It's something of a joke here in our part of NorCal that you need sunscreen and mosquito repellent for the duck opener. Seriously, it's that balmy in late October. Normally.
But this year has been really odd. Rain lasted into June. Summer was unusually cool. The worst hot spell of the year came in late September. And yesterday - the Sunday of the duck opener for most of the state - we had one hell of a big storm.
Now, when I say big storm, I'm talking massive, ceaseless downpour, and winds that ranged from 20 mph in the quiet moments (which were rare) to probably 40 in the worst gusts. And it was a south wind, which usually doesn't hunt very well in these parts. Not ideal.
This was, of course, the day that Boyfriend got drawn for a reservation at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, which is my very favorite place to hunt ducks. Even more favorite than some of the posh, you're-a-moron-if-you-can't-kill-your-limit clubs that I'm occasionally lucky enough to hunt.
But it would be my first chance to hunt ducks this season, so no way in hell would I bail.
Boyfriend and I met our hunting buddies Charlie and Kevin at the Delevan hunter check station at 0-dark-30 Sunday morning and plotted. There were two assigned blinds that were so good we'd take them if they were available, but otherwise we were headed to free roam, the Wild West of the refuge, crowded as hell, competitive to a degree that would deter most, but ducky enough to be worth it, if you knew where to go, and how to play the game there.
When the last prime blind was snapped up before Boyfriend's number was called, the decision was made for us: free roam.
Charlie set out first, and Boyfriend, Kevin and I followed. After hunting with Charlie for five weeks last season after Boyfriend was felled by a ruptured Achilles tendon, I knew precisely where Charlie was going, so I could get us there. We trudged through the storm in darkness, just a few square feet in front of us lit by our headlamps. We were just coming off of a full moon, but the storm was so thick you wouldn't know it.
We pushed out decoy cart through mud that clung to the wheels in bigger and bigger clumps with every turn. We kept our heads low to keep the rain from stinging our faces.
Have I mentioned that this is extremely weird for opening weekend here?
My headlamp caught the glow of two eyes as something scurried across the dirt road. Baby opossum. This being only the second day of hunting at Delevan this season, we agreed that he was probably thinking, "What the hell are you humans doing here in this weather?"
It was a question I'd ask myself several times that day.
When it felt like I'd gotten to the right spot on the road, we ditched our cart and dragged our decoy boat into the water and headed - as best I could tell - south. I couldn't see Charlie's light, which should've been there already, but I wasn't worried, because I knew he was perfectly able to set up in the dark.
The walk was sheer misery: Fighting the wind, walking through water, wearing heavy 3.5 mm neoprene, slogging through the soft, muddy bottom, no reassuring light ahead.
And our boat was taking on water.
We stopped, shifted things a bit, and set out again. Still no Charlie light. And then we hit land.
What the hell? There was no land in the spot we were headed to.
I saw a light near me in the darkness and went toward it. "Charlie?" I yelled into the wind as soon as I was close enough that I could be assured he'd hear me.
"No!" the shape yelled back. "But my name is Charles."
"Nice to meet you Charles. I'm Holly."
OK, truly, public-land duck hunting is so full of bizarre scenes like this that I can't help but laugh.
I went back to Boyfriend and Kevin to tell them that I'd gotten us massively lost. What a loser! I pulled out my phone, dialed Charlie and thrust it under my hood, hoping the driving rain wouldn't destroy it. We could barely hear each other, but I determined we'd gotten turned around when we rearranged the load on the boat.
Great. We'd have to cross that water again.
This time we made it. I'd been to this spot with Charlie before, and everything was in place. Except for Charlie.
I dialed him again. Three or four times. And with lots of yelling into our phones, I finally understood that his boat had taken on too much water and he'd had to go back to land to empty it, before setting out again. I blinked my headlamp at him. He blinked his at me. Reassurance in the darkness: He was close. He would get there.
Now, I know there are some readers here - some of whom I've just met - who desperately want to start hunting ducks. And I know you're reading this thinking, "No effin' way!" But stay strong, sisters - this was a really unusual experience, not the norm. And I'm so glad I didn't bring one of you on this hunt, because this would've been a really rough first outing for you.
When shoot time arrived, it became clear very quickly that we were not on the "X" that day. Some ducks were coming our way, but most were breaking west or flying too high over us, just to bomb in somewhere to the south. Where all the gunfire was. Dammit.
We started eking out a few ducks. Boyfriend and Kevin brought down a mallard apiece. I hit a duck that was - as would become clear as I saw it sailing, mortally wounded - a spoonie hen. My first duck of the season, the most maligned bird in duckdom.
Charlie took out a teal from a group that had evaded Boyfriend, which I knew only because the wind briefly blew his profanities my direction.
Here's the funny thing about shooting in the wind: It is hard! Ducks will fly into the wind, which is the only way they can control their direction. But with winds blowing at duckflight speed, they had to labor mightily to make any progress. This meant that as they were flying into us, they appeared to be - and practically were - holding still!
Yep. They were sitting ducks. And there we were with scatterguns! We should've had our limits in an hour. Right?
Wrong. Wouldn't you know it, there's something really difficult about shooting in that situation.
Ducks can skid sideways without warning when the wind shifts even slightly. Your shot can be blown off trajectory. I'm pretty sure each of us missed shots that would've been total no-brainers at a gun range. It was frustrating as hell.
At one point - I kid you not - I saw a small non-game bird, maybe the size of a blackbird, flying backward. It was facing me, and utterly helpless against the wind, it was blown backward into a clump of tules. Even though I was grumpy as hell because of all the shells I was wasting, I couldn't help but laugh at that.
Even so, the weather was torture. Kevin had leaky waders, and he succumbed midmorning. Boyfriend and I left when I was almost out of shells, and my last shell would've been a waste - ultra-light No. 6 shot, guaranteed to be gone with the wind.
Charlie, as was normal for him, stayed until the bitter end, sending me text messages with his new water-resistant phone about the birds he downed after Boyfriend and I were safely ensconced at Granzella's for a late lunch.
Me (10/24 1:56 p.m.): So, how many things have you killed since we left???
Charlie (10/24 2:02 p.m.): Sure u want 2 know? 2 grnhead and a pin
Me (10/24 2:09 p.m.): Hank and I just killed two beers.
Charlie's a maniac - he will hunt the entire day, and even if he's limited, he'll stay to the bitter end just to watch the action. And by staying to the bitter end, he usually brings home a full strap.
Me? I just can't hunt like that on a Sunday. I have to recharge my batteries to get through the week ahead. Classes to teach, a massive pile of grading to do, and a freelance story for the local paper on top of that.
I know my limits. And I hate them.
Between Boyfriend and me, we brought home seven ducks yesterday. He got five (yes, I hate him), and I got two, my spoonie hen - my No. 1 Duck for the 10-11 season! - and a ring-necked drake. Funny, it was the same score as our first duck hunt of the season together last year, a Sunday that was windy, yet sunny and warm.
While I worked at school today, he did the plucking duty, the start of the process of turning our hard work into amazing food.
He rendered down the fat from our seven ducks and got this, which is astonishing:
When he pulled the innards from his pintails, he found one liver so fatty that, by God, this was unheard-of wild foie gras. It was the fattest liver we have ever seen on a wild duck. This girl must've been parked in a rice field stuffing herself for weeks, no foie gras force-feeding funnel needed.
Fat liver on the left, normal liver on the right:
It was dressed quite simply with some Fiori di Cervia sea salt, which was pretty much the most orgasmic thing you could put on a slow-roasted duck. I mean, there was no way in hell we'd use our napkins instead of our tongues to clean our fingers. Table manners be damned.
We sat there, tearing into that duck, fingers glistening, duck fat dripping down our chins.
Funny, I recently read a blog in which a new duck hunter declared that all duck hunters were lying when they said ducks tasted great. Finding a way to make ducks taste even acceptable was immense labor for him.
I am happy to report this guy was wrong. Almost inexcusably wrong. Wild ducks are the most amazing gift nature has to offer our palates.
Boyfriend and I clinked glasses.
"To a new duck season!" I said.
I wouldn't miss it for anything. No matter how poorly I shoot, no matter how miserable the weather is. It's worth it.
© Holly A. Heyser 2010