Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The huntress, the mentor and the end of the lame duck hunting streak

I drove up Interstate 5 in a pounding rain early Sunday morning, more nervous than I usually get before a duck hunt. Dianne and Bob at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge had set me up on the hunting equivalent of a blind date.

On my way into the refuge the Sunday before, I'd told them I wanted to learn how to hunt "free roam" - the vast area where hunters rush to stake out the best spots. It's competitive - there are no safe little assigned blinds.

By the time I'd come out that evening with my characteristic one lame duck, they'd hooked me up.

"Charlie Peebles is gonna take you out," Dianne said. "He hunts here all the time. You've probably seen him."

"OK," I said.

"Here," I told Dianne as I scribbled my cell phone number on a business card. "Please give him this!" Read more...
I started hunting Delevan three years ago alone, earning every bit of knowledge about the place the hard way. I had good reason to believe the hunting would be better in free roam, but I was just too intimidated to try it alone. So this was my big chance to learn a lot - both about Delevan and duck hunting in general.

I might even break my bizarre streak of bringing home just one duck per hunt, always wounded first by another hunter.

I could only hope that I wouldn't shoot like a total dolt.

A week later, I pulled into Delevan at 4:30 a.m. sharp, just when Charlie had told me to meet him there. As I walked to the check station - a little oasis of dim light - I scanned the crowd for someone who looked like he'd be looking for someone.

"Holly?" I heard behind me.

Yep, it was Charlie.

Charlie is 59 years old and has been hunting Delevan since he was 14 - starting the year before I was born. He's there every hunt day, showing up the night before to enter the lottery for a spot out in the field, then coming back the next morning to go find one of his favorite spots in the pre-dawn blackness.

As we stepped into the calf-deep water in free roam, it was clear Charlie knew the place like a blind man knows his house. He knew where the mud would be squishy and where it would firm up, where the bottom dropped and where it came back up again.

We angled toward Grand Central, a big network of tule patches located in the center of some "big water," as we call the vast open sheets. Twinkling headlamps ahead of us told him what he needed to know - how many of his spots had already been staked out by other hunters, where we should go.

Charlie and I settled in a spot that was thick with hunters - we could easily see four or five parties within 100 yards. I'd've never had the huevos to set up there. But that's what it's like in free roam. You just have to be careful about shooting teal that come zipping in low over the water - there was 180 degrees in front of us where doing that would risk peppering other hunters.

We were definitely in a good spot - it was a fairly slow morning, but we had a decent trickle of ducks coming through, and it seemed that everyone we could see was getting opportunity to shoot. Which was good, because Charlie was on first-name basis with a lot of the guys out there.

"Does everyone know everyone out here?" I asked him.

"Pretty much."

I wondered if I would become part of that club. I was pretty sure I'd be the only female member.

I missed the first set of birds I shot at. Or at least I thought I did.

"You hit one," Charlie said. "I could see it." But they had flown away, so I hadn't hit the duck well - I'd just wounded it. Not good.

The next group to came in was a small flock of wigeon. I shot, missed once, hit a hen on the second shot, fired a third at her and watched as she began a long sail while Charlie knocked a drake down hard, dead on the water.

My hen had landed in a little patch of grass poking up about a foot out of the water, a good 75 yards away. I sloshed there as quickly as I could, glad I had an unobstructed view around the grass patch. She had to be in there.

On the walk over, I heard another hunter yelling in the distance. "Hey, YOU SHOT MY DECOY!" Yep. It was crowded here.

As I walked into the grass, she lifted up about 20 yards from me and I dropped her quickly with one shot.


I walked over to the spot. She was nowhere to be seen.

What the hell? I could still see the ripples from where she'd landed, and I could see a faint remnant of a ripple leading away from that spot. She was swimming under water and I could not see her. She probably had her bill sticking up someplace, but I couldn't see it amid all the stalks of decaying grass. I searched and searched, but I was acutely aware that I was making a ruckus close to other hunters nearby, and no ducks would come in for them as long as I was there.

I trudged back to Charlie.

"We'll go look for her later," he reassured me.

The next bird that came in was a drake mallard I caught out of the corner of my eye, flying about a foot over the water and heading to that grass patch where I'd lost the wigeon.

Charlie and I watched him for a while, and he finally said, "He's injured. You should go over there and get him."

"That's my cripple for the day!" I said, laughing, and slogged my way back over there.

On the walk, I heard more strife in the distance. "LET THE F***ING BIRDS WORK!" one hunter yelled at another. A high-volume back-and-forth ensued.

I giggled. This is the kind of stuff that I knew happened out here in free roam, and one of the big reasons I didn't want to navigate this business alone. I was deathly afraid of either breaking established etiquette, or being so afraid to break etiquette that I wouldn't take any shots.

When I approached the patch of grass, I scanned it and could see the faint outline of a green head about 25 yards away. I raised my gun. One of the hunters in the nearby blind yelled, "Don't shoot me!"

"I won't!" I yelled back. I tracked the greenhead as he swam away from that blind and when I had a good clear shot - away from the other hunters - I pulled the trigger.

Done. The drake was dead. But the shot had stirred up none other than that hen wigeon who'd been hiding about 10 yards from that greenhead. She tried to fly, but couldn't. The nearby hunter came out with his dog and got the bird for me. "Was this the one you were looking for earlier?"

"Yup, sure is!" I said.

I walked back to Charlie with two birds in hand - an enormous greenhead and the wigeon I thought I'd wounded and lost. He later told me he wished he'd had a camera because I had a smile about a mile wide.

The curse had been lifted. I had more than two ducks, and at least one had not been wounded by another hunter before I hit it. Perhaps my season would finally turn around now.

After a while, some of the hunters started clearing out, and with less congestion, the birds began to work better. And there was this ongoing conversation between the hunters.

"Teal coming your way!"

"Nice shot (guffaw)."

"What happened there?"

We weren't all hunting together. But strangely, we were all hunting together.

I got one more duck in Grand Central that day, a gorgeous drake gadwall that had come in with three others just outside of our decoys, maybe 40 yards in front of us. We hung out for a while after that, but Charlie said, "Hey, you've gotten three birds here - let's move to another spot."

So we moved to his favorite afternoon spot on the refuge, a place where we could intercept a few ducks in a known flight path. Serious insider information.

As we settled into that spot, Charlie's friend Don came by with his two dogs and a bull sprig that he handed to Charlie. It was a cripple his dogs had picked up while he was pheasant hunting and he didn't want it. Charlie handed the duck to me.

Not long after that, two mallards came sailing overhead nearby, out of our range.

"Watch them," he said. When they dropped into some water behind us, just the other side of some tules, Charlie announced that since they were out of our sight - and we were out of theirs - we were going to go put a sneak on them.

As we sloshed toward where we'd seen them drop in, I couldn't imagine how they couldn't hear the racket we were making. They weren't flying away, but they were probably swimming away at light speed.

When we hit the tule patch in front of where they'd landed, Charlie and I split up. We'd both walk around the tule patch in opposite directions and the first person to see the ducks would get the shot.

A couple minutes later, I heard three shots.

I slogged over to him and saw an enormous greenhead in his hand. He was smiling a little sheepishly. "I was hoping you'd get the shot," he said. But he'd come through a little passage in the tules and the drake was right there, maybe 10 yards in front of him. He got about a foot off the water before Charlie had nailed him. He'd shot at the hen, too, but hadn't brought her down.

We got one more shot at birds after that - a small group of spoonies came over. One drake fell. Charlie swore he hadn't hit it; I swore I hadn't either. Turns out we were both shooting No. 2 shot, so the autopsy wouldn't decide the issue. But whoever did it, it was an immaculate shot - the bird was DOA.

We watched the bird activity pick up as the sun dropped, but no more came our way before shoot time ended, so we were done. I had three ducks that were legitimately mine and a fourth that was maybe mine. Charlie had given me the other three birds, so I left the refuge with a huge pile of birds, much more than I'm used to.

For his part, Charlie had passed on a lot of shots to make sure I got plenty of opportunity, which was awfully sweet of him.

And I had learned a lot. I'd learned some free roam etiquette. I'd learned where ducks work in Grand Central and the other spot. I'd learned another couple spots I could try. I'd had an experienced eye watching my shots and telling me what was happening with them. I'd gotten to hear Charlie's thoughts on decoys and calling.

And best of all, I'd made a new duck hunting friend - I now have a standing invitation to join him and keep learning.

I know at some point he'll cut me loose to fly on my own. But hopefully by that time I'll be a bona fide member of the free roam family at Delevan.

* * *

I don't have a photo of Charlie (yet), but you can see him on the Delta Waterfowl website. Delta did a big piece in the Winter 2009 issue about hunting ducks on public land in California. One of the spots they hit was Delevan, and one of the people they interviewed there was Charlie. While you can't read the article online, you can see Charlie on video by clicking here and looking for "Delevan Duck Hunters" under "New Delta Videos.")

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


Phillip said...

Congrats, even if I didn't win the pool!

Delevan free roam is a tough place to learn on your own. Nice job on getting a mentor, and a HUGE kudos to Charlie for taking you out there and showing you around. That's just plain awesome!

Some of that back and forth you heard out there is one of the reasons I'm not in any hurry to hunt many free roam areas. Unlike you, there's a bunch of yo-yos out there who could care less about etiquette... or sometimes even safety.

NorCal Cazadora said...

LOL. I forgot to mention that one of the first things I did when I saw how close everyone was was put on my shooting glasses. Love my 20-20 eyesight; don't want to handicap my shooting any more by, say, losing an eye. ("You'll shoot yer eye ouuuuuuuuuut!")

And yeah, Charlie's awesome. When I went back and re-read the Delta story and watched the video, though, I saw he made a point of how he tries to help people out there.

SimplyOutdoors said...

Charlie sounds like an awesome guy. I'm kind of with Phillip, though - the place scares me a little.

I can understand the draw, though. We fish a stretch of river like this - everyone is very cool, very proper, and we always help each other out; it's a riot.

But on the river I can't get shot at by someone I don't know.

Be careful. And there needs to be a lot more hunters like Charlie.

Chief Instructor said...

Congrats on breaking the streak! I have an uncle who has promised for a number of years to take me out duck hunting, but nothing yet. We're getting together in a couple of days to zero some hunting rifles, so maybe I can twist his arm a bit.

Thanks for sharing the great story!

Pedro Miguel Silveira said...

Hi Holly,
Nice story!
Have you ever considered using a 12 gauge?

NorCal Cazadora said...

Simply: The idea of going out alone scared me; going with a mentor helped a lot. Hell, I used to get scared when Hank went duck hunting alone because I was worried he'd get shot. Once I started hunting with him, I realized how remote the prospects of that are. Not impossible, but not what I'd feared.

Chief: Thanks! I hope he takes you out. It's amazingly challenging and fun. Every time the ducks thwart me, I laugh. In fact, the funniest moment of this whole hunt was when a substantial V of snow geese and Ross's geese strafed us going so fast they sounded like a V of fighter jets. Had we been facing the right direction, we would've hammered them, but they took us by surprise and moved on fast.

Pedro, yes, I have. Part of me prides myself on being able to hit my targets with a 20 - that I don't need the extra pellets. But sometimes I think it'd be nice. That said, I just bought a rifle this year and can't afford another gun for a while.

Anonymous said...

Congrats to you Holly on gettin' those ducks and ending that "lame" streak!

Anonymous said...

Holly is to modest kinda failed to mention that she calls like a champ, knows when to move and when not to (most important). She is fun to have around when the shooting slows. I like to take people out hunting that are willing to learn and yes she does have a open invite (boyfriend to).

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oooh, now I'm blushing!

We'll work on Boyfriend. Anyone got a wheelchair out there that they don't mind getting a bit muddy? He just had surgery on his Achilles...

sportingdays said...

Pretty intense. Can't say that type of duck hunting is my cup of tea, either. I go hunting to get away from the rat race and the masses and all this seems about as appealing as heading to the mall the day after Thanksgiving.

I have hunted free roam at Delevan a few times myself so I know that you can have a different experience out there as well -- hunting the little honey holes away from the most crowded spots that are quieter, safer and can also be productive at times, especially in the afternoons. Nice to have Charlie as a guide, though. He seems like a real gentleman in addition to being a fine duck hunter.

I certainly wouldn't get caught up in trying to live up to the expectations of the refuge staff and who they consider the "real duck hunters." That's something you need to define for yourself as you search out the kind of hunting experience you find most fulfilling.

I do admire some of the refuge regulars like Charlie who have the ability to consistently kill ducks and geese at the public refuges. But some of the best duck hunters I know have hardly ever stepped foot on a public refuge.

These are more or less regular folks -- not the super-wealthy. They choose to shoot their birds regularly with 20 and 28 gauge shotguns, wouldn't think to use a shell longer than 2 3/4 inches, are excellent callers, would quit the sport before adding a robo duck or a spinning wing or any other mechanical device to their decoy spreads, etc. Gotta admire that level of skill and dedication, too, although I'm not sure they'd win the admiration of the refuge staff.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I want to be able to hunt refuges well - Delevan in particular - in part because I love them, but also because I'm not likely to ever be able to afford some of the posh clubs where I've been a guest, where you can virtually always be assured of a limit. I love hunting natural marsh, and probably the most I'll ever be able to afford to lease/join is a rice club. If I can learn to consistently bring home 5-6-7 ducks from a refuge (max investment of a couple hundred bucks), then I'll be a pretty happy duck hunter.

As for living up to peoples' expectations, it's my own that drive me - not anyone else's. I just have really high standards.

The crowds in Grand Central are daunting, yes. But there was a sense of family out there that was really cool - something I've never gotten at a refuge before.

Live to Hunt.... said...

Sounds like an interesting, and common, free roam experience. Glad you harvested a few ducks. I know you mentioned perhaps being ready for a dog a few posts ago, but that experience with with wigeon is a great example of where a dog would have been really, really nice. My Golden Ret. has saved me a lot of mud slogging and recovered ducks that would have most assuredly been lost. Definitely worth the time and effort necessary to have one.

I also think a 20 gauge for refuge hunting is going to cause you a lot of frustration and wounded, sailed ducks. I love to shoot a 20 at the club where you can work ducks all the way in. But with all the competition and less-than-in-your-face shooting on a refuge, I think a 20 is just a wee bit light.

T. Michael Riddle said...

You are one dedicated Bird Hunter!
Tell Hank to get well quickly because I just yesterday, went out to Jolon Ranch and spied 5 really great Blacktail Bucks.

All serious wall hangers and will be excellent table fare because of all the expected rain.
Remember, I was the first to "Read The Hog Spleen" and predicted a fairly wet up-coming year!

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Hey all,

Thanks for the well wishes on my achilles. Bummer I will miss the end of the duck season, but Michael, I'll be ready for hogs in early May I hope! Just when they're eating green barley, yes? As for those wall-hangers, we'll jus' wait until August!

As for free roam, can't wait until I get to meet Charlie. It'll be next season for a hunt, but maybe he can come over for a duck hunter dinner when I get well enough to cook!

And as for 20 gauge, I have shot and killed everything with them. It is most definitely NOT too small for refuge hunting. I have killed birds at 50 yards consistently -- 20 gauge shoots just as fast, and just as hard. You just get a few fewer pellets, that's all. To each his own on gun size...

Anonymous said...

Learning the ins and outs of hunting the Roam Unit/s?

I'm LOVIN it!

This really is your year for shifting gears.

Hang in there.

Bill C.-Orygun

Anonymous said...

Hate to say it but it sounds like an awful time. Sounds like you had a really high lotto number and had no business going out there. Four or five hunters within a hundred yards is not an OK spot to setup! I know Charlie was trying to get you on birds but that is just crazy and an accident waiting to happen. When you see more assigned ponds in the refuge system this is the reason why, local hunters who go to the same spots no matter how many groups are there. I hunt Delevan many times a season and stay away from that pond because of exactly what you have described with your adventure out there. Sorry to be such a downer but I don't think you really got a good experience of free roam.

oldfatslow said...

Wow, five parties within
a hundred yards? I'd leave.
That's not safe. I'm
thinking a minimum of 150
yards between parties is
the least acceptable
distance. We guys get
territorial and stupid
about ducks - not a
good combination when
armed with a 12ga.


NorCal Cazadora said...

Anonymous: It was actually the best experience I've had in any Sac Valley refuge since opening weekend. I heard people cussing at each other twice, no big deal, and no one invaded our space or shot inappropriately in our direction.

Before trying free roam, I actually did love the assigned pond experience and I think DFG would be smart to move to more of those on its refuges and wildlife areas. Being tethered to within 100 feet of your blind (Yolo, Delevan) or being forced to stay in the blind (LDC) is really restrictive.

But of course, my last assigned pond experience at Delevan completely sucked because there was no place in my pond that the ducks wanted to be. And last time I went to LDC with a friend who had a decent number, we chose a mediocre blind over first dibs on free roam and totally regretted it. Experiences like these make my experience in free roam with Charlie look like the obvious better choice. For me, anyway.

OFS: You don't even get 150 yards between hunters with assigned blinds at a lot of refuges. This is the system we have in California. Our quality public duck hunting (i.e., places where you can do more than jumpshoot one set of birds and be done) is crowded. Not always as crowded as free roam that day with Charlie. But pretty crowded.

Unlike other states, hunting private land in California without a lease is virtually impossible, because why would anyone let you hunt for free when they can charge you a few thousand bucks a year for a lease?

And quality clubs with natural marsh and blinds spaced so that you can't even see other hunting parties have a six-digit buy-in. Unless all my readers start buying A LOT more books through my Amazon links, I won't be able to afford that anytime soon. Or ever.

I recognize that this isn't for everyone. It wasn't for me for my first couple years of hunting. But as I've gone along, I've increasingly craved the ability to move around when I hunt. To exercise more choice in where I hunt. That's just where I'm at right now.

oldfatslow said...

We've got some WMAs that
are similar to what you
describe, but I haven't
had the opportunity to
hunt them. If they
were my only options,
I imagine I could talk
myself out of my scruples.

The WMA I do hunt the most
has assigned impoundments
of 60 to 80 acres that each
hold one party of up to 4
hunters. It's amazing how
small that much room can
get when the steel rain
starts falling.

I also get to hunt open
marsh that is accessible
only by mud motor or air
boat. Since, I'm at the
mud motor end of the socio-
economic scale, I don't
have quite the range of the
blow boats, but we get to
a few ponds that are pretty
secluded from other hunters.

Glad you had a good hunt.
Our Florida year has been
slow so far.


Anonymous said...

Holly, shoot me an e-mail sometime at rsabalow@redding.com. I'd like to share some stories with you about my experiences hunting public refuges in far Nor Cal and to see whether you and Hank would like to join me some time on some duck hunts on public lands up here. I can assure you, it will be an experience very different than the cluster you just described.

Ryan Sabalow
A hunter/reporter in Redding, CA.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hey Ryan, I'll email you. But it's worth noting publicly that I specified "Sac Valley" when I mentioned my poor hunting up until that day with Charlie. My best shoot day of the year was at Tule Lake, the day after Thanksgiving.

r. hurd said...

Had my yearly waterfowl hunt and thought about the cazadora. Glad to see that you are still writing on the topic.