Saturday, February 5, 2011

The end of duck season: Nothing exceeds like excess

When my alarm went off at 3:15 a.m. on the last day of duck season, I knew I was going to have a problem: There was a crick in my neck.

Minor annoyance? Nope.

When I was 20 years old, I got myself hit by a car crossing a busy, high-speed street on a bicycle. I flew across the handlebars and belly-flopped on the pavement.

It appeared that I'd gotten off with nothing more than deep abrasions on my hips, elbows and chin - the latter took 13 stitches. But I'd actually done some damage to the top two vertebrae in my neck, and the price I paid for my stupidity that day would be a lifetime of devastating, sickening headaches whenever those vertebrae go out of alignment.

Which is frequently. (Cue the violins.)

When my alarm went off on Sunday, I didn't yet have a headache. But duck hunting involves scrunching your head down and cranking it left or right as far as you can to watch circling birds. I knew that would twist my neck into knots and trigger a headache eventually.

Dammit! The last day of duck season is a special day. I like to hunt with Boyfriend until sunset and say good-bye to the marsh. A headache would cast a dark veil over the entire affair.

But did that stop me? Hell no! The motto of my 2010-11 duck season had been, "balls to the wall" (look it up; it's not as filthy as you think). Once school was out in December, I hunted just about every day I could. And unlike seasons past, I always hunted the morning, meaning I was getting up at 3 to 3:15 a.m. a lot.

I was exhausted, but driven. Why? Because the more I hunted, the more I succeeded.

I'd topped my best season total ever by the ninth week of the season, and I'd doubled it by week 12. If I got my limit on this day, my season total would be more than my first four seasons of duck hunting combined.

It had been noted by more than a few of my seasoned duck-hunting friends that I was going through the "limiting out" stage of hunter development. I found this irritating, because I like to think of myself as an individual, not a predictable statistic.

But for the first time ever, I was getting limits of ducks a lot, and there was no denying that I was reveling in my success. When you spend four seasons missing a lot, hitting a lot feels pretty damn good. My hunting became a potlatch: I was so successful that I gave away ducks to new hunters and non-hunters without a second thought, something I never would've done in my first few years of hunting (the "Mine!" phase).

My Saturday hunt on closing weekend was textbook. Boyfriend had work to do and wouldn't be coming out until late morning, but my buddy Charlie and I hunted the morning, and it was epic. There was a high fog and a good breeze, and there were so many ducks flying that when Charlie and I whispered back and forth to each other about incoming birds, we were almost always talking about different sets of birds.

I got my limit of ducks well before 10 a.m., and Charlie was holding out for a bull sprig, so we ended up sitting in our tule patch for a good hour while waiting for Boyfriend to come out, just watching ducks swarm around us.

When you're not hunting anymore, the birds tend to come really close because their sixth sense isn't picking up any hint of threat. Ruddies - which don't really care about threat anyway - flew over us so low that if either of us had stood up, we probably would've been injured by the high-speed collision. Greenwing teal arced around our patch at light speed, so close that when they finally saw us, we could see that "Oh shit!" look in their eyes. Wigeon and gadwall landed in our decoys.

Charlie and I just laughed and laughed and laughed. "See?" he said. "This is why I stick around after I've gotten my limit." It was joyful.

The hunting on Sunday was tougher.

The flight wasn't quite as vigorous as the day before, and I was missing a lot. By mid-morning, I had a hen wigeon and hen gadwall, and my neck, as expected was ratcheting up pretty tight.

"I'm gonna take a walk," I told Boyfriend. Some guys near us had been taking some pretty high shots, and I knew there was a good chance they'd sailed some cripples into an unoccupied area of our pond where the nutgrass gave ducks a place to land and hide. Besides, walking gets my heart rate up and opens blood vessels, which tends to ease my headaches.

As I stepped out of our tule patch, I glanced to the left in time to see a hen teal landing in our decoys.

Bam! I shot her.

She was wounded but not dead, so Boyfriend shot her too. I could see the shot pattern hit the water all around her, but her head was still up.

"Shoot her again!" Boyfriend said.

"No, I'm down to BBs," I said. Shooting at close range would turn the duck into hamburger; waiting and giving her some distance would mean there would be big holes in the pattern (the bigger the shot, the fewer the pellets you have in the shell).

Teal don't tend to be the best escape artists, so I decided to chase her. And so began my own personal Odyssey.

I'd charge toward her. I'd start to close the distance. She'd use her wings - one broken - to flap away on the water and gain some distance.

We went through this process 10 times before I acknowledged that I'd have to shoot her. So I'd let her get further away, aim my shotgun just off of her head so the pattern wouldn't hit her whole body, then fire.

Thunk! Each time I'd watch her dodge just as I was pulling the trigger and the shot would furrow into the water, harmlessly, at her side.

I did this four times, all the while running the two options through my head: It was "She's suffering and afraid - I need to end this" versus "If I obliterate her, I will have caused this suffering for nothing but hawk food."

Out of breath, I stood and let her gain distance on me. I aimed close to her body and pulled the trigger. It was finally over. Not my finest moment as a hunter. But I'd shot perfectly and hit her head, not her body.

At this point, I was already in the grassy area where I'd planned to look for crips. Of course, any duck with wingpower had already left the area because of all my shooting, but I decided to walk the grass anyway.

Earlier that morning, the high-shooters had sailed a bull sprig into this grass patch. I'd yelled to them: "HEY, THAT DUCK YOU SAILED JUST LANDED OVER THERE!" They didn't respond, and they left the pond that morning without going after that duck.

So I walked around, and before long, I saw the unmistakable horizontal outline of a dead duck floating in the vertical grass. Bull sprig. It had died where it landed. I picked it up and headed back to my tule patch.

Thank God it wouldn't go to waste! Not that nature ever wastes anything, but if an animal must endure the pain of human predation, the least we can do is ensure that it isn't just to feed other predators perfectly capable of getting their meals without shotguns.

Back at the tule patch, Boyfriend and I scraped away. A duck here, a duck there. The fog burned off and the breeze turned into a light north wind - nice hunting weather, but devastating for my neck. You hunt ducks with the wind at your back, which in a north wind means you hunt with the sun in your eyes. That requires further contortions to avoid blinding yourself while following ducks' flight.

My total was at six ducks when Slam! the headache came down like a sledgehammer. It was dizzying. I felt like throwing up. I just wanted to get my seventh duck and get back to the car, where I could lie down and submit to the thunder in my brain. Fighting a headache hurts. I needed to go limp.

"I'll take anything," I told Boyfriend, slurring a bit. "I don't care. Spoonie's fine."

Which was good, because it was the spoonie hour. Nothing but spoonies flew past us.

Generally, I'm an average shot under the best of conditions, but a really horrible shot when I have a headache. I whiffed on easily four gimme shots at spoonies.

Our friend Tom, who was joining us for the afternoon, called to say he'd finally arrived at our parking lot, and Boyfriend left the tule patch to go meet him.

"Could'ju gemme s'more shells?" I asked. I was running really low.

The spoonies continued to circle as he left. I was watching a pair come closer, gun ready, when my phone vibrated.

"Who the fuck is calling me and why?" I growled. I ignored it, fired at the spoonies, missed.

My phone vibrated again. It was Charlie in the next tule patch. "Why don't you come over here? There's better cover and you won't have to scrunch your neck so much." I'd texted him about the headache earlier.

"OK," I said. I picked up my tule seat and trudged over, sloshing through the water. The pain in my head was staggering. Charlie met me halfway to take the seat.

"I juss wanna get my seventh bird and go," I told him. Closing day sunset? Who cares.

The spoonies continued to work, and I whiffed on a few more shots.

Boyfriend and Tom came back to the other tule patch to find it empty.

"Where's Holly?" Boyfriend yelled up to Charlie.

"Here!" I yelled, waving my gun. I sat back down, propped my gun on my knee and leaned into it. The sun was warming my face and oh how good it would've felt to just lie down and sleep.

Maybe half an hour later - maybe five minutes? Who knows? - I was down to the last three shells in my gun when a pintail pair came through. Charlie let them pass in front of him unmolested. They were coming in for a landing in front of me.

Wait. Wait. Wait ...


They were two feet off the water, maybe 20 yards in front of me, when I fired my first shot.

Bam! Miss. Ducks now alarmed.

Bam! Missed again. Chaos and flapping everywhere. I hear Charlie's gun, also a miss.

The drake lifted from the water, creating a striking silhouette that I will never forget - long neck, outstretched wings, sprig jutting from his fully-fanned tail feathers.

Bam! It was my last shotshell. This time, he folded.

The hen escaped us, but flew south, directly in front of Boyfriend. Bam! Duck down. His seventh of the day too. His last duck of the season. We'd taken out a pair for our last shots of the season.

Later I'd reflect on the macabre symmetry of that moment, but at the time all I felt was relief that I'd finished my day. I charged out to pick up the bull sprig, but no speed was necessary. I'd head-shot him.

Back in the tule patch, I hugged Charlie and thanked him for helping me. Then he walked back with me to Boyfriend and Tom's patch, where I gathered my ducks from the morning, then made my way back to the parking lot. Back at the car, I put the passenger seat down and curled up. I fell asleep to the myrp myrp myrp of nearby coots and the boom of distant gunfire.

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

About an hour later I woke up. Looked outside my window in time to see a hunter in his tightie whities, changing out of his waders. I lay back down to give him privacy.

The violence in my head had eased somewhat, and now I just felt sad that I wasn't in the marsh. About 20 minutes before sunset, I bundled up and stood at the water's edge, watching the silhouette of the coastal mountain range grow darker as the sun descended.

It was beautiful out there. The rippling water glinted in the setting sun, and the wind brought me the voices of Boyfriend and Tom and Charlie chatting away. Guess things had slowed down. Soon I saw Charlie picking up his decoys.

I choked back tears.

Not tears of self-pity - I had been blessed this season, and I had ended it with the king of the marsh: the bull sprig. I wasn't even sad that this was the end of duck hunting, because I was exhausted, and it would now be a long time before I had to set my alarm for 3 a.m. again. I needed a break, and so did the ducks.

I was crying because it felt like I was leaving home.

Despite my totally obsessive quest for more-MORE-MORE! ducks - which I regarded with mixed emotions even when I was in the middle of it - the marsh is one of the very few places where I can find perfect happiness, even on days when I embarrass myself with bad shooting. It is a three-dimensional theater of beauty, grace and the vivid realities of nature: eating, playing, resting, pairing, evading, killing.

The more I hunt and spend time in places like that, the more I resent the grotesqueries that human civilization has imposed on the planet. Human progress at the expense of habitat for all living things, technological advances at the expense of our own physical and mental health, and everywhere the poison of our clever inventions.

In the marsh, I know I am just a flimsy imitation of the humans who used to live as part of nature, not "above" it. But it's the best I can do under the rules and limitations of modern life. For very limited stretches of time, I can cling to what we used to be. The end of the season wrenches that away from me, and returns me to the drudgery of progress.

If I could flee civilization and live as humans are supposed to live, I would do it in a heartbeat. But there isn't enough habitat left for wild humans, and even if there were, living wild would break dozens of laws and lead to a life on the run.

So instead, I go to work five days a week, cash paychecks and pay bills.

And I wait for the next season - any season - that will allow me to feel human again.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


Don said...

Nice post. It's nice to hear someone else feels the same way about duck hunting and being out in the marsh (any marsh, really) as I do. The only thing better than what you've described (as far as I'm concerned) is to share it with a dog you've trained on your own.

Anonymous said...

I have read and enjoyed all your posts this year.
I was going to be ready this year to do more duck hunting. I bought waders and a call and practiced making sounds like on the DU website.
Then, after a year and a half of no employment, I got a job. With the commute, it is 11 hours a day. Normally, that by itself would not stop me, but other obligations have also reared their head.
I did NO hunting this duck season. Your stories and the wild turkeys seen on the way home from work have helped sustain me.

Thank you,


Josh said...

Holly, welcome to the marsh. I grew up in the wetlands, and your last paragraphs do justice to the longing I feel when I'm separated from them.

I'd love to do a picture book on the wetlands of the world, to look at the critters and plants and water and people, show the legacy they share and the threats they face. It would include the Copper River Delta, the Camargue, the Iraqi Delta, the Nile, the Mekong, the Amazon...

NorCal Cazadora said...

Don - Judging by the familiar faces I saw every weekend where I hunt, there are LOTS of us out there.

Jean - That's a drag, but I know full well how hard it is to hunt ducks on public land when your life is super busy.

Wait, did you say "turkeys"? Hmmm. Turkey seasons's coming up!

Josh - Let me add something in Saudi Arabia to that list. I know there's waterfowl hunting there, and it must be stunning to come up on those spots.

It's so mind-boggling that we used to consider marshs wasted land that needed to be filled in and built up. Now here we are re-creating them because we finally get it. But I'm sure duck hunters got it all along.

Anonymous said...


Don't you just love it when the actions fast 'n furious and your hunting buddy says, "Incoming, from the LEFT, get READY!"

And you're looking to your RIGHT, because there's a pair of Drake Mallards cupped and right HERE?!!

Well, glad you had a really good season (mine wasn't bad either a few skunk days and several really "quality" limits of all Mallards) this year.

I'll be looking for you next Duck season (and the various other hunting seasons, in-between).

Hey, you're not all that far away on the same flyway here...maybe you could come up for some good N.W. Orygun hunts?

Bill C.

NorCal Cazadora said...

I'd love to hunt Oregon sometime, especially if seeing mallard feet-down is a somewhat common occurrence - I got exactly TWO mallards this year, and neither was feet-down.

But can I get up there before the whole state ices over? I'm a spoiled California duck hunter :-).

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Your descriptions of being in the marsh, especially of sitting there with Charlie just watching, remind me of a conversation I recently had with a duck hunter from Maine. His descriptions of some of the spectacles he sees along the ocean were incredible. I'll have to see such things for myself one of these days...

Anonymous said...

On Friday, there were three of them boy-type turkeys all puffed up in their "Hey Baby!!!! Check out this turkey neck!!!" style. The 15 or so hens were wandering up the hill away from them. Totally not caring about about the boys.
There is always a season to look forward to.


oldfatslow said...

I envy you the duck
filled final hunts.
Our year was one of
drought that left
many of my favorite
spots dry. And, The
WMAs were too often
over-booked and over-
shot. [I had to get one
of my older boys to
camp out overnight in
the walkin line twice.]

I don't envy you the
neck troubles. I had
some disks go bad in
my neck this summer
that left me with
about 80% feeling in
my shooting hand and
that didn't help my
accuracy when I did
find ducks.

That whining out of
the way, I had my
favorite hunt of the
year last Saturday for
the annual Youth
Waterfowl Hunt. My
two youngest boys and
two new hunters all
got ducks. It was
the best hunt of
a lousy year and
leaves me longing for
September and Early


Bumbling Bushman said...

If the last day of duck season was perfect, then your description of it did justice. Thanks for taking us along. I can't wait to share the marsh (vicariously) with you next year.

Carolina Rig said...

Holly, reading your blog posts really helped me through my poor duck season. Great job. I'm already planning out next years hunts.

Any of those wood duck feathers I sent with Hank's woodcock peak your interest? I had hoped to send you a cape...timing didn't work out, maybe next year. That is, if you don't procur some Cali wood duck.


Hil said...

Well heck, I always assumed "balls to the wall" was exactly as filthy as it sounded!

Congrats on the sprig. I am insanely jealous.

Remi said...


Evil headaches are the worst , but I'm glad you were able to make it out for the last day. I squeaked on at 2:58 on Sunday (accident on the Causeway almost made me miss it ). I missed the pair of sprig that came in next to me as I'm still more likely to not shoot than shoot.

But with 10 minutes to go til the end, I managed to shoot my first bird while huntin solo. He was just a little drake spoon but it was AWESOMW to finally get a bird all by myself.

While I'm thankful for the break, I absolutely can't wait until next season!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Tovar: Be careful - it's highly addictive. It also, as we've discussed before, has a higher potential for wounding than deer hunting (though my loss rate this year - as best as I can tell - was the lowest it's ever been).

Jean: I love watching that stuff! Oh wait, I teach college, I watch that behavior all the time!

OFS: Oh, man that sounds like bad news with your neck. My neck affected only three of my 29 hunts this year, and for that I'm grateful. I'm hoping the neck traction device I bought this winter will help. (I'd been using it religiously in January, but because school started the week before closing weekend, I was too busy to use it much before that last hunt.)

And bummer about the drought. I definitely went through this season reveling in the riches - the hatch was huge this year and the weather was good for hunting most of the time. I hope that these memories help me get through the next bad year, which surely will come.

Bumbling Bushman: It cracks me up that you think of that day as perfect with that nasty headache being the backdrop. But ... you're right. I mean, I wish I hadn't had it, but I came away with a limit and a lot of vivid memories.

Carolina Rig: The woodcock were delicious - what funny little legs they have! And I haven't shot the wood duck feathers yet, but I will. I just started shooting feathers again this weekend - was just too slammed for the previous 3-4 weeks - and I'll be shooting for the next couple months, I'm sure.

Hil: Me too, but I decided to look it up before hitting "publish." Hank recently used a nickname for a duck that turned out to be a racial slur he hadn't heard of (astonishing, given that he grew up in Jersey), and he had to delete it pronto after a reader told him. That made me a little cautious.

Remi: Congratulations!!! Getting a duck on your own is the best feeling in the world. And I'm so glad you skated in before they shut the gates.

And I know what you mean about being more inclined to not shoot than shoot - with 25-shell limits on public land, I hate taking shots that I think are marginal for my skills. This is the first year I've actually been able to push myself and take shots I would've skipped before, and I think that's one of the reasons I did so well. Of course, it's also one of the reasons I did the walk of shame (going back to the parking lot for more shells) a LOT this year. :-)

Jessica said...

That's an interesting thought, about living the way humans are meant to. I feel that way about the need to be in nature and do physical, creative work sometimes, rather than just go to work, sit at a desk, then come home to live vicariously through the TV.

Anyway. Thanks for sharing your stories!

NorCal Cazadora said...

Jessica, that's sorta become my obsession. Even before hunting took me down this path, though, it was really clear to me that we are not built to work as insanely as we do. We pay a high price for human achievement.

Anonymous said...


On those "iced over" conditions up here in N.W. Oregon, this season we only had two "icy periods" that each lasted 3-5 days.

The last one was followed by several days of warm "Pineapple Express" monsoon squalls that melted much of our mountains' snow pack and caused local flooding of rivers and into the "big River" (the Columbia).

This flooding condition flooded woodlands with water that hadn't yet been inundated in an earlier high water event which offered a few days of EXCELLENT Mallard shooting in the trees.

My Cali ex-pat hunting buddy with me on one of these hunts said, "Are we in Arkansas or what? This is GREAT!!" as hundreds of Mallards got up all around us as we paddled out to our shooting site over what would normally be a walking path, now about 8' deep.

Our season here finished up with several dry, windless (and not very productive) days in the mid-40s.

Here, Ice can be your friend (and it doesn't usually last too long in these parts) to set up successful hunts that most hunters don't understand how to capitalize on.

Bill C.-Orygun

NorCal Cazadora said...

Wow, hunting flooded timber in Oregon? What a hoot!

And I have no problem with ice's impact on hunting; it's mostly ice's impact on my fingers and toes that bothers me. You know, the whole female/poor circulation thing.

SimplyOutdoors said...

That is exactly why I deer hunt - well, for that matter, why I hunt period. It's all about the experience, and the things you get to be involved in and witness while being out there and waiting for supper to hopefully walk, fly, or run by.

And the feelings you had, once you realized that duck season was really over, is exactly why I started to turkey hunt: it is just a means to get me back into nature until next deer season comes around.

The bottom line: being outside makes us feel more human, and more natural; that is why I always make time to get out.

I don't think there is a hunter out there who doesn't understand how you felt :)

NorCal Cazadora said...

Doesn't it make you feel like a lucky member of a super secret society? Like we're some of the few people left who know where perfect happiness can be found? I mean, who knew? It's not what I expected when I started doing this, for sure.