Sunday, December 30, 2007

Why it's cool to be a hunting couple

Reason No. 269:
Because Conversations Like This Seem Normal

The scene: We're in the living room cleaning our guns after the day's hunt.

Me: Honey, when you're done cleaning your gun, please don't throw the patches with solvent in the trash in here - it stinks up the place.

Him: OK.

Fifteen minutes pass. He's watching football. I'm putting my gun away.

Me: Honey, did you just throw the solvent patches in the kitchen trash?

Him: Yes.

Me: But that stinks up the house.

Him: Oh, I thought the smell of the duck guts in the trash would cancel it out.

Another fifteen minutes pass. I visit the kitchen for a glass of water.

Me: Honey, the duck guts aren't canceling out the solvent.

Him: Oh. Do you want me to take out the trash?

Me: Yeah, well, you know - duck guts, solvent. It'd be nice.

Him: OK.

Me: Thanks honey.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Friday, December 28, 2007

Gee whiz, girl hunters can do all that?

A while back, FS Huntress blogged about being just a wee bit tired of all the "gee whiz, it's a female hunter" stories out there in the media.

At the time, I had mixed feelings on the subject. Women are in fact a small minority among hunters, so a certain amount of gee-whiz is probably in order when a huntress is sighted.

Then I saw this story by Kansas City Star reporter Brent Frazee about a nurse from Missouri who's become an avid deer hunter. For the most part, it was a good story, but one line just killed me:

She is proficient with her bow, she knows how to use a deer call, she field-dresses her kill and even processes the meat on her own.
No kidding! A girl can do all that? Wow. I thought you had to have testosterone coursing through your body to do all those things.

Here's my point: I don't mind being stared at because I'm one of a very few women hunters out in the field; I do mind exclamations of surprise that I can be proficient at tasks that have nothing to do with gender.

Having been a newspaper reporter, I'm thinking Frazee didn't intend for that line to sound condescending. In fact, the line that comes right after it is about the fact that the huntress had never envisioned herself doing those things.

But it's important for folks in the media to remember that if we're not careful, the way we write about our subjects can reinforce old stereotypes. And this is one stereotype that needs to go away.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Thursday, December 27, 2007

A lesson from the UK on hunting rights

The hot news story in Britain these days (at least on my radar screen) is about the effect of a 2005 law clamping down on the nation's traditional fox hunts.

The Hunting Act was designed to limit the hunts, but it's having an interesting effect, according to a story in yesterday's Telegraph of London: Fox hunts are getting more popular.

The piece popped up in my email inbox because it discusses the fact that women and children in particular are getting into the sport.

But that's not what jumped out at me when I read the story. Comments like these were the real point:

"An awful lot of people have been coming out, I think because they've had enough of the Government and would like to see the sport keep going rather than see it all fold." - Claire Bellamy, master and huntsman.

"Everything that gets banned seems to become popular." - Karl Creamer, master

Let's hope that's not what it takes to revive the popularity of hunting on this side of the pond.

But Britain's experience should serve as a lesson to those who would take away rights here: Be careful - you may not get the results you expect.

And the message to hunters? Don't take it quietly - make sure your voice is heard.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

True love - an awesome Christmas present

My boyfriend must love me a lot! Exhibit A:

And in case you didn't catch the detail...

That there is a fine Buck skinning knife, with my own personal name engraved on it. The Buck folks just happened to be at our local hunting store, Wild Sports, the day the boyfriend went to buy this for me, so he got it engraved on the spot. They thought it was pretty cool that he was getting it for a chick.

My Swiss Army knife has now moved to its proper place in my purse, where it's available to open wine in an emergency, and the Buck knife has taken its place in my hunting pack. I hope to inaugurate it on a wild boar hunt in March. In the meantime, though, I can use it in self-defense if I'm attacked by a rabid duck. Hey, you never know...

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Monday, December 24, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Thought I'd put out something on the lighter side. Enjoy the video, and enjoy the holiday, whatever your faith.

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Finding huntresses in the strangest places

Academia isn't always the friendliest place for a huntress, but sometimes it surprises me.

Saturday was winter commencement at my university, so I donned some graduation regalia and joined my fellow faculty to celebrate this rite of passage for our students. Before the festivities began, I was chatting with an English professor who started the same year I did, and we were discussing all the reasons we hadn't finished our grading yet.

After reciting my list of acceptable reasons, I admitted: "In all honesty, part of the reason is that I'm a hunter and it's duck season, so I've been really busy with that."

"You hunt?!?!?!" she asked.

Last time I told a group of professors that I was a hunter (at a gathering in San Francisco, no less), the reaction I got was, "You kill little animals?"

But this time I could tell it was different.

"Yup," I said.

"You hunt ducks?!?!"


"I want to hunt ducks!"

Wow. That's something you don't hear every day - not from a woman, and not from an academic. But there it was - a gift to my ears.

"I love ducks," she said, "and I figure if you're going to eat meat, hunting is the honest way to do it."

I was speechless. But only for a millisecond.

We immediately began plotting. Before making the financial commitment to hunting, she should come watch a hunt, I told her - just to make sure she's really comfortable with it. We're both on winter break now, so we'd have plenty of opportunities, but she'd need to borrow or buy camo and waders.

If she still wants to hunt after that, she'd need to take a hunter safety course, and get her license, and get a gun, and have it fitted, and take some shooting lessons. It wouldn't be cheap, I warned.

She was undaunted.

It was a classic female conversation: two women talking excitedly about something they'd like to do together. Anyone around us might've thought we were planning a shopping trip.

As we walked out to take our seats for the commencement ceremony, I was bubbling with excitement. It appeared a huntress had just been born.

Apparently, she was pretty excited as well. "Do you know John?" she asked after the ceremony, gesturing toward another professor she'd sat with during commencement. "He wants to try duck hunting too!"

Make that two new hunters.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Friday, December 21, 2007

Women hunters - the "72% increase"

There it was again: The number of women hunters has soared 72 percent in the last five years. It's a happy number that has been repeated over the past year in newspapers from the Springfield, Mass., Republican to The Washington Post. This time I found it in a recent piece by Bill Redeker from ABC World News. The problem is it just doesn't appear to be correct.

I've been poring over stats and talking to researchers, and here's what I've been able to piece together:

The National Sporting Goods Association tracks stats on participation in a wide variety of sports, from aerobics to hunting with firearms. That group also provides stats for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the trade association for the shooting, hunting and firearms industry.

Last year, the National Shooting Sports Foundation put out a press release saying NSGA stats showed a 72 percent increase over five years in the participation rate of women who hunt with firearms, and a 176 percent increase in the participation rate of women bowhunters.

It's a great story. More women taking to the field! Fantastic. Newspapers, bloggers and TV have been repeating the number ever since. I repeated it last month. Great news!

I love numbers, so I started digging into all the stats I could find. I asked the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service for stats, and when I put them together last week, I found the actual number of women hunters had been declining slightly since 1996.

Hmm. That's weird. Better go to the source of the "72 percent" figure - the National Sporting Goods Association. That's what I did Sunday, and I found the stats on the NSGA website showed.... the number of women hunters apparently holding steady.

But how could that be? Wasn't the NSGA the source of that figure?

Yes, but it turns out the NSGA does separate research for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, and those numbers are different. It appears there may be some differences in how NSGA conducts those surveys. I've talked to researchers for both of those organizations, and they're trying to get to the bottom of why the numbers are so different. We still don't have clear answers yet.

But what is clear is that the very best numbers out there come from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, because that agency does a huge survey that starts with 85,000 households - vastly larger than the NSGA surveys, which means it's likely far more accurate.

The chart below (click on it to see a larger version) lays out the numbers I have. It's not all apples-to-apples; two figures are for numbers of women hunters and one is for women who hunt with firearms. But you get the general trend - the numbers from U.S. Fish & Wildlife and the National Sporting Goods Association are basically holding steady, but the figures NSGA gave to the National Shooting Sports Foundation show an increase.

Fellow numbers geeks may notice that I've glossed over some fine points: The stats tend to measure three separate figures - total number, percent of women who hunt and percent of hunters who are women. In this chart, I've just used numbers. But I've also crunched the percent-of-women-who-are-hunters figures, and I've compared 2005 to 2001, and 2006 to 2001 to replicate all the variations I've seen reported, and the 72 percent increase is an anomaly that appears only once.

So there you have it. It's not what I wanted to find out when I started digging, but it is what it is.

As for me? I'm going to pull my head out of these numbers and start working to get more women into hunting.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Hunting with the girls

One of the best things about being a 42-year-old new hunter is the delicious, exhilarating sense of newness I get to experience all the time. It's like being a teenager again, only without the angst, doubt and raging hormones.

Thursday's hunt was a perfect example - a starburst of firsts for me - and it started literally with a journey back to my childhood: a drive down Highway 99 into the San Joaquin Valley.

Many of my more cosmopolitan fellow Californians disdain the Valley as a hot, smoggy wasteland. Having spent seven years of my childhood there in Tulare County, I view the Valley as an agricultural wonder filled with down-to-earth people and dotted with secret places where a person can revel in nature.

Wednesday night, I was heading back to that place to meet my new friend Dana, a woman from the Modesto area who's been hunting for 20 years and searching - mostly in vain - for other women to hunt with her. She found me through a hunting forum, Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors. This would be my first time ever duck hunting with a woman.

We met at a Chinese restaurant near my motel to get to know each other, and talk a bit about what I should expect the next day. It would be totally new for me - hunting on a river, reaching our location by boat.

"You probably have to shoot pretty high on the refuges, don't you?" Dana asked.

"Yeah, higher than I'd like to admit."

Her husband Bill gestured toward the wall on the opposite side of the restaurant - maybe 12 yards away. "The ducks are going to come in that close."

My eyes popped. What a delicious vision that would be!

But we'd have to start early if we wanted to see it. This was no assigned-blind situation like we have at the refuges where I hunt; the good spots where Dana hunts are first-come, first-served.

Seven hours later, we were on the road together - Dana, me and her black lab Marzee (the mom on the left). Today, it would be just the girls.

Dana zipped around this river like she knew every inch of it by heart, carefully piloting us through narrow openings that made me gasp, then whipping around bends that made me feel like I was on an amusement park ride - a good one.

We arrived at her favorite spot to find it empty, and promptly staked out our territory with a horde of mallard and teal decoys. Then we retreated to a blind fashioned from tree branches and brush with probably a good hour and a half to go to shoot time.

To non-hunters, the idea of hunting with someone you've never met before is pretty scary. I told my mom about it ahead of time, and she wondered aloud, "What if you don't like each other?"

"Mom, we're hunters. We have at least one shared passion to talk about."

And indeed, Dana and I didn't have anything to worry about. We shared the stories that all women tend to share, talking about what we do, how we met our husbands (OK, boyfriend, for me), her kids, our pets and how we became what we are today. Dana's an amazing and wonderful woman, no doubt about it, but I knew for sure she was my kind of girl when she told me she and Bill got married on opening day of the deer season and spent their honeymoon hunting.

As the sky began to lighten, it rained intermittently, and we ignored it. Rain and cold, Dana says, are the things that keep a lot of women from hunting - they don't like enduring the discomfort. To us, though, it was just the price of admission to a good hunt.

It was quiet at first, but some mallards started working. We had a loner coming in, heading straight toward our blind. She would let me take the shot.

"OK, wait ... wait ... wait ... "

Lord, I'd never had a duck come in like this. My heart was racing. I felt like a 16-year-old boy who was about to get to second base.

"All right, stand up!"

And that's when time slowed down.

I stood. Lifted the gun. Brought it back to my shoulder. Dropped my cheek on the stock. Put the duck behind the muzzle. Fired. The duck tumbled to the water. Marzee burst out of the blind. I pulled my gun back down. Tendrils of smoke floated upward from it. That beautiful smell...

Then I snapped out of my reverie. Where was the duck? I know it dropped. Marzee couldn't find it.

Dana and I scanned the water. I saw nothing. But Dana knew where to look. He'd gotten to the opposite shore. The dog being far downstream, Dana lifted her Benelli (shadowgrass - to match her outfit, of course) and fired, an insurance shot to make sure the bird wouldn't find a hiding spot in the grass. And then Marzee brought back my duck.

"It's my first mallard ever!"

Dana grinned back at me.

What a sweet moment!

It turns out Dana has a knack for delivering firsts. A couple weeks ago, a hunter came out to buy one of Marzee's pups and when Dana took him hunting, he got his first banded bird.

A few minutes later, Dana had another chance to deliver a first when she brought in three wood ducks. She fired. I fired. We missed. Oh well, that first will have to wait another day.

We got only one more chance to shoot that morning. Dana was out moving the decoys around, and this hen wigeon drifted in over the blinds, fluttering like a butterfly. I caught Dana's eye and pointed up, and she dropped down low so I could shoot.

Flutter, flutter, flutter ... and finally the wigeon got far enough from Dana that I could take a shot. Boom! She dropped.

As the day went on, the ducks just stopped flying. We stuck it out, and talked about anything and everything before conceding it was over just after noon.

Dana seemed worried that it hadn't been much of a hunt for me. But I couldn't have been more pleased. I'd fired four shots and downed two birds. I'd gotten my first mallard. I'd experienced the beauty of having a retriever hand me my duck for the first time. I'd gone hunting with a woman for the first time. And I'd made a new friend.

After we left the river, Dana took me to an area taco truck - the finest dining possible for anyone wearing wet waders. I walked into the market next to the truck to get a soda, and the woman behind the counter eyed my hat, a camo cap with "California Waterfowl Association" embroidered on it.

"You a duck hunter?" she asked.


"Did you have a good day?"

"Yup," I said, grinning ear to ear.

She smiled back at me. "Good!"

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Monday, December 17, 2007

Man Woman Hunter Gatherer

You know how it goes: In ancient societies, men were hunters, women were gatherers, and that simple notion has spawned all sorts of interpretations about gender roles.

But a new discovery in Jordan may cast doubt on traditional assumptions about gender separation. Archaeologist Philip Edwards found a tool bag that includes instruments of both the harvest (a sickle) and the hunt (spearheads, slingshot stones), according to an article in Discovery News.

(T)he bag's owner wasn't necessarily a man; women are thought to have been in charge of plant gathering. The tools, therefore, either belonged to a woman hunter-gatherer, or work activities were more gender-blind than thought during prehistoric times, Edwards theorized.
If some archaeologist finds my waterfowling backpack 16,000 years from now, she'll love the contents: gamestrap, shotshells, knife, baby wipes, tissues, green eye shadow (strictly for face camo), makeup remover (to remove face camo). Chicks know how to pack for maximum comfort!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More women hunting: lies & damned lies?

With nothing nice to say about our guided Canada goose hunt at an area hunting perserve on Saturday, I found some time this morning to dig into those perplexing National Sporting Goods Association stats that suggest a 72 percent increase in women hunting, according to numerous articles I've seen. I noted on Friday that this was a surprising figure, given that U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stats show our numbers have actually decreased a bit in the past five years.

Little did I know how surprising it would be - so surprising that I've been digging into this for hours when I should be cleaning house for a dinner party we're having tonight. Thank God the boyfriend's doing the cooking, because if it were me, I'd be ordering take-out about now. I love men who cook.

Here's the deal: The National Sporting Goods Association counts 2.4 million women hunting with firearms and 700,000 women bowhunting in 2006. Five years earlier? Again, 2.4 million women hunting with firearms, and 400,000 women bowhunting.

You can click on the image here to see the details - both the numbers taken from the NSGA website and my own additional calculations. But cutting to the chase, that's a ZERO percent increase for firearms hunters and a 75 percent increase for bowhunters. (And don't even think about adding bowhunters and firearm hunters to get a grand total, because I know many of my fellow huntresses hunt with both - you can't double-count them.)

So, you ask, how did this become a 72 percent increase in women hunting? I have an inquiry in to the statisticians at the National Sporting Goods Association to find out if the number came from them. But I did a little sleuthing this morning, and the earliest reference to a 72 percent increase that I can find is an Oct. 18, 2006, press release from the National Shooting Sports Foundation about the NSGA survey. The numbers in that press release bear no resemblance to the numbers in the NSGA survey.

It's possible that the NSGA had different survey results out last year, and the National Shooting Sports Foundation was referring to something entirely different that included radically different numbers. But I doubt that - numbers just don't normally jump around that much from year to year.

So, being a lifelong journalist, a journalism professor and an incurable geek, I tracked all subsequent references in the media to see how the numbers morphed. It's a fascinating trail that wanders through hunting organizations, a university, and newspapers small and large - including The Washington Post. You can watch the total number of women hunters jump around between 2.4 million, 3 million and 3.4 million. You can watch the origin of the stats migrate from the National Sporting Goods Association to the National Shooting Sports Foundation to the National Rifle Association.

Click on the chart below if you want to see what happened. Meanwhile, I'll keep trying to figure out if there's any truth to this 72 percent increase, or if it was all just a sad game of Telephone in which we - including myself - all blindly repeated what we think we heard as if it were the gospel.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Friday, December 14, 2007

Our declining numbers???

One of my first posts on this blog was on a news story about the growing number of women hunters. The relevant part of the story:

A 2005 five-year survey by the National Sporting Goods Association painted a rosier picture of female hunting participation, claiming a 72 percent increase nationwide.
But later, I blogged on detailed stats from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that report 1 percent of women hunt. Twenty-year huntress Dana contacted me and said, "I was looking at your stats on how many women versus men hunt. We are still at only 1%?"

I hadn't thought about that, but when I read through the Fish and Wildlife reports and saw us hovering at 1 percent since 1991, I realized I needed more detail - like a couple decimal places - to see what was really happening with women. I got it yesterday, and sorry Dana, you're gonna be depressed about this:

Both the number of women hunters and the percentage of women who hunt have declined steadily since 1996.

You can click on the images to see the exact numbers enlarged, but you probably get the idea.

Seeing these numbers, I'm now on a mission to find out what's going on. The most important question is what happened to make the 1996 numbers spike like that? I wasn't hunting then, but I have a pretty good guess: Becoming an Outdoorswoman started in 1991, and the program reports that 20,000 women participate in it every year.

If I'm right, this is really important, because it shows that a concerted effort will work, and if we want more women to hunt, we need to support these efforts.

But what's also noteworthy here is the slippage. We still have more women hunting than before BOW started, but it's clear many women who tried it didn't stick with it. As it is with many sports, recruitment is only half the battle; retention is the rest.

Why does any of this matter? Well, as with animal species in general and human subgroups in particular, we're all biologically driven to perpetuate ourselves and ensure the survival of our kind.

But I think the role of women in hunting is more important than that: I think we're a crucial political force. Every hunter who pays any attention to politics knows that declining numbers of hunters means increasing danger of losing our right to hunt. As long as hunters are a fringe group, it's easy for mainstream politics to marginalize us.

But if hunters are a healthy and diverse group representing many facets of our society, we have clout. And if you don't think women are an important part of the electorate, check out all the jockeying in the Democratic presidential primary these days.

I'd love to hear from other hunters out there about other potential reasons for the 1996 spike, and your thoughts on the subsequent decline.

Meanwhile, I'm still working with Fish and Wildlife to get more detailed stats - including updated numbers on women's hunting expenditures. And I definitely want to find out why the National Sporting Goods Association numbers paint a picture so different from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife numbers. I'll keep you posted.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Women hunters and the pocketbook

We all know women are a minority among hunters: According to the latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service census, only 9 percent of hunters are women, and only 1 percent of U.S. women hunt.

That doesn't surprise me - all you have to do is look around at the wildlife refuges where I hunt to see that's true.

But here's what does surprise me: The latest Fish and Wildlife analysis of gender and race stats (which unfortunately dates back to 2001), shows women spend substantially less on hunting equipment than the average hunter - about 42 percent less, or $255 a year, compared with $442 for all hunters. (Click on the chart to enlarge it.)

Most of the stats don't worry me, but this one does, and here's why: Spending equals clout. The market bends to those who spend. How can we expect manufacturers to create more products suited to our special needs, such as clothes that actually fit, if we're proven spendthrifts?

There are all sorts of reasons why we see this spending gap. One I hear often is that women hunters are often mothers who are accustomed to squirreling away resources for family and home, rarely indulging in gifts to themselves. Fortunately, I do not suffer from this affliction. I've already spent more than the national average for all hunters this year - one game cart, one Game Ear, tons of ammo and bam! there's a big hole in my credit card.

And I admit this is pure speculation, but I suspect the other reason is many of us come to hunting by invitation of our boyfriends and husbands.

My new friend Dana - whom I met through this blog - has been hunting for 20 years, and she's been on a mission to get women to try hunting with her. She says it's almost impossible - they just won't do it. And I have to admit: If it had been a female friend who invited me to hunt instead of my boyfriend, whom I trust more than anyone else in the world, I'm not sure I would've been as quick to take it up. I don't know why; I just suspect that's the case.

Why is it relevant that our mates are the ones who bring us to hunting? Because by the time my boyfriend invites me to hunt, he's already invested thousands of dollars in the sport, much of it on equipment he can share with me. We don't need any more decoys just because there are two of us in the blind. We don't need another backpack. We don't need another knife. And if he upgrades, chances are I can use his old stuff - personally, I've already inherited three duck calls.

Obviously, it makes sense for new women hunters to get by on hand-me-downs and shared gear for a while. It's just not reasonable to spend thousands of dollars on the sport until you know you're going to love it.

But ladies, once you're in love with it, start spending like you love it. I know it's hard; much specialized clothing for women can be found only in catalogs, and we all know that most women, with our variety of body types, have to try things on to make sure they work for us.

But we need to do it. It's the only way the marketplace will ever come close to granting us true equality.

I know the manufacturers have more hunting gear for women than ever before - I'll give them that. But for me, equality means knowing I can find what I need at my local sporting goods store as often and as easily as my boyfriend can. And I'm not talking about camo underwear.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Merry Christmas!

I just had to share this amazing Christmas card from fellow hunting blogger Rex at the Deer Camp Blog. The cool thing is that it brings together - visually, at least - all of us who know each other through the blogosphere, making us look like the family we are. If you're looking for me, I'm in the lower right quadrant in a blaze orange hat and black tank top. I know, I know - not your normal hunting clothing, but hey, this is California!

And to everyone out there who celebrates other holidays this time of year, happy holidays to you, too. I heard on the radio the other day that the Brits have declared it's OK to say "Merry Christmas," so I decided to run with it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

I heart Dale Tate! No, seriously!

Today was my first day out with my newly fitted shotgun, courtesy of gunmaker Dale Tate. As with every hunt, I went out with a mixture of high hopes and well-earned fear that my hopes would be dashed by bad shooting.

My Beretta had fit reasonably well before, but on Friday, Dale altered the angles of the stock to complement my long neck and high cheekbones. The idea was that mounting the gun properly, which is vital for proper aim, would be more comfortable now. But he also warned me that proper fit alone wouldn't do the trick; I'd need to practice the correct mount diligently.

I did. I practiced Friday night, Saturday morning, Saturday night and this morning when I got up at 2:45 a.m. Then when we found ourselves comfortably ensconced in our concrete pit blind at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area with 45 minutes to go before shoot time, I practiced some more.

It felt like it was going to be a good day. There was a brisk north wind. I was at the same refuge where I got my first Aleutian just a few weeks ago. And I was hunting with the same crew I'd hunted with on a wonderful opening weekend: my boyfriend and our friends Matt and Evan, they guy who took me turkey hunting before Thanksgiving.

When the first shootable ducks came overhead ... well, they came right overhead, which is a pretty hard shot. I mounted my gun, fitted my cheek snugly on the stock, fired once and missed. But I wasn't worried yet, because, hell, it was an overhead shot.

When the next batch came in, they did so at a more hospitable angle - maybe 60 degrees up, instead of 90. I mounted slowly and carefully, made sure the stock fit snugly under my cheek, fired and ...

HOLY !@#^ING $###!

I hit one on the first shot. It dropped like no duck I've ever shot has dropped before. It didn't sail; it tumbled.

I got it! I got it!

It hit the water, and I jumped out of the blind, my heart pounding. I lurched through the water, knowing that speed mattered because a crippled duck can hide in the tules in less time than it takes to reload. But as I got closer and closer to it, I saw another sight I'd never seen: My duck was belly up, and holding still.

I'd stoned it.

She was a spoonbill hen, and she was quite dead. There was nothing more to be done here, except pick her up and take her back to the blind.

This was an epic first, because it's very important to me to become a good shot. My goal is to drop birds quickly, rarely crippling them, rarely watching them sail off wounded to places where it will be up to some coyote to finish, belatedly, what I started.

This was the holy grail.

The rest of the day was almost as stunning. I got four ducks (a first for one day's take), doubling my take for the season (wow). I got my first canvasback ever. And I got a drake spoonie that had some beautiful white shoulder plumage, and I just don't care what anyone says about spoonies - they're gorgeous. My hunting partners did great too. Between the four of us, we got an amazing variety of birds that's a hallmark of Yolo Bypass: a mallard, a cinnamon teal, two canvasbacks, three spoonies, four pintails and four scaup.

None of the rest of my shots today was as good as the one that stoned the spoonie hen. But that's OK.

On past hunts when I've downed ducks, I was never quite sure what I'd done right, so I had no idea how to replicate the successful shots. But this one is burned into my memory. I know what the butt of the gun felt like on my shoulder, what the stock felt like on my cheek, what the picture looked like on my retina. It is the precise combination that I will try to repeat every time I hunt. It is the feeling I will seek to reproduce when I practice mounting my shotgun in front of the mirror. It's what I'm supposed to do.

Now, I'm finally getting somewhere.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Friday, December 7, 2007

Guns for Grrrrrrls - Part Two

I hate shooting badly, so I'm always looking for the reasons that I miss my targets. The primary one has to be that I'm just new at this, and it's going to take a little practice to become a modern Annie Oakley.

But after posting recently about a thread on the Duck Hunting Chat on guns that fit women, I got to thinking about how my shotgun, a Beretta Urika AL391, fit me. It's a thought that ultimately led me to spend this morning to the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve with gunmaker Dale Tate.

When I took my first shooting lesson last year, my instructor said my gun seemed to fit pretty well, and that I should just adjust the cast - the left or right tilt of the stock - for left-handed shooting. I did that, and things seemed to go well at the shooting range. For a while.

This summer, though, I found myself in an irritating slump on skeet. My instructor happened to be on the range during one of my stunning exhibitions of bad shooting, and he suggested I set up a lesson with him to see what was ailing me. I did, and he did that unnerving thing where he stands right in front of the muzzle, looking down the barrel to see where my eye is. It took him a millisecond to realize I wasn't positioning my cheekbone snugly over the stock, which is vital. He stepped over to me, mushed my face down on the stock, and proceeded to watch me slay clays.

Cool, I thought.

But I started to realize that it was really uncomfortable getting my face in the right position, and what was merely uncomfortable on the range was, in practice, nearly impossible in the field when the sight of a bird coming into range causes my adrenaline to explode. Perhaps it was my gun's fit.

My boyfriend had gone to this fantastic gunmaker, Dale Tate at the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve near Ione, to get his gun fitted, and I decided perhaps I should do the same. Today was the day.

Dale took one look at me this morning and repeated what all my hair stylists have said: Long neck, high cheekbones. For my hair, this is a plus - the gift of many options for hair style. For my shooting, this means an off-the-shelf gun simply won't fit. This is why it was uncomfortable smushing my cheek on the stock - I was contorting my neck.

He got to work, adjusting the drop of the gun so the butt tilts down lower, and the cast so it tilts more sharply to the left. We went out one of Camanche's sporting clays courses so he could see how I was shooting, then went back inside his workshop for further adjustments.

The whole affair - gun adjustments and the shooting lesson that came with them - set me back about one-third the cost of the gun. But my gun feels a LOT better, and I did some decent shooting today.

The lesson was huge - Dale was very clear on the fact that practice is vital, and gun fitting alone wouldn't do the trick. When I first started shooting, I would diligently practice mounting my shotgun in the mirror, but once I started shooting regularly on the range or in the marsh, I stopped practicing. Bad move!

But Dale also confirmed what I'd begun hearing: Women don't need special guns made for a woman's size; they need what all shooters need - guns that fit them properly.

Now that I've got that, it's up to me to hold up my end of the bargain: practice, practice, practice.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Sometimes persistence pays

After hunting on public refuges and private land for most of this season, my boyfriend and I were back in the rice fields again on Sunday, this time on some private club land north in the Marysville/Yuba City area.

The forecast called for wind (good!) but when we got set up in our blind, it was very quiet and still. Too still: not many shotgun blasts at all. We looked up and saw lots of birds flying high and fast and we realized the wind was at a higher elevation. Minutes turned into hours, and we never lifted our shotguns.

Finally, around 9:30 a.m. - a good three hours into shoot time - we saw the hunting party in the nearest blind take off, without having fired any shots themselves. The morning was like so many we experienced last year - deathly still - that we were tempted to leave as well. But we knew the forecast called for serious wind by noon.

It wasn't 15 minutes later that the wind started picking up, and the birds dropped to lower altitudes. Bam! A small flock of pintails dropped in. We dropped one. Twenty minutes later, Bam! Another flock of pintails. We dropped another. And within an hour, a small V of specklebelly geese that had been tormenting us from high altitudes came within range. We dropped two!

So, you see, sometimes persistence pays.

When we dropped the specks, I didn't think I'd hit one, and I didn't even realize we'd dropped two until my boyfriend jumped out of the blind and said, You get this one! I'll go after that one!

I got my assigned bird just fine - its wing was shattered, and there would be no chase. But the one my boyfriend went after apparently wasn't hurt too badly (must've been my shot!), because it boogied away from him pretty darn quickly. It swam to the nearest check - the narrow strip of earth separating rice fields - hopped over, swam toward the next check, and hopped over that one too.

Definitely my shot.

The problem was, the bird was never close enough for my boyfriend to fire another shot at it, and when he got to the last place where he'd seen the bird, he couldn't find it.

I saw he was empty handed and went to join him in the search. He was exhausted from trying to run through mud and water (try it sometime!), so I said, You go back, I'll keep looking for a while. It was probably was my fault anyway.

I walked along the check where the goose had likely taken refuge, and saw how difficult it was going to be. Tall tule grass was growing alongside the check, and cut grass had piled up against it all, forming a thousand little hiding places in the water. I walked the length of the check, slogging through the piled up grass, reaching down and pulling grass away to see if I could find our goose, looking for any hint of white belly or orange webbed feet. I must've spent half an hour at it. We hate losing birds. I really wanted to find it.

But I didn't.

So, you see, sometimes persistence doesn't pay.

We need a dog, I said when I got back to the blind. A dog would have found that bird.

He grunted. It's not really in our budget to buy a quality, trained hunting dog. And I don't know the first thing about hunting with a dog, so I'm not in a position to train one myself.

But it's not something my conscience can take, losing a bird I've shot. Guess I'd better start saving money and persuading my beloved. After all, sometimes, persistence pays.

© Holly A. Heyser 2007

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Diana the Huntress

I found this young woman on an AOL blog and couldn't resist sharing - her mother describes her as "My Huntress Diana." Looks like she couldn't be better named! She's shown here with her first buck ever. Check out the blog for photos of the does she got a few days earlier.

Postscript: I've been corresponding with the Huntress' mom and turns out Diana isn't actually her daughter's name - just a nickname. But it's still a good one!