Monday, January 3, 2011

Duck hunting fortune, earned and otherwise

High over the sodden purple clouds that coated the Sacramento Valley early Sunday morning, the gods were having a debate.

"Has that little twit Cazadora learned her lesson yet?" asked Hera, wife of Zeus. She peered down at the woman bundled up in camouflage, hands thrust in her pockets, shivering under the dim light of the hunter check station at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge.

"Does she understand now that any success she enjoys in duck hunting is a function of our benevolence, not any talent on her part? That her bragging is not only inappropriate, but offensive?"

Orion, burning brightly in the sky, though hidden from the little twit, had his doubts. "She thinks a couple of vaguely contrite blog posts can make up for that one atrocity. 'Limit with 15 shells! Six ducks with one shot apiece!' Such hubris does not subside so quickly."

Most of the gods murmured in agreement, but Eleos - the god of mercy, pity and compassion - defended the mortal huntress.

"I've watched her hunt, and I think she is sincere. She has taken her punishment well. When Zeus made her miss 13 shots in a row yesterday while she and her boyfriend were trying to teach Jacqueline and Keith how to hunt ducks, she didn't rage against us - she accepted it. And she turned it into a teachable moment for the new hunters. I would like to reward her with a little gift."

Zeus had remained quiet during the debate, but he spoke up now. "Send her the gift. But I'm sending more stinging rain. No reason to make this too easy." Read more...
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The moments just before shoot time Sunday morning were pretty close to my idea of perfection. Clouds obscured the sun so thoroughly that the ducks whizzing by Charlie and me were mere silhouettes. I could hear mallards and pintail and gadwall and wigeon and teal all around - high above us, zooming low around us, parked in the water nearby. Life's real 3-D theater.

Rain driven by a northwest wind had stung my face all the way out to the tule patch where we'd be hunting that day, but I didn't care. I was bundled up in probably $500 worth of gear - layers of wool and fleece and neoprene - so once I turned my back to the wind, most of me was pretty warm. This, patience and a good sense of humor are the price of admission to my favorite place on earth: the marsh at dawn in a storm.

The shooting started for everyone else in the marsh before it did for Charlie and me, but we didn't have to wait too long for ducks to come our way.

"Ducks coming in out front," Charlie said in a low voice.

A pair. Big ducks, not teal. Good shooting height. But would they stay that low when they came into our range?

They did. Charlie and I shot - he at the bird in front, I at the bird in back. His dropped. Mine didn't. I shot again, and down she went.

We sloshed out into the water to pick up our ducks.

"You know what those are, don't you?" Charlie asked from 20 feet away as I picked up my duck. Hen mallard. So many hens look alike, but that big orange bill was a dead giveaway (no pun intended), even in this dim light.


I never get mallards. OK, I do, but I'd gotten only one this whole season. My bag tends to be heavy on teal, gadwall, wigeon and the under-appreciated spoonie. The mallard's weight in my hand felt good, like a special gift.

Sloshing back to the tules, I remembered to check. I lifted her in the dim light, twisting my wrist until her belly faced me, so I could see her feet.

I gasped like one of those idiot women in the diamond commercials on TV.

"Oh my God, she's got a band!"

I've put bands on ducks' legs before, but I had killed 161 ducks and geese in my four-plus years of hunting before shooting this bird and not one had sported a band. This was my first.


It's hard to explain why bands are special - it's not like you have to have any talent to get one.

State and federal agencies band a wide variety of game and non-game birds to study their movements and numbers. The agencies get some data when the band is clamped around the bird's leg - species, gender, where that bird is at that moment and whether it was born that year or previously. They collect the rest when someone finds the band - often a hunter - and reports when and where the bird was found.

But agencies band only a small fraction of ducks, and only a small fraction of those ducks - maybe one-fifth? - are killed by hunters every year. Being lucky enough to get one is like being lucky enough to win a modest little prize in the lottery.

When a hunter has a lot of bands, it means either he's very lucky, or he hunts in an area where a lot of banding is done, or he's just been hunting for so damn long that he's gotten a bunch of bands. Now, I had my first.

When Charlie's friend Don swung by our tule patch later that morning, Charlie told him about my band.

"I know," Don said. "I think the whole marsh could hear it."
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Eleos beamed. Zeus, pleased with Cazadora's gratitude, dialed back on the rain. Even Hera seemed content.

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The hunting went well after that. I got two ruddies, a greenwing teal and a drake gadwall. Gazing out across the marsh, I got that panicked little feeling - oh no, five ducks, the hunt could be over soon! I was enjoying myself and didn't want to be done too quickly.

Then a flash of white on the water caught my attention. Spoonie drake, swimming maybe 75 yards from me. Something wasn't right. Wounded?

Funny, I'd been thinking about how different this year was. Last year I think one-fourth of the ducks I killed were birds that had been wounded by other hunters. I'd spot a cripple and go after it no matter what it was, unwilling to let any bird suffer longer. I know predation of any variety isn't always neat and pretty. I know nothing goes to waste in nature. But I just can't stand the idea of an animal being shot for nothing.

But I was so happy with my bag this morning. All good ducks. Did I want to risk bringing my hunt that much closer to an end with a spoonie, which might taste perfectly good, but which might easily be somewhat fishy due to a diet of invertebrates?

Maybe he wasn't crippled. I let him keep going.

But I wasn't proud of myself.
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Artemis exploded. "What kind of huntress is she that she would let one of our creatures suffer?" she asked, indignant. She liked to support fellow huntresses, but she was disappointed in this one.

"If a longer hunt is what Cazadora wants, she's got it," Artemis said. She'd been staying out of this debate, but now she'd be watching very closely.
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Hunting came to a halt. The rain was easing up, but the birds were all flying high, way out of shotgun range. I winged a gadwall and sloshed probably a quarter-mile through the water to where he landed to see if I could find him, but it was no use - he was nowhere in sight. Perhaps that limit of seven ducks wasn't as close as I'd thought it was.

Charlie and I both started looking at incoming spoonies with a lot more interest. Funny how quickly snobbery can go out the window.

I looked out across the water and saw a flash of white about 100 yards away. The crippled spoonie! How lucky was that - to get a chance to redeem myself for choosing the quality of my strap over ending the suffering of a wounded animal.

"I'm going to go after him this time," I told Charlie, and I charged out.

But as I got closer to the spot where I'd seen that flash of white, I couldn't find it again. Coots and ruddies kept a wide berth. Perhaps the flash of white had been a bufflehead mingling with the ruddies and coots?

Then I looked east and saw something big and white on the water 200 yards away. Plastic bag? Crippled snow goose? Seagull?

I charged off in that direction keeping my eye on the white thing. Definitely a bird. Head up, pink beak - looks like a snow goose. I was gaining on it - had to be a crip. At 40 yards I took aim and shot.

It got up and flew. I shot again. It flew 15 more yards before tumbling into the water.

Once in hand, I saw it was a Ross's goose. A tiny one too - had to be a juvenile.

I started chugging back toward our tule patch, and halfway there I spotted a small duck hidden in blades of grass rising from the water. It had let me get much too close - had to be a cripple. Greenwing teal? Couldn't make it out clearly, but I knew it was a duck, not a coot.

I dropped the goose into the water and shot. Sixth bird of the day - a ringneck hen. Excellent! Boyfriend had been wanting to get a ringneck. I walked back to the tule patch with two birds in hand.

Never did find that spoonie, but at least I tried to do the right thing.

And I finally did get my seventh bird.

Sort of. A gadwall came in and Charlie and I shot, a fraction of a second apart. We thought we'd hit the bird, but he kept sailing and sailing and sailing and then, probably half a mile across the water, we saw the abrupt splash-down that signaled his death.

We both set out for a long walk - my third and definitely my longest of the day. Must've taken us 15 minutes to get there, scanning the half-submerged grass for an un-grassy lump all the way.

I picked up the bird and walked toward Charlie.

"I think we both hit that bird," he said. It was his way of saying I could count the bird as my seventh.

Turns out we probably didn't - when I plucked him today, there was just one hole, and it was BB-sized. Charlie's shot. I shoot 1s.

But that's OK. Sometimes you get limits by shooting great. Sometimes you scrape them together with a mix of good shooting, good luck, mercy and the grace of friends. Regardless, you should consider yourself blessed.

Epilogue: After I wrote this post, Charlie reminded me that he checked that last bird and found two spots where it was hit, so I may actually deserve some credit for it.

And a week later, I got my certificate from the U.S. Geological Survey:

The hen mallard was a NorCal resident bird, banded by the folks at Cal Waterfowl in Benicia (in the San Francisco Bay Area) July 29 when she was still too young to fly.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


outfitterlife said...

Oh fun! I need to go on a duck hunt like this. We are only lucky enough to see a couple mallards a day, or maybe some geese in our area. I love the way you integrated the Gods into your story. Do we all know they are there watching our every move each time we hunt? Do you think each hunter has images of the Gods helping or hindering their hunt? I don't know about other hunters, but I feel the need to thank the Gods or Mother Earth or who ever it may be each time I hunt. Can't wait for your next story!

Phillip said...

Love the gods' debate. Count yourself blessed that Artemis didn't take a more severe position against you... duck snob. You're "one of them" now.

Sort of excited that I might actually make it out to the marsh Saturday morning. It'll be my first trip this year (and maybe last).

By the way, when I was a serious waterfowl hunter, I couldn't tell you how many birds I killed and never... ever... got a band. In fact, I can't recall anyone I've ever hunted with picking one up either. Congrats on that first one!

Blessed said...

The gods' commentary is awesome!

Congratulations on that first band. Hubby shot his first bird with a band on Saturday - a Canadian Goose, banded in Minnesota this summer.

Wolfy said...

Terrific write-up, Holly. Love the "God's debate" - I'm pretty sure they've had similar conversations and affects on some of my pike fishing trips!


Anonymous said...

Great post--don't let the hunting gods smite you--stay true! That band will look great on your lanyard. Hope you have a few days to recover from the weekend. Thank again for a great hunt on Sat. Hi to Charlie too.

Keith and Jacqueline

Mike at The Big Stick said...

Congrats on th band! I've never scored one on waterfowl though I did shoot two banded doves in one day last year. My hunting buddies couldn't believe it. Pure luck but the odds are slightly stacked in our favor. There's a wildlife biologist in the county we hunt that bands a lot of birds. Still pretty cool though.

Josh said...

I don't have your phone number, but when I saw your tweet, I immediately wanted to respond with, "alright, now focus, and stop thinking about what the title of your next blog post about the band is going to be!"
: )

What a great post, and what a great time!d

NorCal Cazadora said...

Outfitterlife, I know that all hunter-gatherer cultures had spiritual beliefs connected with hunting to guide them to the wisest decisions about the animals they kill. As for us modern hunters? I can't speak for everyone, but I am guided by a strong sense of karma - the more goodness you put out there, the more goodness will come back to you.

Phillip: Thanks! I felt really bad about that spoonie. Knew I was making the wrong decision even as I made it.

And when I counted all the ducks I got before getting this band (yes, I have a spreadsheet, duh, I'm a Virgo), I realized I'm probably really lucky. One hundred sixty-one ducks isn't a very long wait for a band.

Blessed: Congrats to Hubby! First band on 1-1-11 - that's fantastic.

Wolfy: Thanks! And I'm sure you're right. They're like Santa Claus, only there are more of them, so they can watch us all very efficiently.

Keith and Jacqueline: The band is already on the lanyard! And funny thing, it's a brand new lanyard, and just the other day I was looking at the fake band that the manufacturer put on it and thinking how nice it would be to replace it with a real one.

Hank and I had a great time with you on Saturday. We loved demonstrating how much experienced shooters can miss! :-)

Mike: Very cool that you got banded doves! And it definitely helps that there's a dedicated bander in your county. The doves I banded in my front yard this summer are still hanging out in my yard (I always check for bands with binoculars). They can definitely turn resident.

Josh: I actually waited quite a while to tweet that - maybe 20 minutes - because I didn't want to miss any incoming birds because I was busy on my phone. The best part was texting Hank about it. He'd texted to ask me how I was doing, and I nonchalantly listed "banded hen mallard" in my bag when I texted back.

Albert A Rasch said...


I think I would have to go back and read three years of your archives to find a post I like better!

Happy New Year to you and all!

Albert A Rasch
Albert Rasch In Afghanistan™

hodgeman said...


What a great post and a great hunt.

Peebs said...

Collection of bands is both luck and skill, I went all of last year without and then this year four (including a bird I don't usually shoot)the luck is getting the band the skill is in getting enough birds to find a lucky band. Albert if you can say where are you in Afg. my oldest boy(HN1)is deploying there this month with his medical det..

Live to Hunt.... said...

Holly, if you're worried about how that spoonie was going to taste, wait until you sink your teeth into those Ruddy ducks. I know your BF is a gourmet cook, but good luck with that!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Common misperception, LTH. I actually targeted them on purpose: Ruddies are good eats, even roasted simply. Check out the facts here.

Gretchen Steele said...

WOOHOO HOlly! Not only is this a great read you got your first band! GREAT JOB! And I totally agree..nothing better than being out there at dawn when the storms roll in... sleet, snow, freezing rain.. guess I'm a nut job cause I have to keep sticking my face out of the pit and letting nature wail on it on mornings like that!

Bo Curtis said...

I've mentioned it before, but after reading about your slogs retrieving your birds, maybe it's time to add another dimension to your hunting; with a gun dog?

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I've always thought it easier to believe in a pantheon of gods, each responsible for his own area, than one all-encompassing god -- this post makes such perfect sense to me.

I'm very glad that the gods delivered your band to you -- although I have to admit I'm a little surprised. I thought they were too busy sending mallards, Canada geese, and buffleheads flying past my living room window (out of which I cannot shoot), taunting me for not having been in the field but once this season.

NorCal Cazadora said...

Hey everyone, got an update: The hen mallard was a NorCal resident bird, banded by the folks at Cal Waterfowl in Benicia (in the San Francisco Bay Area) July 29 when she was still too young to fly. If you'd like to see the certificate, go back to the blog post and scroll down to the end.

d nova said...

ah! it was ZEUS that made you miss 13 shots in a row.

is this a duck story or a fish story?

Bpaul said...

You may have covered this before, but I gotta ask -- what shot size and shell do you shoot, and what choke? Was kinda surprised to see you mention BB's and 1's in a duck blind, so now I'm intrigued.

Bring on the geek.