Saturday, August 29, 2009

How a rabbit hunt turned into a hissy fit

I went rabbit hunting this morning to satisfy my increasingly itchy trigger finger, and to see if perhaps I could collect enough bunnies to perfect the recipe I tried with the fruits of my previous labors this summer.

NOTHING was moving.

The air was heavy and thick, and I did not see one little white tail bouncing into a thicket. Usually I persevere, but something told me it would be useless today, so I bailed after a little more than an hour and developed a Plan B on the spot. Read more...
I knew there were other huntable wildlife areas in the vicinity - I'd just gotten a bunch of maps from a guy at the Department of Fish and Game. Perhaps I should check them out - do a little daylight scouting so I could try something new next time I feel like setting an alarm for 0-dark-30.

The problem was, I hadn't brought the maps. But I remembered enough that I should be able to find them using my state map book.


I drove over a bridge, admiring an area that looked like it should be rich in game. But I didn't see any sign that it was huntable public land.

I continued up a road, looking for a side road that I knew should lead to an entrance to a huntable wildlife area, but I never found that road. Oh, I took a bunch of side roads. But none of them was right.

Note to self: Don't expect good signage - bring your maps.

So I returned home and immediately looked at the maps.

Interestingly enough, the first place I'd pulled over to consult my state map book was probably where I should've turned to find the area I was looking for. Dammit! Road sign woulda been nice.

Then I looked at all those maps and came up with another plan: I should compile these into a binder so I always have this information at my fingertips! I could throw it in my car whenever I go on an adventure where plans might need to change last-minute.

So I compiled the binder. And in the process, I found a map that indicated the area I'd admired from a bridge was indeed public and huntable.


Oh well. The binder is glorious. National wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas, and maps, and blind locations, and regulations - everything a girl with a gun needs!

And I can look admiringly at it for the next 56 freaking days while I wait for duck season to begin.

See, that's what I'm waiting for. Yes, I can shoot doves for two weeks starting Tuesday. And yes, I will go out Tuesday morning, and I'll go out again this weekend for the epic Labor Day Hunt and Feast at Michael's place (which, btw, is open to the public for the first time ever - check out details here).

And I'll start hunting rabbits again after the dove hunters are done shootin' up my rabbit place (Sept. 16), but only until the blacktail deer hunters show up (Sept. 26).

And maybe I'll even go on a nice hunting trip this year. I'm being furloughed because of the state budget crisis, and that means I have to take a bunch of days off, and that means for the first and possibly only time on this job, I can schedule a four-day weekend that would allow me to hunt out of state in the fall - you know, out of state, where the whitetail and the antelope play?

Oh, except for the fact that I'm taking a 10 percent pay cut and can't afford a hunt like that.

Dammit, how long is it until duck season? Oh yeah. Fifty-six days.

Ducks, glorious ducks! Cold weather, stormy skies, the stink of neoprene, duck calls, Wind Whackers, many opportunities to shoot, stoning some, chasing others, checking for bling, coming home, pouring bourbon, plucking ducks, drying wet gear by the fire, feasting on duck as Boyfriend begins another season of his legendary Duck Hunter Dinners.

Oh, I can feel it!

But it's 108 degrees on our front porch today, and every time I walk outside my little fantasy bubble bursts, and the sun slaps me silly, and says, "Girl, you ain't even close to needing to pull out those decoys."

I know. I know.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Alien abduction and the other duck season

My summer vacation was killing me. I was working my butt off on freelance assignments, getting into that morning-noon-and-night slavery mode. I needed a break.

So what did I do? I drove five hours north to - you guessed it! - do more work.

And it turned out to be one of the best vacations I've ever had.

Last fall when I went duck hunting a couple times with my friend Brent up at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, he talked a lot about the volunteer work hunters do up there in the summer - duck banding and botulism control. "You should come up!" he said.

Now, I already contribute to and do volunteer work for California Waterfowl - mostly writing and organizing. But I've never done any hands-on work with the ducks, and it felt like it was time. I told Brent I was in.

* * *
The first night we did banding, it was just like going on my first hunt. I had no idea what to expect. I just knew the vague outlines of the drill: We'd zoom around on airboats looking for ducks. The driver would spotlight ducks, rendering them dazed and confused. We would net the ducks like fish. When we had enough in our crate, we'd bring them back to shore to be banded. Then we'd release them, a little stressed out, but not worse for the wear.

You know. Kind of like an alien abduction.

Here's how it looked when fellow volunteer Kelly was on the net:

The only thing that baffles me now is how I failed to recognize how amazingly fun this would be.

It was hunting without the kill. It took skill to net the ducks - they weren't so dazed that they couldn't manage lots of evasive maneuvers when those nets came at them. There was lots of laughing every time they outsmarted us.

But there was also a huge element of playing Santa Claus.

The ducks we were catching would be sporting jewelry when we released them back into the water. Bling was everywhere for us that night, so it wasn't special to us. But any hunter who brings down one of these birds, be it on opening weekend or in seven years, will be delighted to find the band. (Hunters, if you get a duck banded the night of Aug. 5-6 at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, it might just be a duck I handled that night.)

Personally, I've never gotten a banded bird before. I sure wouldn't mind getting one. And it would be amazing to get one that I helped band. (It's not that crazy of an idea - it's happened to Brent a couple times.)

With that in mind, I had a special mission that night.

The folks from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who were running this operation were targeting gadwall, but of course we could bring in any duck we could get.

I wanted spoonies.

I love the Northern Shoveler. I've always liked underdogs, and the spoonie is just that, mocked for its ridiculous bill, denigrated - often unfairly - for its taste. I think it would be the coolest thing in the world to get a banded spoonie.

So I did my best to net them. I don't even care if I get a banded spoonie myself. I just like the idea of some hunter who thinks he's just "settled" for a spoonie getting a happy surprise.

And, funny thing: On the hunt, I've learned that a wounded spoonie is the wiliest bird ever, the most likely to escape capture. That night, I found out they're just as hard to net when you're spotlighting 'em. It took me several tries each time.

But I was successful, as were other netters. I'm pretty sure we banded at least three or four spoonies that night.

When we finally wrapped up for the evening around 1:30 a.m., Colin Tierney - a contract bander for Cal Waterfowl - told me he and his sidekick Jeremiah Heise would be going out again on their own for the next few days. I could come along if I wanted.

Oh yeah, I wanted.

* * *

Colin and Jeremiah were using a different method: At night, they were putting out traps baited with wheat - kind of like giant lobster traps designed to funnel birds in but make it hard for them to get out. Then in the morning, they'd check the traps and start banding.

They were targeting mallards, and whenever they'd find a good adult drake, they'd slap a $100 reward band on him. (Hunt, Eat, Live! wrote about those bands last season - click here to check out that post.)

Strangely enough, getting the birds out of that trap in broad daylight was even crazier than netting them in the dark. Here's what I mean:

Yeah. The second you walk in, the ducks start flapping around like crazy, spraying you with water. You crowd them into a corner, and just when you reach one of them, they dive and swim away from you, hidden from view by the murky water.

Funny thing is as much as they don't like being nabbed like that, they must not mind too much, because they will go into traps over and over and over - easily one-third of the birds in the traps already had bands.

Those that didn't got the treatment: Check the age and condition of the bird by inspecting the wings. Take some measurements. Clamp on a band. Weigh the bird. If he's got enough feathers to fly (many birds are still molting), give him a little send off. If not, put him back in the crate to be escorted to the water when the whole batch was done.

Here's what that looked like:

Man, it was fun.

Normally when I'm handling ducks, it's because I've killed them, which is a bittersweet moment. But on this day, I wouldn't be taking them home with me - I wanted them to go on and thrive - so I handled them tenderly, uttering soothing endearments in hopes it would ease the irritation and indignity of their ordeal.

It was nice to handle them and admire them in this context. This was the first time that my relationship with the ducks involved giving, not just taking.

* * *

For my last day in the area, Brent and I planned to go out and do botulism control.

Botulism breaks out at the refuge every summer when water levels start to drop and water temperatures rise, creating perfect conditions for the botulism bacteria. Ducks start to sicken and die. When the dead ones float on the water, flies lay eggs on them. The resulting maggots look yummy to ducks, who stop by for a bite to eat. But those maggots are loaded with concentrated botulism toxin - it takes just three or four to kill a perfectly healthy duck.

You can't get rid of the bacteria completely, but you can really limit how many ducks die by patrolling the refuges and picking up the stinking, rotting carcasses of dead ducks. That was what we'd be doing that day.

Strangely enough, I was looking forward to this part of the trip because I knew my actions could well save more ducks than I could possibly kill this coming season.

But alas, the weather had been cool, so botulism had not become a problem yet. We picked up three carcasses that may or may not have been casualties of botulism: a pelican, a coot and a grebe.

So our botulism patrol ended up being more of a tour of Tule Lake and a preview of the ducks we'll be seeing this coming waterfowl season. We were able to get a great view, because a lot of the poor ducks are still molting and can't fly away, so they flap pathetically across the water in the face of an oncoming boat:

Lotsa canvasbacks on that lake!

* * *

That was all more than a week ago now. The freelance deadlines have closed in on me again. My day job is about to hit me like a ton of bricks too: School starts Aug. 31. And fall hunting is just around the corner. Doves on Sept. 1, ducks on Oct. 24. We're getting pretty birdy around here.

But this trip was - and remains - a huge bright spot in a very hectic summer, a time of giving to help balance out the time of taking. Many thanks to Brent and his wife Suzy for putting me up (and putting up with me) so I could have this opportunity.

And come January, when the waterfowl season comes to its melancholy end, I won't immediately start thinking about the next October. Instead, I'll be thinking about the next summer.

And I'll be smiling.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Vultures, smelly trash and lessons learned

The coolest thing happened this afternoon: A vulture landed on the wall at the back of our property! This is my amazingly bad photo of the event. Sorry, there was a lemon tree in the way.

Why am I so excited about this? The answer will either surprise you or leave you absolutely convinced - if you weren't already - that I am insane. Read more...
The vulture's landing today grew out of two seemingly unrelated story lines in my life.

The first is about garbage. Boyfriend and I do a fair amount of hunting and fishing, and for the animals that we dress at home - birds, rabbits and smaller fish - we end up throwing the guts in the trash can.

This can smell really bad. Like the time when Boyfriend and his dad and brother went fishing two days in a row, right after the garbage had been picked up for the week. Holy shit, that smelled like festering zombies.

But the worst ever was a few years ago when Boyfriend went rabbit hunting in the summer and the garbage workers promptly went on a three-week strike. Yowza.

At the back of my mind all these years has been this nagging worry about the neighbors with the bedroom windows near where we keep our trash cans. There must be a better way...

So, that's the backdrop. Fast forward to this month, when I was working on a story for the National Wild Turkey Federation magazine, Turkey Country, about California's lead ammunition ban.

If you haven't heard about the ban, then you must not be reading Phillip's Hog Blog - he writes about it a lot. He's got great stuff over there.

Short version, though, is this: The California condor is an endangered species - there are only a few hundred left. One of the condor's big problems is lead poisoning; their bodies just can't deal with lead at all.

A lot of biologists believe a major source of lead in condors' diet is spent ammunition that they consume while feasting on gut piles left by hunters, or shot animals that hunters haven't been able to recover. So California banned most lead ammunition in the condor zone.

I have deliberately skipped over the politics here, because the politics are not relevant to this story. What is relevant is the discussions I had when I was reporting on the story about all the scavengers that really depend on (or at least appreciate) hunters leaving gut piles for them.

One of the guys I interviewed - Jim Petterson, a wildlife biologist for Pinnacles National Monument - told me a story about coming across a shot dead deer (not recovered by the hunter) on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona. "There were three condors, a golden eagle, a bald eagle, ten turkey vultures and ten ravens all feeding on it, or trying to feed on it, or waiting to feed on it," he said.

Wow. That was food for a lot of critters that scavenge for a living!

Later, I was reviewing a report on the condor by the American Ornithologists Union, and it said how vital it is for hunters to keep hunting in the condor zone, because condors depend on hunters for food (see conclusion 2, p. 79).

So I started thinking.

I don't live in the condor zone, but we do have scavengers in my little bubba-ish suburb of Sacramento. Vultures circle overhead all the time.

When I throw guts in the trash - usually on weekends, and trash pick-up day is Thursday - the only animals I help are the flies. You don't even want to know about the seething masses of maggots in that trash can after a hunt.

But if I leave gutpiles where scavengers can get to them, I'm helping other critters, and pretty much eliminating any chance of smell, because the stuff would get picked up so fast it wouldn't have time to stink.

So, for the past couple weekends that I've gone rabbit hunting, I've tossed the guts in the field behind our house - a field conveniently left vacant by speculators who were going to build houses there but timed construction right at the start of the real estate crash.

I have never smelled a thing. That stuff gets picked off fast. (And in case anyone's worried that I'm poisoning the vultures with lead shot, I killed those rabbits with steel shot.)

But I've never seen the beneficiaries of the gutpiles. Until today. I was at the back of the house when Boyfriend hollered, "Hey, there's a vulture landing in our yard!"

I grabbed the camera and shot through the sliding glass door:

I felt bad. I didn't go rabbit hunting today - I'm giving my spot a rest - so I had nothing for him.

But I was happy, because I knew he was here because this was where the good stuff has been. In five years, we've NEVER seen a vulture land in our vicinity.

Hey, some people use bird feeders to attract wildlife on the wing. We use rabbit guts.

I'm not sure what we'll do when the market rebounds and houses get built in that field. I'm guessing the new neighbors wouldn't appreciate the whole gut pile scene.

But for now, we've got a win-win situation: I'm happy. The vultures are happy. The neighbors should be happy. And the flies - well, screw them anyway. They can lay their eggs somewhere else.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, August 17, 2009

Great news for chicks who dig hunting

It must be the Year of the Woman Hunter, because there's a lot of cool stuff going on for us these days in terms of hunt opportunities and clothing options.

Check it out (even if you're a guy - there may be something in here for a woman you know):

The 2009 Cabela's Waterfowl catalog has finally hit our mailboxes and if you look on page 209, you'll see me and my friend Sarah and the story about how we helped Cabela's develop their new Cazadora Women's Waders from the ground up.

If you for some reason can't get the catalog, you can click on the image to the left and it might be printable, or just go here.

The waders retail for $199.99, and even if you don't need waders this year, I hope you'll tell your female hunter friends about this - I was really impressed with Cabela's commitment to serve us, and I'd like to see them rewarded for their efforts. (And no, they have not paid me a dime to say any of this - but I have been allowed to keep all the prototype waders they've sent me.)

If you'd like to see more options, the good news is the guys from Cabela's are working with us on their next project - yay!

If you know a woman who's interested in learning to hunt and you live in California, boy do I have a great opportunity for you: California Waterfowl is doing a two-day event Sept. 26-27 in which participants will do their hunter education courses, get shooting instruction, get their 2009-10 hunting license (with upland stamp) and go on a pheasant hunt, all for $150.

What makes this a great event is not just the price, but the fact that a woman can get done in one weekend what took me a couple months when I decided to start hunting back in 2006. Even better, because Cal Waterfowl will have guns on hand, it's a very low-risk way to check out hunting. If a woman decides she's not into it, she's out $150 and two days of her life - she doesn't need to have a gun because Cal Waterfowl will have some on hand. That's huge, because buying a gun is a commitment to go all the way before you even know what it's like to hunt.

Click here to see the flier.

The Fall 2009 Filson catalog also has some new treats for women: a sweet-looking upland jacket ($250) and a women's upland vest ($145).

I haven't tried out either of these because my closet overfloweth with hunting clothes (like seriously, I have more hunting clothes than work clothes). But I can tell you that Filson clothes are really well-made - I'm still totally in love with the Filson shooting shirt I bought earlier this summer.

Based on photo alone, I'd still say SHE Outdoors (SHE Safari) still has the most feminine upland vest, which is a great trick in a vest that has a built-in game-bag. I've been wearing my vest on my rabbit hunts and it's served me well. But the Filson upland jacket looks to have a nice feminine curve in it. I know, I know - you don't need to look sexy out in the field. But I do like looking like a woman. Since, you know, I am one.

There will be a special women's hunt at the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath national wildlife refuges Saturday Oct. 24.

Yes, that's opening day for California's Balance of the State zone, where I do most of my hunting, but this is kind of a sweet deal: You don't need reservations, you don't need to pay any extra fee. Just head out to hunt that day, and if you're a woman, you can keep shooting from 1 p.m. to sundown, even though shoot time for everyone else ends at 1 p.m. (Actually, it's also a youth hunt, so the same rules apply for kids.)

If you've ever hunted these refuges, you know that by the third weekend of the season, all the ducks already know it's "safe" to return to the refuge at 1. You know what that means: There should be some good shooting!

This event was organized by Hunt Program Coordinator Stacy Freitas, whom I spent some time with last week when I was up at Lower Klamath (that'll be another story). This is the first time she's been able to do this, so I'm pretty excited about it. Click here to see the flier.

Speaking of Klamath, when I was up there last week, one of my friends told me about a shop in Klamath Falls, Oregon, called the Tackle Shack, whose owner is committed to carry as much women's hunting gear as he can find. That's pretty sweet for a small shop - the local store I patronize carries no women's clothes because our numbers don't justify it.

When I stopped by the Tackle Shack on Saturday, they didn't have much hunting stuff yet - that'll come in a little closer to waterfowl season. And I don't think they'll have waders because I'm pretty sure Cabela's is the only one making women's waterfowl waders. But I was still impressed by the commitment to serve women. If you live in that area, check out the store when it gets closer to hunting season - let's reward the folks who want to help us out.

One last thing! I was literally just about to hit "publish" on this post when I got an email from Susan Herrgesell, president of Becoming an Outdoors-Woman, California, asking if I could link to the BOW-CA site to let women know about all the opportunities for learning that they offer.

Susan: Done!

Finally, a reminder: Don't forget about that Team Huntress Women's Outdoor Adventure Clinic coming up this weekend in South Dakota!

I blogged about it last month here, and you can check out the Team Huntress website here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Even a fishing story brings out the antis

When I wrote a story for the Sacramento Bee about that fishing trip Boyfriend and I took on the Trinity River last month, I wondered what the reaction would be.

I'd had two pieces in the Bee - a commentary last year about why I hunt, and a story earlier this year about spring turkey hunting. Both pieces brought the usual comments from anti-hunters, but I wondered if a fishing story would be any different. Read more...
While I personally feel a life is a life is a life - I take the killing of all animals equally seriously - I've assumed the vast majority of humans have far less problem with killing fish than they do with killing mammals and birds. Even in many primitive hunter-gatherer cultures, birds and mammals are classified as "us" while fish are classified as "other."

Well, the fishing piece came out this morning, and wouldn't you know it the first comment on the piece is from an anti exclaiming with fake wonder that there's still a resource I can "ravage and plunder." I must admit, I was a little surprised.

On the bright side, at least there hasn't been a comment yet from "Coppersmom," a rabid woman who made lots of freakish comments on my last story in the Bee. Then again, maybe she just hasn't found it yet.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Rabbit hunts, video games and good advice

Last Saturday I found myself heading out to the Feather River to have a go at those rabbits again, and it struck me that hunting and video games actually do have something in common, and I’m not talking about the shooting.

I went through a couple phases when I played video games a fair bit. I never had it in me to be like some of my students (or ex-boyfriends, for that matter) who’d play video games every waking moment if you gave them a chance. But there were a couple games I really liked: Tron back in high school. Elevator Action when I was in college. And early in my professional career, Sewer Shark.

While many folks abhor the way video games turn children into vegetables – and outdoors people especially lament how they keep kids indoors – video games actually satisfy something really important: the quintessentially human lust for learning. Read more...
Think about it: Why do kids play video games over and over and over? Because they want to get better and better and better. They want to master the game. That’s why they can’t tear themselves away.

This is what was on my mind as I headed to my spot on the river as that gentle pre-dawn light began to fill the sky. I was here in large part because I wanted to get a chance to play this new game again, to master it – a feeling that still defines much of my hunting experience because I’m still so new to it. I was thinking about all the things I’d done wrong my first time out the weekend before, and how I would do things differently this time so I could be more successful.

This time, I knew a bunch of spots where there were sure to be rabbits (like knowing where the monster will pop out in a video game). I knew where I needed to be quiet. I knew where I needed to think fast. And I was armed with two good pieces of advice I got from Josh and Jean when I blogged about the previous weekend’s hunt (much the way gamers rely on tips from their friends).

When I headed over the levee and loaded my gun, I approached the spot where I’d been successful the week before, taking care to walk concealed edges where I wouldn’t be seen as easily as I had before, when the rabbits and I saw each other at 80 yards.

But there was no movement there this time, so I walked on through.

As I walked up the embankment that led to my next rabbity spot, a bumblebee zoomed around my head, and I remembered this was exactly where a bumblebee had strafed me the weekend before. Either he liked my blaze orange hat or I was getting too close to something he wanted to protect. Either way, I was getting to know the gamescape, and this was apparently his spot in it.

Next I came to the spot where I’d seen plenty of tails bouncing into a little thicket of wild roses the weekend before. This time I approached quietly, and indeed I heard lots of movement in the roses. Hop. Hop hop.

Josh’s words came back to me: If you stand there quietly for about 20 minutes, they’ll come out sometimes.

So I stood there quietly, moving very little, scanning the brush every time I heard movement to see if a rabbit had come out. I had a great vantage point, standing on a dirt path where I could look down into the roses – which were pretty scraggly – and get a good view of the small bank that rose up behind them. The sun still hadn’t topped the horizon, so everything still seemed muted and gray.

Hop. Hop hop. Hop. Hop. Hop hop. Hop. Hop. Hop hop. Hop.

Not just one rabbit, but several. And every time I heard a hop, my eyes would zoom to that location to see if anything had left cover.

After 10 minutes of this, I saw what I was looking for: A rabbit had emerged from the roses, taking a few steps up the bank opposite me. She was quartering away from me, not looking my way. I raised my gun very slowly. She didn’t spook.

Now Jean’s words came back to me: Aim in front of the head to avoid filling the body with shot.

I still didn’t know how my gun patterned at this distance – probably 15-20 yards – but I was willing to take a guess. That rabbit I shot last week was full of holes, two legs so broken up that they’ll have to go into sausage. I didn’t want that to happen today. The other reason I was here was because I’d had visions of an African-inspired rabbit-peanut stew, and I wanted beautiful, whole parts from several rabbits in it.

I aimed ahead of the doe and pulled the trigger. The dust exploded all around her and she bolted to the left.

I rushed down the hill, rose thorns tugging at my shirt as I went. I was afraid it had been a poor shot, that I would have sent a cripple into a thicket where I’d never find her.

But there she was, no more than 10 feet from the spot where I’d shot her. She was quite dead. And it looked like she wasn’t as full of holes as last week’s rabbit.

Success! My heart still racing, I thanked her. Don’t ask me why. Sometimes I thank the animals I shoot. Sometimes I apologize to them. Sometimes I just quietly pick them up.

Regardless, I was grateful it had been a good shot that ended her life quickly. Later, when I dressed her, I’d find out just how good: Two shots had pierced her back and done a lot of damage to a single tenderloin. Two had pierced her ribcage and hit a lung, which bled profusely. Several shots had hit her head. No mangled legs. No broken guts. A very clean kill.

I put the doe in my vest and moved quietly to the next spot, a place where I’d seen LOTS of rabbits the weekend before.

Sure as hell, they were there again today. I could hear them moving all around me on both sides of the path. Emboldened by my success minutes earlier, I found a soft sandy place to stand, faced an area with good visibility and waited for my next easy kill.

Hop. Hop hop.

Hop. Hop. Hop.

Hop. Hop hop. Hop.

I saw a shadow zipping behind some grass, but never saw the telltale ears. Remembering how close I came to shooting a squirrel the week before, I held fire.

Then I saw the grass moving, about 25 yards in front of me.

Hop. Move. Hop. Move.

The grass was so tall I couldn’t see what was making all this noise.

Munch munch munch munch munch. I could see the grass being pulled down each time this animal took a bite. I could hear that this was a rabbit-sized mouth doing the munching (I used to raise rabbits in 4-H). I absolutely knew this had to be a rabbit. I was pretty sure I could even figure out which end was which. I was 100 percent certain I could kill it.

But I couldn’t see it. And this was not a video game, where shooting the wrong thing costs you points or, at worst, ends the game. This was real life, where shooting the wrong thing could end up taking the life of something I didn’t intend to kill, or even worse, something that was illegal to kill.

I held fire. And the rabbits – I know they were rabbits! – kept moving.

After standing there nearly an hour without any rabbit showing its face, I conceded defeat and moved on. Yep, that’s what you get for getting cocky, Holly.

I did get one other chance that morning. As I walked away from the Spot of Frustration, a rabbit veered into, and quickly off of, the path in front of me. Remembering Boyfriend’s words – that I have to move quickly – I shouldered my gun and fired, watching the dust puff up a few feet behind the rabbit as he zoomed around a corner into the wild roses.

Horrible shot.

And I’m almost glad I missed – I didn’t really want haunches full of shot anyway.

But it was important that I took the shot, because the week before when a bounding rabbit presented me with what could’ve been a beautiful shot, I’d stood there like a dumbass.

So, yes, I was learning! Not at the lightspeed pace that video games allow, but at the pace of real life.

That’s fine, though, because that’s the world I live in.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Cazadora and the wascally wabbit hunt

OK, so I know all my hardcore hunter friends are out hunting deer this weekend, because tomorrow is the last day of archery season in California's huge "A" zone.

But me? Oh, no, I can't do what anyone else is doing. I went rabbit hunting this morning. (And trust me, that won't be the weirdest thing I do today. But I'll get to that later.)

I've really been itching to go on a rabbit hunt. Our cottontail season started July 1, and I've been so busy that I haven't had a chance to get out. Today was my first break. Read more...
But Boyfriend was busy doing freelance work this morning, so I'd be hunting alone, which was kind of cool. I haven't hunted rabbits much, so I was happy to get the chance to figure things out for myself, not to mention to avoid having to compete with Mr. Snap Shot. If a shot requires speed, he's always the one who gets it.

I got up at 4 a.m. and headed north toward the Feather River, happy as hell to be zooming through the blackness with hardly another soul around me. I'd hunted this spot on the river once before with Boyfriend on a day so cold (by California standards) that nothing was moving, so I was familiar with the terrain, but not with rabbit behavior. I had two questions going into this: One, would I see any rabbits? And two, would I be able to hit one?

"You'll have two seconds, at most," Mr. Snap Shot told me last night.

Great. You know me. I like my targets to hold still.

I arrived at the spot just a few minutes before shoot time, donned my vest and blaze orange and crossed the levee into a riparian habitat loaded with wild grapes, wild roses and elderberry trees - yep, rabbit heaven. I started walking south and it wasn't five minutes before I saw two rabbits up on an embankment.

Eighty yards away.

Bastards! They must've known I don't take "golden BB" shots. I hate the idea of putting a shot in something and watching it hobble, crippled, into a place where I can't finish the job.

I actually got another 10-15 yards closer before they bolted. I made a mental note to approach that spot with caution on the return trip - if I was stealthy, my head would pop over the embankment 15-20 yards from where they'd be hanging out.

For the longest time after that, I didn't see anything else. I heard plenty in the bushes around me, but I could never tell: Bird? Squirrel? Rabbit? After about an hour, I'd noticed that I wasn't seeing any rabbit sign, so I figured it was time to turn back.

At this point, I was pretty close to the river, and I barged through the growth to my left, wanting to get back out closer to the levee, where there had been more rabbit sign. Walking north, I was beginning to notice the long shadow I was casting to my left, worrying that the wascally wabbits would feel that kiss of sunshine and decide it was nappy time.

As I walked on the edge of a little oak woodland, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. A rabbit, 40 yards away, bounding toward cover. After one leap, I figured it was done, so I didn't raise my gun. But it kept leaping, and by the time I realized I could still shoot, I couldn't shoot anymore - it was safely into cover.

Well, thank God Mr. Snap Shot hadn't seen that - I'd never hear the end of it.

I walked all the way back to my car, then decided to keep at it for a while, heading back south again.

And once again I saw those two rabbits on that embankment. Too far away to shoot. Walk on by. Back to the place where I'd seen the bounding rabbit. Not there anymore. Cross the brush to get back toward the river, where there was still good shade. Head north, back toward the car. It was nearing 8 a.m. - getting late in rabbit time.

Or so I thought. To my right, a rabbit leapt into a huge thicket of wild roses. A smile crossed my face. Maybe it wasn't over yet.

I continued up the path, grateful that it was covered with river sand that hushed my steps. I gazed down at all the rabbit tracks in the sand. Holy crap. Had they been walking in my footprints?

Ahead of me, a rabbit burst from the base of a tree and dove into the roses, probably too fast for even Mr. Snap Shot to get a shot. I moved forward more slowly. Heard another rustle near the tree. Rabbit again! But so close to the roses that all I could see was that white tail before it was enveloped by foliage.

Finally, I was learning something! How a rabbit sounded when it was nearby. How far it was likely to be from its cover. The fact that he might be with a friend who waits a minute to bolt. I might go home empty handed, but not without having gained valuable knowledge.

As I neared the final approach to my car, I saw two more fluffy white tails disappear into thickets. Then I came to The Embankment.

With my gun stock tucked between my elbow and ribcage, I crept up the path on my side of the embankment, quietly, quietly, vewy vewy quiet.

Finally, my eyes crested the embankment and I surveyed the scene in front of me. One more step, and there I saw it: a rabbit. Feeding behind a little earthen bump about 15 yards ahead of me, only his back and ears visible.

I raised my gun.

But I knew I needed a better target. And I had an idea.

The most recent book I read was "Slaughter in the Sacramento Valley," a book by former game warden Terry Grosz about the poaching and market hunting of ducks and geese. I'm sure I'll be writing more about that later, but what came back to me this morning was how, over and over again, Grosz described the illegal nighttime hunts in which poachers would belly up close to enormous feeding flocks of ducks or geese. One of the poachers would fire a shot in the air, or shout, or do anything to spook the birds and they would all lift their heads momentarily, giving the poachers a chance to spray shot across the ground and kill enormous numbers of birds.

Deer hunters do the same thing on TV all the time - make a noise that causes a deer to lift his head and freeze for a second.

So as I sat there with my cheek on the stock, the bead over that rabbit, I decided to do the same thing.

I opened my mouth and yelled.




What the f$@#?
Who the hell shouts "spook" at a wild animal? That was just plain weird.

But it worked. The rabbit's head popped up. I pulled the trigger. The force of the shot blew him two feet back. Whoa.

That was awfully close range, but boy, it sure did the trick - that rabbit was dead. No chase, no finishing shot. That critter didn't know what hit him.

I breathed a sigh of relief and walked over to pick him up. He was warm and full of holes. I squatted, laid him across my lap and thanked him, gazing at him for a minute before putting him in my vest.

After that, I did another quick walk back to that big thicket of wild roses, but I'd already gotten what I was going to get. I headed back to the car, grateful.

Back at home, my story was just weird enough that Boyfriend didn't make fun of me for not taking that first good shot I had.

"Spook?" he asked, incredulous. "You yelled a racial epithet at a rabbit?"

"No!" I protested. I hate racial epithets - my mom raised me right. It's just what came out when I wanted to spook the rabbit.

Fortunately, he didn't have time to make fun of my bizarre utterance any more, because he had to get ready for tonight's big dinner.

A vegan dinner.

Yes, a vegan who believes meat is murder is dining with us - two ardent hunters who believe meat is one of the great gifts of the earth. That rabbit will probably be the closest I come to meat today. It's gonna be an interesting night, for sure.

But that, my friends, will be another story.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009