Thursday, December 17, 2009

Inglorious: I'm the angel of duck death

Duck season has been exasperating this year.

Beyond my astonishingly good hunt on Tule Lake on Black Friday, I've been hard pressed to get more than one duck on my strap on any given hunt.

And let me tell you, a duck strap doesn't work well with just one duck on it. (Sheer resourcefulness, however, has led me to turn my duck strap into a duck necklace - Flavor Flav style. It works.)

Now, don't get me wrong: I am grateful for every bird I bring home. But it's how I got those lone ducks on my last three hunts - especially the last one - that's got me feeling a bit funky. Here's what I mean: Read more...
Hunt No. 1: My friend David invited me to join him at Little Dry Creek on an icy morning in the middle of a pretty serious cold snap (for the Sacramento Valley, anyway).

Little Dry Creek is the best public duck hunting land in the state - a gorgeous marsh in a miniature delta where where Little Dry Creek and Howard Slough feed into Butte Creek. There are lots of tree-lined sloughs, and the whole place is surrounded by rice fields where the ducks fatten up.

We ended up with a blind that was in an alley of sorts, a 75-yard-wide strip of water and tules lined by trees on either side. Little Dry Creek is known for having lots of wood ducks, and David and I had pre-dawn visions of them zooming up and down that alley all morning.

Only problem was the ducks didn't seem to be on the same page. Not the wood ducks, not any ducks. All morning long, ducks piled into a blind across the trees from us, but nothing was flying our way.

The guy in the blind down the alley from us was having a hard time too, and we could see that the frustration was driving him to take some really long shots all morning long. After one of those, the two ducks he shot at - greenwing teal - came zooming our way, the mid-morning sun at their backs.

The drake was clearly in bad shape, his flight unsteady and low as his partner powered up to a safer altitude. As the drake came over a patch of tules that bordered our small pond, I raised my gun, fired, missed, fired again and sent him tumbling into the water.

I'm not sure how much farther he would've made it if I hadn't shot him - he was the proverbial dead duck. But his options were to leave this earth on my strap or in a coyote's belly, and I'll be damned if I'm going to get up at 2:30 a.m. to hunt in a marsh at 20 degrees Fahrenheit to let the coyotes eat the cripples. I'll take 'em.

Hunt No. 2: It should have been glorious. A major cold snap up north had sent most of the birds down into the valley that week. And I had gotten the No. 1 draw for the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, which meant I'd get my pick of all the blinds in the place.

The blind I chose was so good that as my party walked away from the check station to head out into the field, another hunter pulled me aside and said, "I've got a hundred dollar bill in my pocket that you can have if you'll just let me in on your party."

I just grinned at him, still giddy about my amazing fortune.

If only he knew what a bad trade he'd just offered to make. When shoot time arrived, the ducks were flying like crazy. Shotguns were going off left and right, like we were in the middle of a massive battle.

Except in our pond, which was silent.

The birds were flying over us at about 100 yards and dive bombing - literally! - into the next blind. Over and over we'd hear shots and watch the ducks fall. It was unbelievable.

Ducks want to be where ducks want to be, and on this day, they wanted to be in the next blind. We found out later that it was the best-performing blind in the entire refuge that day - two hunters shot their limit in very short order.

Meanwhile, the guys in my party were scratching out a few here and there. At one point, I wandered away to a spot in our pond where I'd seen ducks flying. I heard shots back where my guys were and turned back to see if they'd hit anything. Two greenwing teal were zipping my way in a familiar pattern - the drake powering up to safety, the hen careening just above the tules. When she got close enough, I raised my gun, fired once and dropped her stone dead.

I brought a fast end to whatever slower death awaited her from my friend's shot. She was the only duck I'd get that day.

Dejection at Delevan

Hunt No. 3: I went back to Delevan yesterday afternoon with a new set of expectations. If I could scratch out just one duck, I'd be grateful. Two would be a godsend.

"Back again?" asked Bob at the hunter check station.

"Yeah," I said. "I'm just going to keep beating my head against the wall until it stops bleeding."

I didn't have a reservation, so I got on the waiting list and took the first blind I could get. It didn't have a good track record, but I didn't think it would matter - there was hardly any shooting going on anyway. There weren't even any ducks in the normally cacophonous closed zone. The place was dead.

The light breeze that had greeted me when I arrived disappeared quickly, leaving my decoys still on the water - a dead giveaway to birds in the air that these couldn't be real ducks. As the afternoon wore on under a hazy sky, I got a couple iffy shot opportunities, but didn't connect on them.

About 30 minutes before sundown, the duck activity began to pick up around me and I found a good vantage point to survey potential incoming ducks - it was a little turret of tules tall enough for me to hide behind, but low enough for me to swing a good 270 degrees.

Nothing was flying my way, but over my left shoulder I caught a glimpse of something on the water.

It was a spoonie hen. I hadn't heard her land, but I could see that she was wounded. I crept out of my turret to get a better look and decide whether I'd need to fire a shot.

I wouldn't. Her bill kept dipping into the water as she struggled to lift her head.

She's done.

Then I saw something that made my heart fall: Her drake was by her side.

It's pretty much impossible not to anthropomorphize in that situation. Her man was by her side as her life was slipping away. I let that thought pull me down, and then the hunter in my head pulled me back up.

Shoot the drake. You'll have two ducks.

That poor bastard was so preoccupied with his dying hen that he didn't see me standing and raising my gun at him.

I remembered the advice of a friend: If you've got to take a water shot, aim a little low. People tend to lift their head off the gun on those shots. And if you aim a little short, the shot will tend to ricochet off the water into the duck.

So that's what I did.

The drake burst out of the water. Did I miss?!? Had I aimed too low?

I shot again and he kept speeding away. It was hard to believe I'd missed.

Who knows, perhaps I'd just done to him what had been done to his hen and he'd bleed out and die in someone else's pond.

But one of my pellets had clearly hit the hen, because she'd given up the ghost abruptly when I'd fired my gun.

I shook off my self-contempt and went out to pick her up.

Another strap of one. Another finishing shot on a duck that came my way in distress. I was a one-woman clean-up crew, hastening death for the already dying. A scavenger.

Maybe next weekend will be better.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


native said...

Don't get too down Holly!
I have missed way more than I have connected, and if any person tells you that they have done otherwise, well then either they are a Midnight, Spotlight Poacher (I hear a song in that phrase :-))

Or I would have to say that they are downright lying!

SimplyOutdoors said...

We've definitely all missed, so I wouldn't let that get to you too much.

And I can completely relate to the whole hen dying while her man is by her side thing. But, fortunately, these animals don't have such complex emotions as we humans do.

And I'm glad to hear you got over it real quick, and tried to add another piece of meat to the table:):)

But I've been there; nothing like hearing another deer bleating, because they're trying to locate the deer you just killed. It will pull at the heart strings.......for a second.

Phillip said...

You've become a huntress, Holly. Your skills are there, you've got a few good seasons under your belt, and you've reached a stage that every hunter undergoes... where the measure of a hunt is the weight of our strap, or meat on the pole.

Those of us who've been hunting our whole lives went through it when we were young, but we've all gone through it. It's part of the maturation process of a hunter.

In the meantime, keep an eye on the big picture. If the birds aren't there, they aren't there. You're still out in the marsh. Remember that beautiful post you wrote about the sunrise and the things you see that people who don't hunt will never experience?

It can't be about how full your strap is. That's what farms are for. Go buy seven ducks and save yourself the frustration.

You had a very productive hunt earlier this season, and you'll have more before the year ends. You'll kill more birds, and have more duck dinners. Enjoy that you're able to be out there on those freezing, glorious mornings and on those beautiful, sunset evenings.

NorCal Cazadora said...

With the exception of the day I had No. 1 at Delevan, when I had good reason to expect more than one duck, I'm not too broken up about the totals. I pretty much never expect limits. And on six hunts this year, getting one was a blessing, considering how poor the flights were.

It's just weird to have such a long streak of one-bird days. And that goes double for the whole clean-up crew thing. On the one hand, I'm really grateful that I was in a position to finish off and bring home birds that had not died instantly. I know they'd've been hawk and coyote food if I hadn't hit them.

But that last one especially was just sad. I could use a nice normal hunt to shake it off.

Phillip said...

I just realized that my last post sounded pretty condescending, and that wasn't my intent. Apologies if it came across that way.

As to the slow flights, I know that's the case this year as on Sunday I had the absolute slowest day of duck hunting I've ever experienced in CA. I can honestly say I have NEVER seen the flight so light at Mendota...

Josh said...

Holly, I hope my cousin and I haven't rubbed off on you too much. I'm sure you've heard the opening lines of all our hunting stories.

They usually start like this: "Remember that time we shot that duck?" "Remember that time when those specks dropped in on us and we almost got one?"

In fact, family and friends go through a common evolution in conversation when they learn about my hunting. The first few times, upon my return, I would hear, "How many did you get?" The next few times it's, "Did you get anything?'

My mother is down to, "Did you have a good time?"

NorCal Cazadora said...

Oh, Josh, THANK YOU! I needed a scapegoat. You'll do just fine!

Phillip, I didn't take it as condescending. I think perhaps I just wasn't clear enough about what's on my mind - that it's a funky feeling when for three hunts in a row, all you get is other hunters' crips.

And for what it's worth, I just checked my stats (yes, I love numbers), and the fact that I've been skunked only once in eight weeks of duck hunting is a new record for me. It happened six times by Week 8 in 07-08, and three times by Week 8 in 08-09.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Uh oh, once I open a spreadsheet, it's nothing but trouble. By Week 8 last year, I'd had four hunts with more than two birds. That explains why the whole one-bird-per-hunt thing feels anemic this season. (Oh no, Phillip, I can't understand where you got the impression I was worried about numbers. LOL)

But as long as I'm on this subject now... officially, this is an interesting point in my development - that I've gotten good enough to backslide on any measure. For my first three years, everything was constantly getting better. Now I have to get used to normal fluctuations. It sucks being mortal.

Phillip said...

Holly, I've gotta say... playing clean-up for three hunts in a row is kinda odd, but I can relate. When I used to duck hunt a lot (every weekend and many Wednesdays), my old lab, Sandy, used to average about a bird on every hunt. There was more than once that I'd have come home empty-handed without finding someone else's leavings... but I can't say there was ever a streak where that's all I got.

And as to that whole being mortal part... the first part of beating a problem is admitting you've got one. Now that you've made that start, it's just a process of steps to overcome it. You'll be immortal in no time!

NorCal Cazadora said...

You mean perfection is possible???

Now I'm really in trouble!!!

David Loret de Mola said...

It only took two words to make me love this blog: "Duck" and "Necklace."


NorCal Cazadora said...

LOL. I can make you a duck necklace if you like, but you'll need to keep it refrigerated.

DarrenM said...

As you know, this is my first duck hunting season and it seems like every time I've been out it's been another reason why ducks aren't flying into my pond.

If there's one thing I've learnt about duck hunters, is that the most common phrase they utter is "yeah... well... the ducks don't really come in and the hunting doesn't get good until ..."

NorCal Cazadora said...

Ha! In all honesty, now is about the time it usually gets better. There are always exceptions, though. The two hunt days at Delevan before I got my No. 1 draw were lights-out shooting; my day was when it suddenly slowed. One thing has been consistent, though, in my four seasons: November tends to be very, very slow.

sportingdays said...

Cazadora -- First, let me apologize for being out or having my cell phone off or forgetting to check my e-mail when you tried to reach me and invite me out with you on the #1 Delevan reservation ... You know I'm good for at least $150.

Don't beat yourself up too much. This has been a very strange and inconsistent duck season. I don’t think your experiences in the marsh this year are all that unusual from what I’ve been hearing and experiencing. I was free-roaming the Sacramento NWR last weekend, in the middle of a pretty good storm, and yet saw surprisingly few birds and heard much less shooting than I expected. Where are all the ducks? It’s not like you’re whiffing on duck after duck, locked up and setting in your decoys. That's what still happens to me much too frequently after decades of duck hunting.

Phillip -- love the black Lab story. So ture. That’s happened to me on a few refuge hunts as well –- where the bull sprig or the greenhead on my duck strap ended up there only because my black Lab found somebody else's cripple. Funny how we never tend to disclose those details when other hunters are admiring our duck straps back at the parking lot or back at the check station.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hank's finally ready for dogs, so we'll start getting those too, maybe next season.

As for that invitation... That was the hardest thing about getting No. 1, having only two spots for friends. That and knowing it'll probably be the only No. 1 I ever get. And probably my only draw this year.

Swamp Thing said...

Rough season out here too. You're overthinking it. For some reason we tend to just let the good days "exist" in our memories, while the not-great days get tossed apart, analyzed, and reconstructed a thousand times.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Weird - and this after all those great population reports in the summer?

As for overthinking - hell, that should be my trademark! NorCal Cazadora - Overthinking Everything.

Anonymous said...

I haven't commented in a while now. But I just wanted to say that, first -- I don't believe it's anthropomorphizing to apply those characteristics and complexities of emotion to non-human animals. I've seen incredible and heartbreaking scenes of animals waiting days by their injured or dying mate. I work with these birds and both wild and domestic animals. They have genuine feelings, they grieve their loss (in spite of what many would like to believe for convenience). They may mate again after the loss. But so do humans.

I've always said here (and elsewhere) that we minimize their emotional lives at cost to our humanity. Read "Wesley the Owl" or "Alex and Me" if you really want to get inside the head of a bird (as much as we humans can, anyway). In Wesley the Owl, the biologist who raised Wesley suggested their emotions could actually be more intense than ours because they don't have the same filters repressing their feelings.

Second, I appreciate your candor Holly. You've always been so good about that. I was so gratified you were able to bring a quick end to these ducks. Because contrary to popular belief, they usually don't become coyote food. We see them with days-long -- or even weeks-long -- septic infections from wounds. Predators often don't make it into the tulle marshes to retrieve drowning ducks. I've seen more than my share floating in waterways downstream from hunting areas.

That's my experience. I realize yours is different. But you know I always tend to pop up when the animal's experience is minimized. You all may hunt and you have your reasons for doing so. But when you hunt, yes, you do affect the social and emotional lives of these animals. If there's one thing I'd like to help change in this world, it's the perception that our fellow earthlings are devoid of those qualities we hold dear in our own species. Science is even showing, more and more, that our previous collective perceptions of animal consciousness has been misguided.

-- Hutch

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hey, Hutch, good to see you again!

I don't doubt that they grieve; I just don't know exactly how their experience differs from ours - and it must differ in some respect.

But I totally welcome your perspective, because I'm not one of those people who believes that animals don't have emotions or feel pain - I go into every hunt with eyes wide open in that respect.

Anonymous said...

Holly was taking to Dianne and Bob tonight they say you want to learn Delavan free roam will be glad to take you out anytime and show you the area. I hunt there almost every shoot day (when work allows) and have now for more years than I want to admit to.
"Peebs" Charlie Peebles

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hey Charlie, they told me that on my way out last night. Thank you so much! Email me here and we can figure out a time to do that.

And for the record, everyone, I actually continued my streak yesterday! Might even have to be a whole separate blog post... But first, I need a cup of tea.