Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Hunters a fringe group? Et tu, Brute?

Here I was this morning, minding my own business, trying to head out to the gym, when I suddenly became dizzy. The cause? More spin from the Humane Society.

The story in question is actually good news for hunters: Meijer Inc. - which has stores located in the hunter-rich states of Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan and Ohio - has withdrawn its pledge to donate a dollar to the Humane Society for every entry into its online pet photo contest.

The U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance last week protested the store's support of the anti-hunting organization, hunters everywhere raised Cain and it worked. Congratulations, hunters! You won a battle. Feels good, doesn't it?

But here's the stuff in The Grand Rapids Press story that demands a response:

Without directly criticizing Meijer, (HSUS Executive Vice President Michael) Markarian suggested the retailer may have made a mistake by siding with what he called an industry trade group.

"We feel any business would want to be on the side of protecting pets and a group that has more than 10 million members rather than on the side of a fringe group," Markarian said.

Sure, I would say the 10 million members claimed by the Humane Society beats 35,000 claimed by the Sportsmen's Alliance. But 1) it was a broad backlash, not just a U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance press release, that got Meijer's attention, and 2) the implication that hunters are a fringe group is plain nuts.

Markarian said "fringe group" specifically in reference to the Sportmen's Alliance (which has someone named Cabela on the board - hardly fringe). But make no mistake: HSUS is utterly committed to marginalizing hunters as a whole, because the smaller and more irrational we seem as a group, the easier it is to convince lawmakers and policymakers to chip away at our rights.

Let's review some facts in the culture war between those who oppose eating meat and those who not only eat meat, but would rather eat wild game than industrially farmed meat. And here, I use the term "meat" to refer to any animal flesh, because that's the issue.

  • 7.3 million: The number of adults in America who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. That's 3.2 percent of the population. Of these, 54 percent cite "animal welfare" as a reason why they don't eat meat. (Source: Vegetarian Times study)
  • 1 million: The number of adults in America who follow a vegan diet, consuming no animal products at all. That's 0.5 percent. (Source: Vegetarian Times study)

Meat eaters who harvest their own

  • 29.9 million: The number of adults in America who hunt and/or fish. That's 13 percent of the population. (Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife survey)
  • 8.4 million: The number of adults in America who hunt. That's 4 percent of the population. (Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife survey)

Other meat eaters

  • 83.8 percent: The percentage of adult Americans who do eat meat, but get it from the grocery store or their own farm animals instead of from nature. (Source: Doing the math on the items listed above - not statistically pristine, because the numbers come from different sources, but a reasonable approximation.)
Reality is that the antis are far more of a fringe group than we are. The only question is how willing we are to exercise our clout as hunters have done in the past few days with Meijer.

Does this whole think make you feel like joining the Sportsmen's Alliance? Click here. It's only $25. If not USSA, join something - make your voice heard. It's time to fight back against the propagandists.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Surreal: Turkey hunting in Napa Valley

I go into most hunts with high expectations - you know, TV-inspired visions of abundant game stumbling right in front of the well-hidden huntress who makes a stunningly perfect shot - and often I'm disappointed.

But this weekend's long-awaited turkey hunt in a Napa Valley vineyard exceeded my expectations because it was just plain surreal, from start to finish.

Boyfriend and I arrived at our destination late Saturday afternoon to scope out the lay of the land. As we waited in the driveway for the winery manager to meet us, I noticed something delightful where we'd been walking moments before: a three-foot-long rattlesnake. Yikes, had we missed that?

When the manager arrived, he was not pleased to see Mr. Snake.

"Want us to take him out?" Boyfriend offered helpfully.

"Do you have your guns with you? Sure!" he said, picking up the owners' 16-year-old cat.

I was fine with that. Out in the wild, I leave rattlers alone - they really don't bug you if you don't bug them. But in my family, we draw the line right around the house, because if a snake takes to sunning itself on your front steps, you could get bitten pretty quickly.

When Boyfriend and I got back from the car with our guns, the snake had curled up next to a tree. Boyfriend took a shot. The cat exploded out of the manager's arms. "Guess I should've expected that," he said.

When boyfriend walked away, I went back to inspect the damage. The snake had been blown in half, and the half with its head was still quite interested in biting something. Housepets are really vulnerable to this, so I warned the guys and took the final shot. Yup, that did it.

"Hi," I said, extending my hand to the manager. "I'm Holly."


Next on our agenda was dinner and drinks with Ashley, who works for one of the owners of the vineyard. We met Ashley at the Oxbow Public Market in downtown Napa. It's this cool new place that houses locally produced food and a few other odds and ends. One of the places on our list to see was The Fatted Calf, an artisanal charcuterie, where we were to take a little tour. Mmmmm... curing meats...

"Do you mind if I bring my camera?" I asked Ashley. "I'm ... I'm sort of a meat photographer," I said sheepishly, explaining that I do freelance food photography on the side.

"Really?" she said. "I'm a meat photographer too! And I paint meat."

Cool, a meat artist! I picked up my camera and in we went.

Things got even weirder after that ... but I know, I know. Get to the hunt, Holly!

We parted company with Ashley after trading an ice chest full of game meat for some abalone she happened to have and headed back to the winery, where we would spend the night in a building that could've come straight out of Dr. Seuss - vivid colors and precious few right angles.

I didn't sleep much, but when I slept at all, I dreamt of a hunt perpetually postponed - we lost the directions, got lost in a maze of urban warehouses, forgot to wear our camo ... on and on and on until our alarms went off within seconds of each other at 5 a.m.

We groaned, donned our camo and headed out with our guns under the light of a quarter moon.

We didn't talk much, because we'd set the plan the night before. Boyfriend would head up to the northeast corner of the vineyard, which overlooked a fold in the hillside where we'd seen five turkeys the day before. I would head higher up to the southeast corner, where I would position myself at the top of a 50-yard-wide strip of oak woodland where the owners had seen turkeys roost. Then we'd see what would happen.

The day before, as we'd headed west on Interstate 80, Boyfriend had told me, "You probably know more about turkey hunting than I do," to which I'd responded, "Well, I don't know squat." Truly, we were totally winging it, going on a little bit we'd read, a little bit we'd seen on TV and what little I'd learned on a single failed turkey hunt last fall.

After moseying around a bit in the oak forest, I positioned myself at the base of a tree that would give me a solid seat and probably a 110-degree shooting radius, and waited.

When shoot time came, I couldn't see diddly. I was under tree cover, and I was wearing my new Foxy Huntress jacket with black netting that zips across the hood. If a turkey walked by at that point, I don't think I could've seen whether it had a beard or not. Soon enough, though, I was grateful for my beekeeper-like get-up, because an enormous herd of mosquitoes swarmed around my face, and they couldn't touch me - nyah nyah!

Twenty minutes later, I heard gobbling down the hill. Showtime! I hit my box call lightly to try to pique the gobbler's interest and waited. Then I saw movement: About 80 yards down the hill, a hen was crossing through the oaks.

Oh no, I thought. This isn't going to be like one of those duck hunts where I don't see legal targets and they never come in range anyway, is it?

As the sky lightened, I saw movement in a lone oak tree about 40 yards away on the hill to my right. Turkey. In the branches. Hadn't moved when I'd come tromping through at 5:30 a.m.! Should I get up and try to move toward it?

No, stay put.

I heard the gobbling again. Closer this time. Higher up the hill. I tried to have my gun close to ready. I knew I couldn't hold it in shooting position indefinitely, but I knew it needed to be close to mounted, because the turkeys would bolt if they saw me moving.

I looked down the hill. I looked to the right. Down the hill. To the right. The mosquitoes swarmed. My hair got all messed up in the hood, tangling across my eyes. I raised a hand to try to push it away through the netting and that's when I saw it, off to my right: a red sticklike thing poking up through the grass.


It was wandering through tall grass, so I couldn't see whether it had the requisite beard, but I slowly shifted my head to the right to watch.

The turkey came closer, so I could see its full body, but I couldn't yet tell whether it was at least a jake.

Crap! My hair was in my eyes. My hood was twisted around. Dammit! I didn't want to miss what might be my only opportunity.

Just then, the turkey helpfully walked right behind a triple-trunked tree. Ahhhhh! It was like getting a chance to fix your wedgie when no one's looking. I shifted my body to the right, reached up, mushed my hair back, pushed my hood into place, mounted my gun and waited for Mr. Turkey to appear on the other side of the tree.

He did, but I couldn't see whether he had a beard. Then I thought I saw a beard, but I wasn't sure. Then, unbelievably, he walked even closer to me and turned to the left, giving me the perfect silhouette of a short but distinctive beard. He was 20 yards away.

I put his head right behind the muzzle and pulled the trigger.

Crack! The shot broke the morning stillness. Two more turkeys that had remained hidden bolted up the hill. The one in the tree exploded from his perch. And the one I'd shot at somersaulted down the hill.


I jumped up and saw he was dead. I grabbed him by the neck and blood soaked my gloves as though I'd squeezed a big sponge just soaked with it.

... perfect shot to the head...

He kicked and kicked and as I held him up, I saw that gorgeous tail fan out. As if that weren't good enough, I double-checked the beard. It was short, but it was there...

... wow, it's like elephant hair...

I looked up, jubilant. Before me was a spectacular Napa morning, sun streaming onto the valley below me. And above that valley was a colorful hot air balloon, doing the first of the morning tours.

...I wonder if they heard the shot? I wonder if they have binoculars? Not what you'd expect to see on a wine country tour...

As planned, I waited a while before heading over to Boyfriend. The turkeys had gone uphill, not back down toward him, so I knew I wouldn't be spoiling a shot. As I crested the hill, I saw him - a vague lump of camo at the end of a row of vines. I carried the turkey by his feet, his body slung over my shoulder, tail fanned out. He was heavy!

Boyfriend finally turned around and saw me. I could see when it registered that I was carrying a bird. His thumb shot up. Mine shot up in return. I'd finally gotten my first turkey.


After we changed, we joined the vineyard owners in their house, which looked like something straight out of Sunset Magazine: clean lines, rooms bathed in light, gorgeous art everywhere you looked - sculptures, paintings, the bathroom sink. They served us cappuccinos and lattes and farm-fresh eggs and slices of ethereal jamon iberico, Spain's take on proscuitto, made from hogs that dine exclusively on acorns.

We thanked them profusely for letting us hunt on their land. They thanked us profusely for taking out one of the turkeys who'd been preying on their vineyard, eating grapes when they were in season, and just plain destroying vines the rest of the year.

And off we went. Where one job had ended, another had begun - the one that would transform this bird into dinners for weeks and months to come. But for that story, you need to go to Boyfriend's blog.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, April 25, 2008

Turkey hunting in style

The hunt I've been anticipating for a long time is finally about to happen: Boyfriend and I are going spring turkey hunting this weekend in a Napa County vineyard.

Or to steal a turn of phrase from my friend Phillip at The Hog Blog: We're off to save tomorrow's wine from today's turkeys.

One of the reasons I've been excited about this hunt is I've been waiting to use my cool new spring hunting pants and shirt from Foxy Huntress - the company that does designer hunting clothing in a gorgeous custom camo pattern. But today, the mailman brought me the piece de la resistance: the jacket.

I've been coveting this waterproof jacket since I saw it at the SHOT Show because it has a cool feature: a built in net that zips across the face of the hood. OK, I know I could run down to the neighborhood hunting store and get some sort of face net like everyone else does. But there's something nice about built-in features that match the rest of my outfit. Go ahead and call me a girl. That's fine - I am one.

The other cool thing about this jacket is that the net and the hood can disappear. Coupled with the beautiful print, that means I can wear this jacket to work on rainy days and not look like I'm heading out to kill something.

Here's how the disappearing act works. You start with a normal hooded pullover jacket:

But that front pocket has something handy in it:

Now, when you want to get rid of that hood:

Pretty spiffy, huh?

And there's one other cool thing: The sleeves have plenty of room for layering, but you can cinch 'em up tight too with the built-in Velcro:

Now, let's talk business: The jacket is made of waterproof ripstop, 98 percent cotton and 2 percent Spandex, and it must be hand-washed cold and air dried. Not your ordinary hunting gear. And it retails for $180. I did say designer right? Yep, this ain't Kmart.

Foxy Huntress owner Shelah Zmigrosky tells me the design is so popular that men buy it for themselves too. And isn't that a nice switch - men wearing women's clothes in the field. While the other FH clothes I've tried are cut very much for a woman's figure, this one would actually work on men because it's a jacket meant to be worn over layers, so there's no distinguishable waistline.

There is, however, a horizontal seam across the breast line that emphasizes that part of my figure, so it still looks a bit feminine on me. And no, my boyfriend just tried it on, and that design feature didn't make it look like he had man-boobs.

His only criticism - one that I'd have to agree with - is that he'd like to have a front pocket for hiding (or warming) both hands right about where the net pocket is. The pockets for hands are lower down and closer to the side.

But aside from that, very cool design, and I can't wait to test it out. I don't know how this weekend's hunt will go, but success or failure, I'll have another hunting story here in a few days.

Click here to see other posts about Foxy Huntress.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Click here for gear review policy and disclosures.

Shoot Yourself in the Foot Award

Boyfriend and I were contentedly watching "horn porn" last night - a Jim Zumbo hunting show, I think it was - when we were suddenly confronted with an ad that dropped our jaws.

It was for a game camera made by Predator Trail Cams. The brilliant freakin' name they came up with for it? "Xtinction."

You've got to be kidding me. At a time when hunting is under intense attack, and the antis are doing everything in their power to smear hunters and hunting, some marketing genius decides it'd be a great idea to glorify extinction?

Excuse me, but haven't we been fighting the notion that modern hunters drive animals to extinction? Aren't we trying to make people aware that hunting is actually responsible for the incredible success of many game species?

Brilliant, folks. That's just brilliant. Perhaps you can donate 50 percent of the profits on this product to PETA. Then donate the other 50 percent to the Humane Society. No, don't do that - you should probably save a few bucks for a lobotomy.

Boyfriend has a suggestion for naming your next product: How about you call it the "Baby Seal Killer"?

Congratulations. You are the winner of NorCal Cazadora's first ever "Shoot Yourself in the Foot Award," in recognition of your stunning contribution to the antis' cause. Way to go.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Scent Blocker for the huntress

Good news for big-game huntresses: Another hunting apparel manufacturer has discovered women!

Scent Blocker this week announced its Lady Dream Season line, featuring scent-elimination fleece jacket and pants, boots, cap and gloves, as well as non-hunting apparel.

I do not have any of these products in my hot little hands (sniff, sniff), so I cannot attest to fit or construction. But the company proclaims that these were designed "by women, for women." And as the name implies, the clothing was inspired by the Dream Season couples television show.

There is one thing I can tell you just from reading the press release: Size options are waaaaay too limited: small, medium and large.

All the women-run companies I've dealt with - SHE Safari, Foxy Huntress and Prois Hunting Apparel - realize women don't stop at size large; they're all either offering or preparing to offer sizes up to 2XL or 3XL. (Click here to see a chart comparing their lines.)

But if the company is offering clothes that fit at least some of us right, that's a step in the right direction. And it certainly has the right market: Big-game hunting is by far the most popular type of hunting among women.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

Hunting, violence and politics

Watching anti-hunting campaigns is like watching political ads: The antis take some tiny grain of truth, twist it beyond all belief and mass-market the idea until it becomes embedded in the public's thinking.

Here's the latest example: the idea that hunting predisposes kids to violence.

Last week, a 19-year-old nutball from Orange County, Calif., was charged with animal cruelty after PETA found a 14-minute video he'd posted on MySpace showing himself torturing a pug puppy and a rabbit. (Click here for a local TV station's take on the story, and its edited version of the video.)

I don't often say nice things about PETA, but I salute the organization for doing something about this. And I have no problem with what PETA cruelty caseworker Kristin DeJournett told the Orange County Register:

“Orange County residents have reason to be concerned. According to leading mental health professionals and law enforcement agencies, perpetrators of violent acts against animals are often repeat offenders who pose a serious threat to all animals, including humans.”

This is consistent with everything I learned covering crime during my newspaper career. If you torture animals for fun, there's something wrong with you. Period.

But look what PETA does with this grain of truth in Wisconsin.

A couple weeks ago, PETA decided to take on Northwestern Middle School in Poplar, Wis., because it has a "hunting wall" where kids display photos of the game they've hunted. My friend Chris Niskanen wrote a story about it for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and here's the relevant excerpt:

PETA's Sangeeta Kumar, who wrote the letter to (Principal Ken) Bartelt, said hunting and animal abuse lead to abuse of humans.

"There is a very strong connection between animal abuse and abuse toward human beings," she said. "As far as we're concerned, hunting is animal abuse. In these days of school violence, we shouldn't be encouraging kids to pick up guns."

The operative phrase there is, "as far as we're concerned."

Interestingly enough, around the same time these two stories were making news last week, FS Huntress wrote a post about a letter to Dear Abby from a man who was concerned about his 4-year-old grandson being exposed to hunting. His letter prompted a preschool teacher to share this with Dear Abby:

"(The) children who were the biggest bullies and least socialized were always -- and I mean ALWAYS -- the ones graphically exposed to the killing of animals... The gentle, studious, most popular children never spoke of hunting."

(Note to teacher: Just because they don't talk about hunting doesn't mean their families don't hunt. Duh.)

Now, I'm not suggesting that the preschool teacher had been influenced by PETA's statements last week. But obviously there's a notion going around that hunting for meat and torturing for fun are in the same league, and anyone who hunts - and who knows the sadness that comes with killing an animal - knows this is a bunch of crap.

So if reasonable people understand that hunting does not equal torture, why does it matter that PETA puts out this message?

This brings me back to the political ads. When I covered politics in Virginia, I liked to go out just before each election and talk to random voters on the street to get their take on things. One year, I asked each one the following two questions (among many): What do you know about the candidates for governor? What do you think about the TV ads?

Consistently, voters said they ignored the ads - didn't believe anything in 'em. And consistently, the things voters knew about the candidates came straight out of the TV ad transcripts. Yes, Virginia, there's a reason political campaigns spend millions and millions of dollars on those irritating 30-second spots.

And there's a reason organizations like PETA seize opportunities like the one in Wisconsin to make outrageous statements: It works.

Does that mean we should give up? Hell no. Failing to respond is the worst thing you can do. Just ask California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who let the California Teachers Association attack him with television ads for months in 2005 without responding, then watched all of his reform ballot initiatives go down in flames.

No matter how stupid PETA's remarks seem, the important thing is never to allow those statements to go unchallenged. That story by my friend Chris? The number of comments it has received is 442 and counting. A lot of 'em came from hunters. And it wouldn't hurt to drop by and add your own two cents.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, April 17, 2008

New shirt for the huntress

Does something about the design of this women's hunting shirt look familiar to you?

If so, then you're probably an athlete of some sort, because this long-sleeve T from Prois Hunting Apparel is pure athletic wear - with a couple important touches for the hunter.

It's funny: One of the ways I judge hunting clothing is whether a particular item will be useful for non-hunting purposes. It's not essential, but it's a plus.

When the Ultra Long Sleeve T arrived in the mail on Wednesday, I knew immediately that I'd wear it on my morning run today.

The design is no accident. Prois President Kirstie Pike is a runner, and she has deliberately incorporated athletic design and fabrics into her new clothing line.

This shirt is made of a lightweight polyester fabric that wicks sweat from your body, and it is subtly cut for a woman - pulling in just a bit at the waist, flaring out just a bit at the hips. It's light and comfortable - perfect for a chilly morning run or a warm-weather hunt where you need full camo coverage.

Aside from the camo pattern (this version is Realtree AP HD, but it also comes in Advantage Max 1), the other special touch for hunters is a thumbhole at the end of each sleeve. Pop your thumb in there and the sleeve pulls tight - perfect for archery.

It sells for $39.99 plus shipping and handling. If you've never purchased athletic wear, that may seem steep for a long-sleeve T. But a long-sleeve printed running T from Nike sells for about $50, so this isn't out of line.

I just wish I were still running marathons - this would make quite the unusual fashion statement.

Click here to see all posts about Prois.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Click here for gear review policy and disclosures.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

How can hunters love animals?

One of the things I love about hunting is how it's made me think a lot about some fairly deep questions about life, death and nature.

If I'd been raised as a huntress, I think there's much I would take for granted, but converting to the hunting lifestyle at the age of 41 really forced me to confront these issues head-on. I had to, because I was making a conscious decision to kill in a society where anti-hunting sentiments are ubiquitous.

Slowly but surely, the answers have come.
I choose to kill because animals are already being killed for me, and I'd rather take personal responsibility for their deaths than entrust both their lives and deaths to industrial agriculture. Hunting is acceptable because the predator-prey relationship is an essential part of the natural world, a pattern that repeats itself from the smallest creatures to the largest. Hunters enjoy and appreciate nature in ways that hikers can't because hunting makes you a participant, not an observer.

But the answer to one question had eluded me, until recently. Anti-hunters think we hunters are cruel, heartless animal haters, but most hunters I know love and respect animals in a way that borders on worship. How can this be? How can we explain this to the non-hunting public?

A couple weeks ago, I went on a spending spree on Amazon.com, buying half a dozen books about women hunters and hunting in general. One of them was Woman the Hunter by Mary Zeiss Stange. I'm normally too exhausted to do much pleasure reading while school is in session - the incessant stream of grading hurts my brain. But this book I couldn't resist, and I chipped away at it a little bit every night. My reward came on my third night of reading.

Stange wrote something that I already knew, but hadn't connected to modern-day hunting. It came at me in waves.

First, she quoted anthropologist Susan Kent saying that in hunter-gatherer societies, mammals and birds "are classified as intellectual beings. They are placed in the same macro-category as humans, whereas plants and fish are not."

Next, Stange noted that "the human-non-human animal dichotomy so sharp in Western civilizations is not at all as clear or even present in all societies."

And then: "It is only when larger-scale agriculture enters the scene, and with it the differentiation between 'wild' and 'domesticated' animals, that people begin to make meaningfully sharp distinctions between the intellectual capacities of human and non-human animals. ... (I)n societies in which people hunt regularly and also raise domestic animals, only the latter are denied status as intelligent beings. ... It is the farmer, not the hunter, who approaches the world of nature as something over which he must seize control."

Wow. I'd never thought about that before. I knew "primitive" societies viewed animals differently than we do, but I'd viewed it as a sign of their intellectual inferiority, not as a natural and logical state of being. I'd never considered that modern civilization's view of animals as inferiors might have just been a rationalization for their confinement - much as those notions have been used in the past to justify slavery and the subjugation of women.

Suddenly all these feelings I've had on the hunt started making sense. I view my prey as a competitor, my skills versus his or hers. When I went on a dog-training pheasant hunt with my friend Dana recently, I actually talked to the pheasants while they were in their crate before Dana released them, telling them, "Here's your chance to get away, buddy. Good luck." Two of them did.

Sometimes when ducks speed away unscathed by a poorly aimed shot, I salute them (after cursing profusely, of course). When I hit them, I often apologize to their limp bodies.

When I wrote a commentary for The Sacramento Bee last month about why I hunt, it was the subject of discussion in several hunting forums, and one guy said something on the California Predators Club forum that really stuck with me: "I still can't believe I hunt considering I've got to be one of the biggest animal freaks out there."

Now it seems all these thoughts and feelings add up to something really significant: Society as a whole takes a patronizing view of animals; hunters view them on an entirely different plane. Hunting makes you see animals differently, and not in they way PETA and HSUS would like the public to believe.

Hunting fills you with profound respect for animals. It is civilization that has taken this away from us.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, April 11, 2008

Harlequin's Lust

Our Own Backyard Wild Kingdom

Becoming a huntress has changed how I see everything - right down to the scenes that play out just outside our kitchen window.

Boyfriend and I were hanging out in the house after work today when he noticed there was a cat tucked neatly under the wheelbarrow in our back yard. Before we converted our newest kittie, Giblet, to an indoor cat, it used to be one of her favorite places to hide too.

I ran to the window to see who our visitor was and quickly realized it was Giblet's sister, a great huntress we dubbed Harlequin because of the cool pattern on her face - she's a jet black cat with a white diamond nose, a white mustache and chin and white tuxedo front. We hadn't seen Harlequin much over the winter, so I was happy to see her there.

And she was happy to be there. For her, the wheelbarrow is strategically placed in the center of a triangle formed by a sugar pea trellis, the barrel composter and the corner of our shed. And that triangle happens to be the key hunting ground of a pair of phoebes nesting in the eaves of the shed.

The phoebes are an important part of our little backyard ecosystem - they eat the insects that might otherwise harm Boyfriend's fabulous garden. And they crap a lot, so we get free natural fertilizer from them.

Watching them is fun too, because they do crazy aerobatics to snatch insects out of midair.

They're normally very alert birds, particularly when they have young nearby. I've sat and watched one squawk like she was laying an ostrich egg at the mere presence of a scrub jay. But today, one of the phoebe parents was blithely flying around from trellis to composter to eaves, snapping up insects, feeding her chick and flying back to her post without ever noticing the dark danger that lurked beneath the wheelbarrow. In fact, several times, that bird landed right on the wheelbarrow handle, so close to that cat that it took my breath away.

By this time I was sitting on the kitchen counter, snapping what photos I could through the kitchen window (which, I noticed, could probably use cleaning more often). Boyfriend stood behind me apprehensively. We love the neighborhood cats, but we love the phoebes too.

Our bond with them began last summer, when we watched the phoebes tend to chicks in these very same eaves. One day, before the babes had left the nest, the mercury climbed to 108 degrees, and after that we didn't hear anymore chick noises. We were heartbroken.
A day later, I visited Boyfriend while he was tending the garden, and there on the ground not 6 feet in front of me was a ruffled little baby phoebe, all beak and no wings. "He's alive!" I shouted. We named him Louie and did what we could to get him up high where the cats might not notice him so quickly. We checked on him frequently - as did his parents - and in a few days he took his first flight. We beamed.

So, yeah, we love the phoebes, and we didn't really want to see Harlequin get this little guy today, even though we'd been equally proud to watch her grow up last summer and take out big squawky scrub jays all by herself.

As the phoebe flitted around this evening, we watched Harlequin's eyes follow the bird. I know how you feel, I know how you feel! I thought. How many times over the past two winters had I watched and waited patiently as ducks had circled, and circled and circled, never coming close enough to my blind for me to take a shot?

The phoebe landed again on a wheelbarrow handle. Up and away ... and then back to the handle again. This bird was begging to be catfood.
Fortunately for the phoebe, though, a sparrow dropped in right about then, right on the grass just feet in front of Harlequin. Would this be the huntress' chance? The bird was so close, easily in Harlequin's reach.

And now I could root for the cat. The phoebes are our friends, part of the permanent cast of our backyard, characters whose antics never bore us. But the sparrow? No bond whatsoever. Godspeed, Harlequin!

Harlequin was ready, her body pressed low into the grass, her eyes fixed intensely on the sparrow.
But it was not to be. The bird took off before Harlequin could launch.

Click to enlarge.

The drama over, Boyfriend headed out the back door to move a water hose. Harlequin, who's not nearly as friendly as she was last summer, bolted from her hiding place, slinking off through the garden toward the nearest hole in the fence.

The phoebe was safe. The sparrow was safe. The huntress had failed.

It was an interesting little microdrama, partly because I'm acutely aware of how hunting has changed my perceptions of the natural world around me. What once was invisible to me now commands my attention.

But even more interesting to me is how it's caused me to bond with animals in ways that seem contradictory. How can you be a killer of animals and a fond admirer of them - their defender, even - at the same time? How can I love my cats so much, and still be willing to slaughter their mammal and fowl kindred?

I was at a loss to explain this. Until a few days ago, that is. A book had arrived in the mail, "Woman the Hunter" by Mary Zeiss Stange, and just a couple chapters in, there it was: a lightning bolt.
But that will have to be the subject of another post. It's getting late, and my kitten is waiting expectantly for me to hit the sack so she can curl up against my chest, her paws stretched across my arms, purring ever so slightly whenever I shift.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, April 7, 2008

Sweet! Girls' hunting numbers are way up

There was a little flurry of excitement last week when USA Today, followed by the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance, touted an increase in the number of women hunters in the U.S.

Having been down that road before only to find some bizarre flaw in the data, I was skeptical. The best data available - U.S. Fish & Wildlife's survey - show that the number of women hunters is indeed greater now than it was in 1991. But it's been dropping slowly and steadily since 1996, both in numbers and as a percentage of the total U.S. female population.

But USA Today's Marty Roney uncovered a nugget from the Fish & Wildlife data that is truly cause for celebration: The number of young female hunters - ages 6 to 15 - is increasing, nearly doubling since 1991. I checked it out with Fish & Wildlife; it's for real.

First of all, cheers to all the moms and dads who have taken their girls out hunting. And based on what I've seen out in the field - and the trend of dads getting more involved with their children in general - I have to say hats off to dads, especially.

If you look closely at the data, these girls have real potential to bolster the numbers of women hunters, and hunters in general. Check this out - and click on it if you want to see all the little numbers clearly:

That group of girls in the 1991 survey? Theoretically, they grew up to become part of the women's numbers for the 2001 survey. Imagine what will happen to our numbers 10 years from now if the group of girls in 2006 stick with it.

Why does any of this matter? For starters, the more of a minority hunters become, the easier it is for us to lose our clout in the state legislatures that directly or indirectly affect our hunting rights.

But I believe there's another important component to this trend.

It's easy for the non-hunting public to write off hunters if they think we're all a bunch of drunken shoot-em-up poachers, a ragtag army of Larry the Cable Guys. Don't get me wrong - I love Larry the Cable Guy. I just don't think he's the best ambassador for hunters.

But women hunters are different. Rightly or wrongly, the non-hunting public isn't as quick to stereotype us because we are supposed to be the gentler sex. And because we defy stereotypes, I believe the non-hunting public is more inclined to listen to what we have to say about hunting. Well, if she does it, there must be something interesting going on here that I just don't understand...

So, good news all around. It's confirmation that steps we've taken to include women and girls may be making a huge difference after all. Time to redouble our efforts and solidify our gains.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Pheasant hunting with a pack of black labs

I don't know what it is about my friend Dana, but whenever I go hunting with her, something special always seems to happen.

It didn't seem like Wednesday's hunt would be extraordinary. We were meeting for a dog-training hunt. Dana would buy pen-raised pheasants and release them into a field, we'd let them wander around a bit and then we'd let her black labs work. She'd handle the dogs; I'd be the gunner.

I'll say right off that hunting pen-raised birds is not my favorite thing - it feels like you're just killing chickens with a shotgun instead of an ax. But it's the only kind of pheasant hunting I usually get to do here, because California doesn't have a great deal of good pheasant habitat anymore. And like all the hunting I do, it involves the outdoors, exercise and, if you play your cards right, food for your freezer.

So you take whatever opportunities you can get - and with pheasant season over, dog training hunts are your only opportunities.

Besides, this would be my first chance to use my new upland vest I'd just bought from SHE Safari. I love test driving clothes!

Dana and I met under a big oak tree near a river and she released two of the four dogs she brought: Tule and Kidd. As we set out, she warned me: The oats in the field were high - higher than she expected - so getting the birds to flush would be difficult.

The dogs quickly found a spot that reeked of pheasant, but search as they might, they couldn't find him. Perhaps he had moved, or perhaps he had hunkered down so effectively that he couldn't be found. We moved on, and not 50 yards later, her dogs flushed a bird.

A red plastic ribbon trailed from his foot - the sign that he was one of the birds Dana had just released, not a wild pheasant that was out of season. I was clear to shoot.

He zoomed toward some trees.


Missed. Had I completely forgotten how to mount my gun? Apparently so. He was nearly in the trees now.


He dropped. Dana sent Tule and Kidd to pick up the fruits of their good sniffing.

"Good thing you got him on that second shot," she said. "He'd've been gone."

"I know!"

Pheasant hunting is so different from duck hunting. Ducks don't surprise you - you see them coming in, you wait for the moment and then you stand, mount your gun and shoot. With pheasants, even though I can see the dogs are onto something, I still jump when that colorful rooster explodes into the air. This is where my inexperience really shows: I mount my gun poorly and try to make the best of my bad positioning.

Dana took the pheasant from her dog and handed him to me. I stuffed him into the game-bag pocket of my new vest, splattering blood on my hands, vest and pants in the process. First blood - my vest had been initiated.

We continued plowing through the oat fields for some time, beelining from one field to the next, then milling around wherever the dogs smelled something yummy. This tangle to the right here? That's an actual map of our hunt - 3 miles, all told. (And yes, I know I'm a geek for carrying a GPS running watch on a hunt.)

The dogs did find two more birds. But as we feared, they didn't flush from the tall green oats; the dogs simply grabbed them and handed them to Dana. One for Dana, one for me - good practice for the dogs, no practice for the gunner, but dinner nonetheless.

We headed back to our cars for a break. For Round 2, we would hunt with a full pack: Her husband was on the way with his dog, Diesel, and Dana would let loose her other two dogs, Marzee and Teddy.

And here's where the hunt got special: This was Teddy's first hunt.

Teddy is a pup - he was a little tiny thing when Dana and I first started emailing each other in December - one of Marzee's last litter. He'd never sniffed out a pheasant, never heard a gunshot, never had a bird in his mouth.

When we set out into the field again, it was almost surreal watching the dogs work. In most places, the oats were over their shoulders, so they didn't so much run across the field as leap across it.

When they ran as a pack, it was like watching giant strands of black silk thread weaving themselves in and out of a green tapestry, a picture of grace and energy that will forever be imprinted on my memory.

As often as not, though, Teddy wasn't part of that picture because he was staying close to Dana - too close, clinging to her heels like a nervous child.

"Get off me, Teddy!" she'd holler at him, gently.

As we approached a field we hadn't hunted yet, I looked at my watch and saw it was almost time to go. I had a dinner to go to back in Sacramento, and I needed to head out by 2 p.m.

"Fifteen more minutes," I said.

Moments later, the dogs started to get pretty excited.

"Get ready," Dana said, and a bird exploded from the grass. This time, Teddy was one of the dogs leaping into the air after it.

I shot and missed, shot again and missed, shot again and found that I'd not loaded a third shell into my gun. Dana and I watched as the bird sailed to another field, took note of where he dropped in and marched that way with the dogs.

"That was Teddy's first shot!" she said. She was proud of him - he hadn't even flinched.

I, of course, was ashamed of myself for missing the first bird Teddy flushed.

"I think you clipped him on the second shot, though," said Dana - ever gracious. "I saw feathers flying."

We walked on a dirt road between the river and the field until we came to the spot where the rooster had landed, and Dana sent the dogs into the field. They found him within seconds, and I lifted my gun again.

Bang! Bang!

Oh geez, Holly, get it right.

Bang! The bird dropped. The dogs raced toward him and seized him.

Dana ordered them to drop the bird - and then she saw it was Teddy who had him. Her tenor changed immediately, becoming more tender. No longer barking orders, she praised her pup for a job well done. He gave the bird to Dana, she gave him to me and I stuffed him into my vest.

"It's 1:56," I said, looking at my watch. "Perfect!"

And this time I hadn't let Teddy down.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, April 4, 2008

Coming up: NorCal women's shoot days

Learning how to use a gun can be intimidating for some women: If you've never handled firearms, it can be pretty scary. And if you're surrounded by husbands, boyfriends or offspring who are already expert shots, you don't want to go out there and look or feel like a fool in front of them.

Well, that's how I felt about the subject, anyway.

But Northern California women have at least three opportunities this spring and summer to learn shooting skills in the comforting presence of lots of other women. If you know a woman who'd like to try shooting, please send her a link to this post. And if you already know how to shoot, consider volunteering. I know for sure that the third one on the list - California Waterfowl's event - needs volunteers, because I'm involved with organizing that one.

Here are the details:

Saturday, May 17, in Lincoln: NRA's Women on Target clinic will be led by veteran clinic director Patricia McLelland at the Coon Creek Trap & Skeet Club. The cost is $60 for the day and includes two rounds of shooting, targets, shells, eye and ear protection, and lunch. Sign-in starts at 8:30 a.m.. Click on the image to the left for a printable registration form, or if that doesn't work for you, email me here and I'll send you a copy of my PDF. The registration deadline is April 25.

Sunday, May 18, in Jackson: The True Sportsman Club will hold its 10th annual Women's Shooting Clinic at its shooting range in Jackson. Women will get the opportunity to learn about and shoot shotguns, rifles and handguns. The event runs from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and costs $25 per person, which includes breakfast snacks, gourmet lunch, targets and ammo. Pre-registration is required. Click on the image above for a printable registration form, or contact Kathleen Lynch by emailing her

Saturday, Aug. 16, in Morgan Hill: California Waterfowl's new Women's Outdoor Connections initiative brings you its first event at Coyote Valley Sporting Clays: a shooting clinic for women and kids. The day runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and includes shooting at the rifle, trap, skeet and archery ranges, as well as lessons on conservation, wild game cooking and "Hunting 101." The cost is $30 per person, and you get half off for friends and family members. For $10, men can join the women and kids for lunch and do a little shooting on their own while we're all off having our own fun. Click on the image above for a printable version of the registration form, and if that doesn't work for you, email me here and I'll send you a PDF version. Pre-register by Aug. 14.

To all the women out there who have thought about trying the shooting sports or hunting, I have to say all of these are great opportunities to dip your toes in the water without having to make a major investment or a substantial mental commitment. For anywhere between $15 and $60, you can just check it out for a day. If you like it, swell - there are a ton of people who will support you in your effort to learn. We are all around you, eager to share what we know.

And if you don't enjoy it? Well, you got to spend the day outdoors trying something new. And even if you never pick up a gun again, you'll know a little more about firearms, and that knowledge alone is worth the price of admission.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Women's hunting pants review

At last, the women's hunting pants review I did for Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors has gone live! For a visual preview of the pants I reviewed from Filson, Foxy Huntress, Prois Hunting Apparel and SHE Safari, check out the slideshow below. For the full details - what I loved, what I didn't love and the very interesting things that come out of my mother's mouth from time to time when she's talking about my clothes - click here.

And sorry Mom, but it was funny!

If you like a little music with your slide show, click here to go to another version.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Click here for gear review policy and disclosures.