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


Anonymous said...

Oh Holly!

Apparently I have a dark sense of humor because I found that story hilarious. I also applaud your ingenuity when it came to taking the picture.

Great story and very funny.

Anonymous said...

They die hard, no doubt about it. If the shot doesn't kill them, you have to.

After spinning the heads off of way too many birds, I found another trick that works pretty good too. Grab the bird firmly at the base of the legs. Now, swing the bird's head at the butt of your shotgun. Don't hold back.

I know, it sounds barbaric, but it's not nearly as harsh as twisting the head off. It works real well and usually real quick. A couple quick shots is usually all it takes.

Of course, ideally you want to kill them stone dead with your shot. Good ammo, keep your shots close, and keeping your eye on the bill rather than the body will help with that. But sometimes... well, sometimes stuff happens.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

A great tale well told!
The story of my own first hunt is considerably worse, I'll tell you sometime

Editor said...

that was a great story, thanks for sharing

Anonymous said...

Ok, I'm not a hunter and thought I could handle the story. Darn it ... I knew I should have hit the back button!!!

Holly Heyser said...

Awwww, Jody, now you're making me feel bad!

Next time I have a hunting story with a happy ending, I'll let you know. When I lay down my shotgun at the end of January and start preparing for a march pig hunt, I'll let you know. I swear, I'm gonna get that clean, sportsmanlike kill!

And to Kristine, SBW and editor: Thanks! My life is full of comic tragedy, or tragic comedy, and I'm glad I could share a little piece of it with you.

Phillip, you take the prize. I thought helicoptering was gross, but your technique sounds like a mob-style hit. I admire that.

Ken Albala said...

What a fantastically funny story. To tell the truth it really makes me want to go duck hunting! Never touched a gun in my life. Nor even seen one fired. How does one get started?

Ken Albala
(Lead here from Hank's site)

Mike Shimniok said...

Great tale, well told... had to laugh... but... a little nervously as I am going to go bird hunting for the first time. I guarantee I'll be thinking about this as I'm (hopefully) downing my first pheasant. -Michael

Marian Ann Love said...

Congrats on your first duck and great storytelling. I really enjoyed reading it. You fixed the problem and did a super job. You go girl! :)

Holly Heyser said...

Michael, good luck on that pheasant. At least you won't have the water problem.

Ken, your response was the last thing I ever expected! But I have two suggestions:

1) Ask to join a hunter on a hunt so you can see what's involved. For waterfowl hunting, you may need to make a small investment in waders to get where the hunter needs to go. But this should give you an idea what it's like. For me, I decided to go on a pig hunt with my boyfriend to see if I might like it - and I did. Loved it!

2) Take a hunter safety course. You need it to get a license, but I found it to be a really interesting experience that really changed a lot of my views about hunting.

Still want to hunt after that? Then think about what kind of hunting, get a gun and start practicing. There's more to it than that, but if you get to that stage and want more details, just write back.

Kevin Kossowan said...

Great story.
Moments like that do suck, and are certainly part of the hunting experience, whether we like them or not. I think they teach us a lot. And like my dad says, 'they don't die from heart attacks'.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story. I thought only sturgeon kept coming back to haunt their killers. Because of your very thoughtful and skillful telling, I now know that this is something I will never do.

Of course, I'll always be willing to enjoy the fruits of your cruelty ... with the right spices.

Elise said...

Poor Daffy.

Great story.

Anonymous said...

So I'm not a bad-a$$ huntress like yourself, but the virginity/wedding/ job interview analogy resonates.
A good story from one of my two favorite storytellers (you both live in the same house, how convenient!)