Thursday, October 27, 2011

A strange development: Losing my lust for the hunt

Five or six weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that I never published. It was about being such a ridiculously compulsive hunter that I will hunt all the time, even if the freezer is full. Hank, who has always been more sensible than I, doesn't suffer from such a problem.

At first I had delayed publishing that post because I'd been writing a lot and wanted to space out my posts a bit more. Then something happened: I stopped hunting.

I don't mean stopped stopped, like I'm going vegan or something. I just found myself too busy, too tired, or both. Suddenly that post seemed ridiculous.

It's just been a really difficult semester at school for some reason (well, a lot of reasons, actually), and I feel like I've been hanging on by my fingernails. When it came time to meet Hank in Minnesota a few weeks ago to hunt ruffed grouse, my head was so out of it that the only thing I didn't do last minute was buy a new gun case for the flight. (Great case, by the way - SKB.)

Last weekend was the duck opener here and I waited until the last possible minute to prepare for that too, so I was brushing cobwebs off my gear literally late Friday night.

The story of that hunt is my next column for Shotgun Life, but here's the telling detail I didn't put in that column: After hunting ducks all morning and quail all afternoon with my friends Charlie and Monique, we all went our separate ways. Charlie, as always, kept hunting and immediately started texting me about the birds he was seeing at the spot we hunted that morning.

I should turn around.


I could do it - I don't have to get up early tomorrow.

No. You need rest.

I still have plenty of daylight.

I slowed down a bit.

I could be back at that spot in 10 minutes and hunt with Charlie until sundown...

... but I'm so tired.

I kept going, feeling less of a hunter.

Do they make Viagra to revive your flagging lust for hunting? Because I obviously need it.

Of course, this weekend is going to be different, but only because I have no choice.

Deer hunting in my zone closes at the end of the day Sunday, and I can't live with myself not even trying to get a deer this year. Besides, I can see the bottom of our freezer, and it's freaking me out.

So I'm hitting my friends' property - the scene of my one and only deer kill - Friday afternoon, and again Saturday morning if I don't get lucky on the first try.

The place is filthy with legal bucks. The only question is will I see one, will it be in range, will I have a safe backdrop (yeah, it's the place with marble statues), and can I make the shot. OK, four questions.

Then Sunday is going to be the Big Duck Opener.

My favorite place in the world to hunt - the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge - has been closed for the first week of season because the rice harvest is late this year, and the farmers need as many ducks as possible to stay on Delevan and other Sacramento Valley refuges, rather than feast on their crops.

Saturday is the first hunt day at refuges in that area this year, and on Sunday, my friend Kevin has a reservation. It's opening weekend in the Promised Land. If I can't haul my butt out of bed at 2 a.m. for that, I might as well go vegan. Seriously.

But wait.

What if I get a deer on Saturday? Hank doesn't get home from his Hunt, Gather, Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour until next week - I'm going to have to do all that processing by myself, and then get up stupid early on Sunday...

OMG, I'll be so zonked at work on Monday...

But, hey, it'll be Halloween. Who cares if there's one more zombie on campus?

I think I'm feeling better already.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Hitting bottom: The Stinky Butt Gadwall

I have finally hit bottom.

Yes, as Hank enters the final weeks of his Hunt, Gather, Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour - also known as The Incredibly Long Period When I’ve Had to Cook for Myself – I have found the bottom of our freezer.

I have roasted the succulent mallards and pintails and teal.

I have turned all the delicate cottontails into stirfry. Quite successfully, I might add, with that velveted rabbit recipe.

And I have failed to kill a deer or a pig, which probably has something to do with having been too busy to hunt them.

So what did that leave me?


The Stinky Butt Gadwall.

I can already hear my duck hunting buddy Charlie guffawing, and fellow hunting blogger Ryan Sabalow saying, “Ha! They’re called ‘gagwall’ for a reason!” And to you two, I say shush!

Hank and I have eaten many a gadwall that tasted not just fine, but downright delicious. We ate one for Christmas a couple years ago when a family get-together was canceled due to snow, and it was one of our most memorable duck dinners ever. Yes, in a good way.

But I freely admit that some gadwalls can smell – and taste – like poop. Literally.

I don’t say this because I’ve eaten poop. I have not, unless you count the crap found in the factory- farmed beef and chicken that I used to eat regularly before I started hunting. But I have done some volunteer work banding gadwalls before, and when I did, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife guys warned me that 1) the birds would crap all over me out of fear, and 2) gadwall crap is the most ferociously disgusting crap in the duck world.

They were right on both counts.

Last season, Hank and I killed not one, but two gadwalls whose flesh reeked of that famous poop.

I remember mine distinctly. I was plucking in the garage, and Hank came out, wrinkled his nose, and said, “Ew, it smells like shit in here.”

I hadn’t noticed. (Yes, Tamar, I can smell a ruffed grouse in the woods, but not a stinky duck in my garage.)

I examined the duck I was plucking to see if it had poop on its feathers. It did not.

But when I went into the house and cut the butt off the bird so I could gut it, a foul stench erupted from its body cavity. I think it’s safe to say I would’ve preferred being tear-gassed (something I have experienced before).

What happened next, though, is where I made my mistake. I continued cleaning the bird normally, and we vacuum sealed it, labeled it and stuck it in the freezer. I was assuming that Hank would work his culinary magic on the stinker. Little did I know he would stick me with it.


Last night was when I bottomed out. I needed food to bring to work today, so I rolled up my sleeves and dug in.

Step One: I skinned the duck. And it hurt, because he was a total fattie. Normally a bird that fat, skin on, is something we save for roasting whole. Fatty duck skin is the crack cocaine of wild game cookery.

But fat and skin is where a bird's distinctive flavor resides, and in the case of the Stinky Butt Gadwall, that's no bueno. It felt like sacrilege tossing that skin in the trash, but it had to be done.

Step Two: I cut all the meat off the bones and trimmed all the excess fat I could find. You can't well roast a bird without a skin, and roasting is pretty much all I know how to do with whole ducks.

Step Three: I brought a handful of the meat up to my face and took a deep whiff.

Mmmmmmmm. Shit.

Doh! I would have to take drastic measures: brining overnight.

Brining can be a great way to add moisture and flavor to meat, but it can also help draw out any off flavors. I combined 2 cups of water with 1/8 cup of salt (for the math-impaired, that's a 16:1 ratio), boiled it, let it cool, then poured it over the gadwall meat, which I'd cut into bite-sized pieces.

Hank's instructions for brining off-flavored birds called for a four- to eight-hour soak. It ended up being more like ten by the time I got up this morning, had a cup of coffee and returned to preparing my duck.

Step Four: I melted some lard in a cast-iron pan (I wasn't going to forgo fat entirely), browned the duck bits briefly, tossed some minced garlic on them, then added a couple tablespoons of some mole poblano de guajalote I happened to have on hand. (The recipe for mole is elaborate, so when I make it, I make a lot and freeze it.).

Step Five: At school today, I whipped up some rice in my single-serving rice cooker, threw on about half a cup of the duck in mole, and dug in.

And ya know what? It was actually good.

OK, that's not entirely true. I'd brined the duck for way, way too long, so it was too salty. When I cook the last remaining Stinky Butt Gadwall - remember, we killed two last year, and Hank left both for me - I'll make sure I brine it for no more than four hours.

But there was no hint of this duck's eponymous stench, and that was what mattered. I don't think I even needed something as strong as mole to mask it. It was gone.


I feel like I've passed a test, like I've graduated to a new level of culinary self-sufficiency, like I've found a get-out-of-jail-free card that I can use anytime I find myself behind bars with a smelly duck.

I am no longer afraid.

But, as I told my friend Charlie last night, I might start being a little more selective with the ducks I shoot this year.

OK, Charlie and Ryan. You can laugh now.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Hunting ruffed grouse: It's insane. Therefore I like it.

© Holly A. Heyser
The first time I ever saw a ruffed grouse flush - which was, oh, all of three days ago now - I was dumbfounded.

I was walking through Minnesota's Northwoods with Hank and our friend Chris and I heard that prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt off to my left. My bird. The left side of the trail was mine.

My head whipped to the left and ... wait, how the hell was I supposed to shoot at that thing? The woods were so thick with young aspens that it would've been like shooting through a bar code. Seriously, WTF?

The bird angled off to the right. Hank, who was running point, took a shot without hesitation, but the bird zipped away unharmed.

So, wait, seriously, I'm supposed to shoot through that? Hank and Chris confirmed that this is what I was supposed to do. I spent the next few hours trying to wrap my mind around this as we tromped through the woods uninterrupted by fowl, but pleased to soak up the sun on an unusually warm Minnesota autumn day.

Much later as we neared sunset, another grouse gave me a second chance. I raised my gun and began swinging, but as the bird's silhouette kept disappearing and reappearing through the dense woods, my gut kept telling me to stop. Take clear shots. Don't drop a bird where you won't be able to see it go down.

I think I shouldered and lowered my gun three times, which, it turns out, is not effective when you're trying to kill grouse. The bird was gone. Another apparently perfect shot wasted.

"Safety on?" Hank asked.

I may have simply growled in response. I'd had a crazy week at school, I'd taken a red-eye to Minneapolis on Friday night, and I might've gotten four hours of sleep between two flights and the early-morning drive to the Northwoods, where we had started hunting almost immediately. I was tired. I was confused.I had a headache. I was done for the day.

I walked back to the car in frustration, and felt no better when I heard the boom of Chris's 12 gauge and clear signals that he'd gotten a bird.

A shower, beer and burgers that night did a lot to adjust my attitude, and by the next morning I was determined to shoot fast no matter what.

The first area we tried was very slow - for everyone in the woods apparently, because we didn't hear many gunshots at all. So we piled into Chris's truck to look for someplace new. A guy we met at a cafe confirmed what we'd already learned - that grouse had been sparse in that area - but he had a suggestion for another place to try, and off we went.

We picked a trail, parked the truck and started walking, and almost immediately a woodcock flushed in front of Hank and me.

Woodcock! We'd never gotten one before. And we wouldn't get this one, because Hank and I both missed. But soon after that, another one flushed in front of Chris.

Boom! Boom!

The bird arced toward Hank and me, almost at treetop level. At last, I didn't need to shoot through the bar code!

Boom! Boom!

© Hank Shaw
He went down on my second shot, dropped where I had no trouble finding him, and there we had it. Neither Hank nor I had ever killed a woodcock - we don't see them in California - but a friend had sent us two earlier this year, and Hank loved cooking them.

This was auspicious. Finally, some action!

We continued down a trail with Chris and his amazingly durable 13-year-old black Lab, Finn, plowing through the woods, hoping to flush a bird in our direction. A grouse flushed right in front of Chris, and he got it. Excellent!

We kept going down that path, and we came to a spot where ... I smelled ... bird.

My sense of smell in civilization is pretty weak, but in the field, I can often smell game. Yes, I know it's crazy.

"I smell a bird," I said to Hank, and not ten seconds later, a grouse flushed in the woods on my right, heading straight away. Without thinking, I overrode my instincts, fired a shot through the bar code and lowered my gun when I lost sight of the bird.

I was disappointed, but glad that I'd finally made a shot on a grouse.

"I don't think I got it," I told Hank, "but I'm going to go in there and check."

I dove into the woods, plowing through saplings, zigzagging in the general direction of the bird, and I'll be damned if he wasn't lying on the forest floor, dead.

© Hank Shaw

I picked him up, which awakened his nerves and he began flapping vigorously, making that prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt sound.

"Do you need the dog?" Chris yelled.

"Nope, I've got him!" I yelled back.

My first ruffed grouse! Thank God I'd looked for him.

And wow, I don't say this often, but I was incredibly proud that I had forced myself to take a shot when my instincts were screaming NO! If It didn't matter if I got nothing else on this trip: I had accomplished something new.

We hunted the rest of that section of the woods, and while Hank and I didn't get any more shooting in, Chris kept bringing down woodcock, so we were feeling pretty good. We took a break for a nutritious meal of Cheez-Its and Twizzlers, and Hank decided he was done for the day - he was halfway through with the fall leg of his Hunt, Gather Cook Culinary Mayhem Tour, and he was exhausted.

Chris looked at me. "You wanna keep going?"

"Hell yes!"

And that's when it got good.

Chris and I found a promising section of the woods and made our way to a boggy edge. A grouse flushed in front of Chris.

Swing and a miss!

We followed where that one had appeared to land, and before we could get to that spot, another one flushed in front of Chris.


Another miss. But a few minutes later there was yet another flush in front of Chris.


Hit or miss? We couldn't tell, so we searched the spot where we thought the bird would've landed and found nothing.

We split up again and prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt! One flushed in front of me, rising high in the trees. Raise gun, swing, acquire target, pull trigger...


... down.

I started hustling down the hill to that spot, saplings slapping me in the face. Almost immediately, there it was again: prrrrrrhhhhhhdddddt! Off to my right, heading away. But I didn't even look. Gotta retrieved the downed bird first.

When I got to the spot where I thought my bird had landed, there he was. My shot had just broken a wing, though, so he was running. Chris helped me corner him at a tree trunk, and I quickly helicoptered him. It was over.

At that point, I'd learned enough to know that this was a spectacular occurrence, because all those flushes took place within about 20 minutes. The Holy Grail, Chris told me, was eight flushes per hour.

We'd told Hank that we'd just be gone for half an hour, but Chris and I were electrified by the sudden change in fortune. Hardly anyone else in our vicinity was shooting. We kept going. Across the dirt road to another section of woods, then across another to a border of woods that surrounded a lake.

That's where it got brutal. Beavers had been busy, so big logs criss-crossed the woods, and dense aspen saplings slapped my face and tore at my hands every inch of the way. We hadn't flushed a single bird since we'd left the Holy Grail spot. If a bird did flush, I have no idea what I would've done, because I didn't have room to shoulder my gun, much less swing it.

When we emerged from the woods at a road, I gave in.

"I'm done," I told Chris. "Exhausted."

He was going to push through one more patch of woods. OK, maybe two.

Now here's what I haven't told you about Chris: He is the reason I hunt. When Hank and I lived in Minnesota and worked at the St. Paul Pioneer Press, Chris was a friend of ours there. He was also the newspaper's hunting and fishing writer, and he is the one who inspired Hank to start hunting. Hank, of course, inspired me, so without Chris, this blog, and the new life I love, would not exist.

This was my first chance to hunt with Chris, and to be perfectly honest, it was really important to me to shoot well. I wanted him to be proud of the little monster he'd helped create. I didn't want to look like an amateur, especially with five years of hunting under my belt. He's the closest thing I have to a hunting dad (though he's actually just a year older than I am).

While I couldn't keep charging through the woods as long as Chris could, I was pretty sure I'd acquitted myself well. I'd survived on Cheez-Its, Twizzlers and weak country market coffee. (OK, Chris had brought nice sandwiches too, but it sounds cooler to say I survived on Twizzlers and Cheez-Its.) I'd overcome my aversion to shooting through trees. I'd fired five shots at four birds and had three in the bag. And between the three of us, we were bringing four grouse and five woodcock back to Chris's place. I felt good.

As I watch Chris's blaze orange outline slip into the woods, I smiled, and headed back to the truck where Hank was waiting. As I approached, would you believe a grouse emerged from the woods on the right side of the road and zipped into the woods on the left?

Yeah, seriously.

Caught off guard, I didn't shoot, and by the time I woke up and realized I should be shooting, the bird had entered the woods again. Too high, too far. I was sorely tempted to chase it, but it was no where near the ground when I'd last seen it. It could've been anywhere. But there was still daylight...

Hank and I laughed. It was OK not to get that bird. We'd had a great hunt with the guy who'd gotten us into hunting. I'd discovered a new kind of hunting that I loved - rigorous, exciting and counterintuitive. I was a convert. That was enough.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hunting television, modern cavemen and honest drama

Me, age 25
I was watching hunting TV the other night and becoming increasingly disgruntled.

The show - its name is irrelevant because it's one of many like this - had this incredibly artificial sense of drama. Every time the host opened his mouth, he sounded like he was in a life-or-death situation. This is ridiculous, because, let's face it: Hunting is life-or-death far more for the animals we hunt than it is for ourselves.

So, I grabbed the remote and started shopping around, and I soon found that the final installment of the Discovery Channel's "I, Caveman" was on. I'd never watched the show, but the promo said it involved the final hunt of a group of modern people living the Paleolithic life for 10 days, so I was on it.

My timing was impeccable - I got there just in time for the disclaimer: "This program contains scenes that may be disturbing to some people."

Phhddt. Grow up, people, I thought.

The group of made-for-TV cavepeople was hunting elk with atlatls - spear throwers - and they had just gotten close to the herd. The first one hurled his weapon and missed. Same for the second. The elk looked perplexed.

Then the third guy - an actual bowhunter back in real life - hurled his weapon and tagged a big bull in the neck.

And this is where the show won my respect.

I don't know how much time had elapsed, but the group of hunters approached the elk, which was on the ground, still alive, breathing with great labor. The hunters stood a few feet away and hurled their atlatls into his chest to finish him off. One of the hunters - a woman - sobbed as she did this. That, of course, brought me to tears. What an intense and terrible moment.

That's when it struck me: The hunting show I'd been watching had manufactured drama where there was little or none. But this non-hunting reality TV show had captured some of the most intense drama we encounter in hunting: that horrible moment where you come face-to-face with your prey before it's dead. It was deeply honest.

What's wrong with this picture?

Now, I can already anticipate the objection: We're all told to just let the animal die, to avoid approaching it while it's still alive. What these nouveau-paleos were doing broke that rule in a big way, and had that bull jumped up, they could've been killed. I'm hoping that the bowhunter helped call the shots on that off-camera.

Even taking that rule into account, though, you and I know damn well that the hunt-o-vision cameras capture some of these moments too. And just about all of them end up on the cutting room floor.

I think one reason for this is that we hunters are afraid to show the realities of hunting that cause our own hearts to skip a beat. If we say how awful these moments can be, aren't we just handing ammunition to the enemy?

The answer to that question, in my opinion, is no. The enemy already knows about these moments. Anti-hunters have already produced and distributed painful videos of not-quite-mortally-wounded animals. The fact that they will put that reality out there while we hide it actually hurts our cause. It makes us look dishonest.

Does this mean I want to turn on a hunting channel filled with these coup de grace moments? No, and frankly, I don't want my hunting to be filled with these moments either. They suck.

I just wish hunting TV would trade a little of its manufactured drama for a little of the reality we all know is out there.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The late-night life of a hunter: Dreaming of death

I was talking to a few of my students the other day and when I told them I dream of death as often as once a week, they all looked at me funny.

I'm not sure why it would surprise anyone: I hunt. I write about hunting in a way that deeply examines why I hunt and how I justify and/or rationalize killing. And I have always had really vivid dreams.

Hank, who rarely remembers his dreams, is often blown away when I wake up and tell him where my mind has been. I dream crazy stuff.

Now, I write about this topic with some trepidation, because I know somewhere out there is a brainwashed PETA activist who's ready to tell me that dreaming of death is my subconscious's way of expressing guilt for my crimes against animals.

And I have wondered about that myself, particularly when the dream includes seeing my beloved cat Giblet - who is, at this second, dozing on my desk to be near me - dead and skinned. No getting around it: That's a pretty unpleasant dream.

Or maybe it's just a reminder that we all die eventually, and that we're all made of meat.

Most of my death dreams involve hunting. The more I'm hunting while I'm awake, the more I hunt in my dreams. While sleeping the other day, I snatched a Eurasian collared dove out of the sky, then held it in my hands and tried to figure out what next, given that - oopsie! - dove season was over, not to mention snatching from the sky is NOT a legal method of take for doves. (I have a deep-seated fear of breaking rules.)

Sometimes my death dreams seem really random. One of my more memorable ones recently involved me simultaneously saving some rats and killing others. (I kill animals for food, but I will go to ridiculous lengths to save a spider from getting washed down the bathtub drain. Hey, I don't eat spiders; nor do I think they should die just because humans invented big enameled tubs that bugs can't easily get out of.)

Joel Shangle
The most intense death dream I've had in a long, long time happened this summer. Hank and I were on the road, up in Seattle for his book tour events there. We were exhausted, and we had to get up really early so we could go be on Joel Shangle's Northwest Wild Country radio show.

Before I go any further, I have to apologize to my mother, who might find this disturbing.

So, in this dream, I was going to be executed. I'm not sure what I'd done to deserve the death penalty, but that was irrelevant because I was going to die.

Here's the weird part: I was not remotely upset that I was going to die.

But I was absolutely freaking out because the method of execution was going to entail eight minutes of intense pain. I was shrieking for my mother. "MOM! MOM!! MOOOOMMMM!!!" That's something I probably haven't done, awake or asleep, for a good 40 years.

The last thing that happened in the dream was that Hank came to me, touched me on the shoulder and told me that the courts were intervening and that I would not be executed by the eight-minutes-of-pain method - they were going to come up with something else. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and woke up. Hank was touching my shoulder, telling me it was 5 a.m., time to get up.

So where, you might ask, does such a dream come from? As with all dreams, I can pick out bits and pieces from all over the waking world, evidence that my brain is processing lots of stuff.

Eight minutes of pain? My greatest concern when hunting. I hate it when I don't make a quick clean kill. (And like most humans, I can whip myself into a frothy mess anticipating pain.)

Not being concerned about the fact that I was going to be killed? Hunting has made me reflect on death a lot, and it has helped me understand that I probably won't be able to choose the time, method and reason for my death: I could be eaten by a mountain lion, or hit by a bus, or my heart could simply stop one day after a long and happy life.

Execution? Yeah, I've covered those. I witnessed one when I was a reporter in Virginia, and it isn't what you'd expect at all. They don't head for the lethal-injection gurney looking defiant and spitting profanities; they just look small and scared. Like they want their mommies.

The irony here? I was aware of it even in my dream: I think California's death penalty is a joke, because the appeals process is endless. Far, far more death-row inmates die of natural causes than get executed here. And there I was in my dream, appealing to the courts. Tsk tsk tsk. The hypocrisies that I loathe the most are my own.

If there are any professional dream interpreters reading this, though, you're probably wondering when I'll get to the obvious: In dreams, death is a symbol of major change that you're trying to adjust to. Like ... your boyfriend writing a book, going on book tour and appearing in newspapers, magazines, radio shows and TV shows all over the country.

Voila! Dream demystified.

I know. You're probably looking at the screen now the way Hank looked at me when I told him about that dream. It's OK. No need to call a doctor.

But, seriously. At the risk of incurring deafening silence: Am I the only hunter (or farmer) out there who dreams often of death? Or am I just the only one crazy enough to write about it?

© Holly A. Heyser 2011