Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gun-store frenzy: Like a kid in a candy store

A funny thing happened to me at the gun store yesterday.

Hank and I made a trip to Guns, Fishing & Other Stuff in Vacaville because ... Hell, I'm almost embarrassed to say this, but here goes: I won another shotgun at a California Waterfowl dinner. Yes, it's my third in a row. Yes, I have done nothing to deserve such good fortune.

Anyway, I won a Mossberg Silver Reserve 20 gauge side-by-side, and Hank was the winning bidder on a Mossberg Onyx Reserve 28 gauge side-by-side. We really don't need either of these guns, so our plan was to trade them for a new duck gun for Hank that he'd been thinking about for a while - a Benelli SuperNova.

The way this works is when you win a gun at a Cal Waterfowl dinner, the gun store that processes the transaction will usually allow you to apply the wholesale value of the gun(s) you won to the retail value of the gun(s) you want.

I figured the wholesale value would be pretty low, so we went to the store thinking just Hank would get a new gun. But when we got there, we found out the wholesale value on the Mossbergs was actually pretty good, and we could easily get two decent guns without having to do much more than plop down a little extra change.

What I've really been wanting lately is a practice bow, just to start playing around with archery a bit. But the store doesn't carry bows, so I found myself in the odd position of suddenly being able to buy a gun.

Uh, what do I do now???

Hank and I conferred and decided we needed something for target practice and maybe small game - perhaps a .22-250?

I darted around the gun counters trying out .22-250s, and the only one I liked was super expensive, like $800, which was way more than the trade credit I had available.

I went back to Hank, who was still dealing with the paperwork on his gun (oh yes, we have LOTS of paperwork here in California) and informed him of my failure.

"Maybe a .17?" he suggested helpfully.

"I'll try that."

I took a look at several .17s and found the same problem - the only one I liked was really expensive, and spending extra money really wasn't in the cards for me.

I paced around the gun counters anxiously.

I can get a new gun!

I must take advantage of this opportunity!

But how???

See, normally I know what I want when I go gun shopping, but I just hadn't been prepared for this. I felt like a game show contestant who had 60 seconds to decide whether to go for the sailboat or the RV. I had to pick something, because all we could do was trade - they won't give back cash.

But I was flummoxed. Here I was in a position to walk away with a gun - a gun! - and I couldn't find anything that fit my needs and my budget. Our gun safe is too full to get something we don't need, and my credit card is too overburdened to plunk down hundreds of dollars willy-nilly.

So I decided: I had to walk away from the guns.

I felt pathetic and stupid. What self-respecting hunter could walk away from an opportunity like this?

But Hank had an idea: Could we use the extra trade value on ammo?

We asked the manager. "Sure!" he said.

So we went downstairs to the ammo department and picked out five cases of target shells.

Yes, five cases. A case has 10 boxes. A box has 25 shells. So we walked out of there with 1,250 rounds of target ammunition, which took a couple trips because that stuff is heavy.

And suddenly, I was happy.

Instead of getting a gun of potentially dubious value to me, I would be able to shoot skeet to my heart's content for easily the next few months without having to shell out for shells. Instead of having to learn a new gun, I could invest that time in improving my accuracy with my current gun so I have less bad shooting to be mortified about next duck season.

So what if I blew my chance to get a new gun? I've never been a gun nut anyway. I'm just a hunter who uses guns and ammo to get the job done. And that's just fine with me.

And hey, Californians, if you'd really like to win a gun, I recommend you join Cal Waterfowl, become a life member and attend a CWA fundraising dinner. At many dinners, you can make a $200 payment toward your $1,000 life membership and be entered in a drawing for a shotgun. There are usually very few people in that drawing - it's been three to eight the times I've participated - and I've won the last three life member drawings I've entered.

And it's OK - my life membership payment is now complete, so you don't have to worry about Lucky Holly competing with you anymore.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Friday, February 25, 2011

Announcing the most perfect women's hunting pants ever - for me, anyway

For the most part, I hate women's hunting pants. No, wait, that's not accurate: I hate all women's pants.

Why? They fit me like crap.

I'm long-waisted, so the waistband always sits too low. And I have a relatively small waist and relatively, uh, generous hips and thighs, so if I buy pants big enough for hips and thighs, the waistband sticks out a lot. Like I could easily stuff a fifth of Jack Daniels in the extra space. Not that I've ever done that.

There's only one kind of pants I have ever really loved, though, and it occurred to me last year that, with a few minor additions, they would make perfect hunting pants. Because my mom happens to be bad-ass with a sewing machine and an excellent reverse engineer, I asked her to make me a pair.

So, behold, I present to you ... NorCal Cazadora's Ninja Huntress Pants!

Yep. They're karate pants, made in sturdy camo denim, with a cargo pocket added to each leg, and a small license/key pocket added to the front.

If you've ever done martial arts, or if your kids do karate, you can imagine what makes these pants so wonderful for vigorous activity.

If you haven't though, allow me to explain:

The most obvious thing is that these pants are really roomy. Lay them out on the floor and you'll see way more fabric than you'd see with a normal pair of pants.

But roominess alone isn't enough - what really make them tick is the gusset. Most pants have four pieces of fabric that come together at the crotch, forming a cross (and making the pants very form-fitting). But karate pants have a giant diamond-shaped gusset where that cross would be, and that allows for more freedom of movement.

In karate, that means you can easily do splits or high kicks in these pants. Naturally, there's not much call for either of those stunts in hunting. But the point is that these pants won't bind no matter what you do in them.

The final thing going for these pants is the big elastic waistband with a drawstring. If you're like me, your weight and girth fluctuates a lot, and these pants are very forgiving. A little thick at the waist right now? Loosen up the drawstring. Dropped a few pounds? Tighten it up.

Seriously, I think you could gain 15 pounds before you'd have to go up a size in these pants. Not that I want to try that. And I know I could lose 15 pounds and they'd still fit fine, because I was probably 15 pounds lighter when I bought the pants that Mom used as a model for these. (Yeah, that was back when I was working out two hours a day, and also doing tae kwon do and playing tennis regularly.)

The most important measurements in these pants is the length - generally, if they're the right length, the rest works fine.

So, where can you get them?

Beats me. There's just one pair that I know of, and Mom and I have no plans to go into business to make and sell any more (neither of us has much entrepreneurial drive). So if you're an entrepreneur who feels like manufacturing a new kind of hunting pant, help yourself to the idea.

Or don't! All I'm sayin' is they work for me. And boy, I sure am glad my mom can sew.

All photos by Andrew Nixon.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Metamorphosis: Hunting without a gun

Somewhere in the middle of duck season, I had a revelation.

OK, it wasn't exactly a revelation. The thought had occurred to me before. But this time, instead of denying it, I listened and accepted the truth: Fitness hurts.

Being fit doesn't hurt. Being fit rocks. But getting and staying fit the conventional way - elliptical machines, running, even walking - leaves me pretty much wracked with pain.

What's this got to do with duck season, you ask? This: I had a pretty good fitness regimen going this fall, but when duck season began to heat up, the routine fell apart. In very short order the only exercise I was getting was duck hunting.

The way I'm hunting ducks these days, it's actually a pretty good workout. I hunt in an area where you literally race through the water - in waders, not in a boat - to get a good spot before someone else gets to it. And because I hunt without a dog, I charge out through the water to get every duck I shoot (and the non-dead variety can lead you on quite a chase).

After a few weeks of no more running/walking/weights, but lots of duck hunting, I had to admit something: I didn't hurt all the time anymore. No tight hamstrings. No rock-hard IT band. No knots in the glutes. Even my lower back felt better for the first time in a few years. All those pains had become a permanent state of being for me when I was fit, no matter how much stretching I did, no matter how much I forked out for regular massages.

Lesson learned: Repetitive motion = bad. Natural range of motion = good. Something about moving in unpredictable directions seems to work my muscles more thoroughly, and prevent the build-up of scar tissue that leads to that intractable tightness.

So I decided: That's it. I'm done. No more conventional cardio. Period. I'm done with the torture.

The only question now was how could I possibly get a nice natural range of motion into my routine once duck season ended and school started up again? Gym? Nothing but repetitive machines. Playground equipment at the neighborhood park? No, someone would probably think I was a pedophile. Maybe the rock climbing wall at the new gym at school? Another bill to pay...

Ultimately, I found the solution in a Rocky movie, of all places. Rocky IV, to be specific.

Hank and I were watching the movie a couple weeks ago, reliving all those great Cold War memories, and when we got to the part where Rocky Balboa goes to the Soviet Union to train. Nemesis Ivan Drago trains on state-of-the-art equipment (and steroids), and Rocky trains au naturel. No, not naked - he just goes running, mountain climbing, log splitting, lifting horse-carts full of people, etc.

That's it! I thought. I can go to Siberia!

OK, not really. But I did realize there's actually some mildly rugged terrain in a state recreation area surrounding a small lake that's about five minutes from my house. If I follow deer trails up and down the hillsides instead of the bike trail around the lake, I could get a hell of a good workout. I could even simulate a pig hunt with Phillip, which typically includes long walks on uneven terrain, steep climbs and descents, and occasional sprints.

Oooh, bonus points: I could get prepared for spring pig hunting too!

So that's what I've been doing the past two weekends: I head to the lake, climb up a hill and see where the deer trails take me.

It takes me through cool oak woods, blanketed with a lush carpet of chickweed and miner's lettuce, which I pick and eat as I go. On the steep hillside underneath the expensive homes, I spot dozens of golf balls surrounded only by deer tracks - apparently the balls are the sole emissaries of civilization above. I see a great winged thing take off from high in the oak's branches above me. Then it returns, and I see it is an owl ... with a hawk not far behind it. I cross a creek timidly, edging out on a fallen tree branch carefully until I hear the snap and make the leap without thinking - laughing at myself. A squirrel chatters at my intrusion. A feral cat lounging in the shade slinks off at my approach.

The only other people I see are children. I freeze at the sight of them, wondering if they'll notice me.

And that's when I make the connection: This feels a lot like childhood.

When my sisters and I were kids, we'd visit our grandparents at Lake Isabella, and because our families gave us a lot of independence, we could just wander off and explore: We'd charge up and down hills, cross creeks and stop whenever we felt like it to examine interesting bugs or fish or pieces of glass. If we played our cards right - which we invariably did - we'd pop out into civilization right next to a convenience store where we could stock up on candy for the walk back home. When we got back to our grandparents' house, we were exhausted and happy.

Later, when I'd grown up and become a newspaper reporter, I was working on an article about urban creeks when the woman I was interviewing made an interesting point: Urban creeks are largely hidden, but if you want to know where they are, just ask the kids. Adults drive by without seeing them; kids know them intimately. Kids glom onto nature, and they embrace that aimless wandering through it.

Since I started hunting, I've often looked back on that kind of childhood play in wonder. I never knew it then, but it seems so obvious now how much of it was preparation for hunting: hiking, observing, hiding. Especially hiding.

Now that my favorite hunting season is over, and hunts will be few and far between for the next seven months, it seems incredibly comforting to return to this kind of play. It just feels right.

At the end of these jaunts, I know I've worked hard. But instead of feeling sore and tight, I feel renewed, physically and mentally.

I guess this was the probably the best kind of "fitness" routine all along.
It's called living.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Duck hunting jackets: Options for women

If you're a woman duck hunter who isn't built like a man, I'm guessing you've had a hell of a time finding a duck jacket that works for you.

Personally, I made do with a men's medium jacket from Gamehide my first three seasons until I got tired of the butt of my gun getting caught in all the extra fabric. Two seasons ago I switched to Drake because it was the only company I found that made a men's small. I love that jacket, except for the fact that the hood is too small, and therefore useless to me.

But what if even a men's small doesn't work for you? What are your options?

SHE Outdoor Apparel announced this year that it will be producing a complete line of women's duck hunting clothing: jacket, bib, waders, gloves. I hope to give them a test-drive later this year.

But if that doesn't float your boat, would another women's hunting jacket do?

To answer that question, I tested two women's hunting jackets: one from Prois (disclosure: I'm a member of its field staff), and another from the Haley Vines Collection.

Both jackets are hooded, waterproof shells (not insulated). Waterproof is essential for duck hunting - even if you don't hunt in rain a lot like I do, there's all that splash potential.

And the exterior fabric of both jackets is soft and quiet - you won't be making noise with either of them.

But what are the differences? And how well are they suited to duck hunting?

I'll start with the Haley Vines jacket, which I spotted this year at the SHOT Show. (Click here and go to the fourth slide to see the catalog page.)

This piece stood out because while it isn't a duck jacket, Haley Vines made it in the incredibly popular Mossy Oak Duck Blind camo pattern. I glommed onto it instantly (love that camo pattern), and the folks at Haley Vines were kind enough to give me one to try out before my duck season ended.

The most un-ducky thing about this jacket is the blaze orange Haley Vines logo on the sleeve and waistband, but don't let that throw you - it's small, and it blends in surprisingly well with the detailed camo pattern (you can barely make it out just below the left pocket in this photo).

This jacket is slightly more form-fitting than the Prois jacket, and it's about two inches shorter, with the bottom seam resting at the top of my hips. But I had no problem wearing layers underneath it, and the slimmer cut made it well-suited for wearing under the waders. (For what it's worth, the fabric is a bit stretchy too, so it doesn't bind.)

One of my favorite features was the snug-fitting cuff inside of the loose-fitting sleeve. It's good for keeping the wind out, but it surprised me with one more benefit: When I had to plunge my hand into the water to get a diving duck, that cuff kept the water out too. Now, I didn't do a repeat performance to keep testing it, but after one quick plunge, my wrists were dry.

This jacket also has a license-sized, zipped chest pocket on the left side in the lining.

The only downside to this jacket was the mesh lining in the front: When you put your hands in the pockets, there's nothing but mesh on the inside of the pockets, which means the cold will come right through it. This really isn't a huge issue when you're wearing the jacket under waders, but it might be a consideration for other types of wear.

Oh yeah, minor point: Haley Vines doesn't use conventional sizes like S-M-L etc.; it uses a 0-5 system (a women's medium translates into a 2). While I appreciate any attempts to eliminate the stigma of some of those labels, it just adds to the time it takes to figure out what size to order.

Retail price: $125.

Now for Prois. I tested the Eliminator jacket, which comes in Realtree AP HD or Max1.

Now, if you think it matters that this isn't in a traditional duck camo, I would encourage you to check out all the rage in duck hunting: old-fashioned camo:

People kill ducks wearing this stuff, which doesn't look a damned bit like cattails. You'll be fine.

So, on to the important stuff: The Eliminator jacket is roomier than the Haley Vines jacket, so you could layer underneath it and still wear it over the waders. When it's raining hard, that can be a good thing if you don't want all the rain to run down the back of your jacket and straight into your undies. It's also about two inches longer.

One of the coolest features of the Eliminator is the duck tail. Yes, it's got a duck tail, which is basically an extra long flap of fabric in the back to keep your padunkadunk dry, which is helpful if your padunkadunk, er, sticks out (as good padunkadunks should, thank you very much).

While I'm not sure that's super helpful in a duck hunting context, it does give this jacket extra functionality for other types of hunting. And if you don't want to walk around with the flap out, it snaps right back up into the jacket.

Another positive: The pockets are lined with the same windproof fabric from the jacket's exterior, so your hands won't get cold in the pockets.

While this jacket doesn't have the snug interior cuff that the Haley Vines jacket has, it does have Velcro straps that allow you to tighten the cuffs as much as you want.

Final bonus points: Made in the U.S.A.

Price: $170 at Cabela's.

Now, while both of these jackets will work fine for duck hunting, they aren't tailor-made for it, so they don't have some of the features that duck hunters really love, like external hand-warming chest pockets that you can access above the top of your waders, or big, roomy shell pockets.

But on the plus side, if you do other types of hunting in the rain, these will do double-duty.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The heresy of hunting ducks without a dog


Hi. My name is Holly. I hunt ducks without a dog.

For a long time, Hank and I viewed this as a temporary situation that would be remedied when we had more money, more time and a sense that we were ready.

But this past duck season, we realized it just wasn't going to happen, because ... well, we're actually fine hunting ducks without a dog.

Seems like such a simple choice, doesn't it? Except here's the thing: For some people, the fact that we hunt ducks without a dog freaks them out.

Here are some of the reactions we've gotten:

"You don't hunt with a dog? You mean, you get your own ducks??? (Which is like saying, "You actually mow your own lawn when there's abundant illegal immigrant labor that will do it for you?")

"Oh, you have to get a dog!" (As if we just haven't been made aware of the necessity.)

"That's how n***ers hunt."
(For the record, I despise racism and ethnic slurs.)

I have never experienced greater peer pressure than the pressure from fellow duck hunters to get a dog. Seriously, my mom was more OK with me deciding not to have kids than many duck hunters are about me not having a dog.

Some people seem to take it personally - as if my doglessness is a condemnation of their choice to hunt with canine partners.

I once wrote an article for a magazine in which I mentioned that I hunt without a dog, and that it feels weird letting a dog do my work for me. The editors responded with a defensiveness that took me totally off guard. They touted the joy of watching a good dog work, the deep history of hunting with dogs and dogs' superior ability (more on this later) to find ducks.

They wanted me to delete the passage - to omit a central fact of my hunting - because it bothered them.

The funny thing is that I'm not opposed to hunting with dogs at all, and I never condemn fellow duck hunters for hunting with dogs. Hell, some of my best friends have duck dogs. And when I hunt with those friends, I love watching their dogs work, whether it's in the marsh or in upland fields.

So why do we not want a hunting dog of our own? Allow me to explain:

Hunting space: The place where we do most of our hunting is a shallow, walk-in marsh with lots of big water. This means that unless we sail a bird really far away, we've got excellent chances of finding it before it burrows into any tules and cattails.

If we routinely hunted deep water from a boat, of course we would have a dog. It's an obvious necessity in that case.

And if we routinely hunted places with lots of thick tule beds, we would get a dog. On the rare occasions we find ourselves in such areas, we simply choose our shots carefully - we won't pull the trigger on a bird if we think its flight path and likely angle of descent would put it in thick tules.

We never say, "Oh, eff it! Take the shot - the dog will find it."

And that works really well for us. Hank and I had loss rates of about 10 percent this past season, well below the 18 percent loss rates that hunters themselves report in surveys.

For the record, I lost nine ducks hunting my regular spot this season.

One was a ruddy. I'd knocked her down, but my gun jammed so I couldn't take the finishing shot. She dove, and that was it - never saw her again.

The rest were ducks that sailed a long way, then got up and flew again when I got close to them. Pretty sure a dog wouldn't have helped.

Commitment: A dog is like a child, not just a commitment of money - though the cost is significant - but a commitment of time. Dogs need to be walked. Dogs need maintenance training and practice.

Since I started hunting a little over four years ago, I have gotten more busy, not less. I work all day, and then I work all night, doing photography or writing. Hank's schedule is similarly crammed, though you can insert "cooking" in lieu of photography.

I keep having to jettison things that used to be important to me.

Giving up cooking? Who cares - Hank cooks better than I ever could.

Giving up exercise? That's bad. Literally, chasing ducks is the only exercise I've gotten since November.

Giving up regular housekeeping? That's gross.

I've given up all three, and I'm really not sure what else I can stop doing.

Then there's the travel. Hank and I do a fair bit of traveling, and our travel plans for this year are starting to look staggering. Our kitties are fine with food and water when we leave the house for four or five days, but that just doesn't fly with dogs.

Fear: The first two reasons are, frankly, compelling enough - having a dog isn't necessary or practical for us. But there is a third reason, and it's what I see and hear all around me when I hunt.

While we all admire the well-trained dog, we've all come across dogs that are the exact opposite: The one that bays at incoming ducks (thanks for wrecking the shot, there, Rover). The one that mauls ducks (unacceptable - we hunt for the table). The willful dog (always easy to locate by the repeated yells of "NO! NO! NOOOOO!").

Frankly, if I were going to get a dog, I would beg, borrow or steal the money to have it trained well.

But I know even the best-trained dogs sometimes have problems that make them more of a liability than an asset. Then you're faced with three choices: Get rid of it (yeah, send it to a pet shelter or back to the breeder, despite having welcomed it into your home as a member of the family), retire it to petdom (meaning it will howl every time you pack up your duck gear and leave without it), or - as many people seem to do - just keep hunting with it until it finally dies.

I would be the third person, because I LOVE my animals, and I would never get rid of a dog or leave it at home just because it wasn't perfect. And I really don't want to put myself in the position of having to make that choice - I mean, why should I when I don't have to?

So that's it. That's why we don't have a duck dog and aren't going to get a duck dog unless something major changes.

If history is any indication, I'll now get a lot of comments from people who want to convince me that the reasons I've given for my personal choice are wrong. I'll be made to feel like a heretic. A disgrace to hunting.

But deep down, I'm really hoping people surprise me, and perhaps engage in a little introspection about why they have such a visceral reaction to our doglessness.

After all, I'm not asking you to give up your dog, or tell you that you're stupid to have a duck dog. I'm just saying it's OK for me not to have one.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Head Down: A brilliant innovation in duck hunting headwear - with minor drawbacks

I love showing duck hunters my new Head Down duck hunting cap that I picked up at the 2011 SHOT Show, because it never fails to get the same response: Holy cow, how come no one thought of this sooner?

(OK, one exception: Boyfriend's first response was, "Uh, could you have gotten more than one?" Sorry, hon!)

If you're a duck hunter, one look at this photo tells you everything you need to know.

But for those who aren't waterfowlers, here's the deal: Duck hunters spend a lot of time tracking birds flying all around them, and the trick is to cover as much of your face as possible - usually with the bill of your cap - while still watching the bird. Head Down puts a mesh window in the bill of the cap, which means your face is still covered, but you can see through the bill.

It's kinda like having an invisibility cloak for your face.

I picked up a free sample of this hat at the Feather Flage booth at SHOT, and that gave me two whole weekends of duck hunting to test it out before our season ended on Jan. 23. It took time to get used to this cap, but here's what I learned:

Tracking birds up high: Looking up through the mesh at high angles for more than a second or two at a time made me dizzy. Try it for a second - face straight forward and crank your eyeballs up as high as they'll go, then hold 'em there. Not fun!

Tracking low birds: This is where the Head Down hat shines: I found I could tilt my head down pretty far and look up without causing eye strain.

Pre-dawn: It was almost impossible to see birds through the dark mesh in pre-dawn light. Then again, that's when you least need to hide your face, so it's largely irrelevant.

Acquiring vs. tracking: Don't bother scanning the sky for birds through the mesh - it's too hard to find flying things and distinguish between, say, duck and cormorant. Instead, drop your head once you've acquired the sight of the bird.

Bright sun: The Achille's heel of the Head Down hat becomes apparent when you're hunting a north wind and facing south into the late-morning to early-afternoon sun. This is when you'll tell yourself, "Oh yeah, there's a reason we don't put holes in bills - we need to keep the sun out of our eyes."

When I was hunting north wind/bright sun conditions midday, I found myself struggling to put the sun behind the opaque parts of the bill to keep it out of my eyes. At least once, I switched to another hat under these conditions.

But if you don't have to face the sun or track birds across the sun, this hat works fine in bright light.

Gray days: This hat is perfect for gray days, as well as early morning and late afternoon when the sun is less intense than midday.

The upshot: Once I got used to this hat and learned when to look through the mesh and when to treat it like a regular cap, I liked it. But it did take getting used to, and it wasn't perfect for all conditions.

If I hadn't gotten one for free, would I plop down $15 for this? Yep. And it'd certainly make a great gift for your duck hunting friends. I'm pretty sure Boyfriend is expecting one before the next season begins.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Winchester Blind Side: Nice ammo, but what does it do to the ducks?

One of the things I was most excited to learn about at the 2011 SHOT Show was a new kind of waterfowl shot from Winchester: Blind Side.

Now, I'm not an ammo geek by any measure, but I am interested in anything that will help bring down ducks more effectively, which is what Winchester promised this shot would do.

Here's the short version of how Blind Side works: The steel shot is "hex-cut" with rounded edges, so the pellets looks like dice. This does two things:

One, it allows Winchester to pack the shell more densely, as you can see in the photo above. A box of 3-inch 2s in 12 gauge contains 1-3/8 ounces of shot, which is an eighth of an ounce more shot than Kent Fasteel's heaviest 3-inch load.

And two, the irregular shape creates more trauma on impact. It also slows the shot down, but not by much - at 1400 fps, this stuff flies only 25 feet per second slower than Kents with 1-1/4 ounce loads.

The trauma is the key here, and the Blind Side brochures hype it with almost alarming glee.

My first question was, "But what does it do to the ducks?"

In my house, we hunt for the table. Yes, hunting is super fun, and bringing down a bird effectively is really satisfying, but if you've reduced it to ground beef in the process, you might as well get your food at McDonald's.

The rep I spoke to had done field testing, but not kitchen testing. When Phil Bourjaily at Field & Stream wrote about testing this stuff on flighted mallards, he didn't mention bird damage. One of the regulars here, Hilary Dyer of Waterfowl & Retriever magazine, had shot Blind Side at ducks too, but she'd given away the ducks so she didn't know how they looked.

Fortunately for me, Winchester rushed me a couple boxes of Blind Side (3-inch 2s) gratis before the final weekend of duck season, and I actually hit a few ducks with it, so I can tell you how it works in the field and on the table.

In the field: I was not at my best when I used this stuff on closing weekend - I kinda shot like crap through most of January - and I can tell you that Blind Side did not make me a better shot. Not that I expected it to, but one can always hope, right?

But my experience led me to share Bourjaily's conclusion that if you hit a duck well with this stuff, it's gonna go down hard. I did very little chasing when I was using this shot if I hit the birds in the neck or body. With wing shots, though, it's pretty much like any other wing shot - you either break the wing or you don't, and the amount of chasing required follows accordingly.

One more note: I usually shoot 1-1/8 ounce loads, and I was worried about the extra recoil from a heavier load. But I didn't notice any difference in recoil at all. The biggest adjustment I had to make was lead, because I'm used to faster shot (1560 fps).

The autopsy: When I plucked and gutted the birds I shot with Blind Side, I was a little surprised, looking at the wounds, at how hard the birds had gone down. Normally a bird that falls hard will have lots of shredded innards - shot through the heart, or torn up lungs with lots of evidence of bleeding.

But some of these ducks had wounds that didn't even seem to penetrate the body cavity - something that would probably just cripple or sail a duck with the shot I normally use. The one exception was a poor little greenwing teal that I just murderated. Not pretty.

The table fare: When I was finished dressing these birds, they looked like I'd shot them with BBs instead of 2s. I'm thinking that would be the "more trauma" thing. Considering I spent most of this season shooting BBs or 1s, that means this shot did the same level of meat damage that I'm accustomed to, only I was slinging more pellets because they're smaller.

Dental damage? When Boyfriend bit down on a piece of the shot in a couple gadwalls we ate this weekend (and it always works that way - if I shot the duck, he gets the shot), it was no different than biting down on any other steel shot. And no, he didn't crack a tooth.

The fun thing about Blind Side is that when you set it down on the table to admire what you almost just ate, it doesn't roll around much. Of course, if you don't enjoy playing with your shot at the table, this might not matter to you.

So what's the upshot? When this stuff hits the market this summer, it'll retail for $17-$22, which ain't exactly cheap, though it's not as bad as Hevi-Shot.

But I can think of three circumstances under which it'd be worth paying that price: 1) If I'm shooting well and not wasting a lot of shot. 2) If I'm hunting without a dog and want to minimize my chasing. 3) If I'm hunting an area with dense cover and it's really important to drop ducks right where I hit 'em.

Crippling fewer ducks and losing fewer ducks is important to me, and I think it's worth paying more for anything that helps accomplish that goal.

Postscript: If you want to check out some really cool footage of how this shot flies, check out Bourjaily's post today on the Gun Nut blog. It includes footage of the unusual diamond-cut wad this shot uses.

My next post-SHOT Show review: The Head Down cap in Feather Flage camo.

This is the one that prompted every duck hunter who saw it to say, "Holy crap, why hasn't anyone thought of that before?"

Well, with two weekends of hard duck hunting, I got a really good understanding of how it works. Stay tuned for that review.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

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