"I don't want to be a bad influence, but..."
Those words were ringing in my ears Sunday as I charged through sucking mud and water until I thought my lungs would burst, chasing after a snow goose that I'd shot, then watched sail away with just enough wing power to take it far, far from where I sat.
David - the Bad Influence - and his dog Coal Pit were gaining on me rapidly, and I was grateful for it. If I had to chase that bird on my own, I think I would've passed out. I'm normally tougher than this, but after two weeks of aggressive rest following an emergency appendectomy, my energy had its limits. This was the point Sunday at which I met them.
So how did I get myself in this situation?
After I wrote about having my appendix taken out, a reader emailed me to wish me well. At the end of his email, he wrote, "Anyway, I don't want to be a bad influence, but if it might be a little incentive to get well, on the last day of the season, I do have the #3 card at Delevan, and if you found yourself feeling up to making the walk out to a blind at whatever end of the refuge is upwind on that day..."
I was heavily drugged when I read this email, but I'd pretty much have to be dead to not react to an offer like that. The Delevan National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best refuges in the state, and being No. 3 in line to pick your blind means you get get the best hunting available under whatever the conditions are that day.
There was only one question: Is Boyfriend invited?
Yes? Well, then, game on! And I proceeded to spend the next 12 days taking good care of myself.
When Sunday morning came, it might as well have been opening day, I was so excited. And so grateful, after being put on the DL for most of the end of the season. I woke up an hour and a half early, at 12:45 a.m., ready to go.
When we got to our spot, an "assigned pond" on the south side of the refuge, I sat like a princess on an island while Boyfriend and David did all the work setting up decoys. Then, with everything in place, we staked out some spots in the tules and waited for shoot time.
Pretty quickly, David got a drake wigeon, and I got a drake gadwall - one shot, thank you very much! But after that, the morning just dried up. Nothing was flying. Well, almost nothing. Occasionally ducks would fly high over us and bomb into some obviously unhunted pond behind us. And some other birds were flying a route that was out of our reach.
So we changed our setup - something you can do in an assigned pond, where you are not required to sit in one spot. It's like your own personal "free roam." Boyfriend went and parked under that flight path that was just out of our reach, and I went back to the unhunted pond. By this time, though, it was probably around noon, and the flight had really slowed down.
Until I saw two snow geese approaching very, very low. I watched eagerly as they headed my way.
Bam! Bam bam!
One dropped, and then the other. Back where Boyfriend and David were. Oh well.
About 15 minutes later, I noticed a duck speeding away from me, back toward the guys.
Bam! He dropped. In their pond.
Sigh. Was it going to be one of those days, where the birds go wherever I'm not? I trudged back to their side. If I wasn't going to hit anything, I at least didn't want to be lonely.
We reconnoitered on our island, unabashedly unhidden in the blazing sun that had not been in the weather forecast, standing around eating carrot sticks.
"So," Boyfriend said to David, "the question is, do you want to eat lunch, or dinner, at Granzella's?"
We all laughed. I don't think either of them felt they needed to hunt the whole day, but they could read my face plenty well. They knew I'd been benched for two weeks, and that I really wanted to get more than one duck on my last hunt of the season. So we stayed.
I did another fruitless tour of duty in the Unhunted Pond before heading back to the base camp for the final 90 minutes or so of hunting. They encouraged me to take Boyfriend's spot under that flight path - that's where he'd shot one of the snow geese I'd seen from a distance.
Lo and behold, it worked.
A pair of birds zoomed out of the Closed Zone, straight at me.
Down! The bird dropped about 60 yards away, out of sight, and I charged through sucking mud to get to it, giving my lungs the first serious workout they'd had in ages. Don't lose this bird, Holly!
When I got to the spot where she'd dropped, there she was, dead on the water, not even kicking anymore, because it had taken me so long to get there. What a beautiful sight - quick death, found bird. Hen gadwall.
This was my 39th duck of the year. If I had to go home now, I'd be happy, because coming home with two ducks is a good thing. But I love milestone numbers. I was so close now ... could I make it 40?
Back in my spot, I kept an eye on the Closed Zone, and was rewarded very soon with two teal zipping my way.
Now, teal can really take you by surprise because they fly fast and low, twisting around each other like they're wrapping ribbon around a May Pole. But if you see them far enough away, you have time. And I did.
I slipped the barrel of my gun out of a tangle of tules and crouched low - like our cats when they're about to pounce on each other, except I didn't wiggle my butt the way they do.
Down. Right in front of me! Dead. A beautiful hen cinnamon teal.
But this one made me sad, because for some reason, she reminded me of my cat Giblet, a runty, cute little girl. I stroked her head and apologized, and felt grateful that she'd died quickly.
Now I knew I'd go home from this hunt happy, though. Three birds is very satisying. It's all gravy now, I thought as I kept my eyes on the Closed Zone.
Then to my left, I heard the question. "Are those white geese?" Two geese were heading in, and if they were a certain dark goose - the specklebelly - they were not legal game. But I could see clearly in profile that these were snow geese, and they were very close.
I stood and shot just as David did. David's goose fell hard, almost in his lap. Mine - which, oopsie!, Boyfriend had been about to shoot - fell, but didn't hit the water. Instead, he sailed under faltering wing power, over thick tules, back toward the Unhunted Pond.
I leapt out of my tules to start the chase.
"I'm gonna need Coal Pit!" I yelled to David. I knew this would be hard.
The goose was nowhere in sight as I plowed through sucking mud and foot-deep water. It was vital to find that goose ASAP, or I'd lose it. It wasn't just that this was the only goose I'd shot all year. It was that I hate, hate, hate wounding and losing game.
But this mud was bad. Every time I lifted a foot, it was like a sumo wrestler was pulling that leg back down. In 20 yards, I was gasping for air, practically shrieking with each breath, lungs on fire. I was pretty sure my surgeon would not approve of this activity.
When David and Coal Pit caught up with me, I pointed to where I'd lost sight of the bird and told David its condition. They went ahead and I slowed to a pace that wouldn't kill me. When David got to open water, he said he could see the bird.
It was on the water, and it flapped its wings when it saw us, but couldn't get airborne. One positive sign. But it could still paddle way faster than we could walk.
David sent Coal Pit after him, and told me to head off to the right. After a second, I understood what he meant: We'd form a pincer motion around the bird and corner him on the pond, hoping he didn't have enough leg power to get out at the levee and run even farther.
I'd lost sight of the bird, but I took it on faith that David and Coal Pit were on him. I didn't have any choice; I was a wreck.
Finally, I spotted him at the levee road. When David got close enough, he fired a shot across the water and the bird's head dropped. It was over.
David met me on the road with my bird, and we walked back toward our blind on dry land, me thanking him profusely between gasps, my head still reeling from exertion (and hunger too - I'd been fueling up on nothing more than light snacks all day).
Back at the blind, I raised my bird so Hank could see that we - David, really - had been successful, and then I rushed back to my spot. With 20 minutes of shoot time left, there was no time for chitchat. I was almost in position when I heard
Another snow goose had come in behind me, and Boyfriend had shot him. He sailed the same direction as mine, but crashed in thick tules. David and Coal Pit had to go out AGAIN.
But this one was a much easier fetch - the bird was stuck in tules and didn't move at all. Hard for a person to get to, but relatively easy for a dog. Coal Pit saves the day!
In the last minutes of sunlight, I kept my eye on the Closed Zone, but there were no ducks coming out of it. Instead, our entire pond was alive with swallows zipping and darting through the air, a visual symphony all around us, the final fireworks for the last day of the season.
It was perfect. I didn't need any more ducks. Closing Day is a special day, one you always want to be memorable, like anniversaries and birthdays. My first two closing days had been decidedly unspectacular. But this one had been fantastic: a generous invitation from an online friend, a pre-sunrise-to-sunset hunt, and my best take yet at my favorite refuge. For this to close with a beautiful display of nature was icing on the cake.
At 5:22 p.m., we unloaded our guns, started picking up our gear and said good-bye to the refuge we love.
"See you in October!"
© Holly A. Heyser 2008