Thursday, November 29, 2007

The story of my first duck ever

Today is the anniversary of getting my first duck ever, and much to the chagrin of my boyfriend, I'm going to share the story with you.

For those who are not hunters, or who are not stout of heart, or who lack a sense of dark humor, you might want to hit the "back" button on your browser and skip this post.

Still reading? OK, it went like this...

My first duck ever

I got my first hunting license several weeks into the 2006-07 waterfowl season, which means I started duck hunting in our early November slump. The resident young-of-the-year ducks were either educated about hunters or in someone's freezer already, and there were days when we didn't see anything but hawks and Southwest Airlines flying over the flooded rice fields we hunted north of downtown Sacramento.

But one Wednesday, a stiff north wind came in. I mean a stiff one - 25-30 mph gusts, and cold (by Northern California standards, anyway). Duck hunters know what that means - it pushes new ducks down the state, and new ducks don't know where we lie in wait for them.

So off we went to the rice fields that morning, and when the first good flock of birds came in for a landing, we stood up in our pit blind and fired.

I'd always wondered how you figure out who dropped which duck when both of you were taking shots at the same time. This morning, I learned how: You pull trigger. You hear bang. You see duck drop.

That's what happened. I heard the crack of my 20 gauge, watched a duck tumble and felt that jubilation of actually hitting what I was aiming at. I watched him sail into the water.

I got one!
We don't have a dog, so my boyfriend hollered back:

Go get him!
I jumped out of the blind.

Take your gun!
I grabbed it. I knew I might need to fire a finishing shot. Then I started walking.

Now, up until this point, my waders had not touched water. Because we hunted in rice fields, we always had a strip of land - the check - on which to walk out to our blind. All I'd done is walk in mud. Now it was time to actually get wet.

Holy crap.
The farmer who owned these fields had plowed the earth just before flooding the fields, so it wasn't just walking through a foot of water; it was sinking into eight inches of mud beyond that. I took approximately two steps before losing my balance.

Oh no oh no oh no...
Doof! I fell on my butt.

Not realizing that it doesn't hurt to fall in a flooded rice field, I'd broken my fall with one hand, and my jacket sleeve was now soaked, my fingers icy. Lesson learned! At least my gun was dry.

I lurched up and out of the water and started stepping more carefully. But the more carefully I stepped, the longer I spent on each step, and the longer I spent on each step, the more I sunk into the mud, so when I went to lift my foot and the mud sucked me back down...


I fell again. This time I had the presence of mind to fall to my knees, giving me a little more control. Gun dry! Jacket dry! I was getting good at this.

But my duck was getting away.

Injured but not dead, he was swimming to the next check, probably 75 yards from our blind. I got up and started power sloshing as the he disappeared into the tall grass on the check. I was almost there when


I picked myself up again and practically hurled myself at the check. On dry land at last, I looked around.

I saw nothing.

I walked up and down the check, looking for him. I still saw nothing.

He's an injured duck. He should stand out...
But he didn't.

Despair was beginning to sink in when I looked down and just inches in front of my right foot, there was my duck, hunkered down, looking small and brown and camouflaged.

He didn't even try to get away and he was utterly beautiful and cute and dear God I knew what I had to do. I apologized to him, and snapped his neck. Then, with the duck in my left hand and my shotgun in my right, I made my way back across the water to the blind.

I fell twice on the way back too, but by this time it was old hat.

As I neared the blind, I held up my duck for the boyfriend to see, beaming.

That's a young drake wigeon!
I felt a throb in the palm of my left hand. It wasn't me.

Honey, I think he's not dead...
I snapped his neck again. It didn't work. My boyfriend snapped his neck and set him down next to the blind. That seemed to do the trick.

Until the duck moved again.

This was getting disgusting. I had no idea it would drag out like this. Life force is strong. Why do we forget that? It was making me sick knowing I had not finished off this bird, that he was just suffering. It was impossible to feel proud of this. I turned my head away for a moment - just for a moment - when I suddenly saw something out of the corner of my eye go flying past me and into the water.

It was my duck.

I looked back at my boyfriend.

My duck's head was in his hand.

Later in the season, I learned that "helicoptering" is in fact the quickest and most merciful way to finish off a duck that is not dead. Grab by the head, swing around two full circles, and you know the neck will snap.

More than two or three twists and you're likely to decapitate it.

Which is precisely what my boyfriend had just done.
I will never forget the expression on my boyfriend's face. He looked like a sick dog that had just vomited on an expensive Persian rug. He knew he'd done something very, very wrong, but he didn't mean to do it, and it was too late to do anything about it.

I could see this. I knew he felt bad. He was trying to help! But I continued to swear at him every few minutes anyway.

Please understand that my boyfriend and I are not trophy hunters. We hunt for meat. But your first duck is special. It's a rite of passage. After years of not understanding the utterly disgusting pictures of hunters fawning over bloody carcasses, I'd finally understood, and I wanted my picture too. But how could I show this photo to anyone?

We got back into the blind and waited for more birds. Periodically, I'd look at my beheaded duck and swear at my boyfriend again. Then, it occurred to me... maybe there was a way.

I stopped swearing at him and handed him my camera phone.
Let's try this!
It worked.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


Later that day, I posted that photo on the Duck Hunting Chat, and the congratulations came pouring in from fellow duck hunters across the country.

One, who clearly didn't notice I was a chick, advised:
You should mount your first duck, bro. Something I wish I had done.
That's when I had to confess that there had been a problem. A flood of laughter followed. But they all understood. It made me feel a little better. It wasn't that I didn't still feel like a monster for failing to dispatch this duck quickly - I did. But I knew this was something many fellow hunters had gone through. We laugh for the same reason all people joke at times like these: It provides relief.

Like most duck hunters, I wanted my first duck to be a Norman Rockwell moment. But as with most events we want to be picture perfect - job interviews, weddings and losing your virginity (especially losing your virginity!) - something went awry. And that's OK. Now I can laugh about it.

And, for better or for worse, it's still the story of my first duck ever.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Hey sister, I'm with you!

I was thrilled this morning to see this column by college student Colleen Lindsay of The Daily Egyptian at Southern Illinois University Carbondale:

It was the last day of class before Thanksgiving break. During the last few minutes of class, the professor quizzed us about our vacations; were we going home and the like. As a parting comment, he noted that shotgun deer season started on the Friday before break.

For laughs, he asked if any of us were going to hunt. There was only one hand that went up in class. Everyone turned to look at the lone hunter, who happened to be a petite, feminine girl.

The professor stared at me for a few seconds before asking me if I was seriously going to hunt.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI know how you feel, being the only professor I know at my university who went hunting over Thanksgiving break. It seems there just aren't many hunters on college campuses - or at least not many who make it public.

The stats from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggest otherwise, though: 21 percent of hunters have college degrees (four-year or advanced). But it is true we're the least likely to hunt among people of all education levels.

A college campus can be an intimidating place to talk about hunting, because those who are most vocal about it are often against it.

Thanks, Ms. Lindsay, for speaking out and letting people know who you are - and what you're not.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Oh no, I'm one of THEM

There's a big debate going on in the Duck Hunting Chat right now about "skybusters" - the folks who shoot at birds way too far away to have a reasonable chance at hitting them. The experienced hunters grouse about it - rightfully - because it 1) educates ducks, making them less likely to fly in closer to our blinds, and 2) results in more cripples because of the low likelihood of getting a clean shot.

I'm pretty sure I'm one of the people they're complaining about. I try not to be, but I know I take stupid shots from time to time, because I'm just inexperienced. And I feel like crap about it.

I am at war with myself over this.

All the veterans and all the teachers say Practice! You have no business hunting until you know what you're doing. The words of my hunter safety instructor still ring in my ears: Clean, sportsmanlike kill! Clean, sportsmanlike kill!

And during the off season, I do practice at the local shooting range, where I shoot pretty darn well. I mean, I've had a cluster of guys gawking as I've made some badass shots, over and over again. (Wow, that felt really good, too - I admit it!)

But the range is not the marsh. The range is secure and predictable. In the marsh, you've got bad footing, the adrenaline rush and birds that have the ability to change directions on a dime, unlike those bright orange clays. As much as I'd like to think I can perfect my skills at the range, I've come to believe the only way I can learn to shoot at ducks in the marsh is to shoot at ducks in the marsh. And for me and probably any other new hunter, that means taking a lot of bad shots. I don't see any way around it.

I used to think that I should just be perfect at anything I try, right out of the gate, but I know better now. It's not just because of the wisdom that comes with age (lord, you couldn't pay me to be 20 again!), but because I teach journalism for a living these days. I've learned the only way my students can learn to write good stories is by first writing bad ones, then learning how to correct their particular mistakes, and compensate for their particular flaws.

But their weapons are notepads and computers, not guns. Their mistakes don't result in a wounded animal suffering in the tules until the scavengers come to finish the job they started. So even as I console myself with the wisdom that all learning flows from making mistakes, I'm wracked with guilt about it.

This is all part of a normal cycle, I'm sure: The veterans criticize the newbies for making mistakes until the newbies are good enough to be considered veterans, so they can start complaining about all the mistakes the newbies are making. All I can say is I can't wait until I'm not a newby anymore. It's one of the reasons I hunt as much as I can right now - I want to get through this phase as quickly as possible.

I just hope when I'm a veteran, I remember to have a little patience with those who come after me.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Monday, November 26, 2007


I absolutely LOVE this photo I found today in the Chillicothe (Ohio) Gazette in a story by Ashley Phillips about women deer hunters. This is huntress Amy Mendenhall, posing for her senior picture!

All I can say is there was nothing like that in my high school yearbook.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Regs that keep women OUT of hunting

With all the efforts out there to get women into hunting, I was surprised to learn this morning that some states have regulations that can keep women out. Check out this excerpt from a story today by Shannon Tompkins in The Houston Chronicle:

Texas is one of only 14 states where bowhunters are limited to using bows that have a minimum peak draw weight of 40 pounds; all other states with archery-only hunting seasons have lower or no minimum draw weights.

That 40-pound draw weight — basically, like lifting a 40-pound sack of sand with two fingers — was designed to limit archers to using only bows that wildlife managers figured produced enough arrow velocity and energy to be effective on white-tailed deer.

And the minimum, which has been in place for decades, applied to equipment used for bowhunting any game animal except squirrel.

But the draw-weight requirement meant a lot of young people and many women were shut out of bowhunting because they didn't have the upper-body strength to draw a 40-pound bow.
The story, which is about Texas considering a change in this regulation, goes on to say that bow technology has improved to the point that you don't necessarily need a 40-pound draw weight for an effective shot.

I'm not a bowhunter yet (give my huntress sister-in-law a few years to work on me). But if I had to meet a requirement like this, I'm not sure I could.

I'm reasonably strong and fit - hell, I have a black belt in tae kwon do - but my hands just aren't that strong.

When I went to lift this 32-pound salmon I caught on the Sacramento River earlier this year, it was a real struggle, which should be evident by the take-the-dang-picture-already look on my face.

So cheers to Texas for considering a change to the regs!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Epilogue: Nothing to see here!

Today's hunt at Gray Lodge was what we like to refer to as "hiking with guns." It was warm and still, and birds just weren't flying. But we hoofed it a couple miles in the shadow of the incredibly beautiful Sutter Buttes, and there are far worse ways to spend a Saturday afternoon. My 20s come to mind.

On the bright side, the burritos were fantastic, and it was a triumph that they stayed warm for seven hours during our drive to Gray Lodge, the hunt and part of the drive home. I give full credit to my Chinese lunch bucket I purchased on a trip to Manhattan last spring.

The photo shown here isn't an exact replica, but I saw this model during the same shopping trip and I'm sure it would do the job just as well. Click on the photo for a link to the store: Pearl River, a great place to buy beautiful ceramic kitchenware, if you're into that kind of thing.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Food for the hunt - spicy meat-and-potato burrito recipe

Family visits are over - we're going hunting Saturday!

My boyfriend's finally taking me to one of his favorite places: The Gray Lodge Wildlife Area in Butte County (pronounced byoot). Gray Lodge is where he cut his teeth on waterfowl hunting in California all by his lonesome, back before I'd picked up a shotgun.

We have a long list for our day: rabbits, pheasants, ducks and maybe even some geese. That means a good bit of walking, and probably a location change in the middle of the afternoon. And that means we'll be hungry.

While I'm fine with fast food in a pinch, I'd much rather bring something I know isn't tainted with e coli. My favorite so far this season is a spicy meat-and-potato burrito. It's really flavorful, filling and easy to eat (read: no napkins). You can make the filling the night before with just one pan, slap the burritos together before you leave for the hunt, and either pack them in something that holds heat well or just eat them cold - they're really fine either way.

If you hate following recipes, all you need to know is that this is hash browns with your favorite meat and spice wrapped in a flour tortilla. Hell, you could use tater tots.

If you like following recipes and cooking from scratch, here's how I did it tonight:

- 5 red potatoes - quartered
- 1 big sweet onion - chopped
- 4 cloves garlic - minced
- 3 poblano chilis (big, mild, green) - chopped
- 6 chipotle chilis in adobo sauce - an ultra spicy barbecue sauce - chopped. If you don't like things too spicy, stick to two chipotle chilis. You'll have leftover chipotles in the can.
- a two-fisted hunk of leftover Thanksgiving ham - chopped
- as much dang canola oil as I felt like pouring
- some beer I didn't feel like finishing - lager, nothing too strong.
- salt and pepper
- a dozen large flour tortillas
- queso seco, crumbled (a dry white Mexican cheese, but you'd be just fine with shredded Monterey jack)


- Clean and quarter the potatoes and steam them until they're only a bit sticky on a fork or a small skewer. If you don't have a steamer, go ahead and boil them.

- Chop the onions and saute in oil with a bit of salt (a lot, if you're me) until they look and smell wonderful - a bit brown, possibly crispy in places, fairly soft and glisteny in general. While that's cooking, mince your garlic, and when the onions are almost done, put the garlic in, stir it up and continue cooking briefly. Why the last-minute add? Keeps the delicate garlic from burning and tasting nasty. When the garlic's a bit cooked and the onions are done, set the mixture aside in a bowl and cover.

- Chop the green peppers and saute them in oil until they soften and smell wonderful. Now, many people will tell you that the skin of the poblano pepper, which I used tonight, is too tough to eat. Most people roast them and peel them. I usually do, but I didn't feel like doing that tonight, and it came out fine. When this is done, toss the peppers in the bowl with the onions.

- How are those potatoes? They should be done by now. If they are, pull them out and let them cool. When they're cool enough to handle, dice them and set them aside. If you didn't overcook them, they'll hold their shape as you cut. If you did overcook them, who cares? They'll be mushy. So what.

- Chop and very briefly saute your meat product. Usually, I use Mexican chorizo - a soft sausage loaded with yummy porky goodness. But because we have some leftover ham today, I used that. Any fatty meat would be fine. And if you're a vegetarian ... wait, if you're a vegetarian, why are you going hunting? Anyway, when cooking the meat, you're looking for a bit of brownness, but you don't want to dry it out. When it looks good, toss this in the bowl too, and cover it up.

- Remove the number of chipotles you want from the can and chop them. Discard or save the extra chilis, but keep all the sauce remaining in the can.

- Now for the potatoes. Heat some more oil in the pan, toss in your diced potatoes, add salt and pepper to taste, stir to coat the potatoes with oil, then cook over medium heat for a good while. If you're like me, you'll soon be tempted to stir. DON'T! Let them brown. Add oil as needed. If you feel like this is getting waaaaay too greasy, lubricate them with beer. Go ahead and laugh - but it's good! Check the underside of this mass once in a while to see if the potatoes are browning. When you've got a good crisp going, flip 'em and repeat the process, though it'll take less time on this side.

- When the potatoes seem just about done, drop in the chopped chipotle chilis and all the adobo sauce you can spare. Stir until the potatoes are coated with the sauce and the chilis are distributed evently. If you don't have chipotles, toss a bunch of chili powder on your taters instead. Cook a bit longer.

- Add back the onions, garlic, green chili and meat. Stir and cook a bit to mingle flavors. Taste it to see if you're happy. If you're not happy, open another beer. For yourself, not for the potatoes.

That's it! Now you've got your filling.

The day of the hunt, all you have to do is reheat the filling, then heat the flour tortillas one at a time in a dry pan over medium heat until they soften, spoon the filling into them, add some cheese and roll it up tight, tucking in the ends to make a tight bundle. You're ready to go!


Q: This sounds really fattening. Do I need all that oil?

A: You tell me. Use as much or as little as you like - it's really a matter of taste. Me personally, I'm done with Hollywood telling me I should eat lifeless food so I can have a disgusting anorexic figure. The key thing is to avoid burning your food. If you want less oil, use more beer. It really adds a lot of flavor.

Q: Do I need the cheese?

A: It's totally optional, but if you're sensitive to chili, use it - dairy products are the only substance known to counteract the heat of chilis.

Q: What size should I chop the ingredients?

A: Any size you like, but I think it works best when most of the ingredients are cut to a similar size. For me, tonight, that was in half-inch-by-half-inch squares (or cubes). You can go bigger, but if you make them a lot bigger, it'll make it hard to wrap the burrito neatly.

Q: Do I need fresh green chilis?

A: Probably not, but I feel guilty if I don't eat a green thing every day. Plus, chilis are good for you - they've got vitamin C, and they clear your lungs and sinuses. Can't hurt out in the field, right? I also like cilantro, but that's best served fresh - I don't think it holds up well after being crammed into a warm burrito all day.

Q: I refuse to use canned fruits and vegetables. Where can I get fresh chipotles?

A: You can't. A chipotle is a smoked and dried jalapeno - by definition not fresh. You can buy dried ones, but then you miss out on the adobo sauce.

Q: How could I make this even more insanely good?

A: Add scrambled eggs to the mix before you make the burritos - but if you do this, don't wait too long to eat them. You know, that whole thing about not letting egg products sit out so long that they become a big bacteria farm.

Q: What next?

A: Go do some hunting! You've got plenty of fuel to keep you going.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Best Thanksgiving story ever

I'd hoped to have a wild turkey to take to my family Thanksgiving gathering in Twain Harte today, but once again, my vision of being the victorious huntress who feeds legions didn't come to fruition. (I know! I know! I need to get over myself.)

So in the absence of a wild-turkey cooking story of my own, I wanted share my favorite Thanksgiving story ever: this piece from Salon last year about a woman who raised and killed her own turkey.

The story is fantastic, and the comments section is even better. A crazy war broke out among the commentors - a battle between the pragmatists who get where meat comes from, and the faint-hearted "how dare you" crowd that felt betrayed that Salon would even publish the piece.

It takes a little while to get through it all. But if you don't care about football and you feel like getting away from that special relative for a while today, come back to your computer and check it out.

And happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


Sometimes when I prattle on about wishing more women would hunt, I'm struck with guilt. It's easy for me - I don't have kids. When the boyfriend and I get up and book out of the house at 4 a.m., all we leave behind is two yowling cats. They don't even yowl because we shut them up with big bowls of yummy cat food.

Here's a story from the Leelanau (Michigan) Enterprise about Tricia Parrent, a mother of SEVEN who's waited years to start deer hunting - and her second time out she bags a record-book ten-point buck. Go, Mom!

And seriously, what's in the water in Michigan? Nine times out of ten, if there's a story out there about a woman or girl hunter, it's out of Michigan. Cali must catch up!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Holy game cookery!

For any of you wondering what to do with your game meat - or more specifically, the parts you don't normally eat - check out this blog by Canadian hunter-chef Kevin Kossowan. In particular, you've gotta love the post about "Calf Offal Night 2007," the calf being a moose calf.

One of his jewels is this tongue sandwich.

He writes:

Last night was an accomplishment, if for no other reason than that all the meats - absolutely all of them - would normally be coyote and magpie food. This year, in an effort to make as much use of the animal as possible, I took as much offal as I could. Yen and I got together to see what we could make of my new collection of variety meats - and the following was the result...
Check it out!

My fellow huntress, and the reverie she inspired

I was walking to the gym this morning when I spotted something out of the corner of my eye – a bump in the middle of the gym’s otherwise perfectly kept lawn. I turned to it.

It was a Cooper’s hawk, no more than 15 yards from me, sitting atop something roundish, black and furry.

Something big. She tried to lift the furry lump, but it was probably two-thirds her size – way too heavy to carry off. She tried to lift it again, revealing … Read more...
Bunny ears.
The short stubby kind they have when they’re maybe four or five weeks old.

Resigned to the reality of her situation, the hawk gave up on trying to escape with her prey, and began pecking at it, right there in the middle of the gym lawn, coming up with a beak full of fur and flesh each time.

Now, this is the part in the nature channel documentary where some of my fellow city folk get all weepy, thinking about this poor dead bunny being savaged by the merciless raptor.

For me, it was the part where I looked around and spotted the doe – that would be Mommy – sitting near some bushes about another 15 yards from the hawk, pretty much minding her own business. She looked like one of the domestic rabbits that folks down the street loosed on the neighborhood. She was unperturbed. Animals just don't freak out about death the way we do.

For a full ten minutes, I stood and watched the hawk eat what she could. And I watched the cars pulling into the gym, waiting to see who would slow down to find out what that chick’s looking at, and how many would speed into the parking lot and boogie on up to their tai chi class. I’d say one in eight took a look.

Ultimately, even I had to hurry into the gym. But as I worked the pedals of the elliptical machine, I got to thinking.

One of the things that’s made it relatively easy – intellectually – for me to take up hunting is that I’ve always been fascinated with things like this little dead bunny. When I was 5, I wanted to be a paleontologist, and lacking any accessible dinosaur skeletons in our region, I used to go collect sun-bleached cow bones at area ranches.

When I was 7 or so, my family started raising chickens. Then rabbits. Then pigs. All for food. All in the back part of our half-acre lot in a fairly tony, upper-middle class neighborhood zoned for horses. I’m pretty sure our neighbors weren’t too happy about the pigs, but they turned blind eyes and deaf ears when Dad dispatched Herkimer and Herbie with his .38 revolver.

Later, we moved to the country, and I joined 4-H and made rabbits my “project.” I raised them for meat, kept records on expenses and income, and sold dressed rabbits to the local supermarket. Dad did the killing for me, though.

In my experience, I’ve found most city dwellers can’t fathom this lifestyle. Throughout my 19-year career in the newspaper business – a profession populated largely by urbanites – many of my colleagues regarded my childhood experience as quaint at best, disgusting at worst. I actually feel sorry for these folks, partly because I think they really don’t know where food comes from, partly because they’ve grown up eating bland, bacteria-infested, factory-farmed meat.

But I see signs of hope.

The first is the rapid growth in the number of women hunters – a 72 percent increase over five years ago. As long as hunting remains the cloistered domain of the guys, America at large can continue to marginalize it. But there’s something about the notion of women hunting that’s got to make at least some people think, Hey, maybe it’s not just Larry the Cable Guy out there.

The other is that foodies may just be the fastest-growing subset of American culture, based on what I see happening around me. After a couple of ridiculous decades of fat-gram counting, carb-hating, self-denying diets, many are starting to see the appeal of good old-fashioned real food. And that includes real meat, not just pastured/free-range/organic meats, but hunted meats as well. Meats filled with a blend of nutrients and flavors that don’t come in a bag from the feed store.

My boyfriend and I are constantly surprised and delighted to find new friends who want to come to our house for a seriously gourmet dinner of game meats. (Full disclosure: My boyfriend’s the cook, not me. But I did make his apron. It's camo, of course.)

Even vegetarians have been willing to sample our meats...

So went my aerobic reverie this morning, but eventually, it had to come to an end. It was time to head out.

By this point, it was all over outside: The hawk was gone, the carcass still there, ribcage torn open, guts spilled out.

Now it was a contest to see who would get to the remains first: the groundskeepers, who would waste the life by throwing it in the trash, or the vultures that patrol our neighborhood, who would finish the job as nature intended.

This being a city, I’m betting on the groundskeepers.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Monday, November 19, 2007

Stalking the wild turkey

As expected, my planned “break” from hunting this weekend never happened. Leaves didn’t get raked, meals didn’t get cooked, bathrooms didn’t get cleaned – all because our friend Evan called and said it would be a great weekend for turkey hunting in the area where he grew up. My willpower evaporated instantly.

Evan hails from Amador County – part of historic gold country and an up-and-coming Northern California wine region. In fact, my boyfriend and I went wine tasting there Saturday with two of our colleagues (admittedly, another factor contributing to my domestic delinquency this weekend).

Taking me turkey hunting was a nice bit of turnabout for Evan. He was part of our crew on opening weekend at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, where we got to show him one of our favorite places to hunt. Now it was his turn to show where and how he grew up hunting: not planting himself in a marsh and waiting for game to come, but rather hiking the grassy, oak-studded hills in search of game.

Our primary mission Sunday was finding turkeys – more specifically, for Evan to find me a turkey, because he didn’t particularly feel like plucking one this weekend.

As we were driving to our first turkey location, we rounded a bend in the road and what did we see but a half dozen or so enormous jakes, crossing indolently in the bright morning sunlight.

Evan slammed on the brakes and an incredible torrent of profanity gushed out of him.

The problem, he said between curses, is that turkeys know you can’t shoot them on the road, or even from the road, so they don’t even try to run away. They just … taunt you. We could practically see them flipping us off.

If we didn’t mind shooting from the road (illegal), shooting onto property for which we didn’t have permission to hunt (illegal), or shooting next to a house (illegal), we could’ve bagged our legal limit of one apiece right there. So, yeah, we didn’t shoot.

Evan was convinced that we were cursed, that we would be the victims of bad juju, that those would be the only turkeys we’d see all day.

He was wrong.

We got to our hunting site, loaded our shotguns and headed down a steep hill to begin our search. Within minutes, a flock of mallards flew over us, booking toward a pond Evan knew about. We looked at each other, grinning like kids on Christmas morning, and headed back to the truck to reload with steel shot.

Loaded with the right ammunition for ducks, we headed down the hill again. Within minutes – again! – Evan stopped suddenly, pointing at some distant trees.

Turkeys! But they see us. They’re going to bolt.
And they did. We weren’t worried, though – we were headed to the pond, which was probably filthy with mallards by this time.

We got to within 200 yards of our destination and were chatting at a low whisper when we both froze. There under some trees to our left, maybe 75 yards away, was that same herd of turkeys he'd spotted on the way out.

Evan whispered to me:

I’ll go down here. You go back up there, where we came from.
Chances would be good one of us would get a shot.

I circled back on the path and was pondering my best location for a good shot when I saw movement just over the crest of a small hill in front of me, about 10 yards away.

The turkeys! They’d spooked, and they were on the move. All I could see over the hill was their heads. I lifted my gun.

I could take a shot … but where’s Evan? Am I going to hit him?
I couldn't answer those questions. So I lowered my gun, and watched as the turkeys fled. By the time they reached a spot where I could see everything behind them, they were way too far away for steel shot to penetrate their notoriously thick armor of feathers. Probably too far even for lead shot.

They disappeared over a hill, and that was that.

Those were the last turkeys we saw all day. Evan bagged a drake mallard at the pond, but I left that spot with nothing, though not for lack of trying. We moved onto another location and took a fantastic hike, crossing streams, squeezing through barbed-wire fences, saying hello to cows, spotting a coyote at one point and watching – riveted – as he came closer and closer without seeing us. We even heard some turkeys at one point, but we never did spot them.

Sometimes when hunters come back empty-handed and talk about how much they enjoyed the nature walk, it’s tempting to think they’re just rationalizing, embracing the consolation prize. But I absolutely loved our day.

Would I have preferred to get a turkey? Sure. Did I still have fun? Absolutely, because the outing reminded me of hundreds of days in my childhood when I spent hours wandering around alone in nature, observing what I could, trying not to be observed by anything else. Only now I was a grown-up with a gun, with the ability to transform a perfectly delightful hike into a delicious Thanksgiving meal.

Evan seemed concerned – he wanted me to be happy about the hunt. I told him not to worry, because I was happy as hell. And I continue to feel that way even as I write this, 24 hours after our hunt ended. I feel reconnected with the environment that I love. And as I do after every hunt, I feel that I have learned something – in this case, that I must always position myself quickly in a place where I can see everything in my potential line of fire.

At this stage of the game for me as a new huntress, I think that’s plenty to be happy about.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Guns for grrrrrrls

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketLooking for a special Christmas gift for the woman in your life? Nothing says love quite like a shotgun. I've shot only one kind - mine, the Beretta Urika AL391 - but there's a good thread on the Duck Hunting Chat (my favorite place for duck hunting info) about guns that work well for women. Lots of sage advice from my sisters out there, including one good bit about the fact that a hand-me-down gun from the hubby often doesn't fit very well.

Actually, nothing says love like hunting together on Christmas morning, so you might want to let her unwrap it the night before.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Not my weapon...

... but definitely the story of my life, for the time being. Just came across this quote in The Suburban Bushwhacker blog:

"You will discover that to be a good shot is not the half of what it takes to make a tolerable bird slayer."

- Maurice Thompson, The Witchery of Archery, 1879
So true, so true! My occasionally studly performance at skeet has yet to manifest itself in a marsh.

Touching photos

Field & Stream has a great photo spread in its new issue about kids hunting, and it includes some really touching shots of girls hunting, including a little boy who helped his little sister get her first bird, and one shot of a dad holding his rifle in one hand and his little girl in the other while they're out in the woods, which just about brought a tear to my eye. Wish I could've gone hunting with my dad!

Thanks to FS Huntress for tipping me off to it, and hats off to photographer Erika Larsen for the nice work.

Cue the choir of angels

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketThe new Cabela's in Reno opens today, and there's a lot of salivating going on within a 200-mile radius.

The Sacramento Bee (my hometown paper) had a story about it yesterday, and at the end was the part I was looking for was near the end:

"We know that the fastest-growing hunting and fishing population is female, and we have clothing, for instance, actually made for women, not just made for undersize men and sold to women," (said Peter Marshall, a company spokesman).
I'm a huge skeptic, so I can't wait to get up there and see if this is for real. My experience so far has been like this:

  • Wild Sports, my local, independently owned store - my first choice for sporting goods because I like to shop locally - doesn't seem to have anything for women, and the store often doesn't even have smaller men's sizes. But they're really nice to me, so I get what I can there.

  • Sportsman's Warehouse, our new regional mega-sporting goods store, actually has a women's section. But whenever I'm looking for clothing there, God help me if I actually need help. (Gun department help is great; clothing department help is lame nine times out of ten.) Last time I needed something for a woman's body - a shooting shirt capable of holding a recoil pad on the left shoulder - all they had was extra large, and that ain't me. But if I want some camo panties - always helpful out in a duck blind - they had me covered.

  • Several catalogs - Cabela's, Orvis, Kevin's - have women's wear, but of course it's a limited selection, and I'm further limited by the fact that, like many women, I have to try things on to know if they'll actually fit. (Oh, how I envy my boyfriend when he picks up a pair of jeans and buys them without trying them on, utterly confident they'll fit.)

Now, in the interest of fairness, I know these stores can't offer equality in what they stock because women are a tiny minority of hunters. But if Cabela's in Reno - less than two hours from where I live - actually has a decent selection, in a variety of sizes, with a dressing room where I can make sure things fit, that store will be getting some of my hard-earned cash very soon.

What we really need for women is a high-tech solution, like some clothing lines have: We take key measurements and order custom garments over the Internet. Not that I'm rich, but I'd be happy to pay more for a specialized hunting garment that fits right than pay the going rate for something that doesn't work for me.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

My hero(ine)

Gotta love this story about a young Michigan huntress:

Rachel Woodard might be a Ravenna High School cheerleader, but she's far from all pompoms and pigtails.

The 17-year-old senior is an avid deer hunter who already has bagged six deer, including two seven-point bucks.
Check out the whole story in the Muskegon Chronicle.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Stats galore - hunters by gender, age, race, ethnicity and residence

Here are some cool charts and graphs from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey I mentioned in my last post. Turns out I'm in:

  • The minority, by gender, as a female
  • The plurality, by age, as a 42-year-old
  • A tie for third out of five education-level groups, as a four-year-degree holder (the percentage who are four-year-degree holders is the same as the percentage who didn't finish high school)
  • The vast majority by race - white
  • A confusing position as a big city-dweller, living in a population 1 million-plus "metropolitan statistical area." We constitute the second-largest group of hunters, but that's by virtue of how many city-dwellers there are. In terms of the percentage of the population that hunts, big cities have the lowest.
  • The .... oh, hell, I'm not gonna talk about my income.

Check out the charts below - taken straight from the report - and see where you fit!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

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Women - they're coming right at us!

Somehow I missed this story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Sunday, but thanks to the TFS Magnum blog, I've found it. The upshot: Despite declining demand for hunting licenses overall, the number of women hunters is increasing, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

I've seen other stories recently that referred to this new data, but this story's pretty thorough. Here's a snippet:

"Something is happening with women and hunting," (said said Mark Duda of Responsive Management, a Virginia firm that tracks and interprets outdoors trends).

Cultural change, societal acceptance and a concerted recruitment effort by state game agencies and shooting and hunting organizations has driven the spike in female interest that began 30 years ago, flattened in the 1990s, and peaked again at the start of this century.
Question No. 1: What happened to us in the 1990s?

Question No. 2: If there was a spike 30 years ago, why do Boomers often look at me like I'm a freak?

Question No. 3: As a total numbers geek and spreadsheet freak, how long will it take me to report back to you with my own take on the USFWS stats?

It's not easy to find the report or the stats - they're not on the main FWS website. But I called and got directions (chick thing - ha!), and found a veritable playground of data and analysis here.

I'll chew on this stuff a bit soon and see what else is of interest and report back to y'all. One thing I'm looking forward to is the data on non-whites. I know I think I'm a rare bird, but in my hunting circles, non-whites are even more rare. Given the changing demographics of California in particular and the U.S. in general, welcoming other ethnicities into the tribe of hunters will be important for the survival of the sport (and I hate the word "sport" to describe hunting because this is not a football game, but I'll use it for lack of a better term).

One thing I know you'll never see, though, are special hunts for certain ethnic groups, the way women get special hunts. People would freak. And that raises the question: Is it really fair for women to get special hunt opportunities?


When my recent weekend of hunting finally ended, I told my boyfriend the unthinkable: I might want to take a break next weekend.

I'm fighting a cold, I'm still tired and I haven't even been able to get the boots of my waders to dry out. I've been neglecting the yard. I haven't dusted or vacuumed in weeks. Friends have invited us to go wine tasting in the Sierra foothills. I have a major project to do - converting our outdoor cat to an indoor cat and introducing her to our existing indoor cat (hissing! clawing! fur flying!). Can't go off galavanting in a marsh. It totally makes sense to take a break.

But it's Wednesday, and I'm feeling the first stirrings of oh my God, the season doesn't last forever, how can I not go out?

Phillip of The Hog Blog commented on a recent post of mine about getting his girlfriend involved in hunting, and the frustrations that have kept her from becoming fully immersed. I don't know exactly what she's been through, but I've definitely experienced frustrations that left me shrouded in doubt. I remember a couple times out at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge last year where I missed ridiculously easy shots and said to myself, Why am I doing this? I'd lay down my gun, lean against the tules and shut my eyes.

It never lasted more than 30 seconds.

Who was I kidding? I want to be a great huntress. I'll do whatever it takes to get there.

So there it is: My greatest enemy as a huntress - as it is in pretty much every aspect of my life - is overdoing it.

The words of the hunter I photographed on Monday for a magazine article keep ringing in my ears (or maybe that's just the ringing from all my hearing damage):

Well, make sure you don't make it feel like work. Make sure it's fun.
I've heard a lot of people say that, and I know they're right. Now it's time to see if I can act on it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Rites of passage

It dawned on me yesterday: It felt like I completed a rite of passage this weekend.

I hunted without my boyfriend/best hunting buddy because he was out of town. I was successful in both the pheasant hunt and the waterfowl hunt. I did all the plucking and dressing alone, for the first time ever. (OK, so I had a few problems with the bile ducts...)

And I had the kinds of conversations a hunter has.

I was on a photo assignment yesterday for a local food magazine, and it turns out the guy I went to shoot was a hunter - had mounted heads and hunting photos all over his store.

Me: What kind of gun is that?

Him: Beretta, 12 gauge.

Me: Hey, I have a Beretta too!

Me: How do you find time to hunt when you run a store like this?

Him: It's hard!

Me: Yeah, it's hard for me, too, and I don't even run a store. Worked hard all last week, then hunted both days this weekend. I'm wiped out.

Him: Well, make sure you don't make it feel like work. Make sure it's fun.
Afterward, I realized, hey, I just had a fellow-hunter conversation with a total stranger! And it felt like I had finally joined the club.

Rites of passage are usually for the young, but I have to say it's pretty cool to go through one at the age of 42. Makes me feel ... young!

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

Duck, duck, goose - only not in that order

This was the finest weekend in my first year as a huntress!

First there was the pheasant hunt on Saturday, where I actually got one. Then on Sunday, I went out with a few friends for my first hunt ever at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. And it was a good one.

I've always wanted to hunt there. If you've ever driven from San Francisco to Sacramento, you know the place: It's right before you get to Sacramento, where the freeway is elevated over this vast wetland that becomes the relief valve in the event of Sacramento River flooding. If you're a duck hunter driving over this elevated freeway, you know how often you've taken your eyes off the road to watch ducks flying and ducks on the water and oh crap, better keep your eyes on the road.

The weather was totally ducky: It poured all the way there, spit on us just a bit as we joined the small platoon of groggy, edgy, camo-clad hunters at the check station, then shifted to high fog as we headed out to our blind - two concrete pit blinds in an island surrounded by clumps of tule and covered with amaranth.

The shoot started out a bit slow. We heard a few shots from other blinds, but the only action in ours was the faintly visible scurrying of a few field mice bouncing around the island, hoping that perhaps the hunters had brought them something yummy.

But the action picked up. My friend Matt and his brother Steve hit their honker calls hard, and soon enough we had a small V coming right at us. I'm used to the birds coming close, then flaring after hunters in another blind skybust 'em, but these just kept coming closer and closer. We all must've been bug-eyed when they finally came right over our blind. We opened fire and when it was all over, we'd dropped three.

For the first time ever, I felt like I was in one of those TV shows where the birds always come in close, and the hunters always drop a bunch of 'em. I hate those shows because they make it look like it always works that way. But for us, at that moment, it was reality.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketFor my friend Matt, who's also a new-ish hunter, it was his first goose ever. It was my second, and my first Aleutian.

Nothing after that was quite as exciting, but it was a really fun day. We went from high fog to sunshine to a brisk north wind that kept lots of ducks working around us. I hit a spoonie, but not hard enough, and she sailed about half a mile away into some tules. Prior to Sunday, I'd hit exactly two spoonies in my time as a huntress, and I lost both of them in tules.

Spoonies are funny - they're stupid enough to circle back to your blind immediately after being shot at, but smart enough to dive for cover when they're down. I hate that, because while I know they will ultimately become part of the food chain, feeding hawks and crows and vultures and coyotes, I hate the idea of a crippled bird suffering until it succumbs. Two other hunters in my party had already lost spoonies on Sunday. When mine dropped that far away, I had to concede I'd never find her.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketBut later, another batch came in and I dropped one. She landed much closer to our blind, but right next to a clump of tules. As I leapt out of the blind, I told the guys, "I know I'm going to lose her in those tules, but I'm going to try to get her anyway." I barreled out there - not an easy thing in waders and foot-deep water - and watched as she flapped around. Then, instead of hightailing it to the tules, her head dropped. I was stunned. I found out why when I got home: shot to the heart.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

Now, I know one of the most important things in hunting is the clean, sportsmanlike kill (I can hear my hunter safety instructor's voice even now), but I'm still new at this, and I can barely hit the birds, much less stone 'em. I'm really looking forward to the day when I'm good enough that they're dead before they hit the water. But I'm also not naive: I know killing is rarely clean and simple, and dying is rarely pretty (contrary to the belief of millions of Americans who think that meat ends up on the styrofoam platter by means as "peaceful" as lethal injection).

The hunt got pretty slow after that, but there was one more thing that made the day pretty cool. Steve was looking out on the water to the north of us and saw something floating our way, driven by the north wind, looking like a small fireplace log. He got out to check it out, and it turned out it was the spoonie hen that one of the other hunters, John, had dropped in our first shots of the day, but lost in the tules. The wind had brought her back to us! That made us all feel a little better that a duck we had downed would not go to waste.

The hard part about this weekend - aside from being exhausted after a really hard week of work - was that my boyfriend wasn't there to see it. Because of his travel this season, I've now hunted more days without him than with him. I mean, it was fun showing my pheasant to the neighbors and the cats, and it was cool that my shooting didn't totally suck when I was hunting with three guys (two of whom I just met Sunday morning), but I really wanted my guy to see my success.

I'm sure there's a feminist out there who would chastise me for wanting validation from a male, but I really don't care. I know my boyfriend's proud of me because I hunt with him in the first place instead of staying home, like so many other wives and girlfriends. But I want him to be proud of me because I'm successful.

Today, I think he is.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

YES! Success!

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketI got my bird!

Today was the pheasant opener here. My boyfriend was off in Long Island, performing as best man in a wedding, but not me! I stayed home and decided to head out to our club's hunt by myself.

The organizer put me in a group with four other people - including the only other woman I saw at the hunt - and off we went into our designated rice fields. I paired up with a guy named Brian and his dog Riley. I told Brian I was a new hunter, so he graciously agreed to let me take shots at the first bird to flush. That decided, we began our hunt, walking up and down the checks, waiting for Riley to find a bird.

Soon enough, Riley found one for me. The bird flushed, and up my gun went.

Bam! Missed. Dear God, what a crappy mount.

Bam! Missed again. Man, that thing still ain't mounted right. Oh, what the hell...


Thank you, dear lord, for autoloaders. The third shot - which never seems to help me in duck hunting - did the trick and I got my bird. That boy dropped near another check and charged into it for cover, but Riley found him, and that's all she wrote.

Brian took the next rooster to flush, and I took the third. Or tried to. The safety! I forgot to take off the safety! By the time I rectified that, that rooster was pretty far away, and nothing I fired reached him.

After that, Riley was getting pooped, which was a relief, because so was I. The limit on opening weekend is two per person per day, but Brian and I settled for one each. I would've loved a limit, but I was just so happy not to get skunked.

When we got back to the parking lot, I called my boyfriend to tell him the good news. He whispered his congratulations from the church where he was waiting for the wedding to begin. Awwwwww, he left the phone on so he could find out how it went!

Then I got home and saw my neighbor working on his house, and invited him to peek at my bounty.

Can I have a feather? he asked.

Sure! I obliged him. Three tail feathers and one from the back for his hat.

But the best part was at home. I spotted our outdoor cat, Giblet, who's been known to take out scrub jays for kicks, and I thought, Hey, she'll LOVE this! So I brought it out to her to show off my hunting.

And she absolutely freaked out. Wouldn't go near the bird at all. Looked on from about five feet away. Seemed relieved when I took it back in the house.

HA! You've got to love the role reversal, dontcha? Isn't it usually the cat who wants to show off the carcass to the human, and the human who wants nothing to do with it?

That's enough blogging for now - I've got a bird to pluck! Then it's nap time, because I'm getting up at 2 a.m. tomorrow for what may be the first rainy duck hunt of the season. Hallelujah!

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

This just in - women hunters to blame for demise of Neanderthals?

The Boston Globe reports a new theory today that the prevalence of women hunters among Neanderthals may have led to the species' demise. Here's an excerpt:

(A) husband-wife anthropological team has raised the possibility that female derring-do may have contributed to Neanderthals' demise.

The University of Arizona's Steven L. Kuhn and Mary C. Stiner, use archeological evidence to argue that Neanderthal females - unlike Homo sapien women of the Upper Paleolithic period - joined men in hunts at a time when stabbing giant beasts with a sharpish stone affixed to a stick represented the cutting edge of technology.

That's courageous, but probably bad practice for a population that never numbered much more than 10,000 individuals. The loss of a few males to a flailing hoof or slashing antler is no big deal, in the long run. But losing females of child-bearing age could bring doom to a hard-pressed species.

"All elements of [Neanderthal] society appear to have been involved in the main subsistence pursuit" of hunting large animals, Kuhn said. "There's not much evidence of classic female roles.

"Putting the reproductive core of the population - pregnant women, mothers of infants, children themselves - at such danger could have put Neanderthals as a whole at serious demographic disadvantage," he said.

All I've got to say is this: Pray for me - pray that I am not gored by a falling pheasant during the opener this morning. Thank you.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Huntress takes albino deer

The Wild WoodsWoman comments today on the recent news about a huntress in Minnesota killing an albino deer.

She makes an interesting point:

I don't blame her for doing it, but I don't think I could personally do it. I've read too any fiction stories where there's a mystical white animal that appears in the forest and has special powers!! It would be bad karma I think.
When I first saw this yesterday, I wondered aloud if I would've shot that deer. My boyfriend sagely noted, "Well if you hadn't, someone else would've, so you might as well."

I don't necessarily agree. Think I'd've rather shot this one with my camera, not my gun.

But I definitely don't agree with the somewhat hysterical blogger who ranted yesterday:

So this fat, ugly, smelly woman is proud of killing an albino deer. How sad her life must be. May be she’ll get lucky and some hunter shoots a bullet through her head. But…that’s not going to happen. Her head is too ugly to mount.
Lay off the caffeine, I say.

Click here for the original TV report. See the video below...

A pretty sight

Here's a photo from what's believed to be the first-ever women-only Pheasants Forever hunt, held in South Dakota on Saturday. Photo and story are by Berdette Zastrow in the Souix Falls, S.D., Argus Leader.

My favorite line out of the story:

There were moments when women said things the accompanying men didn't quite catch.

"Oh, deer," Aberdeen's Robin Matushin said as she made her way through a cornfield. "What's the matter? Do you have a problem?" asked the male dog handler nearest her. "No. Deer," Matushin repeated and pointed. A sheepish "oh" was all to be heard as the guy finally spotted the two does Matushin was looking at as they stood and looked at her.

But the other one that really struck me was this:
"I like to do things with other women," said Colleen Horeish of New Richmond, Wisc. "I have no chance to hunt with women, and I want to be with others to learn more about it."
Such a lonely thing to say! But I get it, totally. This summer, I got a chance to spend a lot of time with my boyfriend's sister, whom I'd met only briefly a few years earlier. Turns out she's recently taken up bowhunting, and I was immediately struck with how much I wanted to hunt with her, even though I don't bowhunt and she doesn't hunt with a gun. She lives in New Jersey and we're out here in California, but we're hoping she can come out and join us for waterfowling or wild boar hunting.

Makes me feel like a kid: Come play with me!

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

My gear

On the Duck Hunting Chat - one of my favorite places on the Internet to hang around this time of year - there's a women's forum where the most frequently asked questions are about gear made for women.

Ha! Good luck on that one. There is some specialized women's hunting clothing out there, but you usually have to order it from catalogs, and - surprise, surprise - unlike men, women often need to try stuff on. You know, one woman has skinny thighs and a huge rack (she's the one I hate) and the other has the opposite.

I've been just fine with men's gear, for the most part, and if you get the right men's gear, you'll find it meets many of a woman's special needs. And it should become very clear that I believe in the right gear - not that I'm rich or anything, but I say it's better to spend more on something that will last a long time than to buy fresh garbage every year.

Here are my picks. Just click on each one to enlarge it to a readable size.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Monday, November 5, 2007

Special hunts for women

Check out this piece by Melinda Mawdsley in the Grand Junction (Colo.) Daily Sentinel about getting women to hunt. Stories like this always weird me out a little - on the one hand, I'd like to think we can play with men on level field - why do we need special learning opportunities?

On the other hand, there are parts of this story that resonate with me. In particular, I liked this part:

When women see the caution and calculation invested in hunting, particularly big game hunting, they become intrigued, DeRose said.

“I’ve had several women who have come up and said, ‘Would it be OK if I shot an impala?’ ”

That cracked me up. Hmmm, hey, this is complex. Let me try it.

And then there's this line:
He has also found that women are better listeners and more likely to take the advice of guides than male clients.
Too true! My boyfriend and I have both taken shotgunning lessons from the same instructor, who's a badass Vietnam vet and former sniper. Boyfriend's more likely to decide that the guy is full of crap on a particular issue and just disregard him; I, on the other hand, jump eagerly whenever he drops any wisdom on me.

Back to the special opportunities thing: I wonder if anyone out there gets upset about special hunts for women?

I jumped on the bandwagon last year and applied for a women's pheasant hunt at the Grizzly Island Wildlife Area and I was thrilled when I was one of the 10 women selected for the hunt. I asked at the checkstation how many women applied. They said, "Probably 11."

Funny thing was, when I got there, there was this guy hanging out at the check station, waiting to see who arrived.
"You here for the women's hunt?" he asked me.

"Yup," I said (because all hunters must speak in monosyllabic grunts).

"Got any dogs?" he asked.

"Nope," I said.

"I have dogs. Want a hunting partner?"

And there was my partner for the day, and good thing, since it's hard to flush pheasants without dogs. Turns out the guy shows up every year hoping to latch onto a woman hunter so he can participate in a great hunting day with very few competing hunters in the field. More power to him!

And no, I didn't get anything. I'd been hunting for all of a few weeks at that point, and when my one good opportunity of the day came up - a pheasant that he missed - I froze and didn't take the shot.

I think I'll give it a try again this year.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The real challenge

What's more challenging: A woman becoming a hunter in an arena dominated by men, or learning to hunt in middle age?

The chick thing, right?

I used to think so, too.

I've always been one of those girls who loved hanging out with the guys, who loved talking as tough as the guys, who loved fighting with guys when I was earning my black belt in tae kwon do, all because it made me unusual. When I fired my shotgun for the first time one year ago today, I was absolutely sure that the gender barrier was the one I was going to have to kick down at every turn. And of course, that was what I wanted, because I knew I could prove people wrong.

Turns out I was the one who was wrong, big time.

That's not to say being a chick is never an issue. Try finding hunting clothes for a woman's body. I'm a waterfowler, and I can tell you that waders are made for men with big fat bellies, not for a girl like me with sturdy hips and a big padunkadunk. And sporting goods manufacturers, spare me the pink, OK? It doesn't fly in the field.

Then there are those jerks - thankfully rare - on the Duck Hunting Chat who go on and on about how they love hunting because it gets them away from their nagging wives. Trust me dude, your wife loves getting your charming butt out of the house too.

But really, how could I have ever thought gender was going to be my biggest obstacle?

The real challenge is that hunting is hard. Non-hunting people think having a gun makes it so easy. Especially a shotgun, with all those little projectiles spreading out to a circle 40 inches in diameter by the time they reach the target. How could you not hit what you're shooting at?

Turns out it's really easy to miss, and this came as a huge surprise to me. I mean, I have great eyesight, I practice and I took shooting lessons. But I miss all the time. When I went hunting with my boyfriend and two other friends on opening weekend this year, they bagged limits; I came home with one. I should be better than this!

But here's the problem: Most hunters grew up hunting, and that's how they got to be good at it. I didn't. My dad hunted for food when he was a kid during the Depression, but he'd stopped hunting by the time I was born in 1965. And if he had still been hunting when I was a kid, I really don't know if he would've taken me with him. I'd like to think he would, but who knows?

And what if he had? It occurred to me recently that there still might be a fundamental difference between me and all the guys I see out there in the field - one that actually ties back to gender.

I was hunting with a friend at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge last weekend when he told me how he learned to shoot as a kid: by shooting at anything and everything.

"That is such a boy thing," I told him. "I hated boys like you when I was a kid." I loved all the animals that lived in the irrigation ditch where I used to play growing up in Tulare County. But every once in a while I'd get to the ditch to find some poor bullfrog belly up on the water with his guts spilling out of a hole in his belly, and I'd get so mad.

I knew exactly who had done it: The neighbor boys. Damn them.

Turns out they were practicing. One of my friends from the duck chat recently advised me to do the same. Go out to the desert and just shoot at birds he said. "Nah, I can't do that," I said. "Can't shoot at something I don't plan to eat."

I shoot skeet, but skeet ain't ducks. Clays are predictable. Ducks aren't.

So where does that leave me? It leaves me shooting at ducks and geese on the refuges, missing far more often than I hit, because that's the only way I'm willing to practice. And it reminds me what I like to forget: that even a girl who can hang with the best of the guys still has to be humble.

One year into my journey as a new huntress, that's where I am. Stick with me and find out what I'm going to become.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007