Thursday, January 31, 2008

This newspaper story about women hunting REALLY matters

There's a cool write-up today in my hometown paper - The Sacramento Bee - about women hunters. Click here to read the story. And do you see how there are no comments on it yet (as of 6 a.m.)? Dear readers, feel free to express your appreciation.

Why does this story matter? Sacramento is the capital of a state that tends to have some aggressive anti-hunters in positions of power. Just check out our Fish & Game Commission's recent decision to ban lead .22 ammunition in a vast portion of California with no evidence it's causing harm (certainly no more harm than the myriad other uses of lead allowed for things like fishing weights and wheel balancing). And did I mention there's no non-lead ammunition to replace it? Brilliant. They definitely wouldn't do that to any other constituency.

I doubt we can change the hardcore antis' minds about hunting. But what we can do is inform the vast number of people who are on the fence, or merely don't know much about the sport, what hunting is really all about.

For far too long we've let ourselves be defined by the non-hunting public as a bunch of redneck poachers. It's easy to legislate against that. But when our leaders find out that a diverse constituency - both in gender and ethnicity - participates in a sport that's responsible for major habitat conservation and restoration, we become a little harder to demonize.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Re-educating the huntress

Waterfowl season ended Sunday, and classes at my university began promptly on Monday. I washed and stored all my camo, then dusted off the nice clothes and prepared to re-enter civilization.

The transition, though, has not been easy.

Whenever I'm in my office on campus, I get bombarded by students. They way it usually works is that they are already saying what's on their mind as they walk in, never checking to see if anyone else is already talking to me. When it happened for the fourth or fifth time on Tuesday, I was in the middle of writing down a nine-digit code that a student was reading to me.

Without thinking, or saying a word, or even looking up, I shot out my hand with the universal shush signal - the imperious "talk to the hand." The student ricocheted out of there as I realized what I'd done.

When ducks are coming in and somebody starts chatting, the hand is an appropriate response. You certainly can't yell. But in the classroom? Incredibly rude. I never do that to my students.

"Excuse me," I said to the student with the nine-digit number, and I rushed out to explain and apologize to the interloper. She laughed when I told her. Whew. Fortunately, it entertains my kids endlessly that I'm a duck hunter. They indulge me.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, January 28, 2008

The agonizing nine-month California waterfowl ceasefire begins

Not like this. Not like this!

Three minutes. One minute. Fifteen seconds. No birds. That's how the 2007-08 California waterfowl season ended for me at 5:20 p.m. Sunday.

Actually, it was amazing that we even got to hunt. Boyfriend and I zipped up to the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge in the morning. On the drive up I-5, we marveled at the standing water everywhere. We were in the midst of a storm that's dumped rain and big wind on us for the better part of a week. Coyotes were everywhere. Hunting for rodents driven out of their holes maybe?

When we got to Maxwell Road, there was a barrier in our lane. "Road Closed," the sign said.

"I don't like that sign," I said, driving around it. But of course, there was a reason for it. About half a mile later, we found the road was flooded. We debated the merits of driving through water. It wasn't much of a debate - it's just a bad idea.

I dialed up the Sacramento Refuge Complex to see if there was another way into Delevan. "Everything's closed," the woman said. "The only place you're going to get on is Sacramento."

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge was only 15 minutes up the road, so we turned around and kept going north. Amazingly enough - even with most of the public hunting lands closed due to flooding - there wasn't a huge line to get on. We called our friend Tom while he was in church (I know, bad!) to see if he was going to join us. He did, and we all got into our blind around noon.

I was optimistic. We had a stiff south wind and gorgeous skies, with the clouds whipped into crazy patterns like you see on photos of the surface of Jupiter. It was stunning. Periodically, the clouds would break over the coastal mountain range, and the sunlight would reveal an unusually low dusting of snow. You could see patches of heavy rain all around us, and occasionally on top of us. For a while, I just sat back in a clump of tules and watched.

But the birds just wouldn't come down low. I took one laughable shot at a bufflehead that zoomed over my head at light speed while I was fixing some tipped-over decoys. OK, two laughable shots. All the other birds, though, stayed about 100 yards up.

Well, there was one realistic chance for us. A group of wigeons strafed us, taking us by surprise from behind. I called to them as they sped away from us, and amazingly enough, they turned around and headed back our way, low.

Please fly in front of me, please...

They flew behind me, straight toward Boyfriend and Tom. If I stood, it would take me a second to get positioned right, at which point the birds would elevate and the guys might not get a shot. So I let 'em keep going, and I started turning around slowly.

Bam bam!

Guess they're in shooting range now.

I stood, saw no birds dropping, shot at the rapidly lifting birds and missed. I had maybe one more very iffy chance, so I pulled the trigger again and my gun jammed.

My gun never jams! I take really good care of it.

But the birds were gone.

Boyfriend and I talked about that later. We were both shooting Hevi-Shot #2s, and he'd had trouble fitting them into his gun, an over-under. I compared them to my other shells and they are in fact larger. My autoloader didn't like them. Oh well.

I'd had big dreams for closing day. It's just like New Year's Eve - you hope you get into a good party, and you hope you get a really great kiss at midnight. And typically, you get disappointed.

But I really can't complain.

Last year, I got a goose and two ducks. This year, I got a two geese and 23 ducks, including a bunch of firsts: two mallards, three scaup, one canvasback, one ruddy.

We got to hunt a lot with Matt, a hunter friend we met last season. I found a bunch of new hunting buddies this year: Evan, Dana, Hellen, Tracey and Jen. And we've made more non-hunter foodie friends who are discovering - and loving - game meats.

I have a blog with readers literally all over the world. I've joined the ProStaff of Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors. I'm moderating the women's forum on the Duck Hunting Chat. I'm starting to write for the California Waterfowl Association magazine.

Life is good.

So now it's time to attend to all the things I've been neglecting for months. Washing my car. Working on the yard. Counting the shingles that have blown off our roof in these storms and maybe doing something about it. Fixing the icemaker on the fridge after going six weeks without ice. Teaching. (Holy cow, classes start today! Yes, I have a job!) Getting ready for the SHOT Show, which I'm covering for Jesse's this weekend. There's plenty of stuff to fill the void.

And did I mention Cabela's just sent out its spring turkey hunting catalog?

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Magnificent All-Girl Hunt with Bald Pete the Traveling Wigeon Decoy

Thursday was quite possibly one of the coolest days of my life - so amazing on so many levels that it's hard to figure out where to begin.

Perhaps it's easier to start with where it ended: Four women (three huntresses and one huntress-in-training), a well-traveled wooden wigeon decoy, four mallards, two teal, one wigeon and some really tasty burgers at the Stevinson Bar & Grill.

It started at 1:30 a.m. Thursday at Dana's house with four tired girls.

Dana and I had met at 4:30 a.m. the day before at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, spending about seven hours in a cold, windy, rainy, muddy marsh to bring home seven ducks - a drake spoonie and six scaup, which were the first scaup either of us had ever gotten.

Jen had driven in straight from Sacramento, leaving before midnight after a mostly futile attempt to get some sleep.

Hellen had been too excited to sleep much the past two nights, this being only the second time she'd gone on a hunt. She's not licensed yet, so she was just along for the ride.

How we all found each other ... well, that's a long story. Just click on the photo below to see the connections.

The reason for the ungodly hour of our meeting was that Dana's favorite hunting spot is pretty popular, and we really wanted to make sure we got it for an incredibly special hunt. It's not every day you have an all-girl hunt - even the two dogs with us were female. But today we had a special guest: Bald Pete, a wooden wigeon decoy who's traveled all over the country, floating all over the North American flyways in preparation for being auctioned off at a Ducks Unlimited fundraiser.

We were the second hunting party to arrive at the river. As soon as the other hunter was off, we all piled into Dana's boat and sped off up the river, our faces slapped by a cold, wet mist, our way lit by the waning moon.

Soon, we passed the place where the other hunter had set up. Dana shot me a thumbs up - we were in! We'd get our spot.

We arrived nearly five hours before shoot time, and that's when we learned that Dana knows how to live. Soon, she'd set up propane camping heaters, and about an hour before shoot time, she was making breakfast over one of the heaters - sausage and potato burritos! There is nothing quite like hot sausage and potatoes on a cold, dark morning. We ate them ravenously, then set up decoys.

We hadn't seen many birds flying as shoot time approached, and it remained quiet for a while, except for the sound of the yipping coyotes that seemed to be all around us.

Dana, Jen, Marzee (a black lab) and I sat in the front of the blind, covered by willow branches over our heads and a shield of grass and branches in front of us. Hellen sat behind us, kicking back on a huge log and shooting video from time to time. She was kept company by Sam, a yellow lab who joined us because she was in heat and driving the boy dogs crazy back home.

When birds finally started coming in, they worked cautiously, staying just out of shooting range. Finally, a flock of teal came in. We stood and fired. I downed one on my second shot, sending it tumbling through a nearby tree. Marzee leapt out of the blind and fetched her as I breathed a sigh of relief.

As a new huntress, I still don't hit birds nearly as much as I'd like to, and I define success as going home with at least one bird.

But I wasn't alone today, so success wasn't complete.

More birds started working, and some even came low enough to shoot at. But we were on a streak of bad shooting, so none dropped.

At one point, Dana needed to avail herself of the field behind our blind. "Great!" I said. "That always brings the birds in!"

And no sooner had she walked away than two hen teal landed in the water just feet from Bald Pete, right in front of our blind.

"Jen! Look!"

She scooted over and spotted them.

"On the count of three, let's stand up and take 'em. ... One ... two ... three!"

We stood. The birds lifted. We fired. And fired. And fired. And finally one of them dropped on the other shore. Marzee sped off, scrambled around, and brought us the bird.

"Was that your shot?" I asked Jen. "I don't think it was mine."

Score one for Jen. Now it was Dana's turn.

We got a small group of mallards working, circling over us again and again, cautious after 15 weeks of being a legal target for the legions of camo-clad hunters. We stood and fired.

OK, Dana and Jen fired. I had that little problem I get from time to time where I press the safety really hard and wonder why my gun isn't firing, then realize I'm not actually pulling the trigger. Man, I hate that.

But Jen had downed a drake, and Dana had downed a drake and a hen. We got the drakes fine, but the hen was disappearing down the river. The dog searched the riverbanks and finally found the nearly invisible duck, bringing her back to us. Bravo!

After that, we had a slow but fairly steady stream of ducks checking us out. During one particularly quiet moment, we saw something swimming deliberately upstream across the opposite shore.

"Is that a duck?" Dana whispered.

I looked. "No, I think it's an otter."

"Wait, are you sure that's not a duck?" Jen asked.

There was a hen-colored thing leading the wake.

"No," I said. "I'm sure that's an otter."

Then I looked up.

"But that's a duck!" I said, standing to fire at a bird that must have been equally distracted by the otter not to have noticed us gawking.

I fired. They fired. We all missed.

Oh, the shame!

But before long, we had another bird fly right down the river. We stood and fired, and I swear each of us hit the bird before he finally dropped. But he was what we really wanted: a drake wigeon, just like Bald Pete!

"Man, we all hit that!" I said when Dana took the bird from Marzee.

She looked around, saw her two mallards, Jen's teal and mallard and my lone teal, then handed the wigeon to me. Sweet!

We started talking about when we should leave. We wanted to meet Dana's hunting buddy, Dawnyel, for lunch. And all of us wanted to get some sleep.

We'd call it quits at 10:30, we said.

At 10:45, we said 11.

At 11, we said 11:30.

But there were no more birds. At least none that we hit.

A couple of Dana's buddies came motoring down the river, and she invited them to take our blind because we were leaving, and by the way, could they give her a lift to her boat?

"Leave your guns loaded," she told Jen and me as she hopped into their boat.

"Yeah, I'd like to get just one banded mallard," I said.

We all agreed I should do that, and Dana left Jen and me standing watch.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Dana pulled up in her boat and began rounding up her decoys, and naturally, a group of mallards started working. I hit my wigeon whistle. Dana hunkered down in the water, chuckling on her mallard call.

The birds circled, then went behind us. Jen and I strained to see if they'd circle back. Then I looked forward and saw a lone mallard coming straight in for us.

"Take him!" I said, and we stood and fired.

He went down!

Marzee fetched him and brought him back to us and we all waited to see. Would our last shot of the day be made to order? Would he be banded?


But at least I'd go home with a mallard.

As we prepared to trade places with the guys, Jen and I stood our ground, guns loaded and ready for any more suicidal ducks that might come our way.

But there would be no more. We piled into the boat and off we went down the river.

We met Dawnyel at the Stevinson Bar & Grill, clomping in in our waders, unwilling to let anything get between us and our burgers.

While waiting for our food, we followed the bar's tradition of defacing U.S. legal tender with commemorative commentary, then stapling it to the wall.

As we ate, we discussed our grand plans for sleep.

Well, most of us. Not Dana. "I'm gonna go out again tomorrow," she declared. "Wanna go with me?"

"Are you nuts?" I said.

I was exhausted, and I had work to do, so I really couldn't. "But hey, more power to ya!"

Back at Dana's house, we did our own take on the traditional and usually unglamorous tailgate shots. This was Pete's only all-girl hunt, and it was important to document it thoroughly. For a group of women who'd started out so exhausted, we were remarkably full of pep.

It's pretty amazing what a good day of hunting with new friends can do for you.


As I was penning this tale, my phone alerted me to an incoming text message. It was Dana. She had just gotten back from hunting the same spot.

"Bill and I slammed all mallards," she wrote.

"1 band."


Hellen has now weighed in on her blog. Check out her really interesting perspective on the hunt here. In addition to her usual insights and wit, she has decided to share with you a picture of me drinking tequila in bed the night before the hunt. Ah, so flattering.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The First Lady of Waterfowling

Note to self: Next time I even think about feeling sorry for myself as a female hunter who's been disrespected - whether by male hunters or hunting gear manufacturers - I need to stop and think about Ellie Sharp.

I met this amazing woman Monday at a California Waterfowl Association event, where she was honored with the organization's first ever Artemis Award. The event also marked the kickoff of CWAs' Women's Outdoor Connections Initiative.

Mrs. Sharp, who hunted until the age of 98 (she's 101 now), was the first woman ever admitted to a duck hunting club in California. She took up hunting after she married husband Jim Sharp in 1932 and insisted on going along with him. He was cool with it, but the other hunters? Not so much. The first club they frequented made her sleep on the porch! After a year of her persistence, they finally invited her to become a member and she said thanks, but no thanks. She, her husband and her father then started their own club - the Flamingo Duck Club in District 10 near Marysville.

Sharp became the wellspring of a huntress dynasty. When she met her daughter's suitor, Charles Reese, in 1964, she had few questions for him:

"So, you're interested in my daughter," she began. "Do you fish?"

"Yes," he said.

"Do you ski?"

"A little," he said.

"Will you learn?"

"Yes," he said.

"Do you hunt?"

"Yes," he said.

"You're fine," Sharp declared.

Together they went out hunting with Sharp's granddaughter Clarissa, when she was just a baby, and she took to it immediately, squealing with delight when her dad fired his gun. She later took up hunting herself, becoming an excellent shot and a fantastic caller. Great-granddaughter Olivia is a mere toddler now, but the family reports she's taking a liking to hunting as well.

The nexus between Sharp's amazing story and what CWA is doing with it's women's initiative is clear: California has a fantastic history of women's involvement in hunting, and it's worth building on.

So, how did I find out about this? Well, that huntress I went out with two weekends ago, Tracey, is Tracey Fremd, an associate board member of CWA and co-chair of the Women's Outdoor Connections Initiative. She invited me to Monday's event.

To learn more about Sharp and the women's initiative, check out this article in today's Contra Costa Times.

And given that I totally support what the CWA's doing with this project, I'm guessing you'll be reading more about it in this blog.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Do the right thing ... with a bull sprig?

When Boyfriend and I went out for one of our last hunts of the season at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area today, we set our expectations low. It was going to be bright and sunny with very little wind. And I'd been skunked on my last two trips to Yolo.

But the wind picked up unexpectedly, and there were plenty of ducks flying around. In very short order, I had gotten my first ever ruddy duck, and my first ever greenwing teal, a beautiful and tasty little duck.

Boyfriend got a scaup, and later a gadwall. Our friend Matt got his first snow goose. And his buddy Mike - a longtime deer hunter new to waterfowling - got his first duck ever: a scaup.

When I picked up my second duck, I had a feeling that would be it for me today. But hope springs eternal, because what I really wanted was a pintail drake, also known as a bull sprig. I've never gotten one. Seemed like it was about time.

The problem was that the guys in the neighboring blind had a fantastic setup - they brought a spinning-wing decoy that simulates the flapping wings of a landing duck, while we'd left our wind-powered spinning decoy at home. And they had a kite that looked like a snow goose getting ready to land.

That blind was like a black hole that sucked in all the pintails in the area. Those birds wouldn't even look at us.

I was watching as about half a dozen went in almost on top of those hunters, as sure and steady as a flock of 747s coming in for a synchronized landing. Bam bam bam bam bam! One bird dropped. The rest flew off.

I watched, just in case the ducks' IQ might drop enough for them to head our way. And as one of the hunters in the blind went out to pick up that bird, I saw one of the other birds in that flock swing around low and unsteady. He'd been hit.

Come near me! If I'm the one who knocks you down, you're mine.

As the bird flew along about 100 yards from me, it dropped suddenly, as if it had been shot again. But it hadn't. It just couldn't go anymore.

I looked back to the other blind. No one got up. Those guys hadn't seen the bird go down. They didn't know they'd hit it.

Well, hell, I'll go get it. I'm not letting a bird go waste.

As I charged toward the spot where the bird dropped - just across a road that bordered our pond - I had a conversation with my conscience.

If I had fired the finishing shot on a wounded bird, I'd have no qualms claiming that bird as mine. But this was their shot, clean and simple. I'll go find it, and hand it to them. Good karma.

When I got to the road and looked around, I couldn't see the duck. Then I looked a little farther to my right, and there he was, in the water, head up.


Bull sprig.

He saw me, and bolted for the edge of the pond, where he could hide in the grass. I quickly lifted my gun and fired where I saw him dive for cover, then rushed to the spot. And there he was. Bull sprig. Oh, how I wanted a bull sprig.

As I got up to walk back, I saw that one of the hunters from that blind was headed my way. We met, in the middle of the water.

"You didn't see him fall, did you?" I asked. "He flew over here, then just dropped."

"I owe you a shell," he said, handing me one of his.

"I shoot 20 gauge," I said. "But my friends shoot 12. I'll give it to them."

And I walked back to my blind.

I'd like to think that I would've stuck to my plan and given him the bird even if I hadn't seen him walking toward me.

But already, I was rationalizing to myself.

Dude, the only reason you know you hit this bird is because I went and got it for you.

I guess I'll never know, will I?

All I know is the ducks I got today, I got honestly.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Hunters and foodies unite!

Boyfriend and I live with one foot in the hunting world and the other in the foodie world. This season, those groups have really started coming together ... sometimes better than the hunters themselves do.

Having been blessed with some good hunting and a full freezer, we've been sharing game with our friends, and one of them is Elise Bauer of Simply Recipes, an insanely popular food blog. We sent her off recently with three teal, including one I'd gotten while hunting with the boys in the Delta.

She had never cooked wild duck before, and she blogged about the experience this week. It was especially cool to see everyone's reaction. As a hunter, you get to the point where you brace for serious negativity whenever you see hunting brought up in a non-hunting forum, but Elise's audience passed that nonsense and went straight to the talk about food.

It was also cool seeing a picture of my duck in Elise's kitchen. How did I recognize it? Unfortunately, my duck slapped the water hard when she went down, so her otherwise unsullied breast meat was a tad bruised.

Ironically, as Elise was blogging appreciatively about the duck I got that day in the Delta, another hunter had stumbled onto my story about that hunt and posted something unkind about it (titled "The secret is out fellas") on The Refuge Forums. Another hunter quickly chimed in and referred to my blog as "crap." In the end, six more hunters - only two of whom I know - came to my defense.

But who'd've thunk I'd be taking crap from fellow hunters while getting thumbs up from non-hunters?

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, January 18, 2008

Snow goose: prize and punishment

Epilogue to Wednesday's Hunt

Somewhere in my second hour of plucking my snow goose on Thursday, I saw through my garage window that the UPS man had pulled up. My new shotshell pouch from Cabela's!

Eager for a break, I hit the button and opened the garage door to greet him, positively covered in goose down.

He surveyed the scene in my garage.

"My least favorite part!" he said.

"I know," I said. "And this is a snow goose, so it's taking forever."

"That's why I just breast 'em out," he said, handing me my package.

Snow geese are the worst. It seemed like most feathers had to come out one at a time. And there were a lot of them.

But Boyfriend (a serious cook) and I have never breasted out a bird. We try hard to use every part of it, right down to the feet, which get a good scrubbing and go into the stockpot to make broths even more heavenly.

Even faced with the king of difficult birds, I couldn't imagine just taking the breasts. If I've got the cajones to kill a bird, I should have the decency to spend some time on it, shouldn't I? I mean, it died to be my dinner, so what's a couple hours of my life?

Between plucking and gutting, I spent literally two and a half hours on this bird. The reward was admiring the beauty of its feathers and down for almost that entire time. Being a freelance photographer, I had to snap a few photos to catch the strange beauty of the scene.

You can click on each photo if you want to see it in more detail. Warning: The last one is a bit graphic, so please don't scroll down if you don't want to be grossed out. But it's so vivid - and so much a part of the process of waterfowl hunting - that I had to include it here. Please let me know what you think!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lies a huntress tells herself & loved ones

"I'm not going out tomorrow."
- Me, to my boyfriend, Tuesday, acknowledging I was coming down with a cold

"I’m tempted to try to go to Delevan today ... just to get a last hurrah before this storm hits my body. But I know that’s stupid.
- Me, to my friend Dana, by email this morning

Yeah, so my boyfriend came down with this nasty cold last weekend and it took him out of our Sunday hunt, which was a drag. Then I started coming down with it, and, uh, I've got plans. But I was going to be a good girl. I canceled my planned Thursday hunt with Dana, who does not desire this cold for herself. And I decided to stay home today so I could fight the cold fast and be well for our planned Sunday hunt with our friend Matt.

Then I heard it on the radio: High winds.

"Dammit!" I yelled in the general direction of my boyfriend. "Did you hear that???"

High winds can produce some really nice duck hunting. We've had a run of windless days, and now that I was laid up, here was the wind. Eleven days to go before the season's over. Me at home. On a refuge hunt day.


Boyfriend walked in to see what the caterwauling was about. I showed him the forecast for the happiest place on earth, Delevan National Wildlife Refuge: 15 mph north and northwest winds, gusts up to 24 mph.

"You know... " he said. My loving co-conspirator. We hatched a plan: I should hunt today, because even if it made me sicker, I'd've at least gotten out in the good duck weather, which surely would not stay with us until our Sunday hunt.

That's how I found myself out in Pond 11 today, blazing away at ducks and snow geese struggling mightily to advance in the crazy north wind. Everything was flying low!

But wow, everything was really hard to hit. I missed a lot. My first hit was a snow goose, but geese are hard to take down, unless you hit their wings or their heads. I saw him do a bit of a mid-air stagger, but he kept flapping those massive wings.

Man, he's probably gonna just drop somewhere else and die.

I was disgusted. Minutes later, though, as I was shifting my position in my pond, I saw a snow goose sail in front of me, obviously struggling. It sailed past my pond and dropped into the next one.

I started hoofing it over there. If it wasn't mine, it was at the very least karma: I hit a goose, I got a goose. When I got to the edge of my pond, I could see that goose in the next pond - in the water, head down, dead.

And there was a canal between me and the next pond.

Crap, was I going to have to hike around the canal? Should I try to cross it?

Just then, Providence sent me a little gift: two hunters calling it a day, walking toward me, on the other side of the canal. They saw me looking flustered about that goose. Using hand signals - with wind like that, there's just no point talking - I made my plight clear. One of them fetched that goose and tossed it over the canal for me. Wow. Yay!

Yes! I wouldn't go home empty handed. At this stage in my education as a hunter, merely having one bird in hand is success.

But... I really wanted one that I knew for sure was my shot. The only problem was I just kept missing everything. As I was standing in a clump of tules wondering why I sucked so bad, I saw a duck drop into the water in front of me, maybe 50-60 yards out. Taunting distance.

I watched her. I watched geese overhead. She swam away. She swam back. Then something amazing happened: She lifted off the water, and flew straight toward me. This never happens!

I stood and fired. Missed. Fired again. Missed again. Fired a third time, and thank God I actually hit her. She sailed down in front of me, hitting water where I couldn't see her because tules obstructed my view. I stumbled out of my clump of tules, falling to my knees in the water and lurching out of the water just as quickly. Must not lose this duck!

When I rounded the corner to look where she should be, she was actually there. I picked her up: hen gadwall. Sweet.

Not long after this, while I was blazing away at and missing a variety of other ducks, I realized I was running out of shells. I remembered the scene from that morning when I was getting ready to head out.

I grabbed my bag of 25 shells from the safe. They were all counted out perfectly, and for good reason: There's a 25-shell limit when you're out in the field on public refuges here. You can go back to your car for more, but I have never done that. I'm usually so far from my car that it wouldn't be worth it. Why bother bringing extras?

I closed the safe.

Then I opened it again and grabbed another box to leave in my car.

Whew! Turns out my blind today was literally a stone's throw from my car. I went back for a refill and returned to the blind.

I was grateful for the reload, because I shot a lot after that. But I didn't hit a damned thing. I would have to settle for what I had in hand - which was so much better than how I did last year as a new huntress that I was pretty happy.

And by the time I got back to my car, I was pretty beat. Felt great during the hunt, but pulling up the decoys and hauling them across the water turned out to be a huge ordeal in the wind. By the time I got everything back on my game cart, my chest was heaving from the effort.

Not good when you have a cold.

As I headed home, I fantasized about a nice hot toddy and prayed that I hadn't just given myself pneumonia.

Who knows. Everything else went great today - maybe I'll get lucky on this one too.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Huntresses coming out of the woodwork

Just a year ago, being a woman duck hunter was a lonely proposition. Now, it seems they're all coming out of the woodwork.

First there was Dana, a 20-year duck huntress who found me through this blog. Then there was Hellen, a colleague and future duck huntress just waiting for someone to show her the way.

And now there's Tracey. When I posted a story about my hunt with Dana on the Duck Hunting Chat, another hunter told me I should hook up with his ex-wife, who's an avid duck hunter.

Sure! I said. She and I exchanged emails and I found out she's avid indeed - she's been hunting for 40 years - and you can tell from her picture that means she picked up a gun when she was a very little girl!

We met for the first time at 4 a.m. Sunday for a hunt at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area with my friend Matt.

It was not a glorious hunt. Fog, no wind, wary ducks. One of the highlights of the bird action came when Tracey and I watched a duck zoom over our heads, too high to shoot, and just barely avert a midair collision with a crossing seagull. The other highlight was our close brush with a few pintails.

Those ducks are incredibly smart, and it's hard to lure them in, particularly when your blind is in an island where all the tules have been beat down to a muddy pulp.

"Let me try something," I told Tracey and Matt. I got out of the blind, grabbed a few of my pintail decoys and set up on the outside edge of a nearby set of tules. The dekes were close to me, so from the birds' perspective, my call would be coming from the right direction. I pressed myself up against the tules and did what Hellen had instinctively tried when she joined me for her very first hunt at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge on Jan. 2: I worked my legs from time to time, marching in place, to ripple and muddy the water around my decoys. Then I hit the call.

I actually got a few pintails to circle! I whistled. They circled. I whistled more. They circled closer. I whistled ... carefully ... whistled ... this is it ... get ready ...

And then the hunters at one of the adjacent blinds fired at a duck in their neighborhood.

That was it. In an instant, the pintails lifted about 20 yards and banked off, never to return.

It was like pulling the arm on the slot machine and watching the sevens line up one by one, only to have some irrelevant piece of fruit pop up at the end. I, of course, continued popping quarters in the machine, repeating the strategy for another hour and a half in hopes I could hit the jackpot.

But that was it.

Matt went home with two scaup he'd picked up early in the shoot. Tracey and I left empty-handed.

Well, not empty-handed. With such a slow flight, Tracey had plenty of time to take pictures, so now I have this delightful shot of myself, distracted by ducks, for some reason holding my gun with pinky finger lifted. What's that about? Oh well!

But more importantly, I have another new huntress friend. Undoubtedly, there will be better shoot days for us in the future.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Recipe: Pheasant Peanut Stew

PhotobucketThe boyfriend and I weren't hunting on Saturday for some reason, so we found ourselves at our local farmer's market, perusing the area's winter produce. I spotted some sweet potatoes and it came to me in a rush - something to do with that pheasant I got back on the opener in November!

I have this old recipe for a chicken-peanut stew that I just love, and it works really well for pheasant too. (Perversely, I adapted it from a recipe in a vegetarian cookbook that I accidentally bought.) It's West African, so it combines sweet and spicy flavors: sweet potatoes, tomato juice, apple juice, peanut butter, ginger and chili, among other ingredients. It is rich and somehow especially delicious on a gray winter day. Done right, it's so juicy that you must have something like cornbread to sop it up. Sooooo good!

You can cook it in a Dutch oven or a Crock-Pot, depending on how long you want your house to smell heavenly and how much you want your neighbors to drop in hoping it's dinner time. If you use the Dutch oven, it's a one-pot dish.

We had it last night - with the pheasant pictured above - and it was fantastic.

Some notes about the ingredients: I'm a purist, so I like to use natural peanut butter - just peanuts, oil and salt. But I resist the urge to buy "fresh tomatoes" at the grocery store this time of year because they're junk. You're much better off with canned - if you want flavor, that is.

When you run out of pheasant, you can try this with six chicken thighs for a higher-fat, but also ridiculously delicious meal.

And remember: All amounts are estimates. Don't get obsessed with exact measurements. If the end product is juicy and tastes and smells wonderful, you've done it right.

Click on the image below for a printable version of the recipe, and enjoy!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Shopping with the duck-huntress-to-be

Ya know how it is watching young kids enjoy Christmas, the way you get to relive a bit of your childhood?

That's what it's been like for me this month watching my friend and colleague Hellen take steps toward becoming a waterfowl huntress.

Hellen, who joined me at Delevan last week to observe her first duck hunt, knows she can't realistically get ready to hunt before the waterfowl season ends in three weekends. She still has to take her hunter safety course, get licensed, buy a gun, endure the 10-day waiting period, get the gun fitted and take a couple shooting lessons. Not gonna happen.

But that's not stopping her from becoming an important part of the economy. Yesterday, I took her (and her husband Derek) out for her first trip to area hunting stores (Wild Sports in Orangevale and Sportsman's Warehouse in Rocklin) and helped her shop for things she can use as she continues to accompany me and my friends on hunts this month.

Watching her discover fun new toys - and some of the problems with them - is... Well, there's no way I can do justice to the story. You've got to read it on her blog. But I'll give you a clue: The Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum picture is up here for a reason.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Duck hunting with the boys in the Delta

Last year, my boyfriend went out for an afternoon shoot at a friend's duck-hunting club in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and I wasn't invited. There wasn't room, and I didn't know the guy, so I was out of luck. I was bummed.

This year, though, things were different. I'd hunted doves with Tom in September, and when the invitation came to join him at his club this weekend, I was on the guest list.

Now when I think "club," I have visions of something, you know, clubby. Exclusive. Nice.

Saturday's excursion repaired that flaw in my thinking.

The boyfriend and I pulled up at 5 a.m. sharp - as ordered. The club's public face was a big farm outbuilding sided with corrugated metal and a ... house. Loosely speaking. As we walked up ramshackle steps onto a soggy porch, I noticed a man in camo, about five feet from the porch, urinating in the dark.

Oh no - no bathroom?

We opened the door to reveal a house about as chic as a 30-year-old trailer, and quickly found ourselves amidst something that can only be described as the detritus of a middle-aged men's slumber party.

Men everywhere, sleeping or sprawling about in camo leggings and shirts, speaking in the hoarse language of hangovers. Waders on the floor. Liquor bottles everywhere. Large bags of tortilla chips. Two recliners and a decent TV (of course!) Coffee that was being accented with an amber liquid of unknown origins. A stuffed wood duck on a log, tilting precipitously on a table, like a shipwreck. A beautiful stuffed specklebelly goose hanging over the TV by what might have been a still-twisted coathanger.

I'm fine with this. I'm very partial to men, and I forgive them for sometimes being blind to the aesthetic potential of daily life.

Besides, who am I to complain? Waterfowling, more than any other form of hunting in the U.S., is a male-dominated sport (just click on the chart to see the detail). I was in their house.

I sat fairly quietly as the morning talk warmed up and men gently tested the waters, speaking carefully to figure out whether I was a delicate "lady" or whether they could curse freely in front of me. (Hello! The latter, of course.) There were stirrings in one of the bedrooms and a man came out in his tightie-whities making a beeline for the bathroom.

Oh good. The bathroom works!

But I wondered: Had anyone warned these poor guys that a chick would be here? I mean, I don't care, but I wonder if Underwear Man had expected to wake up and find a woman in the middle of this haven of masculinity. Oh well.

I quickly got past visual shock of the scene because everyone was talking about Friday's hunt. There had been a huge storm that brought driving rain, 50+ mph winds and lots of crazy duck action. All over the state, there were reports of the most amazing shoots ever. And at this club, they'd brought in more than 100 birds.

The question was, would it be that good today? It didn't look like it. The wind had died down and the clouds had disappeared. As shoot time approached, we all split up, headed to our boats and made our way to our blinds, motoring through corn stalks and Johnson Grass to find little outposts where decoys lay in wait and duckboats could easily be hidden.

The morning shoot was not great. Six people in our party brought in a total of four birds, my contribution being the finishing shot on a spoonie drake that had easily been hit by two or three other hunters first. (Boyfriend just got finished dressing that spoonie a little while ago, and it was not a pretty sight.) We pulled out at 9 a.m., leaving me sputtering quietly to myself. Over? Already? But the day is young! But! But! ...

But that was it.

We trudged back into the clubhouse and lit a fire in the stove. And when I listened to what Tom had to say about the club, I began to figure out how special this place really was.

Essentially, a bunch of guys got together a few years ago, bought a piece of Delta farmland and began investing in turning it back into perfect waterfowl habitat. They receive tax credits for keeping it as natural land instead of developing it for profit. Non-profit organizations work with them to improve the waterfowl habitat. And in return for their investment (and taxpayers', and non-profits'), they and their friends have a great place to hunt.

So, so what if the house ain't much to look at? The land is immaculate, and that's what they're here for. They had my respect.

After a few hours of football and wayyy too much talk about politics, the sky began to darken, the wind picked up and the rain started coming down hard.

Let's do it! our party agreed, and out we went again.

We set up in a blind and hunted, two of us in the boat, three outside, and when it became clear the birds were spotting us, we all broke up and spread out away from the boat. I found a spot hidden among some flooded cornstalks and stood hip-deep in water, my back to the wind, the rain drumming my hood. This was the visual misery depicted on the box my waders came in! Rugged stuff. This must be heaven.

There were lots of teal in the neighborhood. My teal call's nothing to write home about, but my wigeon call seemed to really get their attention, so I hit it hard.

One flock came in and I was one of two hunters to down one (in one shot, thank you!). But it fell in a patch of Johnson Grass so thick that even our party's dog couldn't find it. Note to self: Don't shoot if they can drop or sail into that grass.

Another group of three came in close enough to shoot, and over open water, but if I fired, no one else would get a chance. I held fire to let the ducks swing around, and instead they swung away. Note to self: Just shoot, you idiot.

Another group came in and I dropped one (again, one shot!), and this time she fell in open water about 20 feet from me. Because I'm so used to retrieving my own ducks, I charged after her, leaving our dog wandering around trying to find my duck for me. I'd stolen his thunder. Bad Holly!

The duck was a beautiful cinnamon teal hen. I showed her to the dog, even let him put her in his mouth so he'd understand the mission had been accomplished. He didn't get it. He swam around in the icy water for another five minutes before returning, befuddled, to his master. Note to self: Let the dog do his job.

We'd been out for a couple of hours by this point. One friend stood in the corn near me, shivering.

"Isn't your jacket waterproof?"

"No," he said. "I'm soaked."

A few minutes later, he announced his waders had sprung a leak - not cool in hip-deep water - so he went back to the boat.

My boyfriend had stopped calling because his sodden gloves were wrecking the sound. My left thumb was numb. And when we could get birds to work, we couldn't shoot worth a damn because of our shivering wet hands. With five more birds to our credit, we decided to head back in.

Back at the clubhouse, Tom's brother clapped me on the back. "This girl is tough!" he said. "When I saw someone go back to the boat, I thought it was her, but man, she stuck it out!"

I beamed.

I may not fit in their clubhouse, but I fit in their field just fine.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Foodie hunters ... most of the time

Today was my fourth hunt in seven days, and at the end of the day, a delicious irony dawned on me.

One of the reasons my boyfriend and I love hunting is that we love the quality of the meat. Since we've begun hunting, almost all the meat we eat is either hunted, pastured or otherwise raised in a way that produces healthy, nutritious meat from animals that lived decent lives. We never buy factory-farmed meat at the grocery store. Lord, it just doesn't have any flavor.

But when we left our hunt today in a car filled with sodden gear and and a bag of teal, spoonie and scaup, where's the first place we went?

Burger King.

Yes, the King, where you can get King-size servings of chemicals, additives and grease bundled up with meat from cows treated like crap. And man, it is so good when you've just spent a couple hours standing in flooded corn in Day 2 of the biggest storm to hit our region this season.

To salvage my self-esteem, I went back and read a friend's recent blog post about a wild-game dinner at our house last weekend. You'd never know from reading it that the hosts of the dinner party could be found at least once a week this time of year in a drive-thru, yelling at a crackly speaker, "I'll take the No. 5. King size, please."

And about that hunt today? It was something else - my first experience in a very guy hunting-camp atmosphere. But I'm getting up bright and early for a goose hunt tomorrow morning, so that tale will have to wait for another day.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, January 4, 2008

Hellen's hunt with Holly the hunter

Delevan National Wildlife Refuge is the place where I learned to hunt alone last year. While my boyfriend was at work on Wednesdays, I would take advantage of my academic winter break, drive up Interstate 5 in the morning and see if I could get into a blind vacated by a morning hunter.

The folks at the check station got to know me because I stood out as the only female hunter hanging around. They'd try to get me into a good blind, and when I checked out at the end of the day, look at me expectantly, then with fallen faces, as they saw I was empty-handed. Again.

"Didn't you see any ducks?" they'd ask.

"Plenty," I'd tell them. "I just missed all of them."

This week, I returned for my first winter break Wednesday hunt of the year, but this one was really special: I had my colleague Hellen with me.

I blogged about her just before Christmas: Hellen is an English professor at my university. When she and I were at graduation, I'd mentioned I was a duck hunter. She pounced on me - she'd been wanting to learn how to hunt ducks, but didn't know anyone who could show her the ropes.

We began plotting immediately. I needed to get her on a hunt to make sure she really likes it before making the investment in gun, gear and hunter safety training. And to get her on a hunt, I needed to get her in waders and full camo. Fortuitously, my waders sprung a leak in the left boot the day after Christmas, so I bought a new pair. But I also bought some Shoe Goo to see if I could repair the old ones enough to at least let Hellen spend one day in them.

I told her I'd need to work on a jacket for her, but then she started sending me emails with photos of things she'd just purchased from Cabela's - waders and a jacket of her own. She was a madwoman! Two weeks ago, she didn't even know what Cabela's was. And she had not yet even watched a duck fall. But she was so certain she would want to hunt that she was already spending serious money. What's not to love about that?

We decided Wednesday would be the day, and as I prepared her in a series of emails for what conditions would be like, I was silently praying, "Pleasepleasepleasepleaseplease don't let me suck when we're out there!" I wanted her to witness success and the good and bad that comes with it, and I wanted to look like I knew what I was doing.

As we headed up I-5, I pointed out enormous flocks of geese that stained the sky all around us.

"Where are they going?" she asked.

"Delevan!" I said.

When we pulled in and walked toward the check station, I spotted a small mixed V of snow geese and specklebelly geese flying low over us and stopped Hellen to show her the difference between the two: Specks have dark wings and darkish speckled bellies; snows were white with black wingtips. It's crucial information at Delevan these days: The speck season there is over; the snows are still legal.

"Oh, now you're showing people around here!"

I looked down and saw James, one of the many hunters I'd sat with waiting for blinds last January, talking about how hard it was learning to hunt.

I grinned. "Yup, now I'm the expert. Ha!"

Turned out there was no waiting - three blinds were available. I took one just south of other blinds I'd hunted in the past. I remembered watching ducks fly high over me and bomb into that blind. Perhaps we'd be so lucky today. We suited up and headed out.

It's funny - just two days earlier, I'd gone out to hunt alone so I could figure some things out for myself.

But as I explained to Hellen everything I was doing (starting with a lesson on how to fall in the water without getting soaked), I realized how much I'd learned from my mentors - primarily my boyfriend, who figured out duck hunting without any mentor at all - but also other friends we hunted with and total strangers I met on the Duck Hunting Chat.

How to get into a blind at the refuge. How to use Delevan's Island blinds, where you're totally exposed. Decoy placement. Sentinel geese. Winducks. Hiding gear. Directions ducks fly. Duck identification. Cupped and committed. Skybusters. Duck calling. Ear protection. Eye protection. How far shot travels. Stealth. Snack food. Remembering where partners are in your blind and stopping the swing of your gun well before you get to them. Wind v. no wind. Sun v. clouds. Watching ducks' behavior to see if anything looks out of place in your blind.

"It's a lot to learn!" Hellen said.

And the first thing Hellen learned firsthand Wednesday was how fast ducks fly.

I saw a spoonie drake coming right over the blind. Argh, my worst shot, straight overhead. I stood, fired, and missed.

Hellen was startled - she hadn't even seen him come in. Next time, I alerted her as another spoonie whizzed in. I stood. Fired. Missed. Didn't even take a second shot, he was speeding away so fast.

"They're so fast! And so small!" she exclaimed.

"Yeah, it's really hard to hit them," I said.

Three more times that happened. Five spoonies. Five shots. Five misses. Crap, it wasn't going to be another one of those days, was it?

I shifted position in the blind, trying to place myself where I'd have the clearest shot. I looked down at my watch: 3 p.m. Two hours to go. Things should start getting good now, I told her. Theoretically, anyway.

I saw ducks in the distance and hit my pintail whistle, exercising the call I'd fine-tuned on Monday. One was coming in from the south and looked as if he were going to pass about 20-30 yards in front of me. Perfect.

As he came closer, I crouched behind my batch of tules and carefully shifted my feet. Whistle, whistle, whistle. There he is!

I stood and shot. Missed. Shot again as he swung around to the north of our blind. Missed again.

Lead the bird, dammit! Lead! I told myself.

When I shot again, he tumbled.

"I got him!" I shouted, and charged out as Hellen watched. He was upright, but his face hung in the water. I'd hit him hard. When I got there, I picked up a gorgeous drake wigeon. Big. Beautifully colored.

And still alive. I grabbed him by the head and helicoptered him quickly to break his neck, and took him back to show to Hellen.

"He's beautiful!" she said.

Then, watching him twitch, she asked, "Is he still alive?"

I looked at him. His eyes were blank. He did not lift his head. "Nope, that's just nerve reaction," I assured her.

"Did you see me hit him?"

"No!" she said.

I had this blurry image in my mind of her standing stock still as I shot, facing me, not the duck.


But she'd passed the test. She had watched me finish him off, handled him as he twitched, and remained completely unfazed.

"God, I'm so happy," I told her. "I was really afraid I'd suck today!"

We got back into our positions again, and it probably wasn't 20 minutes before two more ducks came in on the same path. It went down almost exactly the same way: I stood. Fired. Fired again. Reminded myself to lead the duck. Fired again and watched her tumble.

"Yes!" I shouted.

This time Hellen had seen it.

I walked out and retrieved a large pintail hen. She'd dropped right where the wigeon had dropped, and her face, too, was in the water - a good sign. When I picked her up, she was dead.

What a relief! It had taken three shots, but when I hit her, I hit her right.

"Now I have to be really careful," I explained to Hellen. I'd have to make damn sure I didn't shoot anymore pintails, because the limit on them was one.

The bird action was really picking up as the sky over the coastal mountains to our west began to redden. Several more hens came in close, including one perfect shooting distance right over the blind. But I couldn't be sure they weren't pintails, so I held my fire.

Then we got strafed a few times by the really fast ducks - teal and bufflehead flying low over the water. They came in so fast that by the time I determined they were actually ducks, they were whizzing past me.

"Have you heard of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer?' " I asked her, referring to the TV show.

"Yes," she said.

"I want to be Holly the Bufflehead Slayer," I told her. "They don't even taste that good, but I want to be such a good shot that I can actually hit them."

As the final 20 minutes of shoot time passed, we were thoroughly investigated by some snow geese that liked our snow decoys, but couldn't understand why the decoys weren't talking to them. I have a snow call that I haven't learned to use yet, so I'd just have to get lucky.

I wanted them to come in for a landing, because that'd be the only way I'd get a killing shot - I didn't want to see anything sail off a mile into thick tules at sunset.

But without a call, I couldn't close the deal. And of course, while I was watching the geese, a pair of spoonies had snuck up behind me and landed 100 yards ahead on the water.

4:49 p.m. ... 4:53 p.m. ... 4:56 p.m.

I stood.

"That's it?" Hellen asked.

"That's it," I told her, and we began pulling in the decoys.

When we checked out, I was triumphant. One of the Dept. of Fish & Game staffers, Diane, was waiting for hunters with a flashlight. I stopped my car, went to the back, pulled out my birds, and held them up high for her to see, doing a little dance.

"You got some!" she said.

"Yes!" At last.

Back at my house, Hellen stuck around for the dirty business, helping with plucking, learning about how we wax our ducks to remove the down feathers, and watching me remove head, feet, wings and entrails.

After I cut off the wigeon's head, she picked it up and cooed. "It's so beautiful!" she said as I returned to plucking. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw her casually flip it into the trash can.

My girl!

She's going to make a fine huntress.

Check out Hellen's hilarious account of the hunt
on her blog -
The Adventures of Hellek.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008