Saturday, December 31, 2011

Duck hunters: Buy this jacket!

One of my favorite "discoveries" as a new hunter was the ghillie suit - I'd had no idea that human beings would actually want to walk around looking like Swamp Thing. It just seemed so ridiculous.

But Hank talked about wanting a ghillie jacket for a while, and two years ago, I bought one for him for Christmas. He didn't get a chance to wear it right away because his Achilles tendon popped and he couldn't even walk for a couple months, much less hunt.

When duck season began last year, though, he started wearing it all the time, and he loved it. From a distance, the jacket's shaggy outline really did make it much harder to see him hiding in cattails and tules. (Usually it's surprisingly easy to spot hunters in the marsh.)

So this year, I asked for this ghillie jacket for Christmas, and Hank obliged. Wednesday was the first chance I got to try it out, and it was amazing.

I wore it in conjunction with a black balaclava I have from my Minnesota distance running days, and though I was sitting in a tule patch that didn't afford much cover, the ducks just did not see me.

Better yet, whenever I was walking around and birds approached, I'd just hunker down over the water and disappear. Several times when I did that, I got the opportunity to stand and shoot, and the birds really didn't get that I was a hunter who was going to shoot them. What I mean is they didn't flare immediately, and I killed two or three birds this way.

It's pretty rare that a single piece of clothing makes such a noticeable difference in your hunt, but this one really did.

In fact, it works so well it makes me wonder why more duck hunters don't wear these. It is nothing but a mesh shell. If it's cold, you can wear it over a jacket. If it's warm, this is the most ventilated camo you could possibly hope to wear.

I was worried that all the flaps of fabric would catch the butt of my gun, but they didn't. Ever.

My only complaint is about the pockets, which are located in the side seams over the hips, as with a normal jacket. Because they're not deep and don't have a zipper, you wouldn't want to put anything important in them - I just used them for empty shells that I picked up while walking around.

And the pockets are hard to find, though I don't think that should be surprising with all those flaps of fabric.

If I were the designer at Cabela's (hey, wait, I've worked with them before - maybe I should mention this to them), I would add a zipped inner breast pocket for things like licenses and car keys. Hell, I know how to sew (a little) - I may just add that myself.

Regardless, I highly recommend this jacket. Mine is the "big game" version, and while I learned just yesterday that there's also a waterfowl ghillie, I think it really doesn't matter which one you use because the flaps largely obscure the camo pattern anyway. I mean, that's the whole point.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Coming up in 2012: A cool new book about hunting

At the risk of appearing cruel, I've got a great new book I want to tell you about. What's cruel about it? The book doesn't come out until June. The good news is you can pre-order it.

"Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner" (Grand Central Publishing) is Lily Raff McCaulou's tale of moving from New York City to Bend, Oregon, to take a job as a newspaper reporter.

There are two things she discovers very quickly in Bend: One is her husband-to-be, Scott, and the other is that hunting isn't at all what she had always thought it was, having grown up in an uber-liberal suburb of Washington, D.C.

Scott introduces Lily to fly fishing, and Lily decides on her own that she'd also like to try hunting, which Scott doesn't do. So without a specific mentor to inspire and guide her, she goes for it.

Wow - totally intrepid. I love her already.

This book is an important read for many segments of the hunting community for many reasons, the first being the most obvious:

Every hunter I know loves the vicarious thrill of reliving his or her own learning experiences through the tales of another new hunter. When that hunter is an articulate adult, so much the better.

I've also met about a dozen new huntresses this year who I'm pretty sure will relate to this tale as well, because they're still in the thick of learning this strange new world.

It's not just the vicarious thrill that's important here, though: Lily's tale demonstrates just how hard it is to break into hunting when you don't know a soul who hunts.

Some of this difficulty is inevitable: We all have to go through learning how to shoot straight, learning when to shoot, trying out gear, and learning how to process game.

But some of the difficulty could be avoided if state wildlife agencies, non-profits and even gun stores recognized that not all new hunters were raised in hunting families, that they really do need everything spelled out explicitly - and patiently.

For example, Lily goes to three gun shops before she finds someone who respects her wishes (she wants to shoot a 20 gauge), patiently explains things like how to shoulder a gun, and recommends a place to practice shooting and find mentors.

And because she decided to start hunting after the one and only adult hunter ed class that year has been held, she ends up in a children's course. Really? One adult class per year?

Another audience that needs to read this book is politically conservative hunters, even though they'll chafe at some of what Lily has to say. (I don't know if she would call herself a liberal, but she's clear that her upbringing was, and she reminds me of a lot of new hunters I've met who come from similar backgrounds.)

Why should they read this? In general, I believe it's important to understand the thought processes of people you disagree with, but more importantly, we need to understand that there are plenty of people from liberal backgrounds who can embrace guns and hunting if we'd just stop berating their politics long enough to let them in.

Really. It's OK. We don't all have to belch "Barack" to be hunters.

Finally, hunting organizations need to hear what Lily has to say.

She quickly becomes an advocate for hunting, and being a journalist, she really knows how to do the research to back up her opinions. But she also holds up a mirror to some hunter-based organizations. She really wanted to join some, but found so many of their messages to be off-putting, particularly those geared toward trophy measurement and record-keeping.

I think all hunters who are active in these organizations know that funding conservation is an important, if not the most important, thing that most of them do. But it sure doesn't look that way to Lily, and if that's the message she's getting from these organizations, you can bet non-hunters don't see them in any better light. I know it's not just Lily who feels this way: I work with a lot of new hunters, and they ask the exact same kinds of questions she does.

Now, I may have just made this book sound like broccoli - something you should read, not necessarily something you want to read - but I promise you it's not. The reason I'm reviewing this book is that when Hank passed it to me (he got an early copy for review), I devoured it in two evenings. And unlike some books I've read, this one didn't make me swear even once - even though I don't agree with all of her positions on hunting issues.

Lily is curious, intrepid, smart and articulate. She's a fantastic addition to the hunting community, and I think you'll enjoy her story as much as I have.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

On sluicing ducks

It finally happened: I came home from a hunt with seven ducks last week, and while my shooting wasn't amazing, it felt like I'd gotten through my really bad case of the yips.

Now, I'd love to regale you with the details of some of my incredibly awesome shots that day - the wigeon I dropped so hard he bounced three feet off the water when he hit, the spoonie I nearly dropped into my lap - but that's not what this post is about.

This post is about two greenwing teal I shot on the water.

I'd started my morning at one of my favorite spots under a bright crescent moon and a sky littered with stars. In other words, it was going to be a clear and bright day.

Once shoot time arrived, the flight was really good - I heard gunshots all over the refuge, and while I missed a lot in that first hour, I did drop one duck, a hen wigeon.

Then the fog rolled in, and the shooting stopped abruptly. Ducks don't fly in the fog.

There was no telling how long this was going to last, so I made a decision: It was time for a walkabout.

The beauty of where I hunt on my refuge is that it's free roam. When you hunt "assigned blinds," you have to stay within 100 feet of a particular spot. If the ducks don't happen to want to be there that day, you're effed. But in free roam, you are free to go to the ducks, so long as you're not getting too close to other hunters.

On this morning, I knew there were likely to be some crippled ducks who'd been injured, but not killed, by some of the hunters. Wounded ducks like to hide in cover. My strategy would be to walk through the grass where they hide, look for cripples, and shoot them. More meat for my table, and the end of suffering for wounded animals.

Not 60 seconds into my walkabout, I saw a duck in the grass, head up and alert. I knew he saw me, but he wasn't going anyplace. Crip! I took stock of my surroundings, determined that the angle and direction of my shot wasn't going to intersect any nearby hunters, and shot the duck. He went belly-up.

As I walked toward him to pick him up, I saw another duck doing the same thing - he hadn't gotten up when I fired the first shot. Another crip! So I shot him. He got up and flew, then dropped, so I got him too.

I took both birds - drake greenwings - back to my tule patch, went to my car for more ammunition, then returned to my spot just as the fog was lifting and the shooting resumed all around me.

When I went home that afternoon and started plucking my birds, I was in for a surprise: Neither teal had a mark on him except for the shots I'd fired. No broken wings. No pellets to the breasts. Just the distinctive wounds caused by sluicing: shots that rake across the back.

They hadn't been wounded! So why had they just sat there? Maybe they hoped I couldn't see them. Maybe they didn't want to fly in the fog. Who knows?

My first thought upon making this little discovery was, "Good! These'll be great eaters." Shot holes in the breast don't make for great presentation on the plate. These would be perfect. And they were little fatties, too.

My next thought was that this discovery changed my shots from noble - putting ducks out of their misery - to "unsportsmanlike."

So here's the big question: If I'd known they weren't cripples, would I have shot them on the water anyway?

The answer is "Hell yes!"

Why? Let's start with the reason why many duck hunters would say, "Hell no!" Shooting a duck on the water - also known as "sluicing" or "water swatting" - is considered by some to be unsportsmanlike because the shot is too easy, and the bird doesn't have sufficient chance to elude the hunter.

Me? I don't care.

I hunt to put food on the table, not to impress anyone else with my tremendous wingshooting abilities. While I love making a good shot, and I'm proud of myself when I shoot well, that's just not what hunting's about for me.

But let's take a visual look at the core argument.

Is it sportsmanlike to shoot these ducks?



Of course. Classic shot. How about these:


Sure, as long as there are no hunters hiding in those tules in the background. And these:


That was a test. If that image doesn't make you nearly pee yourself with excitement, you are obviously not a duck hunter.

How about this one? His feet are about a centimeter off the water.


Yep, still flapping those wings. Totally sportsmanlike! And this one?


Ah yes, this is where we - or at least some of us - draw the line. It's that last centimeter that makes all the difference in the world, right?

Nope. I call bullshit.

Now, you don't have to shoot that duck. I really don't care. Choosing not to take a shot is never "wrong," regardless of the reason.

But I don't think it's "wrong" for me to take that shot either. And I flat-out don't believe that the sitting duck is the most vulnerable duck (and therefore the "easiest" to shoot) in this series of drawings. These ducks are:


Why? Neither these ducks nor the sitting duck know you're there, so all of them are vulnerable. They're all pretty easy shots because they've really slowed down, and the three on the left, while still moving, are coming straight at you. Stick the damn bead on a bird and pull the trigger.

But let's say you miss one of these shots (which, God help me, I've done way too many times), or you attract their attention and spook them before pulling the trigger. Now that the ducks are alerted, they're going to want to get the hell out of Dodge.

The sitting duck need only launch into the air, which he can do with astonishing speed. The landing ducks, on the other hand, must reverse course. They must stop their downward movement before they can start moving up and out. So, this is really the shot that's "too easy" and "unsportsmanlike," right?

Yeah, I didn't think so.

This is the problem with some of the ethical lines we hunters draw in the sand (or in the marsh, in this case). I believe our core concern should be making the cleanest kill possible with shots that won't lead to any unintentional wounding of other hunters or dogs who might be nearby.

I mean, do we really think the duck gives a damn whether we shot him on the water or when he was still a foot off the water? If he ain't dead yet, he's thinking, "Ow! Ow! Ow! I've gotta get out of here," not, "That unsportsmanlike bastard just shot me on the water!"

And I don't feel any less guilty for ending a bird's life when it's midair, as opposed to when it's on the water. I've killed it, either way.

Hunting is, at its core, tricking animals into making mistakes that cost them their lives. On the water or in the air, that duck you're shooting has been fooled into believing he's safe there. That means you've done the first part of your job well. Now it's time to shoot him - if you choose to.

But tell me readers: What do you think? What's your line in the sand? Why?

Let the comments begin!

P.S. While I love it when everyone agrees with me, I really want to hear about it if you disagree, because I want to hear WHY - challenging my position helps me see whether my arguments are on point, and it occasionally changes my mind. Really!

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Nothing like a little snap shooting to shake things up

...And a partridge in a pear tree! (Don't freak out about the duck count - these aren't all mine.)

Yesterday was our semi-annual mixed-bag extravaganza hunt in Amador County with our friend Evan, and the beauty of this hunt - aside from the fact that almost all small game is legal to hunt at this time of year - is that it's all snap shooting.

Loyal readers know that if I have more than two seconds to shoot, I will overthink my shot, every time. In light of how horribly I've been shooting in the marsh (see previous morose blog post), I really needed some serious snap shooting to shake me out of my slump.

The full story behind this photo will be my Jan. 1 Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang! column for Shotgun Life, but I wanted to share one piece of it today:

We were hunting pigeons at a barn on a cattle ranch and for some reason, birds kept coming back to the barn despite all the shooting and carnage (usually they're much smarter). At one point while Evan was off chasing pigeons down the hill, Hank and I were heading back to the barn, and a pigeon came flying in.

As Hank was uttering the words, "Look, there's one," I was already lifting my gun, pulling the trigger and watching that bird cartwheel out of the sky.

"Wow! Great shot!" Hank said. Words I can never hear enough. Especially considering Hank is the one who normally shoots before I can mount my gun.

I know the photo above is tasteless, and so is my smug satisfaction. But dammit, it feels good to shoot well and bring home bounty like this, so I have no apologies. Just gratitude.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Salvation: How 'fighter squadrons,' the Tebow move and a perfect hen spoonie rescued my hunt

I've had the yips something fierce this duck season. I mean, so bad on most days that I feel like it's my first year of duck hunting again - I can't hit a thing. It has been utterly demoralizing. I mean, I've heard of bad days, but entire bad seasons?

God, I loathe failure.

There have been some pretty fierce external stressors this fall that I can't control, but I've been trying lots of other stuff to rectify the situation: practicing my gun mount in front of the mirror, coaching myself to wait to shoot until the mount feels perfect, keeping my spirits up.

I went gonzo at the hardware store to fix a problem with the adjustable-comb stock of my shotgun coming loose frequently. I changed chokes on my gun. And on Wednesday morning, I decided to hunt alone to try to isolate my problem in privacy.

Well, you must know by now how it went. I won't chronicle every single moment of my epic suckage, but suffice to say I whiffed on not one, but two pairs of mallards that got up out of the grass near me and came flying straight to my tule patch at easy shooting height. Exact same shot. Twice in a row. Oh. My. God.

My buddy Charlie, who couldn't hunt Wednesday, texted me mid-morning.

"Sooo?"

I responded morosely: "I think if I put my muzzle in my mouth i'd still miss."

It's weird: With the exception of two hunts this fall - both in places where the ducks would come in close because we weren't surrounded by other hunters - I feel like I've just lost my sight picture.

Ideally, your brain remembers everything about your good shots - how you're swinging, the angle of the bird's flight, where the bird is in relation to the muzzle, how the stock feels on your cheek and shoulder. I tell new hunters that's why they need to shoot a lot: They need to train their brain to recognize what works and what doesn't work.

That subconscious memory is also what makes a hunter "feel the Force" - that feeling you get when you just know that if you pull the trigger now, the shot is going to connect.

I haven't been getting that feeling at all this season.

Fighting my pouty inner child, who kept telling me to just quit Wednesday morning, I decided to walk around in an area where crippled ducks tend to hide. Not 50 yards into my walk, I saw the unmistakable shadow of a duck swimming away from me through the grass, head pressed low to the water to avoid detection.

I raised my gun, aimed a bit to the left to put most of the shot on his head, pulled the trigger, and he started flapping, dead.

"Thank God," I told myself, "that I can still kill a duck on the water."

Strangely enough, that inglorious shot made me feel better. I'd gone home empty-handed on Sunday, and I didn't want to have to tell the folks at the hunter check station that I'd been skunked again. This bird took care of that.They didn't need to know I'd gotten it on crip patrol.

I kept walking, hoping to find more crippled ducks, when I realized there were a LOT of coots around me, some even in shooting range. Coots have a bad reputation as a really stanky bird - not good eats. But Hank knows how to cook them, and the night before, he'd asked me to bring home a bunch if I got the opportunity.

I watched and waited for several birds to cross in front of my muzzle at the same time, pulled the trigger, and went up to collect four coots. I'd pick up a fifth cripple shortly after that.

I knew I'd take a lot of ribbing from fellow hunters because almost no one shoots coots on purpose. But Hank would be happy. And I'd managed NOT to botch an easy shot. Yay.

It was just enough "success" to convince me what I had to do: I was going to stay all damn day and keep shooting and shooting and shooting until I could get it right. I walked back to my car to get more ammo (tail between legs), then went back to my tule patch.

By this time, there were few ducks in the air, and the very few I was seeing were going to nearby hunters' decoy spreads, not mine. It was the worst kind of duck hunting weather: bright, cloudless and still.

One by one, the other hunters began leaving. "Good," I thought to myself. "Now I can miss in total privacy." It felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Now if I could just get some ducks to swing by.

Ducks were definitely still in the air, but nowhere near me. I kept seeing them bomb into an area about 300 yards from me where there were no tule patches that could hide hunters - just thin grass rising 12 to 18 inches above the water.

Hmmmm.

I decided to stalk them.

This is inherently funny, stalking birds in an area where there was no place to hide. Except that low grass.

I walked upright at first, slowly, to avoid splashing sounds. As I drew closer, I dropped my torso like a cat, moving even more smoothly. Or like that "keep on truckin'" image that was so popular in the 1970s.


When I felt I was getting close enough for my head to be seen over that grass, I dropped to my knees and kept going. True fact: When you're walking on your knees in waders, you have to be careful how you pick up each knee, because the waders are so buoyant that they'll knock you on your side. It was hard not to giggle.

In front of me, I heard the unmistakable sound of birds lifting from the water. Would they come in shooting distance? Yes they would! I shot from my knees, and missed.

Keep going, Holly!

I snuck forward a bit more. More birds lifted. I shot again. Missed.

Keep going, Holly!

Not long after that last gun blast, I heard that sound that takes my breath away: It sounds like a squadron of fighter jets bombing in. It is the sound air makes against ducks' bodies when they lock wings and dive hard because they want to land now.

It is both thrilling and baffling, because you cannot figure out where they hell they're going to come into sight, and you don't want to jerk your head around looking for them.

I finally caught a glimpse of this squadron, out of range, and marveled. They dropped to the water maybe 80 yards from me.

I kept knee-walking in that direction, and then froze because yet another squadron was coming in. And another. And another.

This was the kind of dazzling, breath-taking scene you could witness only when almost every other duck hunter has gone home. And everything about it was amplified by how beautiful the day had become: warm, breezy, bright. The birds' bodies - when I could look at them without being seen - literally glistened in that light. It was pure magic, the kind that brings tears to my eyes (then and now). The kind that makes me feel so privileged to be in that place.

I got as close as I could to an open area of water that was attracting the ducks, and decided that rather than staying on my knees - not ideal for shooting - that I needed to be ready to stand. So I adopted the Tebow move:


From this position, I could continue avoiding detection, but be ready to stand quickly if a duck flew in range. Yes, it was really hard keeping my gun out of the water. And yes, pretty much every shell in my shell belt was now submerged. I didn't care.

Ducks flew in, ducks flew out, close enough to make me gasp, but never quite in range.

I made a deal with the hunting gods: Let me get one good shot, and I'll leave these ducks alone, go back to my tule patch and be happy if not one more bird flies by me today.

A spoonie hen dropped into that open water, almost close enough to shoot, but not quite. There was a patch of grass between me and her, so I couldn't see her, but I knew she was there. Then another spoonie dropped into the same open water, also too far to shoot.

I waited.

I heard the huff-huff-huff of spoonie wings. The first one was getting up. Would she come near me?

Yes. She arced in my direction. When she was just the right distance, I stood calmly, mounted my gun, started swinging, felt the Force, pulled the trigger. She dropped straight to the water, dead.

I squeezed my eyes shut, willing that sight picture to burn its way into my memory, thanking the hunting gods for listening to me. Then I picked up her twitching body and walked back to my tule patch, where not one more duck came near me before the sun dropped below the Coastal Range, signalling the end of shoot time.

I can't honestly say that I believe this will be the end of the yips for me. I'd like it to, but I've been disappointed every other time this season that I thought I was on the right track, so I refuse to hope. I have a low tolerance for disappointment these days.

But I can say this: I am extremely grateful for that afternoon in the marsh. It was a gift, in every way.


Related story: Wanna know what I did with those coots? Well, it's up to Hank to cook them, but I "found" a great way to process them to get rid of the stank - click here to check it out.




© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Video: How to skin a duck

Yes, I know it's a coot, not a duck.
I know - blasphemy, right? I mean, I love duck skin, and my favorite way to eat duck is roasted whole with skin on.

But sometimes you get a bird that you know is going to taste "off." You know your mallards and pintails are going to taste great, but spoonies, gadwalls and wigeon can be a bit funky, depending on where you live and what those birds are eating there. Coots and sea birds? Stinkers, consistently.

The good news that all the foul flavor lives in skin and fat, so you can still make use of much of that stanky bird. All you need to know is how to skin it.

I shot this video on how to skin a duck a couple weekends ago after Hank and I went hunting for diver ducks on San Francisco Bay (San Pablo Bay, to be more exact). Then last weekend I went hunting at my usual Sacramento Valley spot without Hank and he sent me off with a grocery list: He wanted five coots if I got the opportunity to get some. He said something about recipe development.

I got him his coots (you can read that story here), and rather than make him do the dirty work, I decided to give skinning a try myself, based on the instructional video. I'll be damned if it didn't work - and it worked well! Cleaning went really fast. (It helped to have a quality pair of kitchen shears.) I may shoot coots more often.

Two notes on the video: If you choose to save the first section of wing, as shown near the beginning of the video, to get that meat, all you do is keep pulling off the skin, rather than stopping at the breast and clipping it off. You'll see what I mean. And if you don't want the wing, just clip it off at its base.

And if you like liver, go ahead and use the liver from a coot. The diver/sea duck warnings don't apply.



© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The difference between sufficient binoculars and good binoculars: Nikon Monarch 3 review

I was hunting pigs one day with my friend Phillip when his binoculars caught my eye. They had a built-in rangefinder and they were a top brand.

"How much did they cost?" I asked.

"Three thousand," he said. Gasp!

I asked what made them worth that much, and that's when he enlightened me: "Affordable" binoculars are fine for limited use, but when you use them a lot - for example, if you're a hunting guide who scans the land with them all day long, day after day - they'll strain your eyes. A good pair of binoculars doesn't do that.

I took a look through his binoculars. I couldn't see the difference, so I took his word for it.

Yesterday, though, I took a pair of Nikon Monarch 3 binoculars for a test ride at a local wildlife area, and I finally got it.

First, I need to preface my remarks by saying I have never paid for a pair of binoculars. When I first started hunting, I borrowed Hank's binoculars. He couldn't remember how much they cost, but I'm gonna say it was less than $200.

Then another company - one known for respectable quality at an affordable price - sent me a pair of binoculars for review. At the time, they retailed for about $200, but I looked them up yesterday and found the price had dropped to $165. I liked them, and I saw no reason to upgrade.

Then, earlier this fall, a Nikon rep asked if I'd like to review the new Monarch 3, and I said, "Sure!"

I was actually kind of excited about it because I shoot Nikon cameras (for food photography and duck feather photography), and I love Nikon.

At home, I took them out in the back yard to glass the field behind my house. Switching back and forth between the Nikon binos and my other review binos, they seemed pretty similar.

Then I took them on a few duck hunts. I know, I know, we don't generally glass for ducks. But by the time I got these binoculars, I had only a day or two left in my deer hunting season, so I figured I could glass for ducks when things were quiet. Again, I had no problems with them. So far, so good.

Yesterday, though, I put them to a test that finally made the difference clear: About an hour before sunset, I took both pairs of binoculars to a nearby wildlife area that I'm hoping to hunt this season.

I hoisted the older binoculars and scanned the area, picking out landscape features near and far, looking from all different angles, including facing into the impending sunset. Yep, all good.

Then I lifted the Monarch 3s and holy crap! Looking through them was easier, no doubt about it. It was actually the last thing I expected to find, because $250 puts these at the moderate end of the binocular price range (binos at Cabela's range from $30 to $3,000). I thought I'd need a much more expensive pair of binoculars to notice that difference.

Now here's the problem: I can't tell you why they felt better. But it was a familiar feeling.

When I took up serious photography in 2007, I got a Nikon camera body and two "kit" lenses for $1,000, which is definitely cheap in the camera world. The quality of my photos was good - I was getting published in food magazines, and many of the photos you see in Hank's book (Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast) came out of those lenses.

Later, I got a $550 60 mm macro lens for Christmas, and when I upgraded to a better camera body in 2010, I also decided to spring for a new 24-70 mm lens, which cost $1,800. With these lenses, all of my photos now just looked better. More crisp, more clear, more beautiful. More professional.

That's how the Monarch 3 feels compared with my older review binoculars, except it wasn't just the quality of the image, but the ease of looking through them. My eyes just didn't have to work as hard to process the image.

You can read about all the Monarch 3 features and specs by clicking here, and if you can make sense of them, you know far more about binoculars than I do and you're probably laughing at me by now.

But I will single out one more feature I am eminently qualified to discuss: The focus knob on the Monarch 3, as promised on the Nikon website, is really smooth and easy to work - much easier than my other binoculars.

I never had any problem focusing with the other ones, but because I have arthritis in my hands, being able to adjust focus easily is a huge plus. That's actually the main reason I got a Bushnell scope for my .270 a couple years ago, not a Leupold - I found it very difficult to move the Leupold magnification ring.

Upshot: I can wholeheartedly recommend these binoculars. I'm feeling very lucky to have them.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Three chicks was the LEAST weird thing about this hunt

"Three girls?"

That's how guide R.J. Waldron responded when Hank let him know who'd be going on our San Francisco Bay diver duck hunt last weekend: Three of the five hunters on board would be women.

It was a first for R.J., and the special considerations immediately became apparent when we met at the dock in Vallejo at 5 a.m.

"Where's the bathroom? Wait, it's locked!"

I run with a tough group of huntresses, though, so we immediately kicked into Marine mode: Improvise, adapt and overcome. We found a dark corner in the parking lot and one by one took care of business. And then for good measure, we did it one more time.

There was a special urgency: We'd be shooting from a pontoon blind on San Pablo Bay that day, and with high winds, it was highly unlikely that we'd want to risk dropping trou on the edge of a rocking pontoon.


This was going to be an interesting hunt. Hank and I have hunted and fished with R.J. several times, and we love him. He's good at what he does, and he's absolutely hysterical - he'll keep you laughing through any slow times that might come your way. This guy should have a TV show.

But our fellow hunters included my pal Alison, who's in her third season of hunting, but had never hunted Bay divers; Noelia, who just went on her first duck hunt a few weeks ago; and her husband Frankie, who's also fairly new to duck hunting.

Hunting divers is really different than hunting puddle ducks. They fly fast as hell, and they are adept escape artists who can dive after being shot and surface 100 yards away. "If their heads are up, keep shooting until you're sure they're dead," we warned.

This hunt was going to be a first for Hank and me too: We had never hunted from a pontoon blind - normally, we hunted divers from the edge of an island - so we didn't know what to expect. How on earth would we be able to shoot straight when we weren't on terra firma?

The dark ride to the pontoon blind was very, very wet, so we all huddled at the bottom of R.J.'s boat like refugees, shouting whenever we got slapped by little walls of salt water. Finally, the boat slowed and we dared to lift our heads.

"It's here somewhere," R.J. was saying. And he was right: There it was.

I'm not sure what I expected a pontoon blind to be like - perhaps something like a party yacht with a big, luxurious deck.

Turns out I was wrong! This blind was like a floating six-man pit blind - just enough room for a chair for each of us, and enough floor space to cram our camo bags o' stuff.

Curiously, the blue-gray floating blind had palm fronds tacked up all around it. Why? Obviously, R.J. knows there are no palm trees in San Francisco Bay. But he said scaup were really wary of the blind until he put up the palm fronds, so there you go.

Once everyone was on board, we organized ourselves in semidarkness, the sky lightening over a thoroughly urban landscape. Alison discovered she couldn't load the magazine of her shotgun. We tried taking it apart, but we needed pliers and didn't have any. R.J., concerned that Alison's gun might be unsafe, handed his gun to her.

Now that we were settled in, R.J.'s partner on this trip, Jim, sped away from the pontoon in R.J.'s boat, ready to zip back in and pick up any ducks we might get. Yeah, no way in hell would you use a dog in these conditions.

Then we waited.

Bay diver hunts are SO different from what we usually do. The pre-dawn on a good hunt-day in puddle duck land is usually criss-crossed with ducks, often flying so close to you that it takes your breath away. You can't see anything but their silhouettes, but their calls identify them for you: the meep of the gadwall, the whistle of the wigeon, the high-pitched tweet of the greenwing teal and the quack and zhwee of the hen and drake mallard.

But Bay divers? There was no strafing. No sound but the wind and waves. No silhouettes except for the faint black dots we strained to see hundreds of yards away from our blind.

"It's always like this in the first half hour," R.J. assured us.

Right again. Before long, we started spotting ducks, but only rarely with blue sky behind them - that would be too easy. They fly so low that we almost always had to pick them out against the roiling blue-green-black of the bay.

Well, that's usually how we spotted them. Sometimes after looking at birds behind us, our eyes just over the top of the blind (think "Kilroy was here"), we'd all turn around only to find a duck or two had dropped into our decoys. It shouldn't have surprised us - you'd never hear the splash of a duck over the noise of the wind and waves.

That's how we got our first kill of the day: A little bufflehead dropped in, and bam, Frankie was the first one on the board.

Next the birds started coming into my end of the blind. Scaup (bam, one in the bag), then scoters (bam, one in the bag), then I had to play musical chairs with Alison or I was going to hog every damn bird on the bay.

And then it just started going really well. We had a pretty steady stream of ducks working us (and ducks slipping into our decoys when we weren't looking), and before long, everyone was on the board.

That's always what you want to see in a big group of hunters like this, particularly when people are laying out good cash to hunt based on your recommendation of the guide. But it was especially awesome on this day, because this was when Noelia got her first duck ever.

I was with Noelia on her first hunt a few weeks ago, and it had been a super slow day. She'd gotten to take a few shots, but she hadn't connected.

Today, though, was different. A bird had taken us by surprise and was barreling in on Noelia's side of the blind. "Take it, take it!" we yelled, and by God, she did, with a perfect shot.

What was it? A scoter. That's a hell of an unusual first duck! We cheered her. She looked happy. "First duck" was such a recent memory for everyone in that blind - we remembered clearly how good it feels when you finally connect.

Actually, it felt really good when I was connecting on this hunt, and this is my sixth year of duck hunting. I've been shooting like crap for most of the season (you can read all about that in my latest column for Shotgun Life). I really needed a hunt where ducks just dropped when I shot, and this was that hunt.

Sadly, though, we couldn't keep doing it all morning. After a couple of hours, the wind started picking up. A lot. The bay was all whitecaps. R.J. wasn't liking it, so he radioed to Jim to come in so they could pick up decoys and get us out of there.

"Everyone, life vests on!" he hollered when Jim arrived, and we obeyed. One by one we got off the pontoon blind, then hunkered down on the floor of his boat and braved the spray until we reached the calm waters along a jetty.

... Where he informed us we could get off.

I was confused. Looked like a great place to throw down crab pots, but hunting ducks?

Yes, R.J. said. This spot had served him well on other extremely windy days - ducks flocked to its calm.

OK, that didn't exactly happen this time, though one scoter we'd been watching on the water actually got up and flew straight at Hank. Big mistake - bam, down.

Then some mallards came over, and we were so discombobulated by their presence that we missed. Same thing happened when a trio of spoonie hens came over. Hank's scoter would be the last bird of the day.

R.J. was disappointed, but we had a pretty good idea what was going on: This was the third day of extreme wind in four days, and the birds were just tired. They were probably hunkering their fat little butts down in a rice field nearby.

No matter. While none of us got limits, I think we were all pretty happy with the outing. It had been a crazy adventure, from the rocking pontoon to the rocky jetty, and we all went home with ducks - Noelia with her first.

That's a good day in anyone's book.

L-R: Noelia, Francis, Alison, me and Hank

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Cyber Monday for hunters: A special offer for my readers and my new hunting store

Hunters deserve some Cyber Monday love too, so here's what I've got for you today:

First, I'd like to invite you to shop at my new online store. In it you'll find 32 hunting-related items that I absolutely love, ranging from ammunition to duck calls to hunting clothing.

Almost everything you'll see there is exactly what I own, though I've had to make substitutions for some items that I couldn't find at any of my partner stores (Amazon.com, Cabela's and Gander Mountain are the companies that handle your orders).

Second, if you're into out-of-the-ordinary hunting-related art, I'm offering huge savings on all photos at the Wild Right Under Your Nose: 40 percent off your first $100 worth of photos, good through Thursday.

The photos are detailed portraits of feathers from a variety of ducks, ranging from the beloved drake mallard (above) to the much-maligned (but beautiful) drake spoonie.

The gallery also includes that stunning find that blows hunters' minds: the drake gadwall smiley face feathers. These are real duck feathers, not a Photoshop trick - you can read the story behind them here.

There are also a few super close-up ant photos - yes, ants - because I'm weird and they're cool photos.

Photo orders are fulfilled through Bay Photo, which produces high-quality prints protected with outstanding packaging.

To get your discount, used coupon code CyberMonday. And to answer the question that everyone asks - what finish I prefer on photos - the answer is lustre.

Happy Cyber Monday!

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Hooked: Ten novice hunters get a taste of duck hunting

I knew it had been a great weekend when we got to the end - the part where we take group photos.

Ten women had gone through Delta Waterfowl's first California Women's Duck Hunting Weekend for novice hunters: two days of waterfowl instruction, followed by a mentored hunt in one of two sweet private clubs in the legendary Butte Sink.

It had been a slow hunt day. Participants had gotten anywhere between zero and three ducks apiece at clubs where limits by 9:30 a.m. are the norm. There wasn't much shooting going on anywhere in the region. But at the end of the hunt, everyone seemed excited and giddy anyway.


So when I was taking the obligatory group shot at the end of the day, a bunch of them mooned me. It was hysterical.

You didn't think I was going to show the whole picture, did you?
We need a lot more of this going on in hunting. Not the mooning, though I do think that takes the camaraderie to a higher level. I'm talking about intensive programs to train adult novice hunters.

If you're not born into a hunting family, you lose out on an awful lot of steady instruction, mentoring and example-setting that can only take place over many years in childhood. Adults who want to start hunting - and I don't know about where you are, but in Northern California, there are a lot of them - need help to get up to speed as quickly as possible to get them hunting regularly.

There is no reason this can't be replicated anywhere in this country, so after the slideshow below, I'll explain what this involved, and whose help made it happen. Take the bull by the horns, hunters. You can make this happen where you live too.


What the weekend entailed: A wild-game dinner; instruction in firearm safety, shooting, public land hunting, duck plucking and dressing; and a mentored duck hunt. And how could I forget the swag? There was beaucoup swag.

Who provided the framework: This event was part of Delta Waterfowl's First Hunt Program. (In fact, here's how it came about: Last year I read about a women's First Hunt in Delta's magazine, which is my favorite waterfowl magazine, and I emailed my friend Tori, one of the editors there. I said, "Hey, if you ever want to do that in California, I'd be happy to help." Bam. Done.) Click on that First Hunt link if you want to see some of the outstanding materials Delta provides.

Who deserves major credit: Hands-down, Judy Oswald did serious heavy lifting to make this happen. Judy's got a lot of experience with mentored shooting and hunting events because she's founder of Kids Outdoor Sports Camps. The folks at Delta knew Judy, and once we all got connected, the planning was carried out by Delta Director of Waterfowler Recruitment and Education Scott Terning, Judy and me.

The people who made it happen and what they brought to the table (in the order they appeared)

Red Bank Outfitters: Red Bank is a giant lodge on an even more giant ranch just outside of Red Bluff at the far northern end of the Sacramento Valley. The facility is gorgeous. The women felt like they'd checked into summer camps for grown-ups when they explored the main lodging room, with beds all over the place on the first floor and in the loft, a giant wood stove and a lounge area. Red Bank is owned by Brian and Shellie Riley, who were terrific hosts.

Ric Gould: Ric is the cook, manager, guide, repair guy and shooting instructor at Red Bank. He wowed the women with a wild duck dinner on the first night, kept us well-fed all weekend, and even hauled in a flat-screen TV for me to use for a PowerPoint presentation I did on public-land hunting.

Il Ling leading shooting session
Il Ling New: Il Ling lives in Northern California and teaches at Gunsite in Arizona. She ran the firearms safety session and shooting instruction and the women loved her. Case in point: Do you remember Rachel, the woman who wasn't sure she liked hunting after going through a weekend of hunter ed followed by a pheasant hunt? She is a lot more sure now, and she credits Il Ling's excellent instruction for that change.

Jake Hampton and Josh Null: Jake and Josh are guides and shooting instructors at Red Bank, and they helped out with the shooting instruction.

Jeff Smith teaching duck ID
Jeff Smith: Jeff is the hunt program coordinator at Cal Waterfowl, and he ran the waterfowl ID and waterfowl calling sessions. You'll see in the slideshow above that the women got a big kick out of his waterfowl calling lesson. Can't imagine what he said to make 'em laugh like that.

Karen Fothergill: Karen is a California Department of Fish and Game environmental scientist who oversees the dove program and the Game Bird Heritage Program. I met Karen two summers ago at a training session required for people who want to band mourning doves, so it was great to see her again. She ran the plucking-and-gutting demonstration, which the women really appreciated. When you've spent a lifetime buying cellophane-wrapped bird parts, you really need some help figuring out what to do with an intact animal.

Larry Gury's swank duck palace.
Hunt club owners Jim Yost and Dave Steiner of the Little Dry Creek Farms duck club and Larry Gury of the Closed Zone Farms duck club, and hunt mentors Mark Koller and Eric Pack. These guys went above and beyond to provide a great hunt for all the women. After they hunt they fed us and gave us tours of Gury's club, and even served us cake that Eric had made just for us!

And let's not forget the swag...

Huge thanks to:

SHE Outdoor Apparel, which donated a pair of its new women's waterfowl waders, which were given to the recipient of a random drawing of participants. SHE also provided hunting fanny packs, hats and Hot Mocs beanies and scarves. SHE President Pam Zaitz was a super enthusiastic supporter.

Cabela's, which sent $20 coupons and hats.

Judy's KOSC, which donated waterfowl backpacks.

Cal Waterfowl, which donated duck calls.

And of course, Delta Waterfowl, which donated hats, calls and duck identification and First Hunt handbooks, in addition to providing organizational support.

* * *

See? Isn't it amazing what happens when you bring together a bunch of people who are passionate about hunting? Because of all these contributions of time and goods, ten women walked away with training, experience, useful gear and some fantastic memories.

As we all went our separate ways after the hunt, two of the women followed me to get to the highway they needed, and I reveled in the scenery on the drive, knowing that they were seeing it with new eyes, just as I had  five years ago: Scanning the skies to examine every bird; looking at the land and seeing not "farm" or "weeds," but "habitat"; doing a double-take or three when passing that rice farm that's ALWAYS covered with ducks, geese and swans in the winter.

With any luck, we'll do this with a whole new batch of novice hunters next fall.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, November 14, 2011

California hunters: While you're busy hunting, who's going to bat for you and your rights?

It's easy to get discouraged in California about the state of hunting laws and regulations. Hunters are a tiny minority, the Hollywood mentality rules and the Humane Society of the United States often gets its way (not to mention obscenely fawning media coverage).

One thing I am grateful for, though, is the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance. COHA was formed by California Waterfowl in 2006 to lobby on behalf of the hunting community, and it now enjoys the support of literally dozens of the state's hunting organizations and businesses.

When I need to know what's going on with some hunting-related policy matter, I call my friends at COHA, and they never let me down - they're always on it.

A proposed ban on hunting on levees in Sutter County? Hey, that would've sharply curtailed my cottontail hunting in wildlife areas along rivers there! COHA was on it and the county agreed to modify its proposal to allow hunting on the wildlife area-side of the levees.

Teaming up to fight poaching? Hell yes. COHA sponsored a bill this year to increase penalties for serious poaching violations, including when poachers intentionally target trophy game outside of the regular season, hunt without the required tag or stamp, hunt with spotlights, hunt over bait or waste game meat. Violations like this are the scourge of hunting, and I'm proud that COHA is taking a stand against them. Now if we can just get the Legislature to go along with it - the bill is stuck in an appropriations committee.

How about water for ducks? Yep. COHA was on that, too. Another bill in the Legislature this year would've imposed a charge on water suppliers, including a charge based on each acre of land irrigated for agricultural purposes. This fee could be a strong disincentive for landowners to maintain waterfowl habitat on their land. This bill - happily, in this case - is also stuck in an appropriations committee, due in part to COHA's efforts.

COHA also lobbied against long-gun registration, which, unfortunately, was signed into law this year after previous attempts failed when they reached Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk. (Yep, with Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown in office now, California has one-party rule again. I'm really not a fan of one-party rule, regardless of the party, and this is one reason why: Dumb things become law.)

I've got literally 14 pages of bills and proposals that COHA lobbied on - you can see details for yourself here. You know where I'm going with this, folks: Lobbying ain't free. If you hunt in California, you need to support the California Outdoor Heritage Alliance, because whether you know it or not, COHA is already working for you.

Most hunters I know hate politics and I get it - it's a frustrating business. I used to cover it when I was a newspaper reporter and editor, and I really don't miss it. But if you don't want to get involved personally, please at least support the organization that's doing it for you.

And after you've clicked here to make a donation (like I just did), please send a link to this post to your friends who hunt and ask them to do the same. While we're all busy hunting ducks, turkeys, pigs, bears or whatever, COHA will be hard at work preserving our rights to keep hunting.


© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, November 7, 2011

I am dumb, and other lessons from the marsh

Me, not looking at ducks
Now that I'm in my sixth season of duck hunting, I've developed this tendency to think I've got it down, like I'm the grande dame of waterfowling or something.

On Sunday, though, I got a big, fat reminder that I still have a lot to learn.

My buddy Charlie and I were hunting at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, and it was not a great day. We were not on the "X" that morning, and it was growing more sunny and still by the hour - the kiss of death for good duck hunting. Before long, the flight had petered out so much that most hunters had abandoned the marsh.

Not me and Charlie, though. We are insane.

After watching birds carefully avoid our decoy spread, we decided it was time to abandon the dekes, so we moved to an area the birds seemed to be flying over a bit more, taking nothing but our seats, our guns and our calls.

A couple birds came near me, and while they weren't as close as I like, I was feeling desperate, so I wasted a couple shots on them.

"That was dumb!" I yelled to Charlie as the ducks zoomed away unharmed.

Then a big group of wigeon flew over Charlie's tule patch and he knocked down two of them. I charged over to help find the one that wasn't DOA, and after we'd recovered both birds, we decided I should just stay there.

It wasn't too long before a trio of mallards appeared in our airspace. We started calling to them furiously, and they started circling our tule patch counterclockwise.

Once.

Twice.

On the third circle, I knew they were getting close, and I hid my eyes under the brim of my hat, cranking my eyeballs as far to the right as I could so I would see when they'd be close enough.

Bam! Duck down.

But I hadn't shot. They hadn't come into my field of vision yet. It was Charlie's bird.

I fired two shots at one of the two ducks making a hasty retreat, missed, and got grumpy.

When Charlie got back into the patch with his duck, I worked through my failure out loud.

"I always worry about flaring them with the glare off of my glasses," I told Charlie.

"Someone told my my sunglasses were doing that once, but I  just don't believe it," he said. He has a point. If the sun is hitting water, you can be guaranteed that light is flashing off of it somewhere.

I moved onto my next excuse.

"I worry about flaring them by moving my head too much," I told him. I've always been told that the best camouflage is holding still, so I always try to hold my body and head still, and I miss out on a lot of shots because the ducks are too far away by the time they re-enter my field of vision.

"You notice how I am constantly moving and keeping my eyes on the ducks?" Charlie asked.

It's true. When ducks are working, he is off his seat, crouching, and rotating on his feet, keeping his eyes and body facing toward the birds.

"Yeah, but I don't want to flare them."

"Well," he said, "it doesn't do any good to call them in if you're not facing the right direction when they're close enough to shoot."

Oh. So that's how it is? You mean, you're telling me that 2 + 2 actually does equal 4?

Yeah, it was that obvious. Duh. Charlie rotates to keep facing the birds. Charlie is a way more successful duck hunter than I am. Therefore, rotating can't be a bad tactic. He probably flares some, but he's also getting ducks I would never get.

I never got another chance Sunday to mend my stupidity and try it out - we didn't get any more ducks circling us.

But hey, there are 83 days left in the 2011-12 duck season here. And plenty more time than that to become the grande dame of waterfowling. Check back with me in a couple decades on that.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

My first duck hunt of the season back at Delevan: Why five amazing accomplishments weren't enough

Buy this decal here.
At least five amazing things happened on my first duck hunt of the season back at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge on Sunday.

1.  I discovered my new workout routine – going up and down stairs in a six-story parking garage a few days a week – turned out to be great preparation for walking through ankle- to hip-deep water in waders. I’m usually sore after my first rigorous duck hunt; this time I’m not.

2. After five years of duck hunting, a first: I managed to take a leak in standing water. Guys do this all the time, but it’s a lot harder for women because we have to pull our waders all the way down and squat. I figured out how to do it without getting the inside of my waders wet. I tell you, it was a freakin’ miracle.

3. My calling didn’t suck. I got lots of ducks and even specklebelly geese to make mid-air U-turns and head back my way. I know it’s much easier to call birds earlier in the season than it is later, but it’s still gratifying when they respond like that.

4. On a windless sunny day – the kiss of death to good duck hunting – I successfully used my jerk rig to attract ducks’ attention from great distances. I’ve had the rig for a while, but this was the first time I could see that this was THE reason they were coming in.

Now, dear readers, did you notice anything missing from this list? Yep, you got it: Good shooting. That’s what was missing.

I missed and missed and missed and missed and missed. I may have gone through nearly a whole box of shells before I got my first duck of the season – a drake spoonie – and while I managed to bring in a couple more, I should’ve had a double limit for the amount of shells I went through.

It was easily my worst day of shooting in three or four years.

But this leads to the fifth amazing accomplishment of the hunt: I managed to keep a good attitude throughout most of the shooting debacle.

This is huge for me. Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a bad habit of sulking – if not getting outright pissed off – when I don’t do well. I’m not proud of it; that’s just the way it is.

But duck hunting, more than anything else, has shown me vividly that bad attitude poisons your chance of turning things around.

So on Sunday, I smiled a lot, told my buddy Charlie how happy I was to be back at Delevan, and cracked jokes about what I must’ve done to incur the wrath of the hunting gods this time. I’m pretty sure it was the Stinky Butt Gadwall post, in which I wrote that I was going to be more selective about the ducks I shoot – a sure-fire way to anger the hunting gods, making them wreck your shooting until you give in and humbly take spoonies.

Which I did.

Keep your spirits up, and soon you’ll get the amazing shot that will turn things around, I kept telling myself.

It lasted right up to the last five or ten minutes, which is when I realized I wasn’t going to get that shot. That meant I’d be going into my next hunt in fear of continuing the streak.

Fear is bad. Huge risk of self-fulfilling prophecy. Crap.

So for the next few days, I’ll be trying to figure out what went wrong.

Maybe the adjustable comb on my stock was out of proper alignment? I’ve already adjusted it.

Maybe I was lifting my head off the stock? I’ll practice gun mounts in the mirror, re-imprinting on my memory the feeling of my cheekbone pressed hard onto that stock.

Maybe I’m overthinking my shots? The only cure for that is a surprise shot – something that forces you to shoot without thinking. I kept hoping for that on Sunday, but I didn’t get it.

Or maybe I just need to get my mind right about it. Maybe my five amazing accomplishments actually were enough. Maybe this is just one of those periodic cosmic reminders to be grateful for what I have.

I can live with that.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A strange development: Losing my lust for the hunt

Five or six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that I never published. It was about being such a ridiculously compulsive hunter that I will hunt all the time, even if the freezer is full. Hank, who has always been more sensible than I, doesn't suffer from such a problem.

At first I had delayed publishing that post because I'd been writing a lot and wanted to space out my posts a bit more. Then something happened: I stopped hunting.

I don't mean stopped stopped, like I'm going vegan or something. I just found myself too busy, too tired, or both. Suddenly that post seemed ridiculous.

It's just been a really difficult semester at school for some reason (well, a lot of reasons, actually), and I feel like I've been hanging on by my fingernails. When it came time to meet Hank in Minnesota a few weeks ago to hunt ruffed grouse, my head was so out of it that the only thing I didn't do last minute was buy a new gun case for the flight. (Great case, by the way - SKB.)

Last weekend was the duck opener here and I waited until the last possible minute to prepare for that too, so I was brushing cobwebs off my gear literally late Friday night.

The story of that hunt is my next column for Shotgun Life, but here's the telling detail I didn't put in that column: After hunting ducks all morning and quail all afternoon with my friends Charlie and Monique, we all went our separate ways. Charlie, as always, kept hunting and immediately started texting me about the birds he was seeing at the spot we hunted that morning.

I should turn around.

No.

I could do it - I don't have to get up early tomorrow.

No. You need rest.

I still have plenty of daylight.

I slowed down a bit.

I could be back at that spot in 10 minutes and hunt with Charlie until sundown...

... but I'm so tired.

I kept going, feeling less of a hunter.

Do they make Viagra to revive your flagging lust for hunting? Because I obviously need it.

Of course, this weekend is going to be different, but only because I have no choice.

Deer hunting in my zone closes at the end of the day Sunday, and I can't live with myself not even trying to get a deer this year. Besides, I can see the bottom of our freezer, and it's freaking me out.

So I'm hitting my friends' property - the scene of my one and only deer kill - Friday afternoon, and again Saturday morning if I don't get lucky on the first try.

The place is filthy with legal bucks. The only question is will I see one, will it be in range, will I have a safe backdrop (yeah, it's the place with marble statues), and can I make the shot. OK, four questions.

Then Sunday is going to be the Big Duck Opener.

My favorite place in the world to hunt - the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge - has been closed for the first week of season because the rice harvest is late this year, and the farmers need as many ducks as possible to stay on Delevan and other Sacramento Valley refuges, rather than feast on their crops.

Saturday is the first hunt day at refuges in that area this year, and on Sunday, my friend Kevin has a reservation. It's opening weekend in the Promised Land. If I can't haul my butt out of bed at 2 a.m. for that, I might as well go vegan. Seriously.

But wait.

What if I get a deer on Saturday? Hank doesn't get home from his Hunt, Gather, Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour until next week - I'm going to have to do all that processing by myself, and then get up stupid early on Sunday...

OMG, I'll be so zonked at work on Monday...

But, hey, it'll be Halloween. Who cares if there's one more zombie on campus?

I think I'm feeling better already.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hitting bottom: The Stinky Butt Gadwall

I have finally hit bottom.

Yes, as Hank enters the final weeks of his Hunt, Gather, Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour - also known as The Incredibly Long Period When I’ve Had to Cook for Myself – I have found the bottom of our freezer.

I have roasted the succulent mallards and pintails and teal.

I have turned all the delicate cottontails into stirfry. Quite successfully, I might add, with that velveted rabbit recipe.

And I have failed to kill a deer or a pig, which probably has something to do with having been too busy to hunt them.

So what did that leave me?

This:



The Stinky Butt Gadwall.

I can already hear my duck hunting buddy Charlie guffawing, and fellow hunting blogger Ryan Sabalow saying, “Ha! They’re called ‘gagwall’ for a reason!” And to you two, I say shush!

Hank and I have eaten many a gadwall that tasted not just fine, but downright delicious. We ate one for Christmas a couple years ago when a family get-together was canceled due to snow, and it was one of our most memorable duck dinners ever. Yes, in a good way.

But I freely admit that some gadwalls can smell – and taste – like poop. Literally.

I don’t say this because I’ve eaten poop. I have not, unless you count the crap found in the factory- farmed beef and chicken that I used to eat regularly before I started hunting. But I have done some volunteer work banding gadwalls before, and when I did, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife guys warned me that 1) the birds would crap all over me out of fear, and 2) gadwall crap is the most ferociously disgusting crap in the duck world.

They were right on both counts.

Last season, Hank and I killed not one, but two gadwalls whose flesh reeked of that famous poop.

I remember mine distinctly. I was plucking in the garage, and Hank came out, wrinkled his nose, and said, “Ew, it smells like shit in here.”

I hadn’t noticed. (Yes, Tamar, I can smell a ruffed grouse in the woods, but not a stinky duck in my garage.)

I examined the duck I was plucking to see if it had poop on its feathers. It did not.

But when I went into the house and cut the butt off the bird so I could gut it, a foul stench erupted from its body cavity. I think it’s safe to say I would’ve preferred being tear-gassed (something I have experienced before).

What happened next, though, is where I made my mistake. I continued cleaning the bird normally, and we vacuum sealed it, labeled it and stuck it in the freezer. I was assuming that Hank would work his culinary magic on the stinker. Little did I know he would stick me with it.

Creep.

Last night was when I bottomed out. I needed food to bring to work today, so I rolled up my sleeves and dug in.

Step One: I skinned the duck. And it hurt, because he was a total fattie. Normally a bird that fat, skin on, is something we save for roasting whole. Fatty duck skin is the crack cocaine of wild game cookery.

But fat and skin is where a bird's distinctive flavor resides, and in the case of the Stinky Butt Gadwall, that's no bueno. It felt like sacrilege tossing that skin in the trash, but it had to be done.

Step Two: I cut all the meat off the bones and trimmed all the excess fat I could find. You can't well roast a bird without a skin, and roasting is pretty much all I know how to do with whole ducks.

Step Three: I brought a handful of the meat up to my face and took a deep whiff.

Mmmmmmmm. Shit.

Doh! I would have to take drastic measures: brining overnight.

Brining can be a great way to add moisture and flavor to meat, but it can also help draw out any off flavors. I combined 2 cups of water with 1/8 cup of salt (for the math-impaired, that's a 16:1 ratio), boiled it, let it cool, then poured it over the gadwall meat, which I'd cut into bite-sized pieces.

Hank's instructions for brining off-flavored birds called for a four- to eight-hour soak. It ended up being more like ten by the time I got up this morning, had a cup of coffee and returned to preparing my duck.

Step Four: I melted some lard in a cast-iron pan (I wasn't going to forgo fat entirely), browned the duck bits briefly, tossed some minced garlic on them, then added a couple tablespoons of some mole poblano de guajalote I happened to have on hand. (The recipe for mole is elaborate, so when I make it, I make a lot and freeze it.).

Step Five: At school today, I whipped up some rice in my single-serving rice cooker, threw on about half a cup of the duck in mole, and dug in.

And ya know what? It was actually good.

OK, that's not entirely true. I'd brined the duck for way, way too long, so it was too salty. When I cook the last remaining Stinky Butt Gadwall - remember, we killed two last year, and Hank left both for me - I'll make sure I brine it for no more than four hours.

But there was no hint of this duck's eponymous stench, and that was what mattered. I don't think I even needed something as strong as mole to mask it. It was gone.

Whew!

I feel like I've passed a test, like I've graduated to a new level of culinary self-sufficiency, like I've found a get-out-of-jail-free card that I can use anytime I find myself behind bars with a smelly duck.

I am no longer afraid.

But, as I told my friend Charlie last night, I might start being a little more selective with the ducks I shoot this year.

OK, Charlie and Ryan. You can laugh now.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011