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


Anonymous said...

I guess all's well that ends well. And you did get more ducks than he did.

Also,the ducks were flying, which I know hadn't been happening for you guys in California.

So it wasn't all bad.

(Was I just too unbearably Pollyannaish there?)

Holly Heyser said...

Not at all! The ducks are definitely here now, and I'm grateful for that. It's just that losing birds makes me really surly :-).

sportingdays said...

I see a black Lab in your future :) How does the old saw go, "Conserve wildlife, hunt with a dog"

No pressure or anything, but I for one am looking forward to an entire spring and summer of reading blog posts featuring the training adventures and misadventures of a new black Lab. Watch out "Marley & Me."

Jon Roth said...

Great story Holly. It was certainly an adventure! (And don't listen to Sporting, go for the Golden Retriever - not that I'm partial or anything).

Terry Scoville said...

Well Holly I share your angst about not being able to recover crippled birds. It is not any fun at all, regardless of the fact that some animal will put it to good use. Just not the way you want it to happen.
Sounds to me as if Sportingdays may be on to something.
I can not imagine hunting migratory birds without a dog. Jet recovers a lot of cripples for me every year.
Congrats on a "ducky" hunt otherwise!

Josh said...

Good story. I got up in the morning, looked out the window as my wife was getting ready for her trek to Half Moon Bay and a day of kayak instructor training, and said, "yep. A perfect snipe morning."
My one hope was that you folks'd bring in a mess o' greenheads. Well, that spoonie's got a green head.

Now, you should look at this site:

You'd need a mild-mannered, smaller, inside dog, right? These are it. They also water retrieve (heck, they blood trail pigs, too!)

Holly Heyser said...

My cats are aghast at all this talk of dogs! I know we'll get one eventually, but probably not for a while. I need to hunt with dogs for a bit longer so I know how a good dog works - you know, don't want to get into a blind-leading-the-blind situation. I've had many good opportunities to see good dogs at work in the past year (Sportingdays, your girls ROCK), but I'm not quite there.

And Josh, we said the same thing when we woke up Sunday and that rain hadn't hit yet. That said, my next goal is a limit of spoonies, because we're very fond of them. Someone's got to love them!

SimplyOutdoors said...

Well, at least you finally did beat the boyfriend. I know competition is everything in my family, and I would be playing that up for all its worth.

ironman said...

I'm going to have to send you some photos of my black lab playing with our two cats. they love each other!!!

Holly Heyser said...

I think my young'un - Giblet - would be fine. She's very playful. But our old girl, Paka, would be very disdainful.

Holly Heyser said...

And Josh, i just checked out the Wachtelhund site. Very pretty dog! But the thing about being water shy could be a deal breaker - we do way more duck hunting than upland hunting.

Then again, we may just have to get two dogs. When the cats give us permission. :-)

Josh said...

I've seen pictures of them doing duck retrieves, but before a purchase like that, yeah, I'd make sure that they are okay.

In the meantime, you could always teach your cats to retrieve.

Tom Sorenson said...

Understandable. I hate losin' game. Makes me grouchy and irritable. I mean, more so than usual. Sounds interesting - hunting on a refuge, I mean. I've never had to hunt the way you described in the beginning - I have a hard time really comprehending it because it's so foreign to me. You have to check in to a limited number of blinds that are placed on the refuge as I understand? You can't just go in and set up your own blind?

Anyways, I'm glad the ducks are flying for you now, but I'm not glad for the freezing cold we've had that's driven them ducks down your way! It was negative 3 this morning - and I don't like negative anything!

sportingdays said...

At the risk of hijacking this blog and turning it into the "Great Duck Dog Debate," here are a couple more thoughts on hunting dogs:

(1) We have two hunting Labs at home and an old cat. Both dogs are terrified of the cat. The Labs used to love to chase the cat. Everything changed one day when the cat decided to stand his ground and stop running from the dogs. A couple of swipes at their noses put the dogs in place. The cat now is king and pretty much has run of the house -- the dogs don't. My point is that dogs and cats work it out. This is especially true if you get a puppy that grows up with cats in the home.

(2) I don't wish this on anybody, but it's happened to all of us at some point and may hasten the move to a duck dog. You will have a great refuge hunt, with the birds in thick, and you will lose a couple of really nice birds -- a pair of greenheads or a big fat speck -- that would otherwise have been recovered by even an average duck dog. You will feel SICK. And there are few prouder moments in duck hunting when your own dog tracks down a cripple and makes a difficult retrieve.

(3) I think you'll see the best examples of working duck dogs not by hunting with friends who have them but by talking and visiting with duck dog breeders, trainers and hunting dog kennels. I think this may be especially true for Cazadora, who will approach the acquisition of a hunting dog like she would tackle an investigative news story. Once you immerse yourself in the world of hunting dogs, you'll see some excellent examples of these dogs at work and will get a better understanding of what you want and need from a hunting dog of your own.

Holly Heyser said...

Josh, we actually do have a cat retriever - sorta. The neighbor cat who's taken ownership of our yard is a big bird hunter, and when we go outside to see what she's gotten, she proudly trots up to us with bird in mouth, and drops it for us to inspect. (Of course, last time she did that the bird wasn't dead and it surprised Boyfriend and the cat by flying away.)

My kitten Giblet is also smart. She just made 52 copies on my printer/copier by cleverly stepping on as many buttons as she could. Very, very smart. Guess you could call her a copycat.

Tom, yes, refuge hunting is brutal. Club hunting is better, but there's the money thing. I'd like to start scouting less-traveled public lands one of these days to see if I can find anything decent and accessible.

And Sportingdays, don't worry about hijacking. The comment discussion is easily as fun for me as the initial blog post. We've already lost a speck like you described. And I've had the privilege of working with a lot of good dogs lately, yours included. It's just that a dog is a big commitment that I don't take lightly. I'm sure it'll happen sometime, and probably sooner, rather than later.

Josh said...

Just think of all the new stories a dog would produce (as if you needed help in that department).

Sportingdays, I think you and I get along just fine, what with our tag-teaming efforts here.

Cool retrieving cat, Holly! The copycat was a groaner, though, which means I'll be repeating it to my wife.

deerslayer said...

Hi NorCal Cazadora; Just wanted to stop by for a visit and let you know the story was great, just like I was there with you. Don't worry about your dream coming true it will happen more and more as time pass. Keep up the great writing as it's enjoyable to here from a womans view point on hunting.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Yes, there is one word missing from this blog post: "dog."

A good retriever would have gotten that first spoonbill, at least.

And then you will want to hunt even more, because you don't want to let the dog down.

Holly Heyser said...

OK, so it's agreed: You all want to chip in to get me a puppy, several months of training, and a poop scoop for Christmas?


My friend Dana tells me her fantastic black lab bitch, Marzee, has a litter due Feb. 9...

Anonymous said...

I was kinda wondering how the snipe hunt played out in that weather. Looks like you made a good Plan B.

I won't pile on with the dog advocates (although they're dead right). You and Hank need to make that decision yourselves, as it is a very big commitment. But it WILL reduce your lost bird ratio drastically, and save you from slogging out of the blind every time you shoot a bird which translates into more time and shot opportunities (birds don't flare as much from a dog as they do from a hunter). You don't have to be Richard Wolters to train your own dog, and dedication to the task of training is much more important than knowing everything there is to know... even though you have at least a couple of friends who can provide support and knowledge when needed.

But I'm not jumping on the "get a dog" bandwagon or anything. Just that it would totally be the right thing for any serious waterfowler to do.

OK, that was probably overkill...

Back to the topic...

Are you guys still shooting steel? I broke down and switched to Bismuth (my old double can't handle Hevi-shot), and my one-shot kills went WAY up. Switching also allowed me to step back down to smaller pellets, enhancing my pattern so I was hitting more birds. I think we've had this conversation before, but I can't say enough how much difference the new ammo made. I know, it's expensive, but it's worth it because it cuts down on lost cripples... although the reality is, that's gonna happen sometmes, regardless of what you're shooting. That's when a dog comes in handy. Oops... I did it again.

Holly Heyser said...

Phillip, I'm happy to have you chipping into the puppy fund!

We shoot Kent Fasteel and HeviShot. Perhaps I should break down and just shoot Hevi - I'm just not confident yet that the problem is my ammunition and not ME.

But I'm thinking of heading out today (if I get enough work done this morning to avoid feeling guilty about going hunting). Maybe I'll do an experiment and use all Hevi. It's a bluebird day, so it's not like I'll be under constant bombardment...

sportingdays said...

I agree with Chas and will take it a step further. I think a good retriever would have recovered both of Cazadora's lost ducks.

Think how differently that hunt would've ended -- and the blog would've read -- had Cazadora returned to the check station with double the bag of Boyfriend. She'd kick Boyfriend to the couch and sleep with the dog after that performance afield.

To Phillip's point, it does get old and exhausting getting up every time you shoot to stumble around the marsh chasing cripples and losing valuable hunting time. And, of course, when you're out 100 yards chasing down that crippled spoony, a flock of bull sprig fly right over the blind.

Given all the joy and help dogs bring to the hunt, they are not a panacea. At least for the first couple of years of a young dog's life, you often have to subordinate your own hunting for the benefit of dog training and development.

Example: You'll get some great duck hunting invitations. But your hosts have their own dogs they like to hunt with. So what do you do?

Do you leave your young dog at home because you're a guest and don't want your young dog potentially screwing up a great hunt or there's no room or desire for two dogs?

Do you turn the invitation down and instead go to the refuge by yourself, where the hunting won't be as good, but gives your dog more experience and a better training opportunity without distraction of another dog or a lot of other guns?

Say you're out on a pheasant hunt with your new Lab and a cottontail squirts out in front of you. Boyfriend cooks a mean rabbit and you really want to take that bunny home. BUT shooting at that rabbit would send a bad message to your dog that it's now OK to chase every jack rabbit, coyote or possum he/she runs across in the field.

Also, duck hunting on California's public wildlife refuges isn't always super dog friendly. There often aren't formal blinds with dry ground nearby for a dog to sit or lay down out of the water and watch the action. At Delevan, for example, there are no blind structures of any kind and you have to go hide in the tules, standing or sitting in the water, etc. There's no place there for the dog unless you bring some kind of special stool. I typically leave my dogs at home on a Delevan hunt and, for that reason, don't hunt that great refuge as much as I did before I had a hunting dog.

So do you stop hunting your favorite refuge because it's not so dog friendly? Do you stop hunting so much with all of your new hunting buddies because they also have their own dogs they want to bring and work? Do you pass on the flock of ducks that flies overhead while you're pup is out making it's first retrieve because you don't want to distract him?

These kinds of dilemmas are endless once you bring a new hunting dog into your life.

Anonymous said...

True enough Sportingdays... adding a dog to your life adds a new level of complexity to everything, not just the hunt. I can hardly imagine life without one.

Native said...

Well guy's,
I really had to add my two coppers worth here, no matter what the cost and return!

I am (nor have ever been) a fowler, water and other wise. But, I can tell you this much.
A good dog can reduce your wounded and non-retrieval rate by as much as say, 90%.

10% of the animals getting away and laying up dead somewhere as opposed to 90% going home with you?

Odds are that the dogs are doing their 7000 year old job which has been serving men/women in their hunting and surviving endeavors, historically speaking of course.
And serving us quite well, I might add!

I hope that no one can argue with those kind of probabilities!

Also, I will add here correspondingly, that even my "Pit Bulls" will give way to the king's and queen's of the roost when it comes to the rulers of the house: (them dange'd CATS!)

Anonymous said...

Good post and interesting comments. That must be tough waiting for a blind. But at least you can hunt on Sunday!

Unknown said...

Wachtelhunds are great swimming dogs. I own a couple and they love to swim after the ducks and geese. see

If wachtelhunds are too big, go for a Boykin spaniel which are also great duck dogs, upland game and turkey dogs. I got a couple of those as well.

Both breeds are good for upland game.

Check out the wachtelhund forum or boykin spaniel clubs and breeder associatons.
see a short comparison at

In any case if you hunt, you have a duty to have a good dog which saves and rcovers game.