Wednesday, April 22, 2009

At the intersection of art and taxidermy: The best skull mount ever

Photo © Fern Benson 2009

Hunting culture is full of clich├ęs: The same old upland photo (broken double gun with shells and dead birds). The same old hunting stories (with a musty whiff of Hemingway). The same old duck hunting painting (a magnificent Lab gazing into eternity while mallards fly in the distance).

But me, I’m always searching for the unusual, and today I saw it. It’s what happens when art meets hunting.

It’s the glass bear skull - a glimmering, surreal artifact of the hunt. And I want one!

OK, full confession here:
My mother, Ruth Heyser, is the artist, and I’ve been watching her work on this skull, commissioned by Michael Riddle of Native Hunt Enterprises, since February. Today was the day she delivered it to Michael.

Here’s how it came about: My mom has been an artist for ages, but she’s always evolving and trying new media. She’s especially fond of things most of us would consider trash. I mean, she goes berserk over an interestingly shaped hunk of rusty metal.

Earlier this year, she got it in her head that she wanted to decorate a skull in broken glass, so she chose one of the zillions of skulls we tend to collect (in this case, the skull of a domestic pig she and my dad had slaughtered), scooped up some broken car-window safety glass and got to work.

She brought it to me in January and I was blown away. “Mom, I bet hunters would LOVE to have something like that,” I told her.

So I emailed a picture of that pig to Michael – a veteran hunter and operator of several hunt properties around Central California – and asked him what he thought.

His reaction was much like mine: He wanted one!

A few weeks later, he sent Mom a bear skull he’d been keeping – it was from a 10-year-old California black bear sow he’d killed in Plumas County back in 2000. And then Mom went to work: Finding the right glass, meticulously cleaning and sorting through the pieces with tweezers and gluing them to the skull, one at a time, piecing glass fragments together like a mosaic. It took about eight weeks.

And man, was it worth it.

You know how a car windshield looks when it’s been smacked hard and cracked through and through, but it’s still holding together? Imagine that wrapped around the contours of a bear skull – like all the pieces were meant to fit together.

It is gorgeous.

It’s the kind of thing you could imagine finding in an old, long-hidden cave – a glimpse into a culture that reveres the animals it hunts. Or perhaps the subject of a mystery novel. Or something you’d see in a museum.

“It adds a whole new dimension to doing a skull mount,” Michael told me today after Mom delivered it.

And for me, it adds another dimension to my life: one in which my mom's world of art intersects with my world of hunting.

If you're interested in commissioning a glass skull, contact me by clicking here and I can provide more information.

Postscript for anyone trying to comment: For some reason, if you click on "Read more" above, the link to "comments" that's usually at the end of each post disappears (at least on my computer). If you're trying to comment, just go back up and click on the headline and that should take you to a version that allows you to chime in.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Disappointing news from the blogosphere

I was disappointed to learn today that Field & Stream is spiking its FS Huntress blog at the end of the month.

When I started this blog a year and a half ago, Kim and Marian were the big kids on the block - my role models as women-hunter-bloggers.

And while there are a lot more huntress bloggers on the Internet now, Kim's blog still stands out because it's a Field & Stream blog - it shows that one of the most venerable hunting magazines around thinks the voice of women hunters matters.

Knowing the media business as I do, I try not to read too much into layoffs and buyouts and all the other stuff that's going on now. This economy has sent ad revenues into the toilet, across the board, and when that happens, you have to cut costs. Generally, it's not personal - it's just business.

I can't help but wince, though, when it's the lone women's blog that gets whacked.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Sunday, April 19, 2009

That's some funny camo she's wearing

See, folks? You really don't need all that expensive camo to get a turkey!

What's the story behind this? Boy meets girl. Boy and girl go on hunting adventures together. Boy and girl decide to get married. Boy and girl marry in Jamaica, but time it so they can get back to Tennessee for the start of turkey season. Girl gets turkey.

To read the complete story from the Knoxville News Sentinel, click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Women's hunting clothes one year later: Well worn, or worn out their welcome?

I love reviewing hunting clothes, because it's a great excuse to get new hunting clothes. They are positively glorious when you lift them from the box with that new-clothes smell, no burrs permanently tangled in them, none of the threads strained from use (or weight gain).

But what about when they're a year old? Are they like the bunny you gave your kid for Easter - no longer cute, and crapping all over the place? Or are they like your best hunting dog - a trusted and reliable friend you'll keep and love until his dying day?

I haven't gotten any new clothes for review lately (has something to do with missing the SHOT Show because of that stupid appendectomy), but I thought it would be worth revisiting the clothes I've gotten so far to tell you how they've held up after going from preliminary field testing to normal rigorous use.


What I thought then: When I tested these last year, I liked them, but I found SHE Safari brush pants protected me better when plowing through thorny brush, so I gave my chaps to a friend. Then I gained a little weight, and the SHE Safari pants didn't fit anymore, and I really wished I had my chaps - because of the cut and generous sizing, they aren't rendered useless by a couple irritating pounds. I put them on my Christmas wish list, and now I've gotten the chance to wear them on two pheasant hunts.

Click here for the original review.

What I think now: Love 'em. Great protection against morning dew. Easy to use. They turn any pair of pants into hunting pants.

The friend who got my first pair also loves them. After years of wearing the Filson's men's chaps, she loves having chaps that fit her body, and she finds these to be a bit more supple than the men's chaps.

See "SHE Safari brush pants" below for a comparison of functionality.

Click here to go to Filson's website.


What I thought then: When I first saw this outfit, I fell in love with Foxy's custom camo pattern - it's gorgeous. I wear Foxy Huntress camo to school all the time because it's classy - doesn't make me look like a hick. And of course, it's great for hunting too: My friend Sarah borrowed this outfit when we went turkey hunting a couple weeks ago, and she blended in with the spring foliage beautifully.

I was also really wowed by the hood on the jacket - it's got a face net that zips across the opening of the hood, so you can get excellent concealment, not to mention mosquito-proofing.

Click here for my original pants review, here for my run-down of the jacket and here for the story of my first hunt in the outfit.

What I think now: The outfit has worn well, even though I've popped it in the washing machine instead of handwashing as recommended. The quality of construction is great.

I've noticed two weaknesses, though.

First, the outfit is billed as water resistant, but I've worn the jacket a couple times in the rain and found that it didn't really resist very hard - I had dampness coming through. My standard of resistance is the jackets I wear duck hunting, and this doesn't come close. But in a light rain, it would be fine.

Second, the netted hood can be a blessing and a curse. With black netting over your face, your pre-sunrise world stays dark a little longer than everyone else's. And sometimes hoods just don't move with your head, which means the fabric can get in front of your eye and interfere with your sight picture. This is not a function of Foxy's hood, but any hood. It's not a fatal flaw because you always have the option of not wearing the hood. But it's something to be aware of.

Click here to go to the Foxy Huntress website.


What I thought then: What I loved most about the pants was that they were super comfortable. They're the kind of pants you don't think about when you're wearing them.

The best part was the pleated knees, which allow you to kneel without the fabric binding your kneecaps. They're brilliant.

But other highlights were quiet fabric and quiet magnetic closures on pockets.

The biggest flaw I spotted at the time was the absence of side belt loops, which I really needed to keep these low-waisted pants up and holding snugly to my small waist.

Click here for my initial review of the pants.

And the shirt? What's not to love. It's athletic, made of wicking fabric. Basically, a running shirt in camo, with thumbholes in the end of the sleeve so you can hook your thumb through them to keep the fabric taut, which I'm told is good for archers. Click here for my initial assessment.

What I think now: The shirt remains my hands-down favorite camo shirt, great for warm-weather hunting when you need to stay cool. The pants have also held up well - no problems with construction at all, and the features I loved at first sight are still lovely to me now.

But I did learn that they're not the best choice for hunting in the high, dry grass where I do my pig hunting, because foxtails go right through the fabric. After sitting in such grass on a pig hunt last summer, I wound up with underwear full of foxtails. Fun times!

Click here to go to the Prois website.


What I thought then: Yeah, these were the pants I gave away after I gained a little weight (see "Filson chaps" above). When I got them, I really liked them because the waxcloth portion of the pants provided excellent protection against thorns - I literally walked into blackberry vines and came out in good shape. I also liked the fact that they were really flattering. Click here for original pants review.

I never reviewed the shirt (it's a right-handed shooting shirt and I shoot lefty), but it's an attractive item that I wear to school a lot. Boyfriend says it makes me look very military. Oh well.

Both are made of a lightweight breathable cotton.

What I think now: The reason I've mentioned the shirt here when I didn't review it originally is because it's lost two buttons, one of them coming off during one of the earliest washings. I hate it when buttons come off right away. But it's still a gorgeous shirt that I wear all the time.

My friend who inherited the pants loves them because of their comfort and function. But having hunted with her in high wet grass, I can tell you that my chaps provide protection much higher up the leg, particularly in the back, where the waxcloth stops at the knee.

Filson chaps v. SHE brush pants: Which do I like better? For warm-weather, dry hunting, I'd pick the SHE Safari pants because the Filson chaps aren't breathable - if it's hot (like it was when I first tested them), you'll sweat like crazy. But for cool-weather hunting, I'd definitely choose the chaps - better all-around protection against moisture and excellent wind-proofing. And in terms of bang for the buck, I think the chaps will last longer.

Click here to go to SHE Outdoor Apparel, which is the company's new name.


What I thought then: I immediately fell in love with this vest because it was functional, and it was, and still is, the only women's upland vest I've seen that actually highlights the feminine form. That's saying a lot for a garment designed to hold dead animals in the back pocket.

There were many features I liked, including front pockets with flip-out shell pouches.

Click here to read the original vest preview.

What I think now: I still love this vest and wouldn't consider trading it for another.

But the first time I took it hunting, I put a pheasant in the back and later found that blood had soaked through the nylon lining and gotten on my pants. Since then, the company has treated the liner to prevent that problem.

And one feature I thought I'd love has turned out to be of minimal use to me: The flip-out shell pouches. They look nifty, but in reality, I'd rather just throw my shells in the pocket and grab them without worrying about having them lined up perfectly in their own sleeves. I'll probably cut off the shell pouch entirely, because if I'm not using it, it gets in the way.

Click here to go to SHE Outdoor Apparel.


What I thought then: I've had this outfit only since fall, but I wanted to include it here anyway. What initially appealed to me about this outfit was the fact that the pants had a "double fly" - a second fly you can open to - ahem - pee without having to pull your pants all the way down. (Click on the photo here to get a closeup.) That's a nice feature in cold weather.

I also loved the fact that these pants aren't low-waisted - the waist is exactly where I want it to be, and it's not binding at all because it has an elastic waistband, with beltloops so you can still belt them up.

But I worried that the outfit wouldn't be too useful to me because it's fleece, and I do a lot of my hunting in warm weather. Deer season in much of the state ends in mid-October, which is still quite balmy here.

Click here for my original preview and here for the story of my first hunt in them.

What I think now: I wore this outfit on one deer hunt in October and two spring turkey hunts this month, and I love it. I've really grown to appreciate the pullover jacket, which I didn't write about very much last spring. One feature I really like is that the back hangs down longer than the front, so when you're sitting, it still covers your backside. You don't have to worry about your skin being exposed. Nice in the winter, but also nice in spring when you're hunting turkeys in an oak woodland, and you don't want ticks dive-bombing into your underwear.

The hood is lovely. It does have the same issue most hoods have - it doesn't always move with your head, meaning the hood can get in front of an eye and interfere with your sight picture. But the nylon lining moves easily over head and hat, so shifting the hood isn't difficult.

The fleece is wind-resistant and super comfortable. But it does do what fleece will do: It pills, and it attracts burrs.

And that double fly - would you believe I haven't used it yet? I tried once, but I was ... blocked. Apparently I was very well potty trained as a child, so I find it difficult to pee with my pants up. But I suspect if it was really cold outside and I didn't want to expose myself, I'd be grateful for the opportunity the double fly affords.

And about my biggest fear - wearing these pants in warm weather: When I wore these turkey hunting in Napa last weekend, when it was nice and warm, I was perfectly comfortable in shade. But yeah, walking around in the sun in fleece was uncomfortable. But, duh, you'd pretty much expect that, wouldn't you?

Click here to go the Trailfeathers website. And if you want to see owner Wendy Butler's recent appearance on a Vermont TV station, click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, April 13, 2009

Most evil turkey on earth lives in Napa

Boyfriend and I were back in Napa this weekend to see if we could help our vineyard-owning friends by taking out a few of the turkeys that chomp on their grapes.

Boyfriend had a cool head about the whole thing. He is all about fishing and pig hunting right now. Bird, no bird? Whatever.

But me? I was filled with that insane optimism turkey hunters get, where we succumb to the naive belief held by non-hunters that just because we can see the birds means we should actually be able to shoot one of them.

So, here's how it went:
5:45 a.m.: We walk up the hill from our guest room and set up. Boyfriend is at the base of the oak woodland next to the vineyard, maybe 100 yards below where the birds were roosting last time. He's in a little grassy depression, his back against a giant oak trunk.

I head into the woods 100 yards above the roost tree.

It should be pretty light outside because of the moon, but there is a fog clinging to the hillside - and keeping the forest floor damp and quiet. I'm grateful for that. Still, I hopscotch across rocks to avoid crunching leaves, and pirouette around the dim shadows of poison oak, which has been the bane of my outdoor life.

I find the perfect place: A tree to back up to, and in front of it, another tree that has fallen, leaving a little hollow spot for me, and a quiet place to set my feet up.

In minutes, we are rewarded with the sound of gobbling from the roost tree.

We begin to share, 200 yards apart, the joy of the woods waking up.

8:07 a.m.: Boyfriend texts me. "They seem to b gone."

Crap. I was hoping my experience with Sarah two weeks earlier had been an anomaly, but apparently, this was their pattern: They fly out of the roost tree straight to another piece of property. We can hear the gobbling dimly, but neither of us has seen one.

I text back: "I'm gonna walk around up here for a bit."

I go out on the open hillside next to the woods. I climb rock formations. I spy a hidden bed of cala lilies - just in time for Easter - and drop down for a closer look. I hear gobbling again - maybe on the property, maybe not - and head back into my delicious spot in the woods.

8:49 a.m.: Boyfriend texts me: "I am about done."

Ooooooh, I hate giving up early. But he's already thinking about the dinner he's going to prepare for our hosts. Or maybe he's just desperate for a cup of coffee.

I look around. I twist my neck around stretching it. I see a turkey 50 yards in front of me, behind some brush. I have just been moving! It looks my way for a second - not revealing whether it has the requisite beard - and drops behind a low rise.

I text Boyfriend: "I see 1."

Could this be a lone tom looking for the hen I'd been imitating periodically? I hit the call, to see if I can bring him over that rise.

Two shapes move near me, closer and closer. They are quail. Fat little yummy out-of-season quail. They meander through the woods about 10 feet from me, never realizing what I am. Brilliant camo!

But the turkey doesn't show.

Boyfriend has given up and is drinking coffee by now. I concede defeat as well and leave the woods to head down the hill. Where I see the turkey. Two hundred yards away. Really close to where boyfriend had been.

10:16 a.m. I text him from the top of the hill: "(Bleep)(Bleep) is at the seed pile!"

"Kill him," he texts back.

But there was no way. Chasing turkeys has been a losing proposition for me. I keep an eye out for him on the way back to the house, and head in for breakfast. During which we hear incessant gobbling.

12:15 p.m.: "I'm going to go out again," I tell Boyfriend and my hosts. "Just to make a quick sweep."

I head up the dirt road, and as I come over a rise, I see a turkey trotting away from me, about 20 yards away. It's not stopping to show me whether it has a beard. Dammit!

He - I'm sure it's a he, and I'm sure it's the same apparition, the same lone bird I saw in the woods earlier - heads up a tiny creek bed, where I quickly lose sight of him. Meanwhile, I hear gobbling elsewhere so I continue with my walk.

Then I decided to go back to that creek bed. I've heard that spooked turkeys will eventually come back. I set up under a tree in the creek bed. It is a funnel. If he comes back, he'll have to come past me. I think.

The breeze is lovely. I look up the hill on the opposite bank of the creek and see blue sky over the stone wall topped by deer fence that lines the property. I entertain fantasies of seeing the turkey fly over that wall and shooting him like a duck.

Forty-five minutes pass. Dinner guests will be arriving soon. I need to pack it in.

I walk up hill from the creek bed and squat briefly in the shade of an olive tree to take one last look around. Three hawks are circling low overhead. I gaze up at them. Another one swoops in from behind me, flying really low, toward the vineyard.

That's when I see.

It's the turkey.

Getting farther and farther away.


© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Friday, April 10, 2009

At last, at long last, a rifle of my own!

It was a beautiful Friday afternoon. After several days of rain, the clouds were clearing. The sun was sinking toward the horizon. I'd run my last work errand for the day, and I was on my way home. In short, I was feeling good.

As I approached the turn into my neighborhood, I thought to myself, "Why not keep going?"

You know you've had that feeling. Screw routine - you're ready to do anything.

So I did. I kept driving all the way to Wild Sports - my local hook-n-bullet store - and I bought my first rifle. Read more...
Well, that's sort of a lie. My first rifle was a family heirloom I inherited after my dad died. An 1896 Krag - a pristine one. It's a shame that was my first rifle, because the action on that thing is like butter, and it spoiled me, and I don't think there's a modern rifle that can hold a candle to it.

But it shoots like crap - nothing I can hunt with.

So I've borrowed Boyfriend's rifle - a .270 Remington 700 - for all the big game hunts I've done, and while it's lovely that he's shared it with me, I've always wanted my own damn rifle.

I kinda had an idea what I wanted when I sauntered into Wild Sports - yeah, I'm buying a gun, baby! - but I really wanted to check out my options, which are limited because I'm a tough customer.

I ticked off my issues to the guy behind the counter: "I'm right handed, but I'm left-eyed. I could probably shoot either way, but I have arthritis bad in my right index finger, so I'll get more shooting years if I shoot left-handed. But my right hand has more strength..."

The guy sized me up. "You're a real mess, aren't you?"

"Yep," I said.

"Yeah, me too," he said, proceeding to list all of his problems. Now we're talkin'!

Up to this point, I'd had my eye on a Savage 114 Classic in .270 Win, left-handed model. But you can wait a long time for a lefty model, so I was open to new ideas. All I had decided for sure was that I wanted a .270, because that's a caliber that can handle the game I'm most likely to hunt - pig, deer, maybe an elk someday.

He showed me the right-handed Savage 114 - and demonstrated how it wouldn't be so tough to pull the trigger with my left hand and work the bolt with my right. And the safety, he pointed out, was in the center.

I liked it. My right hand's better with the bolt anyway.

"Show me more," I said.

He handed me the Remington 700. "I don't know if I have it in the left-handed model," he said.

"I don't care," I told him. "My boyfriend has a Remington 700. I don't want the same gun as my boyfriend."

Besides, I remembered that incredibly loud safety that spooked the biggest buck ever before I could even get a look at him.

He understood completely.

Next, he pulled down the Tikka T3. Nice action. Too light - recoil would kill me. But my gunsmith could drop some lead in the stock to take care of that (yeah, I'd already talked to him).

But the safety for the Tikka was on the right, and that just wouldn't fly with left-handed shooting. I handed it back.

He showed me a couple more, but none of them felt as good as the Savage did.

I engaged him in a conversation about what makes the Savage good and why the Tikka, for example, might be considered a better gun. He talked to me about bolt construction and a bunch of stuff that I comprehended at least halfway. He told me about the biggest flaw in the Savage - something about a pin in the bolt - and that it was something that would potentially be an issue with high-volume shooting. Way higher volume than I'd be shooting.

"I'll take the Savage," I said with a big fat grin on my face. Perfect. I could shoot left-handed. My strongest hand could work the bolt on the right. My strongest index finger could work the trigger on the left. Safety was in a neutral position. Weight was good. Length was good. Everyone I know who's ever owned a Savage has raved about them. Deal done.

"How about scopes?" I asked. "Can you install them here?"

Why, yes, they could.

I'd been contemplating a Leupold VX II - 3-9x40, just fine for the distances I'm willing to shoot at this stage of the game. That's what Boyfriend has on his rifle, and in this case, I didn't mind mimicking him.

"But is there a way to adjust this control?" I said, pointing to the magnification thingie. It is so damn stiff on the Leupold that my stupid arthritic hand can barely move it. That caused me a lot of problems pig hunting last summer, trying to move from high magnification to lower magnification to locate the animal in my sights.

"Maybe you could send it back to the factory..." he said.

Oh no. I'm not in the mood for that.

"What do you have with something a little easier to move?"

He pulled out the Bushnell Elite series scope. I held it up and checked out the guy walking up way down the gun counter. No, not that kind of checking out - he wasn't hot. He was a filthy-T-shirt-wearing-guy going to the gun counter.

I zoomed in and out. Much better. Like my camera. Not like opening a jar Boyfriend has screwed shut so tightly that it would survive nuclear impact.

"I like this one," I said.

Yeah, I know Leupold is better. But that doesn't do me one bit of good if I can't work the thing properly, so I got the Bushnell and saved a bundle of money too.

All that was left to do was pay the man (damn, I did not get in under four figures), and go through all that background check stuff, telling them, and initialling, and signing seventeen times, that I had never been convicted of a felony and I was not defective in any way. And giving them my thumb print.


Except I have to wait 11 days to get my gun, because California wants to make sure I'm not going to go out and kill some pig in anger.

Oh well. That gives me something to blog about on April 21.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Thursday, April 9, 2009

A surprising turkey hunting tip from a pro

What do you mean, "Pro?"

Oh, you thought I was talking about myself? Don't be silly.

After my failed turkey hunt last week with my friend Sarah, I asked National Wild Turkey Federation Regional Biologist Ryan Mathis to review my story and tell me what I did wrong. Here's what he told me: Read more...
Ditch the decoys.

Really? But people seem so obsessed with decoys!


"I gave up on decoys several years ago for many reasons, but I will list a few important ones," he wrote.

1. If you're focused on setting up a decoy, you can lose focus on staying concealed and the birds will bust you. "We want to put the decoys in an area where the turkey will see it, but if the birds are close they end up seeing you putting it up," he said.

2. Mature gobblers like the hen to come to them (oh boy, I can hear the jokes now). Point being, that tom may see your decoy and strut just out of range waiting for that big hunk o' plastic to come to him.

3. Having no decoy out keeps the birds guessing about where that seductive-sounding hen is. If the gobbler thinks he's close to her, he'll start strutting where he thinks she can see him. Only, oops, that sound he hears isn't a hen.

4. Safety. Back when Ryan used decoys, people would stalk them all the time - especially on public lands. Even though they were hen decoys. Doh!

Funny, the first and only time I got a turkey, it was without a decoy. Every time I've used them since, I've wondered if they were worth the irritation of hauling them around.

So I'm kinda glad Ryan think's they're not worth it, because that makes this weekend's hunt a little simpler for me. Now all I have to do is get a turkey.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring turkey hunting's unexpected peril

So we've all heard about the need for caution in turkey hunting, how sometimes idiots will shoot at the sound of a turkey and belatedly find out it is (or was) a hunter?

Well, apparently when you hunt public lands in certain parts of California, you also have to watch out for pot growers, who have been known to protect their crop with firearms.

Lake County Record-Bee outdoors columnist Terry Knight published a column on the topic last night.

On Saturday, I went along with a friend to check out an area for turkeys near the Cow Mountain Recreation Area. As we drove into the area we planned on hunting, we met several men and women in two cars who were out observing rare plants. They told us they had spotted four individuals dressed in camouflage who were armed. Also, they were carrying supplies and tools into a deep canyon. They said the individuals had a makeshift camp nearby.

We proceeded into the area and found two tents hidden in a grove of trees. Around the camp were tools and debris, but no people. We immediately left the area and reported it to law enforcement officials in both Mendocino and Lake counties. The individuals obviously had a garden nearby.

For those of you who don't live in California, you may think that sounds a bit paranoid. But if you live anywhere near this state's Emerald Triangle, you hear about this stuff all the time, and pretty much everyone knows you need to tread cautiously in the national forests.

In fact, my family lives in a pot-growing county, and one of our neighbors who was just a harmless old hippie was murdered some years back when the neighborhood pot grower - who also happened to be batshit crazy - shot him in the back of the head.

And last week, one of my friends who's a guide told me he's been shot at twice while turkey hunting, once "by a pot farm thug."

Makes me very happy to hunt turkeys on private property! Which I'll be doing again this weekend...

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Urban reporter meets urban hunter

I'm still trying to decide what I think about this piece I saw in the Detroit News today about a man who hunts and eats (and sells) raccoons in Detroit.

The story was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Charlie LeDuff, who has a series called "Travels with Charlie" (which I'm guessing is is a riff off of John Steinbeck's book, "Travels with Charley").

Personally, I think people who hunt for food are resourceful folks who deserve a little respect. And the subject of this story, Glemie Dean Beasley - a.k.a. "Coon Man" - definitely has his head on straight about the problem with industrial food production in America:

"Coon or rabbit. God put them there to eat. When men get hold of animals he blows them up and then he blows up. Fill 'em so full of chemicals and steroids it ruins the people. It makes them sick. Like the pigs on the farm. They's 3 months old and weighing 400 pounds. They's all blowed up. And the chil'ren who eat it, they's all blowed up. Don't make no sense."

But I can't shake the feeling that the reporter is just having a lot of fun at Beasley's expense - especially when I click on the video and watch him clowning around, dropping into a black Southern drawl (which you might remember earned Hillary Clinton a lot of heat during the primary last year) and even donning a coonskin cap at the end.

Maybe it's all innocent. Maybe I'm just overreacting because it reminds me of how I felt when I lived in Virginia and I'd read stories in the Washington Post about the South. The subtext was almost always, Oh look at these quaint little Southerners!

Or maybe it's my personal rebellion against writers' propensity to disparage those who don't use the English language as cleanly as we do. I really hate that - good grammar doesn't make you smart, and bad grammar certainly doesn't make you stupid.

I guess overall I'm glad the story was written because I'm fascinated to know people like Coon Man exist in a city like Detroit. But I guess I just think they deserve a little more respect.

What do you think, folks?

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Turkey hunting: 'Like shooting pet dogs'

Hunt? How hard is that? Wild turkeys are an introduced pest species. You can see them crossing the Pole Line Road by the cemetery in Davis, and a friend of mine in the foothills has a whole flock that infest his wooded yard. What kind of sport is that? It's like shooting pet dogs.

I knew I'd get a comment like that when I wrote that article about spring turkey hunting for the Sacramento Bee last month. When non-hunters can see wild turkeys pretty much every time they drive within a mile of any lake, river or creek, it's easy to understand how they'd get the impression that turkey hunting is easy. I mean, the birds are just sitting right there!

And even I have to admit my first turkey kill was pretty easy: I parked my butt up against an oak tree in a little woodland area next to a Napa vineyard, and when a turkey just happened to stroll by at at sunrise about 20 yards from me - no calling needed! - I popped him. Done.

I know, though, that I was just lucky.

Read more...When I did the reporting for that Bee story, I saw the stats: Hunters in California bag just one turkey for every five hunt days in the spring season. And I'd come home empty-handed from my other three turkey hunts, so I was doing only slightly better than the average.

Nevertheless, it was with great hope that I returned to that Napa vineyard this week with my friend Sarah. Spring turkey season started Saturday, and considering this was private property with no other hunting pressure, I thought this would be a good chance to help Sarah bag her first turkey, which would of course make me look like a brilliant and great friend.

We pulled in around lunchtime yesterday, ablaze with optimism after a glorious drive through America's best-known wine country. It was a warm and breezy spring day, and the vineyards were just beginning to leaf out, lighting up miles and miles of twisted brown vines with sparkles of bright green.

Our dream? Hunt the afternoon, kill one turkey apiece, have a nice dinner in downtown Napa, then get up and do it again in the morning. We unloaded our gear in the guest room, wolfed down a quick snack, suited up and headed out, stopping by the owner's office to say hi.

When he looked up from his desk, he guffawed.

Sarah and I were dressed for turkey hunting, which is to say, we looked like leafy green commandos. He didn't have to say a word - I could see it in his eyes: Overkill! Like the end of the Blues Brothers movie, where legions of SWAT teams swarm on the building where Jake and Elwood have gone to pay the church's property tax bill. Hut! Hut! Hut! Hut! Hut!

I laughed back. I know it looks goofy. But if you want to get a turkey within 20 yards of where you sit, you've pretty much got to be invisible.

He wished us luck, and up the hill we went.

And of course, as soon as we turned up the dirt road that separates the hillside vineyard from the adjacent oak woodland, we saw turkeys. Three of them, about 80 yards away at the edge of the woods.

Sarah and I fell back. The turkeys weren't spooked, so we figured we'd try to lure them back. We quickly set up some decoys. Sarah sat with her back to a rock, knees up, gun ready. I hit the box call.

The turkeys ignored us and continued meandering through the woods until finally we couldn't see them anymore.

Hmmm. Not what I wanted, but at least they weren't running away. I'd played that game with turkeys before, and I'd always lost.

"Let's move up near the water tanks," I whispered to Sarah, pointing up the hill. That's where I'd bagged my bird last spring.

We decided to ditch the decoys because they hadn't done us much good, then hiked up the hill, sweating profusely in our hooded jackets. We stepped into the woods where we spotted a depression that would hold us nicely, sat and waited to see if the turkeys would wander our way.

We could hear them scratching through the leaves just over a small rise in front of us, but they weren't coming closer. Plagued by doubt, I decided I should get the decoys and see if calling might help, so I hiked down the hill and back up.

Wow, am I am pudgy and out of shape!

I tore off my jacket so I could cool off and took a couple decoys 20 yards in front of us. As I was stabbing a stake into the ground, I saw the turkeys another 30 yards away.

My hand flew to my mouth. On my left I could see Sarah, a sinister green assassin, stiffen as she realized what I was seeing. On my right, I saw the turkeys stiffen as well, looking my way to assess whether I was a threat.

Considering I did not have my gun, and I could not see whether any of them had beards, I was not. But we all stood stock still, the turkeys and I, staring at each other for a good five minutes until they moved on, leaving me to sink to the earth and slink back to my spot.

We could still hear the turkeys scratching just over that rise. And at one point we could hear a small scuffle. But after about a while, we saw them about 80 yards down the hill. Back where we'd set up against that rock.

It was now 30 minutes until shoot time ended. We decided to call it quits.

Until we saw them on the dirt road at the bottom of the vineyard down the hill.

Ah ha! This was our new plan: Sarah would go back into the woods and set up, and I would loop around the other side of the vineyard and try to push them back up into the woods.

It didn't work. Apparently, I just pushed them further down the hill.

OK, fine. We went back to our guest room and spent the next few hours on the cool patio, noshing on crackers, cheese, salami and pinot noir while redwing blackbirds swirled around us and lizards did pushups on the top of the patio wall.

As the sun was starting to set, we noticed a good dozen vultures circling over a nearby hill.

"Sometimes vultures circle over turkeys," I told Sarah.

"Wanna go for a walk?" she asked

Back up the hill we went. It was cooler this time, but we were weighed down by the bottle of wine that had pretty much poured itself down our throats.

When we turned up the road next to the woods, we saw the turkeys again, in the exact same place where we'd first spotted them. I watched them through binoculars, hoping to spot a beard. Was that a nub? Maybe just one?

Then one by one, they lifted up and flew to one of the tallest oaks in the woods.

I beamed at Sarah. "Good! We know where they're roosting!" I said. And we began to craft our plans for the morning.


At 6 a.m., we set up in separate spots - me in the woods, uphill from the roost tree, Sarah at the bottom edge of the vineyard, which was sporting a dense cover of wheat, peas, vetch, mustard and fiddleneck between rows of vines. Both spots were within shooting distance of places where we'd seen the birds.

We heard gobbling in the trees immediately. Thirty minutes later, we heard birds start to fly down, one by one. And then we heard the gobbling growing ever fainter as the turkeys moved down the hill, away from both of us, and off the property where we had the right to hunt.

We hoped they might come back, and we were willing to stick it out for a while. But at 9:38 a.m., Sarah sent me a text message: "Someone is weed whacking just in front of me."

Crap. The wildlife had left, and the daytime denizens of the vineyard were back. It was over.

We packed up and said good-bye to the owner as we walked out the door.

"You know what I think your problem is?" he asked. "Too much camo. I walk around like this," he said, tugging at his floral Hawaiian-style shirt, "and they don't pay any attention - they're in the driveway, on the deck."

We sighed. If only it were that easy.

Is it any wonder I love duck hunting?

© Holly A. Heyser 2009