What happens when three women pull up to the hunter check station at a national wildlife refuge?
1) All the men stare.
2) The woman at the check station asks them, "Are you here for bird watching?"
Well, in a manner of speaking, yes!
In all fairness, my girlfriends weren't wearing camo when they pulled into the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge a few minutes ahead of me on Wednesday, and anyone who wears street clothes to a wildlife refuge in the middle of duck season is automatically suspect. Any woman, anyway.
It was actually a perfect entrance for Lucrezia's first duck hunt: Welcome to the world of being the odd duck.
Lucrezia (pronounced loo-KRETZ-ee-ah) is the second brand-new duck hunter I've gone out with in the past few weeks, and it's no accident: She's a good friend of Hellen, the first newby, who bagged a greenhead on her first hunt at Delevan a few weeks ago.
Interestingly enough, Lucrezia has long had a bizarre fantasy about owning a plush hunting lodge in Scotland, even though she'd never hunted before this year and has absolutely no connection to Scotland. When she found out her friend Hellen was going to start hunting, she was flabbergasted - Hellen had never even talked about it!
But Lucrezia jumped right in.
I met her last spring when she joined Hellen at a women's shooting clinic in Jackson, where she took to guns like she'd been born with one in each hand. And like Hellen, she's been taking shooting lessons and getting hunter safety and licensing lined up ever since then.
Hellen and I set up some dates in January to hunt with Lucrezia, and last week we learned that our friend Penny - whom we'd met at another women's shoot this summer - could join us.
Perfect! Four chicks with guns at the refuge. Can't think of anything finer. (And nor could some of the men at Delevan, from what I could see that day).
Wednesday, unfortunately, would prove to be a difficult day. First, we found an enormous blind waiting list when we got there, which was unexpected, this being the time everyone's supposed to get back to work after the holidays.
Second, we couldn't hear much shooting on the refuge.
We waited and waited and waited - the longest I've ever waited there - and finally got a blind on the south side of the refuge. By the time we got out there, it was nearly 3 p.m. We'd have only about two hours to shoot.
Now, normally, this is not a problem. We'd held out for a good blind because with four women out there, we wanted everyone to get plenty of chances to shoot. And we set up on opposite ends of our little tule island to maximize opportunity: me with Hellen, and Penny - a third-year duck hunter like me - with Lucrezia.
But this day would be difficult.
When we got started, Hellen told me she wanted me to take the first shot that came our way. But when a lone teal came by shortly after we set up, I realized I'd forgotten to load my gun.
I hissed to Hellen: I'm not loaded! Shoot it!
She stood and fired, but not having been prepared to take that shot, she missed.
A couple ducks came in on the other side, and Lucrezia shot and missed.
We'd warned her: Prepare to miss a lot - this is hard!
A couple more ducks came near me and Hellen, and we fired warning shots at them.
And then it just dried up after that. Ducks wouldn't come near us.
But lots of snow geese were in the air. With less 45 minutes to go, Penny called across the island. "Holly, would it break your heart if I take down the WindWhacker?"
Geese don't like motion devices, so I knew what she was thinking. But when I looked her way to answer, I saw geese low on the horizon coming our way.
"Sure," I answered, "but you might want to wait for those geese."
Turns out the only word Penny heard was "geese," and when she looked back toward that horizon, she had a holy crap! moment. She told Lucrezia to freeze.
I watched as a V of snows came closer and closer. Low. Lower than I'd ever seen them - at least before the end of shoot time.
"What are they?" whispered Hellen behind me. Hellen can identify a snow goose at 100 yards, but she'd never seen any this close. "They're huge!"
Penny called out the order. "Shoot em!"
Lucrezia stood, aimed, and by God, she knocked one down.
The birds flared and Penny shot next, taking another one down. Hellen and I added a few shots, but they'd moved too far away from us, so our efforts were futile.
Penny bolted out into the water to chase her bird. Lucrezia followed, in a daze, not believing she'd done it. Hellen had much the same experience when she'd gotten her greenhead last month. No! Me?
They returned to the blind with their birds, Penny exuberant and Lucrezia still stunned.
We rushed back into our positions for the remaining half hour of hunt time, but nothing came near us again. At 5 o'clock, we unloaded our guns.
"Well, Lucrezia, what the hell," I hollered at her across the island, grinning. "We take you duck hunting and you have to go and shoot some stupid goose. What's wrong with you?"
Amazing. I still haven't downed a goose like that - other hunters' cripples are about the best I can do. But it's hard to be jealous when someone goes out on her first duck hunt and bags such a spectacular bird - even if it isn't a duck.
Hellen and I were, of course, very sad that we'd been skunked.
Epilogue: Here's Hellen's take on the hunt.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008