The photos from today's hunt are ... well, not your usual duck hunting photos. But this was a most unusual hunt, on so many levels that it's hard to figure out where to start. So maybe you should just click that play button below and by the time you've seen these three photos, perhaps I'll know how to explain why I can't stop smiling tonight ...
OK, here we go. That first photo is Alison. Alison is a new hunter. Who lives in Berkeley. So all you haters out there, stop hating - you now know there is at least ONE hunter in Berkeley.
I met Alison in September at that cool event California Waterfowl did where women could pay $150 to 1) take shooting lessons, 2) take their hunter safety course, 3) get their license and stamps and 4) go on their first hunt - for pheasants.
Alison has been very diligent about pursuing hunting opportunities since then. She did a guided hunt up at Tule Lake, and I helped hook her up with a guy named "Nabs" from the Duck Hunting Chat for a hunt last month at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. She emailed me on Saturday and said she had been drawn for a hunt at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area today, and did I want to go? That's how it all started.
Random Interruption No. 1: On the way out to our blind this morning, I asked Alison what made her decide she wanted to hunt. (She is now my third female hunting buddy whose significant other - boyfriend, in her case - doesn't hunt.)
You know what the spark was? It was Eliza Dushku, who played "Faith" on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Dushku hunts. Last August, she went on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show, announced that she hunts and even shot her bow onstage. PETA, naturally, pitched a hissy fit.
Hey PETA, I'm so, so sorry that your efforts to attract attention and make money by picking on Dushku - who's all about eating what she kills - did not affect my new friend Alison. Wah.
So, the hunt. Alison and I got to our blind and set up a good hour before shoot time - using a whole bunch of her brand new decoys. We were stationed in one of several clumps of tules that ringed our blind, and we were surrounded by big water. After a night of hard rain, we could see more stars than clouds, and there was a good wind coming from the south. Everything felt good.
And as the horizon to the east began to lighten, the ducks crisscrossed the airspace over our blind. They landed in our decoys, took off, landed again, dropped in from all directions.
"Oh my God," I said. This was Alison's third duck hunt and I wondered if she realized how extraordinary this was. I warned her that the ducks would not fly like this after shoot time. But I had the sneaking feeling this would be an amazing day.
I prepped her: If ducks came in where we both could get them, she should pick one on the left and I'd take one on the right. Otherwise, if one came where just one of us could shoot - and felt comfortable shooting - we should just blaze away.
When shoot time arrived, the ducks were still flying vigorously, but we couldn't get a shot off - there was so much shooting around us that every time ducks started working our blind, someone else nearby would shoot and our ducks would flare.
Finally, one duck came in at an angle where I could get it. I fired once, and dropped the duck. Spoonie hen.
I settled back in and a greenwing teal came by at a similarly good angle for me. I fired once and dropped it stone dead.
My first thought was, "Well, thank God you're not totally sucking in front of the new girl."
My next thought was, "Oh, this won't last."
Finally some ducks came in where Alison could get at them, and soon enough she dropped a teal stone dead. I was ecstatic for her. This woman had invested lots of time and money in her new pursuit, and it was beautiful to see her get that precious little reward that says, "You can do it! Keep it up!"
I immediately recalled my first season. Three ducks, literally hundreds of shells. Each duck was precious.
And teal - that's good eating!
The guys in the blind to our south, meanwhile, were slaughtering ducks like crazy.
Today, the "X" was on their blind, a measly little mudpile with zero cover. That morning at the hunter check station, we'd heard guys mumbling about how amazing this blind was. The hunters who were just in front Alison's reservation took that blind. And it was a good choice. They could do no wrong - ducks came in no matter what they did.
But they didn't always kill them. On one volley, they wounded a duck that came flying our way, low and on my side. Spoonie drake. I could see his lower bill hanging crazily - ugly injury. I shot and he swooped down to a grassy island where he could hide. I charged toward him, determined to finish him off quickly.
This is when things got weird.
When I neared the little island, I caught a glimpse of another duck - mallard? - as he burst away from the opposite side. Obviously wounded. Hmmmmm...
I raised my gun and shot my duck on the water. He went belly up.
Then I began to chase the other duck. As I crossed the island, yet another wounded duck burst out of hiding about 20 yards from me. He tried to lift off, and I shot. Belly up.
I doublechecked: Yep, two ducks belly up.
Back to that other wounded duck. He was making his way toward a grass-lined dirt road, where I'd probably never find him without a dog. I leveled my gun and shot him on the water.
I picked him up. Not mallard. Drake spoonie. Went back to the island. Got the first drake spoonie. Got the other duck. Another drake spoonie! Well, lordy lordy.
Random Interruption No. 2: When I was planning this hunt, Boyfriend - who is laid up after surgery from a ruptured Achilles (ouch!) - encouraged me to take one of the blinds at Yolo known for lots of scaup and other divers.
"I need some ducks that are more challenging to cook," he said. You know, for his blog.
Well, hell, I wasn't going to take poor Alison to a diver hole. We picked one that had lots of teal coming out of it.
Spoonies... Hey, they can be challenging to cook! I blame Boyfriend.
I walked back to Alison with a twisted grin on my face, three ducks in hand. "This has never happened to me before!" I said.
Not three ducks on one fetch. An never four spoonies in one hunt. I always tell people I'm not that picky, but this was really pushing it...
But... wow, I had five ducks in hand! And only three of them were cripples.
Random Interruption No. 3: Remember my crazy streak of bringing home nothing but cripples for the longest time this season? Well, by golly. I was still at it.
And there's nothing wrong with that. It actually gives me some comfort to know that while I am picking up ducks others have wounded, perhaps other hunters are doing the same for me. Only maybe not with any spoonies I wound.
Poor spoonies. Nobody loves them.
So later in the morning, Alison and I were sitting there in the most unusual and uncomfortable position: facing into the wind, because that's where the ducks were flying, and into the rising sun, for the same reason.
I was looking off to my right when she said, "Hey, a duck just fell over there!"
"Who shot it?" I asked. I looked where she pointed off to our left and saw what appeared to be a dead duck a good 150 yards away. And no one from any of the blinds around us was getting up to get it.
"Oh hell," I said as I trudged out for a really long walk in the water. I haven't been to the gym in two weeks, but with all the long walks I've taken in marshes lately, I haven't missed it. Duck hunting without a dog to do all your fetching is great exercise.
The closer I got to the bird, the more identifying marks I could see. I was pretty sure it was a...
I picked it up pleased to have this duck to hand to Alison - a beautiful bull sprig. Good eating. That and the teal she already had in hand are the two best-eating ducks there are.
On the way back to the blind, two guys walking up the road on the edge of our pond shouted, "Wigeon!"
I looked over and their dog had flushed a wounded wigeon from the grass.
"Cool!" I said.
Was it our bird? Someone else's bird? Who knew. But their dog grabbed the bird, and they handed him to me. I thanked them.
"Nice bull sprig!" they said.
"Thanks," I replied, with absolutely zero reason to be proud. The Duck Scavenger strikes again!!!
Back at the blind, Alison looked at me perplexed. "What happened?"
I handed her two ducks and explained. She now had three and I had five, and honestly, that is so much better than so many hunts I've been on that I was pretty happy. And so was she.
The morning was wearing on, but the shooting opportunity continued pretty steadily. Alison hammered a drake spoonie. I whiffed on some bufflehead - oh, how I want to be able to actually hit a bufflehead! Some scaup came over, out of range.
We both whiffed on some more shots. Alison slammed down another teal. Damn, this girl is good!
And at one point, when I looked out across the water to our left, I saw a duck where only a wounded duck would be - out in the middle of a bunch of hunters, shooting going on all over the place.
Sigh. "Here we go again..."
I chased the crippled little bird - looked like a scaup! - to a little grassy island and got close enough to fire a water shot. My pattern sprayed across that duck, and I'll be damned if it didn't dive and surface five feet from where I shot it, apparently unharmed.
I charged through the water to narrow the gap between us. Shot again and killed it this time.
Yay! A scaup for Boyfriend. My sixth duck. Another scavenged cripple.
Alison and I were running low on shells. At Yolo - like most of the best public duck hunting land in the state - there's a 25-shell limit in the field. You can have more in your car, but you have to walk back to get them. We call it the Walk of Shame, and the flight was so vigorous that hunters had been doing it all morning. But not us.
Could we get to the Magic 14 with what we had left?
We whiffed on some more shots. Good lord.
I chased another cripple, this time without success. On my way back, some spoonies that had been shot at in a nearby blind came bombing into our blind. One dropped in right in front of Alison. She whacked him about a foot off the water.
"Nice shot!" I yelled from where I'd stood.
Six and six. Just a few shells left for each of us.
We missed a couple more. One shell left in each of our guns. We'd have to be good.
Some teal came in hard - and close. We raised our guns. Alison fired, and missed. I got my bead on one of them in perfect range. I could fire on the same group - we'd be done at the same time!
But my bead met the duck right as he passed in front of the sun. A perfect duck eclipse. Blinded, I dropped my gun and let him fly. Sigh. I'd so wanted to fire that last shot with Alison.
It was getting close to noon, but the ducks kept flying. Some spoonies started working close, and I thought, "What the hell!" I fired at a drake. Missed.
"That's it!" I said. And we began to clean up.
When I opened my blind bag to put something away, I saw my camera there.
"Alison, I have to take your picture! Do you have a duck strap?"
She did, but she needed to dig it out.
"OK, I'll go pull in some more decoys while you're doing that," I said.
I went on one side of our blind and yanked a windwhacker pole from the mud. As I was doing that, I looked back toward the blind. Across the blind.
I'll be damned.
There was a duck on the water. Had to be a crip. Here we go again.
I charged around the blind, threw my windwhacker poles and blades into a clump of tules and went after that duck. No gun. No shells. Just me, in my waders, chasing a ...
Oh dear lord, do you know what it's like chasing divers? Even when you shoot them on the water, they somehow evade you. And now I was chasing one with nothing.
I charged at this duck hard. Like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. Arms swinging hard and straight to propel me forward. I glanced back and saw that Alison hadn't noticed yet what was going on.
Ha! You didn't know just how much I would chase after cripples, didja!
I was gaining on the buffie, but when I got 15 yards away, she went for a dive. I charged toward the spot, looking for air bubbles. There were none. I angled toward the road, where she could find cover. Finally she popped up again - off to my right.
I charged again and narrowed the gap more. At 10 yards, she dove again. Ohhh, if I had a gun!
This time I could see her as she swam under water. I closed the distance. Plunged my arm into the water and missed. Plunged again and missed. Charged forward a few more steps, plunged again, and emerged with a duck.
My heart wilted when I brought her up. A shattered wing. And she'd taken shot in the eye. What a tough little bird. I helicoptered her to end it.
She was my first bufflehead, and while I'd still not gotten one using my gun, the accomplishment of chasing her down without one was just as significant. I still can't believe I did it. I'm just sorry that she didn't die quickly - I wouldn't wish the suffering and the chase on anyone.
But here I was with bird No. 7, and Alison looking at me like, What the hell?
"OK, let's take pictures now!"
I encouraged her to ham it up and took her picture:
And she took mine:
On the walk back to our car, and back in the parking lot, every group of male hunters that saw us seemed just delighted to see two girls with all those ducks. Back at the check station, the DFG staff seemed equally happy to see how successful we'd been - even after I admitted there were a lot of crips in the bag.
"Wanna take our picture?" I asked.
Random Interruption No. 4: OK, guys, I know all you single male hunters are going to want to marry Alison now, because she's a total babe, and she hunts! But she's got a boyfriend.
Consolation prize: I now know of two dating websites for hunters: Hunters Blind Date and Rut 2 the Heart. Check 'em out.
Alison and I parted company after I gave her my tips on dressing ducks. She had plans for tonight - perhaps cooking both teal and the pintail or wigeon for her boyfriend and some friends.
I admired her energy. I was beat.
But back at home, I was exuberant, recounting all the details of the hunt for Boyfriend, who occupied his now-customary position on the couch, the leg in a cast propped up on pillows, the laptop providing his only window to the outside world.
He smiled, but looked a little wan. He misses hunting.
Alison and I texted back and forth a bit this evening. Her energy had run out at some point while she was dressing all her ducks, and she and her boyfriend had ordered out for tacos. That made me feel a little less old.
But our drive to hunt remains high. You can bet we'll be going out again soon.
© Holly A. Heyser 2010