Saturday, May 30, 2009

And now for a change of pace: Frog gigging

When I was a little kid growing up in the San Joaquin Valley, I hated the neighbor boys.

We lived next to an irrigation ditch that was teeming with life - especially carp, crawdads and bullfrogs - and it was like my own personal aquarium. So of course, it really pissed me off when I'd walk to the ditch and see a bullfrog floating, innards spilling out of a hole in its belly. The boys had been doing target practice again.

This is what I was thinking about Friday afternoon as I sped east on the Jackson Highway toward Rancho Murieta to meet Boyfriend and our friend Peter to try something we'd never done before: frog gigging. Read more...
Of course, what we would be doing wasn't the same thing. Little boys kill wantonly because they're little boys. We kill things because we want to eat them - not for target practice.

But I wondered what it would be like. Would I feel pangs of guilt killing my old friend the bullfrog? Would it be different - harder? - killing by hand, rather than hiding behind a gun?

Of course it would turn out exactly the same - but I would be surprised nonetheless.

* * *

I was unusually unprepared for this hunt. I'd spent the afternoon at school tying up loose ends and had to rush home to pack everything we'd need. Boyfriend sent me the list:

- Both our waders
- the trident and rod in the living room
- Blue cooler with ice in it. Maybe a few beers.
- crayfish trap in the garage. It is a black cylindrical thing near the garden equipment.
- Some twist ties. I think there are a bunch in the "junk" drawer in the kitchen.
- The bag o'shad heads in the box freezer. They should be in a white grocery bag in the upper left-hand corner at the top of the freezer.
- Bug spray

We were heading to a bass club where there were stocked farm ponds that had crawdads and bullfrogs in addition to the prized bass. We planned to use daylight to fish and drop in the crawdad trap, then shift to frog gigging - which Peter had done before - at nightfall.

I bolted out the door wearing blue camo BDU's (night camo - ha!) and flip flops. As I headed down the street, already 20 minutes late, I realized I'd left my socks lying on the bed. Mmmmmm ... waders without socks. Cool.

The flip flop thing should've been fine. Farm ponds are pretty accessible - there's usually a road to them, and there are paths beat down by cattle.

But the first pond we sought out was oh, maybe 200 yards across mostly untouched grasses, which, this being California, have all dried up and gone to seed. Every step I took wedged more and more thorns into my flip flops and my feet.

I stopped periodically to shake off what I could. But I was a wreck. And the pond we were looking for wasn't there, so the whole trek was for nothing.

No problem, Peter said - there's another pond with a road going right up to it. We'll go there.

We drove across the ranch and there it was - perfect!

It was getting late enough that there wasn't much time to fish, so I just donned my waders and stalked around the pond with my gig while Boyfriend and Peter cast their lines into the water a few times.

We could hear some really big bullfrogs the whole time, so we were feeling optimistic.

After about 50 yards, though, I had rubbed the skin over my un-socked anklebones raw.







Idiot! I should've turned around and gotten the socks when I was just a block from the house.

When it got dark enough, we got serious about the frogs. Boyfriend donned his waders. Peter got the flashlight. He ran through what we would do: Shine the light around the edge of the pond trying to spot yellow eyes, which will be about all that sticks up. One person shines the light in the frog's eyes, immobilizing him, while the other moves around to the side or back and gigs the frog.

(Tangent: Why can we spotlight frogs but not deer? They only answer I've gotten so far is, "Because they're frogs.")

For our first run, Boyfriend would hold the light and I'd hold the gig.

We crept along the edge of the pond, being as quiet as we could walking through crackly grass wearing waders, but we didn't see any eyes.

Up. Down. Up. Down.

Ow. Ow. Ow. Ow.

A couple times frogs busted us - we heard them jumping into the water before we could see them, and we would all groan.

Finally, the beam of the flashlight found two yellow eyes.

"Move in closer," Peter told Boyfriend. You need a good strong beam of light to make the frog freeze.

I crept around and moved in behind the frog. The pain in my ankles disappeared. All thoughts of what the neighbor boys had done to my old bullfrog friends were gone. This was business.

I put the barbed prongs of the gig about five inches behind his head - wondering if I would be able to miss something that seems so obvious and easy, as I have done so many times with guns.

Peter was right. Poor little bugger was transfixed by the light. He had no clue I was so close.

I thrust, pushing the gig a foot into the water until I met the mushy bottom.

I'd hit him!

I held for a second, then pulled the gig out, and I'll be damned if there wasn't a heavy, wiggling bullfrog on the prongs!

Boyfriend and Peter cheered as I pulled the gig back to shore, a big grin on my face. I hadn't screwed it up!

Then the bullfrog wiggled off the prongs and leapt away.


I could see his shadowy figure, dimly lit by the first quarter moon, as he bounced further and further away.

Then, in confusion, he bounced back toward us. Boyfriend spotlighted him again and I tried to stab, but he leapt. I tried again and hit dirt as he finally aligned himself properly, burst into the water, dove and swam away, doing little underwater frog kicks illuminated by the flashlight.

I'm not sure how long my jaw hung open, but there were lots of bugs out so I finally had to shut my mouth.

"Uh, what the hell?"

This was exactly like the first pheasant I shot and the first duck I shot: He did not meekly fall dead like an actor in a melodrama. He fought for his life.

But unlike my first pheasant and my first duck, he won.

We walked the pond's edge a few more times, and we got busted a few more times, but we didn't see anymore telltale yellow eyes.

"This is tough," Peter said. "Usually there are a lot more frogs."

We considered searching for another pond, but it was getting late, and we'd all worked that day, so we called it quits.

But I got the answer to my question: Frog gigging was like every other form of hunting. When the time came, I had no problem doing what I needed to do. But just because I hit my target didn't mean it was in the bag.

And that failure left me craving another chance to see if I could get it right.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Thursday, May 28, 2009

In the kitchen: Wild hog cochinita pibil

Well, that didn't take long.

School hadn't been out more than a couple of days when Boyfriend stepped into my little home office last week and asked a rhetorical question: "Wanna cook something with that pork shoulder?"

Yeah, I don't do much cooking. I used to cook a lot, but with a boyfriend who runs two food blogs, the kitchen pretty much belongs to him. I've actually developed learned helplessness in the kitchen - when he doesn't feed me, all I can think to do is eat peanut butter straight out of the jar.

So every summer, when I suddenly have lots of leisure time, he tries to lure me back into the kitchen. And this time, the bait was good. Read more...
When I went hunting with Phillip the weekend before last, I didn't get a pig. But far be it from Phillip to send me home empty-handed: I came home with some backstrap, the heart, the liver and both shoulders from the pig he killed.

Mmmmmm. Pork shoulder.

When anyone says the words "pork shoulder" to me, one thing instantly comes to mind: cochinita pibil. It's a lovely dish from the Yucatan region of Mexico - slow-cooked pork in a tangy - but not spicy - sauce of citrus juice and achiote, or annato. It can drive you to eat way more than you should.

If you've seen the movie "Once Upon a Time in Mexico," you may remember that cochinita pibil is the dish Johnny Depp's character would seek all over the country, and whenever he found someone who cooked it too well, he'd kill the cook. You know, to bring balance back to the country.

But this would be tricky. One of the things that makes cochinita pibil so good is the enormous amount of fat you find in domestic pork shoulder. That's something you don't find in a wild hog.

"Do we have any lard?" I asked Boyfriend.


Actually, we had a half-empty bucket of two-year-old store-bought lard, but that stuff is hydrogenated and nasty for your heart, so I didn't even consider it.

Aw, hell, I'd have to improvise.

The good news is the thought I put into improvising was about the hardest part of making this dish. While it takes a long time from start to finish - 6 hours - half of that is marinating time and half of that is baking time. Give or take a few minutes of prep.

When it was finally done, it came out pretty well. Click on the photo above if you want to see the details.

I won't lie - I think a half-pound of lard would've made it better, because I like my meat ridiculously juicy. But Boyfriend liked it just the way it was.

And it was all the better because it wasn't made with some grocery-store mystery meat - I knew exactly where this pork came from.

Recipe: Wild Hog Cochinita Pibil
Adapted from Mexican Border Flavors: The Beautiful Cookbook

4 lb. wild hog pork shoulder, cut into 2-inch pieces
4-3 oz. achiote paste (see below for where to buy)
1 c. fresh-squeezed orange juice
1/2 c. fresh-squeezed lime juice
2 tsp. salt
1/2 c. canola oil (or 1/3 to 1/2 pound cubed fatback)

Place cut pork shoulder into a non-metal dish. If using fatback to supplement lean pork, place this in the dish as well. If using domestic pork, there's no need to add fat!

Combine orange juice, lime juice, achiote paste and salt in a blender. If using canola oil, add oil as well.

Pour mixture over the pork shoulder, cover and marinate for at least three hours, if not overnight.

Preheat your oven to 325 degrees.

Line a casserole dish with enough foil form a packet that completely seals the meat during cooking. (I could go into greater detail here, but then I'd embarrass myself by displaying my Germanic-Virgo-anal retentive tendencies to the world. My packets are beautiful and airtight. You? Just make whatever packet makes you happy.)

Add the meat and marinade, seal and place in the oven. Check for doneness after 2 hours - it may take as much as 3 hours to become tender.

When done, remove the dish from the oven. If you like, shred the meat for a pulled pork effect. Serve over rice and garnish with onions. Or cilantro. Or whatever you like to garnish things with.

Boyfriend wanted to top it with queso seco - a crumbly, dry Mexican cheese - to counteract the acidity of the dish. I thought that was blasphemy.

Whatever you put on top, though, prepare for gluttony.

Achiote paste

Achiote paste
Achiote paste is a mixture of annato seed (which provides the intense red color), cornmeal, flour, vinegar, garlic and other spices.

If you live anyplace that has a sizable population of Mexican immigrants, you probably have a Mexican market where you can find it. If you don't, you can order it through - for real!

Just be prepared: People will take one look at the brilliant red sauce it produces and think they're in for something hotter than blazes. But there isn't even a shred of chili in this paste, or anywhere in this dish. All you'll get is savory, tangy goodness.

If you try it out, let me know how you like it!

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Common ground in a den of vegetarians

Boyfriend and I are pretty much the consummate omnivores, but last night we found ourselves at a film screening sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, where I'm guessing at least half of the crowd was vegetarian.

I know. You're asking, "What on earth would prompt you to do such a thing?" While I have no beef with vegetarians (pun intended), HSUS is another story, infecting an oblivious meat-eating populace with its extreme-minority (0.5 percent of the population) vegan agenda through hyper-effective marketing and lobbying.

It gets even more weird.
Boyfriend, a political reporter who's well known as the Capitol's wild game chef extraordinaire, was invited to the screening by HSUS California lobbyist Jennifer Fearing.

So why did we go? Because the movie, FOOD, Inc., examines everything that's wrong with the food production system in America - mistreatment of animals, mistreatment of workers, mistreatment of farmers and a system that has somehow made it cheaper to eat stuff that's really, really bad for you.

Part of the reason I love hunting and eating wild game is because it helps remove me from that system, so it was a no-brainer to go watch the movie.

And besides, Boyfriend and Fearing get along decently. I'm guessing it has something to do with his food ethic - he cares where his food comes from, and how the animals we eat have been treated. She's publicly declared him to be among the least objectionable meat eaters she knows. (That link goes to a Sacramento Bee story about Boyfriend; Fearing is quoted at the end.)

So, how was the movie? Really good, but really depressing. It contains really upsetting footage of chickens bred to grow so fast that their bones can't keep up and they can't walk. Then there are the cows that can't walk to slaughter, so they're forklifted there. Then there are chicken farmers held hostage by chicken conglomerates that force them to employ more and more disgusting methods of animal husbandry to keep up America's supply of cheap (and bland, I must add), chicken.

If you're already immersed in this subject, you'll find this movie doesn't plow much new ground - it covers much the same territory as one of my favorite books, The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Pollan is featured prominently in the movie. So is Joel Salatin, a star of Pollan's book and a Virginia farmer who raises animals the right way - pasture-fed, not pumped full of antibiotics and hormones.

The movie also really blasts Monsanto, which controls something like 90 percent of soybean seed in America, for crushing farmers through staggeringly expensive litigation.

(Actually, I just put that line in here to see how long it takes Monsanto's public relations army to email me or comment on this blog. Boyfriend mentioned Monsanto in a tweet about the movie last night and got a response from Monsanto first thing this morning. Can you say, "creepy"?)

Despite the fact that the material was familiar, though, this movie had an immediate effect on me.

When I read Pollan's book two years ago, I resolved to stop buying factory-farmed meat. Since then, our freezer and refrigerator has been stocked with wild game, pastured domestic animals and the occasional chicken from our neighbors' coop. I believe I have bought conventionally-farmed meat three times since reading that book: once for a barbecue for my students, and twice when I succumbed to rotisserie chicken at the grocery store when I wasn't feeling well.

But the reality is, I'm still eating a lot of factory-farmed meat because I eat out a lot. At work, I eat lunch from the fast-food joints in my building (we have an Indian place that makes great tandoori chicken). And when I'm on long roadtrips, lunch or dinner is almost always at Burger King or McDonald's.

I wasn't more than 15 minutes into the movie before I felt really ashamed of that, and I decided that even if I can't eradicate factory-farmed food from my diet, I can probably minimize it a lot more.

Some people eat fast food because it can actually be cheaper than eating healthy; with me, though, it's all a function of time. Making lunches to take to work or take on the road takes time, and that's something I don't have at all. But I'm going to have to make time, because if I don't, I'm still part of the problem.

And truth be told, I'll probably need to hunt a little more (or a little more effectively), because I do like meat in my lunches.

Now, of course, the reason the HSUS was involved in this screening was that this was a great opportunity to convince people to go vegetarian. Judging by the number of people cheering when Fearing got up on stage after the movie (she got more applause than the producer, famed Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters and even Martin Sheen), most of the audience was probably already vegetarian or vegan.

But each of the 200 seats in the theater had an HSUS "Guide to Vegetarian Eating."

And Fearing - who's really good at what she does - made a pitch for the vegetarian diet during the panel discussion after the movie.

She noted how uncomfortable the audience seemed to be when it was watching a segment in which chickens were being slaughtered on Joel Salatin's farm in Virginia - and remember that Salatin is one of the good guys in this movie. "That's as good as it gets," she said with a grimace.

If that bothered you, she said, you should consider a vegetarian diet. And I actually agree. If you can't face the fact that animals must die for us to eat meat, and that dying involves blood and, uh, death, then yes, you should stop sticking your head in the sand and pretending that meat is born on polystyrene trays.

But of course, Boyfriend and I weren't about to lay down our guns and go vegan. In fact, we got up and left in the middle of the panel discussion because it was getting late - it was almost 9 p.m. - and we hadn't had dinner.

As we were walking up the aisle, a member of the audience who had just gotten the mic asked everyone, "Doesn't this make you want to go vegetarian?"

The crowd roared its approval.

I offered my answer - a smile and a thumbs-down - as we walked out the door.

Then we made our way to one of our favorite restaurants, where we ordered porchetta.

Made from pastured pork.

Raised by a farmer we know.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pig hunting with a television entourage

Standing in a hot, dusty Monterey County cattle ranch Sunday evening, I counted the people who would be coming along on my pig hunt.

There was Hog Blogger Phillip, who had invited me. There were the two owners of the cattle ranch, who knew where the pigs would likely be found. There was Michael, who'd hooked us up with the ranchers. There was Sam, one of Michael's guides, who happened to have been with me on two successful pig hunts at Michael's ranch last summer. There were Sam's three dogs.

And then there were four people from KQED TV - a producer, an associate producer, a sound guy and a video guy. Read more...

Now of course it figures that my first televised hunt wouldn't be on Versus, or the Outdoor Channel, but rather on a San Francisco public television program. On the hostility-to-hunting scale, San Francisco probably ranks second in the nation, outshone only by Los Angeles. Great move, Holly!

But what the hell. Sometimes people listen to what I have to say because I'm not the hunter they expect. I'm sure a few vegans will regurgitate their tofu if this program comes on during dinner, but perhaps a few meat eaters - and believe me, there are plenty in the Bay Area - will nosh on my words between bites of grass-fed beef and see that hunting isn't all they've been led to believe.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though. What the viewers will ultimately see depends on what the producers do with all that material. All I know is that this is for an episode of Quest, a science and environment series, about the feral pig problem in California, and my hunt with Phillip was going to be part of a segment about hunting as a piece of the solution to that problem.

With that already in their hands, all I had to worry about Sunday as I stood there with a mic shoved up my shirt was the same thing I always worry about: How would I do? Would I drop a pig instantly with a single glorious shot? Would I miss? Or would I maim some animal horribly, with the cameraman and sound guy there to catch every grisly detail, pig squealing and blood spurting out everywhere as it ran to some hideaway where we'd never find it?

See. Just a normal Holly hunt, with all my neuroses in tow. But the answer, it turned out, would be "none of the above."

* * *

Our entourage set out around 6:30 p.m., heading up a dusty road that paralleled a dry creek bed choked with tumbleweed. Up front it was me, Michael, Josiah the video guy and Bill the sound guy in a four-wheeler. Behind us, the ranch owners were in a Jeep, and Phillip and Sam were in their trucks with the producer and associate producer.

Michael and I surveyed the hillsides and creek beds, searching for dark spots that moved - and that weren't cows or tumbleweed.

Michael radioed back to the vehicle in the rear. He knew sometimes pigs would stay hidden in a creek bed and wait to bolt until all the vehicles had passed, so he was urging them to look back once in a while.

But it wasn't too long before some pigs popped out of a patch of tumbleweed in the creek maybe 40 yards ahead of us.

Game on!

My heart leapt out of my chest and I quickly followed it, jumping out of the four-wheeler, setting up my shooting stick and trying to get my cross hairs on a pig as they were scrambling up the hill.

Ah, but nothing would be that easy. One, they were moving pretty quickly, and I'm not nearly good enough to shoot a running pig. And two, those that were holding still seemed to be just over a small ridge line, where it was tough to get my sights on them.

There was one that held still. The only problem was that the pig was framed perfectly by a cow in the background. It was like a pig-cow eclipse. That meant if, God forbid, my aim was not true, I could maim a cow. An expensive cow. For millions of Bay Area television viewers.

"I can't do it - there's a cow there!" I told Michael.

Opportunity gone.

Michael radioed back to the ranch owners, then rushed me, Josiah and Bill back into the four-wheeler. Turns out there was an off-road way that we might be able to intercept them around the hill!

"Oh God," I groaned as Michael lurched into the field. Honestly, four-wheeling scares the crap out of me. I really, really don't like it.

But he floored it and got me to a position where we could see that herd of pigs making their way up a hill. Three hundred yards away.

Uh, I don't shoot that far. Remember me? The new shooter? Wobbly? Gimme a nice 100-yard shot?

Go go go! I set up again and tried to get my sights on a pig.

This time it was perfect. They were broadside. They stopped from time to time. But I could not hold the gun still. Here's how my cross hairs were moving on my chosen pig:

Uh, yeah. I hate, hate, hate bad shots.

"I can't do it. I can't hold still," I told Michael.

"That's OK," he said.

I got up, beat the dust and burrs from my hands and clothes and trudged back. Another Holly failure caught on film!

But Bill the sound guy was elated. "I could hear your heartbeat!" he said. "Really loud."

Yep, the mic was just inches from my heart. So now, millions of Bay Area TV viewers will know just how completely spazzed I get when I see game. Argh.

We rode around some more that night, searching for pigs until the last shootable light fell from the sky, but that would end up being my last chance for the evening. If I was going to deliver for this film crew, it would have to be in the morning.

* * *

The morning started badly. We needed to head out from our bunkhouse at Michael's Priest Valley ranch at 4:15 a.m. We awoke at 4:24 a.m. to the urgent sound of Phillip's voice:

"Everybody up! I had an alarm failure. We've gotta get out of here."

But we got to the ranch in plenty of time, got mics stuffed up our shirts again and headed down that dusty road for Round Two.

This time, I was in Sam's truck, again with Bill and Josiah in the back seat. We cruised creek beds and thin canyon roads slowly, with Sam stopping periodically to glass the hills and creek beds looking for the telltale signs.

It couldn't have been more than 15 minutes before Sam stopped. "There!" he said, pointing into a creek bed.

I couldn't see anything.


"Get out! Come on!"

I got out, but I'd left my shooting stick in the car. When I tried to head back, he grabbed me and said, "No time. Lie down here."

He pulled off his jacket and wadded it up as a prop for my gun. Sam's familiar with my wobbly thing. Meanwhile, Phillip set up beside me in the same position. There would be no chance of this opportunity sliding by today.

But I still couldn't see the pigs.

"There!" Sam whispered urgently, pointing into a patch of tumbleweed where I could make out some vague dusty oval shapes nearly the same color as the dusty tumbleweed. "Two of 'em."

I looked through my scope and made out two ears - it was like seeing the top of a hippo's head when it's mostly under water. It was facing straight toward me. I couldn't make out any features the other pig. But what I would see was that they were sleeping.

It was perfect! Pigs holding still. About 125 yards away. My best chance! I set up my shot, far steadier than I had been the day before with the heart-attack sightings. I put the cross hairs on the forehead.

"Put it right behind the ear," Sam whispered.

I was perplexed. "Behind the ear?" I whispered back. At this angle, I couldn't see how that would hit anything vital aiming there.

"Yeah, right behind the ear."

Sam knows way more than I do, so I put my faith in him, aimed right behind the ear and pulled the trigger. Phillip's shot on the second pig followed a fraction of a second later.

Half a dozen pigs exploded from the tumbleweed. None down. They were running up the hill.

Phillip chambered another round and pulled the trigger again. A pig squealed, then cartwheeled down the hill. Within seconds, it was twitching, the unmistakable twitch of death.

Another pig was running up the hill, then stopping. We waited to see if it'd been hit, but it kept going. I was getting ready to shoot when we saw the piglet behind it. There wasn't a one of us who'd knowingly orphan a piglet, so we let that one go. It was over.

Shit, shit, shit. How could I have missed? I was so steady and calm when I took that shot. Crushing disappointment began to sink in. It would've been devastating enough if it'd just been me there, but with a TV crew in tow, my failure would be immortalized.

We headed down the hill to check out Phillip's pig.

There was one bullet hole in the gut. Uh oh.

Someone rolled it over and we saw the other hole on the hip. For a gutshot pig, it had sure died quickly. (As it turned out, the shot had hit an artery - and not the stomach - so it really was perfect.)

Then we saw something else. A five-inch-long wound on the back where a bullet had ripped through skin and a little fat and not much more.

"That was my shot," I said.

The bullet had gone right where I aimed it. Right where I thought it would go if I aimed behind the ears.

I should've aimed for the head.

On the bright side, had Phillip not shot that pig, it would've survived my shot just fine. "They do worse than that to each other out here," Phillip said.

I would not have been responsible for a slow, painful, needless death.

But I had blown my chance.

After Phillip gutted his pig, we drove around looking for more, but I knew that would be it. It was over.

Back in the truck with Sam, I went over the shot.

"I shot right behind the ear," I said.

"Right behind the ear," he replied, tucking his index finger behind his right earlobe.

Apparently, he was either looking at a different pig - which could've happened, given that there were a LOT of pigs in there - or he had a really different angle on the pig I aimed at.

"I didn't have that shot," I said. "It was facing straight at me."

We drove back to the ranch gate, where Chris the producer interviewed me and Phillip, asking us about why we hunt, why we hunt pigs, hunting's role in conservation, the emotional element of hunting - the kind of stuff we write about all the time. Then they stripped us of our mics and headed up the road to their next interview.

On the way back to our bunkhouse, I went over the shot with Phillip.

"When Sam told me to aim behind the ear, it didn't seem right. I was thinking I should aim at the head. Should I have trusted my instincts and done that?"

"No," Phillip said. "Always do what your guide says."

Phillip's not a fan of head shots. They are not guaranteed kills, and a bad head shot can result in a grisly non-fatal maiming.

"So I should've spoken up and said, 'I don't have that shot.' "

"Yeah," he said. "In retrospect, we had time. They were asleep. We could've moved into a better position."

Coulda woulda shoulda.

I'm sure the public television viewers couldn't care less. And I know the TV crew was ecstatic that they'd caught the whole thing on film - and caught it well.

But for me, it was a huge disappointment - another demon that would sit on my shoulder and torment me for Lord knows how many hunts to come. One that I now get to share with a really, really big audience.

Postscript: And for Phillip's take on this hunt, click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Mother's Day, death & the quest for insight

OK, I know I'm a week late for Mother's Day. I really did mean to write this post last weekend. But first there was target shooting, then there was blogging about target shooting, then there was the massive argument in the comments about target shooting...

All water under the bridge now. About a month ago, my uncle sent me the following video from a Mother's Day newscast that first aired who knows when. It was irresistible. Check it out and you'll see what I mean:

Cute, yes. But it also got me thinking.

Since I started hunting nearly three years ago, I've been on several quests. The first is to be good at it. The second is to combat misperceptions about hunting (many of which I used to hold myself). Both of those are relatively easy: One takes practice; the other takes effort.

But the third one is tougher.

It's my quest to understand my complex and sometimes baffling feelings toward animals. I kill them and eat them and I love them and respect them, and my respect and love for them has never been stronger than it is now.

How can that be?

Our resident anti in this blog's community - Hutchinson, who weighs in respectfully with comments from time to time - is deeply uncomfortable with hunting because he feels powerful empathy with animals, and he very easily slips into their minds and really feels the moment of being shot, and the suffering that follows if death is not instant.

Funny thing is, so do I.

The difference between me and Hutch is that I love eating meat, I believe it's good for my body, and I'm willing to do the hard work - and by that I mean the emotionally hard work - it takes to acquire meat. So I shut down my empathy during the hunt.

It doesn't always stay shut down, though. Last summer, I killed a Corsican sheep on my friend Michael's property down in Monterey County. It was Labor Day weekend, and Boyfriend was cooking a feast for Michael's guests, and we needed more meat, so I was sent out to get it.

My guide Ed got me about 75 yards from the sheep. We were on a hill, and they were on the opposite hillside. I calmed my heart, took the shot and watched alarmed as all the sheep ran up the hill.

"Did I hit it?" I asked Ed, baffled. Then the sheep stopped 20 yards from where they'd started. One staggered and dropped to its knees, then lurched up and ran back where it had been standing when I shot it, where it collapsed.

My heart was racing. It was down! The shot had gone through both lungs, and the sheep was dead inside of a minute.

But it was a heart-wrenching minute as I watched that animal in its final fight for life. I was in that sheep's head, my world spinning into blackness as blood filled my chest and suffocated me.

Dammit! My empathy had punched back to the surface, and it was awful.

Logic quickly rebounded and subdued empathy. Honestly, the only better death than what this animal had experienced would have been instant death. Having watched my Dad suffer for two years before his death, I can tell you my whole family believes it would've been far more merciful for him to have had a massive heart attack in his garden (which is how his father died). And I'm certainly well aware that dying of old age in your sleep is a fantasy out in nature.

Logic like this is your friend when you hunt and kill animals. To be consumed by empathy is just brutal.

But I know there are plenty of hunters who have moments just like this one, and it's certainly not just the women. When men open up, they'll talk in subdued tones about the awful moments of an animal's death.

And you can't travel far in the outdoors blogs without running into yet another post about animal killers becoming animal rescuers. Albert recently posted about the lengths he was going to to feed a baby mockingbird. And then there was me and my stunned-robin episode back in March.

So the questions Hutch might ask if he were here (I believe he's on an excursion now and won't see this post for a while) are these: How can you continue killing and eating animals if you feel that way? And how can you turn around and express compassion toward a robin that smacked into your window when you might well be willing to eat it on toast if it was killed instead of merely stunned?

And the answer is I don't know.

But the reason I can't get my mind off this Mother's Day video is that it gives me comfort: I am not alone in this paradoxical behavior.

If that Lab in the video were a wild dog, I'm guessing she wouldn't hesitate to kill wild kittens if she was hungry and the opportunity arose. That female cat, if she were bigger, would happily munch on that fawn. And that leopard ... well, obviously she did kill a baboon, but then she nurtured its orphan.

Apparently the animal kingdom is filled examples of this bizarre behavior that shows killing and nurturing instincts live side-by-side in our brains. The only difference between us and most of the other animals is that they probably don't give it a thought, and we big-brained homo sapiens can think it to death.

I still don't get it. But if I take anything away from this, it's that hunters are able to behave more like the rest of the animal kingdom and simply be what we are, rather than over analyze.

And truth be told, that's one of the things I appreciate most about being a hunter: Most of the time, hunting simply allows me to be.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Sunday, May 10, 2009

So THAT'S what they mean by 'tight group'

Not entirely satisfied with my performance at the shooting range yesterday, I went back today to see if I couldn't get tighter groupings.

I wasn't planning to blog about it ... until I did this.

Dang.
My first two shots were a little high and a little wild from wobble. I was jumpy. And I was sitting next to a guy shooting a .300 mag (irritating) with a whiny son (even more irritating).

One click on the scope to drop the shot a quarter inch, and I got my third shot close to where I wanted it - about an inch over bull's eye. I waited for the next ceasefire, slapped a Shoot-N-C sticker on the target, and went back for three more shots.

First one: Good - an inch above bull's eye and slightly left. Second shot right on top of it (and I found out later, right through the hole of my best shot from Round 1). I chortled gleefully.

Third shot - breathe calmly! - right where I wanted it, just touching the other two. I laughed and laughed and laughed.

I was gonna take three more shots, but why mess with that?

Moral(s) of the story:

1. I love my Savage American Classic .270 and my Bushnell Elite Series scope.

2. I love my Nosler E-tip non-toxic bullets (thanks to Phillip for that recommendation).

3. I love my new decaffeinated brain - it's easier to convince myself that there's no need to flinch just because the gun's gonna shove my shoulder a bit.

And I do believe that the demons who were standing on my shoulder whispering in my ear yesterday were standing in the line of fire today. And with shooting like this, that means they're dead.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A new rifle, old demons and first shots

Eighteen aching days. That's how long I've waited to shoot my new rifle.

I picked up my baby - a Savage 114 American Classic in .270 - on April 21, and haven't had time to go to the shooting range since. I wasn't supposed to have time today either, but after our planned striper fishing trip got canceled, Boyfriend and I determined this would be the day.

As soon as my eyes opened this morning, I was aflutter - Christmas morning, a first date and my favorite cake (white, buttercream frosting, corner slice please) all wrapped into one joyous moment.

But as the minutes wore on, all my old demons zoomed back and hovered near my right ear like Minnesota mosquitoes, filling me with the same old doubts, and some new ones, too. Read more...
What if you're just as wobbly as you were last summer? What if you're still flinching? What if quitting coffee didn't help even a little bit? (Yeah, I quit coffee!) What if you don't hit the paper? What if the scope sucks? What if it was mounted badly? What if this gun shoots non-toxic bullets like total crap? (I've decided to shoot just non-toxic, because I typically hunt hogs in the California condor range.) What if it was a mistake to get a right-handed gun? (I'm right-handed, but left-eyed. Click here for that whole discussion.) What if the gun's fine, but you just can't shoot?

I knew it was at least 50 percent irrational. I killed three big game animals last year - my first year of big game hunting - and the second and third were perfect shots.

But the first will haunt me forever. I placed my shot on a quartering animal as if he were broadside, so the shot was too far back. And I pulled left on the trigger (shooting left-handed, with a hand smaller than the gunmaker envisioned for that pistol grip), pushing the shot even farther back. I ended up with a gutshot pig, snarling and dragging a hind leg with a shattered femur as I put a bullet in his head at 10 yards to finish the poorly done job.

With memories like that never far from the surface, it's no wonder I began to feel grim. But there was no backing down now. With than $1,200 invested in my new Savage, scope, accessories and ammunition, and a pig hunt scheduled for May 18, I had to take those first shots. We got in the car, and I did my best to ignore the demons. Two perfect kills, Holly, two perfect kills.

And by the time we got to the range, I couldn't help but be excited again.

"Long time no see!" the rangemaster greeted me.

"I'm here to shoot my new gun!" I replied with a big silly grin. "These'll be my first shots with it."

Boyfriend and I parked at the 25-yard range. I loaded, took a few calm breaths and pulled the trigger.

Shazam! Not perfect. But just 3/8 inch right of perfect bull's eye. I know it was just 25 yards, but I never underestimate my potential for imperfection, so it was a big deal to me.

We adjusted the scope a bit, got the windage right and moved to the 100-yard range.

My first two shots on the Savage.
Second one was a little lower than I wanted, but we moved on anyway.

At the 100-yard range, my first shot was 2 1/2 inches low, so I cranked up that scope and got the next shot about 2 inches high. One more adjustment, and time to just shoot.

This is when I remembered what I learned last summer: My first few shots are usually my best shots. I start getting squirrely after that. And yes, despite having decaffeinated myself - in part because I want to be a better shooter - I found I'm still prone to flinching. So my shots really weren't grouped as tightly as I wanted them to be.

But I found if I stopped and thought about it, it was actually easier now to calm myself down and avoid the flinch. (Uh, yeah, it's hard to calm yourself down at all if you're drinking four or five cups of coffee a day.)

After all the adjustments were done, I got two right next to each other about an inch over bull's eye. And they weren't flying way to the left like they used to, so I knew I wasn't pulling on the trigger much like I was last summer.

First six shots at 100 yards

Time for three more shots, and then I'd call it a day.

First shot: half inch high, and a little to the left.

Second shot: 2 1/2 inches high. Flinched. I knew it would be bad.

Third shot: Nicked the edge of the bulls-eye.

Whew. I could leave with a smile on my face. OK, I know it needed to be an inch high, but 100 yards is my ideal range at this stage of my development as a shooter, so being on the bull's eye wasn't terribly upsetting.

Target still life with Giblet the Kitty

"Not bad, Heyser," I thought to myself on the way out. This is far better than my usual disgusted self-castigating "Shitheyser!"

Oh, I'll be back at the range one more time before my pig hunt. I really want to see a tight grouping on that target.

But it went well enough to shoo those demons off my shoulder. No more worrying, no more waiting. Just time to keep practicing. With my new gun.

Composite of nine shots at 100 yards - yes, the final three shots are total Photoshop Phakery. But whatever.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Friday, May 8, 2009

A very different kind of hunting video

One of the reasons I love doing volunteer work for California Waterfowl is that I know the people who run it, and I know they understand how vital it is - particularly in a state like this - to explain to non-hunters why we hunt.

More often than not, that means helping members figure out how to talk with non-hunters, through articles in the Cal Waterfowl magazine, or even pocket-sized lists of "talking points" hunters can use to share facts about what we do.

But now, they've put out a video that speaks straight to the public, and it says all the things Cal Waterfowl folks and I talk about whenever we get together, whether it's at a fundraiser, over dinner at our house or in a duck blind. No kill shots, no hootin' and hollerin' - just a serious discussion about our place in the circle of life and what hunters do to preserve the species we hunt.

Check it out and tell me what you think! (And if the video below loads slowly - it's hi-def on Vimeo - click on the photo above to go to the faster version on YouTube.)

Why Hunt from California Waterfowl on Vimeo.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Disappointment and ... a new huntress?

Boyfriend and I just spent a long weekend in New York City to learn the answer to the question we'd been asking for seven weeks: Would Boyfriend's blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, win a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for best food blog, or would "finalist" be as far as he got this year?

For those who aren't as immersed in the food world as we are, let me explain: The JBF awards are a big deal in the food world. The Oscars. Not just for foodies, but for chefs and restaurants and food writers. Go to a bookstore and look at the cookbooks - if you see a James Beard seal on one, you know it's good stuff. Having a blog that deals with wild game among the finalists meant a lot.

If you follow his blog, you know by now that he did not win. But our trip to the city brought a pleasant surprise I never would have expected. Read more...
OK, there were plenty of predictable moments. I saw more freakin' famous chefs and television personalities in the space of 24 hours than in the previous 43 1/2 years of my life. And - I kid you not - world-renowned chef Jacques Pepin's left elbow brushed up against my right breast at an after party.

OK, really, it was an accident, almost not worthy of the tawdry name-dropping. Trust me - he wasn't copping a feel. He didn't even look at me. Or my breast. It was just crowded.

So, moving on, here's the thing that really got me revved up: I don't know if it was by accident or by design, but the night of the media awards, Boyfriend and I ended up at the same dinner table with his competitors, a team of bloggers from Sunset magazine's "Our One-Block Diet". They were the ones who would win.

But we liked each other right off the bat. Our food ethic was the same; the only difference was that Boyfriend and I don't just garden for food - we hunt for it.

We chatted and drank and ate together as the ceremony progressed, and by the end of it, we were all quite friendly. I don't remember exactly how it came up (forgive me - cocktails consumed: Manhattan, champagne, Stella Artois, innumerable glasses of wine and sherry), but one of the bloggers, Johanna Silver, announced that she'd totally be into hunting.


It reminded me of the day my English PhD buddy Hellen found out I was a duck hunter and immediately declared that she, too, wanted to hunt ducks.

Johanna is in the center. Boyfriend's on the right.

You know me. I love spreading the faith. Hunting has brought me closer to what it really means to be an omnivore on this planet, fully aware of the cycle of life and my place in it, long-submerged instincts awakened...

So we began making plans. Take hunter safety. Get a gun. Let's get you to a women's shoot - doesn't have to be a women's shoot, but they're just fun. Practice. Then come fall, Girlfriend, I will take you hunting! It will change your life...

Johanna's more into pheasants than ducks - the hunting passion that consumes me 100 days a year and then some - but who cares. She's a foodie from the San Francisco Bay Area who eats meat, understands where it comes from and wants to participate more deeply in the process of putting food on the table.

What's not to love about that?

Photo credits: Main photo: Hank's mom. Second photo: Me? I think. With one of the Sunset girls' cameras...

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Finding kindred spirits in the Big Apple

You can't get much further from hunting culture than New York City, can you?

Maybe, maybe not. Boyfriend and I are in the city this weekend for the James Beard Awards, and one of our first stops yesterday was the swankiest gun store I've ever seen: the Beretta Gallery on the Upper East Side.

I'd read about the store in the New York Times last summer, and when Andrew at the Regal Vizsla found out we'd be coming to town, he suggested that we check it out.

It was quite the experience. While the store carries plebeian versions of shotguns, such as my trusty Beretta Urika AL391 (retail: $1,000 or so), its specialty is the high-end firearm.

I don't know that I can be trusted to describe them accurately, but this is what I remember: gorgeous burled walnut stocks, sidelock trigger mechanisms and microscopic engraving that forced me to break out my reading glasses so I could fully appreciate it.

But really, all I need to say is that in the space of five minutes or so, Boyfriend and I had handled a few guns that, combined, were worth more than our house. There was one 28 gauge quail gun - lovely! - that went for $120,000.

The sad thing is that buying and owning a gun in New York City is a complex process - permits, registrations, the works. If you think California's 10-day waiting period is bad, try New York City, where you can easily wait four months for all the paperwork to go through so you can get your gun.

Good thing I wasn't in the market for a new shotgun, right?

Of course, I couldn't visit the place without buying something, so after looking around at lovely women's safari shirts ($145), and a serving platter rimmed with silver stags ($500), I finally found something I could afford.

A hat.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009