Monday, October 26, 2009

Coming into my own: Why I don't care that I shot like absolute crap on my duck opener

Heading into my fourth season of duck hunting, I've been pretty excited. My shooting's been getting pretty damn good. My confidence is finally rising. I'm growing as a huntress every season, and enjoying everything I learn, whether it's hunting tips or the deep thoughts about why we hunt.

I've set some goals for this duck season: Shoot better. Learn to use the freakin' mallard call, which has been my Achilles heel. Let the ducks get close. Limit out again this year. Get my first double. Get my first wood duck and bufflehead. And take out several new women hunters.

Well, I did one of those things on my opening hunt Sunday, and it wasn't "shoot better." Read more...
Boyfriend and I went to the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge yesterday morning to wait in line for an afternoon hunt - to start the new season right where I'd finished the old one in dramatic style in January.

When my name was finally called to pick a blind, one of my options was Blind 1, which you may remember from last December - it was the place that was so beat down and bereft of cover that it looked like the Bikini Atoll.

"Diane, how's Blind 1 this year?" I asked my favorite check station employee.

"Blind 1's open and nobody's taken it??? Take it!" she said. "They've fixed it - they moved the blind. It's where the birds fly now."

Oooh, bonus points - cover and ducks!

Boyfriend and I got set up there at about 12:30 - the slowest time for ducks - and settled in for the hunt. Place decoys. Pick spots to sit. Wait for ducks. Move decoys. Pick new spots to sit. Wait for ducks.

When we saw callable ducks, I broke out my Wingsetter Raspy Hen.

My friend Sarah let me try this call last March when we were doing the photo shoot for the Cabela's catalog, and I liked it. I could never get the right sound out of most mallard calls, but this one seemed to have just the right tone for me.

For the past month or so, I've been practicing like crazy, quacking along in my car to this great CD my friend Tracey gave me from Zink Calls. It spends minimal time on humans quacking and has lots and lots of real ducks quacking. I like that - I don't want to sound like a human imitating a duck; I want to sound like a duck.

One of the most interesting things about the CD is it shows you the "chuckle" we typically do for a feeding call - tikka tikka tikka dugga dugga dugga - is not what the ducks actually do. What they do actually sounds more like a chicken's clucking, with a quacky twang to it.

So when we saw callable ducks, I put that call to my lips, clucked a few times, did a greeting call or two, and I'll be damned if the ducks didn't look interested.

"How am I sounding?"

"Good!" Boyfriend said. "Much better than last year. I really didn't want you to call then." He wasn't being mean; it was just true.

After a couple tries, the most amazing thing started happening: I was getting ducks to do U-turns. Over and over. Brought 'em in close - not feet-down-for-landing close, but "Hey, how's it goin'? This looks like a fun place to hang out" close, which is often as good as it gets in competitive, crowded refuge shooting. Sometimes Boyfriend didn't even bother calling because I was doing so well.

The only problem was that I was getting all these ducks in range, but when it came time to shoot, I was missing. Over. And over. And over. And over. And over. And over. I fired 12 shots at six birds that were totally shootable and didn't hit one of them. Boyfriend, however, was knocking them dead with immaculate head shots. Like almost every time.

My profanity grew ever more foul and strident each time I missed. I'd killed my first deer ever with a perfect shot the weekend before. Three weekends before, I'd handled myself pretty well on a chukar hunt. And on Labor Day, I was kicking ass with the doves. What the hell happened?

After about the fourth miss, I speculated that I was pulling my head off the gun and started making a conscious effort to keep my cheek down on the stock. After two more misses, I guessed that I needed to wait more patiently to get the muzzle exactly where I needed it in relation to the bird.

Finally, two wigeon came in. Boyfriend took aim at the drake, I at the hen. I fired once and missed. Head down! Focus! Correct, correct, correct - NOW!

BAM! Down, just half a second after Boyfriend brought down the drake.

"Got it!" I shouted victoriously. When I retrieved my bird, she was stone dead - shot to the head. Double bonus. Quick death is always my goal.

I'd fixed my shooting problem, and the great thing was it was 4 p.m. - we still had more than two hours of shoot time.

Unfortunately, though, nothing else came in range that entire time. The entire afternoon flight had taken place over three hours in the middle of the afternoon.

But I was OK with that. Surprisingly OK.

Two years ago, the first time I hunted the opener - also at Delevan, at a blind within shouting distance of where we were Sunday - I got just one duck when the other three guys with me got six or seven apiece, and I was really frustrated.

But when I left with just one duck yesterday, compared with Boyfriend's five, I was surprisingly cheerful. It shouldn't have taken six misses to figure out my shooting problem, but I was grateful to have done it before the last pass of shootable birds.

More importantly, my calling had totally rocked.

There was a time during that afternoon when the birds were circling perfectly in front of Boyfriend but a little too far from me, and I was more than happy just to be getting the ducks to him with my calling. It felt like I had a role in his success. That role was a new one to me, and I liked it.

So why wasn't I beating myself up more about my shooting?

I think I finally figured it out: I'm not a bad shot anymore, like I was when I first started out. I was just having a bad day. It happens to everyone, and it'll probably happen to someone with my experience level more than the veterans. It just happens.

And besides, I'm going out with my friend Hellen next weekend. I'll just try to do better then.

My lone duck - on the left

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


sportingdays said...

Nice strap of ducks.

SimplyOutdoors said...

We all have off days. I wouldn't sweat it, Holly. Make sure you get back out there this weekend with the friend, re-focus, and knock some birds down.

And calling an animal, and doing it well, is an awesome feeling. I don't hunt ducks, but I have just recently started to hunt turkeys, and to be able to call one, and have it respond to your offering is an incredible feeling......even if it's for someone else.

spotted face said...

You'll have the days when it all comes together. You gotta be proud of the calling!

Good luck on your next trip and I'm looking forward to reading about it!

Josh said...

I love the feeling when your skill gets somebody else something! It's happened for me, once, with duck calling, but I've felt it more often with folks fishing flies I've tied them. It's a great feeling to know that somebody believed in you enough to give it a go, and it worked out.

Shewee woman said...

Hey you got one on opening day! And you are right, you probably weren't keeping your head down, I do that all the time on the sporting clays course, people always tell me to lift my elbow, that seems to force your head down Congrats, duck season is finally here!

Holly Heyser said...

I've found the same thing about my elbow - don't understand it, but it helps. That and leaning into the shot, if I can do it without falling over into the marsh - ahhh, that muddy footing.

I was talking to Boyfriend about this yesterday: I spend a lot of my time telling myself not to overthink my shooting, but clearly I was underthinking on Sunday. His suggestion was that I concentrate more next time out to shake out of this, and then let instinctive shooting take over again.

We'll see!

Ben G. said...

I very much enjoy calling in animals it is so much fun when you get a response. I did it with turkeys last spring,and have done it with deer in the past. Good luck next weekend.

Blessed said...

Oh to use a Mallard call... I need a lot more practice :) Sounds like you had a great day!

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, will we now see you in a duck calling contest? I think so.

Anonymous said...


Good work on the Ducks (and nice to get a good spot to boot!)

Hmm...whackin 'em on the Doves and misses on the Ducks? Let's see one's got light loads, few clothes, feet FIRMLY planted on dry ground. What could be more perfect?!!

Ducks=bulky clothes, wader straps, (often) unsure footing and (often again) shooting "backup" next to someone else who's already shot first.

That "Bulky clothes" often has a lot to do with gun fit and keeping the head down. The gun doesn't fit the same as it does with a summer weight shirt on. (Some ppl will even have detatchable recoil pads of different lengths to adjust for this, Lil does on her 870)

On the calling (I consider myself a "better than average" caller) my tip would be, especially around other hunters/callers, keep calling BUT after you've got their attention, use lots of what some call "chops".

These are short, not-too-loud, reassuring calls of ~4 notes of varying cadence, often interspersed with single quacks. What you're trying to do is keep "in touch" with them, reassuring them right WHERE you are, continuously. Otherwise it's too easy for other callers to call them off of you, once you have them on a line coming in.

Up north here, our opener opened with a flurry, then NOTHING! All the "good" Ducks wised up in a hurry and they've been most UNresponsive to calls and decoys (except in a few select places).

But, reports from last Sunday said that ~10 a.m. "fresh birds" (Mallards) possibly from up North, started coming in (and I mean RIGHT in! TO the decoys!)

Our season had a 2 day closure (do to the early Youth opener) and it will reopen on the 28th.

The local public hunt area won't open until Thursday and with 3 days "off", I'm planning to be out there Thursday morning!

Bill C.-Orygun

Jon Roth said...

Holly, this is a great story and a good reminder that some days you're on point with your calling and off with your shot. Other days you sound like a squeaking pig and yet you kill everything in site. It just happens.

In a former life I was a club caller for some butte sink rich-dudes (sounds more glamorous than it was, trust me) and I completely agree with Bill C, "These are short, not-too-loud, reassuring calls of ~4 notes of varying cadence, often interspersed with single quacks. What you're trying to do is keep "in touch" with them, reassuring them right WHERE you are, continuously."

That is spot on. Most people make the mistake of hammering the ducks over and over and over with those ridiculous hale calls when the ducks are turned and on their way to you.

Once you get their attention and you've turned them on the horseshoe then back off and bring the tone down to 3-5 note subtle calls with an occasional single quack. Nice and lazy sounding. If they swing wide then get back on them and hit them a little harder until the turn again, then back off.

I absolutely love calling, it is SO cool to see how you can influence a group of birds with your tone. After enough practice you can really start to mess with them; it's like playing with a cat and a string.

Anyway, great opener, and just remember. Keep pulling the trigger and shoot like you have a sponsor!