type that you can easily tuck into waders.

They didn't carry any women's duck jackets. "And I don't think you're going to find any men's smalls," he said.

What? We were at the World's Foremost Outfitter. Don't tell me every man who walks in that store is huge.

But it was true. Not a small in sight.

"Just try this medium, just in case," he said.

"I have a men's medium jacket at home right now. It just doesn't make sense to buy another," I said as I tried on, and rejected, several jackets. "What about gloves. Got any men's smalls?"

"That I know we have," he said, happy to come up with something I needed.

I've had the exact same problem with gloves that I've had with my jacket. You can never find men's small. Men's medium is huge, which is not a good thing in gloves you wear while handling a shotgun. I've suffered for two seasons now with some uncomfortably tight children's large "glomitts" - the glove/mitten combo - and I really wanted to find something that fit.

I found it - the MT050 Windstopper Glomitt with 150-gram Thinsulate. Water resistant. The day wasn't a total bust. Perhaps I could forgive Cabela's. Perhaps it really did care about huntresses.

Or perhaps not.

When we went to the checkout stands, we split up to make our purchases. As I finished my purchase, I heard the clerk talking to Sarah behind me as she rang up Sarah's waders, some gloves and a box of Kent Fasteel.

"So, is your husband going waterfowl hunting soon?" the girl asked Sarah.

Oh no she didn't!

"No," Sarah replied calmly. "These are for me."

"Oh, do you go waterfowl hunting with your husband?"

Sarah's husband doesn't hunt.

"No," Sarah said. "I hunt with my girlfriends."

"Oh, that's nice," the girl said.

Sarah and I pushed the cart out of the store, speaking to each other through gritted teeth. "What the #@&*!!?"

We'd had such high hopes walking into that store. Not only were we sorely disappointed in the offerings for women, but a female checkout clerk had committed the cardinal sin of assuming a woman couldn't possibly be a hunter.

I wouldn't have expected that of any hunting store, much less the World's Foremost Outfitter.

We headed back out to our cars. The wind had picked up, and the rain was on its way.

Oh well. I hear there's a Bass Pro Shop going up soon in Manteca. That's only 77 miles away.




POSTSCRIPT: Click here to see what happened as a result of this blog post!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, October 3, 2008

Rain, joyous rain!

It rained today.

If you live anywhere east of the Rockies, this probably means nothing to you. But we haven't had anything more than spit from the sky here since March 15. That's 202 days.

If you've always lived in a place where rain is a year-round occurrence - except when it's snowing - you have no idea what it's like, the first rain after 202 days of dryness.

Let me tell you, it smells sweet.

When I lived in Virginia, rain in the warm months just meant things would smell a bit moldier than they did when it rained two days ago.

Here, summer smells like a spice cabinet as native grasses dry up and their essences, no longer clouded by water and chlorophyll, come into full bloom.

And the first time rain hits those grasses? It's like what happens when you put those spices in a frying pan coated with hot oil. It's like the first drag off a cigarette. It's like losing your virginity. It is amazing, and oh so fleeting. You get to inhale this aroma once each year, and that's it.

My friend Sarah and I went on a pilgrimage to Cabela's in Reno today - a story I'll get to tomorrow (and there's much to tell). The trip back home across Donner Summit was drenched with rain. By the time I brought Sarah back to her house northwest of Sacramento, precipitation had slowed to a spit. When I headed back to my house east of Sacramento, I was able to roll the car windows down and inhale that first-rain-of-the-season smell in firehose blasts all the way home.

For me, rain means ducks. Cold and wind and storms and ducks and waders and jackets and calling and shots and misses and hits and Starbucks or Burger King on the way home to fill my belly with something warm and plucking, plucking, plucking endless plucking and where's that Maker's Mark?

Just two weeks to go until the season opens.

But as much as I love duck hunting - and believe me, I love it to unseemly excess - rain means even more than that. For the rest of the country, this is the time of year you go dormant. For us here, it is a break from the scorching sun, the time when our grasses grow green and lush. It is the ultimate contradiction: rejuvenation, at the darkest time of year.

And for me, it is the time my spirits soar, as if I've been hibernating through the summer. For me, life begins now.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008