Thursday, July 31, 2008

Fly fishing in NorCal: Love at first hit?

On the three-hour drive up Interstate 5 to Redding early Tuesday, I kept telling myself that I was just exploring.

The terrain was familiar: Fields of rice, sunflowers and pasture covered the entire expanse of the Sacramento Valley. We could see the silhouettes of the low coastal mountain range on the west, and the more extreme Sierra Nevada range on the east. On our right, the sun was making its lurid ascent, tinted an unnatural orange by the layer of wildfire smoke that’s coated the state for more than a month.

This is where I hunt ducks, but it’s not that time of year. I was heading to Redding to do some fly fishing on the Sacramento River with my boss, Nick.

The addiction of fly fishing had long been a mystery to me. Nick is nuts about it – his office door is covered with pictures of him grasping opalescent, dripping trout. So one day last semester, I asked him if he would take me with him on a fly fishing trip some day.

Nick agreed instantly. Too quickly, in fact. I began to fear that my innocent request was a bit like saying, “Hey, I hear people really love crack, and I’d love to see what the fuss is about. Can I try some?” And you know how addicts are, always eager to drag someone else into the fold.

But I stuck with the plan, and this was the appointed week. “Be at my house at 5:30 a.m.,” Nick told me on Monday.

I was prepared – an open vessel, ready to absorb new knowledge. I really wanted to understand.

Don’t get me wrong; I get hunting addiction. And though fishing isn’t No. 1 with me, I do understand its allure. Nothing wrong with hanging out on a boat, dropping a line in the water and enjoying some beer while waiting for a hit. That halibut fishing last week was pretty sweet.

But what was the draw of this particular method of fishing in which the goal was to come home empty-handed?

See, that’s the part I really don’t get: catch and release. Getting up early, spending money on gear and suffering whatever the elements decide to throw at you seems like a worthwhile endeavor when you combine the spiritual element of participating in nature with the satisfaction of bringing home an ice chest full of whatever.

But doing all that and coming home with nothing to eat? I was struggling with that.

“So,” I asked Nick Tuesday morning as we motored north in his electric blue hybrid Camry. “If I catch any fish, can I keep one or two?”

He considered my question gravely. “I don’t know. We’ll have to ask the guide.”

I evaluated Nick’s tone. It seemed that even asking the question would risk offending the guide, like asking a Catholic priest if he’d like to get married and have babies with me. Wow, this was going to be a lot more difficult than I thought. I’d have to lie low and not be my normal obnoxious self.

Actually, that turned out to be impossible, because I could not stifle some of my observations.

It started at home base, The Fly Shop in Redding, where we would meet our guide, Ernie Denison. I’ve never been in a fly fishing shop before and quite honestly didn’t expect anything much different from any other outdoors store. But I immediately noticed that the main part of the shop’s floor was covered with display cases featuring hundreds – maybe even thousands – of bizarrely named flies. Floating Carcass. Pregnant Scud. Mr. Hankey. The Creature from URANUS.

They were so colorful and interesting I had to go back and extricate my camera from Nick’s trunk to take a few pictures. As I moved around the display cases, all divided into all these tiny boxes holding even tinier flies, I had an epiphany that I blurted out to any man in the store who would listen: “It’s like a bead store!”

They ignored me. Not what they wanted to hear? Too girlie?

I thought I knew what to expect next, too, but I was wrong again.

We all drove down to the South Bonnyview boat ramp where we’d launch Ernie’s drift boat. While the men got ready, putting together rods and tying flies to the lines and such, I waited.

I spotted turkeys in the little oak woodland that surrounded our parking lot. I waited. I sat on a giant hunk of concrete and peered into the oak tree over our head. I waited. I took pictures of Ernie tying tiny flies to fishing line with his impossibly thick and tanned hands. I waited.

There we were, with water no more than 30 feet from us, and we were sitting on land! It was taking forever.

Another epiphany! “This is like a girl getting ready for a date!” I declared. “Very elaborate.”

Ernie glanced up at me – the kind of glance where you don’t move your head, and just raise your eyes skeptically – and I swear I could read his mind. What the hell was Nick doing bringing along an insufferable dingbat like this?

But really, who knew fly fishing would be so … feminine?

Onward. Our plan for the day was to drift downstream. There was no motor on this boat; instead, Ernie – a burly man, and truly a manly man, despite all my snarky observations about fly fishing so far – would power us through the current and the riffles with two sturdy oars.

Having spent my weekends in college drifting down the American River on rafts, something about this venture finally seemed familiar. I find nothing more peaceful than a quiet drift on a Western river – skinny and fast – with little but the sound of rushing water and tumbling riverbed rocks to accompany me on the journey.

We wasted no time getting started, either. Moments after we pushed out, Ernie told me to watch Nick cast and explained what he was doing so I could give it a try next. “I might have to cast for you,” he warned.

Hold the rod with your finger holding the line. Pull out some line. No, the other side of your finger. More line. Throw it back. Let some line slip through your fingers. Now throw it forward. One more time. Keep the line straight upstream from the flies. Take up slack. Take in the line; we’re moving across river.

Man, this was complicated. I loved it.

I was doing a crappy job of casting, but I swear I got a strike within 60 seconds. There was my first hit of crack.

But there was so much to learn. Last week, when halibut hit, my job was to lean forward and reel in, then pull back, lean forward and reel in, then pull back. I tried that Tuesday and instantly learned that leaning forward means losing the trout.

The hooks, you see, are tiny, and the barbs have been crimped, which I think has something to do with the fact that whipping those lines around occasionally causes a hook to become imbedded in a face, and a barbless hook is much easier to remove from your face.

And of course, from the fish, which you inexplicably plan to set free.

I think on my third strike, I’d gotten something the size of a sturgeon. Maybe bigger.

“Twenty feet long!”

“Twenty-five – all three tons of her.”

Due to my rookieness, I lost that one. But it was still like another hit on the crackpipe. I want MORE!

And more would come. They did all day long, in a steady stream. Some, I reeled in, taking a brief moment to revel in their glittery pinkness. Others, I lost, forgetting myself and pointing the tip of the rod down, setting the little bugger free. Or, pulling back too hard when I needed to let them run, snapping the line and forcing Ernie to put down the anchor and set up my line again.

But I was casting better and better, and making fewer and fewer mistakes when I got a strike.

Once I got a big one – definitely picture worthy. And in my high point of the day, I got another one about 60 seconds later. Made me feel downright talented.

But of course, we were throwing all of them back.

Ernie said something about regulations and various stretches of the river. Turns out the regs are complex - click on the picture to see what I mean.

But not everything we reeled in was a hyper-protected trout. At one point, Nick reeled in a sucker fish, one of the more disgusting things I’ve ever seen. I’d already broached the subject of keeping a non-trout fish, and I had to consider quickly whether I wanted this one.

“Where would you put it?” Ernie asked.

“In the ice chest,” I said.

“My clean ice chest?” he responded.

Don’t say it, Holly. Don’t say it!!!

In the end, we tossed him back because I wasn’t sure Boyfriend – Mr. Fish and Seafood Cooking – would want this one. I was, of course, wrong. “Holly,” he said when I called him that night, “bring me anything you get. I’ll eat it.”

See? That’s where I’m coming from.

By the time we ended our day at the Balls Ferry boat ramp, I’d caught – and released – six trout, lost probably three or four more and had a bunch of other strikes I was too lame to get – not a bad day for a beginner. Nick reeled in probably three times as many.

I really, really liked it.

Floating. Casting with great attention to detail. High learning curve. Gorgeous fish. A long day on the water – definitely longer than it would be if you caught your limit and quit.

By the end of the day, I was asking Nick and Ernie how much it would cost to get set up with a basic rod and stuff. I was – pathetic pun intended – hooked.

But I still wasn’t sold on this whole catch-and-release thing. I want to fish where I can keep the little buggers. Hey, Brad Pitt kept them in A River Runs Through It. I remember – I was watching closely. (Man, he’s just irresistible in that movie.)

Nick and Ernie did their best to dissuade me, at one point noting that there was a terrible toxic old mine upstream and that the fish we’d caught that day were probably loaded with mercury and dioxin.

Funny, I hadn’t seen any warnings about that.

Land shark!

But I wasn’t worried about that anymore. I finally understood the magic of fly fishing. All I had to do now was open my wallet and hook up with some catch-and-eat types.

* * *

Wanna fly fish in NorCal? Ernie was a fantastic guide who knew the good spots and had skill with the oars, and he was doubly fantastic for putting up with my crap. The Fly Shop, which runs the guide service, is located at 4140 Churn Creek Road in Redding. You can call them at (530) 222-3555. Tell ‘em NorCal Cazadora sent you. Don’t be surprised if they say, “Who?” Ernie’s trying to forget me.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Video: The joy of non-lead ammunition

Ah, California - always at the forefront.

I know you folks in the Other 49 are watching in fear as California implements a lead-ammunition ban in the state's massive condor region.

That region happens to be where Boyfriend and I do most of our big game hunting, so you are cordially invited to live the fear through us vicariously as you wait to see if your state falls in line.

With deer season in that area beginning Aug. 9, we are doing our best to get ready, and that means shelling out for spendy ammo, and sending it flying into paper targets over ($2) and over ($4) and over ($6) and over ($8) and over again ($$$$$).

Wanna see what it's like? Just click the play button below. But be warned - I'm new at video and I haven't figured out how to "bleep" yet...

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Fishing, slime, drama and culinary excess

This has been an incredibly bad year of fishing for me: After three guided trips for sturgeon, halibut and striper (can you say $$$?), I had nothing in the freezer to show for it. Ouch.

But Monday, the fourth time was the charm. Boyfriend and I went out on a charter boat on San Francisco Bay, and we did really well. Boyfriend caught his limit of three halibut, and I caught two that were legal, including the fatty shown here, which turned out to be the biggest catch on the boat.

Now, I would love to tell a good story about this trip, but in all honesty, fishing just doesn't have the same drama that hunting holds for me.

6:30 a.m. - I began devouring donut holes.
8 a.m. - My pants were covered in anchovy scales from wiping my hands after baiting my line.
11 a.m. - I declared Miller Time.
2 p.m. - Without any help at all, I noticed I had a fish on my line and began reeling it in quietly, generating much excitement on the boat.

OK, that last part was cool. But other than that, fishing is - for me - chilling out with the prospect of coming home with food for the freezer. So instead of my usual opus, I'll share with you my favorite highlights:

1. We really maximized our fishing dollars when our boat's captain, Jay, graciously agreed to let us bring home all the leftover bait anchovies. Boyfriend loves fresh anchovies, so now we have an enormous sack of them that we'll use for ... oh, I don't know, but you can probably read about it later on his blog.

2. Halibut are really, really slimy. This morning, when I looked at the spot on the lawn where I dumped out the ice-chest ice, there was a thick layer of slime left on the grass. OMG, so disgusting.

3. There's something wrong with our neighborhood cats. While our neighbors are off galavanting in Italy, one of their cats - Harlequin - has been hanging out in our yard a lot. I thought it would be nice to share a treat with her, so I offered the kitty her very own anchovy. She was so not interested!

4. Boyfriend and I are getting a reputation for culinary excess because of our insane devotion to maximizing what we bring home. Here's what one of my particularly sarcastic friends said after I emailed her about the halibut we brought home:

Ahh yes, the halibut-ear butter and seasoned eyeball caviar with halibut butt pucker calamari style soup and not to mention you will use the fish bones to render a seasoned clear fish broth to be frozen for future use and what is left of the skin will be sun-dried and preserved for a new sports bra for your SUV with duck stamps on it. Luv yah!!!

Sigh. It's so true.

But hey, we eat well!

Boyfriend and me with four of our five halibut

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Video: Gun-slingin' gals blowin' off steam

At the end of each January, every duck hunter I know recalls every missed duck and swears he or she is going to hit the shooting range a lot during the off season.

Then life takes over. We get busy, and the "twice a month" goal turns into "once in a blue moon."

For me, yesterday was that blue moon. Or maybe I should call it a pink moon. A group of women I've been working with on some programs for California Waterfowl got together with some non-hunting, non-shooting friends for some sporting clays and trap action at our local range, the Cordova Shooting Center.

We started out a bit rough. Few of us had done five-stand sporting clays, and let's just say there wasn't much cheering at the start. Every once in a while I'd look back at the newbies waiting for their turn, and they had these stricken looks on their faces. Geez, if the experienced hunters can't hit these things, what hope do we have?

But we all warmed up soon enough, and everyone ended up having a good time after all, slaying clays and cheering each other on.

Of course, I couldn't go out there with just my gun - I also had to haul out my camera, audio recorder and camcorder. Twenty-four hours later, here's what I've got to show for it - enjoy!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Guns, compromise and ... liberals?

Summer is reading time for me because school's out, and one book I couldn't wait to get to this summer was Ricochet: Confessions of Gun Lobbyist by former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman.

Guns, politics, the NRA? What's not to love?

The main points of the book are that the NRA is wracked with internal strife, obsessed with power and control over the gun issue in politics and sometimes more concerned with hyping political battles for their fundraising potential than with actually winning the battles. As you can imagine, this does not make the author popular with the NRA.

As a lobbyist for the NRA and the gun industry, Feldman had enjoyed some sweet successes in Northeastern states that were presumed to be hostile to gun rights. But he was exiled after brokering some compromises with anti-gun forces, one of which - his effort to avert cities' lawsuits against gun manufacturers - was a spectacular failure.

I tore through the book pretty quickly, and immediately wanted to talk to Feldman. He seemed like exactly the kind of person I loved talking to when I was a statehouse newspaper reporter - a political insider who was reasonable, someone who understood that politics is the art of compromise. As a reporter, you get pretty tired of the unyielding, always on-message folks (of all political persuasions) who never stray from their talking points and never make even the most obviously sensible concessions.

And I really wanted to know: If the NRA is that messed up, how are gun owners supposed to defend their rights?

I contacted Feldman's publisher to request an interview, and ended up reaching him pretty quickly and having a long and intriguing conversation. The article that came from that interview is now online at Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors (click here to read the story).

A couple key points from the interview:

  • Feldman is still a member of the NRA and believes gun rights would be in sorry shape without it.
  • There are tons of liberal gun owners who could be a really important force in gun politics.
  • Feldman believes there are gun laws we can agree to that don't compromise our fundamental rights.

That last point in particular is interesting because we were just discussing (in the comment section on my last post) the notion of whether we can safely collaborate with groups whose interests sometimes conflict with ours.

Feldman readily admits he got burned last time he tried to compromise with anti-gun forces. "It’s the nature of the beast," he told me. "I love cooking, I get burned all the time, I keep going back to the kitchen. Getting burned once in a while is the nature of the beast."

And he's adamant that we should avoid assuming people with different political beliefs are the enemy. "I found out how wrong I am so many times in my life with those presumptions about people," he said. "If you start off with the attitude 'You’re my enemy,' you may be creating an enemy where there was none before."

Wise words, in my opinion.

Even if you disagree, though, I think Feldman's book is worth reading. Why? It's a really cool insider's look at gun politics that most rank-and-file gun owners will never get a chance to see for themselves.

And if you get a chance to read the interview on Jesse's, I'd love to hear what you think. You can't leave comments on the article on that site, but feel free to hit the "back" button and leave your two cents here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, July 14, 2008

Hunters, environmentalists and vegetarians: Can't we all just get along?

It was with a mixture of shock and amazement last night that I watched the scene across the table from me: A vegetarian of 24 years pinched off a nibble of Boyfriend's ethereal homemade pork sausage, smelled it tentatively and popped it into her mouth.

Moments like this are unusual. How often are people willing to stick their neck out, literally outside of the world they've chosen for themselves, to try something different and see if perhaps a there's something out there that might interest them?

Rarely, that's how often.

But Boyfriend and I are blessed with a pretty amazing circle of friends, so when we go off and have dinner with them, we meet our friends' amazing friends, and things like this happen.

Our dinner last night was at a farm in California's Capay Valley, a scorchingly hot river valley between Napa and the Sacramento Valley, surrounded by steep, dry hills that are carpeted with dry native grasses and dotted with rugged oaks. The common denominator among most (if not all) of the guests is that we'd all had some connection to politics - a former officeholder, some activists, lawyers and two former newspaper reporters (that would be me and Boyfriend).

Because Boyfriend was serving up some game meat at the grill, we ended up talking quite a bit about hunting. We found out quickly that the environmental activist from Berkeley is a vegetarian, and she and I started talking about what Boyfriend and I do: hunting, eating mostly game meat, avoiding factory-farmed meat. I asked her about her decision to be a vegetarian, and she told me it had started with a vegetarian roommate, and been fueled by health reasons and moral reasons. The discussion was friendly and open - we were exploring, not accusing.

Even with the conversation going that well, though, I was floored when she put that meat in her mouth. It was like I was watching the scene in slow motion, all other sights and sounds around us disappearing as I focused on her face, bathed in beautiful late afternoon sunlight, dappled occasionally by the shadow of a nearby tree swaying gently in the wind.

What would happen?

The meat sat on her tongue. Her jaw slackened a bit.

It reminded me of the expression I'm sure I wore on my face when I was little and my mom made me eat creamed tuna. Evil creamed tuna. If this food touches any more of my mouth, I might gag. Oh, if only Mom and Dad would just turn the other way, perhaps I could spit it into a napkin and avoid projectile vomiting.

I wanted to tell her, "Go ahead and spit it out - we won't be offended!" But the words hung in the back of my throat. She swallowed and grimaced.

God bless her, that was a brave thing to do. For her, it was probably the equivalent of me putting a wriggling mass of maggots on my tongue to see if live maggots might really be good eats. She had our respect, in spades.

Interestingly enough, though, we had hers too. I don't think she'd ever gotten a chance to have conversations with hunters like us - or maybe not any hunters at all - and she was surprised how much we, the hunters, had in common with her, the environmentalist vegetarian. We buy organic whenever possible. We avoid factory-farmed products. We want to promote more sustainable farming practices. We care deeply about habitat and the health of animal populations. We want to start a farm that does things right - producing organic, free-range produce and meat for local markets.

The timing of our conversation was interesting too, because this notion of finding common ground has been in the air lately.

FS Huntress wrote about it last week, wondering whether it was possible for hunters to find common ground with some antis. Phillip at The Hog Blog wrote about it too a while back, talking about an alliance between hunters and anglers and the Sierra Club. And in my own back yard, I recently found out that two friends I'd introduced - one who works for an environmental organization and another who works for a hunting organization - had begun to collaborate professionally on a project.

And me? Well, I went on a quest for understanding a few weeks ago and started a comment-section dialogue on a vegan's blog. It's not something I normally do because it seems insane, but I was intrigued by the blogger's thoughtfulness and I sensed an opportunity.

So, can we get along?

I don't think there's a single answer - the question has to be explored on a case-by-case basis, tested out, like our new vegetarian friend had tested that sausage. For her, the answer to the question "Might this meat be good?" was clearly no. But to the question "Can environmentalists find common ground with hunters?" the answer was yes.

Me and the vegans? Well, it didn't go so well. The blogger was super nice, but I felt like I'd walked into a Jehovah's Witness convention with the word "heathen" tattooed on my forehead - I was bombarded with people telling me what I was doing is wrong, and they were unmoved when I said, Look, I've thought this through a lot - more than most - so I'm not your best target for a conversion.

Hunters and the Humane Society? To quote the vernacular of my incredibly hip students, Hell never. The Humane Society wants to end hunting, and I refuse to help - it can use its own damn money for that. When HSUS uses insipid little ploys to chip away at hunting, saying "ethical hunters agree with us on this," it's no better than a child molester offering candy to kids in a park. It may indeed be yummy candy, but I'm not getting in the car with ya, pal.

But the rest of us? The environmentalists, the hunters and the vegetarians whose dietary choice is not religion?

It's clear there is much we can agree on. While our interests may clash clash from time to time, none of us is on a mission to eradicate the other. I think there's probably little harm and much good to be gained from talking, collaborating and achieving common goals.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Summer and the huntin' is ... not easy!

It would be so easy to sit at home and do nothing.

The whole state has been on fire for nearly three weeks now, ever since the summer solstice arrived, bringing thunderstorms and lighting strikes that started 800 or so fires. The air has been filled with smoke ever since. It's hard to breathe. And it's hot.

But Boyfriend and I don't have a lick of sense. Monday, we were heading down to Monterey to see my new friend Michael Riddle at Native Hunt, and last-minute I emailed Michael to ask: "You don't happen to have a cottontail problem, do you?"

Cottontail season started on July 1, and for some reason we hadn't been out yet, so we were itching to hunt. We have to hit the road to hunt rabbits anyway, so as long as we were hitting the road...

The answer came back: Yes. So into the car the shotguns went.

I had visions of taking a leisurely evening stroll to this little meadow I'd seen when I went pig hunting on Michael's property last month. It was right near the entrance. I had utterly forgotten what Phillip had written about going hunting with Michael the same day I got my pig. What did he call Michael?

Oh, yes! Satan.

After we arrived Monday afternoon, we sat around for a while talking at Michael's lodge, which consists of a bunkhouse, a deck and a fantastic covered open kitchen. When the sun dropped low enough, it was time to head out and look for rabbits. But not in that little meadow.

Michael sent us out in an electric vehicle with Ed, who isn't nearly intimidating as he looks in this photo. Actually, he's a very cool guy. Love the beard, too.

I jumped into the backward-facing back seat. Ed and Boyfriend hopped into the front. Then we proceeded up one of those crazy 40-degree-angle roads at Native Hunt, spewing a cloud of dust behind us, adding a chalky tinge to the already-yellow air.

And then, partway up this hill, the vehicle stopped. And started rolling back - the same "back" that I was facing, where there was a solid wall of hillside on one side of the road and an excruciating drop on the other.

So, what is the appropriate time to jump off of a moving vehicle? And should I worry about Boyfriend or just save myself?

Before I could answer either question, though, Ed somehow managed to stop the thing. We all got out and accepted our only choice: Walking.

Did I mention the hills at this place are steep?

When we finally made it to the top of that grade, we found Michael going about his business on the ranch in his truck.

He was surprised to see us on foot, and to hear about our vehicle's fate. Or at least he seemed surprised. I wasn't sure yet whether this was all part of some plan to torture us the way he'd tortured Phillip. He's really proud of this land. I think he really wants his guests to experience it fully.

But when he invited us to hop on back of his truck so he could take us to Happy Rabbit Land, my thoughts turned more charitable.

Michael took us down some perilous stretches of road where I decided it would be less sickening to look up than look down, and finally came to a stop at a low spot where we could walk any direction and not fall. Ahhh.

"All right, just head up that road toward the barley patch and start watching for rabbits on the side of the road," he said.

"OK!" we said cheerfully, wiping dust and sweat from our brows. As Michael turned his truck around and went the other way with Ed to go work on the dead vehicle, Boyfriend and I headed up that road, waiting to glimpse barley or bunnies, whichever came first.

Then, very quickly, the road turned up hill. Steeply uphill. We were huffing and puffing and sweating and huffing and there were no rabbits anywhere, and no rabbit prints, and we couldn't see the barley field anywhere. But we had a spectacular view of the smoke-covered hills of Monterey County.

"Slow down!" I implored Boyfriend, who has longer legs than I. "If ... we ... see ... a rabbit ... I'm not ... (pant, pant) ... going ... to be able ... to shoot it."

Fortunately, we didn't see any rabbits before we got to the barley field, so it wasn't an issue.

Unfortunately, we didn't see any in the field either. We worked it for a while, and didn't even see any ground squirrels, which Michael had also encouraged us to take out.

"Think we should keep going up the road?" Boyfriend asked.

"I dunno," I said. The sun was getting really low, we hadn't seen cottontail nor hare. And it'd been a long time since we'd seen Michael and Ed too. I was starting to think again that maybe Michael really was a sadist - maybe he really wanted us to hike the entire length of his property so we could appreciate it the way he does.

I glanced back and assessed the road we might have to walk, looking long and hard at one particularly steep incline in the distance. "I'm not sure I want to keep going up this hill if we might be in for a long walk back," I concluded.

Guess I'm really not very tough at all.

But I was a happy. We'd gotten some exercise, and it'd been months since we'd been out in the field together.

Me - hot and sweaty - with the barley field in the background.

And soon enough we saw Michael and Ed zooming up the road in a tougher gas-powered ATV. He was coming back for us!

"Get anything?" Michael asked when we finally met on the road.

"Didn't see a thing," we said.

"Let's go find you some rabbits," he said, undeterred. And to my great relief, he indicated we should hop on the ATV.

We drove around as long as light permitted, looking for the telltale movement of a rabbit crossing the road, Michael and Boyfriend in front, Ed and I in back, leaning on the ATV's plastic roof. I have to admit, it was ridiculously fun, clinging to that thing while it bounced over hill and dale like I was on a safari hunting for a fierce rhinoceros or something.

We were coming up empty, but at long last, the vehicle screeched to a halt and Michael said, "Right there! Behind that bush!"

I couldn't see it, but it was on Boyfriend's side anyway. He hopped out and spotted a young jackrabbit, frozen. Boyfriend took aim, fired and picked up our meal. It was a nice shot.

We cruised around a while longer, but that was it. Finally, we had to make our way through the smoky darkness back to the lodge.

I didn't mind that we'd only gotten that one jack. It had been a fun little rabbit-hunting adventure.

And there was some good Scotch waiting for us back at the lodge. Guess Michael's not such a sadist after all.

Boyfriend and his jack rabbit

To read Boyfriend's ode to the hare, click here.

Postscript: To read the delicious way Boyfriend prepared this jack, click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Scaup that's not just good, but damn good!

It's nice having a boyfriend who's a gourmet cook and all, but it makes a girl lazy. I used to experiment in the kitchen all the time, but now I tend to surrender that room to Boyfriend 24/7 because he's so good.

Ever since I started hunting, though, I've felt bad about that. Here I was bringing home all this great game meat, and I wasn't exploring what it could do.

But Boyfriend's gone on two out-of-town trips in the past few weeks, and that's been all the opportunity I needed. You know what they say: While the cat's away, the mouse will play, and boy, did I play tonight.

The result? Mole Yolano de Pato - rich bits of Sacramento Valley duck (scaup from the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area) simmered in Mexico's most famous chili sauce and served over what can best be described as a thick, crisp-fried (but slightly soft) homemade tortilla.

Of course, if you know anything about Mexican cooking, you'll recognize that I didn't really dream up this dish all by myself, and I wasn't even that creative with the name. I just put a Yolo County duck (pato) twist on the classic Mole Poblano de Guajolote (which, roughly translated, means "sauce from Puebla with turkey"). Mole, in case you're wondering, is pronounced MOW-lay.

If you've never done serious Mexican cooking, this isn't really a starter dish for you. That photo above represents the culmination of about seven hours in the kitchen, divided over a few days.

But if you're one of those folks who's happy just to watch the cook - which is what I do most of the time - this post is for you. Or at least the pictures are - feel free to skip all those pesky words. Click on any of the photos to see more detail.

Step 1: Make mole ahead of time. It's a five-hour job that requires a plethora of ingredients that are really easy to find if you live in a community that has any Latinos at all in it. Latinos = Latin market. If you click on the images here, you'll see the recipe I follow, which comes from Diana Kennedy. Yes, it's really two pages.

Mole is often described as "that chocolate sauce," which is a grave injustice to a complex blend of dried chilis, nuts and spices. The chocolate is a small component, but an important one because chocolate and chili go together like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. It's magic, baby!

This particular mole I used tonight was made with turkey broth from the wild turkey I got in Napa this spring. And because I planned to use this sauce for many different dishes, I skipped the part about actually cooking turkey in it.

Step 2: Cut up and brown a duck. This here is a scaup I got hunting with my friend Dana on the last Wednesday of the season this year. Check out that crazy red meat!

Now, a lot of people don't care for the meat of this diver duck, and I have to admit when my boyfriend first served me scaup cooked the way we do 90 percent of our ducks - roasted - I was taken aback. Very ... strong.

That's why mole was perfect for this duck. It would transform the meat into something greater.

I removed the legs and wings, cut off the breasts (with skin), and set aside the carcass for broth. The legs and wings I left whole, but I cut the breasts in three big chunks each, keeping the fat on them for flavor, and I sliced any surplus fat into big chunks. All of this went fat side down into a hot frying pan with just a bit of oil, spattering vigorously as it browned.

Step 3: Chop the browned meat. I removed the meat, let it cool very briefly, then began slicing it into small bits about the size of a man's thumbnail, taking care to keep fat attached to the meat where possible. I kept the legs and wings whole.

You'll notice that some of the meat here is still quite rare. That's fine - it's going to cook more in the sauce.

Step 4: Remove mole from the refrigerator. This isn't really a big step, but I needed an excuse to include this picture of what refrigerated mole looks like. It's quite stiff.

But don't even think about diluting it unless you have to. That stiffness is just the cold fat. Once it hits the heat, it will...

Step 5: Simmer the duck in the mole. This is pretty easy. Put a little oil in the pan and let it heat up. Add the chopped duck and fry it quickly. Then spoon in enough mole to cover the duck.

Stir it around to loosen it up, then set it on low heat to cook slowly. Check it once in a while to make sure it's not burning or sticking. Twenty minutes should do it.

Step 6: Make the fat tortillas. Making your own corn tortillas is actually pretty simple, and if you really want to give it a try, I recommend buying a Diana Kennedy or Rick Bayless cookbook.

Suffice it to say I had some dough ready ahead of time, and all I did tonight was roll it into balls and press it into thick tortillas, then...

Step 7: Crispy-fry the tortillas in oil. Nuf said?

Step 8: Plate. Put a tortilla on a plate. Spoon some of the duck in mole onto the tortilla. Add some cilantro (coriander in leafy form, not the seeds). Salt it. Squeeze some lime over it.

Then sit there smellin' yourself about how great this came out, and dang, ain't it a shame Boyfriend isn't here to taste this? Guess it would've been nice if he were here after all.

Mole Yolano de Pato (Yolo County scaup in chili sauce)

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Leave it to women to pretty up the place

For as long as I've been hunting, I've maintained that women make hunting a better place. Just as we can take a skanky bachelor pad and turn it into a livable home that smells, if not good, at least not bad, so can we improve the conditions of hunting.

My friend Dana can turn a duck blind into a luxurious, heated breakfast resort. As for me, let's just say the waders in my house smell a lot better since I started taking care of the post-hunt air-out and clean-up.

Now we've done it for guns too. Last year, Gander Mountain started selling pink rifles and shotguns to cater to the higher aesthetic demands of women shooters, and women loved 'em. But guess what! Turns out tha boyz thought it was a pretty cool idea too.

“(W)e heard from parents and their sons requesting a unique firearm made just for boys," said Gary Buescher, Vice President for Hunting and Firearms, in an announcement Wednesday. So now Gander Mountain is going to start selling two blue long guns - the Remington Model 870 Jr. 20Ga Pump Shotgun (shown above), and the Remington Model 597 22LR Semi-Auto Rifle.

The chain is also expanding its pink offerings, adding a full size stock Remington 870 pump shotgun and a full size Remington 11-87 semi-automatic shotgun.

Of course, I'm not much of a fan of pink - with apologies to my girl Keli Van Cleave, the pink huntress - so I'd actually rather have a blue gun. But of course I am delighted that the industry's desire to cater to women has made hunting a prettier place.

And to all of you grumbly guys thinking, Geez louise, why does hunting need to be pretty?, I say this: For the same reason most bachelor pads ultimately must succumb to a woman's touch - if you want a woman in the house, the house has got to make her happy.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008