One of the most exciting days of my 2008-09 waterfowl season was New Year's Eve, when I not only got my first limit of ducks, but when I also got my first cinnamon teal drake.
I was hunting a private club in the Grasslands, a duck-rich area in California's San Joaquin Valley, and the greenwing teal were flying thick as Minnesota mosquitoes.
I'd been having a horrible shoot - I missed something like my first seventeen shots. But I'd finally started relaxing and letting instinct take over, instead of overthinking every shot. My partner Craig and I were sitting in our pits when I spotted something through the grass at the edge of our blind - a red head coming in low over the water and straight at me. Without a word, I stood, fired one shot, and dropped the duck.
A brilliant cinnamon head and chest. Feathers of orange and brown on his back. That lovely powder blue on his wings. I was smitten.
For the rest of the hunt, I kept stealing glances at him, admiring the colors that so delighted my eyes.
I was planning to eat him, like I do all my ducks. But back at the clubhouse, Boyfriend persuaded me that this should be my first mounted duck. So I left him in the hands of our host and friend Pete Ottesen, who would deliver him to local taxidermist Terry Shoeffler.
But Pete said something strange that had me wondering if he'd been hitting the Aquavit early that day: I would have my duck back in probably six to eight weeks.
Six to eight weeks???
Hell, Boyfriend had been waiting nearly a year already for his first taxidermied duck, a lovely drake wigeon he'd gotten on a hunt with Pete the year before. Our friend Matt had waited well over a year for his first mount, a beautiful drake woodie.
Either this guy Shoeffler was spectacular, or Pete was sending my duck to a Kmart taxidermist.
I looked around Pete's cabin, though, and I did not see one ugly duck on his walls, so I swallowed hard, left my cinteal wrapped in a dish towel and said good-bye.
Two days ago, my phone rang and it was Shoeffler. My duck was ready! And today was the day I would pick him up.
When I arrived this morning at Shoeffler's place in Stockton, about an hour south of where I live, he took me first through his living room, which rivals the mounted-animal displays you see at Cabela's. I quickly looked around and saw lots of beautiful animals. Nothing cheesy. A couple things that blew my mind, like the bobcat reaching out to paw the surface of a trout stream - complete with trout under a sheet of resin - while a mountain lion perched on a rock over him.
Everything was beautiful.
When I'd taken that in, he took me out back to his workshop, where I got to see a few works in progress.
"Your cinnamon teal is right behind you," he said.
I spun around and there he was, just as I'd envisioned him - wings outstretched and parallel to the wall so you could see those gorgeous feathers on his back and wings. Perfect.
"How was he?" I asked.
"Just one shot that went in the head and out the neck," he said.
I beamed, then told him the story. I'm sure every hunter must do that, but he didn't seem to mind.
"So how do you do this so quickly?" I asked. "Everyone I know waits forever."
The answer was simple: He doesn't overbook. The process takes six to eight weeks, and he typically promises ducks back within about three months. It's first-come, first-served - he starts work on your animal in the order it arrived. And when he has taken enough animals (or heads) to keep him busy until the beginning of the next season, he won't take any more, period. He refuses to get into a situation where he's working on last season's animals after the next season has begun.
Wow. Not overbooking. Note to self: Take a lesson from this guy!
We chatted a little while longer, talking about how to take care of this bird, and how to preserve future birds for the best possible taxidermy work:
- Don't wring their necks - it often breaks feathers at the break site.
- Don't put them on a strap, for the same reason. (Oops, I'd done that. But I hadn't realized yet I was going to have him mounted.)
- Don't tuck the bill under their wings - leave the neck straight.
- Though some taxidermists recommend slipping a nylon (yes, as in pantyhose) over the bird, he advised against it, because if any feathers get bent the wrong way and you freeze the bird in that position, the damage can be hard to un-do. He recommends laying them out straight on a piece of newspaper, rolling it up, and carefully folding over the ends beyond the tips of the bill and the feet.
- If you want a mount like mine with wings outstretched, the wing can't be broken near the ends, though a break near the chest is OK. Mine of course were fine, since I'd barely touched the bird.
I was glad for the advice, because seeing how nicely this bird came out - and seeing the spectacular display in Shoeffler's living room - I had a feeling I'd be coming back for more.
So now I'm back home with my bird, who has so far occupied two spots and may yet move again before he finds a permanent home. The challenge in our house is keeping him away from 1) the kitchen area, where vaporized grease travels a surprising distance from the stove, and 2) the cats, particularly my very naughty little calico, Giblet, who has already found and mercilessly tortured my turkey beard from last spring. Little booger.
It doesn't really matter where he ends up. I'm still smitten. And for the first time, instead of having just a story or a photo to help me remember a hunt, I have the whole duck.
© Holly A. Heyser 2009