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


Anonymous said...

Lovely, lovely ducks. How were they in size?

As for the "clubhouse," it sounds pretty yucky. Outside sounds much better! How is it that nature--with all its bugs, crap, dirt, and mud--is cleaner than a pack of men?

It just seems clear to me, that women simply need to take over to make hunting just as fun, but more civilized...


Holly Heyser said...

The hen greenwing was a bit small, but the others were normal, and my hen cinnamon was very, very fatty. Ohhhhhhhh, that one's gonna taste good.

It was funny being in that clubhouse, because I just had the urge to run around and make everything nicer - it would be so much fun!

On the other hand, I know men often have to suppress their ways to get along with women, so I'd hate to take their safe haven away from them.

All that said, if I were to come into the kind of money it takes to do what they're doing and start a club? It'd be stylin'!

Anonymous said...

Very cool story. I have to say, it often amazes me the surroundings that men will endure when left to themselves. My Dad's deer camp sounds about like the camp that you described and the guys love it.

I guess sometimes there's just no understanding men. I suppose that's what makes them interesting.

Holly Heyser said...

Agreed. It's almost endearing.

I think men also like the fact that women make everything around them nicer - as long as they don't have to do the work to make it so.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like fun, Holly... and the camp is just like the many I've visited over the years. It's the same whether it's deer, waterfowl, or just a backwoods getaway.

We can't help how we are. Or maybe we just don't want to help it, so that's why we find these sanctuaries.

Anyway, we did a little better down in Mendota this weekend, but most of our birds were spoonies. Nothing wrong with that, though, as I've always found them to eat just as good as teal or widgeon... but not as good as the redheads we ate last night!

Holly Heyser said...

Spoonies as good as teal???

Now, I'm with you on the fact that they're not always fishy. But I don't think anything's better than teal.

We ate two of the birds in that photo last night (not sure which two - we lost track at some point)and they were exquisite. Our waterfowl-loving cat was going insane.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... OK, maybe teal are a little better than spoonies... but I never did understand the bias against them.

The Hunter's Wife said...

You have some of the best stories of your adventures. Even fitting in with all of the guys.

I would have probably cleaned up whether they liked it or not.

Holly Heyser said...


I didn't have the urge to clean up - I just wanted to decorate.