Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Duck hunting frenzy: The electric mallard, the pigeons, the divers and the friend

Pant pant pant!

I've been hunting like a dog: relentlessly, joyously and with utter disregard for normal sleep requirements.

See, I taught my last class of the semester last Thursday, and something snapped. My brain knew: No longer do I have to save energy for teaching and grading and advising; I can hunt when I want, hunt as much as I want, exhaust myself, sleep, and then do it all over again!

Heh heh heh. I am totally powerless to resist this impulse. I have hunted four times in the past six days, and I am still reeling from the effects of this frenzy, constantly replaying a slideshow of crystalline memories.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The brilliant morning sun is behind me. My back is pressed against cattails, keeping my body in shade - harder for ducks to see me this way. I have finally found the perfect spot in this particular clump of tules and cattails. I am on the back side, away from the roar of half a dozen hunting parties on the other side. Away from my own decoys. I've left them behind, because I kept seeing the birds over here. Where my decoys weren't.

I hear wingbeats, then catch a glimpse through some tules of two shapes zooming toward me from my right side. In a fraction of a second, they come into full view. A mallard pair.

Now, mallards are what everyone thinks of when they think of duck hunting, but for some reason I'm not very good at getting them. I don't seem to be able to identify them clearly by sight - I'm much better at identifying by sound, which isn't always an option.

But these are close. They are 10 feet over the water, 20 yards out, zooming across the water in front of me. This is the kind of shot I can nail - I'm good at this one. Really good.

As I raise my gun smoothly to my cheek, the drake becomes a vision of splendor. Every green feather on his head is glinting golden in the sun. He is sparkling. He is electric. Time slows. He is mine.

My gun swings. At the moment the lead feels perfect - right in front of me! - I pull the trigger. Nothing happens.

Nothing happens!
I've been having problems with my gun. The breech bolt isn't consistently opening all the way, or closing all the way. In this case, the latter. The gun isn't cocked. I reach up and snap it back and forth, but the ducks are gone - they have swung out of sight. My own personal sun god is gone.

The day is remarkable nonetheless: I leave with six ducks, the most I have ever gotten while hunting alone.

I'm not upset about the mallard. Shit happens. I have an appointment with my gunsmith first thing in the morning. But for some reason, the mallard I didn't get is the most vivid memory of my morning. I don't think I've ever seen a mallard look that beautiful before.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Four of us are stretched out at the edge of a field of seedling wheat, each of us in our own camouflage sarcophagus. It's my first time in a layout blind, and I'm looking forward to that jack-in-the-box moment, enormous Canada geese feet out, wings flapping, suspended midair, right in front of us. Then - surprise! - we pop up and shoot them. This is how I can successfully hunt geese! I hardly ever get geese.
But I forgot: Boyfriend and I have never had a successful guided goose hunt. Ever. Why should this day be any different?

Our guide, George, is fantastic. The setup is immaculate. The calling is stunning. But on this day, all the geese in the valley are flying high and heading south, not entertaining any offers from the ground. The guide dials up some friends who are also hunting in the region and everyone says the same thing: They're not coming down. Period.

We've got the flaps of our layout blinds open and we're all chatting, and this group of pigeons starts circling. We start talking about how much we love eating pigeon. The birds circle close, and George says we can take a shot if we can get one.

I'd love to. I've never gotten a pigeon.

But pigeons are smart, and they drop to the ground 75 yards away from us. One of the guide crew sends his chocolate Lab Maggie out to them and they lift, and then drop into the next field.

We all decide our goose hunt is over, but Boyfriend and I are still thinking about those pigeons. We resolve to put a sneak on them. All I've got is BBs, but what the hell.

An elevated dirt road is between us and the flock, and we walk toward it, crouching to avoid detection. When we reach a treeline along that road, we separate, each of us preparing to pop out from opposite ends of the line.

When we emerge, I see the birds. They are far from me, but close to Boyfriend. He fires twice, and knocks two birds down. The one closest to me is alive, broken wing flapping in futility.

"I'll get the one on the right!" I yell, and walk toward it quickly. I'm wearing waders, and the field is soft from rain - I can't run.

The flock sets down around the wounded bird, and as I get closer, I realize they're not getting up - I might get a shot of my own.

At 40 yards, I raise my gun. I will ground-shoot if that's what it takes.

But they lift just before my finger touches the trigger. Perfect. Wings up. Exposed.
I never flock-shoot - of all the rookie mistakes I've made, that's not one of them. I always pick out a bird. But not this time. I just aim into the flock and pull the trigger. One drops. I shoot again. Another drops. It is my first double, ever. And my first pigeon. Pigeons.

Both are alive, broken wings flapping. I now have three birds to chase.

Now, far be it from me to demean the act of an animal that's trying to save it's life. Honestly, that's the hardest part of hunting for me - they're alive, trying to stay that way, and I'm doing my best to thwart them. It ain't pretty.

But if anyone had videotaped what we did next, the music that would've gone with the scene would've had to be the Benny Hill theme song.

Our friend Jim joined us in the field, each of us chasing after pigeons that couldn't fly, but that were still miraculously good at dodging us. We'd lunge, and get nothing. Lunge again and get a handful of dirt. Lunge again and come up with feathers. We looked ridiculous.

But we finally got them.

As we joined the crew in packing up the goose decoys and layout blinds, I looked up and saw five pigeons from the flock sitting on a nearby power line. I imagined they were holding vigil for their friends, waiting to see if they'd escape us.
They didn't. The pigeons finally left.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The sky is gray and the water in front of us is a pale greenish-gray. Across the water - far across the water - we see Pittsburg. We're on Suisun Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we're hunting divers. Our first diver hunt ever!

Have you ever seen the episode of Benelli's American Safari in which Tom Knapp hunts goldeneye in California? We're with the guide who took him out, R.J. Waldron of Northwind Outfitters. We spend much of our morning trying to mimic Knapp's gorgeous baritone voice.

We doubt we can mimic his feat - his group bagged 21 drake goldeneyes.

But who cares? We have something on this hunt that Knapp didn't have: Chef Sheamus Feeley of Farmstead restaurant in Napa. He's an avid duck hunter. And he brought a miniature kitchen on the hunt. So while we sit on the shore of our little island, he's cooking on a folding table about 10 yards behind us. First up: home-cured ham biscuits! Delicious. Ducks come in.

I was getting all the shots at first, which was a shame, because I was missing everything. Turns out you need to get in a groove to get the lead right on speedy diver ducks. And because they fly low on the water, I could see exactly where my pellets landed in the water as they sped by. Behind. Behind. Behind.

When the seventh group of ducks comes through our decoys, 20 yards in front of us, I finally get it right. I pull the trigger and get the first kill of the day. Kills! A Scotch double. My first ever.

Two goldeneyes tumble hard into the water.

R.J. has prepared us for this: Keep shooting until you're sure they're dead, because they will dive, and you will lose them.

My ducks, it turns out, are not dead, so we all start shooting at them. One goes belly up. The other dives, and every time we see him, he's farther out. Once they get too far away, they're really good at ducking before the shot arrives.

R.J. takes his boat out on a search-and-destroy mission - one of many that day. But we never see that duck again. The second duck of my first Scotch double. But we do see a group of seagulls feasting on something on the water 400 yards away.

And I do have one goldeneye in hand. My first one!

They're so big! For some reason I thought they'd be small, like bufflehead.
Somehow, everything goes better after that. I start hitting more ducks. I get a canvasback - something R.J. doesn't see often out there. And suddenly I've reached my limit. At 9:15 a.m. Before everyone else! That never happens.

I feel guilty - like I hogged all the ducks.

But I didn't. Four hunters left with 26 birds. And very full stomachs. Thanks, Sheamus!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My alarm goes off at 1:30 a.m. Brutal! I need to be out the door at 2 a.m. to get to Dana's house in Atwater at 4:15. Then we hunt.

I haven't seen Dana in probably two years. We met in 2007. I had just started this blog, and she liked it. She invited me to go hunting. It was incredibly fun - I was used to hunting crowded refuges, and Dana hunted on riverbanks, far from other hunters.

The setting was intimate - by the time a bird was over the opposite bank, it was in shooting range. The whole scene was like our own personal duck hunting theater, housed under the gray sky of the San Joaquin Valley winter. I fell in love with it.
For the next two seasons, though, we couldn't get our schedules to mesh. We were long overdue for a hunt.

But this was the day. When we jump in the boat to motor out to Dana's spot, two snuggly black Labs - Tule and Kid - manage to sit on my lap for the short ride out. They're happy to be going hunting. As am I.

Dana had warned me that it had been slow. I had told her I didn't care. This was about hunting with her far more than it was about killing birds.

At our spot, we set out decoys, Dana beats a little opening in the tules for a makeshift blind and we pour coffee and tea, waiting for the first sounds of duck wings.

We talk and talk. About students (she has taught too). About young people these days. About life and death. About the connection hunting gives us to the earth, restoring us to what is right, removing us from a man-made world that is insane. About how right we believe it is that our bodies should feed and sustain other animals after we die - it's only fair.

The talk was never this deep during our hunts that first season together. I wasn't there yet. Dana had been hunting for two decades, but I'd been hunting for just a year, and all I knew was that I loved it. I didn't understand why.

But now I did, and it pleased me so much that we were on the same page. When you let a young friendship lie fallow for two years, you never know what will happen when you see each other again.

Not a single duck came in shooting range all morning. A storm was coming in, and apparently they weren't in the mood to play - they were just on the move.
"I'm sorry we didn't get any ducks," Dana said for the 10th time as we picked up decoys.

Three years ago, two years ago, even last year, I might have felt sorry myself (or sorry for myself). But I'm doing really well this season. It no longer feels like every duckless day is an indictment of my hunting skills. I know the difference between hoping and expecting. And I know what I want out of a hunt.

I grinned. "I really don't care. I came here to see you."

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Anonymous said...

Ahh, Holly! Such great hunting stories to read while I sip my coffee and prepare my day. The view you paint of hunting is a magnificent one. You are a terrific representative to the hunting community! :)

Shewee woman said...

Holly you are becoming a very mature hunter. The good days are overtaking the bad days. Love to read about your hunting excursions. Keep em coming!

benedict1 said...

Yep. Terminal case--duckosis of the brain. No cure. Serious depression the week after season closes. Then periods of euphoria planning next year's assaults followed by scheming on how to buy those new boots and the duck call of all time--Happy Dan's Mallard Mauler--calls 'em in from 200 yards every time.

You'll survive. Isn't it great?

Richard Mellott said...

Yup, I'm hooked, and haven't even taken my first shot this season. I've been concentrating on getting my school work done, dealing with a death in the family, and hunting quail. However, I have all the equipment, got a buncha choke tubes for my shotgun, steel shot everywhere, and a range shoot scheduled for this afternoon...I love the duck hunting life, and will plunge into it full bore in the late season. Great story about the pigeon opportunity...wish I could see the Benny Hill episode, but my cable doesn't carry that chanel #BB.

Phillip said...

Somehow, I'm still not sure one long post makes up for the absence of posts lately... but I'll take it, especially when it's as good as this one!

Seriously, nice job Holly! You guys are really living the life now! And I can still picture the last mallard that lifted, unscathed past my double barrels... it's a great picture and your post brought it back with real clarity!

Mike Dwyer said...

We've had similar problems with geese this year. Flying high and no interest in stopping. Luckily it's been a banner year for rabbits in KY. We're loading up the freezer and I am anxious to try some of Hank's recipes.

On an un-related note: That is one good looking lab. I thought you stole mine for a second. They could be twins:

Josh said...

Great stories! I only wish I was along for one or more of them.

Speaking of geese, I've got your dekes, and I've got a good spot to use 'em, too.

Your first story reminds me of a story my Dad recently told me of his greatest moment hunting. Two doves came in, he raised, and everything is still as vivid as it was in that second. He pulled, fired, missed... and yet, that was the best hunting moment he'd ever had. Everything was perfect.

Holly Heyser said...

Outfitterlife, thank you! I slept in a little, and once I pour my coffee, I'm headed for the gunsmith. Cross your fingers for me, because I know what the problem is: Rust in my spring. Probably bad. That'll be another story.

Shewee woman, I was just saying yesterday I feel like I'm a journeyman huntress now.

Walter, I actually bypass the end-of-season depression because school resumes the week before or after the end of duck season. It's an excellent distraction, though I still twitch when I see ducks in the air.

Richard, it is so addicting! As for Benny Hill, I was never a fan of the show, but I always liked the theme song.

Phillip, it wasn't a matter of trying to make up for the absence, more a matter of having all these stories to tell and never getting time to write them. My two non-hunting days were jam-packed with getting things done. And sleeping.

Mike, that dog isn't mine - his name is Dodge and he belongs to Jason Adversalo, one of the guides on that diver hunt. Beautiful youngster (one year old), and very affectionate. He hammed for the camera.

The other dog with us that day, Riley, tried to lift his leg on Hank's ducks. We just about died laughing!

Josh, let's do it! Yesterday's hunt - the electric mallard hunt - was very last-minute. I was supposed to go to Yolo with a friend and she had to bail, so I got someone to put me into the lottery at Delevan. I made all these arrangements while driving home from hunting with Dana in a huge rainstorm, exhausted. Next time I do a lottery hunt, I'll give you a holler. BTW, got a bunch of feathers I can share with you...

The Writing Huntress said...

First off, beautiful post. NC duck season opens Saturday and we're just shaking with excitement- maybe I'll bag my first one!!

Secondly, I agree with how delicious pigeon is. I had it in Egypt in a nameless place where business men and prostitutes smoked shesha. The sheesha was fantastic but nothing will ever compare to how tender and amazing the pigeon's fatty meat tasted.

Finally, a chef? In the blind? I'm just jealous now. DU "cooks" in the blind which just means he burns bacon and almost sets the entire thing on fire. (

All in all, great read!

Happy Hunting!


DarrenM said...

I said it on Sunday... "I don't want to make a habit of saying 'At least it's fun to hang out in the blind with friends' but it really is". At least I've had some good days in between this season including finally having to break out my previously unused duck strap... :)

p.s. If you did get your pigeons on video, you can quickly add the theme music here:

Ryan Sabalow said...

Great post, Holly.

Hank's culinary skills will be put to the test on those golden eyes. I'm curious to hear how he prepares them. My perfect moment this year was watching three wigeon seemingly float above my decoys, five minutes before shooting time. My brain took a picture of them, wings cupped, feet out over the bull rushes. The mist over the icy pond and the red and purple horizon was something I'll never forget. And I never got a duck that day.

Holly Heyser said...

His culinary skills were up to the task - he made sausage and it tastes fantastic. What he hated was the fact that it was so hard to skin those ducks. It also pained him to throw away skin and fat, because some of those ducks were fatties, but that's what you pretty much have to do with divers.

Isn't it funny how many of us fondly remember the missed opportunities, or missed shots? I'm really beginning to think they're a huge part of what I love about duck hunting.

Peebs said...

Our girl Holly being modest again drop the Journeyman you went out into grand central(by yourself)and nearly got a limit except for a misfire. There are a lot of hunters that will not go near that area even if they don't get birds. It's bad rep. is mostly not true but kept alive by the regulars to keep the place a little open but still a lot of people. I bet you have already blown your old bird total away with 45 days left.

Holly Heyser said...

Ya know, Peebs, here's the interesting thing: When I was wandering around in the dark and continuously running into other hunters, I finally decided to ask one guy for help. Where could I go where I'd be out of his way, but still get a chance at some birds?

He totally could've taken advantage of that and sent me someplace where I'd get nothing. As I walked away from him to set up my decoys, I wondered if this would be the day I'd get my karma for what I did exactly 367 days earlier - I had the No. 1 draw at Delevan and I helped hunters in the neighboring assigned pond find their way in a place they didn't know. Turns out I'd sent them to the X - they got limits in an hour while my party got hardly anything.

I think it's safe to say my kindness was repaid on this hunt - I did really well where that stranger sent me on Wednesday.

See? I could've written a whole post just on this hunt, because so much happened.

Re the total, you're close: I'm one bird away from matching last year's total, four away from matching my best ever total. I could crunch numbers on my spreadsheet and come up with all sorts of interesting ways to say it, but I don't need to - this year just feels very, very different. And good!

Albert A Rasch said...


Totally awesome! BTW, I love that last picture of you kissing Hank. That is a definite picture for your book!

(you are going to write one... aren't you.)

Happy Holidays!
Best Regards,
Albert A Rasch
In Afghanistan™

Holly Heyser said...

Uh, yeah, I need to get around to that!

And thanks!

Albert A Rasch said...


I also would like to order a signed edition of it when it comes out...

I'm looking forward to getting Mr Hanks book too.

Happy Holidays!
Best regards,
Albert A Rasch
Albert Rasch in Afghanistan: She had Beautiful Green Eyes…

Cork@Cork'sOutdoors said...

Great paying attention to detail on where the birds landing--not where the dekes were set--Holly. I started freeing myself from those big spreads for that very reason. If you get into the same situation, again, I highly recommend bringing one or two of the drake mallards from your spread with you and drop them in that water you investigate, keeping quiet with no calling whatsoever: I think you'll be delighted with the results. :)

Holly Heyser said...

Yeah, I did a lot less calling in that spot too, and I was very happy with it. I say if they're coming in without being called or lured, why ruin a good thing?

Anonymous said...

Great post and what some fun hunts! So glad your doing so well this year too as I'm always rootin' for ya!

I wasn't going to comment on this but now that Albert broke the ice here, I have to. I love the picture of you and Hank stealin' a smootch after the hunt. In a time were we're all exposed to too many of the "all so serious trophy pics," it refreshing and heartwarming to me to see yours. Just goes to show that there are still people out there truly enjoying what they're doing and it's not all about the bag limit or filling a tag.

Thank you for sharing that one with us.

Holly Heyser said...

Ha! My mom liked that one too. I just like it because there are precious few pictures of hunting couples, and this picture leaves no doubt!