Monday, December 29, 2008

Grumpy huntress attacked!

Sunday afternoon was my second crappy hunt in a row, and I was grumpy as hell.

The first bad hunt was on Christmas Eve at one of our club's properties. That could be a whole story unto itself, but suffice it to say we did not get any ducks, we did not see any ducks, we did not fire any shots, and no the gate wasn't unlocked like we were told it would be, and no, the blind was in the fifth check, not the fourth, like were were told (and like the map indicated), which of course we couldn't see at 5:30 a.m. in the rain on a moonless morning, and yes, when we finally found the pit blind, it was flooded. But we're not bitter, even though this club membership costs four times what we spend hunting public refuges.

But really, I'm over it. And Sunday would be better, because we were planning to hunt the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, right?

When we pulled in, we were pleased to see hardly anyone ahead of us in line waiting for blinds. But we couldn't hear much shooting either. We waited for decent options, and it came down to this choice: Blind 28, next to a southern closed zone and a 1.7-mile walk from the nearest parking lot, or Blind 1, very close to the check station next to the northern closed zone. I'd hunted both before and gotten decent shooting opportunities.

I asked Diane, my favorite check station employee, what she thought.

"I don't know," she said. "One's good if you have cover. They got four birds out of it this morning."

Cover? Hmm, I'd just gotten some camo netting. I wasn't sure what the problem was at Blind 1, but we decided to go for it. The shooting probably wasn't going to be good, and at least this one would be a shorter walk.

When we walked out, we realized what she'd meant.

Here's what Blind 1 looked like when I hunted there with my friend Evan last year. Note the little clumps of tules that a hunter can hide in/behind:

And here's what it looked like on Sunday:

Seriously, what the hell is wrong with some hunters? The beauty of Delevan is that you don't have to hunt beat-down pit blinds - each "blind" is really an island of clumps of tules where you can hide yourself, and move around as the day's flight dictates.

But it seemed that hunters using Blind 1 this year had made a special point of tromping down every damn bit of green there was. We were aghast.

Some hunters had put up improvised blinds, though, bringing in eucalyptus branches to create some artificial cover. Boyfriend parked near that setup, and I began efforts to get creative with my camo netting.

What happened next was a complete reversal of last weekend's hunt: Boyfriend started getting ducks, and no matter where I was positioned, it was the wrong place. The very few shots I fired did not hit any ducks. Pissiness welled up in me, and Boyfriend, being the only human in earshot, bore the brunt of it.

To make matters worse, the weather forecast had been completely wrong. It was supposed to be in the mid-40s, with the light south wind diminishing as the day went on, so we dressed light - no sweaters under our jackets.

What actually happened, though, is that the wind changed directions and hurled in from the north at about 15 mph. I'm not sure what the temperature was, but I'm pretty sure wind chill put it somewhere in the 30s. Not bad - I mean, I used to live in Minnesota, so I can handle cold - but not what we'd dressed for.

Now, a 15 mph wind is normally a great thing for duck hunting - stirs 'em up - and it's typically not a problem because ducks land into the wind, so you always position yourself with the wind at your back. But for some reason, the ducks were coming in with the wind yesterday, so we had to face into it, and that meant the wind was blowing straight into my hood, its icy tendrils caressing my neck.

We could see that some hunters were leaving early, but not us. We were going to tough it out with our chattering teeth and icicle fingers. We sat about eight yards apart, behind what cover we could fashion, staring north, waiting for birds to make incursions from the closed zone.

We kept seeing spoonies coming in straight toward us, then banking left just before they came into shooting range to land in a happy little feeding area a good 80 yards from our blind. Over and over.

I was staring at them on that pond - the bright drake spoonie plumage standing out in a sea of black coots - when I caught motion to my right. As I turned my head, I saw them. Birds speeding toward us, about four feet over the water. By the time I concluded they were ducks, and therefore shootable (it took about one second), they were about five yards in front of us.

Boyfriend raised his gun, but before he could even get it to his shoulder, they were literally 40 yards away.

As he stared after them, another one zipped between us. If I'd reached out with Bionic Woman speed, I might've been able to grab it.

Boyfriend swung back my way, his expression still frozen in gape-mouthed shock.

And then we started laughing, deep belly laughs.

We retraced what had just happened. It appeared a group of ruddy ducks had been sitting in the closed zone and they saw us sitting there in our pathetic little blind.

"Hey, wanna have some fun?" one duck quacked to another. "Let's go freak out those hunters!"


And boy am I glad they did. We kept laughing about it all the way until sunset. The Great Attack of the Ruddies had saved my day.

Never mind that I didn't get a single duck, and that Sunday would not - as I'd hoped - be the day that I beat last year's record of 23 ducks (and geese). Moments like these when the animals kick my ass are actually some of my favorite moments in hunting. I can only hope they enjoy laughing at us as much as we enjoy laughing at ourselves.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Guilty: Hunting and the numbers game

Cruising around the outdoor blog world this morning (because that's the best way to put off all the grading I have to do), I found myself reading a post on how obsessed the hunting world is with the body count, and how maybe that's not a good thing.

"(I)f we measure the success of our efforts afield based solely on the number of birds in the bag, we miss out on the many intrinsic rewards that make a day afield rewarding - the sight of October aspens, the smell of sage on the wind, and the sound of chukars on the far rimrock," wrote Mike Spies at Living with Bird Dogs (a post I found courtesy of Andrew Campbell at The Regal Vizsla). Spies went on to quote another blogger who believes counting "degrades" the sport.

I felt a little smaller when I read this. Read more...
Numbers have really been on my mind a lot lately. It started two weeks ago when I reached the occasion of hitting more ducks in an outing than Boyfriend did. And now I'm at it again because I am on the cusp of another important milestone: I've gotten 22 ducks this season, which is one shy of the number of waterfowl I got for the entire 07-08 season (23) which was far more than I got my first season (3).

And, oh yeah, I'm hoping to get my first-ever limit of ducks this year. I came close in October when I got six - one shy of California's limit of seven. I might've been able to get seven, but we had to leave the blind pretty early for a long trip home. I'm hunting at a really nice duck club on for New Year's, though, and it's entirely possible I could limit out...

See what I mean? I'm obsessed, and I feel guilty about it.

Boyfriend, who started hunting three years before I did, has already begun to impose limits on how much he wants to kill. When the freezer is full and we have enough game to get through the year, he feels "done."

But I still want more, more, more.

I know part of it is that hunters go through five stages, and that I am in the second one, the "limiting out" stage.

And in my defense...

The reason I'm constantly questing for ever-bigger numbers is that I want to know that I'm actually good enough to get them. My shooting is still pretty spotty - I have at best a 25 to 30 percent likelihood of hitting ducks I'm shooting at. I don't even expect perfection - 80 percent would be fine with me, because that means if ducks are flying at all, it's highly likely I'll bring home something for the freezer.

Furthermore, I don't measure success solely on numbers. With rare exception, I enjoy almost every day I spend in the field because sitting in the marsh makes me happy and connects me with my food in the most meaningful way possible. I truly am content to bring home just a couple birds after a day in the marsh, even though the cost of gas, ammunition and time make them very expensive little morsels. And if the ducks aren't flying on a given day, I really don't feel bad at all coming home empty-handed.

And finally, your honor, I am just the teensiest bit OCD - a little too in love with numbers and spreadsheets. Oh crap, that just sounded a bit too much like the Twinkie Defense...

Hell, I don't know. I'm just trying to keep my head on straight, trying to remain cognizant of my motivations so I know I'm always hunting for the right reasons. That's really important to me.

That said, I'm heading back into the marsh tomorrow, and getting two more ducks would put me past last year's record, with four weeks still to go in this season...

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Up for grabs: a taste of my life - literally!

Man, I have it rough.

Boyfriend and I were supposed to visit family today for our Christmas dinner, but weather forced a postponement.

So here we are, the two of us, stuck at our place with not a turkey or a cranberry in sight.

Problem? No way, man. Boyfriend can cook. And fortunately for us, we hadn't even stuck my hen gadwall from Sunday's hunt in the freezer yet, so we happen to have a very fat bird ready for roasting.

The best part is I don't even have to do the work. Boyfriend is the wild game master in our kitchen, so I'm just sitting here playing on the Internet while he's clanking away in the kitchen. Must be nice, eh?

Well, you cannot have Boyfriend. Mine! Mine! But for just $10, you can have a chance at some of his gourmet game preparations, and you'll be putting money into a charity to feed some desperately hungry folks in Africa in the process.

You can read all the details about how to enter on his blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, but I'll tell you here what he's giving away:

- Canada Goose “prosciutto”
- Wild boar lonzino, which is air-cured pork loin (pictured above)
- Wild duck salami, done as a soppresata
- 2-3 pounds of fresh wild boar sausages

My contribution is that I hunted the boar and a fair number of the ducks going into the salami.

I know. Rough.

Merry Christmas, everyone!


Here's how dinner came out: crispy salt cod fritters, chestnut stuffing and a roasted duck so incredibly fat that the skin bubbled. And the sauce under that duck? Holy cow, amazing. Click here to read Boyfriend's description of how he made the dinner. And click on the photo if you'd like to see mouth-watering detail.

I know. Poor me.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, December 22, 2008

A year in the making: Hellen the huntress!

The moment of my awakening Sunday morning found me grateful and eager. Grateful because my head felt fine despite staying up until 1 a.m. drinking wine with duck hunting friends. Eager because this could be one of the best days of the year.

It had been precisely 365 days since my colleague and friend Hellen had learned that I was a duck hunter and declared - without hesitation - "I want to hunt ducks!" And this was the day she would hunt.

Hellen, who's an English prof at my university, had been plugging away at this goal steadily. She started with two "training wheels" hunts. They were supposed to be opportunities to make sure she really wanted to do this before making the commitment of time and money. But it was obvious she never had any doubt.

For her first hunt - when I would take her to the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge - she bought a blind bag. For her second hunt - when she would join me, my friend Dana and her friend Jen on a river in the San Joaquin Valley - she went out and bought waders and a jacket.

In the spring, she and her friend Lucrezia went to a women's shooting clinic in Jackson. Over the summer, she did extra work at the university to come up with funds to buy a gun. In the fall, she took her hunter safety course and bought her hunting license and duck stamps. Earlier this month, she got her gun - a Beretta AL391 like mine. I raced to her house after work to help her assemble it, remembering how intimidating it was putting mine together for the first time.

All this brought us to Sunday, when she would take to the field as a huntress.

The weather was good - we had light rain and a good wind that would likely stir up the ducks while subjecting us to only moderate misery.

But I set her expectations low. It's hard hitting ducks that zoom along at 35 mph, and she hadn't gotten her gun fitted yet - a serious handicap for someone who's 5-foot-2 and shooting left-handed. My goal was simply to get her as much opportunity to shoot as possible, and to stay by her and tell her when it was safe to shoot.

Boyfriend and I met her at Delevan at 11 a.m. and even though there were eight or nine hunters ahead of us in line, we immediately got a blind that no one else wanted. "The hunter this morning got four ducks there," said Diane, my favorite DFG check station employee. I'd never hunted this blind before, but her word was good enough for me.

When we got there, we found big open water and a really dense oval clump of tules where we could hide. Good - if we sailed any ducks, it would be unlikely that they'd dive into cover where we couldn't find them.

Boyfriend took a spot on the west side of our big clump of tules, and Hellen and I set up on the north side, with me just a few feet from her right shoulder. The wind was at our back, the rain was pattering softly on our hoods and the motion decoy - a WindWhacker - was spinning about 15 feet from us, flashing black and white to simulate the wingbeat of a duck coming in for a landing.

I've got to say I'm not an expert at decoy placement, but something about our setup - and our position in that setup - was pretty good. Poor Boyfriend wasn't catching any breaks - the ducks flying on his side were flying high over him and bombing into a free roam area just to our south. But where Hellen and I sat, the ducks seemed inclined to come straight in, keying in on that WindWhacker.

Some would bank off before they got close enough, but we didn't have to wait long before something came into range. Two ducks were flying low and straight at us. I hit my gadwall call - man, I love that thing - and between meeps I prepped Hellen.

"Meep meep meep ... hold it, hold it, hold it ... meep meep ... OK, get ready, ready, ready ... meep ... OK, now, stand up!"

She stood. I ducked, knowing her shells were going to eject right in my face. She fired once, then paused for what seemed an eternity, and fired again. No ducks down.

Hellen was apologetic about letting ducks escape.

"Don't worry about it," I told her. "The goal is not to eradicate every duck on the pond - the goal is for you to get opportunity to shoot. It's OK if you miss - you're gonna miss a lot your first season."

Still, she wanted me to take the next shot, and that was fine with me, because I still need all the practice I can get too.

When a small group of gadwall came in, I stood, fired and hit one on the second shot. It sailed into a field on the east side of our pond. I locked my eyes where I saw it drop and charged across the water toward the field, relieved that at least part of my search would be on solid ground.

When I got there, I had to take just a few steps before I saw movement - a flapping wing, a futile attempt to escape. Awww, I hate that. I grabbed the bird - an enormous hen gadwall - by the head and swung her around twice to snap her neck. It was over.

I turned back toward our blind and held the duck high in the air. Hellen gave me the thumbs up, then retreated to her hidden seat.

And we went though the same drill again. Ducks on Boyfriend's side continued to frustrate him. Hellen took more shots and missed. A few spoonies came in and broke my way, not Hellen's, and I hit a hen. But she hovered high above us, refusing to fall. A resilient bird. I had emptied my gun, so Boyfriend backed me up, and she sailed straight back to that field.

Here we go again!

This time when I arrived, I didn't see movement, and that wasn't good. I was looking at a sea of dead grasses - some low, thick and yellow, others tall and brown, all of it drained of any vivid color under the gray sky. There were a million places where a brown duck could become invisible, either by dashing for cover and hiding deliberately or merely by falling dead with only brown feathers facing up.

I walked a grid, my eyes swinging in a left-to-right arc on the ground right in front of me, waiting to pick up any flash of not brown. No longer in the shelter of my tules, the wind was whipping a misty rain in my face, little droplets stinging my skin as I walked back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The only white I saw was a few duck skeletons - probably other cripples that had sailed here with their last breath, never to be found by their human predators.

It was becoming apparent: I wasn't going to find her.

Crap! I hate losing ducks.

I made one last swing on the very edge of where she could have landed, and there was my flash of white, a wing splayed out. She was dead. Whew. Again, I held her up so Hellen could see.

When I got back to our little tule island, I told Boyfriend he should come over to our side, where the ducks were working better. He did, and of course, the ducks promptly started breaking perfectly where he had been sitting.

But they were still coming straight at us too. A group of three mallards was making a beeline for us, and I counseled Hellen between meeps on my call.

"Meep meep ... wait, wait, wait, wait ... meep ... OK, stand up now! ... SHOOT 'EM!!!"

She stood, fired once and missed. She fired a second time and was knocked back to her seat by the recoil.

She didn't see the duck fall.

"Hellen, you got one! You got one!"

She didn't react. Either she didn't hear me because she was wearing earplugs, or she didn't believe me. But I knew. I had seen where the duck had landed - out of sight, on the other side of our tule island - and I jumped up to go get it.

As I rounded the corner, I saw her duck on the water - head up. Green head up.

"Hellen got a greenhead!" I shouted back toward her and Boyfriend. Damn, it took me a year to get my first drake mallard.

I considered firing a shot on the water to make sure he didn't get away, but I didn't want to pepper Hellen's first duck with too much shot, so I just charged toward him. He dove under water.


But the water was only about eight inches deep, and he made the mistake of swimming my way - a blur of gray, like a very fat fish. I reached down, plucked him out of the water and took him back to deliver him to Hellen, who still didn't believe she'd hit a duck.

He was still alive. "Do you want me to finish him off, or do you want to?" I asked, holding him out.

"I'll do it," she said.

She held him as his body twitched, in awe of the big bird. I gave her a huge hug. Then I told her we needed to get back in our spots, because we didn't have much time left before sunset.

But that would turn out to be the last action we'd see. The final ten minutes of shoot time brought nothing but a peculiar light that seemed to come from the east, not the west. That and some enormous Vs of snow geese flying over us, just out of the range of our guns. At 4:48 p.m., we declared our ceasefire and began hauling in decoys.

That was not the end of our day. We had the ritual stop at Burger King just off of I-5 in Williams, where we would gratefully wolf down a hot meal. Then Hellen would follow us back to our place where I would show her how to clean her sodden brand-new gun, and where we would clean our ducks together: rough pluck, wax, gut, rinse, dry.

For one hundred days a year, this is my world, and now Hellen was a part of it. I don't think either of us could be happier.

Update: Hellen has blogged a bit now about her hunting prep and experience: Click here to read about the hunt itself (including how other hunters reacted to seeing an Asian female walk up to the check station alone), here to read about how that mallard became her $2,000 Christmas dinner, and here to see her accounting of how much it's cost her to become a duck hunter.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ooooh, pretty birdie. Pretty dead birdie.

Before I became a hunter, one of the most confusing things about hunting, to me, was the bizarre reaction hunters have to their dead prey, the way they sit there there stroking the animal and saying how beautiful this thing is ... this thing they just killed.

Gary Sorensen over at Base Camp Legends got me thinking about it the other day with a post about hunting success and emotion. And then, of course, I immediately went out in the field the next day and behaved in this very perplexing way myself.

It was a bluebird day - not ideal for duck hunting - but a sometimes-gusty north wind gave me hope that the ducks might be getting all stirred up at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. So I loaded up the car, aimed north for the 90-minute drive and got in line for a blind I could occupy until sundown.

A few hours later, I found myself setting up decoys right next to one of the closed zones, a primo spot because there were no hunters between me and the birds' "safe" zone. There was still a good breeze, and it was downright toasty in the low 40s, so I was plenty comfortable. Ducks swirled overhead as I spread out the decoys. It might be a good day after all! And it'd certainly be more pleasant than Sunday's miserably wet hunt had been.

But, of course, the minute I loaded my shotgun and settled down in a clump of tules, all duck movement stopped. Not much action around me, and absolutely none in my area. After watching birds take a left turn when they neared my decoy spread a few times, I got out and tinkered with the arrangements.

Several times.

Still nothing.

Finally, the guys in the neighboring blind took a shot at some birds, and one of the ducks, in his haste to get away from them, zoomed straight over me. A beautiful spoonie drake. He tumbled into the water on the second shot, and he did not escape into tules, as had both of my ducks on Sunday.

Whew. Not skunked!

But 84 miles was a long way to drive for just one duck. I was hoping for more.

A while later, I was periscoping, turning this way and that to see if I could catch any movement in the sky, when I saw the unmistakable twirl of three teal bobbing and weaving my way at light speed.

I turned my body, but my legs - stuck in the muck - didn't move. The ducks kept coming. I turned my body the other way, and now my legs were wrapped around each other like an old twist tie you've used on too many loaves of bread - not pretty. The ducks kept coming. I raised my gun hoping to get off a shot as they veered around me, but I never could get in position.

I'm pretty sure I heard them laughing on their way to the next pond.


The sun was dropping pretty quickly.

I moved to a place where I could get my feet under me more efficiently, and I was very quickly rewarded with a string of three dark little torpedoes coming at me from the east about 20 feet off the water. I stood, fired one shot, and watched as one crumpled and hit the water, lifeless.

Wow. Whew.

I am still so grateful when I can stone a duck in one shot. This little guy had no idea what hit him. I jumped out of the tules and made my way toward him.

Too dark to be a scaup.

Five feet away, I could see a single golden eye in an irridescent black head. Goldeneye?

Then I picked him up and saw the unmistakably lovely bill - the black tip and the gray middle, ringed by white. It was the most dapper bill in duckdom, the spectator shoe of the duck bill world.

I picked him up by the head, delighted. As I did, the light of the fading sun hit his neck, illuminating the faint ring of reddish brown that gives this duck its name: ringneck.

He was absolutely beautiful. I beamed. I've never gotten a ringneck before. I was inexplicably proud.

Twenty minutes later, the sun finally disappeared behind the coastal range. I counted down the minutes and the seconds to the end of shoot time without being interrupted by any more ducks. And I smiled anyway. "The marsh has blessed me today," I said to myself.

I don't know why it pleases me so much to get a certain type of duck, or to get my first of any duck. I have yet to take a bird to a taxidermist. I'm just going to eat it.

But there's something special about walking up to that lifeless body and seeing exactly what you got. It's like opening a present. Or getting a particularly good baseball card.

It certainly doesn't seem right to view a dead animal that way - it's a bit like seeing a fresh human corpse and saying, "Dang, she was a knockout! And she's my first blonde corpse, to boot!"

But I can't deny the feeling. I can only hope some day that I'll understand it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, December 15, 2008

Hunting milestones in a wet south wind

I am a competitive person. It's a drive that has propelled me to excellence in many endeavors. But in hunting, I've had to subdue that drive, because it's just not reasonable to think you can pick up a gun in middle age and shoot better than everyone around you, particularly people who've been hunting since they were kids.

So I beat back my competitiveness and set my expectations low.

But still ... whenever I go hunting, there's one dream I can't forget: For once, I want to get more ducks than Boyfriend. He started duck hunting just two years before I did so it seems like a modest enough wish. But for me, it's probably my equivalent of a little boy finally doing as well as his dad out in the field. It's proving myself.

Sunday was my chance.

We were supposed to go snipe hunting with Josh, but it looked like the weather would be lousy for snipe hunting and great for duck hunting - wet and windy. So we changed plans and drove up to the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge (a.k.a., The Happiest Place on Earth) and got in line to refill blinds vacated by folks who'd hunted in the morning.

It was the toughest wait I'd ever had there. The bulk of the storm was supposed to hit in the afternoon, and hunters - most of whom hadn't done well in the morning - were holding tight, waiting for the storm to shake up the ducks.

On the rare occasion when a hunter would drive up to check out for the day, all the hunters waiting in line would get out of their cars and trudge to the counter to find out what blind had been vacated. The answer was usually NONE. One hunter would leave, but three of his buddies would remain in the field.

Diane, my favorite Fish & Game employee at the check station, just shook her head when she'd see me walking up. "Everyone who wanted to go home and watch football has already left," she said. Even worse, we weren't hearing much shooting out there.

Finally, a blind opened up for real. Not what we wanted - a northern blind, and we knew the south blinds shoot best in south winds - but at least we could get in the field. And it was a blind I knew - it's where I went last January when I took my friend Hellen out for her very first duck hunt. We suited up and headed out.

Pushing a cart full of decoys out into the field, it took less than a minute for my hands to turn bright red from the wind, rain and cold, rendering my fingers almost useless. The front pocket of my waders began collecting water. I hacked, coughed and sneezed. Boy, were we in for some fun!

We set up decoys as quickly as possible - geese over there, teal right here, mallards and pintails over there, wind-driven motion decoys at the edges, looking like they were bombing in for a landing - then took up our positions in a circle of tule clumps.

It didn't take long for ducks to start giving us a look. A spoonie drake took a swing around our little island. I raised my gun, fired and hit him on the second shot.

And watched him sail straight away from me. Too far for a third "insurance" shot. Straight for a thick batch of tules and grass along a road. Shit.

I heaved out of my spot and walked as fast as I could through the water to get to him before he made it to cover. Spoonies - maligned as they are - are the best at escaping when you've only wounded them. At 80 yards, I fired a shot at him on the water, hoping something would hit and stop him.

But it didn't. He dove into the grass. I knew I was screwed, but I huffed and puffed to the place where I'd last seen him, trudged through the grass in futility and headed back to the blind empty handed.

I hate losing ducks. I know nature will make use of them - I'm sure this boy has already become a meal for a coyote. But I don't inflict pain on animals lightly - I want their deaths to be quick.

Back at the blind, the ducks began working again. Another spoonie drake whizzed overhead, flying the same line as the one I'd shot.

"Duck! Duck!" Boyfriend said urgently. He couldn't shoot because he would've come too close to me.

"No way," I said. "That's the exact same flight path that cost me the last one."

A group of teal came though and my gun strap snagged on my duck call laniard, keeping me from mounting the gun properly, so I never got off a shot. Another spoonie drake came overhead and I went to fire, only to be foiled by the safety. Ridiculous! And daylight - such as it was - was burning quickly.

Finally a single teal hen whizzed around our island on a flight path that wouldn't automatically send her sailing into the tules.




Hit, but not well - she was faltering, but her wings were out and she was sailing.


What the ... ?

Gun jammed - the third shell hadn't made it to the chamber. Crap.

Boyfriend tried to back me up, but missed. The teal sailed straight to the tules, about 100 yards away. I leapt out of my position and charged toward her, knowing there was no way in hell. She quickly hid in tules and was long gone by the time I got there.

That's a milestone, I thought to myself on the walk back. I've never lost two ducks in one hunt.

When I got back to our island, Boyfriend had taken my spot, which was good, because all the ducks were flying that way, and it was his turn to get a little shooting in. Sure enough, another spoonie drake came through, and he hit it.

This one, too, sailed a good distance, but didn't land close to any tules. Boyfriend got him and brought him back - a really lovely looking bird. We love spoonies, because the drakes have beautiful plumage, and where we hunt, they taste fine, rice-fattened little buggers that they are.

I was enjoying my new position on the island as well, because I'd found a nice spot where my face was well-concealed by tules, but I could still see pretty well. The birds were moving quite a bit because the hunters around us had left, so the ducks were a little less cautious. I was hitting my gadwall call, which I love, because hardly anyone on the refuge ever uses one, and the ducks were really responding to it. Most of the birds were going Boyfriend's way, but at one point, I did see three ruddy ducks zooming my way, low over the water.

Coming, coming, coming ... would they turn?

Not until last minute. I stood, raised my gun, fired, fired again - lead the bird more, Holly, lead the bird! - and then clicked. The gun had jammed again.

It was 10 minutes until sunset would signal the end of shoot time, and I knew that would probably be my last great shot opportunity. As the minutes ticked away, I blew that gadwall call with gusto, but nothing came in again. The alarm on my watch beeped, indicating that the sun had officially set behind the dense cloud cover. The hunt was over. We gathered up our decoys and headed back to our car.

At least we had one bird in hand, we told ourselves as we scraped the mud off our decoy cart, peeled off our wet clothing and cranked the heat in the car as high as it would go.

Back at home, I poured a glass of Scotch and cleaned my weather-beaten gun, peering into the receiver to discern what might be preventing that vital third shot from loading. Couldn't see anything, but I cleaned it more thoroughly than usual.

Later in the evening, when Boyfriend and I were reflecting on the hunt, he spoke up suddenly and brightly. "Hey, that was the first time you got more ducks than I did!"

Well, I'll be damned - he was right. It just wasn't quite the glorious event that I'd hoped for.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

The How-To Series: Duck hunting checklist

I may be new to hunting, but I rarely forget anything when I head out into the field. Why not? Because I am an inveterate list-maker, and I make sure everything's crossed off the list before I lock the house and get into the car.

This year I've shared my list with several friends who are just getting into duck hunting, and one recommended that I share it here as well. You'll see it below in list form - something you can cut and paste into a Word document and customize - or as a JPG you can print if my personal list happens to work really well for you.

But first, a few words about the list.

* I'm an organized person - everything's gotta be in its place - so my list is organized into where things go - in the car, in the blind bag, even what parts of the blind bag. Obsessive? Perhaps, but this makes packing up a little easier.

* I am female; therefore I overpack. Silly? Maybe. But it's come in handy when I've had hunting partners who needed something they didn't bring.

* Also in the I-am-female category, you will see something on this list called "chick stuff." Ladies, you know what I'm talking about, and this is a must-pack item because you don't want to caught unprepared when Aunt Flo decides to visit early.

* On the printable image of the list below, you'll see four copies of the list. I was raised by Depression-era parents and I picked up their propensity for avoiding waste. I get four copies of my list for every sheet of paper. I just print a few sheets, cut them into four pieces and keep them stacked on my desk for the season.

Happy hunting!

Click on the image to see a full-size printable version. You may need to save it as a jpg on your computer to make it print out properly. If all else fails, email me here and I'll send you a PDF copy.

The List

Travel clothes
Hunting license
Driver's license
Health insurance card
Credit/debit card

Keep in car
Fresh socks/shirt
Extra ammo (my refuge allows you to take only 25 shells into the field)

Big stuff for car/truck
Game cart & sled

Blind bag
Balaclava, face mask, face net
Camo makeup & makeup remover
Chick stuff
Duck calls
Duck ID books
Fingerless gloves
Game strap
Head lamp and spare flashlight
Hearing protection and spare earplugs
Hunting regs
Spare batteries
Trash bags (for my trash and picking up after the losers who left theirs)
Wet wipes

Monday, December 8, 2008

A piercing scream, a black fog and other paths to hunting's greatest lessons

Hunting teaches us many important lessons about life, beauty and the ways of the world.

Unfortunately, those weren't the kinds of lessons I learned this weekend. But here's what my friends and I - OK, mostly "I" - did learn:

1. If you're having a tough pheasant hunt, this'll liven it up: Scream at the top of your lungs when the first bird flushes. Better yet, scream like a girl.

2. If you often find pheasants by tromping through the smelly, black waters of a marsh while wearing inappropriate clothing - because sometimes the birds seek refuge in little clumps of grass there - that trick will not work when you hunt with your new friends. But it will make their clothes smell lovely!

3. If you haven't seen any roosters and your back hurts, sling your gun over your shoulder and walk on a nice comfy road where no shooting is allowed. You'll hear a cackle and see that long tail feather in no time!

4. If you'd like to take a picture of a golden eagle sitting on a sign 15 feet from your car, make sure you just shoot without adjusting the settings - it gives the photos that nice snowblind effect.

5. If you think you might get lost in a dark fog on your way to an unfamiliar duck blind at 5 a.m., don't bring any extra batteries for your flashlight - it's really cool watching that light disappear.

6. If you actually do get lost and settle for any old clump of tules to set up in, don't worry, you'll figure it out. Just listen for the sound of a bird dropping a nut on a metal blind lid over and over. Right behind you.

7. If you try to design an alternative to a duck call lanyard, prepare for it to become the next great conservation tool: It'll work really well until ducks come in shooting range, then fall apart, leaving you fumbling to stuff your call in a pocket, rather picking up your gun and shooting.

8. If you think the surest way to bring in ducks is to drop your waders and take a leak, there's actually a better way: Just bend over like your lower back still aches from pheasant hunting five hours the day before - it screws up your shot just as bad as your pants being down, but without the risk of not finishing your ... er ... business. That's progress!

9. If you buy a new WindWhacker motion decoy, definitely do not poke the pole firmly into the muddy bottom of the marsh. It's so cool turning around and realizing it has tipped over and disappeared in the water, then spending 20 minutes walking back and forth in a grid pattern through murky water trying to find it with your feet.

10. If you got lost getting to your blind in the marsh, don't get too excited - that's not nearly as fun as going the wrong direction on your way out and walking a good mile through the water the wrong direction. In chafing waders.

And if after all that you still come home with two birds, be grateful - you don't need 10 of 'em for dinner. And you learned a lot!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Hunting the moment of crystalline beauty

Sunday was a miserable morning for duck hunting - 25 degrees and foggy. The birds might as well have been tethered to the ground. Our fingers might as well have been frozen chicken tenders.

But Boyfriend and I had driven more than 300 miles to hunt with my new friend Brent in the Klamath Basin, so we had to give it a try.

Hunting in the fog is tough because even when you do see the occasional birds, they appear so quickly out of the mist that you barely have time to raise your gun - especially when you've got your hands stuffed in your pockets, clinging to chemical warming packs.

Our morning dialogue went like this:

"OK, the fog should be clearing now."

"OK, I think it's starting to lift."

"Oh, it just settled back in."

If we looked straight up from Brent's boat, we could see a hazy circle of blue, but the world all around us was gray. When we could see the rising sun at all, it was a muted disc.

We were near closed zones and grain fields, though, so we could hear the distant cacophony of geese all around us. Occasionally, they would lift, and we'd strain our eyes and ears, waiting to see if they'd come our way.

One time, they did.

We could hear a flock of snow geese coming toward us, making their joyful racket. But it was like watching a scene in a horror movie where you know the bad guy's going to attack, but you don't know exactly where he'll come from, or when he'll strike.

"They always sound closer than they really are..."

We all looked to the sky, waiting for something to appear in that blue spot so we could see how close they had come to us. When they finally appeared at about 80 yards, it was one of those stunning moments that make you feel so blessed to be a hunter - because there sure as hell weren't any bird watchers taking this in.

The snows were flying just above the fog, wingbeats loud and powerful in the water-laden air - whoosh ... whoosh ... whoosh. The light of the rising sun was glinting golden off their white bellies, not the gold most of us wear, but the bright yellow of 24 karat gold. There was just enough water vapor between us an them to create that dreamy, soft-focus effect of a good 1930s film. They looked like angels.

I gasped gently. My heart slowed. I was awed.

It was a moment of such crystalline joy that all time stopped. It was like a drug. Like an orgasm for the brain. I could lose myself in that sight and sound forever and never regret the world I'd left behind. I could lift up and join them.

An unintelligible shout rang out on my left.

Then gunshots.

As if drugged, I swung my gaze slowly back to the earth, down and to the left. Something had come in. Ducks. No - geese! Low flyers. Maybe 15 yards off the ground. Right in front of us.

As I swung my head left, the birds were already passing to my right. With my right hand, I raised the gun from its passive position, butt resting on the floor of the boat. I yanked my left hand out of my chemically-warmed pocket. Shouldered the gun. The geese were speeding away. Fired one futile shot at their butts. Let them go.

"What the hell just happened?"

Brent said a small group had come in for a landing, drawn to the enormous plastic swans in our decoy spread. He'd seen them in time to drop one. Boyfriend and I, befuddled, had gotten nothing.

Brent's black lab, Sage, retrieved the downed goose - a juvenile still covered with shades of gray.

There wasn't much action after that. A wounded wigeon swam into our spread and Brent dispatched him. A flock of pintails came in. Brent dropped one and I dispatched a crip on the water.

And every time there was a flight of geese moving over us and we all found ourselves staring straight up, mouths agape, I would yank myself back to earth to see if any more geese would try to pull a fast one. But, of course, they didn't.

We waited and waited for the clearing weather that would spark a massive flight of ducks, but it never came. Facing a long drive home, we finally gave up, grateful to have any birds at all.

For the rest of my life, though, I will view that day not as a failure, but as one of my most memorable hunts ever.

And in the future, I'll try to remember to keep my eyes trained on the world closer to the ground. No promises, though.

Boyfriend and Holly - happiness isn't always having a full strap

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Monday, December 1, 2008

The How-To Series: Shotguns for women

Note: Three years after writing this post, I'd learned a little bit more about how different kinds of shotguns suit different kinds of personalities. The information here is still valid - I still strongly recommend getting your shotgun fitted - but you might want to also check out my shotgun personality test. Click here to do that.

It's that time of year when I start getting the question from women: I'm going to start duck hunting. What kind of shotgun should I buy?

The answer, unfortunately, is not so simple as, "Buy this model." But there is a relatively simple formula you can use to decide.

First, though, some basics.


There are three common types of shotgun: pump, autoloader and over-under (or side-by-side). Pumps and autoloaders are usually the preferred choice in the duck blind because you get three shots, and sometimes that third shot matters - especially if you're new at shooting.

Autoloaders are more expensive because they contain mechanisms that automatically eject your spent shell and reload the next live one, so you get your three shots off pretty quickly. These moving parts also make them a joy to clean (NOT!). I have an autoloader.

The pump requires you to move a pump to eject and reload - adding slightly to the time taken to get your second and third shots off. That pumping action is what makes the cool click-CLICK sound you hear in the movies when Arnold Schwarzenegger is about to blow away some evil enemy. Pump shotguns can be really affordable.

The over-under or side-by-side is a very simple gun: There are two barrels for the two shots you get to take. You remove the spent shells yourself. Cleaning is a breeze. I know this because Boyfriend has one, and he's done cleaning in a fraction of the time that I am. Very irritating. But he loves his gun for its simplicity (and beauty - it's Italian).


While there are many different sizes, or gauges, of shotguns, the two you see most often are 12 gauge and 20 gauge.

A 12 gauge is a bigger gun. The shotshell has a bigger circumference, so the barrel is also bigger, and the gun is heavier. I know plenty of women who use 12 gauge, but also plenty who use 20 gauge because they like the lighter weight. I use a 20 gauge.

But there are two sacrifices with the smaller gun. One is that you have less shot in the standard 3-inch shell for 20 gauge than for 12 gauge because there's just less room. That means there's less shot flying at the bird. That means you have to be a better shot.

The other sacrifice is selection. When I went to buy some Kent Fasteel for duck season in October, my two local stores had NONE in 20 gauge. When I went to order a case online, I found 26 options for 12 gauge and TWO for 20 gauge.

But I'm still happy with my selection.


Here it is: Fit, fit and fit.

1. Cost fit. Decide what you can afford. I'm one of those people who believes you get what you pay for, so I'll spend on the higher end of what I can afford, which means using the credit card because it's actually more than I can afford. That's my particular failing.

But here's why I think buying the most you can afford is important with guns: A gun is not a toothbrush that you'll discard in six months; it is a tool that, properly cared for, will serve you for the rest of your life, and possibly go on to serve your children as well.

Italian shotguns are generally considered the best, and they have pricetags to match. My Beretta Urika AL391 cost about $1,000. Fancier ones go for $1,500 or more. But I have a friend who swears by his much-more-affordable Remington (American) shotgun.

The upshot? Decide what you're comfortable with. If you're a spend-within-your means person, don't feel compelled to be a spendthrift like me - you'd be miserable.

2. Gun fit. I've followed discussions about women's guns extensively, and from what I can tell, there is no perfect women's shotgun. Why? Shotguns aren't made for women; they're made for the "average man," which means someone who's taller and heavier than we are.

If you're a smaller woman - that is, on the short side, or lightweight - you may want to consider children's guns. But most women I know have chosen adult guns.

So how do you know what fits? Simple: You try them on, just like shoes. When I went to buy a shotgun, I went to the gun counter and said, "Let me look at that one," and I raised the gun to my shoulder and put my cheek on the stock, as if preparing to shoot (aiming the barrel in a safe direction, of course). I handed back the ones that just didn't feel right and kept the others on the counter, narrowing them down until I was left with one: my Beretta. I was in serious female shopping mode. Thank God the guy behind the counter was patient.

I didn't know squat at the time, but when I told my shooting instructor and my gunsmith about my method, they told me it was a good one. To me, it just makes sense. We all have certain brands or models of shoes that work for us (I love Danskos). Even cars fit us differently (I'm way more comfortable in a Toyota than in any other car). Why wouldn't guns be the same?

The trying-on method also helps you rule out something that's not comfortable. Me? I hated the pump shotguns I tried because they just didn't feel good in my hands. And you really don't want to end up with a gun that bothers you, because that irritant will be like a mosquito that buzzes around your head every single time you hunt.

Now, if you're a boyfriend or husband who's reading this because you want to buy a nice surprise for the woman in your life, I've just gone and spoiled your plans. I recommend you give her a "gift certificate" for a shotgun, and then take her shopping, even though that's much less exciting than putting a gun under the tree. If you really want to give her something besides an envelope, buy a cheap toy gun as a proxy and put that under the tree. It'll make her laugh, and put a tangible object in her hands.

Still not convinced? Just ask yourself this: Would you buy her shoes without her trying them on? Most likely not. Nor should you do that for something that's 10 to 20 times as expensive as shoes.

3. Plan for gun fitting. Even if a shotgun feels comfortable off-the-shelf, I strongly recommend that women have guns fitted, which means leaving something in the budget for a trip to the gunsmith. Why? Again, shotguns are made for men, and if you're not 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds or so, the shotgun isn't made for you.

Shotgun shooting is all about making the shotgun an extension of your body. With the butt of the gun against your shoulder, your cheek should fall easily on the stock, positioning your eye to peer out perfectly over the barrel so when you pull the trigger, the shot goes where you're looking.

A fitting often includes shortening the stock so you can reach the trigger more comfortably, and potentially adding a recoil pad. If you shoot left-handed, it means changing the cast (left-right tilt) of the stock, because most shotguns are cast for righties. If you have a long neck and/or high cheekbones (that's me), it also means changing the drop (up-down tilt) of the stock.

My fitting cost $350 and it was worth every penny. I waited more than a year to do it, and I went from missing most of the time to hitting the ducks a lot more often. When I talk to newbies now, I recommend they get their new gun fitted immediately to spare themselves the grief I went through, because it's just so discouraging.

To find a good gunsmith, just go to your local skeet or sporting clays range and ask the folks there who they recommend. Competition shooters in particular will know who's the most trustworthy.

One final recommendation: If you're new to shooting shotguns, do yourself a favor and take a few lessons. If you're missing a lot, you may not be able to figure out what you're doing wrong, but an instructor can spot your problem immediately. My instructor costs $50 an hour, and he's worth every penny. I even go back every once in a while for "tune-ups" to see if I've developed any bad habits.

And a final word: While I'm confident with my recommendations here, I know I don't know everything there is to know about guns. If you have anything you'd like to recommend adding to this post, just email me here. I'm happy to update this with additional information.

Happy shopping!

© Holly A. Heyser 2008