Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book review: 'The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance'

I know a lot of what Tovar Cerulli has dubbed "adult-onset hunters." Northern California is full of people who are looking to divest themselves of everything that is wrong with the industrial food complex, and while some go vegetarian and others go local, there's a third group that's turning to hunting.

That said, I don't think any of our stories holds a candle to Tovar's tale, which we've been reading in bits and pieces on his blog for the past two years, and which we now see in its entirety in his new book, "The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance."

Taking up hunting when you didn't grow up doing it is a leap for anyone, but Tovar has leaped the furthest of all, going from veganism to hunting, a few small bites at a time.

One important note: If you're a frequent reader of Tovar's blog, don't skip this book thinking you've read it all. "The Mindful Carnivore" is not a retread of blog posts; it is an eloquent and sometimes suspenseful account of his quest to become a mindful eater.

Tovar's tale begins in the purest of places: a childhood in which he feasts without qualms on the world around him, whether it's berries he picks, frogs he catches by hand or trout he catches with hooks. The older he gets, though, the more doubt and conscience creep in. He stops fishing. He stops eating meat. And in the ultimate attempt to feed himself without doing harm to fellow sentient creatures, he goes vegan. Read more...
Even in veganism, though, he finds there is no way to eliminate harm to animals. Soybean farmers shoot deer in droves to save their crops. The local organic farmer from whom he buys produce is constantly smoke-bombing woodchuck burrows. And even Tovar finds himself crushing beetles that prey on his vegetable garden.

When health concerns prompt Tovar and his wife Cath to reintroduce some animal products to their diet, they start slowly: local, organic yogurt; eggs from cage-free hens. He is rewarded with energy, vitality and a diminishment of allergies. He could have stopped there, but he brings fish and chicken back into his life. Finally, he begins contemplating what was heretofore unimaginable: hunting.

Tovar's transformation is not one of those mind-boggling 180s, like going from atheism to Catholicism in a week. He never loses the immense compassion and respect for animals that drove him to veganism in the first place. This means his process of becoming a hunter is filled with fear and uncertainty. Fear that he'll shoot poorly and maim an animal, becoming the kind of hunter he'd always loathed. Uncertainty about whether what he's doing is the right thing.

Reading Tovar's book, I'm pretty sure Tovar and I are very different kinds of hunters.

I do share his fear of merely maiming animals with poor shots, and his belief that hunting is a kinder way to acquire meat than industrial farming. But I find it easier to accept some of hunting's downsides, particularly the wounding rate (as opposed to clean kills and clean misses) with bird hunting.

I'm also quite unabashed about the joy that hunting brings to me. While I take animal deaths seriously - I often apologize to, and thank, the animals I kill - that doesn't stop me from shouting with excitement when I am successful. And I freely admit that hunting tickles my synapses in a way that is utterly addictive.

Tovar's experience, on the other hand, will be unrecognizable to many hunters because there is, for him, no joy in the successful hunt - only the feeling that he is approaching his need for protein in the most honest and responsible way he can.

Reflecting on his first deer kill, Tovar writes, "Hunting ... would not put me on a new high road to moral certainty. If this first experience of killing a deer was any indication, it would bring me face-to-face with ambiguity every time. Perhaps that was how it ought to be."

I believe that's a message that will resonate with both vegetarians and non-hunting omnivores who are uneasy with the ways in which industrial farming has trivialized the lives and deaths of the animals we eat and use. Even if they don't choose to follow the path Tovar has taken, I think they'll be inclined to respect it.

It's also a message that unabashed hunting fiends like myself would do well to remember if we'd like to earn the same kind of respect.

POSTSCRIPT: If you'd like to read other reviews of "The Mindful Carnivore," click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Scenes from the Marsh: Ladies, you're gonna love this

Me, with short hair in 2010
It was the second-to-last day of duck season, and I was done. I'd been hunting all day long, I was exhausted, and my friend Alison and I had just finished the quarter-mile slog through the marsh to get back to the parking lot, working up a fresh sweat in our already-damp waders.

I pulled my decoy boat up the ramp and grabbed two items that I'd take to my car immediately: my gun, and my strap of ducks. The rest could wait until I'd changed into dry clothes.

Not far from the ramp, a man was standing with his son, who looked to be maybe 11 years old or so. The dad was watching me.

"How'd you do?" he asked.

"Well, it took all day, but I finally got my limit," I said, lifting my strap. It was bursting with drake spoonies - five, the most I'd ever gotten in one hunt - and I'd rounded it out to seven with a drake gadwall and a hen ruddy.

"Really?!?" he said.

Wait for it now...
"...Two girls!?!"

Oh, yes he did.

Dead silence.

"Yeah!" I responded.

"Hell, we were surprised too, because having vajayjays makes it so freakin' hard to kill ducks. I mean, who knew that such a low-profile body part could cause so much trouble?

"And boobs! Dear God, the boobs! Count your blessings, man," I told him, shaking my head. "Boobs are the worst - all that jiggling really flares the ducks."

Dead silence.

... OK, that's not what I said. Let me start over again:

"Two girls!?!"

Dead silence.

"Hey pal," I said. "I'm not a girl. I'm a woman, old enough to be your brat's grandma. And I'm not some two-bit poser pretending to like hunting to get attention. I'm a hunter. I'm dead serious. And frankly, I'm menopausal, so if I were you, I'd shut the f*** up and get out of my way."

Dead silence.

... OK, OK, I didn't really say that either. Let's try this again:

"Two girls!?!"

Dead silence.

"Yeah," I said.

"How'd you do?"

"Oh, we're not hunting today," he said. "My son got the No. 2 draw for the junior hunt next weekend. We've never been here before. Where would you recommend we go?"

I told him what the hunting was like where I'd come from - free roam, the Wild West of the refuge - and told him my next favorite spots on the refuge, places you go if you don't want to compete with other hunters for the best spot.

"Yeah, that's what that guy over there said, too," he said, motioning to another hunter in the parking lot.

"Well, good luck next weekend," I said.


Truth is, while it was a ridiculous question - "Two girls!?!" - I couldn't bring myself to feel remotely indignant.  The only thing I had to suppress was my laughter.

And to be completely honest, it's not an empty gesture when I carry that strap of ducks from water's edge to my car. When I do that, I am saying to any stranger who wants to know, "Yeah, I can kill ducks," because I know there actually are people out there who find that surprising.

Hell, sometimes I find it surprising, but not because of my gender. My surprise stems from a lifetime of athletic inadequacy and a crushing lack of confidence.

So, I can't well display that strap of bravado and take offense when someone rises to the bait, right?

The truth is, this dad was probably just another duck hunter who'd never met a female duck hunter before, and that's not his fault.

Let's just hope his son grows up thinking of women like me as just another part of the hunting landscape. That'd be good enough for me.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

Scenes from the Marsh: The Shot

If you follow this blog, or my Twitter feed or any other medium I use to communicate, you know I shot like absolute crap for most of this duck season. My confidence in shreds, there were days I left the marsh early because I just couldn't take the epic suckage, and days I stayed to the end, only to be rewarded with more bad shooting right up until sunset.

But for the last two weekends of the season, I rallied. I finally started shooting like I had during the previous season. Relief coursed through my veins. It was intoxicating. And it made me shoot even better.

On the last day of the season, I made what had to be the best shot of my life. Read more...
Closing day was slow from the first minute of shoot time. In sunny and windless skies, the birds just weren't moving around much. The ducks were tired. The hunters were tired. We were all ready for it to be over.

On days like that, we tend to gather periodically in our tule patches: We grab snacks, take drinks of our sodas and yak casually.

This is, of course, precisely when ducks strike.

So I was standing there around noon, talking to Monique and Charlie, my gun resting on my little decoy boat, when out of the corner of my eye, I caught it: a duck barreling in from the south, low and already close enough to shoot.

Normally when ducks are coming in, we whisper to each other: "Single from the west, high." "Five from the east, low." This gets everyone's eyes on the birds so we can be ready if they come our way.

But with this duck, there was no time for that. I grabbed my gun, wheeled back to face south, raised my gun - out of time, out of time, out of time - and pulled the trigger. The butt was a good six inches from my left shoulder. The comb was nowhere near my face.


That duck dropped, stone dead.

"OHMYGODDIDYOUSEETHAT?!?!?!?" I shouted to, oh, everyone in the marsh.

I had to plow through 15 yards of thick mush grass to get to her, but there was no rush. She was very obviously dead, floating on the water, twitching in the way only dead animals twitch.

I exclaimed again: "Did you see that? Did you see that?" But I don't think anyone actually saw the shot, because they didn't have time even to see the bird, much less watch me shoot from the hip. (OK, from the low chest, but still.)

Now, I have taken shots like that - with an unmounted gun - many, many times. When you least expect it, ducks will come out of nowhere. Usually, if you even get a chance to fire a shot, you miss by a mile, and everyone has a good laugh.

But this? Wow.

That duck - a hen spoonie - was my fifth duck of the day. My last duck of the day. My last duck of the season. And even though I'd really hoped to finish the season with a limit of seven ducks - I'd gotten seven the day before - I was perfectly satisfied to end my season on that note.

I still can't say for sure why I shot so badly for most of the season. I'm just glad that I don't have to go through the next nine months wondering what the hell's wrong with me.

And just for insurance, I'm going to get my ass to the shooting range a lot more this year. I've got to ride this wave of confidence while it lasts.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guns, ammo and Google - an op-ed in the Mercury News

I don't make a habit of blogging about everything I get published in newspapers and magazines, but I thought this one would be of special interest to hunters and hunting bloggers/website operators.

It's an uphill battle convincing folks that there are legitimate uses for guns and ammo, but it's one very much worth fighting.

If you'd like to comment, I hope you'll comment on the Merc's site. I mean, you're welcome to comment here, but I think we really need to reach a wider audience on this issue.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to choose a shotgun for hunting

Me and Sarah Connor in 2010
One of the hard things about taking up hunting with with few role models in your life is that you have to make a really important purchasing decision  - buying your gun - with almost no frame of reference.

Now, I love my shotgun, a Beretta 3901 I call Sarah Connor. When I am on, I can make some pretty badass shots - one will be the subject of my next Scene from the Marsh.

But if I had to do it all over again, would this be the gun I'd buy? Hmmmmmmmm ... probably not.

That painful lack of fidelity to my firearm is the subject of my latest "Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang" column in Shotgun Life. What I want to do here, though, is provide a framework for new hunters like @Ashley_English, who inspired this post with a tweet last month: "Myself & several other ladies want to hunt & all need guns. Suggestions?"

First question: What kind of hunting do you want to do?

Big game: You should probably get a rifle, unless you live or hunt in places where you must hunt with shotguns. (Shotguns have a shorter effective range, which can be a good thing if you're hunting in fairly dense woods; if you hunt wide-open spaces like we have in the West, get a rifle.)

Small game: You should probably get a shotgun, which is good for fast-moving targets like rabbits, though you can also hunt small game with a .22 rifle.

Birds: Definitely get a shotgun.

Yes, experts, I know you can use falcons or archery to get small game and birds, but we're talking about guns here.

I'm going to focus on shotguns, because that's what I use for 99 percent of my hunting, and I haven't had the kind of buyer's remorse with my rifle (Savage .270) as I have with my shotgun. Besides, did you notice that you can use a shotgun for all three types of hunting listed above?

Next question: What kind of shotgun - pump, autoloader or double?

There are a thousand ways to answer this question, but I've come up with a little test that could provide a solid starting point for your decision. Make a score sheet like the one shown here. Answer the questions below it, and put a "1" in the appropriate column(s), as directed. The column with the highest total might just be your true love.

BUDGET: What can you afford? Let's start with the assumption that you want a quality gun, because I strongly recommend that you buy the best gun you can afford. With quality manufacturers, you'll find the pump is the cheapest (<$600), autoloader is in the middle ($1,000-$2,000), and the double gun - over-and-under or side-by-side - is the spendiest (>$2,000). Score one for the price range of your choice/preference. Amounts may vary, but the price hierarchy should hold.

DURABILITY: Are you the kind of person who has wood floors and keeps them unscratched and immaculately polished? Do you waterproof your deck every year? You'll probably do well with a beautiful engraved double gun. Do you constantly leave garden implements in the rain to rust? Get a pump. Somewhere in between? Score one for the autoloader.

PRESTIGE: Do you enjoy the look and feel of things that are classic, traditional and elegant? Double gun. Is power and speed more important? Autoloader. Couldn't give a rat's ass what people think of the gun you're carrying? Pump.

EASE OF CLEANING: Do you secretly enjoy things that are complicated to take apart and clean? Autoloader. Are you more likely to keep your gun clean if it takes very little time to clean it? Score one each for the double gun and pump.

VOLUNTARY LIMITS. Do you like imposing voluntary limits on yourself to keep things challenging? Score one for the double gun, because it fires only two shots before reloading. Do you want to shoot as much as is legally possible? Score one each for the autoloader and the pump, which can legally fire three shots at game before reloading.

SPAZ FACTOR: If you are methodical and take your time, score one each for the double and the auto loader. If you're a spaz who needs to be restrained a bit for your own good, score one for the pump - having to work that pump to chamber a new round can slow you down in a good way.

RECOIL: How big of a deal is recoil? Not worried about it? Score one each for double gun and the pump. Want maximum recoil protection? Score one for the autoloader.

* * *

The reason I devised this test is that if I had asked myself these questions, I would've made a better-informed decision about what type of shotgun to purchase. The key factors for me:

Rough on your gear: I actually take pretty good care of my gear, but I hunt primarily ducks, and that means I'm around a lot of water - not just what I'm hunting in, but what's coming down from the sky. While the autoloader is a popular choice among duck hunters, you've got to take really good care of it after you've been out in stormy conditions. I've always followed Beretta's care instructions with my autoloader, but it never gave me this important piece of advice: After exposing your gun to a lot of water, store it muzzle down with the breach bolt open. I did the opposite, which allowed rust to form in an impossible-to-reach place, causing my gun to jam frequently. (My gunsmith was able to fix it, thankfully.)

Spaz: My buddy Charlie says one of the things he loves about the pump is that he has to manually chamber each round using the pump (my autoloader chambers shells for me). Having to chamber manually slows him down just a bit, giving him time to reset himself a bit if that first shot didn't connect.

Prestige: I'm in the "don't give a rat's ass" column. My gun is a tool, not a status symbol. I feel the same way about my car. (But hey, if you've got the money and love to indulge in really beautiful tools, go for it.)

Considering these factors, as well as price and ease of cleaning, I now wish I'd gotten a pump. But I'm probably going to keep Sarah Connor as long as she keeps killing ducks for me - no reason to throw out a gun that's working.

Final question: What gauge?

12 gauge: Hands down, the 12 gauge is the most popular gauge for duck hunters. It's a big shell that puts a lot of shot in the air, which is a good thing when you're shooting at fast and wily birds.

The downside is that gauge corresponds, to a certain extent, to gun size, so if you're small in stature, you may want a smaller gun so you're lifting less weight every time you shoot. But be aware: The heavier the gun, the less recoil you'll feel, so you do have a price to pay for a lighter gun.

I started with a 20 gauge, and while you can find waterfowl shot for it, and you can kill ducks with it, I'm a lot happier with the 12 gauge. I would advise those interested primarily in duck hunting to go with the 12 gauge if it doesn't feel unbearably heavy.

20 gauge: There is a bit of a prestige factor to shooting ducks with a 20 gauge because it requires you to be a better shot. There are actually some clubs that require hunters to shoot 20 gauge or smaller to improve the odds for the ducks. Yeah, I'm not interested in that.

The 20 gauge is a lot more popular for upland bird hunting, though, and if you're putting in a couple miles of walking, carrying less weight might be really important to you. Personally, I have no problem lugging big ole 12 gauge Sarah Connor on a walking-intensive hunt.

Sub-gauges: 12 and 20 are standard, but there is also the 10 gauge, the 16 gauge, the 28 gauge, and the .410 - the only shotgun measured in caliber instead of gauge. I've shot a .410, but not a 16 or 28, so I have little experience with them. If you're interested in them, though, prepare to pay more for shot, and/or to rely on mail order. You probably won't find ammo for these guns at Walmart.

Last advice

Keep in mind that what I've devised here is a simplistic guide that doesn't take into account the myriad differences between guns within the type and size categories I've listed. Use this as a starting point to help you consider your priorities, and when you're ready to make your purchase, do the following:

1) Choose a gun store with knowledgeable staff, such as Cabelas, Sportsman's Warehouse, Gander Mountain, Bass Pro and any number of small local stores dedicated to hunters and anglers. If you go to multi-purpose stores like Big 5 or Walmart, you may not get that same depth of knowledge from behind the counter.

2) Discuss your priorities with the person at the gun counter so he or she can tell you about various features within each class of gun. Make sure to tell him or her if you're left-handed or left-eye dominant, which means you might want to shoot left-handed. Most shotguns can be altered for left-handed shooting, but some can't.

3) Try on guns like you try on shoes - check them for fit and comfort. Shoulder them, put your cheek on the stock, put your hands on the grip and fore end, swing the gun across the line of taxidermied animals that likely hang above the gun counter. Some guns will feel better than others when you do this.

If you are right-handed, 5-10 and 185 pounds, you're in luck - you're the person most shotguns are made for. If you're not, you may need to have a gunsmith alter your gun's fit. And if you're tiny, you might want to consider a children's model.

4) If you don't feel the person behind the counter is taking you seriously or interested in helping you make a good decision, walk away and try another store. The purchase of a firearm is a big deal, and you need to be comfortable with it. Besides, anyone who makes you feel stupid or unappreciated does not deserve your money.

Got questions or suggestions? Just leave a comment below.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Scenes from the Marsh: Oopsiecoot

My marsh withdrawals continue, and I keep clinging to memories, knowing the next duck season is now nine months away.

And the Oopsiecoot is a good one.

It's appropriate that my last Scene from the Marsh was about Charlie's awesome sniper - er - ghillie suit. We've been having a little debate in the comments on that post about the effectiveness of ghillies, and the Oopsiecoot is Exhibit No. 1 in my case.

It was the second-to-last day of season - aka, Saturday - and we were hunting a spot we'd never been in before because all our good spots were taken.

My usual hunting peeps spread out: Charlie and Alison in one patch, me and Hank in another, Don in the next one, his nephew in one farther west of us. Things were fairly slow, but every time someone got up and walked around, it would stir up the coots, and they'd go looking for new spots to hang out from an altitude of, oh, 5 feet over the marsh.

Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Now, there's nothing unusual about coots flying near hunters - most hunters here won't shoot them on purpose. Hell, even Hank and I don't shoot them often, and Hank knows how to prepare them.

But when we're wearing our ghillies, the coots come really close.

I watched one approaching our tule patch Saturday and it quickly became clear that bird was going to come right over us, oblivious to our presence. This happens a LOT when we wear our ghillies.

When it got right between Hank and me, literally a foot and a half over the tules, I shouted, "BOO!" And just as the word was leaving my lips, Hank reached up, and his hand got literally within a foot of that coot.

That bird came UNGLUED, wings, legs and crazy white beak flailing in all directions. We just laughed and laughed and laughed.

This is what we love about the marsh - the comedy that never makes it into all-too-serious hunting TV.

When Hank and I were talking about it later, he reminded me of a story Charlie had told me, and had told Hank that day: Charlie had a duck come over him like that one day, really low. I think it was a wigeon or a gadwall - Charlie will correct me here.

When he reached up to startle that duck, it screamed.

If you know anything about ducks, you know a scream is not really part of their vocabulary. Wish I could've been there for that one.

Does this make us all sadistic bastards? It's possible. But I freely confess that I think it's just as funny to startle humans this way. I can only hope that the ducks laugh as hard as we do, in their own quacky way. They must, because ruddies like to startle us like this all the time.

This reminded me of one of my favorite videos by my students. It is all at once over the top, funny, and weird. Check it out:

© Holly A. Heyser 2012