Monday, January 26, 2009

One last hurrah for the 08-09 duck season

"I don't want to be a bad influence, but..."

Those words were ringing in my ears Sunday as I charged through sucking mud and water until I thought my lungs would burst, chasing after a snow goose that I'd shot, then watched sail away with just enough wing power to take it far, far from where I sat.

David - the Bad Influence - and his dog Coal Pit were gaining on me rapidly, and I was grateful for it. If I had to chase that bird on my own, I think I would've passed out. I'm normally tougher than this, but after two weeks of aggressive rest following an emergency appendectomy, my energy had its limits. This was the point Sunday at which I met them.

So how did I get myself in this situation?

After I wrote about having my appendix taken out, a reader emailed me to wish me well. At the end of his email, he wrote, "Anyway, I don't want to be a bad influence, but if it might be a little incentive to get well, on the last day of the season, I do have the #3 card at Delevan, and if you found yourself feeling up to making the walk out to a blind at whatever end of the refuge is upwind on that day..."

I was heavily drugged when I read this email, but I'd pretty much have to be dead to not react to an offer like that. The Delevan National Wildlife Refuge is one of the best refuges in the state, and being No. 3 in line to pick your blind means you get get the best hunting available under whatever the conditions are that day.

There was only one question: Is Boyfriend invited?

Yes? Well, then, game on! And I proceeded to spend the next 12 days taking good care of myself.

When Sunday morning came, it might as well have been opening day, I was so excited. And so grateful, after being put on the DL for most of the end of the season. I woke up an hour and a half early, at 12:45 a.m., ready to go.

When we got to our spot, an "assigned pond" on the south side of the refuge, I sat like a princess on an island while Boyfriend and David did all the work setting up decoys. Then, with everything in place, we staked out some spots in the tules and waited for shoot time.

Pretty quickly, David got a drake wigeon, and I got a drake gadwall - one shot, thank you very much! But after that, the morning just dried up. Nothing was flying. Well, almost nothing. Occasionally ducks would fly high over us and bomb into some obviously unhunted pond behind us. And some other birds were flying a route that was out of our reach.

So we changed our setup - something you can do in an assigned pond, where you are not required to sit in one spot. It's like your own personal "free roam." Boyfriend went and parked under that flight path that was just out of our reach, and I went back to the unhunted pond. By this time, though, it was probably around noon, and the flight had really slowed down.

Until I saw two snow geese approaching very, very low. I watched eagerly as they headed my way.

Bam! Bam bam!

One dropped, and then the other. Back where Boyfriend and David were. Oh well.

About 15 minutes later, I noticed a duck speeding away from me, back toward the guys.

Bam! He dropped. In their pond.

Sigh. Was it going to be one of those days, where the birds go wherever I'm not? I trudged back to their side. If I wasn't going to hit anything, I at least didn't want to be lonely.

We reconnoitered on our island, unabashedly unhidden in the blazing sun that had not been in the weather forecast, standing around eating carrot sticks.

"So," Boyfriend said to David, "the question is, do you want to eat lunch, or dinner, at Granzella's?"

We all laughed. I don't think either of them felt they needed to hunt the whole day, but they could read my face plenty well. They knew I'd been benched for two weeks, and that I really wanted to get more than one duck on my last hunt of the season. So we stayed.

I did another fruitless tour of duty in the Unhunted Pond before heading back to the base camp for the final 90 minutes or so of hunting. They encouraged me to take Boyfriend's spot under that flight path - that's where he'd shot one of the snow geese I'd seen from a distance.

Lo and behold, it worked.

A pair of birds zoomed out of the Closed Zone, straight at me.

Bam bam!

Down! The bird dropped about 60 yards away, out of sight, and I charged through sucking mud to get to it, giving my lungs the first serious workout they'd had in ages. Don't lose this bird, Holly!

When I got to the spot where she'd dropped, there she was, dead on the water, not even kicking anymore, because it had taken me so long to get there. What a beautiful sight - quick death, found bird. Hen gadwall.

This was my 39th duck of the year. If I had to go home now, I'd be happy, because coming home with two ducks is a good thing. But I love milestone numbers. I was so close now ... could I make it 40?

Back in my spot, I kept an eye on the Closed Zone, and was rewarded very soon with two teal zipping my way.

Now, teal can really take you by surprise because they fly fast and low, twisting around each other like they're wrapping ribbon around a May Pole. But if you see them far enough away, you have time. And I did.

I slipped the barrel of my gun out of a tangle of tules and crouched low - like our cats when they're about to pounce on each other, except I didn't wiggle my butt the way they do.


Down. Right in front of me! Dead. A beautiful hen cinnamon teal.

No. 40.

But this one made me sad, because for some reason, she reminded me of my cat Giblet, a runty, cute little girl. I stroked her head and apologized, and felt grateful that she'd died quickly.

Now I knew I'd go home from this hunt happy, though. Three birds is very satisying. It's all gravy now, I thought as I kept my eyes on the Closed Zone.

Then to my left, I heard the question. "Are those white geese?" Two geese were heading in, and if they were a certain dark goose - the specklebelly - they were not legal game. But I could see clearly in profile that these were snow geese, and they were very close.

I stood and shot just as David did. David's goose fell hard, almost in his lap. Mine - which, oopsie!, Boyfriend had been about to shoot - fell, but didn't hit the water. Instead, he sailed under faltering wing power, over thick tules, back toward the Unhunted Pond.

I leapt out of my tules to start the chase.

"I'm gonna need Coal Pit!" I yelled to David. I knew this would be hard.

The goose was nowhere in sight as I plowed through sucking mud and foot-deep water. It was vital to find that goose ASAP, or I'd lose it. It wasn't just that this was the only goose I'd shot all year. It was that I hate, hate, hate wounding and losing game.

But this mud was bad. Every time I lifted a foot, it was like a sumo wrestler was pulling that leg back down. In 20 yards, I was gasping for air, practically shrieking with each breath, lungs on fire. I was pretty sure my surgeon would not approve of this activity.

When David and Coal Pit caught up with me, I pointed to where I'd lost sight of the bird and told David its condition. They went ahead and I slowed to a pace that wouldn't kill me. When David got to open water, he said he could see the bird.

It was on the water, and it flapped its wings when it saw us, but couldn't get airborne. One positive sign. But it could still paddle way faster than we could walk.

David sent Coal Pit after him, and told me to head off to the right. After a second, I understood what he meant: We'd form a pincer motion around the bird and corner him on the pond, hoping he didn't have enough leg power to get out at the levee and run even farther.

I'd lost sight of the bird, but I took it on faith that David and Coal Pit were on him. I didn't have any choice; I was a wreck.

Finally, I spotted him at the levee road. When David got close enough, he fired a shot across the water and the bird's head dropped. It was over.

David met me on the road with my bird, and we walked back toward our blind on dry land, me thanking him profusely between gasps, my head still reeling from exertion (and hunger too - I'd been fueling up on nothing more than light snacks all day).

"Wait, stop a second!" he said. I turned back to him, a disheveled mess, and he snapped my picture, grinning.

Back at the blind, I raised my bird so Hank could see that we - David, really - had been successful, and then I rushed back to my spot. With 20 minutes of shoot time left, there was no time for chitchat. I was almost in position when I heard

Bam bam!

Another snow goose had come in behind me, and Boyfriend had shot him. He sailed the same direction as mine, but crashed in thick tules. David and Coal Pit had to go out AGAIN.

But this one was a much easier fetch - the bird was stuck in tules and didn't move at all. Hard for a person to get to, but relatively easy for a dog. Coal Pit saves the day!

In the last minutes of sunlight, I kept my eye on the Closed Zone, but there were no ducks coming out of it. Instead, our entire pond was alive with swallows zipping and darting through the air, a visual symphony all around us, the final fireworks for the last day of the season.

It was perfect. I didn't need any more ducks. Closing Day is a special day, one you always want to be memorable, like anniversaries and birthdays. My first two closing days had been decidedly unspectacular. But this one had been fantastic: a generous invitation from an online friend, a pre-sunrise-to-sunset hunt, and my best take yet at my favorite refuge. For this to close with a beautiful display of nature was icing on the cake.

At 5:22 p.m., we unloaded our guns, started picking up our gear and said good-bye to the refuge we love.

"See you in October!"

The three faces of exhaustion

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

If you love gourmet wild game...

If you love eating wild game - and eating it well - then chances are you've seen Boyfriend's blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook.

I know many of you are devoted readers of his, but just in case you're one of those more casual readers who doesn't check in every day, I wanted to alert you to a new development: His blog has been nominated for the best themed food blog by the Well Fed Network. You can vote for him by following this link.

Now, normally, I don't use this blog space to pimp my boyfriend - at least not this aggressively. But I kinda feel like I owe him.

See, two Sundays ago, we had planned a lovely wild duck dinner for four guests. One of the guests was a magazine editor; another was a magazine photographer. This dinner was going to result in a two-page magazine spread.

Imagine how proud I was of Boyfriend!

Now, imagine how utterly crappy I felt when I got sick the Friday before the dinner, went to the emergency room that Saturday and found out that my appendix needed to come out ASAP. I wouldn't come home from the hospital until late Sunday morning, and even then I'd be a mess, doped up and moving gingerly.

The dinner was off. And our guests would be leaving town a few days later, so there would be no rescheduling.

I've had to cancel a lot because of this surgery. I bailed on going to the SHOT Show. I've bailed on hunts. I've left my students to do a lot for themselves as they prepare for the next semester of running the campus newspaper. It had to be done. But canceling that dinner is the thing that really makes me wince.

So please help me make up for that by following that link and voting for Hunter Angler Gardener Cook. And even if you don't care about doing me a favor, just think about the message that you'd be sending to the world - that wild game is seriously good food, and we're all blessed to be able to partake of it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, January 16, 2009

Weird story: A duck hunter and his duck

Remember that story back in October about the duck hunter who was trying to rescue a duck whose leg was all caught up in fishing line? Well, this is even weirder.

The video below is the story of a Twin Cities duck hunter and truck driver who ended up with a greenhead as a pet. It's an adorable story for anyone - unless you're one of those nutballs who doesn't want humans to have any relationships with animals at all - but if you're a duck hunter, I guarantee you'll just fall all over yourself about it.

It's just another reminder of the deep appreciation human predators have for our prey, so counterintuitive to non-hunters but so obvious to us.

But I really do want to ask the guy if it isn't a little harder going out to shoot greenheads now when he thinks about his little buddy back home...

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Digging deep for answers: Why do I hunt?

When I'm not busy spending every free moment hunting - you know, like when I've just had my appendix removed - I spend a fair bit of time marveling at how much I love hunting. And wondering why.

I didn't grow up hunting, but once I started, it was as if a piece of me had been missing all my life without me realizing it, but now that piece was finally in place. I realized very, very quickly that all my outdoor play as a child (except for maybe the Tonka trucks) was geared toward preparing me for this: making me alert, observant and intrigued by my surroundings.

Now I can't imagine not hunting. Getting all my food merely by going to the grocery store, tossing stuff in the cart and standing in the checkout line seems unsatisfying.

During my recovery from surgery this week, I found what may be a clue to why I love hunting so much (and no, it wasn't in a codeine reverie - but good guess). I found it in an unexpected place: a book called "Animals Make Us Human," by Temple Grandin.

If you don't know the name, you've probably heard of her. Grandin is an autistic woman with a PhD in animal science who helps slaughterhouses and stockyards design systems that keep animals calm and content. Her autism has given her unusual insights to animal behavior - she can spot things that terrify animals, but that most of us wouldn't notice.

When her new book came out last week, she was all over the radio, and I found her discussion of animal behavior fascinating, so I ordered the book. It's a good read, a real mixed bag of intriguing information about everything from cat and dog behavior to issues with wildlife and zoos.

Much of the book deals with what one scientist calls "Blue-Ribbon Emotions" that drive animal behavior. The four key ones are SEEKING (learning/exploring), RAGE, FEAR and PANIC, and three others that periodically become important are LUST, CARE (as in maternal nurturing) and PLAY.

As I read the book, I began thinking about how these emotions don't just drive animals, but people as well. I'm a firm believer that people are animals too - just a little smarter, and blessed with opposable thumbs.

In the chapter on zoos, Grandin writes about what some zoos have done to counteract the extreme boredom that causes abnormal behavior in some animals, particularly the large predators and primates. In one case, the San Francisco Zoo developed a system in which an African leopard named Sabrina had to follow a series of speaker-generated bird sounds around her enclosure until her actions finally triggered the release of food. Sabrina loved it, and she found novel ways to trigger the food release, not following the same pattern every time.

The same guy who designed that system created another one for Diana monkeys: A light would go on, and if monkeys pulled a lever, the system would release food at the opposite end of the cage and they could hopscotch over a series of platforms to get to it. A newer version of the system gave them not food, but plastic tokens they could use literally to buy food out of a machine. The monkeys loved it, and they all used it differently: some spent their tokens right away, others saved them and one figured out how to keep his mother from stealing the food he bought with his tokens.

OK, Holly, what's this got to do with hunting?

In all of these cases, the animals did not have to work to get their food - the zoos still put food out for them to ensure they had adequate nutrition. But the animals loved these systems.

"Many, many studies have found that captive animals will choose to work for food instead of just having it handed to them," Grandin writes. "Wild animals don't want a free lunch. The reason they like working for their food is that it feels good. That's because in all of the studies, 'working' actually means SEEKING. The animal has to forage for hidden food in its enclosure, or manipulate a puzzle feeder (a kind of container with food inside), or chase acoustic prey. All of these activities activate the SEEKING system. They let the animal hunt."

Ah ha!

I can't tell you how often I read or hear - whether it's from an anti-hunter or just a perplexed non-hunter, "Why would you hunt when you can just get food at the grocery store?" In fact, I remember asking Boyfriend a similar question before he got me out hunting: "If you want to eat rabbits, why don't we just raise some in the back yard? Why do you need to hunt them?"

It's a good question, because hunting - for most of us - is not cheap or easy.

Yes, there are logical reasons for hunting: It provides food that is healthier - no hormones, antibiotics or pesticides - than factory-farmed meat. It provides food that is tastier, because the animals have had a varied, natural diet. It does not require animals to have lived their entire lives in captivity, sometimes under conditions most people would consider extremely cruel.

Such obvious logic still doesn't explain why we're so driven to hunt. But perhaps the ideas in Grandin's book do: Hunting engages one of the core emotions that drive all animals - SEEKING. It is deeply, deeply satisfying.

Like a zoo animal raised in captivity, I didn't know what I'd been missing. But once the option of hunting was given to me, I discovered it was a part of my natural state of being. Who cares that it's expensive, time-consuming and difficult? It's what I'm meant to do.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Sunday, January 11, 2009

An early end to the season?

I had a knot in my stomach as I prepared for Friday morning's hunt in a rice field north of Sacramento.

Was it the coffee on an empty stomach? Was it the crazy north wind that promised excellent hunting?

Nope. Turns out it was the beginning of appendicitis.

Got two birds that day - a beautiful bull sprig and a nice looking drake spoonie - and I'd better enjoy them because that might've been my last duck hunt of the season. Had surgery Saturday afternoon, and they tell me I've got to take it easy for a couple weeks. If I do get to hunt again, it'll have to be with buddies who do all the heavy lifting. (And my friends know how I am about that stupid cart...)


I blame the bumpy-ass gizzard.

OK, back to my drugs now. I'll be back, dear readers, when I have something lucid to say.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Thursday, January 8, 2009

No, Lucrezia, it's DUCK hunting

What happens when three women pull up to the hunter check station at a national wildlife refuge?

1) All the men stare.

2) The woman at the check station asks them, "Are you here for bird watching?"

Well, in a manner of speaking, yes!

In all fairness, my girlfriends weren't wearing camo when they pulled into the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge a few minutes ahead of me on Wednesday, and anyone who wears street clothes to a wildlife refuge in the middle of duck season is automatically suspect. Any woman, anyway.

It was actually a perfect entrance for Lucrezia's first duck hunt: Welcome to the world of being the odd duck.

Lucrezia (pronounced loo-KRETZ-ee-ah) is the second brand-new duck hunter I've gone out with in the past few weeks, and it's no accident: She's a good friend of Hellen, the first newby, who bagged a greenhead on her first hunt at Delevan a few weeks ago.

Interestingly enough, Lucrezia has long had a bizarre fantasy about owning a plush hunting lodge in Scotland, even though she'd never hunted before this year and has absolutely no connection to Scotland. When she found out her friend Hellen was going to start hunting, she was flabbergasted - Hellen had never even talked about it!

But Lucrezia jumped right in.

I met her last spring when she joined Hellen at a women's shooting clinic in Jackson, where she took to guns like she'd been born with one in each hand. And like Hellen, she's been taking shooting lessons and getting hunter safety and licensing lined up ever since then.

Hellen and I set up some dates in January to hunt with Lucrezia, and last week we learned that our friend Penny - whom we'd met at another women's shoot this summer - could join us.

Perfect! Four chicks with guns at the refuge. Can't think of anything finer. (And nor could some of the men at Delevan, from what I could see that day).

Wednesday, unfortunately, would prove to be a difficult day. First, we found an enormous blind waiting list when we got there, which was unexpected, this being the time everyone's supposed to get back to work after the holidays.

Second, we couldn't hear much shooting on the refuge.

We waited and waited and waited - the longest I've ever waited there - and finally got a blind on the south side of the refuge. By the time we got out there, it was nearly 3 p.m. We'd have only about two hours to shoot.

Now, normally, this is not a problem. We'd held out for a good blind because with four women out there, we wanted everyone to get plenty of chances to shoot. And we set up on opposite ends of our little tule island to maximize opportunity: me with Hellen, and Penny - a third-year duck hunter like me - with Lucrezia.

But this day would be difficult.

When we got started, Hellen told me she wanted me to take the first shot that came our way. But when a lone teal came by shortly after we set up, I realized I'd forgotten to load my gun.

I hissed to Hellen: I'm not loaded! Shoot it!

She stood and fired, but not having been prepared to take that shot, she missed.

A couple ducks came in on the other side, and Lucrezia shot and missed.

We'd warned her: Prepare to miss a lot - this is hard!

A couple more ducks came near me and Hellen, and we fired warning shots at them.

And then it just dried up after that. Ducks wouldn't come near us.

But lots of snow geese were in the air. With less 45 minutes to go, Penny called across the island. "Holly, would it break your heart if I take down the WindWhacker?"

Geese don't like motion devices, so I knew what she was thinking. But when I looked her way to answer, I saw geese low on the horizon coming our way.

"Sure," I answered, "but you might want to wait for those geese."

Turns out the only word Penny heard was "geese," and when she looked back toward that horizon, she had a holy crap! moment. She told Lucrezia to freeze.

I watched as a V of snows came closer and closer. Low. Lower than I'd ever seen them - at least before the end of shoot time.

"What are they?" whispered Hellen behind me. Hellen can identify a snow goose at 100 yards, but she'd never seen any this close. "They're huge!"

Penny called out the order. "Shoot em!"

Lucrezia stood, aimed, and by God, she knocked one down.

The birds flared and Penny shot next, taking another one down. Hellen and I added a few shots, but they'd moved too far away from us, so our efforts were futile.

Penny bolted out into the water to chase her bird. Lucrezia followed, in a daze, not believing she'd done it. Hellen had much the same experience when she'd gotten her greenhead last month. No! Me?

They returned to the blind with their birds, Penny exuberant and Lucrezia still stunned.

We rushed back into our positions for the remaining half hour of hunt time, but nothing came near us again. At 5 o'clock, we unloaded our guns.

"Well, Lucrezia, what the hell," I hollered at her across the island, grinning. "We take you duck hunting and you have to go and shoot some stupid goose. What's wrong with you?"

Amazing. I still haven't downed a goose like that - other hunters' cripples are about the best I can do. But it's hard to be jealous when someone goes out on her first duck hunt and bags such a spectacular bird - even if it isn't a duck.

Hellen and I were, of course, very sad that we'd been skunked.

But we were awfully pleased that Penny and Lucrezia had fared so well.

All in all, it wasn't a bad day of bird watching.

Epilogue: Here's Hellen's take on the hunt.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

CSI: Waterfowl

Call me weird, but when I come home from a hunt and start plucking and dressing my ducks, I think of it as the autopsy.

Why did it die so quickly? Well, look, there were two shots to the heart!

Whose shot hit the bird? I was shooting 4s and you were shooting 2s, so let's see what we find.

And so on. I am endlessly fascinated by the process, which is probably a good thing, because it's not what you'd call inherently fun.

On Sunday, though, the autopsy got really interesting.

(If you're squeamish about such things, now would be the time to stop reading, and definitely don't look at the photo at the end.)

Three of us had gone hunting at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. The weather was plain weird: It started out crystal clear and still, but as the sun rose, a north wind kicked up. We could see a dark fog rolling in around us, and soon it engulfed our blind as well, creating a hazy, yellow Apocalypse Now ambience.

We were in a diver pond, and most of the divers weren't looking at us very seriously. But one small group of scaup swung a little too close to our pit blind and I dropped a drake on my third shot.

Plop! He fell to the water behind us, head up. I jumped out of my blind to race after him, knowing this would not be an easy retrieve.

"Gimme a shell!" I hollered at Boyfriend on my way past him. He pulled one out of his gun and I chambered it, then charged through the marsh after my bird, who had gone underwater.

"There!" Boyfriend yelled. The duck had popped up 25 yards from me, but his head was lolling, so I didn't shoot.

Mistake! He took one look at me and dove again. I kept charging after him, but I could see him swim past me, back toward the blind. The water was too deep to just reach down and get him, so I slogged after him.

The next time he popped up, he was between me and my hunting partners - not safe to shoot. I kept my muzzle pointed up, and he dove again.

I had a feeling he'd swim away from the blind again so I changed position, ready to shoot away from my hunting partners. He popped up. Ten yards from me. I shot. It was over.

Now, for those of you who aren't shotgunners, I can tell you that shooting a bird at 10 yards ensures that the meat will be in really, really bad shape, because the shot pattern is still very concentrated.

"Sausage duck," Boyfriend said when I brought him back to the blind.

The autopsy was going to be interesting.

He was the only duck we got that day, so when we got home, I gave him my undivided attention.

The No. 4 Hevi-Shot that downed him had just hit his wing in several spots, breaking the end of it. He would not have flown again - had he eluded me, he would've been coyote food overnight.

I began plucking. He'd been facing away from me, angling slightly to the left, when I shot him on the water, so there was a LOT of damage on the left side. Shot to the head made death instant. The leg was a total loss. Oddly, the Kent Fasteel No. 2 shot that Boyfriend handed me had not penetrated much - there was a lot of shot under the skin. I recovered three pieces during plucking, then went into the house for the next stage - gutting, where I like to have lots of running water handy.

Plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink, plink the shot went, into the stainless steel sink. Lots of shot.

Dammit, I hate doing that to a bird. But I also hate leaving a cripple in the field.

I cut off the butt of the bird and reached in to begin gutting.

Feel for the gizzard, grab, pull... what the hell?

What came out of that bird was like nothing I had seen from any duck in my three seasons of hunting. The gizzard and part of the intestine that connected to the gizzard was covered with bizarre nodules.

"Uh, Honey, could you please come look at this?"

I held it up for Boyfriend in my hands. My bare hands. They always tell you to wear gloves when handling blood and guts. I never do. I set the monstrosity down, washed my hands and asked for latex gloves. But that's a little like putting on the condom after you've had sex, isn't it?

I finished dressing the bird, took some pictures of the growth and started sending out inquiries. My guess was cancer, but I wanted a second opinion. And if it was cancer, should I eat the duck?

On the Duck Hunting Chat, one guy urged me to dissect the nodules.

Visions of scenes from the Alien movies filled my head.

No thanks, I told him.

My friend Matt weighed in, too. "That's nothing to worry about!! I'd eat it raw if it were mine. And I'm not talking about the meat, I'm talking about the bumpy ass gizzard!! Don't be scared Holly!!!! Put some ketchup on it and it'll be fine."

"Dude, are you nuts?" I responded. "You KNOW we don't have any ketchup in this house."

I sent the photo to Terry Scoville at the Women's Hunting Journal, because I knew she'd come across something weird - a duck she'd dubbed "tumor mallard."

"Possibly fat polyps or pre cancerous, or full blown cancer or some other ailment," she speculated.

I sent the photo to my friend Bob at California Waterfowl. He said my guess of cancer was as good as any.

But would he eat the duck?

"I’m not sure tumors will ever be high on my list of preferred things to eat, but Hank probably has a great recipe that would change my mind."

Oh, great, everyone's a comedian.

It's Tuesday now and I still don't have an answer. The bumpy-ass gizzard is in the fridge, in case science wants it, and so is the bird. It's probably fine to eat the bird. He appeared pretty healthy aside from this ... thing.

But quite honestly, I feel a deep, deep sense of revulsion at the thought of eating a sick animal. And I suspect it will outweigh my very strong taboo against wasting meat. Wasting an animal's life, really.

Damn. A lose-lose situation.

OK, so if you've read this far, you probably want to see what I'm talking about, so here it is. Don't say I didn't warn you...

What do you think? Would you eat the bird?

© Holly A. Heyser 2008

Friday, January 2, 2009

Oh, we've got ducks. But can you hit them?

Take lots of shells, Holly.

It was the night before New Year's Eve, and Boyfriend and I had arrived at the Salinas Gun Club for an unusually posh experience: two days of rich hunting opportunity at an 80-year-old duck club in the heart of the Grasslands.

Our host was Stockton Record outdoors writer Pete Ottesen, and as we feasted on good food and wine in the clubhouse, Pete kept admonishing me to carry lots and lots of shells when I went out the next morning.

Why? The weather was excellent for duck hunting - fog high enough that you could see the ducks coming from a good distance, and low enough to keep the birds flying reasonably close to the ground if they wanted to see where they were going. There would probably be plenty of action.

"Well, Pete, I'm hoping I don't need lots of shells," I told him. Hell, it'd been more than a year since I'd even used a whole box in a single hunt.

But more importantly, I didn't want to embarrass myself. Pete would be hunting with Boyfriend in the morning, but there were no four-man blinds here, so I would be hunting with a complete stranger at the neighboring Hollister Club. I hadn't met him yet, but everyone in this place was a serious hunter. To belong to one of these clubs, you need either the duck hunting lineage that allows you to inherit a membership, or the passion and wealth that gives you the will and the means to pay six-digit buy-in fees.

Nope, not intimidating at all for this refuge rat.

Before we went to sleep that night, I put two boxes of shells in my blind bag and hoped that would be sufficient. We didn't bring enough to shoot much more than that two days in a row.


The next morning, the camp's bell woke Boyfriend and me at 5 a.m. and sent us stumbling from our cabin back into the clubhouse, gratefully lurching toward the coffee pot. My eyes were barely open when Pete introduced me to my host for the day's hunt: Craig Grilione, who owns a pallet company in Hanford.

I gulped down two cups of coffee, and then Craig, his black lab Zap and I were off to the Hollister Club for the morning's hunt. As we navigated a maze of dirt roads in the foggy blackness, Craig told me a little about the club and the blind we'd be hunting, and I went through my little talk I do when I'm hunting with someone I've just met: I'm still pretty new at this, I'm not a great shot yet, I'm pretty conservative - won't take shots I know I'm really bad at, please call the shots, don't hesitate to yell at me if I do anything wrong, feel free to give me advice if any comes to mind...

Yada yada yada - disclosures duly made.

We set up in two sunken barrel-shaped blinds on a little island in the middle of wide open water. This place was paradise for teal.

Some folks would rather shoot mallards because they're big, but I love teal - they're a tasty single-serving duck, and relatively easy to pluck because they're so small. They're also pretty hard to shoot, because they're very fast and good at evasive moves.

I knew this. So it should not have surprised me when a siren signalled the beginning of shoot time, and I promptly began missing every damn shot I took.

BAM! Miss.

Bam BAM! Miss.

Bam bam BAM! Miss.

I was mortified. I'd told Craig I wasn't a great shot, but this was downright embarrassing. I couldn't hit anything.

But Craig was being super nice about it. When he missed, he berated himself loudly for missing an easy shot and turned to me and said, "See, I miss too." It didn't make me feel better about my shooting, and I knew he was just being nice, but I was happy he said it nonetheless. At least I wasn't with an arrogant asshole who'd make me feel stupid.

At one point, I looked down at my ammo supply and saw I was down 17 shells, without a single bird in hand. Not just any shells, but Hevi-Shot, which is ridiculously expensive.

This was like a long losing streak on the dollar slots at the casino when the night is still young. Time to switch to the quarter slots! I closed my box of Hevi-Shot No. 4's and switched to Kent Fasteel No. 2's. It was less shot per shell, but if I was going to piss away ammo all morning, I preferred to piss away cheaper ammo.

We talked a little about my shooting. Craig said he noticed I was shooting a little late, that I seemed to be hesitating.

"I'm not hesitating - I'm trying to get my head down on the stock right," I told him. "If it's not right, I have to adjust before I shoot, or I'm just gonna waste the shot."

"Then you should definitely stand up sooner," he said.

OK, I knew this - just as I know it's important to get your head down on the gun perfectly every time - but there's something about a little reminder that helps.

A group of teal was coming in on my side of the blind, and as my gun was tracking them - my head down on the stock - I detected another group of ducks coming in on a slightly different trajectory, even faster than the teal.

Without thinking, I left the teal, focused on the faster ducks, fired one shot and set a bird tumbling onto the water hard. I mean, it skipped like a rock. As it bounced on the water, my reaction was involuntary: I chortled.

OK, I know laughing is the wrong response when you've just killed something, but it was a really good shot on a really fast bird, and I couldn't help it. And as my first kill of the day, it was a damn good one.

"What is it?" I asked Craig when Zap brought the bird to him.

"Ruddy," Craig said, and I laughed again.

It was just a few days earlier that Boyfriend and I had practically been attacked by a group of ruddies that blew past us so fast we couldn't even mount our guns. Adding insult to injury, a straggler had flown between me and Boyfriend while we were watching the other ruddies' butts speeding away.

I guess I'd gotten my revenge.

I know: Inappropriate thought! I'm just being honest here.

That shot broke my streak of crappy shooting. After that, I hit my usual stride - miss a couple, hit one, miss a couple, hit one. The greenwing teal were stacking up.

Craig and I chatted between shots, and during one such chat session, I saw through the two-foot-high grass in front of me something flying toward me, about a foot and a half off the water. It had a red head. Without saying a word, I just stood and shot, and the duck fell.

Craig was a bit surprised because he hadn't even seen the bird. But he quickly said, "See? That was perfect. You didn't even think. You just did it."

And that, I know, is the one of the keys to successful shooting (which means readers here should understand why it's so hard for me - I over think everything).

When Zap brought in the bird, I saw that I'd gotten my first cinnamon teal drake. He was beautiful, a bird painted in the colors of the Southwest: cinnamon red on the head, neck and shoulders; orange and brown on his back; brilliant flashes of powder blue and green on his wings.

I am in love with vivid colors. I could stare at this bird all day long. Next time I have a room to paint, I am going to paint it in these colors. I looked down at this bird often as the hunt progressed.

As we neared 9 a.m., Craig had gotten his limit of seven birds and I'd gotten six, and the question I'd been trying to avoid thinking about thunked me in the head: Would I finally get my first limit of seven ducks? It was still early, and the birds were still flying pretty hard, so the chances were good...

I took a few more shots and missed. No biggie. Then, again when Craig and I were sitting there talking to each other, I saw two big ducks coming in from behind Craig, almost straight toward me. A perfect shot - I wouldn't have to lead them much at all.

I waited, waited, stood, shot, and down went my seventh bird - a drake gadwall. Craig and I high-fived. I'd done it.

Last time I wrote about wanting to get my first limit, I'd said my motivation was wanting to know that I'm good enough to get seven ducks. Having gone through 42 shells to do it, I'd have to say now that "good enough" wasn't the operative term here, that it had a lot more to do with abundant opportunity. But at least I'd finally broken the barrier.

I think Craig was pretty happy about it too, and I knew why: Just a few weeks ago, I'd taken my friend Hellen on her first hunt, and I was thrilled when she got her first duck: a greenhead. There is something lovely about being the host for such a special occasion.

As Craig and I packed up to head back to the car, he asked if I wanted to go see the clubhouse of the Hollister Club and maybe get breakfast.

"Sure!" I said. I was starving. "And if we take forever, it'll make my boyfriend think I'm not getting my limit. Ha!"

I was right - he did look worried when we finally arrived at the shack where Salinas Club members pluck and dress their birds. I got out of the car and walked toward him, staying behind a Dumpster so he couldn't see what was on my strap.

"How'd you do?" he asked, warily. I could tell he didn't want to do or say anything that would make me feel bad if I hadn't limited.

I couldn't hold it in. "I got my limit!"

He smiled, relieved. "Congratulations!"

"But I screwed it up. I was going to get a limit of all small ducks when this stupid gadwall came in and messed it up, so there's one big fat duck," I said, grinning.

Then Pete came walking up. "Did you get a duck?" he asked.

"No, I got seven," I corrected him, reaching up to give him a big hug.

When I plucked my ducks, I saved that cinnamon teal for last. As I stood with the bird in hand over the Dumpster where hunters plucked, Boyfriend said, "Are you sure you don't want to mount that?"

"Nah," I said, looking at it skeptically.

"Holly, what is your standard for having a duck mounted?"

I looked at the bird again, gazing into the cinnamon and orange. "Hmmmm. Yeah, well, he is really beautiful. Maybe I will... OK."

And so the deal was done. The memory of my first limit would transcend this writing and the photos on my camera's memory card: This bird was going on the wall.


New Year's morning we switched places: Boyfriend hunted with another club member, and I hunted with Pete, this time at the Salinas Club. I didn't go through that same awful streak of bad shots - I just did my usual shooting: miss a few, hit one, miss a few, hit one. But still, the ducks were piling up, and when we had just two to go before reaching our limit, I was a little sad - I didn't want it to be over. But the shooting was just too good - we reached our limits, and headed back to the clubhouse.

Then, when Boyfriend and I finally left the club that afternoon, I experienced something I've never felt in hunting before: I was sated.

Now, I'm always tired after hunting a couple days in a row, but I always want to hunt more, more, more. As we got on I-5 heading north, though, I thought to myself, If someone invited me to go hunting tomorrow, I don't think I could do it. I feel like I've killed enough for the moment.

Even now, as I look out my window and see nice duck weather - rain and gusty winds - I'm fine sitting right here at home.

I'm sure this feeling will pass. But for now, I'm enjoying the feeling of enough.

Craig and Zap with their limit

Me and Boyfriend with my limit

Pete and Meeghan bringing in a Ross's goose

Is this snow goose gizzard really big, or are teal just really small ducks?


Epilogue: Click here to read Boyfriend's take on the hunt, and the massive duckage we brought home.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008