Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The huntress, the mentor and the end of the lame duck hunting streak

I drove up Interstate 5 in a pounding rain early Sunday morning, more nervous than I usually get before a duck hunt. Dianne and Bob at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge had set me up on the hunting equivalent of a blind date.

On my way into the refuge the Sunday before, I'd told them I wanted to learn how to hunt "free roam" - the vast area where hunters rush to stake out the best spots. It's competitive - there are no safe little assigned blinds.

By the time I'd come out that evening with my characteristic one lame duck, they'd hooked me up.

"Charlie Peebles is gonna take you out," Dianne said. "He hunts here all the time. You've probably seen him."

"OK," I said.

"Here," I told Dianne as I scribbled my cell phone number on a business card. "Please give him this!" Read more...
I started hunting Delevan three years ago alone, earning every bit of knowledge about the place the hard way. I had good reason to believe the hunting would be better in free roam, but I was just too intimidated to try it alone. So this was my big chance to learn a lot - both about Delevan and duck hunting in general.

I might even break my bizarre streak of bringing home just one duck per hunt, always wounded first by another hunter.

I could only hope that I wouldn't shoot like a total dolt.

A week later, I pulled into Delevan at 4:30 a.m. sharp, just when Charlie had told me to meet him there. As I walked to the check station - a little oasis of dim light - I scanned the crowd for someone who looked like he'd be looking for someone.

"Holly?" I heard behind me.

Yep, it was Charlie.

Charlie is 59 years old and has been hunting Delevan since he was 14 - starting the year before I was born. He's there every hunt day, showing up the night before to enter the lottery for a spot out in the field, then coming back the next morning to go find one of his favorite spots in the pre-dawn blackness.

As we stepped into the calf-deep water in free roam, it was clear Charlie knew the place like a blind man knows his house. He knew where the mud would be squishy and where it would firm up, where the bottom dropped and where it came back up again.

We angled toward Grand Central, a big network of tule patches located in the center of some "big water," as we call the vast open sheets. Twinkling headlamps ahead of us told him what he needed to know - how many of his spots had already been staked out by other hunters, where we should go.

Charlie and I settled in a spot that was thick with hunters - we could easily see four or five parties within 100 yards. I'd've never had the huevos to set up there. But that's what it's like in free roam. You just have to be careful about shooting teal that come zipping in low over the water - there was 180 degrees in front of us where doing that would risk peppering other hunters.

We were definitely in a good spot - it was a fairly slow morning, but we had a decent trickle of ducks coming through, and it seemed that everyone we could see was getting opportunity to shoot. Which was good, because Charlie was on first-name basis with a lot of the guys out there.

"Does everyone know everyone out here?" I asked him.

"Pretty much."

I wondered if I would become part of that club. I was pretty sure I'd be the only female member.

I missed the first set of birds I shot at. Or at least I thought I did.

"You hit one," Charlie said. "I could see it." But they had flown away, so I hadn't hit the duck well - I'd just wounded it. Not good.

The next group to came in was a small flock of wigeon. I shot, missed once, hit a hen on the second shot, fired a third at her and watched as she began a long sail while Charlie knocked a drake down hard, dead on the water.

My hen had landed in a little patch of grass poking up about a foot out of the water, a good 75 yards away. I sloshed there as quickly as I could, glad I had an unobstructed view around the grass patch. She had to be in there.

On the walk over, I heard another hunter yelling in the distance. "Hey, YOU SHOT MY DECOY!" Yep. It was crowded here.

As I walked into the grass, she lifted up about 20 yards from me and I dropped her quickly with one shot.


I walked over to the spot. She was nowhere to be seen.

What the hell? I could still see the ripples from where she'd landed, and I could see a faint remnant of a ripple leading away from that spot. She was swimming under water and I could not see her. She probably had her bill sticking up someplace, but I couldn't see it amid all the stalks of decaying grass. I searched and searched, but I was acutely aware that I was making a ruckus close to other hunters nearby, and no ducks would come in for them as long as I was there.

I trudged back to Charlie.

"We'll go look for her later," he reassured me.

The next bird that came in was a drake mallard I caught out of the corner of my eye, flying about a foot over the water and heading to that grass patch where I'd lost the wigeon.

Charlie and I watched him for a while, and he finally said, "He's injured. You should go over there and get him."

"That's my cripple for the day!" I said, laughing, and slogged my way back over there.

On the walk, I heard more strife in the distance. "LET THE F***ING BIRDS WORK!" one hunter yelled at another. A high-volume back-and-forth ensued.

I giggled. This is the kind of stuff that I knew happened out here in free roam, and one of the big reasons I didn't want to navigate this business alone. I was deathly afraid of either breaking established etiquette, or being so afraid to break etiquette that I wouldn't take any shots.

When I approached the patch of grass, I scanned it and could see the faint outline of a green head about 25 yards away. I raised my gun. One of the hunters in the nearby blind yelled, "Don't shoot me!"

"I won't!" I yelled back. I tracked the greenhead as he swam away from that blind and when I had a good clear shot - away from the other hunters - I pulled the trigger.

Done. The drake was dead. But the shot had stirred up none other than that hen wigeon who'd been hiding about 10 yards from that greenhead. She tried to fly, but couldn't. The nearby hunter came out with his dog and got the bird for me. "Was this the one you were looking for earlier?"

"Yup, sure is!" I said.

I walked back to Charlie with two birds in hand - an enormous greenhead and the wigeon I thought I'd wounded and lost. He later told me he wished he'd had a camera because I had a smile about a mile wide.

The curse had been lifted. I had more than two ducks, and at least one had not been wounded by another hunter before I hit it. Perhaps my season would finally turn around now.

After a while, some of the hunters started clearing out, and with less congestion, the birds began to work better. And there was this ongoing conversation between the hunters.

"Teal coming your way!"

"Nice shot (guffaw)."

"What happened there?"

We weren't all hunting together. But strangely, we were all hunting together.

I got one more duck in Grand Central that day, a gorgeous drake gadwall that had come in with three others just outside of our decoys, maybe 40 yards in front of us. We hung out for a while after that, but Charlie said, "Hey, you've gotten three birds here - let's move to another spot."

So we moved to his favorite afternoon spot on the refuge, a place where we could intercept a few ducks in a known flight path. Serious insider information.

As we settled into that spot, Charlie's friend Don came by with his two dogs and a bull sprig that he handed to Charlie. It was a cripple his dogs had picked up while he was pheasant hunting and he didn't want it. Charlie handed the duck to me.

Not long after that, two mallards came sailing overhead nearby, out of our range.

"Watch them," he said. When they dropped into some water behind us, just the other side of some tules, Charlie announced that since they were out of our sight - and we were out of theirs - we were going to go put a sneak on them.

As we sloshed toward where we'd seen them drop in, I couldn't imagine how they couldn't hear the racket we were making. They weren't flying away, but they were probably swimming away at light speed.

When we hit the tule patch in front of where they'd landed, Charlie and I split up. We'd both walk around the tule patch in opposite directions and the first person to see the ducks would get the shot.

A couple minutes later, I heard three shots.

I slogged over to him and saw an enormous greenhead in his hand. He was smiling a little sheepishly. "I was hoping you'd get the shot," he said. But he'd come through a little passage in the tules and the drake was right there, maybe 10 yards in front of him. He got about a foot off the water before Charlie had nailed him. He'd shot at the hen, too, but hadn't brought her down.

We got one more shot at birds after that - a small group of spoonies came over. One drake fell. Charlie swore he hadn't hit it; I swore I hadn't either. Turns out we were both shooting No. 2 shot, so the autopsy wouldn't decide the issue. But whoever did it, it was an immaculate shot - the bird was DOA.

We watched the bird activity pick up as the sun dropped, but no more came our way before shoot time ended, so we were done. I had three ducks that were legitimately mine and a fourth that was maybe mine. Charlie had given me the other three birds, so I left the refuge with a huge pile of birds, much more than I'm used to.

For his part, Charlie had passed on a lot of shots to make sure I got plenty of opportunity, which was awfully sweet of him.

And I had learned a lot. I'd learned some free roam etiquette. I'd learned where ducks work in Grand Central and the other spot. I'd learned another couple spots I could try. I'd had an experienced eye watching my shots and telling me what was happening with them. I'd gotten to hear Charlie's thoughts on decoys and calling.

And best of all, I'd made a new duck hunting friend - I now have a standing invitation to join him and keep learning.

I know at some point he'll cut me loose to fly on my own. But hopefully by that time I'll be a bona fide member of the free roam family at Delevan.

* * *

I don't have a photo of Charlie (yet), but you can see him on the Delta Waterfowl website. Delta did a big piece in the Winter 2009 issue about hunting ducks on public land in California. One of the spots they hit was Delevan, and one of the people they interviewed there was Charlie. While you can't read the article online, you can see Charlie on video by clicking here and looking for "Delevan Duck Hunters" under "New Delta Videos.")

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Ishmael: How I was enchanted by a book that's popular in vegan circles

I think the first time I heard about the book Ishmael by Daniel Quinn was in a somewhat testy debate with a vegan commenter on The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles. He cited the book to counter a statement I'd made about humans and hunting.

After that, I kept noticing references to Ishmael in vegan circles on the net. Finally, a colleague I met at a symposium on food ethics recommended it - she not knowing I was a hunter, I guessing that she might be vegetarian.

If this is a book that's influencing people who think we shouldn't eat animals, I thought to myself, perhaps I should read it to learn more about where they're coming from. So I ordered the book.

This week I opened it and braced for a 263-page diatribe against my way of life. Riveted, I kept turning pages, waiting for the indictment.

It never came. Instead I found a message that resonated with me deeply, actually throwing some weight behind the ideas I've been chewing on in my continuing quest to understand why I love hunting so much.

The book purports to be a novel, but it's really just a surprisingly irresistible discussion between a student (human) and teacher (gorilla) about what's wrong with the dominant human culture.

Based on that premise alone, I can see the book's allure for vegans, who tend to believe that what we are is fundamentally wrong - they feel guilty about our omnivorous nature, and they seem to wear veganism as a fig leaf of dietary shame.

But the author doesn't really go there. His point is that the dominant human culture breaks the fundamental law of how we should live by acting as though we alone, among all life forms, own the earth, viewing it as something that needs to be conquered and dominated, and seeking to systematically eliminate competitors for our food. His culprit isn't meat eating, but rather agriculture, which is the spark 10,000 years ago that made us - for better or worse - what we are today.

Much of the book focuses on the meaning of our creation story - Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Our culture was born of the people who ate that fruit and were banished from the Garden of Eden, forced to gain our bread from the sweat of our brow - agriculture.

Ishmael is about the student's quest to learn how we should live, and the example Quinn turns to is the hunter-gatherer cultures - those that weren't banished from the Garden.

And this is the part that really began to enchant me.

Ever since my little epiphany last January about why we hunt, I've begun to believe that hunting represents our quest to regain what we've lost - a life in which all of what we needed could be found in our environment. All we needed to sustain ourselves was knowledge of that environment and the time it takes to hunt and gather.

Hunting is an escape from a system 10,000 years in the making, a system in which millions and millions of people believe food - animal or vegetable - comes from supermarkets.

Hunting is the quest for Eden.

This thought has made me really hungry to learn more about both our creation story and hunter-gatherer cultures, and that's the hunger that Ishmael has begun to satisfy.

I am not alone in finding something to love about this book. Ishmael has a devoted following. There's even a website created by the author to help connect nearly 10,000 readers who are enchanted with his message.

But plenty of people hate the book just as much. Check out some of the reviews on Good Reads.

Do I take Ishmael as gospel, or Quinn as a prophet? No. As I read through the book, I found a number of places where I could poke little holes in it. I'm guessing Biblical scholars - religious or not - might take issue with parts of the book as well.

And I'm certainly not ready to chuck everything I am now to become a hunter-gatherer. How could I live without my blog?!?

Could it be that my my appreciation of the book is just self-serving? I see hunting as my connection to our hunter-gatherer roots, and here's a book that declares those roots are a better way to live than what we've been doing for the past 10,000 years. It validates my quest for Eden.

Perhaps. But that doesn't detract from what Ishmael is: a thought-provoking look at the elements of our culture that are so deeply ingrained that we can't see them - that it takes a fictional gorilla to point out what's all around us.

If you like being forced to think differently once in a while, this book is well worth reading.

And by the way - that vegan who mentioned the book on Rasch's blog? Boy, he was misquoting it frightfully. There is no anti-hunting message in this book.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Turning my misfortune into a contest

So yesterday I went back to the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge to see if I couldn't end this crazy streak in which I get only one duck per hunt, and it's usually a duck already wounded by someone else.

It was a dark and misty day with little wind and not much shooting going on. I decided it was time to explore "free roam," which is a vast central area where hunters can go wherever they want, provided they get there first. The potential rewards are great if you don't mind the potential conflict.

I've been avoiding it because I'm not a fan of conflict between people who are all carrying guns. But Bob, one of the guys at the hunter check station, has been urging me to try it. "All the real hunters go to free roam," he said yesterday. Read more (and get to the contest part) ...
I got some advice from a hunter on his way out of the refuge with seven birds, and went straight where he told me to go. When I got to the edge of the water where I'd head in, I met his friend on his way out. I had just started asking him for advice when a spoonie hen who had been hiding in the grass in a tiny puddle between us broke her cover. She lifted her wings, but couldn't take off. A cripple.

"Want her?" the hunter said.

"Yeah, I'll take her." I'm not going to let a duck go to waste just because it's a spoonie. Those ducks have a bad rap.

The hunter set his dog on her, then dispatched her quickly and handed her to me.

For a moment, I thought to myself, Wow, if the shooting's really good out there, this means I can shoot only six ducks.

Then I put down the crack pipe. What are you thinking, Holly? This'll be the only duck you get today.

And I was right. Of course.

There's no need to bore you with the details of what it was like trying to learn how to hunt free roam - let's just get straight to the contest:

Whoever can guess the date that I break my streak - and by that I mean the date that 1) I will get more than one duck, and 2) at least one will be a duck that I came by honestly, not someone else's cripple - will win your choice of one of the following three books:

Lift by Rebecca O'Connor - a riveting look at one woman's entry into the world of falconry.

Heart Shots: Women Write About Hunting, edited by Mary Zeiss Stange.

The Sacred Art of Hunting: Myths, Legends, and the Modern Mythos by James A. Swan.

When choosing dates, consider this: Hunt days on public lands where I hunt are Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. But occasionally I get the chance to hunt other days. For example, I might go goose hunting tomorrow, and while geese do not count in this contest, I'm told I might get a shot at some wood ducks. I'm pretty sure I'm not hunting on Christmas because my mom would kill me, but if I can sneak in a quickie ...

Each person can choose one date, and the closest date wins. If there are two picks that are both close, e.g., one is a day before and one is a day after, the person who picked his/her date first wins.

Make your pick by leaving it in a comment below. And remember, you may need to try several times - I actually have to hit "post comment" three times to get it to work. (Was it really worth it to move the comment form into the post when it worked fine in a separate window? Jury's still out on that.)

Good luck!

Wait, what am I talking about? You people should be wishing ME good luck...

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Inglorious: I'm the angel of duck death

Duck season has been exasperating this year.

Beyond my astonishingly good hunt on Tule Lake on Black Friday, I've been hard pressed to get more than one duck on my strap on any given hunt.

And let me tell you, a duck strap doesn't work well with just one duck on it. (Sheer resourcefulness, however, has led me to turn my duck strap into a duck necklace - Flavor Flav style. It works.)

Now, don't get me wrong: I am grateful for every bird I bring home. But it's how I got those lone ducks on my last three hunts - especially the last one - that's got me feeling a bit funky. Here's what I mean: Read more...
Hunt No. 1: My friend David invited me to join him at Little Dry Creek on an icy morning in the middle of a pretty serious cold snap (for the Sacramento Valley, anyway).

Little Dry Creek is the best public duck hunting land in the state - a gorgeous marsh in a miniature delta where where Little Dry Creek and Howard Slough feed into Butte Creek. There are lots of tree-lined sloughs, and the whole place is surrounded by rice fields where the ducks fatten up.

We ended up with a blind that was in an alley of sorts, a 75-yard-wide strip of water and tules lined by trees on either side. Little Dry Creek is known for having lots of wood ducks, and David and I had pre-dawn visions of them zooming up and down that alley all morning.

Only problem was the ducks didn't seem to be on the same page. Not the wood ducks, not any ducks. All morning long, ducks piled into a blind across the trees from us, but nothing was flying our way.

The guy in the blind down the alley from us was having a hard time too, and we could see that the frustration was driving him to take some really long shots all morning long. After one of those, the two ducks he shot at - greenwing teal - came zooming our way, the mid-morning sun at their backs.

The drake was clearly in bad shape, his flight unsteady and low as his partner powered up to a safer altitude. As the drake came over a patch of tules that bordered our small pond, I raised my gun, fired, missed, fired again and sent him tumbling into the water.

I'm not sure how much farther he would've made it if I hadn't shot him - he was the proverbial dead duck. But his options were to leave this earth on my strap or in a coyote's belly, and I'll be damned if I'm going to get up at 2:30 a.m. to hunt in a marsh at 20 degrees Fahrenheit to let the coyotes eat the cripples. I'll take 'em.

Hunt No. 2: It should have been glorious. A major cold snap up north had sent most of the birds down into the valley that week. And I had gotten the No. 1 draw for the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, which meant I'd get my pick of all the blinds in the place.

The blind I chose was so good that as my party walked away from the check station to head out into the field, another hunter pulled me aside and said, "I've got a hundred dollar bill in my pocket that you can have if you'll just let me in on your party."

I just grinned at him, still giddy about my amazing fortune.

If only he knew what a bad trade he'd just offered to make. When shoot time arrived, the ducks were flying like crazy. Shotguns were going off left and right, like we were in the middle of a massive battle.

Except in our pond, which was silent.

The birds were flying over us at about 100 yards and dive bombing - literally! - into the next blind. Over and over we'd hear shots and watch the ducks fall. It was unbelievable.

Ducks want to be where ducks want to be, and on this day, they wanted to be in the next blind. We found out later that it was the best-performing blind in the entire refuge that day - two hunters shot their limit in very short order.

Meanwhile, the guys in my party were scratching out a few here and there. At one point, I wandered away to a spot in our pond where I'd seen ducks flying. I heard shots back where my guys were and turned back to see if they'd hit anything. Two greenwing teal were zipping my way in a familiar pattern - the drake powering up to safety, the hen careening just above the tules. When she got close enough, I raised my gun, fired once and dropped her stone dead.

I brought a fast end to whatever slower death awaited her from my friend's shot. She was the only duck I'd get that day.

Dejection at Delevan

Hunt No. 3: I went back to Delevan yesterday afternoon with a new set of expectations. If I could scratch out just one duck, I'd be grateful. Two would be a godsend.

"Back again?" asked Bob at the hunter check station.

"Yeah," I said. "I'm just going to keep beating my head against the wall until it stops bleeding."

I didn't have a reservation, so I got on the waiting list and took the first blind I could get. It didn't have a good track record, but I didn't think it would matter - there was hardly any shooting going on anyway. There weren't even any ducks in the normally cacophonous closed zone. The place was dead.

The light breeze that had greeted me when I arrived disappeared quickly, leaving my decoys still on the water - a dead giveaway to birds in the air that these couldn't be real ducks. As the afternoon wore on under a hazy sky, I got a couple iffy shot opportunities, but didn't connect on them.

About 30 minutes before sundown, the duck activity began to pick up around me and I found a good vantage point to survey potential incoming ducks - it was a little turret of tules tall enough for me to hide behind, but low enough for me to swing a good 270 degrees.

Nothing was flying my way, but over my left shoulder I caught a glimpse of something on the water.

It was a spoonie hen. I hadn't heard her land, but I could see that she was wounded. I crept out of my turret to get a better look and decide whether I'd need to fire a shot.

I wouldn't. Her bill kept dipping into the water as she struggled to lift her head.

She's done.

Then I saw something that made my heart fall: Her drake was by her side.

It's pretty much impossible not to anthropomorphize in that situation. Her man was by her side as her life was slipping away. I let that thought pull me down, and then the hunter in my head pulled me back up.

Shoot the drake. You'll have two ducks.

That poor bastard was so preoccupied with his dying hen that he didn't see me standing and raising my gun at him.

I remembered the advice of a friend: If you've got to take a water shot, aim a little low. People tend to lift their head off the gun on those shots. And if you aim a little short, the shot will tend to ricochet off the water into the duck.

So that's what I did.

The drake burst out of the water. Did I miss?!? Had I aimed too low?

I shot again and he kept speeding away. It was hard to believe I'd missed.

Who knows, perhaps I'd just done to him what had been done to his hen and he'd bleed out and die in someone else's pond.

But one of my pellets had clearly hit the hen, because she'd given up the ghost abruptly when I'd fired my gun.

I shook off my self-contempt and went out to pick her up.

Another strap of one. Another finishing shot on a duck that came my way in distress. I was a one-woman clean-up crew, hastening death for the already dying. A scavenger.

Maybe next weekend will be better.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

America's obsession with breast meat

I once had a co-worker who was kind of psychotic about food. Obsessed with being rail thin, the only meat she would eat was chicken, and the only part of the chicken she would eat was the breast. Skinless, of course.
She was a sick puppy, for sure. But in reality, her diet was just an extreme manifestation of America's bizarre obsession with breast meat. And it wasn't until this fall, when Boyfriend went on an upland-bird-cooking spree, that I realized just how bizarre it was.

Here's what got me thinking:

Turkish roast pigeon - click here.

Roasted pheasant with prickly pear glaze - click here.

Roasted grouse - click here.

Grilled dove a la mancha - click here.

Looks good, eh? Yeah, I know, I eat well.

But that's not the point. This is: Every time we dug into those upland birds, no matter what species it was on any given day, we took special note of how incredibly delicious the legs were - that's always where you found the biggest, richest flavors.

None of the breasts was bad, mind you. But the truth about these birds' breast meat is inescapable: It dries out easily, and even if you can keep it moist, it never has as much flavor as the legs. (Be honest with yourselves, hunters - how often do you eat breasts alone without bacon on them? That's what I thought.)

And these upland birds were all just the wild cousins of the domestic birds that are popular in American cooking - chicken and turkey. The domestic versions follow the same principle, only with more fat and less flavor.

So why do Americans gravitate to breast meat? While we do have a long history of favoring white meat, the current obsession has a lot to do with fat. In the 1990s, we saw that we, as a society, were too fat and plagued by way too much heart disease, and we decided animal fat was one of the big reasons.

Yo, drop that chicken thigh, Fatty! Try that boneless skinless chicken breast - it's way lower in fat.

So, in classic style, rather than just eat a little less and exercise a little more - which is almost always the correct answer - we went way overboard. We became obsessed with turkey and chicken breast meat, thinking that putting it on our plates would be our salvation, both in the mirror and in the doctor's office.

Demand for those cuts is so high that we breed our domestic poultry to produce enormous breasts. Chickens sometimes have a hard time walking under the weight of those breasts. Domestic turkeys' breasts are so big they can no longer breed naturally - artificial insemination is the only thing keeping them going as a species.

I mean, check out the turkey on the cover of this cookbook, which was originally published in 1940. Go ahead - click on it to see a larger version. When's the last time you saw breasts like that on a domestic bird?

Because consumer demand is tilted toward breast meat, we actually ship a lot of the other chicken parts overseas because they just don't sell as well here (check out this Meatpaper article on the subject).

And you know what this whole business is? It's dietary self-flagellation. We must deny ourselves flavor in hopes that it will somehow make us more perfect people. And it's bullshit.

I know from experience. I bought into this craze for a while and went on a pretty extreme low-fat diet in which chicken breast was the dominant (but not the sole) meat. Between that diet and a rigorous exercise regimen that included sometimes three tae kwon do classes a day, I was able to get pretty skinny. So skinny that my guy friends frequently told me, "Holly, you're too skinny."

After a few years of that, I finally decided there was more to life than being rail-thin, so I resumed eating food that actually tastes good. Chicken thighs started creeping into my grocery cart. And pork shoulder.

When I started hunting, it got even better. When you shoot a whole animal, you eat the whole animal. Lots of species, lots of different cuts of meat. Suddenly, there was little need to buy any meat at the grocery store.

Yes, I gained weight. But my weight and body mass index are all in the normal range, and despite eating all the meat and animal fat I want, my cholesterol levels are outstanding.

And food is once again a joy, not just one of several bodily functions that must be performed to stay alive.

I still eat breast meat. In fact, when I bite into a roasted upland bird, I often eat the breast meat first because it's easiest to get to. And because I'm saving the best - the leg meat - for last.

Which brings me back to the photo at the top of this post, which I had to buy from iStockphoto because I don't have anything like that in my house. I literally cringe when I look at those two pale, fat-free, flavorless blobs of meat, and I pity the people whose diet revolves around them.

I know not everyone can eat as well as I do, with a diet rich in flavorful wild game and a boyfriend who cooks like mine does. But it makes me sad that with all the choices they do have in the grocery store, so many people go straight for the least satisfying one. If someone told me that was only meat I could eat for the rest of my life, I'd probably go vegetarian and eat tofu. The flavor's just about the same.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Friday, December 11, 2009

Christmas presents for hunters

I should be out Christmas shopping today. I'm way behind. But it's raining outside, and it's warm inside...

Yep - a perfect day for Internet shopping! Rather than get started on my own, though, I wanted to share with you a list of all the hunting things that I own and love that I would recommend to anyone.

There are four categories of items below: Hunting goodies and gadgets, Women's hunting clothing, Hunting books - riveting reading, and Hunting books - deep thinking. If one category doesn't interest you, just keep scrolling.

If you buy some of these items after clicking through to web pages from here, I'll get a teeny tiny commission, which is nice because I get zero income from this blog otherwise, and it doesn't cost you anything extra. But I didn't limit the list to stuff I can profit from - it's all just stuff I love.


Alpen Optics pink binoculars

You don't have to buy Alpen Optics binoculars in pink - but when you do, some of the proceeds will go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, so why not?

Alpen's pink binos come in two sizes: 8x25 wide and 10x42 full-sized. I have a camo version of the 10x42 bino and I LOVE it. It's a moderately priced binocular - not a cheapo, but not a Leica either - and it works really well for ordinary use (as opposed to the intensive use that, say, a paid hunting guide would put it through).

I'm not a binocular expert, but I've shown this binocular to a lot of friends and acquaintances who have tried lots of binos, and they're all impressed with it. It is pretty much equal to Boyfriend's Browning 10x42 that cost nearly 50 percent more. And I've found that it works really well in low-light situations.

Click here for more details and to to find an authorized dealer.

Duck call: Wingsetter Raspy Hen

This is my favorite new duck call, because for the first time, I've been able to actually sound like a duck with it. As the name implies, it's really raspy, so if you're hunting on crowded public lands like I do all the time, your calling will really stand out.

I've found it to be devastatingly effective used in conjunction with Boyfriend's calling on a more normal call - the ducks really respond. Click hereto buy.

Duck whistle: Wingsetter 8-in-1

This was a Christmas present from Boyfriend during my first season of duck hunting, and I found it fairly easy to use. With a little practice, you can do a mean teal, wigeon or pintail with it. (As the name implies, it's designed to do eight calls, but I haven't bothered with the other five.)

The hardest call is the pintail because you have to learn to flutter your tongue. But I've tried the Wingsetter whistle that doesn't require you to flutter, and the sound is really inferior to the authentic whistle you get out of this one.

One caveat: This call purports to sound like one duck if you cover one of the holes and multiple ducks if you leave both open. I think it actually sounds ridiculous with both holes open, so I stick a foam earplug in one hole. With tape around the mouthpiece to make it easier to bite into, I can do hands-free wigeon and teal calling. (Pintail calling requires you to hold the call, though, because you need an open jaw, not clenched teeth.)

Click here to buy.

WindWhacker decoys

When it comes to the plastic floating decoys I use, honestly, I'm not terribly picky. But I LOVE these WindWhacker decoys. They're really simple - pieces of metal, curved to catch the wind, that spin around and attract attention (presumably because they look like ducks coming in for a landing).

They're lightweight - easy to add to your pack - and they'll spin with hardly any wind at all - maybe 2 mph. Boyfriend and I have two sets. We don't head to the refuge without them.

Click here to buy. Click on the video below if you want to see how they work:

Chemical hand warmers

OK, I haven't used this brand, but I don't really care which brand I use. Chemical hand warmers have done WONDERS for my comfort while duck hunting.

They're little packets that contain iron powder, water, salt, activated charcoal and cellulose. When you open them up to the air and give 'em a little squeeze, a chemical reaction is started and the things stay warm for quite some time.

I usually keep one in the handwarming pocket on my waders, and I'll keep my trigger hand in that pocket - it's way warmer than putting a glove on and exposing that glove to the elements.

Click hereto buy.


The concept is simple: Shewee is a funnel shaped to aim pee away from us while we're standing up. I must confess that while I own one of these, I haven't used it successfully yet because my potty training appears to have been so successful that I have a hard time peeing standing up. (They say it just takes practice, so I need to give it another try.)

I have heard other women have used Shewee with great success, so I don't feel uncomfortable recommending it. Click here to buy.

Camo Make-up: Hunter's Specialties

This is strictly stocking-stuffer material, because really, no one's going to ooh and ahhh over this if you wrap it and stick a bow on it. But this is the camo makeup I'm wearing this year, and it works decently. But ladies (and men who care about your skin), make sure you clean up well after using it so you don't clog those pores. I use Almay Oil-Free Eye Make-up Remover Gel, which you can buy by clicking here.

Click hereto buy the camo make-up.

Doeville Hunting Diary

Doeville is a company that caters to women hunters with absolutely gorgeous products. This journal features hand-made paper and is bound with Nubuck leather, and clasped with a leather thong that wraps around a slice of naturally shed antler.

I got mine this summer when I participated in Team Huntress, and I love it. Boyfriend covets it too, but stamped on the front is "Doeville - the Female Huntress," so he can't have it.

Click here to buy, and if you do it soon, you can take advantage of the free shipping/free giftwrapping deal. Click around while you're there too - lots of other eye candy for women hunters.

Cabela's Cazadora Waders

Yep, the name is not a coincidence - I did product testing with Cabela's on these waders (long story - click here if you want to see how it all came about), and I love them.

Why? Part of it is that, to my knowledge, Cabela's is the only company that's making women's waterfowl waders, God bless 'em. But part if it is that I helped design them, so they're exactly what I want. Velcro straps, so there's no stupid buckle to get in the way of your gun mount. Hand warmer pocket, and on top of that is a shell pocket and D-rings for a shell pouch, if that's how you prefer to go.

These are made of 3mm neoprene with 600 grams of Thinsulate in the boots. If you live in a colder climate, you can still get an older Cabela's women's wader with 5mm neoprene and 1,000 gram boots. (Believe it or not, I won't get commission on this sale. But I have a lot of waders at my house now, so don't feel badly for me.)

Click here to buy the Cazadora waders, and here to buy the 5mm model.

Prois Hunting Apparel

You can't go wrong with anything from Prois - I love this clothing so much that I was thrilled when founder/owner Kirstie Pike asked me to join her field staff earlier this year.

Here's what makes Kirstie's stuff great: 1) Fantastic fabrics - quiet, wicking, performance-oriented. 2) Great cuts. (I especially love the Ultra Fitted Pants because of the pleated knees, which feel a little weird the first time you walk in them, but the first time you kneel or squat, you'll love it - they don't bind at the knees.) 3) Made in America. 4) Kirstie is a fine human being.

Other faves besides the fitted pants: the Ultra Long-Sleeve T (wicking fabric, features thumbholes in the sleeves so you bowhuntresses can keep the sleeve fabric taught) and the Sherpa Jacket (super warm, and included pockets in the liner for chemical warmers - yeah, baby, Kirstie is all about comfort).

Click here to shop.


Trailfeathers is one of the newer women's hunting clothing companies out there. Founded by Wendy Butler, who lives in Vermont, this clothing line features lots of great cold-weather hunting apparel.

Honestly, it doesn't work great for me because deer-hunting in California happens when it's still hot as hell outside. But if you live someplace cold, it's worth checking out.

I've tested Wendy's Double Fly Pants and Jacket (shown here), and they are really well made. AND they're made in America.

The Double Fly Pants feature a second zipper that women can use to relieve themselves without having to pull down their pants, which can be a sweet deal when it's really cold outside.

Click here to shop.

SHE Safari Upland Vest

I've seen a few women's upland vests out there, but this one is the best, hands down.

Why? It's functional while still being feminine, and if you've shopped around much, you'll know that "feminine" and "upland vest" don't usually go together. Try "gunny sack."

This vest has all the same features you'll see on a high-end men's upland vest - game pouch that completely unzips for ease of unloading and cleaning, deep bellows pockets, two sets of D-rings. And if you don't like stuffing shells in your pockets, there are two flip-out flaps that hold shells in individual sleeves (I prefer stuffing shells in my pockets, but to each her own).

Click here to buy.


Most fo the companies you'll see here are owned and/or run by women. Filson is an exception. But damn, their stuff is good.

The keepers in my closet are the chaps and the shooting shirt. Who needs brush pants when you can turn any pair of pants into good field pants with chaps? I got these when I grew out of some brush pants I had (ah, the joys of middle age) and decided that I wanted something whose usability wasn't subject to the vagaries of my weight. Ladies, if you are a Big Legged Woman (in the words of Taj Mahal), buy the L/XL.

The shooting shirt is just beautifully made. It's stain-resistant fabric. There's a belly-level front zipper pocket for license or passport. The elbows are pleated so they never bind. Same goes for the back. I am in love with this shirt.

Click here to buy Filson women's chaps, and here to buy Filson's women's shooting shirt.


This book by my friend Rebecca O'Connor was my first real window into the world of falconry, and if you've ever wondered what it's like training a falcon to be your hunting partner, this is a must-read. Hint: Falconry is a really hard way to hunt, but it's absolutely poetic in its beauty.

Lift is also a terrific memoir that weaves pieces of Rebecca's sometimes Jerry Springeresque past into her present life as a falconer.

Click here to buy. And if you'd like to read a more detailed review, click here for mine, and here for a positively lyrical look at this book by Chas Clifton on the Southern Rockies Nature Blog. Click here to hear Rebecca's interview on Insight, a local public radio program hosted by Jeffrey Callison.

Slaughter in the Sacramento Valley

This is a great book by Terry Grosz, a former California game warden who tells crazy stories about the illegal market hunting that was going on well into the early 1970s in the Sacramento Valley, which is where I hunt.

It was a real eye-opener for me about what was happening here and what it took to beat back a widespread acceptance of poaching. And it was at times really, really funny - there's a story about a Catholic priest that still has me laughing.

I bought this book when I heard an interview with the author on Insight, and was glad I did.

Click here to buy.

The Omnivore's Dilemma

This book deals with hunting only at the very end, but it is a riveting look at our food supply in America and how modern industrial farming practices have affected our health and the environment. It will make the hunter in your life very glad he (or she) hunts for food.

This book has had a huge influence on my thinking about food, and I honestly think it's responsible for a tiny but growing movement among urban foodies (dare I say, liberals!) to start hunting to experience a deeper connection to the food they eat, and to get meat as it was intended to be - healthy and flavorful, not tainted with hormones and antibiotics.

Every hunter should own this book, and when you're done with it, share it with your non-hunting friends who don't get what you do - they'll see you in an entirely different light when they're done with it.

Click here to buy.

A Hunter's Heart: Honest Essays on Blood Sport

This is a collection of essays, compiled by David Petersen, that do exactly what the title implies: take an honest look at what we do when we hunt - the joy, the pride, the remorse, the works. I often recommend this book to non-hunters and anti-hunters because it doesn't pull punches. It doesn't come off as propaganda, so they're a little more open to the messages.

But hunters love this as well because it really runs through the gamut of emotions we face every time we go out. For those who are always struggling for the words to describe what hunting is really like, this book will be very satisfying.

Hunter's Heart could easily go in my next category - the deep-thinking books on hunting - but because it is a collection, it never feels like heavy-duty reading.

Click here to buy.

Regular readers know I'm always digging deep for answers about why I hunt and why I love hunting. Below are some of the books that have helped shape my thinking in this area. Many of them have an academic feel to them, which can be off-putting to some folks. But these are the books on my shelves that are filled with underlining, scribbles, and notations. I know that's blasphemy to some, but that's how I have a conversation with an author, and how I cement epiphanies in my brain.

Going Wild

This book by Jan Dizard, a hunter and professor of American culture at Amherst College, is the latest in my collection that's helping me get to the root of some aspect of hunting - in this case, sorting through the various ways we all view nature.

The book focuses on a fight in Massachusetts over an agency's decision to allow hunting in a pristine reservoir watershed to control a deer population that was spiraling out of control because of the absence of predators.

What's been really interesting about this book to me is that I've realized anti-hunters aren't just motivated by a belief that we shouldn't kill animals, but by a much deeper set of beliefs about what nature is and what our role in it should be - or shouldn't be.

Click here to buy.

Woman the Hunter

This book by Mary Zeiss Stange, a religion professor at Skidmore College, looks at perceptions of women in hunting, but it's not a chick book - it's filled with intriguing insights about hunting that I'm confident many men would enjoy as well.

The first insight I got from this book was a revelation. Hunting had increased my love of, and respect for, animals, and I didn't really understand why. But when Stange wrote about the relationship hunter-gatherer cultures have with animals, it matched all the feelings that had been developing in my little brain. It felt like I had found a home in my roots as a human being. (Click here for the post I wrote after that light-bulb moment.)

Zeiss also attacks the ecofeminist notion that hunting is a male, and therefore violent, preoccupation, which is an important subject for us. I personally have been criticized for being a woman (read "life giver") who kills. And the rocket scientists over at PETA take every opportunity to portray hunting as violence.

Click here to buy.

In Defense of Hunting
This book by James Swan is one of a bunch of books that came out at a time when anti-hunters were really on the attack, not just rhetorically, but physically - they were actively disrupting hunts. Because I spend a lot of time defending hunting, this was a must-read for me.

I will say honestly that Swan, who is a psychologist, is just a bit too mystical for a cynical earthbound girl like me. But I nonetheless found myself folding page corners, underlining passages and writing notes in the margins, because the book is filled with fascinating tidbits such as this one: "The Sufis, a Middle Eastern spiritual sect, teach that there are seventy-two paths to God and they are all equal. One of these paths is the way of the hunter."

He also asserted that vegans tend to be in therapy quite a bit, whereas he's found hunters to be pretty well-adjusted. I initially thought that was really uncharitable until I started seeing some anecdotal evidence that supported his contention.

Click here to buy.


I had a love-hate relationship with this book by David Petersen. More than any other hunting ethics writer, Petersen leaves me with the impression that there is one way to be a true hunter, and if you don't hunt that way there's something wrong with you. It's the equivalent of saying the only way you can believe in God is to join a priesthood. And it pisses me off.

Petersen attacks some hunting practices - particularly high-fence hunting, but also people who don't hike a gazillion miles from the road - as viciously as the antis do, which I just don't think is helpful.

So why am I recommending this book? One, I actually like being challenged. It keeps me sharp. And two, there was just a lot of good stuff in here. For example, Petersen addresses something I've always wondered about: Why is it verboten to kill baby animals when in fact babies are prime targets for predators in nature, and making them prime targets is ultimately good for a species? Petersen slaughters that sacred cow, and every word he wrote in that chapter - charmingly titled, "The Bambi Syndrome Dismembered: Why Bambi (and Bambi) Must Die" - made sense to me.

Click here to buy.

Looking for a longer list of thinky books? Click here - there are more than I've listed here. These are just the ones that have stuck with me the most.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009

Monday, December 7, 2009

Arab tailgate shots: Birth of a dream

Phillip over at the Hog Blog wrote a post about dream hunts the other day and he asked readers, "What are yours?"

"I want to hunt in Saudi Arabia," I said, and I promised I would tell the story later. So here's the story.

It all started with a guy named "Superhunter" on the Duck Hunting Chat. Read more...
It was October 2007, just weeks before the beginning of my second season as a duck hunter, and because I hadn't yet started this blog, I was putting a lot of time into the chat. One day, there was a new post on The Honey Hole - the chat's main forum.

Headline: "Any one looking for a partner for hunting trip?"

The post:

hello all
iam so mad of hunting and willing to go wherever we could find goose and duck , iam willing to share the costs
iam 25 old and i have got 13 yers experince of hunting

best regards

The post was by "superhunter," who listed his location as "Saudi Arabia."

The first response was, "Saudi Arabia?"

There was a bit of back and forth for a while - the resident bigot had to ask if Superhunter was a Muslim (not that the question itself is bigoted, but the guy is a creep who's written a lot of posts trashing women and has had most of his posts on this thread removed by moderators). Someone had to make cracks about Superhunter's grammar (more than a little ironic, given the extreme damage done to the English language on most hunting forums).

But it wasn't too long before curiosity got the best of the American hunters, and they started asking questions.

What type of game do you have? What type of hunting do you do? Do you have coots in Saudi Arabia? Let's see some picks of those Saudi ducks!

So Superhunter put up a ton of links to the Saudi equivalent of the Duck Hunting Chat. Same kind of forum software. Same emoticons. Same signature images (like the one on the left here). Same hunter zeal to share tailgate photos of the day's take. It was just all in Arabic, and there was a ton of sand in the backgrounds.

Here are some of the photos from the links Superhunter gave:

The American hunters were captivated. What are these crazy animals? (OK, we could all ID the specklebelly geese, but not a lot of the other animals. Superhunter didn't know their names in English either.) Do you eat what you kill - are Muslims allowed to eat meat? (Yes and yes, Superhunter said.) Do the women hunt in Saudi Arabia? (OK, you can totally tell that was my question. The answer was 'rarely.')

And finally the comments:

It is good to see that waterfowlers are waterfowlers, no matter where they are or what language they speak.


Superhunter, you're welcome in my blind so long as you know to keep still when birds are working... and don't hog all the shots.

actually, this goes for everyone.

For a brief moment, most of us were able to forget the War on Terror, and our nation's deep suspicion of Muslims in general, and Arabs in particular, since Sept. 11. We all just related to one another as hunters.

Superhunter and I corresponded for a while by private message. Turns out we were both teachers - he at the high school level. He was absolutely desperate to hear details of what it was like hunting here. When I told him I was preparing for the opening day of duck season, he messaged back with advice. When I told him how the hunt went and sent pictures, he wanted more - more photos, more details.

So I began telling him stories of my (mostly unsuccessful) hunts, filled with all the detail and emotion I could muster. In retrospect, I now realize he was my first audience, and his hunger for the stories is what stoked a storytelling flame that very quickly became this blog.

I was just as hungry to hear stories of his hunts, but Superhunter had a much harder time getting out, so he didn't have as many stories to tell. It didn't matter, though. We were like two little kids in our mother's shopping carts passing each other in the supermarket - riveted by the very notion that there was someone else out there just like me.

We haven't messaged each other in quite some time now, but I haven't forgotten Superhunter. And I've been smitten with the notion of hunting in Saudi Arabia. I've always been something of a xenophile, and I love immersing myself in radically foreign cultures. I mean, how's this for a hunting tent - and check out that crazy duck! (Or is it a goose?)

I know, I know - a foreigner hunting in Saudi Arabia would be challenging enough, but a foreign woman hunting there? Imagine how hard it would be for me to mount my shotgun correctly wearing a hijab!

But how cool would that be? Africa hunting? Blah blah blah. Hemingway covered that to death, and it's on the Outdoor Channel pretty much every day of the week. Canada hunting? Too similar to the U.S., and not enough really weird animals. But hunting the vast Arabian desert and roasting my kill afterward on a fire in the sand under the big night sky? Now that would be fun.

And it looks like they've got some really fat birds there.

I think I'd like it.

Note: All the photos in this post came from the Saudi hunting forum.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009