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.
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.
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 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