Friday, May 30, 2008

Phillip, don't read this

No, really, Phillip: Don't read it. Go away.

Is he gone now? Whew. OK. Now I can say it:

I shot like crap today.

The reason Phillip - a.k.a. Mr. Hog Blog - can't read this is I'm going pig hunting with him and the guys from Hunting with Jim next weekend. Yes, I'm doing my first-ever hog hunt - my first ever big-game hunt - with the the proprietors of not just one, but two hunting blogs. And all these guys carry video cameras.

I must be insane.

We just settled on the date this week, so I thought to myself, Holy cow! I'd better get to the shooting range and practice!

I've shot Boyfriend's .270 a few times and done pretty well with it, so I figured I just needed a little cramming between now and next Friday.

Honestly, I should've been practicing a lot more this spring. I actually penciled in, oh, at least four or five hog hunts since duck season ended. But life's been busy, and I've turned around and canceled them every time, and with them, I've postponed practice.

I did go to the range once during Spring Break with some former students, under the worst conditions: I hadn't eaten all day and I was shaky and somehow chugging a Dr. Pepper and cramming a Snickers bar down my throat didn't help things. Nonetheless, I did pretty well. I needed to adjust the sights, but I had a nice, tight grouping in the black on the target. And I came away with this nice photo, because the guy on the right - Andrew - is a photographer and doesn't mind putting his camera that close to flying casings.

Today was much better. I was relaxed. I ate before I went to the range. I'm happy - no more grading for three months! I was ready to polish my shooting so I could look extra impressive for Phillip, Crazy Jim and his videographer, John.

I decided to shoot a box of cartridges in three rounds: seven, seven and six. I put my nice Shoot-N-C patch on the target so I could see that burst of yellow where the bullet punches through, then returned to my station and fired off the first seven shots at a leisurely pace. Nice and relaxed.

The only problem was I wasn't seeing any yellow. What the hell?

So when the ceasefire began, I walked out to survey the damage. I snapped a picture with my cell phone and called Boyfriend. Honey! I said. I'm shooting like the bad guys in an action movie! I'm hitting everything but the target!

For the most part, I was shooting consistently high, but I didn't know how to adjust the sights - not my gun! - so he recommended aiming lower for the time being.

I went back to my station, got a Diet Coke out of the machine and prepared to blast some imaginary pigs. I was the only chick at the range this afternoon, and I really needed to not "shoot like a girl."

I loaded a cartridge, aimed low but on center, and pulled the trigger.

Yes! Yellow, at last. Die, pig! Insert cartridge and repeat six times...

The next ceasefire began and I went to see up close how I'd done. Hmmmm. Got five in the black, but they were all over the place. Not good. I needed a nice, tight grouping.

I covered the holes with black stickers and walked back to my station, tormented by visions of bad shots, bullets flying over pigs' heads so ineffectually that the pigs wouldn't even bother to run away, and all of it captured on video and webcast to the world.

What was I doing wrong?

I knew I was holding the gun steady, but I had the feeling I was flinching as I was pulling the trigger, because this gun kicks like Jackie Chan. For Round Three, I would have to try very hard to pretend that I wasn't about to get punched with 130 grains of woo ha!

It went better at first - two shots straight above the bulls eye. But then I had two off to the side, and two off the black entirely. I pulled my target off the battered plywood and trudged back.


As I was walking back, I saw a dad come in with his young daughter, mabye 10 or 12 years old, and set up near my station.

Ordinarily, my first thought would be, Wow, that's great! Today, though, I thought, Good thing I'm done, because I'd hate to humiliate myself in front of a little girl. As I got closer to them, I rolled up my target to hide my shamefully random bouquet of bullet holes.

If I shoot pigs like this, it's gonna look like a sloppy mob hit.


Good thing school's out, because I'll be going back a few times before Phillip and I hit the road for Pig Country. If only my students knew the pathetic fact that professors cram too. Let's just hope that I rally as well as they always seem to do.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Dale Tate and the art of gun fitting

When I began working on a story about gunfitting for a California magazine earlier this spring, I knew exactly what I wanted to go with it: photos of gunmaker Dale Tate.

Dale's the guy who almost singlehandedly transformed my shooting last December after I'd spent a year coming home from the duck blind emptyhanded more often than not. My shotgun hadn't fit me properly - until Dale worked his magic on it.

Shotgun fit matters for everyone, but it's particularly important for women because we're generally smaller than the men guns are made for. Your ability to rest your cheek on the stock in the same spot every time - positioning your eye perfectly as the rear sight of the gun - depends on three things: the stock's length, its cast (left or right tilt, depending on which hand you shoot with) and its drop (vertical tilt). All of those elements must match your proportions.

Dale had already adjusted my gun in December, so I needed to photograph someone else's fitting. That's where Sarah came in.

Sarah's uncle had just given her a shotgun, and she knew it wouldn't fit correctly because she's 5-foot-2, a good 6 to 8 inches shorter than the hypothetical man guns are made for. And beyond that, she's left handed, and most stocks come out of the factory cast for right-handers.

Last week, Sarah and I took the gun to Dale's shop at the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve, about an hour and a half outside of Sacramento, and Dale got to work immediately. He had Sarah mount the gun - my favorite part because it is so unnerving seeing someone's face right in front of your muzzle. Then he started making adjustments, sawing off a big chunk of the back end of the stock and gently filing down parts of the front of it, where it meets the action, to change the cast.

He also gave her gun a new recoil pad, but not before etching his initials into the back side of it to leave his mark for the ages.

After he put the gun back together, we went out to one of the sporting clays courses at Camanche, where Dale would give Sarah a shooting lesson and check the fit of her gun where it matters most - in the field.

But wait, you didn't think I'd go all the way to Camanche without my gun, did you? After getting Sarah rolling, Dale put us in side-by-side goose blinds, gave each of us a box of shells and told us he was going to start firing off clays randomly. Our job was to shoot them down.

It was crazy fun. At least twice Sarah and I pulled the trigger at the same time on the same clay, so who knows which one of us broke them. It didn't really matter, though, because I wasn't keeping count of what I hit, and I don't think Sarah was either - we were just having a good time.

OK, Sarah was more than having a good time. Before this day, she had never shot consistently. After Dale fitted her gun, she hit her first double ever. She was jubilant.

These aren't the best photos from the day - I've saved those for the magazine, which will come out sometime this fall. You don't have to wait that long for my advice, though: If you hunt with a shotgun and you're not shooting consistently, get it fitted. It'll cost ya, but it's worth it to hit your targets.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fantastic video on Crazy Jim's first deer

If you ever look at the right column on this website, you may have noticed a recent addition to my blogroll, a video blog called Hunting with Jim.

For the most part, these guys do a lot of crazy, irreverent stuff - Outdoor Channel meets South Park. I usually giggle a lot when I watch their videos.

But today, they brought tears to my eyes with Jim's story of his first deer.

Maybe there are hunters out there who kill with glee, but I'm not so sure that image isn't just a device used by antis to generate opposition to what we do. Regardless, hat's off to Jim for candidly discussing it, and explaining why, if it's such a difficult thing, he still hunts.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Chew on this, antis: A new survey shows hunting for meat has broad public support

Spread the word, hunters - spread it far and wide. A survey that will be released in June shows that 97 percent of hunters (or their families) eat what they kill, and 85 percent of American adults approve of hunting for meat.

The survey was conducted by Responsive Management, a Virginia research firm, for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which will release details at its 2008 National Shooting Sports Summit June 23-25 in Colorado Springs.

I was thrilled to get an early preview of some of the data because my strong sense has always been that most people accept hunting for meat. The problem lies in the broad public perception that many people think hunters don't eat what they kill - a myth effectively propagated by the Humane Society, which tells the public that hunters use doves for target practice and don't actually eat them.

Beyond that, HSUS and other anti-hunting propagandists cement the impression that hunters are just in it for the killing by emphasizing the "trophy" aspect of trophy hunting - ignoring the fact that most hunters eat what's south of the trophy.

And surprise, surprise: The NSSF survey shows that hunting for trophies has the lowest amount of support from the public - just 28 percent. See why the Humane Society harps on that? They're not stupid, folks - just misguided.

So what does all of this mean for hunters?

You need to talk to non-hunters about the food aspect of your hunting to dispel the myth that you just like to kill animals for kicks, because the public has no idea that almost all of us are eating what we kill.

Personally, I'm blessed to have a Boyfriend who loves to garden and hunt and cook and bring all those pursuits together in a joyous symphony at our dinner table. That means I get to eat serious gourmet game all the time. Lucky me!

We also both believe strongly that local, sustainable, organic food is not only best for the environment, but best for our bodies as well. We avoid factory-farmed meat as much as possible, eating mostly hunted meat, and supplementing it occasionally with pastured meat.

Beyond that, wild game just plain tastes better than the bland, corn-fed whatever that factory farms turn out these days. Have you noticed that a pork chop and a chicken breast don't taste or even look so different anymore? Man, that's a sin against nature and good taste.

Why do you like game meat? What do you do with the game you bring home? Talk about it, folks! Non-hunters need to hear it.

Now, there's one other interesting thing about this news. Responsive Management has done research on women hunters and found that the No. 1 reason women hunt is for the meat. Even though men obviously enjoy eating the game they bring home, they're half as likely to cite meat as their primary reason for hunting.

Why does this matter? Two reasons. First, women are a growing proportion of hunters, and though our numbers have been hovering at around 1.2 million for the past decade, there is a huge bubble of girl hunters coming up through the ranks, meaning we're likely due for a substantial increase in the coming decade. (Click on that chart if you want to see the detail.)

Second - and I've said this before - women have tremendous potential as ambassadors to the non-hunting world. People listen to us because we're unusual, and they're not as quick to write us off as drunken bubba poachers. When we talk about food, people will listen.

I love connecting the food I eat to the hunts I've enjoyed. That pintail Boyfriend and I ate the other day with the most fat I've ever seen on a wild duck? That was the one I got when I took my friend Hellen to Delevan to observe her first duck hunt. When we did a mallard tasting in February to compare the meat of birds with four different diets - acorn, rice, grass and corn - I was proud to say the winner of the taste test was the grass-fed mallard I got on my first hunt with my friend Dana. Thats the first photo in this blog post.

There is a story behind what we eat. The story is part of the natural cycle of life on earth. Plants and animals alike, we are all born. We all die. Our remains nourish others, whether it's the predator that took our life, the worms that aid in the decomposition of our bodies or the plants that grow from soil we become a part of. I refuse to follow the naive souls who believe humans should remove ourselves even further than we already have from this natural cycle. Far from it, I embrace this cycle completely.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008

Chicks with guns - it's a beautiful thing

It took me about 10 minutes Sunday morning to get grumpy. It wasn't that I was exhausted from Saturday's striper fishing trip - my third consecutive guided outing this year with nothing to show for it, and my first trip of the year under a blazing sun.

No, it was my computer. When I turned it on at 6:45 a.m. and checked for cool stories on hunting and comments on my blog, there it was. Someone had told me about a fun annual squirrel hunt in October. I'd said, Hey, I'll be in that state in October. Maybe I can go. He responded overnight, No, it's men only.


Well, thanks for letting me know about it, I thought. If I grow a "Y" chromosome by October, count me in.

I could go on at greater length, using vivid language, about how this made me feel, but as luck would have it, the reason I was waking up at that hour was that I was heading out with my friend Hellen and her friend Lucrezia to a women's shooting clinic at the True Sportsman Club in Amador County.

Our day.

I don't know exactly why men need their own outings, though I'm guessing it has to do with free-for-all farting, frank discussions about the knockers they saw on some chick the other day and complete freedom to express their doggy nature.

But I can tell you why women need our own outings: Because we've been shut out. Rich, the True Sportsman Club instructor who kicked off the day Sunday with a basic lesson about firearms, even apologized for it. "If you go into a sporting goods store, chances are you'll be treated with a little less respect than men," he said.

Beyond that, we're pretty intimidated about learning to shoot around men because we don't want to look like we "shoot like girls."

Rich assured the 34 or so women at Sunday's event that women in fact make fine shooters because of our generally strong hand-eye coordination. And today was the day they could put that to the test, shooting a wide range of firearms for the first time, not just without fear of looking stupid in front of men, but with the knowledge they would be surrounded by women, who have a tremendous knack for supporting one another.

These women came for a variety of reasons: Some were afraid of guns and wanted to conquer that fear. Some had always wanted to learn how to shoot.

Hellen and Lucrezia came to take their first shooting lessons ever because they want to learn to hunt. Hellen is my colleague, the English professor, who learned that I was a duck hunter when we were at our university's graduation in December and promptly announced she wanted to hunt ducks too. (Click here for that story, and here for all the steps she's taken since then.)

Lucrezia, Hellen's friend from San Francisco, had inherited a shotgun from her grandfather and wanted to learn how to hunt with it.

Lucrezia's biggest fear going into Sunday's clinic was not shooting well. She's a perfectionist. She really wanted to nail it. I hear you, sister.

Hellen feared recoil. She'd already tagged along on two hunts to see if she was OK with the killing part of hunting, as well as the grime and early hours. She'd even bought waders, a jacket and a blind bag. But she's tiny, and she worried that guns were going to smack her around too much.

The women were split into three groups that would rotate through stations: shotgun, rifle, handgun. Our group started off with handguns, which was a great disappointment to Hellen, who had no interest in them at all.

Until she started shooting. Check this out. To see more clearly what she's doing to the knock-down targets, click on the photo to see a larger version.

So, yeah, she was pretty excited about that. And she liked it even better when she shot the paper targets, because now she has something to tack up in her office at the university. Late with your homework again? Really...

Lucrezia was pretty fantastic with the handgun, too. After Hellen brought back a paper target with some excellent groupings, Lucrezia brought one back with two bulls eyes.

Wah, I don't want to shoot handguns. Indeed.

After that, we all sat down for lunch at picnic tables under a mulberry tree, and wow, was it cool watching the transformation in the women. They'd arrived in the morning looking not so much nervous, but closed-down, faces not revealing anything. Now everyone was smiling, excited and relieved. They didn't suck! They weren't afraid anymore!

Next was rifle shooting with all kinds of .22s - lever action, bolt action, peep sights, scoped, the works. Lucrezia was a madwoman. When other women were retiring to the shade - Lord, it was HOT - she kept jumping up over and over again to slay the targets.

Back in the shade, Hellen and I sat near a mother and daughter who'd come out together. "Your daddy would be so proud," mom said. Daddy used to be an Army sharpshooter.

"I've always wanted to go shooting with him," the daughter said, "but he's never taken me."

In unison, the women around the table said, "He will now!"

Finally, it was time for shotguns. The women in our group would be shooting trap. The club provided a variety of 12-gauge shotguns for right-handed shooters, but Hellen is left-eye dominant, and she worried about the kick of a 12-gauge. I'd brought my gun, a 20-gauge that has been adapted for left-handed shooting. It would be too big for her - I'm six inches taller than she is - but I figured it would be better than a bigger, right-handed gun.

I watched her walk up to the instructor and get her first lesson on mounting a shotgun. I was beaming with pride and brimming with excitement. There's something delicious about watching someone go through that initiation (which I suppose is why veteran hunters sometimes get a kick out of my newbie hunting stories here).

Then she said it for the first time: "Pull!"

The clay shot out. She fired way too fast and missed it. Most people did that on their first shot Sunday. Then the instructor gave her some more pointers, and pretty soon she was hitting clays.

Now, if it's hard shooting trap with a gun, it's even tougher shooting it with a camera, but here's a sequence I caught with Hellen following the target then absolutely shattering it. If you'd actually like to see the clays in the first two images - not just the arrows - click on the picture. But it's hard to make out the clays at any resolution in the third shot - that's how hard Hellen broke that thing.

That was it - a fine ending to a fine day. Hellen and Lucrezia had fired dozens of dozens of rounds. They'd gone from trepidation to exhilaration. We thanked Kathleen Lynch, the organizer of the event, and piled in my car to head back to Sacramento bathed in blessed air conditioning.

We talked about almost nothing but the shooting for the hour-long drive home. Lucrezia, who had come here because she wanted to use her grandpa's shotgun, had fallen in love with rifle shooting. Hellen was jubilant not only that she'd hit targets, but that the recoil of the shotgun hadn't hurt her. Now she knew for sure that the money she'd been earning on extra assignments at school would be going toward her own shotgun.

Now both were ready for the next steps: hunter safety training, more shooting lessons, and ultimately, their first hunts.

And I was feeling a little better about that "no women allowed" squirrel hunt business. In truth, I don't mind that men need a little space to be themselves. And besides, we don't really need to tag along with the men to have a good time hunting and shooting - we actually do quite well on our own.

* * *

Next women's shooting clinic: NorCal women, if you missed this shoot and would like a chance to try something like it, California Waterfowl is offering a women's and kids' shooting clinic Aug. 16 in Morgan Hill. Click on the image below for a printable image of the flyer.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Squirrel: It's what's for lunch

Oh, you've got to love this: There's a butcher in England who's doing a brisk business selling squirrel pasties. (Thanks to The Sporting Shooter for bringing this treat to my attention.)

Click on the photo for the full story, but here are my favorite lines:

Butcher David Simpson, who sells the pasties in Fraddon, Cornwall, said: "People like the fact it is wild meat, low in fat and local – so no food miles. ... It is moist and sweet because its diet has been berries and nuts."

Man, this is the best thing since that fantastic "Squirrel melts" video came out on YouTube (see below - I can't resist). Don't think I'm kidding, either. I love squirrel! It tastes like rabbit. It's a meal-sized animal. And it's an abundant resource.

Seeing the squirrel pasties story in the London-based Metro made me a bit wistful too. In most of the U.S., you haven't been able to buy wild game at stores or restaurants for a good eight decades or so. The prohibition in many cases was a reaction to the effects market-hunting was having on wild-game species.

I think one unintended consequence of the prohibition is that Americans are less and less familiar with wild game meat - so unfamiliar that many non-hunters don't even believe we eat what we kill. Duh.

Modern hunting regulations in the U.S. have successfully reversed the ancient human habit of hunting some species to extinction. But there are still tons of reasons why the game-meat prohibitions are unlikely to be lifted anytime soon: Overzealous regulation. Lack of demand. Recent studies (which desperately need to be peer reviewed) on the presence of lead fragments in processed venison.

That puts a heavy burden on hunters: Share with your friends. Invite people to dinner. Show them how good this stuff really is.

And by all means, go squirrel hunting. It's a more versatile meat than you may have realized.

Wait, there's more!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A different kind of "horn porn"

Boyfriend and I love watching hunting shows on TV, but there's a reason we call it "horn porn" - you willingly endure a lot of bad dialogue, cheesy music and low production values just to get to the "good parts," where you might either witness an expert shot or actually learn something of value.

But lately we've turned away from Versus and the Outdoor Channel to watch a fascinating new show on the Discovery Channel: The Alaska Experiment. It's a reality show that puts four teams of people in Alaska as winter approaches and makes them fend for themselves.

I love survivor shows in general because I like learning what you can do to take care of yourself out in the wild. But I love this one in particular because a bunch of non-hunters have to hunt to survive - they learn very quickly that they really need protein. And they learn hunting isn't as easy as they thought.

Sometimes they come home empty-handed (been there). But sometimes they're successful.

In last night's show, Tim, the handsome IT guy from Southern California, not only shot a mountain goat, but helped dress it on the spot, then packed 100-plus pounds of meat back to his camp. I loved it when he got back to camp and showed his teammates what he'd gotten - and seeing the look of pride in his face. Here's a guy who probably never dreamed he'd kill an animal, and he was beaming when he brought it home. Like your cat does when she drops a dead mouse at your doorstep. Like my boyfriend did when he started hunting and proudly brought home his first ducks. Like I do every time I actually hit what I'm shooting at. Does this make him the stereotypical vicious, cruel, salivating killer?

As the team fried up some of the meat and ate it, I loved hearing one of Tim's teammates recall that she'd thought the show was going to turn her into a vegetarian, but she was feeling quite the opposite at that moment. Not so gross now, is it?

The cool thing is these people are hunting just like we do, only this show portrays it in a context that's neither garish (lots of cheering, whooping and pumping of fists) nor hysterical (oh how dare they kill those poor little animals). It is what it is: hunting for food.

I clearly see myself reflected in this show - especially because I, too, am still pretty new at this, and I, too, am hunting to put food on the table. The only question is whether non-hunters will realize this is what hunting is, or whether they'll continue to compartmentalize it and say this hunting is OK because it's survival, but hunting when you could go to the Piggly Wiggly, Kroger or Safeway is somehow a sin.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Antis, pet-rescue politics and YOU

I love writing about hunting for an audience that's friendly to hunting. But sometimes I go a little crazy and dip my toes in unfriendly waters, and it is always rough swimming.

Such was the case last week - but I think it was worth it. While I won't ask you to follow me into the water, I do hope you'll consider going where this particular journey took me.

The topic was the controversy last month over a chain store called Meijer agreeing to donate $1 to the Humane Society for every entry into its online pet photo contest, up to $5,000 total. The money would go into an HSUS fund set up to help rescue pets abandoned in foreclosed homes.

It's an excellent cause. But hunters - led by the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance - wanted nothing to do with a store they shop at funding an organization that opposes all but subsistence hunting, and fights perfectly legitimate and ethical hunting practices, such as dove hunting. The principle is simple: If you support my enemy, you are not my friend.

USSA called on Meijer to end the program, and after hunters followed suit with letters, blogs and phone calls, Meijer bailed. I saluted the victory and urged hunters to support USSA or any hunting organization that fights for our rights, because it's not often we win battles against the Humane Society's well-funded marketing machine.

In retrospect, though, the win was painfully short-lived. The Humane Society, whose PR tactics bear remarkable resemblance to political campaigns in virtually every respect, turned this into yet another opportunity to make hunters look like animal haters. It now claims to have raised ten times as much as Meijer was going to donate from people who were outraged by USSA's pressure on the chain.

Now, I wouldn't comment on a Humane Society or PETA blog if my life depended on it - it's like trying to talk reason in a schizophrenia ward. (I've actually tried reasoning with an untreated schizophrenic, back when I was a young reporter covering homelessness and mental health issues. It doesn't work.) But I stumbled across a post in a dog lover's blog about the issue, and I decided to jump into the comments section and try to explain why hunters loathe the Humane Society. I immediately fell under a hail of talking points straight off of HSUS's website. (Click here if you feel like being irritated by every detail.)

There were a couple commenters who seemed to be sincere about the issue, articulating original thoughts, so I tried to work with them. One women named Judy kept saying, over and over, this is not hunting vs. anti-hunting; it's about pet rescue.

While I disagree on the first part, I agree pet rescue is important, and hunters could make no better statement than to support that cause. I asked for a list of organizations that support rescuing pets that have been abandoned in foreclosed houses so I could post it here on this blog. And while I didn't get a list, Judy piped in with this advice: Call your local shelters. Donate. Volunteer. If there isn't a program for foreclosure pets, help start one.

I'd already spent $50 to join USSA and make a statement in support of hunting rights; now it was time to make a statement in support of abandoned pets. The only question was who would get my money?

The answer came so easily. I was walking into my neighborhood Petco today to restock our supply of kitty litter when I saw the sign out front: Cat Adoptions Today.

I LOVE cats.

I made a beeline to the adoption corner and started feeling that maternal tug that made me want to adopt them all. Boyfriend would kill me. We already have a 12-year-old Russian blue named Paka and a calico kitten named Giblet from the neighbors' breeding colony - she's the one pictured above. We couldn't possibly handle another cat. Paka would probably barf hairballs on my pillow every day in protest.

So I talked to the woman at the table about her program. "Do you rescue pets abandoned in foreclosed homes?" I asked.

"A few," she said. "We rescue them from all over. Some people who've adopted have had to give them back because of foreclosures."

But there is another problem stemming from the economy that's potentially even worse than foreclosure abandonments: Adoptions are down. But the number of cats needing rescue isn't.

"How do you get your funding?" I asked.

"Adoptions. Donations. Some vets donate services," she said.

"Do any organizations like the Humane Society help you?" I asked.

"Oh, no," she said.

"Can I write you a check?"

"Yes!" she said.

I didn't bring up hunting as I wrote a check for $50. Honestly, I couldn't care less what she thinks of it. All I care about is that her organization is doing the work of the angels, and it isn't doing it to maintain a facade of animal rescue to fund a campaign against hunting.

If you're from NorCal and you would like to support a local group, this operation is called Fluff Buddies. Click here for information.

If you're from somewhere else, it's not hard to find a local shelter or adoption program that isn't an arm of the Humane Society, because the HSUS does precious little work in this area compared with its massive PR campaigns. And if you're not sure where various animal organizations stand on hunting, the National Shooting Sports Foundation has an excellent guide that describes 26 animal or wildlife organizations' positions. Click here for a PDF of that guide.

Will this gesture effectively combat the Humane Society's routine slander of hunters? I doubt it. Small contributions to local groups scattered all over the country or world can't match a multimillion-dollar smear campaign.

But will it put money behind what you already know about yourself, that being a hunter does not make you an animal hater? Yes, it will.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Halibut fishing on San Francisco Bay

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then I'm a really grateful blogger today. During an 11-hour halibut fishing trip on San Francisco Bay Saturday, Boyfriend reeled in just one undersized fish. I got nothing. But our friend Evan caught two, and the story of his biggest catch - from dock to stockpot - may not be worth a thousand words, but it's definitely worth a slideshow.

Evan is the one in the first frame; Boyfriend is the one doing the filleting. We tried to get our cat Giblet to pose for the last shot in the slideshow, but the fish was a lot bigger than she is, and she wanted nothing to do with it. Oh well!

Update: If you want to read about the fish's journey after the last slide here, check out Boyfriend's blog - click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Challenged to explain: Why I hunt

Being what you're raised to be is pretty much the easiest thing in the world - it's autopilot. Making a major life change, though, is something that makes you think a lot. Why, at the age of 41, should a journalist-turned-professor buy a shotgun, learn to shoot it and invest thousands of hours and dollars in a lifestyle that isn't strictly necessary for her survival?

It is a delicious question, because exploring it reawakens the still-fresh memories of every "first" I've experienced as a huntress. Read more...

And I think about it often, because part of what I do now is explain to non-hunters - or at least try to explain - why we do this. Why we are willing to kill animals when we could just buy meat at the grocery store?

Tonight, though, I answer this question in response to a fellow hunter. Arthur at Simply Outdoors issued a challenge to write about why we hunt, and then Kristine at Gun Safety Innovations rose to it, and man, they touched a nerve.

So here are my reasons:

1. Shouldn't I be doing this myself? When I was a kid, my family raised chickens, rabbits, pigs and even a few goats for eggs, milk and meat. I cried the first time I witnessed a slaughter, even though the rooster in question, Henry VIII, had attacked me in the chicken pen, leaving long, deep scratches down my 7-year-old back. But when Mom put chicken pot pie on the dinner table that night, I was hooked. I saw the connection between life, death and the food on my table, and I embraced it.

The last slaughter of my childhood was memorable. I was 17, it was Christmas Day, and my family was desperately poor. We slaughtered some chickens for dinner. My mother, to this day, bitterly remembers the unmistakable stench of dead chickens dipped in boiling water to facilitate plucking. She hated it, but for me it would be the last time for 24 years that I would take responsibility for the food on my table.

I always felt a bit of nagging guilt after that - I was a careless meat eater. Defrost, run out of time, meat goes bad, oh well - toss it. I had no connection to my food. When my boyfriend started hunting and invited me to join him, I knew it was the right thing to do.

2. Challenge. Wow, hunting is hard! I have always savored the invigorating feeling of a challenge, whether it was writing a story that 300,000 people might read as a young newspaper reporter, moving 3,000 miles across the country all by myself as a 31-year-old or diving headfirst into the incredible complexities of hunting. Shooting, shot size, training, licensing, regulations, packing, decoys, camo, calls, holy-cow-what-time-am-I-waking-up?, animal identification, animal behavior, scan the sky, don't move too much, uh ... how do I pee when I'm on a boat with five guys? ... watch the water, mount, aim, shoot, cripples, searches, death, plucking, skinning, dressing, cooking, eating, thinking, explaining...

Honestly, I think I would just curl up and die if I didn't have new challenges facing me all the time. Hunting is so complex that I know it will keep my hyperactive brain busy for decades to come.

3. Health. The more hunted meat I eat, the less hormones, antibiotics and farm-animal cruelty I ingest. Beyond that, I strongly believe that meat from animals that live normal lives is just healthier. I'm a big fan of Virginia pastured-chicken farmer Joel Salatin, and he wrote something in one of his books that really struck me:

If you have a cholesterol problem, your doctor will tell you to do several things: cut down on animal proteins (meat, eggs and dairy products), exercise in order to metabolize the excess calories of your body (isn't that a euphemistic way of saying "fat"?), eat salad for lunch instead of meat and potatoes. A good doctor will also tell you to identify and then reduce stress in your life. The stress-cholesterol connection is clear.

He then goes on to note that the way farm animals live now is precisely the way doctors are telling us not to live: high stress, no green food, no exercise. Salatin contends that the meat and fat of animals raised in this fashion is less healthy than that of animals that live more normal lives - just as the composition of our bodies is unhealthy when we live this way.

And if that isn't good enough reason to eat game meat, try this: Industrial meat just has no flavor. American livestock is corn-fed mush, and Americans have been brainwashed into thinking that monotonous flavor is a good thing. What most people call "gamey" is really a reflection of the animal and where it lived, whether it's a mallard that dined on acorns or a boar that roamed about eating wild oats and juniper berries all day. Eating game meats is like drinking wines and savoring the differences between each one. Once you've gotten used to it, everything else tastes like Wonder Bread.

4. Connection to nature. Here's what I said on Kristine's blog that made me realize I would not be going to bed tonight at the early hour I'd hoped for: Hunting wakes up part of you in a way that will make you think you've been asleep your whole life. That's the gift I never expected from hunting.

Do you ever watch comic-book superhero movies? You know the moment where they realize they have abilities and capacities they never dreamed of? Hunting is exactly like that. I see things now that I never used to see: When driving, I spot game that is invisible to my passengers. Where I used to see weed-covered fields, I see habitat. When I gaze out the window during meetings at work, I see not just birds, but mallards and cormorants and pelicans, identifiable as such even when they're just specks in the sky because their flight patterns have been etched into my brain. When I watch neighborhood cats lie in wait for newly hatched birds in my back yard, I see not cruelty or tragedy, but the cycle of life. When I see a hawk dive into a field and emerge with empty claws, I commiserate - and congratulate the mouse. When I see the hawk rise with a small rodent in his grip, I congratulate the hawk.

Life as we know it is ephemeral. Civilization is a house of cards that can collapse quickly in the wake of a well-placed virus or draught. I love the life that society and civilization offers me - music and art and books and fine food and drink. But I recognize this kind of life is a gift, and the only life guaranteed to us is one in which we can survive only by engaging with our environment, eating what we can and avoiding being eaten by anything bigger or stronger. Hunting connects me to that. It ensures I don't forget what I am - just one of many animals who make their home on this amazing planet.

No, I don't have to live this way. But I'm sure glad I know how.

Now, for the cruel part - tag! If I could pick one person whose answer to the question "Why do you hunt?" I really want to see, it would be Albert at The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles. Albert, I know you're slammed with some projects that are really important to you, but some day when life eases up a bit, I hope you'll do us the honor of telling us why you hunt.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Monday, May 5, 2008

Hunting and unfinished discussions

Quite the interesting debate has been raging over on The Hog Blog, where Phillip responded to a hostile comment from an anti with a really eloquent defense of hunting this weekend.

A bunch of us hunting bloggers chimed in, as we're known to do, and an anti-hunter who called himself "Bob" weighed in as well, bless his soul, courageously doing the equivalent of waving a dead rabbit in a lion's den, as Phillip put it.

The debate has been raging for days now, and I'm still not clear on Bob's point, except that he said he isn't a vegetarian, but he does have environmental concerns about hunting. And I'm not sure I'll find out exactly where he's coming from, because the debate got ugly tonight, and it may be over.

Interestingly enough, while much of this was happening, I had gone off to school to join a panel discussion in front of six grad students about different forms of professional writing. I talked about my newspaper career, this blog and commentaries, and how I enjoy the opportunity I have as an opinion writer to set the record straight on issues such as hunters eating what they kill.

That's when one of the grad students piped up and said something to the effect of, "How many actually do eat what they kill? Because I'm an 'anti.' "

I said, "Most of us," but that was it, because this was a discussion about writing, not hunting. And that was just as frustrating as the lack of resolution (at this hour) in the debate with "Bob" on The Hog Blog.

I don't look for fights, but nor will I hide who I am or what I do - whether it's on the friendly grounds of Phillip's blog or in a university environment most of us would assume to be hostile to hunting.

I actually look forward to the opportunity to hear out anyone who has a negative opinion of hunting, and to explain my position. I want to know where antis come from: Are their positions based on personal beliefs - which I totally respect - or misconceptions?

Tonight, though, I've come across two people - Bob and the student - who oppose hunting, but I'm not sure why. We never got to have a clear discussion.

And that matters, because while I may not change anyone's mind with discussion, I can make it abundantly clear that I've carefully thought out my choices - that hunting is not something I do out of callousness or indifference, but rather as a result of strongly held beliefs.

I am a meat eater, and I am comfortable with my place in the food chain - even with the notion that I, too, can become another animal's dinner. I believe there is no difference between animals dying on my behalf and animals dying because I personally shot them. I believe if I'm going to take an animal's life, I damn well better not waste it - I'll use every part I can. I believe that hunting has connected me to nature in ways that hiking, bird-watching and photography never could, because it has put me right back in the middle of it.

So, if you're out there, Bob and Grad Student, just know that this is where I'm coming from.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Is the decline in hunters a blip?

Or, more accurately, is the decline in hunters the end of a blip?

That's the interesting idea I came across this morning in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review: Delta Waterfowl leaders are suggesting that the decline in the number of hunters simply reflects the departure of Baby Boomers from the ranks of hunters as they age.

Tribune-Review Outdoors Editor Bob Frye reports: Delta likened the baby boomer's impact on hunter numbers to a rabbit being swallowed by a rattlesnake, saying, "That rattler was long and lean before it ate the rabbit and will be long and lean after the rabbit is digested, but for now there's a noticeable bulge passing through its body."

The analysis seems logical, but I haven't seen enough data to know for sure. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service does a statistically impeccable survey of hunting, fishing and wildlife viewing every five years. But current survey methodology dates back only to 1991, and the entire survey goes back only to 1955, when the first Boomers were already old enough to start hunting.

Boyfriend - who's just weird enough to have a bunch of squirrel hunting data on his computer - notes that there's hunting license data that goes further back. But you really need a lot of data to get a complete picture of the snake. Hmmm... that'll give me something to do during summer break.

But I digress.

Delta notes there are other issues affecting hunters' ranks too, such as increasing urbanization and the loss of huntable private land. That last one hit home this weekend when Boyfriend and I were out hunting turkeys in Amador County with our friend Evan and had a grand total of three ranches where we had permission to hunt.

Evan said there used to be far more places to go in Amador. But while much of the land is still open and rural, it has changed hands, either converting to vineyards or becoming the retirement homes for equity-rich retirees from the San Francisco Bay Area (not a region particularly friendly to hunting).

Even so, I think the ranks of hunters are due to rise, because there's another bump coming through the snake: young female hunters. Now, if we can just make sure their grandparents save some habitat for them, we'll be onto something.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Our last turkey hunt of the spring

After last weekend's surreal turkey hunt in Napa Valley, Boyfriend and I decided to head out to Amador County Saturday for one last hunt before the spring turkey season ends.

Boyfriend still hadn't gotten a turkey, and even though I had finally gotten my first, you can never have too much turkey in the freezer. Besides, my boss - an avid fly fisherman - had told me that turkey feathers are fabulous for fly-tying, and I wanted to help him out.

But while last weekend's hunt was perfection from start to finish, yesterday's excursion served as a vivid reminder: hunting is hard. All those people who think having a shotgun somehow means you can kill everything in sight are nuts.

We met our friend Evan at o'dark-thirty to head out to an area ranch where turkeys were known to hang out. Evan had been out of town for a few months, though, so none of us had actually scouted this land. So there we were, crammed into the cab of his beat-up black Ford Ranger, cruising up and down a dirt road half an hour before sunrise looking for a spot his brother had described to him. As the truck crawled, we scoured the trees for the silhouettes of roosting turkeys and found nothing.

It was getting close to wake-up time for turkeys, so we really needed to get out and set up. We looked for a place that looked "good" for turkeys - eyeballing the terrain as if we were scouting for a picnic spot - stopped, and broke out the shotguns and decoys.

Then we heard it.


Good spot, then!

Boyfriend and I crept into positions at the base of two oak trees while Evan set up decoys, then hit his box call to see if he could interest the gobblers in checking out some of our plastic hens.

Evan called. The turkeys gobbled. Evan called. The turkeys gobbled. Evan called. The turkeys stopped gobbling. Twenty minutes passed and we heard nothing. Clearly, plastic hens and the sound of a little box with a squeaky lid were not too attractive to these boys.

So we decided to switch things up: I'd head down the hill closer to where we'd heard turkeys before in hopes they'd come back; Evan and boyfriend would head out and scout for more. I sat pressed against a tree, ready for anything. At one point, I swear I could smell turkeys. But I never saw a thing, and finally Boyfriend came back and said they'd had no luck. We were moving.

We piled into Evan's truck and moved back up the dirt road, and it wasn't 30 seconds before we saw the turkeys about 100 yards ahead. We stopped. Boyfriend crept under a tree. I crouched beside the truck. Evan hit the call. The turkeys wandered off.

Oh, so that's what it's going to be like, eh?


Boyfriend and I stalked through the oak forest for a while, occasionally seeing turkeys at some unshootable distance and pushing them farther away from us before we finally had to concede this wasn't working. So we unloaded our guns, got into the truck and moved to another ranch. All we saw there was a huge pack of cottontails, which aren't in season.

OK, fine, turkeys. If you want to be like that, screw you - we'll just go get breakfast.

We stopped at a cafe in Ione, fueled up on eggs, toast and coffee and headed back to the truck. As we moved our guns and decoys from the cab to the bed of the truck, a passerby peeked in.

"Get any turkeys?" he asked.

"No," we said morosely.

Our last effort of the day would be at the very ranch where Evan and I had seen a huge flock of turkeys last fall. Having just spent a bunch of time on foot pushing turkeys away from me, I didn't feel like doing that again, so I proposed positioning myself under an oak near a creek and letting the boys head uphill to see what they could find.

It was perfect. Just like last weekend, I found an oak tree with multiple trunks, something I could sit against and blend into. I had a good view of a hillside up to my right, the creek down below me, and a cow path heading along the creek.

I sat with my shotgun ready. There was enough cover that if anything approached, I would be able to mount my gun and aim it without being detected. A breeze washed through the oaks, carrying the spicy smell of already-dry native grasses, filling me with a dreamy, peaceful feeling. All the stresses of work and life evaporated because, unlike the rest of my waking hours, my job this hour was to sit still and observe. When you move all the time, it's easy to forget how hungry for stillness you really are.

But the only turkey sounds I ever heard were Evan hitting that box call somewhere up the hill. After a while, he and Boyfriend approached on the path below. I heard them before I saw them, and I sat still, waiting for them to notice me. I'm invisible!

Evan finally saw me. "Good spot!" he said.

Good spot indeed.

We walked around for a while after that and never did see anything, so we decided to head to a saloon in Sutter Creek for some beer. As we sat at the bar, a small herd of weekend wine tasters moved in, standing behind us as they waited to be seated.

"Are you turkey hunters?" one woman asked, eyeballing our camo.


"Did you get anything?"


"You should come to our house - they're right outside our front door!"

Awwww, hell, that was just mean.

"Give us your address!" I said hopefully. But she lived in Chico, about three hours away. Oh well.

You always want to end a hunt with game in hand. But the truth is, you never end a hunt empty-handed. In this case, we left with a little more knowledge about turkeys and scouting and positioning. And I came out of it with a sense of relaxation I hadn't felt for months. Can't complain about that.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008