Thursday, September 29, 2011

Three story lines from women's hunting camp: The unknown, the uncertainty and the fever

I was present for the birth of three new huntresses last weekend at Cal Waterfowl's women's hunting camp at Bird's Landing, and let me tell you: Watching the delivery never gets old.

But this camp was really interesting because of three striking story lines among some of the participants.

The first story line was Jamie's. Probably her biggest fear was making a mistake with gun handling and ending up hurting or killing someone.

I didn't help. During the hunter safety class on Saturday morning, I told a couple stories, one I'd read about, and one I was there for. The story I'd read was about an experienced shooting instructor who gathered with his pals in the shooting range parking lot after a shoot. He leaned his gun up against the car - bad idea, but hey, it was unloaded. Except it wasn't. It fell over, something hit the trigger, and someone died.

I could see Jamie recoiling. Had it been a mistake to bring it up?

But, hey, I was on a roll. The other story happened with a friend of mine. She was having trouble unloading her autoloader. Safety Measure No. 1 failed: The safety wasn't on. Safety Measure No. 2 failed: Somehow, she hit the trigger.

The boom was deafening and shocking. We'd stared at each other, bug-eyed. I looked at her legs, and at mine. Had either of us been hit? Were we bleeding? "Are you OK?" I asked. She nodded. I was OK too. But we saw where the shot had gouged the concrete in front of us.

My friend was pretty freaked. "Ya know what?" I told her. "You had the muzzle pointed in a safe direction." This is, of course, exactly why we're taught so many layers of safety - because you never know when the fail safes might fail.

Jamie looked green. Had I scared her in a bad way, or in a good way?

The next morning, when we all split up for the hunt, I ended up with Jamie first. We walked and walked and walked our field, Jamie with muzzle dutifully pointed up. The dog smelled birds, but they were running - we couldn't get anything in the air. At least not at first.

Finally, the dog scared up a rooster - a passing shot not too far in front of Jamie.

Jamie swung on the bird. Our dog handler ducked. Then Jamie eased the gun off her shoulder.

"Why'd you decide not to shoot?" I asked her later.

"Zone of fire," she said. There was a parking lot on the other side of the bird. It didn't seem safe to her.

"Good," I said. "That's exactly what you were supposed to do."

Before the day was over, I reminded her of her nerves on the first day, and asked her how she'd felt handling the gun. "Oh, it was fine," she said. Turns out guns aren't quite as scary when you know the rules for handling them. And follow those rules.

And oh yeah: Sometime after I'd left her that morning, she'd gotten one:

The next story line was Rachel's. Rachel had a practicality to her that reminded me a lot of Tamar Haspel. Her husband hunts. She's interested in taking personal responsibility for the meat she eats. And she's not shy about asking questions that people more immersed in hunting culture might be hesitant to voice, like what's up with fair chase, and why does it matter? You're killing the animal either way.

The thing I said during hunter ed that took her off guard (I know, nice job, Holly) was that animals don't always just drop dead when we hit them; sometimes we have to finish them off.

"What do you mean? How do you do it?"

It felt like I was telling a kid Santa wasn't real, which is not to suggest that she's naive - I'd made the same assumption when I started hunting. I thought a hit meant death. I learned immediately that it doesn't always.

I didn't get to hunt with Rachel on Sunday. When I left Jamie's party, Rachel was too far out in the field for me to chase after her without running the risk of botching a shot by being in her zone of fire. But when she came in, I asked how she did. Turns out she got one:

I had to goad her to smile. Something was wrong.

I didn't ask. But I just rattled on about hunting. I don't know what I said - something about downing birds by breaking their wings, rather than killing them outright.

"That's what happened with this one," she said, grimacing. "He had to ..." She finished the sentence by making a fist and twirling it in a circle.

"Helicopter it," I said.


"That's the hard thing about bird hunting," I told her. You can't be precise the way you can with a rifle.

"If you want to hunt birds, you're going to have to get comfortable with that," I said. "And if you can't, you might want to stick with big game - things you can hunt with a rifle."

When we all gathered at the end of the hunt, she brought it up on her own. "They're telling me I might be a better farmer than a hunter."

"That's OK," I said. "It's not for everyone."

In fact, that's one of of the things I tell people is great about this women's hunting camp. For $200, you do it all in one weekend: hunter ed, shooting practice, hunt. You don't have to have a gun; you can borrow or rent one. And if you hate hunting, you're out $200 and two days of your life.

Rachel's fear is one of the most common ones with women: We have a deep aversion to causing pain. It can be a stopper.

Finally, I come to Monique.

Monique is one of last year's grads who came to the camp for a hunter ed refresher, shooting practice and the hunt.

While she has gotten some hunting in since last year's camp, I know it hasn't been enough. She wanted more.

By the time I caught up with her in a field parking lot on Sunday, she'd already gotten a bird, which she was more than happy to show me.

A bunch of us were standing there in the parking lot jawing, giving the dogs a rest,  when someone else fired at a bird in a nearby field and missed. We all looked up - everyone had been instructed that you should always look to see if the hunter missed the bird, sending it where you might get it.

Sure as hell, the rooster sailed past our parking lot, just out of range. But of course, everyone was unloaded.

"Anyone got a gun handy?" I asked, watching to mark where the bird would land. He hadn't even touched down on terra firma when Monique walked past me with her shotgun, stepped out of the parking lot, loaded up, and said, "Let's go!"

We didn't get that one, but we marked a couple other birds that other hunters scared our way, and ultimately, one of the dogs flushed one in range.

Aaaaand, she got it:

It was nearing noon. "Tell me if you want to stop," Monique said, "because I could do this all day."

I grinned.

I'm not sure why I love witnessing that kind of transformation. Is it because she's now part of the sisterhood? Is it the fact that there's one more person in the world who understands how hunting can grip you in a way you never imagined? Is it taking pride in having played a small role in getting her to this place?

I don't know. I just know it was a beautiful thing.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, September 26, 2011

Women's duck hunt in NorCal: 11-11-11


Ain't that a purty sight? I think it is, because you just don't see it too often - four women headed out for a duck hunt.

I took that picture almost two years ago just before we headed out into the marsh for a little afternoon duck hunting. It was Lucrezia's (right) first duck hunt, and she and Penny (the blonde) ended up getting a snow goose each, which was pretty awesome.

I'm excited to be working on a much bigger women's duck hunting event this November in the Sacramento Valley. Working with Delta Waterfowl and Cal Waterfowl, we're putting on a women's duck hunting weekend for apprentice hunters.

The women will gather Friday Nov. 11 at Red Bank Outfitters in Red Bluff for a night of gourmet game and wine. We'll spend the next day on training - waterfowl ID, shooting instruction, and everything you need to know about hunting ducks on public or private land. Then on Sunday, the participants will head out to a variety of private duck clubs in the Sacramento Valley for a mentored hunt.

The price is $175 per person, and that includes two nights' lodging at Red Bank, food, training and, of course, the hunt. It's a pretty sweet deal.

Know of any women 21 and older who'd be interested in this? Please share this information with them. Sign-ups go through Oct. 7 or when we've reached our limit of 25 women, whichever comes first. Women need to have licenses with state and federal duck stamps, and they need to have, or borrow, their own clothing, gear and guns.

Click here for information and the application form. And if you're one of the women who wants to do this, see you there!

Update: I have really exciting news about this hunt: SHE Outdoor Apparel has agreed to donate one pair of its new women's waterfowl waders to one lucky participant of this hunt. These are high-end waders - they retail for $240. So ladies, if you think you really wanna be a duck hunter, you might want to get in on this.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The electric moment: spotting game

One of the most delicious things about hunting, for me, is the utterly visceral sense of excitement that takes control of your mind and body when you spot game. That mixture of adrenaline, awe and possibility is utterly intoxicating. If it were available in liquid form, I'd inject it without a second thought. And I loathe needles.

I got a tantalizing hit of the stuff yesterday when I was taking the train home from work. The train tracks run through a thoroughly urbanized area for the most part, but my stop is adjacent to Aerojet, an aerospace and defense company that covers nearly 6,000 acres of largely undeveloped land.

The land is, of course, loaded with game - infuriatingly so, because Aerojet doesn't allow hunting there. Something about not wanting stray bullets to hit giant tanks of jet fuel, or somesuch. Whatever.

I'm used to being taunted by large flocks of turkeys picking their way around the park-and-ride lot. But yesterday I caught a glimpse of something stunning. The train was approaching the station. I had just shut down my laptop and was looking out the windows to avoid staring at the idiot young thug wannabes who'd been giggling about fights and girls for the past 20 minutes.

As the train slowed, I looked across the top of a fence and saw a rack, bobbing. A huge rack.

"Holy f..." I exclaimed, my head whipping back for a long second look.

It was a 5x5, easy.

Now, for all you people who live in whitetail country, that might not sound very exciting. But seeing a rack like that here is pretty rare.

And for me, it was fleeting. As I drove away from the station, I craned my neck in vain, hoping to spot the big boy again. But I would have to be content just to text and email everyone who might care about it, meaning Hank, one of my students who hunts and a friend who works at Aerojet.

When I got on the train after work today, all I could think about is getting another hit. I chose a seat where I might get a good long look at that spot near the train station again. Crazy to even think that way, but just in case.

As the train approached my stop, I shut off my laptop, cranked my head to the right, scanned the fence top, and I'll be damned if I didn't see that rack again.

Or, I should say, those racks. Lots of them. For the love of Mrs. Claus, it looked like Santa's reindeer were having a little party over there.

I got off the train and waited anxiously for it to pull away, to see if I could get another glimpse of the bucks. I couldn't, so I started to walk toward my car.

Then I quickly veered right toward that fence line. It was completely involuntary. I peered through a break in the fence, only to see another fence a few feet beyond it. Dammit.

I stepped back, set my backpack down, took off my nice sandals, lifted one bare foot to a horizontal bar on the fence, and heaved myself - gently - to the top of the fence.

I trembled, then froze. Staring back at me from about 20 yards away were seven bucks, every single one of them forked horn or better, which is to say, legal in these parts.

Bachelor group! I'd heard of bachelor groups. I'd never seen one though - not at any distance, much less this close.

Big Boy was staring straight at me, making it a little hard to count points, particularly in the fading light. But when he turned, it was clear he was at least a 5x5.

He was surrounded by forkies, and another more mature buck who might've been no more than a 3x2, but he had incredibly long antlers. From where I stared, they appeared to cross each other gracefully, like Celtic design. He was beautiful.

I needed him to stand up. I needed my camera. I needed photos that I could enlarge and examine and admire.

But all I had was my aging phone, with its incredible 1 megapixel frame. Most of the images came out crappy, like the one at the top of this post. Poor lighting, slow shutter speed. This was the best I could do:

These deer stared at me for the longest time, unconcerned. They know they're safe there, though they were so close that I realized I could've taken the shot off-hand and made a perfectly clean kill, which is saying a lot, because I'm not particularly steady. And I was perched on a wobbly fence.

I realized as all these thoughts were running through my head how funny they were. I'm not particularly obsessed with racks, because it would be impractical to have such an obsession in California. But this buck was rare and close, and buck fever claimed me as quickly as it would a 12-year-old boy.

And the whole thing about admiring these beautiful animals while looking at the spot where I'd send a bullet. Broadside target. Perfect... It reminded me of Hank when he'd just started duck hunting. For a time, every time he saw a bird in the sky, he'd raise an imaginary gun, lead the bird and pull the imaginary trigger.

I'd chide him for being boyish, for his first impulse being "Kill!" I hadn't started hunting yet. I didn't know.

Eventually, I came down from the fence. Then got back up again. Then came down. Then got up again. The sight was electric. I didn't want it to stop. If I can't have it, please please please let me just keep looking.

But I had cats waiting to be fed at home, and a former student waiting for a letter of recommendation, and a duck in the fridge that I needed to cook for myself. I got down from the fence one more time, strapped my sandals back on, then sauntered back to my car grinning, still basking in that delicious feeling.

I need to bring a real camera tomorrow - they're probably just going to keep hanging out here at this time. Wait, I need to call Peg and John to see if I can hunt their property this season. Wait, what I need to do is ask them if they've noticed deer congregating in a particular spot at a particular time.

Oh, I really hope I get a deer this year. Any legal deer.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, September 12, 2011

Wild game cooking: The Velveted Rabbit

Yeah, you heard me right. I'm not talking about The Velveteen Rabbit, the children's novel, but velveted rabbit.

Velveting is a Chinese cooking technique used on chicken to ensure it stays moist during the cooking process. I "discovered" it about 14 years ago when I started cooking a lot of Asian food, but I didn't even know it had a name until this summer.

I'd been hunting cottontails, and I'd remembered this recipe for Cantonese Lemon Chicken in The Essential Asian Cookbook. Chicken breast never tasted juicier than it did with this recipe, so I thought it would be great for rabbit, because rabbit also dries out easily. Coincidentally, about a week later when I was reading the August/September issue of Saveur (whose logo, coincidentally, is a rabbit), I discovered the term "velveting."

Velveting is ridiculously simple, and an excellent way to ensure bite-sized pieces of white meat retain their juices - not only for immediate consumption, but after re-heating as well. You can also add any flavor you want - it doesn't have to be Asian.

Here's the essential backbone of "velveting" (there are photos at the end for each stage):

  • 1 pound of meat, cut into bite-sized pieces (I like pieces that are 1/4-inch thick, cutting across the grain, and as long as they need to be)
  • The white of 1 large egg, lightly beaten
  • A little more than 2 tablespoons of liquid (the Asian version calls for 1 tbs. water, 2 tsp. sherry and 2 tsp. soy sauce; in the dish shown here, I used half water and half sauvignon blanc)
  • About 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • Salt to taste
Directions: Put the cornstarch in a small bowl, add water/liquids and stir with a fork to a smooth consistency. Add the lightly whipped egg white and stir. Add this mixture to the meat and let it to sit for 10 minutes. Then cook the meat in small batches in a hot frying pan with as much or as little hot oil as you'd like, adding salt to taste. I let it get nice and browned on one side before flipping it, then stir it around to finish cooking the meat.

Put all the meat back in the pan and add any other ingredients you'd like to use. In the dish shown here, I used chopped garlic, toasted pine nuts and sliced scallions. Cook just long enough for the flavors to blend, stirring constantly. Serve over rice. Or whatever.

One note: When I made the Asian version of this recipe, the 2 teaspoons of soy sauce in the marinade didn't make it salty enough for me, so I added more in cooking. I'm a salt fiend, though, so I recommend you taste it for yourself and add salt to your tastes.

How does velveting work? The starch-protein marinade creates an invisible seal around the meat, trapping moisture without adding any noticeably eggy or starchy taste.

The reason I was so excited about this recipe is that I've found it difficult to cook some wild game in a way that reheats easily so I can take it to work, but velveting really does the trick. I ate velveted rabbit every day last week and the rabbit remained juicy to the end.

The funny thing about this recipe is that the original one I followed used the whole egg, including yolk, which is not part of the traditional velveting process. But 14 years ago I aspired to be very thin, so I used egg whites instead to remove that fat from the recipe. Turns out I'd accidentally made it more authentic.

Try this out next time you've got some game that dries out easily, like cottontail or pheasant breast. I think you'll find it's actually much more effective than wrapping dry meats in bacon, and not much more work at all.

Now, for the photos:

Sliced cottontail backstrap (OK, the rest of my rabbit didn't look this pretty). I slice the meat across the grain about 1/4 inch thick.

The marinade: cornstarch, water, sauvignon blanc and lightly beaten egg whites.

The meat soaking in the marinade in a shallow container. Make sure the marinade coats everything.

The meat, browned just how I like it. I swear it doesn't dry out!

Additional ingredients of your own choosing. Shown here: garlic, toasted pine nuts, sliced scallions.

The finished product. Yum!

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The odd allure of a lousy dove season

A week ago, I was worried that I was going to have a lousy dove season because I hadn't shot skeet much over the summer. I figured by this time - 10 days into the season - I'd be burning through spendy steel shells at a shameful rate.

For some strange reason, it didn't occur to me that my spot might be anything short of epic the way it was last year. I can still smell the best day - hot, dusty, sweaty, doves coming in so relentlessly that I couldn't reload fast enough. Blood, feathers and dirt on my hands. A limit well before the sun went down. That funny feeling: It's too early to leave!

Well, I certainly haven't had to endure that problem this year. But what's really peculiar is that I seem to be enjoying the season just as much.

My first day sucked, by most dove-hunting standards. I went out with friends last Saturday morning and staked out a spot in a shallow, dry ditch. The flight was minimal. My two best opportunities came from behind and the birds were too far away before I saw them. I got distracted by pigeons and kept firing at them, somehow forgetting that pigeons wear body armor and will not succumb to anything less than a shell full of BBs. For me, at least.

I killed one dove that morning, but I never found it in the neatly identical rows of the stiff, foot-high stalks of cut safflower. I'd rather kill nothing at all than kill a bird only to fail to retrieve it. No bueno.

But throughout the whole thing, I found that the rhythm of the day so comforting. As the sky brightened, I re-awakened my long-distance ID skills: Killdeer? Swallow? Dove? Oh yeah, swallows don't land in the field...

Even the methodical search for the lost dove felt good. My eyes had spent the summer looking through camera lenses and staring at images and words on computer screens, but now they knew what to do: Let your focus go limp, sweep a short arc in front of you, left, right, left, right.

It felt so good that I went home cheerful, despite being just eight shells poorer.

The next day, I went back for an evening hunt. The flight wasn't much better, but I planted myself in the sweetest little spot: It was in a corner of the safflower field. There was a little triangle of uncultivated land that housed bee hives, junk, star thistle, blackberries, a fig tree and ...

Prrhhhhhhhhhhhhhdt! Prrhhhhhhhhhhhhhdt! Prrhhhhhhhhhhhhhdt!

... a big covey of quail. I laughed as I punched down a spot in the waist-high weeds, then set up my chair and settled in.

It was a much better spot than the ditch. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see several doves pecking at the dirt in the shade - too far from me, and besides, I would've been shooting toward a road. But after a while, they got up. I wheeled around, raised my gun ...


... I'd never find them if I dropped them in that weedy triangle, so I lowered my gun. But then they curved around.

Bang! Bang! One dropped 10 yards from me at the edge of the triangle. As I approached it, I saw how enormous it was. Gotta be one of those Eurasian collared doves.

I was right. This was my first - a good one to have in the bag because there's no limit on them. They're invasive, and the state would like us to kill as many as possible.

I got two more doves that afternoon. Dropped 'em about ten yards into the safflower field where I had no trouble finding them. But my favorite shot of the day was my last one.

I'd been seeing movement in the field, but when I'd stare to figure out what I was seeing, all I saw was crisp safflower leaves waving in the breeze. A dove came in and I shot once and missed. Couldn't take a second shot because I would've dropped it where I could never retrieve it, but I didn't have time to fuss over that,  because the field exploded. Wave upon wave upon wave of quail came speeding out of the field, flying straight over my head to get back into the triangle.

I laughed and laughed and laughed - at myself. They had completely infiltrated the field in front of me while I was scanning the skies. Good thing they weren't armed - I'd've been dead.

The next afternoon - Labor Day - was even slower. I was wearing my Sport Ears - hearing aids that amplify most sound, but cut off high-decibel sounds like gunshots - and I spent most of the time just listening to sounds around me. The whinny of a horse that sounded so close I was sure he was about to step on me. A guy running with his dog along a distant ditch, yapping so much that he had to be on his cell phone. The liquid burblings of the quail in the triangle. The crunch of ... people? Behind me in the triangle?

Had to be, but I didn't turn around. They were probably scavenging for junk, and I was content to keep scanning the sky in front of me.

I'd fired only one shot so far - suh-wing and a miss! - but just before sunset, a dove came in. Stand, shoot, thump. I marched quickly into the field straight in front of me, but there was no need for speed - he was dead. When I turned around, bird in hand, I saw deep in the weedy triangle two men, alert and upright as prairie dogs, staring at me, bug-eyed. I suppressed a giggle.

Turns out they were the beekeepers. I'd heard them, but I'd kept so still that they'd had no idea I was about 20 feet from them.

"Sorry, didn't mean to startle you!"

Man, I hope they didn't get stung.

I went out again yesterday, this time with Jesse, one of my students who's interested in learning to hunt. It was still slow, but a useful experience. One dove came in, and I rose to shoot, then dropped back down.

"I would've muzzle-blasted you if I shot," I explained. Jesse's an Iraq vet. The last freakin' thing he needs is a muzzle-blasting.

Another came in, and I shot once, then stopped when it arced in a bad direction.

"Why didn't you shoot again?" he asked.

"I would've dropped it in these weeds, and I'd never find it."

Finally one came in perfectly. I shot once and dropped him about 15 yards away at the edge of the triangle. I bolted out of my little weed blind to get him - again, stone dead, no need to rush - and when I turned around, there was Jesse, following me. He wanted to see.

I handed the bird to him - warm, limp, blood dripping from his beak.

"Wow, you shot him in the head!"

That was it. No more birds came in where I could shoot without blasting Jesse or dropping a bird where I couldn't find it, so we just talked as the sun dropped.

With just a few minutes to go, I turned toward the field and saw a cottontail ambling right to left on the little dirt road lining the triangle. Ten yards in front of me.

Cottontail! I'd just eaten the last of my cottontail from summer hunting. I wanted another.

I stood to shoot, but the bunny got that "Oh shit!" look on his face and bolted. I still had a shot, technically, but I would've had to shoot across Jesse to get him, so I sat back down and just laughed.

When the sun dropped below the horizon, we picked up our stuff and went back to the car. I drove Jesse back to his house and showed him how to pluck and clean a bird. Showed him how easy the feathers come off a dove. Had him squeeze the bird's crop so he can see where it stored seed.

I cut off the bird's butt and started pulling stuff out. "This is the gizzard - it grinds seed. Feel how hard it is - it's a really strong muscle."

Jesse squeezed it. Then I handed him the heart. "The cat would love that!"

Turns out his kitten didn't love it, but she was absolutely thrilled with the bird's head, which she batted happily across the porch.

Then I handed Jesse the liver. He'd told me he loved liver. He popped it straight into his mouth. He said it tasted like clotted nosebleed, which, strangely enough, he found likable.

We went inside the house to rinse the bird. It was beautiful, perfectly shot - I'd hit only the head. "Want it?" I said, offering it to him.


It was funny: I went into this season thinking I'd have a huge stockpile of doves by now, that I'd be firing up the grill to eat 'em up so I could go out and hunt more without going over my possession limit. But the way things are going, I won't even have a single day's limit by the end of the day Sunday, which will be my last chance to get out before the season closes.

What I have stockpiled instead, though, is a series of vivid memories that I've been savoring as much as the fleeting ecstasy of grilled dove.

The memories last longer.

And there'll be another chance to fill the freezer next year.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Thursday, September 1, 2011

It's Sept. 1. Do you know where your blogger is?

Today should really be a national holiday. It's the start of dove season in pretty much every state that allows dove hunting, which now includes Iowa, thank you very much.

So, do you wanna know what I'm doing right now?

Just click on over to this month's "Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang" column in Shotgun Life and I'll tell you.

You'll also get to read the story I've never told on this blog: The story of my first dove hunt ever, which went even worse than most of my first hunts have gone. It's a memory I'll cherish forever. You'll see why.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011