"Cheap, fast or good - pick two." This was a pearl of wisdom one of my students shared with me last semester.
He was a photographer with way more professional experience than I have, coming back to school to finish his degree, and we were discussing how to price photo shoots. I have a whole book on pricing photography that didn't say as much as that little six-word phrase. I'm truly blessed to have students who can teach me so much.
Last weekend, I was reminded that this principle - you can't have it all - applies just as perfectly to duck hunting.
A while back, I'd sent a plaintive email to one of my duck hunting buddies, Alison.We hunted with her a lot last season, but this year I'd hunted with her only once, on a sweet diver duck hunt on San Francisco Bay.
"Alison, we miss you! When are you going to come out and play with us again???"
She joined my buddy Charlie and me last weekend at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, where we got the low-down.
Alison used to live in Berkeley, and now lives in San Francisco, which is as far west as you can go around here before hitting ocean. She is a budding duck hunting fiend, but hunting with us - on public land in the Sacramento Valley, well northeast of the Bay Area - required her to get up at 2 or 2:30 a.m. Pretty brutal.
The hunting, though, was good. On the last day of the season last year, Alison was one duck away from getting her first limit ever when the non-hunter she'd brought along as an observer had some sort of allergic reaction that required a hasty departure. Ooooooooh, so close!
This year, Alison decided to splurge a bit, going in with some friends on a leased blind in a Sacramento Valley rice field. This blind was closer to where she lived, but more importantly it gave her two additional benefits:
One, she could always be assured that the blind would be available. On public land, it's a crapshoot, every single hunt day.
And two, she could stroll in just before shoot time, instead of two hours before shoot time, which is the norm for public-land duck hunting here. She'd now bought herself a 4 a.m. wake-up time.
So how had that worked out for her this year?
One spoonie hen. She'd missed some hunt days due to illness and travel, but when she did make it out to her blind she was getting nothing. That one spoonie hen had dropped into the decoys one day, and sat there for half an hour before Alison and her blindmates decided to take that hen out.
Alison returned to Delevan last weekend on literally the only rainy hunt day we've had this season. It was cold and windy. The flight was anemic. Alison's face and hands were bright red when I gave up and left at lunchtime.
But, by God, she and Charlie stuck with it, and she walked out at the end of that day with a full strap of ducks.
By now, dear reader, you must be thinking what an ass I am for writing a whole blog post about poor Alison. That may well be true, but not only did I check with her before writing this - I also freely admit that I did almost the exact same thing that Alison did.
When I started hunting ducks in 2006, Hank and I belonged to a "club" that leased hunting properties from ranches, which meant lots of barley fields where we could hunt pigs, and rice fields where we could hunt ducks. It cost $1,200 a year - not bad.
But it didn't take too long to figure out that we almost always got more ducks at state-run refuges and wildlife areas. I can't remember what it cost to hunt those areas in 2006-07, but a season pass to hunt them this year costs $146.62. It's likely that I'll have used this pass 19 times before the season ends on Sunday, which amounts to $7.72 per hunt.
The question Hank and I asked ourselves was this: Was it more important to sleep in, or bring home more ducks? Within two years, we'd bailed from that club.
Now, you can have an amazing private-land duck hunting experience. I know, because I've been invited to partake of this privilege, where you roll in 30 minutes before shoot time, hop onto an ATV, drive out to a blind you know no one else will have taken, and enjoy 90 minutes of fast-paced, fun and productive hunting.
The first time I hunted a place like that, I was gauche enough to ask how much it'd cost. I was told that the last person to buy into that club paid $125,000 to join, plus an annual fee that helped maintain a gorgeous Disneyland of Ducks. (If you checked out Hank's and my recent video on how to pluck and wax a duck, this was the place where we learned about waxing.)
The last time I hunted a place like this, I kept my damned mouth shut, because I was pretty sure the property was worth way more than would be remotely polite to discuss.
So here's the deal:
You can have good duck hunting that's fast, both in terms of how late you roll in and how quickly you roll out, but you need beaucoup bucks to do it. Those are your premium private clubs.
You can have cheap hunting that's totally awesome, but it's going to require a substantial investment of time and risk. That's your premium public land hunting.
Or you can have cheap(ish) hunting that's fast, but to put it politely, it's really not that good. That's your low-end private land hunting.
This is why I spend the majority of my time hunting crowded national wildlife refuges.
And perhaps it's also why duck hunters - shown below in the "migratory bird" hunting category - are outnumbered by virtually every other kind of hunter.
There ain't no easy button - you've got to want it. Bad.
|Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2006 National Survey (yes, a newer one is coming out soon).|
© Holly A. Heyser 2012