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.
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.
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
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Duck season has been exasperating this year.