Wednesday, November 25, 2009

'Lift' - why you need to read this book

Whenever Boyfriend and I throw parties, we always have an odd mix of guests from the various worlds we inhabit: There are reporters and editors, foodies, academics, political people and hunters.

I tend to introduce folks to one another by identifying which group (or groups) they come from, and I can tell you no guest turns more heads than Rebecca O'Connor. "She hunts ducks with falcons," I tell people. Once I've said that, it doesn't matter which group they belong to; they all want to hear what Rebecca has to say.

And who wouldn't be fascinated by a woman who can somehow bend a raptor's will, persuading the epitome of free spirit to become a willing hunting partner?

In the abstract, it sounds incredibly romantic. But Rebecca's new memoir, Lift roots falconry in vivid reality.

I am, of course, a sucker for honesty, and Rebecca hooked me with the opening lines:

I should kill the duck. I know how to do it. A master falconer showed me with a deft hand. He split the skin where the leg meets the body and with his finger hooked, jammed it inside and found the heart. It dislodged with no sound and laid beating in his palm He offered it with an open hand to my falcon who took it with dainty bites while the duck stilled.

Wow. Hardcore.

But that's the world we inhabit, isn't it? Whether we kill animals with the aid of falcons or guns, or simply delegate our killing to some third party, as most of the meat-eaters in this nation do, this is the reality of our position in the food chain. Death is never pretty.

(There is, by the way, a legitimate reason for this gruesome method some falconers use to finish off the bird. If you'd like to read the rest of the prologue and get a taste for Rebecca's writing, click here and scroll down to the prologue link. Be patient - it takes a while to load, even with a high-speed connection.)

This brand of honesty fills the pages of "Lift," where Rebecca's story of a childhood marred by abandonment - and punctuated by a yearning for approval - is intertwined with the saga of training and hunting with Anakin, her first peregrine falcon. On her own terms, no one else's.

"Lift" doesn't necessarily make me want to take up falconry. A gun is way more effective at filling the freezer, and my gun isn't prone to flying away and forcing me to track it down. (I texted Rebecca while I was in the middle of the book and she asked, "How many times has Anakin flown away so far?")

But that's not the point. This book gave me riveting insight into a tiny but fascinating subset of hunting culture, and it makes me more determined to join Rebecca on a hunt this season so I can personally witness the ancient dance between falcon and falconer.

For any hunter who's interested in looking beyond the confines of his or her world, reading this book is a no-brainer. Buy it. You won't regret it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

I love wearing make-up in the blind

What, you didn't think I meant Revlon, did you?

Yeah, I've totally embraced camo face paint this year. I got tired of wearing balaclavas when the weather's perfectly nice, which it is basically the first half of duck season in California. Read more...
So, what do I use? Hunter's Specialties Camo Creme Makeup.

Goes on easy. Doesn't smear too much once it dries (but yeah, it rubs off a bit). Smells like crayons. Doesn't give me a rash. It is oil-based, but I haven't had a problem with that.

In short, it's the first and only camo face paint I've ever bought, and it doesn't suck. There's my ringing endorsement!

But here's the more important question: How do I get that stuff off at the end of the hunt so I don't look like a commando when I go to Burger King (or more importantly, Granzella's)?

The product description said it would come off with soap and water, but there pretty much isn't either at the places where I hunt ducks. Hell, I'm lucky to find a portapotty that doesn't make me want to hurl.

So here's where I get a little girlie: I use Almay Moisturizing Eye Makeup Remover Gel. If you rub a little of that into the face paint to loosen it up, it comes off really easily with a baby wipe. (That's actually what I'm doing in the photo above.)

It doesn't smell. It's not greasy. And it works.

Of course, it's no substitute for hot water, soap and a washcloth, which you'll want to use eventually, unless you enjoy clogged pores. But it's good enough to make you presentable in public.

Thank you for reading this far. This post was just an excuse to use that photo, which I think is hilarious. Thanks to my friend David for snapping it when we hunted at Delevan the other day. He was deeply amused by my whole makeup ritual.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Getting my goose: Cazadora's Curse

Boom! Boom boom!

A specklebelly goose fell into the water 20 yards ahead of me and David, belly up, feet bicycling. It was a glorious event in what had otherwise been a very slow Sunday at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. It was Nov. 15, the heart of the doldrums, but what we had in front of us was one of the best-eating birds on the planet, the speck, a.k.a., "Ribeye in the Sky."

Good shot, I thought. But was it mine?

I don't know what it is about me and geese at Delevan. I can shoot the little buggers. But I never seem to be able to close the deal by myself. And honestly, it bugs me. Read more...
My first goose was a spectacular example of this: I was hunting with Boyfriend at Delevan in January 2007 - near the end of my first season. Someone in a neighboring blind shot at a snow goose and hit it, but not hard enough. The bird locked its wings and, unfortunately for it, sailed right past me and Boyfriend.

Boyfriend shot it first. He hit it, but it didn't go down. Then I shot it. The right wing pinwheeled and the bird went down. It was just the fifth bird I'd ever shot, and I claimed it shamelessly.

Well, mostly shamelessly. I knew I couldn't be totally proud of this. It wasn't really mine.

A year later I was back at Delevan solo on a bright and very windy Wednesday in January 2008. Wind is your friend in waterfowling. It stirs up the birds, and it slows their flight substantially, making them much easier to shoot.

Except back then, I was still a pretty poor shot.

I shot at a lot of geese that day, and I'm pretty sure I even hit one. But not well enough to bring it down.

Late in the afternoon, I was shifting to a new spot in my pond when I saw an obviously wounded snow goose sail in front of me and land in an unoccupied neighboring pond.

Hell, I'll take that, I thought to myself.

The only problem was that between me and the other pond was a canal of unknown depth. Crossing it could be risky. As I was pondering whether it was worth walking a long way to get to a crossing, two other hunters came up the road on the other side of the canal, finished with their day's hunt.

I couldn't yell to them because the wind was so strong it was pointless. But I pointed at the snow goose that I could see on the water. They nodded, grabbed it, and hurled it across the canal to me.

How's that for totally shameless? Like I'd actually shot the thing.

Another year later - now January 2009 - I hunted Delevan on closing day with Boyfriend and our friend David. David was a reader, and when he heard I'd been felled by appendicitis two weeks before the end of the duck season, he offered to share his reservation on closing day so I wouldn't totally miss out.

David and Boyfriend were hitting the geese like crazy that day, but not me. I hadn't hit a single goose all year long. Finally, maybe an hour before sunset, two snow geese were coming in, headed straight for David and Boyfriend.

I was hidden in a clump of tules off to the side.

Man, I haven't gotten a goose all year, I thought to myself, and without a second thought, stood and shot one. Didn't really stop to think that Boyfriend was about to shoot it (which is actually really funny, in retrospect, because I am always yelling at him for Bogarting my shots, especially in pheasant hunting).

David stoned his goose, but of course I just winged mine, which sailed a hundred yards away. I started to give chase, but after charging about 20 yards through sucking mud (oh yeah, this was just like two weeks after surgery), I was gasping for breath. David and his dog, Coal Pit, had to go get my bird for me, which was 300 yards away by the time they got to it. David fired the coup de grace.

This brings us to my hunt at Delevan with David a week ago.

It was a horribly slow day with precious few ducks flying. Then this lone speck came flying over us, high in the sky. David called. The bird answered. David called again. The bird answered again. He was hooked.

The bird swung around, finally coming in low enough for us to shoot. When he swung past David, he was still a bit too far out. But he banked toward me, and David hollered, "Take him!"

I stood, fired and missed. I corrected my lead and fired again, but this time there was a boom behind me, at almost the exact same time I pulled my trigger. David had fired too. There was no way he was letting this hard-fought bird get away.

The speck tumbled, dead before he hit the water.

When Coal Pit brought him to us, the bird's head was bleeding profusely. Head shot.

David gave the bird to me, which was gracious. I accepted it with that familiar queasy feeling. Was it really mine?

When I got home, I had to know.

I knew David was using really large shot, and I was using Hevi-Shot 4s - powerful, but small. It would be easy to see who'd hit him.

I plucked the goose's outer feathers, leaving the bird covered in down. I dipped him into a pot of steaming water laden with melted paraffin, swirled him around, then dropped him in a basin of cold water to cool the wax. I waited, not long enough really, and began pulling off the wax - and with it, the down - to reveal the bird's skin.

Huge holes, everywhere. David's shot.

Under the bird's left wing were two tiny shot holes. Mine. Not enough to knock that bird down.

Then I did something I never do: I plucked the head. I had to know.

David had hit him hard enough to knock him down without any help from me. His wing was shattered, and the shot had penetrated deep. But if it had just been me shooting, would this bird have died?

I pulled feathers away, looking for the hole. Big or small? David's or mine?

I found it. It was small. It'd been my shot to the head.

Relief. I had not begged, borrowed or stolen this goose. I'd killed him.

Of course, David had killed him too. When I gutted the bird, I found a tear in the heart where one of David's shots had ripped through.

But this was the closest I'd come to getting a goose on my own at Delevan.

Why do I obsess on this? Honestly, I'm not as insecure about my shooting as I was a year ago. My season so far has been marked by some lovely shots - the kind that kill instantly and leave the meat in excellent condition. The beautiful spoonie drake I got at Delevan yesterday went down with shots in the neck and tail, with nary a single wound to mar the breast meat. My woodie with Hellen three weeks ago? Head shot. My wigeon on opening weekend? Head shot.

But there's just something about geese. I probably won't relax about it until I truly get one on my own - no asterisks - just so I know I can do it.

That's really one of the huge things that drives me in every aspect of hunting at this stage in my development - my fourth year: Can I do it?

Once I know I can do something - whether it's my first limit, my first double, my first deer, my first solo goose - I can mentally cross it off my list, satisfied that I am capable.

What happens then? I relax, ready to focus on what I enjoy most, rather than worrying about passing tests administered by the ruler-wielding teacher who seems to sit on my right shoulder, whispering doubts about my abilities into my ear.

I'm really ready for that wretch to go away.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Friday, November 13, 2009

A blogger, a chef, a wild duck dinner

As many of you know, Boyfriend is one amazing cook, and somehow he found himself in a friendly competition yesterday with Sacramento Chef Michael Tuohy in an Iron Chef-style wild duck cookoff at Tuohy's restaurant, Grange, located in the Citizen Hotel in downtown Sacramento.

They each prepared five dishes from wild duck that Boyfriend and I supplied, and a panel of judges devoured and evaluated them.

The icing on the cake is that the ducks won, hands-down. After the wild-duck cookoff, Chef Tuohy and Boyfriend prepared a prix fixe dinner of domestic ducks (because you can't sell wild ones) modeled after many of the competition dishes. Ten percent of proceeds from that dinner - which was packed - went to California Waterfowl.

My job was just to take pictures, which was about all I was up for because I have a stupid cold. You can check out the slideshow below. I'd love to write more about this, but my Nyquil is calling me. If you want to read a more complete tale - and yes, Boyfriend came away with some good stories, like the horrible thing that happened to a cart full of food - you'll just have to check out his blog.

One last thing, though: This was the kickoff for Grange's new program: Bring your wild ducks to Chef Tuohy 48 hours in advance and he'll make you a gourmet meal out of your own birds for $75 per person. Being a regular customer at Grange, I can tell you you'll get your money's worth. If you're interested, give 'em a call at 916-492-4450.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, November 9, 2009

Savoring my sisters' sweet successes

Normally I spend this time of year reading a lot of newspaper stories about women hunters - women alligator slayers, women elk hunters, women who take record deer. You know, 'tis the season.

But this fall has been special for me, because for the first time, I'm hearing from women readers who are starting to dive into hunting, and they're sharing the stories of their firsts with me. The themes won't surprise any hunter who's a regular here: a little bit of happenstance, a lot of determination and some very well-deserved success. Read more...
The first was Dawn, who works with SheWee (ladies, if you'd like to be able to pee standing up so life in the woods is a little less problematic for you, check out the website).

Dawn's already done some upland hunting, but she's been trying for some time now to get into duck hunting back in Pennsylvania. She got a goose last spring, but was having a harder time getting onto any ducks. She went out on the opener in October but came home empty handed. Finally, she hired a guide to take out her and her son to hunt a creek near Lock Haven.

When she met the guide, she discovered he'd brought a helper with him "because he wasn't sure what a woman would be like. Turns out he was surprised that I said I wanted to hunt since the weather was calling for heavy rain all morning. He never met a woman waterfowler. Knowing that ducks like foul weather, I was up for it."

Her dream for the day was to get a drake woodie, but she would be happy with anything.

They motored up to an island and set up. "It was still dark but we could now legally shoot. We watched and waited. A flash of white and brown zipped past us on the left."

"Was that a duck?" Dawn asked.

"Yup, that was your trophy woodie drake," the guide responded.

"Crap, I never saw one before," she said. "I'll be ready next time."

An hour later, a duck came flying down the right side of the creek.

"Wait, wait, bang. Dropped it right there. My first duck - a woodie hen. I was so happy!"

Later, a blue wing teal zipped by and her son dropped it.

They kept hunting as the rain kept pouring down and the creek kept rising until their island was somewhat submerged. Later, a mallard pair flew by.

"I watched the ducks as the guide started to call them and they slowly turned and circled toward our decoys. I waited 'til they came into range and bang, dropped the drake and my son dropped the hen. It was picture perfect.

"After we gathered the ducks and gave high fives, we decided to get back to dry land, as the creek had now risen over two feet. It was a day I will always remember."

The guide told her he'd never gone out with a mother-son team before, and he was not only surprised they stuck it out, but impressed with their shooting - four ducks with five shells.

Definitely impressive. Congratulations, Dawn!

That very same weekend, Renee went on her first successful hunt ever.

I met Renee in September at that terrific California Waterfowl event where women could pay $150 to take shooting lessons, complete hunter safety training, get their licenses and go on their first hunts.

Renee's situation was a little unusual: She began hunting because of her dog, Roxie. "Roxie's puppy contract came with some conditions. The breeder wants to breed her, and in order to do so, Roxie needed to be proven and earn at least two titles in something."

She thought field training and hunt tests would be interesting, so she tried that. "I had no interest in hunting recreationally," she said. "I just wanted to train and let other people shoot the birds."

She worked with some folks in her local Weimaraner clubs and the North American Versatile Hunting Dog Association and Roxie earned a Junior Hunter and NAVHDA Natural Ability title.

Contract fulfilled. But Renee?

"I met a lady at NAVHDA who asked me if I ever thought about actually shooting for myself and I said, 'Nooooooo, that's not for me.' She just kind of shook her head and said that if I gave it a try, I would love it.

"That comment stuck with me and eventually ate away at me and I broke down and attended an NRA Women on Target shotgun clinic in May of 2008. I really loved it and decided to go buy a gun."

For a while, she didn't do much more than go to the shooting range occasionally.

"Then this summer, while working with the trainer, he asked me if I had a shotgun and told me to bring it to training. We shot a couple of clays, and then he asked me if I wanted to shoot. I said YES! And he was shocked."

He told her normally people say no, and the fact that a women said yes so quickly was surprising.

Somehow she stumbled on some information about the Cal Waterfowl women's event and knew it was her chance to get licensed. She completed the training and went out on a pheasant hunt, but returned empty-handed.

Not long after that, she got the opportunity to go on another pheasant hunt - a special two-day women's pheasant hunt at the Nelson Slough Wildlife Area near Yuba City.

The first morning came and went without her getting a bird. "I wasn’t disappointed in the least. I was just happy with how Roxie performed and felt comfortable that I could hunt while she did her job."

But she wasn't ready go to, and decided go out again in the afternoon. (I totally get that! Ask my friends. I never want to leave a hunt.)

That too was unsuccessful. One of her hunting partners talked about coming back the next day, but Renee was beat and said no way.

"I went to bed early and slept late," she said. But when she woke up and started looking at pictures of the hunt, she just had to go back for more. She did, and because participation was down that day, she, her friends Lindsay and Trisha, and Roxie got a field all to themselves.

Roxie flushed a bird, and Trisha got it. More birds flushed, and everyone missed. Then Roxie went on point again in the same area and Renee thought it was old scent, but a bird flushed - straight at her.

"I shot and hit! Woo Hoo!! I got it! I got it!!! Roxie retrieved and we were happy! I immediately got the camera out for my photo op."

Later, Lindsay hit her bird too, and while it sailed way out of the way, Roxie eventually found it for them. Three women, three birds. Life was good!

So, congratulations, Renee. I don't have a dog like you do, but I know exactly how it feels to be so driven to keep trying, and how sweet it is when you meet success. If you'd like to congratulate Renee on her own block, click here.

Finally we come to Su.

I've never met Su before, but she's another woman who's come to hunting later in life - at the age of 55.

She's always wanted to hunt but never had anyone to mentor her until she got divorced (from a game warden, of all things!) and met someone who'd help her out.

Now she's been plowing through hunting opportunities. Her first kill was a grouse in Idaho this September. "Fortunately, no one laughed at me when I held the little grouse and paid an homage to it. I just needed that moment, and then I was good to go."

I'm glad no one laughed too. I think a lot of women feel reluctant to take a moment to recognize with some solemnity what they've just done, thinking they're supposed to be tough. But I've heard from so many hunters, men and women, who've made it clear that can be the right thing to do, if the spirit moves you.

She went on her first duck hunt in Alturas in October and took three teal, a canvasback and two drake mallards "and was instantly hooked."

I was flabbergasted at this part of the story. Six ducks on her first hunt??? Lord, she must be a smokin' good shot. I didn't get six ducks on a hunt until my third season.

"I'm not really a smokin' shot," she assured me. "I just have a really good gun." A 3 1/2-inch Benellie 12 gauge, to be exact.

But really, Su: Guns don't kill animals. People do. You're a smokin' shot.

She doesn't have a photo from that first duck hunt - something about mud eating the camera - but she hunted a couple weeks later in Sonoma County, and here's how she did:

Clearly, she's tearing it up.

And more importantly, she's doing what Dawn and Renee are doing: Following through on her goals, and pursuing them with zeal. I can totally relate to that.

Welcome to the sisterhood, ladies!

© Holly A. Heyser 2009