Saturday, October 31, 2009

Woot! I got my first woodie today!

OK, now, everyone who clicked here hoping to find kiddie porn, buzz off. I'm talking about ducks.

I went duck hunting with my friend Hellen the English Professor today at Little Dry Creek, which is probably the best public duck hunting land in the state - and this is a big state.

Unfortunately, we ended up with the worst blind in the place. Read more...
We knew it as we headed out to our spot at 5 a.m. because the listing at the hunter check station made it clear: In the three hunt days so far this season, this blind had an average of one duck per hunter - bottom of the list. And given the weather forecast - clear and still, and coming off a nearly full moon to boot - we didn't have any reason to believe we'd bring up the average today.

But sometimes ya gotta just take whatever you can get, so we headed out with the indefatigable optimism of new hunters.

After we got our decoys out - our sad, motionless decoys - we sat back down in the blind and got the lay of the land. We were facing southeast, with willow trees behind us, and a small pond ringed by tules front of us. Potentially a nice set-up.

As we listened to the cacophony of the marsh - snow geese off in this direction, specklebelly geese in that direction, wigeon swirling all around - I told Hellen we should load our guns.

"Why?" she said. "It's an hour before shoot time."

Because, I answered: Ducks might land in our decoys before shoot time, and if we pop shells in our noisy autoloaders after they've landed, they'll take off for sure.

Amazingly, the gods must have wanted me to look smart today, because about 20 minutes later when we were having a conversation about vegans, we heard the whistle of wingbeats overhead and two splashes in the water amid the mallard decoys to our left.

Meep meep. Gadwalls!

Conversation ceased as we watched their dim shadows and spoke to each other in improvised sign language. Ten minutes later, we heard two more splashes in our teal decoys straight out in front of us. Ten minutes later, another splash off to the left.

For the worst blind in the place, we sure were getting a lot of action!

Now, if they'd just hold until shoot time. We moved quietly in our blind, shifting carefully, avoiding letting our calls clank together.

Then, ten minutes before shoot time, we heard a volley of gunfire to the east.

What the hell?

It never fails - every time I go to Little Dry Creek, I hear people shooting early. The shooters were probably on adjacent private land, but five minutes later, people who were clearly on public land started shooting too.

Hellen and I looked at each other with consternation. We weren't going to shoot until shoot time - in five minutes.

And one minute later, every duck in our pond got up and left.


As the sky grew paler and shoot time arrived, we listened to gunfire all around us and watched the ducks flying everywhere but our little pond. Clearly, we were not on anyone's flight path.

Then I saw something off to the right near our gadwall decoys. Motion. Duck butts in the air? But they weren't moving like ducks.

Hellen and I craned our necks and I finally realized what I was seeing: otters. A family of five otters. Nearby, a heron called.


Lord, we had everything but ducks in this place.

We saw some off on the horizon - sorta, maybe, kinda callable... Oh, who am I kidding. But I tried anyway, lifting my newfound love, my Wingsetter Raspy Hen, to my lips. I'd been excited about this moment all week: I've finally learned to blow a mallard call, and today I might be able to use it to help Hellen get a duck, which would be her second duck ever.

I gave it a little toot, and the sound that came out was the kind of emaciated wail Arnold Schwarzenegger might make if someone kicked him in the nuts really hard.

What the hell? It had worked fine in the car on the drive over!

I tried again. No luck. Something was wrong with it. Hell.

So I switched to my Wingsetter 8-in-1, whistling a wigeon call. There'd been lots of wigeon in the area before dawn, so it seemed like a good bet.

I whistled at two ducks in the distance and they responded, swinging around and making a beeline for our blind. At 25 yards, I told Hellen, "Take 'em!"

We rose as they veered to our right and I fired a single shot, dropping my bird stone dead - belly up. Hellen didn't fire. She's still really, really new at duck hunting and just didn't feel ready in time. I totally understand.

I plunged into the water to see what I'd bagged because I hadn't quite recognized it. That's when I saw the garish black, white, red and yellow bill.

A woodie! My first wood duck ever. I shot at three hen woodies once in my second season of hunting, but had never seen anymore until today.

Hellen was excited for me, but still wanted a duck of her own. Just one duck. She has modest wishes.

Well, they might be considered modest in a decent blind in decent weather.

But our pond sucked. It was a stagnant mess. It was deadly still for the first three hours of the shoot, and when the wind picked up enough for me to put out my Windwhacker motion decoys, I discovered that the water was too deep - my poles weren't long enough to keep the fluttering metal "wings" out of the water.

Serious suckage.

We did get one flyover from a mallard pair, and we each took a shot at them, knowing they were probably a bit too high - and missed as expected. Not one single bird came within calling distance, much less shooting distance, after that.

The only bright spot of the mid-morning was that I was able to take apart my Raspy Hen, dry it out, and get it to work again. But it still didn't bring us any ducks.

Finally we had to concede defeat. Hellen and her husband were going to Napa today. She needed to get home and take a shower before their trip.

It was a bittersweet ending. I was so excited to have gotten my first wood duck - which was one of my goals this year - but so disappointed that Hellen didn't get more opportunity to shoot. She's not greedy - she doesn't expect to come home with a full strap every time. But she, like I did just a couple years ago (and to this day, I guess), craves opportunity to shoot so she can learn.

She didn't get that today.

But the season is young - we've got 92 days to go.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Meat is bad for you? Oh YEAH?

I spend a lot of time reading what anti-hunters say about hunters - particularly those who would like to see the whole world go vegetarian or vegan - and one of the most common arguments they make is that meat is bad for us. You know, all that stuff about heart disease and high cholesterol and clogged arteries.

My response is always that it's not meat in general that causes those maladies, but factory-farmed meat that's high in fat - and low in the kinds of nutrients you get from animals that eat a natural diet of real food, not stuff scientifically formulated to make them grow as quickly as possible.

Well, for a couple years now, I've been eating a diet in which the vast majority of the meat comes from wild game or pastured animals.

Beyond being choosy about where my meat comes from, I exercise very little restraint in my diet. I used to be into low-cal and low-fat, but living with a guy who cooks as well as Boyfriend has killed that. So, I eat what I want. As much as I want. Without counting calories or fat grams or any of that crap.

This has coincided with becoming such a busy person that I can't exercise as much as I used to. Old days: five or six days a week, religiously. Now: one to three days.

I weigh more than I used to, for sure. I used to look, uh, pretty emaciated. Now I look fairly human. Which means I can't be a model. But there's not a big market for 44-year-old models, so who cares.

But what about my health? Whenever I got blood tests in my low-cal, high-exercise days, they always came out great. But what would they look like with a higher-calorie, lower-exercise regimen?

I got the answer today: Freakin' terrific:

Total cholesterol: 182, which the American Heart Association calls "Desirable" - the best rating you can get.

HDL (good) cholesterol level: 76, well above the score of 60 that starts giving you protection against heart disease.

LDL (bad) cholesterol: 97, which the American Heart Association calls "Optimal" - the best rating you can get.

Triglycerides (a form of fat): 45, which as far as I can tell is insanely low. AHA says "normal" is anything less than 150.

I repeat: I do not exercise much restraint in my diet. In the week before I took this test, I had a big fat grilled cheese sandwich with French fries, three slices of pizza, a donut and a Whopper. It was an unusually fast food-laden week due to some extraordinary circumstances (we had a homicide on campus, and I'm the faculty adviser to the campus newspaper - to say we were in crisis mode would be an understatement).

But even in a normal week, I don't shy away from animal products normally considered verboten if you want to pass your cholesterol test. We have a fat collection in our fridge - rendered wild duck fat, pheasant fat and pastured-pork fat. We cook with that stuff all the time. I frequently cook rice with a big dollop of one of the above.

So, to all the militant vegetarians/vegans who tell me I shouldn't hunt because meat is bad for me, this militant hunter has one thing to say to you: You're wrong.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The newest member of Prois Field Staff is...

... me! That's right: I'm very pleased to announce that I've joined the Field Staff of Prois Hunting Apparel.

I met Prois owner Kirstie Pike at the 2008 SHOT Show and immediately took a liking to her and her women's hunting clothing line. The Prois motto is "Serious Huntwear for Real Women," which was a breath of fresh air for me after walking around the SHOT Show and seeing more camo lingerie and swimwear than women's camo huntwear. Read more...
Her clothing line stood out just as much as her attitude: Prois uses great fabrics - soft, quiet and sweat-wicking. There are some really nice touches, such as pleated knees to keep pantlegs from binding when you kneel or sit - still my favorite feature, which I really appreciated when I got my first deer ever two weekends ago. And Kirstie's clothing is made in America, so she's putting people to work here, not overseas.

What does being on the Prois Field Staff mean? I'll be trying out a lot more Prois gear, and - one of the best parts - I'll be promoting women in hunting. In fact, that's what Kirstie brought up first when she asked me to join the Field Staff. I quote: "I'm gathering a handful of badass female hunters that really promote the inclusion of women in the outdoors, work in the industry and work continuously to learn the art of hunting." Right up my alley!

Just as important is what this appointment doesn't mean. Kirstie's first concern when she invited me to join the staff was that she didn't want to inhibit my ability to review all women's hunting clothing, so I'll continue writing honestly about other clothing that comes to my attention, and I'll be keeping that women's hunting clothing list on the right column of this page.

And she doesn't mind that I'm working with Cabela's on women's duck hunting waders - something that's not in her clothing line. "Competition is a good thing," she said.

See why I like her so much?

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, October 26, 2009

Coming into my own: Why I don't care that I shot like absolute crap on my duck opener

Heading into my fourth season of duck hunting, I've been pretty excited. My shooting's been getting pretty damn good. My confidence is finally rising. I'm growing as a huntress every season, and enjoying everything I learn, whether it's hunting tips or the deep thoughts about why we hunt.

I've set some goals for this duck season: Shoot better. Learn to use the freakin' mallard call, which has been my Achilles heel. Let the ducks get close. Limit out again this year. Get my first double. Get my first wood duck and bufflehead. And take out several new women hunters.

Well, I did one of those things on my opening hunt Sunday, and it wasn't "shoot better." Read more...
Boyfriend and I went to the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge yesterday morning to wait in line for an afternoon hunt - to start the new season right where I'd finished the old one in dramatic style in January.

When my name was finally called to pick a blind, one of my options was Blind 1, which you may remember from last December - it was the place that was so beat down and bereft of cover that it looked like the Bikini Atoll.

"Diane, how's Blind 1 this year?" I asked my favorite check station employee.

"Blind 1's open and nobody's taken it??? Take it!" she said. "They've fixed it - they moved the blind. It's where the birds fly now."

Oooh, bonus points - cover and ducks!

Boyfriend and I got set up there at about 12:30 - the slowest time for ducks - and settled in for the hunt. Place decoys. Pick spots to sit. Wait for ducks. Move decoys. Pick new spots to sit. Wait for ducks.

When we saw callable ducks, I broke out my Wingsetter Raspy Hen.

My friend Sarah let me try this call last March when we were doing the photo shoot for the Cabela's catalog, and I liked it. I could never get the right sound out of most mallard calls, but this one seemed to have just the right tone for me.

For the past month or so, I've been practicing like crazy, quacking along in my car to this great CD my friend Tracey gave me from Zink Calls. It spends minimal time on humans quacking and has lots and lots of real ducks quacking. I like that - I don't want to sound like a human imitating a duck; I want to sound like a duck.

One of the most interesting things about the CD is it shows you the "chuckle" we typically do for a feeding call - tikka tikka tikka dugga dugga dugga - is not what the ducks actually do. What they do actually sounds more like a chicken's clucking, with a quacky twang to it.

So when we saw callable ducks, I put that call to my lips, clucked a few times, did a greeting call or two, and I'll be damned if the ducks didn't look interested.

"How am I sounding?"

"Good!" Boyfriend said. "Much better than last year. I really didn't want you to call then." He wasn't being mean; it was just true.

After a couple tries, the most amazing thing started happening: I was getting ducks to do U-turns. Over and over. Brought 'em in close - not feet-down-for-landing close, but "Hey, how's it goin'? This looks like a fun place to hang out" close, which is often as good as it gets in competitive, crowded refuge shooting. Sometimes Boyfriend didn't even bother calling because I was doing so well.

The only problem was that I was getting all these ducks in range, but when it came time to shoot, I was missing. Over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. I fired 12 shots at six birds that were totally shootable and didn't hit one of them. Boyfriend, however, was knocking them dead with immaculate head shots. Like almost every time.

My profanity grew ever more foul and strident each time I missed. I'd killed my first deer ever with a perfect shot the weekend before. Three weekends before, I'd handled myself pretty well on a chukar hunt. And on Labor Day, I was kicking ass with the doves. What the hell happened?

After about the fourth miss, I speculated that I was pulling my head off the gun and started making a conscious effort to keep my cheek down on the stock. After two more misses, I guessed that I needed to wait more patiently to get the muzzle exactly where I needed it in relation to the bird.

Finally, two wigeon came in. Boyfriend took aim at the drake, I at the hen. I fired once and missed. Head down! Focus! Correct, correct, correct - NOW!

BAM! Down, just half a second after Boyfriend brought down the drake.

"Got it!" I shouted victoriously. When I retrieved my bird, she was stone dead - shot to the head. Double bonus. Quick death is always my goal.

I'd fixed my shooting problem, and the great thing was it was 4 p.m. - we still had more than two hours of shoot time.

Unfortunately, though, nothing else came in range that entire time. The entire afternoon flight had taken place over three hours in the middle of the afternoon.

But I was OK with that. Surprisingly OK.

Two years ago, the first time I hunted the opener - also at Delevan, at a blind within shouting distance of where we were Sunday - I got just one duck when the other three guys with me got six or seven apiece, and I was really frustrated.

But when I left with just one duck yesterday, compared with Boyfriend's five, I was surprisingly cheerful. It shouldn't have taken six misses to figure out my shooting problem, but I was grateful to have done it before the last pass of shootable birds.

More importantly, my calling had totally rocked.

There was a time during that afternoon when the birds were circling perfectly in front of Boyfriend but a little too far from me, and I was more than happy just to be getting the ducks to him with my calling. It felt like I had a role in his success. That role was a new one to me, and I liked it.

So why wasn't I beating myself up more about my shooting?

I think I finally figured it out: I'm not a bad shot anymore, like I was when I first started out. I was just having a bad day. It happens to everyone, and it'll probably happen to someone with my experience level more than the veterans. It just happens.

And besides, I'm going out with my friend Hellen next weekend. I'll just try to do better then.

My lone duck - on the left

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Second Chance Buck: The Aftermath

It's been more than 48 hours since I killed my first deer ever, and I'm still buzzing. Sometimes I'm calm and I think about other things, like work. Then I see a student who's into guns or hunting, and I say, "Wanna see my buck?" and the whole spazzing thing starts over again.

This has been both a time of reflection and a time of work.

I've reflected on how lucky I was that the buck did exactly what I needed: Hold still and present a good target.

I've reflected on how grateful I am to have made a good shot that killed him in no more than 20-30 seconds - and really, isn't that the measure of what a good shot is, a quick death, not a feat accomplished over great distance? It's probably what I'm most proud of. I know it's something to be thankful for, not to take for granted.

And I've reflected on the sheer volume of congratulations that have come in from quarters I never expected - schoolmates I haven't seen in 27 years! Crazy stuff.

Then there's been the work.
Boyfriend has been doing his thing, breaking down the meat into all the parts he loves - brisket, flank, tenderloin, backstrap.

My job, aside from writing labels on the vacuum-seal bags, has been prepping the skull for a
"Euro mount," or, as my family says, "skull."

It started on Sunday when Boyfriend announced that it would be my job to skin the head. Not bad, compared with the work he was doing. So I set to work:

Here's what I learned in that process: If you spend much time worrying about someone poking your eyeballs out, stop worrying - they're very firmly attached. My mother, who's a durable soul, happened to arrive at my house in time to watch me digging the eyeballs out of the skull, and she had to avert her eyes for a good 10-15 minutes.

Once skinned, we popped the head in the stock pot for a few hours to help cook stuff out. Yeah, stuff.

Then, this morning and this evening, I picked "stuff" off and out of the skull - cartilage, meat and even brains. I've never seen cooked brains before, and I'm here to tell you, it looks like foie gras - white and creamy.

No, we didn't eat it. But my Argentinian neighbor Silvia would probably be distraught to know that we hadn't. Last time we brought game home, she wanted to know what we did with the brains. "Heart," she said, "ees for thee cats. But I love thee brains."

Silvia, I'm not there yet. Maybe someday.

Anyway, what I'm left with is this:

The skull, picked mostly clean, will now go into a bucket of water in the back yard, where we'll let bacteria finish what I started, probably for most of winter. When it appears to have been picked clean, we'll bleach it, and it'll be ready to hang over our mantle, right next to the deer Boyfriend got this summer, Spork - a harder-earned trophy than mine by a million miles.

Even the side-by-side trophy has significance: I started hunting several years after Boyfriend, so almost everything I've done for the first time is something he's done long before. But for both of us, this was the first year we killed blacktail deer. And while the trophies may pale in comparison with the whitetail that cover so much of our country, these hunts are just as hard fought, the accomplishments no less meaningful.

In just a few days, we'll be duck hunting - a pursuit that will consume much of our free time until the end of January. But we'll have plenty of venison to add to the dinnertable mix this winter, and plenty of deer-hunting memories that won't disappear with the first shotgun blast. And for that, we're grateful.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The great shock: I finally got my first deer!


I shouted the words into the cell phone this morning, struggling to share the news with Boyfriend as the bars kept disappearing from my screen. Redial. Signal lost. Redial again. Ring ring ring.


He got it that time.

I went out this morning like I do on all hunts - simultaneously fantasizing about the perfect hunt and bracing for the big goose-egg.

The latter is a good strategy for blacktail hunting in California, which has the lowest success rate of all wild game hunting in the state. But I actually had some reason to be optimistic today.

First of all, unlike last weekend's hunt with Phillip in the Mendocino National Forest, I was on private land. It was only 50 acres, but it was 50 acres that hasn't been hunted in who knows how long, and I had it all to myself.

Second of all, unlike last weekend when we did not see one single legal buck, I'd already seen several on this land. But let me back up for a second.

Boyfriend and I were actually supposed to be hunting wild boar here. Owners John and Peg Poswall were going out in the mornings and finding their landscaping all dug up. Peg knows Boyfriend through the food world, and she thought her hunter friend might be able to help alleviate their problem.

The only hitch was that they had never seen the pigs during the day, which we knew might be an insurmountable obstacle - you can't hunt pigs at night. But John mentioned that they had tons of deer that we were also welcome to hunt, so I picked up a deer tag Thursday morning.

When I arrived Friday afternoon ahead of Boyfriend, John took me on a tour of the property and I found tons of pig sign and deer sign. At the end of the ride, I even saw several legal bucks (forked-horn or better) skitter across their fence. Sweet!

Boyfriend and I spent the night and when we got up the next morning, I took him to a spot where I'd found a pretty good pig trail. We perched on some boulders and waited to see what would come, but nothing did. Then I looked up the hill and noticed deer munching on cypress trees on a walkway leading to a fountain. They were about 180 yards away.

I angled up the rock for a better shooting position and one of the bucks in the group turned broadside. My heart raced. My bipod shooting stick was too low. My position was awkward and unsteady. In the early-morning light, I couldn't see clearly what was behind the buck (I think it might've been a chicken coop, but there were lots of marble statues in the vicinity that had me just as worried). And on top of all that, it was 180 yards away - a little far for me. The buck moved behind a tree, and then the whole group trotted off and the opportunity was gone.

Boyfriend totally would've taken that shot - and made it - so I felt like a moron for holding back. But he was nice enough about it. "If it doesn't feel right, you shouldn't do it," he said.

We decided to take a quiet walk around the property so I could show him other promising spots I'd seen. As we walked along a creek at the bottom of a hill, we bumped four does on the open hillside above us. Then we went to a pond where pigs had been wreaking havoc. By this time, it was getting pretty late and we began talking in normal tones instead of a whisper. We figured we'd spend the rest of the morning mushroom hunting.

"You know what we haven't seen yet?" he asked.


"A rabbit."

And just then, something burst away from us on the other side of a bush.

"There's one," he said laughing. Then we realized it wasn't a rabbit; it was a buck. Forked-horn, and a nice size. He'd let us get ridiculously close to him.

The buck sprinted up the hill and then came to a stop. Broadside. Right in front of the house.


I looked back at Boyfriend, chagrined to have lost my second chance of the morning.

"Oh, even I wouldn't have taken that shot!" he said.

We called it quits not long after that. But it was really bugging me that I knew deer were there and I hadn't gotten a shot at them. When John and Peg made it clear I was welcome back anytime, I said, "Could I come back tomorrow?"

That was how I found myself walking down that trail again at 5:50 this morning in the near-blackness of the new moon - alone, because Boyfriend had work to do today. I hadn't gone 20 steps down the driveway when I bumped a deer - right where we'd spooked that forkie the day before. But I couldn't see what it was. Too dark.

I circled around to the place where we'd seen the first deer of the day on Saturday, and as I made my way to an oak tree I could back up to, I bumped another deer that I could hear, but not see.

Crap. Would this be the only time I'd see the deer here?

The answer was yes. I spent nearly two hours under that tree and watched all variety of geese and ducks and woodpeckers, and heard not one but two flocks of turkeys down the hill from me. But not a single four-legged critter came by. And with the wind swirling all over the place, it was no surprise - my scent had to be stinking up the whole area. The only excitement had been hearing rifle fire from somewhere nearby. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Damn, either you're not a good shot, or you're not hunting...

I decided to bail.

I walked back to the pond where we'd bumped the forkie to see if he'd make the same mistake twice, but he wasn't there.

It was 8:40 and I hadn't seen squat. But I decided to make one last swing - down to the creek, then back up to where I'd started - before calling it quits.

I walked down the trail toward the creek quietly, scanning the big, open hillside where we'd bumped the does the day before, wondering where they were now.

Then I saw antlers sticking up out of the dry grass. They were attached to a head that was pointed my way.

Where I saw antlers

My heart leapt into my throat and the rest of my body went the other direction, sinking slowly toward the ground, right there in the middle of the trail. I set up my shooting sticks, raised the gun and took at better look at what I'd seen - a lone forked-horn buck bedded down, broadside to me, about 80 yards away. He was looking my direction, but the wind was in my face, so he couldn't smell me, and he clearly wasn't spooked.

My stick was positioned too low, so I slowly reached for each of the legs and extended them a bit. Looked through the scope again. Still a forked-horn - looked like the one we'd seen the day before. Shooting stick was still too low.

One more adjustment and it was perfect. And the buck still wasn't moving.

But boy, my gun was. My heart was thumping wildly.

Calm down, calm down, calm down, I told myself. I put the crosshairs on where I thought his vitals should be, but the grass obscured his body.

No need to take that shot, I told myself. He'd have to get up soon - his nice shady spot was starting to get sun.

Calm down, calm down, calm down.

I kept the scope on his vitals, but my eyes kept wandering to his antlers. A forkie may be no big deal in whitetail country, but this was a respectable deer. A legal target. My heart raced more.

Just look at his ribcage.

After five minutes, I finally calmed down enough that I felt I could take a shot.

If he'd just get up. He seemed to be in no hurry. He looked this way and that. No hurry.

My arms trembled from holding the gun steady for so long.

Finally, the buck heaved - rear end up first, then the front. He took a step, quartering slightly toward me. I put the crosshairs behind his elbow and the rest of what happened became a crystalline memory.


He staggered a few steps and dropped. Good!

He got back up. Problem?

Even without the scope I could see a bloody hole in his ribcage, glistening in the sunshine that had ended his nap. Good hit - definitely hit lungs.

He wobbled, and collapsed.

Yes! These are the shots I dream of. Not some botched shot that sends an animal into the woods to suffer until I find him, maybe dead, maybe alive. The shot that takes him down before he knows what happened. No suffering; just rapid death.

I watched the spot, then checked my watch. Boyfriend and I had gone over the what-if scenarios the night before. How long should I wait if I shoot a deer and it runs? How long if he just drops on the spot?

Ten minutes, just to be safe. It was 8:54:03.

I was trembling uncontrollably. I peeled off my gloves, jacket and hat and watched the spot to make sure he didn't get up. For a moment, I saw the grass twitch spasmodically where the deer had fallen. Not struggle; just the nerve reactions that follow death. I've never killed a deer before, but I know what that looks like.

I glanced at my watch. 8:57.

Oh my God, I got a deer!

"Thank you," I said out loud. For the deer's sacrifice. For the dumb luck that had allowed me to spot him, and to take the time to regain my composure, and to be presented with a perfect shot.

I looked at my watch every 30 seconds, and finally it was time. I marched up the slope and searched the knee-high star thistle. There. On the ground. Eyes open and tongue out. Dead.

He looked a little smaller than I'd thought from where I shot him, but I didn't care - he was a good looking deer.

I went back up to the house to get some things - like Boyfriend's truck, which I could take down the trail. I saw Peg and John at the house.

"We heard seven shots!" John said.

"Only one was mine," I said. "The last one."

They seemed relieved. "John was saying, 'She must not be a very good shot...' " Peg said.

I laughed, and told them I needed to get back to the deer to field dress it.

But first, I needed a picture. I'd brought my camera, a tripod and a remote control, so I could take a picture of myself:

The gutting was a pain. The biggest mammal I've ever dressed was a jack rabbit, so this was more challenging. I struggled through it and got almost everything out. That's when I noticed the very full bladder still attached. I felt around it, trying to figure out how to liberate it without emptying it all over the meat, with the animal lying on its side on a gentle slope. I was stumped.

Blood up to my elbows, I grabbed my cell phone and dialed Boyfriend. "How do I get the &^@#! bladder out?" I yelled. His answer was not helpful. I went back to the deer, and after several attempts, hoisted him up by his hind legs to get the bladder hanging, pinched off the tube leading into it, cut the tube and tossed the bladder a safe distance away.


And here's where I felt really blessed to be hunting where I was: I was able to drop the tailgate of the pickup, angle it toward the hillside, and drag the deer 20 yards to the bed of the pickup. Total luxury!

I went back to the house to get the remainder of my stuff and gave thanks to my hosts. Peg looked at me - bloody and stinking - with what looked like a mix of intrigue and horror. She was totally cool with the hunting, but for all I know, this was her closest encounter with freshly-killed meat.

"All right," I said. "I'd give you a hug, but I'm disgusting and smelly, so I'm just going to get out of here."

On the drive home, I began texting and calling my hunting friends to share the news. I'd tucked the deer well into the bed of the pickup so nothing would stick out, but honestly, I had the urge to parade him around and show everyone: I'd just gotten a deer. By myself! My first deer ever. A blacktail! I just wanted someone in a taller vehicle than mine to look into the bed of that truck and give me the nod of approval.

I was amused by my reaction. I've not really cared that I hadn't gotten a deer in my previous three years of hunting, but I was as proud and excited as if it had been a lifelong goal.

When I got home, I got what I was looking for. I found Boyfriend working in the garden, but he came to me immediately to give his stinky, bloody girlfriend a big hug. He was proud of me - I'd done it on my own.

I kept grinning through the rest of our work breaking down the deer, and wondered why I was so taken with the experience.

"I think we're just hardwired to hunt deer," he said. "We've been hunting deer since before we were 'we.' "

Maybe it's that. Maybe it's the odds. I'd gotten my Second Chance buck on my sixth day of deer hunting ever. Statistics say it takes 33 days of hunting to get one. Phillip had told me it'd taken him four years to get a blacktail.

Maybe it's the antlers - the thing that allows you to instantly measure your quarry. This was the first antlered animal I'd killed.

Maybe it was the fact that I'd done it myself. Sorta. While I was alone at that moment, the reality is that every action I took was influenced by what I'd learned from people like Boyfriend, Phillip and even random TV shows. But I'd made all the decisions. I'd spotted the antlers in the grass. I'd taken the good shot.

I don't know. I probably won't figure it out tonight. I may not figure it out ever. But for now, I'm just happy.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009

Lessons in blacktail hunting with Phillip

I went blacktail deer hunting with Phillip from the Hog Blog in the Mendocino National Forest this weekend and here's what I learned:

1. There's something weird about Phillip's right foot. But you'll have to ask him about it.

2. If Phillip is walking down a ridge that has a terrifying 2,000-foot, 80-degree-angle drop to the creek below and he has a choice between walking right on the edge or on a perfectly good deer path maybe just five feet from the edge, he will choose the edge every time. Read more...
3. If there are wood ducks in the creek just below our camp site, I will most certainly be too exhausted to walk down there and look for them.

4. If we are flushing quail in easy shooting range, we will not have shotguns or a dog with us, and while I'm willing to aim a .270 at their cute little heads, it's not a legal method of take in this state.

5. If we see a deer, it will be a doe - not legal game in this state.

6. If we have the most perfect spot to observe deer rising from their slumber and feasting in the valley 100 yards in front of us, all we will see is two other hunters tromping up the valley.

7. If we see two hunters park their SUV on the opposite ridge and descend into the chemise, it is wrong for us to assume they will drive the deer up to our ridge. Instead, they will stand just 20 yards below their road, one of them fanning flies with his blaze orange cap, as if the motion might actually attract deer.

8. If we hunt in the eerie beauty of a place devastated by fire five years ago, and I observe that the pine trees growing up a uniform height among the skeletal white remains of tree-sized manzanita remind me of a Christmas tree farm in a cemetery, Phillip will look at me as though I'm on LSD.

9. If we see a buck, he will be a spike - not legal game in this state.

10. If we finally find a trail that allows us to walk into the wilderness without sounding like freight trains pushing through the brush, we will be rewarded with the sight of lots and lots of deer. All does.

11. If we arrive at this hunt knowing full well that deer hunting in California has the lowest odds of success of all game animals here - one deer for every 33 hunt days - we will still be sad at the end that we didn't get to take a shot.

12. If I hear one more anti talking about "poor defenseless deer," I'm going to freakin' puke.

13. If we go to Granzella's for lunch after hunt weekend is over so we can eat burgers and drink beer in the middle of a spectacular trophy collection, Phillip will complain that there are no wild hogs in the collection.

14. If I come home empty-handed from 48 hours of spot-and-stalk in thick brush, star thistle, 70-degree hills and 90-degree days, I will find myself doing the calculus to see if it's feasible to go back there next weekend and try again to find where the bucks are hiding, and see if I can't get one of them in my sights.

Let's face it: I'm hooked. I love this. I want to do it again.

* * *

For Phillip's take on the hunt, click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

Seeking paradise in Mendocino County

I was getting ready for my deer hunting trip to Mendocino County with Phillip from the Hog Blog this weekend when Phillip called.

"Bring your shotgun too. There's quail where we're going."

Dang, I've never hunted quail before. I know lots of people who have quail on their land, but they always love them. They'll let you shoot anything but quail. Read more...
A day later, on another planning call, he said, "Bring your waterfowl loads too. ... Oh, wait, it's not duck season. But there's a creek where you can usually jump a few wood ducks."

Where are we going? Heaven?

Apparently so. That's the thought that crossed my mind this morning as I was stuffing every last necessity in my car - Penzey's hot chocolate, pine nuts for salads. Oh yeah, I like to eat well in camp.

I know there's a high likelihood that I'll come home from this trip empty-handed. Blacktail deer in California can be tough to get. But the fact that I'm going to spend the weekend camping out in a place with that much wildlife has me smiling ear to ear.

Stay tuned - I'll let you know how it went when I get back on Sunday.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009