Take lots of shells, Holly.
It was the night before New Year's Eve, and Boyfriend and I had arrived at the Salinas Gun Club for an unusually posh experience: two days of rich hunting opportunity at an 80-year-old duck club in the heart of the Grasslands.
Our host was Stockton Record outdoors writer Pete Ottesen, and as we feasted on good food and wine in the clubhouse, Pete kept admonishing me to carry lots and lots of shells when I went out the next morning.
Why? The weather was excellent for duck hunting - fog high enough that you could see the ducks coming from a good distance, and low enough to keep the birds flying reasonably close to the ground if they wanted to see where they were going. There would probably be plenty of action.
"Well, Pete, I'm hoping I don't need lots of shells," I told him. Hell, it'd been more than a year since I'd even used a whole box in a single hunt.
But more importantly, I didn't want to embarrass myself. Pete would be hunting with Boyfriend in the morning, but there were no four-man blinds here, so I would be hunting with a complete stranger at the neighboring Hollister Club. I hadn't met him yet, but everyone in this place was a serious hunter. To belong to one of these clubs, you need either the duck hunting lineage that allows you to inherit a membership, or the passion and wealth that gives you the will and the means to pay six-digit buy-in fees.
Nope, not intimidating at all for this refuge rat.
Before we went to sleep that night, I put two boxes of shells in my blind bag and hoped that would be sufficient. We didn't bring enough to shoot much more than that two days in a row.
The next morning, the camp's bell woke Boyfriend and me at 5 a.m. and sent us stumbling from our cabin back into the clubhouse, gratefully lurching toward the coffee pot. My eyes were barely open when Pete introduced me to my host for the day's hunt: Craig Grilione, who owns a pallet company in Hanford.
I gulped down two cups of coffee, and then Craig, his black lab Zap and I were off to the Hollister Club for the morning's hunt. As we navigated a maze of dirt roads in the foggy blackness, Craig told me a little about the club and the blind we'd be hunting, and I went through my little talk I do when I'm hunting with someone I've just met: I'm still pretty new at this, I'm not a great shot yet, I'm pretty conservative - won't take shots I know I'm really bad at, please call the shots, don't hesitate to yell at me if I do anything wrong, feel free to give me advice if any comes to mind...
Yada yada yada - disclosures duly made.
We set up in two sunken barrel-shaped blinds on a little island in the middle of wide open water. This place was paradise for teal.
Some folks would rather shoot mallards because they're big, but I love teal - they're a tasty single-serving duck, and relatively easy to pluck because they're so small. They're also pretty hard to shoot, because they're very fast and good at evasive moves.
I knew this. So it should not have surprised me when a siren signalled the beginning of shoot time, and I promptly began missing every damn shot I took.
Bam BAM! Miss.
Bam bam BAM! Miss.
I was mortified. I'd told Craig I wasn't a great shot, but this was downright embarrassing. I couldn't hit anything.
But Craig was being super nice about it. When he missed, he berated himself loudly for missing an easy shot and turned to me and said, "See, I miss too." It didn't make me feel better about my shooting, and I knew he was just being nice, but I was happy he said it nonetheless. At least I wasn't with an arrogant asshole who'd make me feel stupid.
At one point, I looked down at my ammo supply and saw I was down 17 shells, without a single bird in hand. Not just any shells, but Hevi-Shot, which is ridiculously expensive.
This was like a long losing streak on the dollar slots at the casino when the night is still young. Time to switch to the quarter slots! I closed my box of Hevi-Shot No. 4's and switched to Kent Fasteel No. 2's. It was less shot per shell, but if I was going to piss away ammo all morning, I preferred to piss away cheaper ammo.
We talked a little about my shooting. Craig said he noticed I was shooting a little late, that I seemed to be hesitating.
"I'm not hesitating - I'm trying to get my head down on the stock right," I told him. "If it's not right, I have to adjust before I shoot, or I'm just gonna waste the shot."
"Then you should definitely stand up sooner," he said.
OK, I knew this - just as I know it's important to get your head down on the gun perfectly every time - but there's something about a little reminder that helps.
A group of teal was coming in on my side of the blind, and as my gun was tracking them - my head down on the stock - I detected another group of ducks coming in on a slightly different trajectory, even faster than the teal.
Without thinking, I left the teal, focused on the faster ducks, fired one shot and set a bird tumbling onto the water hard. I mean, it skipped like a rock. As it bounced on the water, my reaction was involuntary: I chortled.
OK, I know laughing is the wrong response when you've just killed something, but it was a really good shot on a really fast bird, and I couldn't help it. And as my first kill of the day, it was a damn good one.
"What is it?" I asked Craig when Zap brought the bird to him.
"Ruddy," Craig said, and I laughed again.
It was just a few days earlier that Boyfriend and I had practically been attacked by a group of ruddies that blew past us so fast we couldn't even mount our guns. Adding insult to injury, a straggler had flown between me and Boyfriend while we were watching the other ruddies' butts speeding away.
I guess I'd gotten my revenge.
I know: Inappropriate thought! I'm just being honest here.
That shot broke my streak of crappy shooting. After that, I hit my usual stride - miss a couple, hit one, miss a couple, hit one. The greenwing teal were stacking up.
Craig and I chatted between shots, and during one such chat session, I saw through the two-foot-high grass in front of me something flying toward me, about a foot and a half off the water. It had a red head. Without saying a word, I just stood and shot, and the duck fell.
Craig was a bit surprised because he hadn't even seen the bird. But he quickly said, "See? That was perfect. You didn't even think. You just did it."
And that, I know, is the one of the keys to successful shooting (which means readers here should understand why it's so hard for me - I over think everything).
When Zap brought in the bird, I saw that I'd gotten my first cinnamon teal drake. He was beautiful, a bird painted in the colors of the Southwest: cinnamon red on the head, neck and shoulders; orange and brown on his back; brilliant flashes of powder blue and green on his wings.
I am in love with vivid colors. I could stare at this bird all day long. Next time I have a room to paint, I am going to paint it in these colors. I looked down at this bird often as the hunt progressed.
As we neared 9 a.m., Craig had gotten his limit of seven birds and I'd gotten six, and the question I'd been trying to avoid thinking about thunked me in the head: Would I finally get my first limit of seven ducks? It was still early, and the birds were still flying pretty hard, so the chances were good...
I took a few more shots and missed. No biggie. Then, again when Craig and I were sitting there talking to each other, I saw two big ducks coming in from behind Craig, almost straight toward me. A perfect shot - I wouldn't have to lead them much at all.
I waited, waited, stood, shot, and down went my seventh bird - a drake gadwall. Craig and I high-fived. I'd done it.
Last time I wrote about wanting to get my first limit, I'd said my motivation was wanting to know that I'm good enough to get seven ducks. Having gone through 42 shells to do it, I'd have to say now that "good enough" wasn't the operative term here, that it had a lot more to do with abundant opportunity. But at least I'd finally broken the barrier.
I think Craig was pretty happy about it too, and I knew why: Just a few weeks ago, I'd taken my friend Hellen on her first hunt, and I was thrilled when she got her first duck: a greenhead. There is something lovely about being the host for such a special occasion.
As Craig and I packed up to head back to the car, he asked if I wanted to go see the clubhouse of the Hollister Club and maybe get breakfast.
"Sure!" I said. I was starving. "And if we take forever, it'll make my boyfriend think I'm not getting my limit. Ha!"
I was right - he did look worried when we finally arrived at the shack where Salinas Club members pluck and dress their birds. I got out of the car and walked toward him, staying behind a Dumpster so he couldn't see what was on my strap.
"How'd you do?" he asked, warily. I could tell he didn't want to do or say anything that would make me feel bad if I hadn't limited.
I couldn't hold it in. "I got my limit!"
He smiled, relieved. "Congratulations!"
"But I screwed it up. I was going to get a limit of all small ducks when this stupid gadwall came in and messed it up, so there's one big fat duck," I said, grinning.
Then Pete came walking up. "Did you get a duck?" he asked.
"No, I got seven," I corrected him, reaching up to give him a big hug.
When I plucked my ducks, I saved that cinnamon teal for last. As I stood with the bird in hand over the Dumpster where hunters plucked, Boyfriend said, "Are you sure you don't want to mount that?"
"Nah," I said, looking at it skeptically.
"Holly, what is your standard for having a duck mounted?"
I looked at the bird again, gazing into the cinnamon and orange. "Hmmmm. Yeah, well, he is really beautiful. Maybe I will... OK."
And so the deal was done. The memory of my first limit would transcend this writing and the photos on my camera's memory card: This bird was going on the wall.
New Year's morning we switched places: Boyfriend hunted with another club member, and I hunted with Pete, this time at the Salinas Club. I didn't go through that same awful streak of bad shots - I just did my usual shooting: miss a few, hit one, miss a few, hit one. But still, the ducks were piling up, and when we had just two to go before reaching our limit, I was a little sad - I didn't want it to be over. But the shooting was just too good - we reached our limits, and headed back to the clubhouse.
Then, when Boyfriend and I finally left the club that afternoon, I experienced something I've never felt in hunting before: I was sated.
Now, I'm always tired after hunting a couple days in a row, but I always want to hunt more, more, more. As we got on I-5 heading north, though, I thought to myself, If someone invited me to go hunting tomorrow, I don't think I could do it. I feel like I've killed enough for the moment.
Even now, as I look out my window and see nice duck weather - rain and gusty winds - I'm fine sitting right here at home.
I'm sure this feeling will pass. But for now, I'm enjoying the feeling of enough.
Epilogue: Click here to read Boyfriend's take on the hunt, and the massive duckage we brought home.
© Holly A. Heyser 2008