Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Black Friday: Cazadora style, Baby!

Oh yeah, I got up at 3:45 a.m. on Friday, but not to go Christmas shopping. I got up to redeem myself!

Friday was Day 2 of my four-day Thanksgiving 2009 Blast-n-Cast Extravaganza - two days of duck hunting with our friend Brent on the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, followed by two days of steelhead fishing with our favorite guide Jon on the Trinity River.

I know my mother doesn't agree with me on this, but really, can you think of a better way to spend every day of the Thanksgiving holiday? Sorry, Mom, we promise we won't abandon you (again) for Christmas. Really.

Anyway, about that trip.
It started with a Thanksgiving morning hunt, a morning so cold that Brent told Boyfriend and me to sleep in because the ducks wouldn't fly until 11 or so. When we finally rolled out, it was the three of us plus Bill O'Leary, the Hunts National Coordinator for the New Zealand Deerstalkers' Association, who was in California to check out how we hunt ducks.

Brent motored us into a known sweet spot - ankle deep water studded with clumps of tules and backed by a field of flooded amaranth - and we proceeded to break ice to set up decoys. That open water would be a sweet duck attractant when they finally started to fly in an hour or so.

But things didn't go exactly as planned. The ducks actually started flying pretty consistently right after we set up, and just as quickly, they started falling from the sky.

We had more shooting opportunity in the first 45 minutes than I'd had for the previous four weeks. At times, there were so many ducks working that we couldn't figure out which group to shoot at - one of those "problems" most duck hunters can only dream of.

And I shot like absolute crap.

Oh, I downed my first duck perfectly, with a devastating head shot, and I would've been more excited about it if it had actually been the duck I was shooting at. But mysteriously, the one behind the bead stayed airborne while "my" duck dropped. So, yeah, no pride there. Holy crap, girl, can you mount that gun?

My next duck I just winged, so it required an assist from the other gunners.

My third duck was actually me firing the take-down shot on a bird that was clearly wounded by others in our party, but still winging away. "That counts as yours," Boyfriend told me later. I believe I glared at him.

My fourth and final duck was a teal that I thought I'd hit pretty well, but apparently Boyfriend didn't think so, so he blasted that poor little bird on its way down, which I am still grousing about.

So I was pretty grumpy at the end of my shoot. We got 20 birds between the four of us - not bad given the late start - but, yeah, I'm kinda finicky about this stuff. Maybe "bratty" is the more appropriate word.

Call me childish, but it means a lot to me to know that the bird in hand is in hand because of me, because I shot well. (Can you just hear a petulant brat saying, "I can tie my shoes myself!" while a bemused mommy gazes upon the bird's nest she will have to un-do later?)

But it was Thanksgiving, and who can stay mad when the feast is upon you? Back in Brent's neighborhood in Merrill, Oregon, a gathering was planned at Gina and Murray's house next door to Brent - four hunting couples (yes, all the wives hunt), two of their adult children, and Bill the Kiwi, who was eager to participate in his first Thanksgiving ever.

We ate turkey (one roasted, one deep-fried), venison stuffing and sweet potatoes. We told stories galore. We laughed when the remote-controlled fart machine emitted its dulcet tones from where it was duct-taped under Brent's chair. (The look of surprised guilt on Brent's face was priceless.) And we were all out of there by 8 p.m., because it wasn't going to freeze that night, and we'd be heading out at 0-dark-30.

At some point in the middle of the night, it began to rain. A little too hard. Steadily.

When the alarm went off at 3:45, Boyfriend and I got up and he said he'd decided he was going to stay in. With rain that hard, we might be in for a lackluster flight and a lot of misery.

"Well, I'm going," I said. "I don't care."

Part of it was that I will hunt every chance I've given, no matter how bad the odds are. The reason I'd had a poor four weeks of shooting before this was because I was hunting the infamous November Doldrums, which rarely shoot well - all the resident birds are educated, and the northern birds haven't come down yet.

But a big part was that I needed to get out there and shoot well.

So off Brent and I went into the darkness of Black Friday, no Boyfriend and no Kiwi, because he was off to Lake Shastina to hunt with the next hosts on his trip.

Brent got the first draw, so we motored off to hunt the same spot again. The rain began to lighten as we drove out to our parking lot, and I wondered if Boyfriend was sleeping soundly, or kicking himself.

We set up decoys total blackness, not a bit of starlight or moonlight penetrating the sodden cloud cover, and got set up in the boat, Brent on one end, me on the other. There would be total clarity today about whose shot was whose.

And Brent - who'd heard me loud and clear the day before - said he wasn't shooting anything of mine unless it was a cripple and I'd emptied my gun. I smiled, the action of my gun tucked under my arm to stay dry, my trigger hand grasping a chemical handwarmer in my pocket as we waited for shoot time to come.

The rain was on and off at this point. Who knew if it would keep raining, start snowing or clear up?

But it didn't seem to matter. We were surrounded by birds. Thousands of them. We could hear mostly wigeon, but also some pintail, and mallards, which Brent warned me wouldn't fly well in the rain.

When shoot time came, the light forgot to come with it. We could see silhouettes well enough to determine "duck" or "not duck," but with a two pintail limit and all those pins in the air, that would've been a dangerous way to shoot. So we held fire as birds practically swarmed around us.

After 10 or 15 minutes of that, we could finally make out what types of ducks were around us, and the shooting began.

My first shots missed, but shortly after that, I began dropping birds - three or four of them with single shots, all so close that Brent's black Lab Sage had easy retrieves. I still whiffed on a few shots here and there, but I wasn't blowing every shot.

The ducks started piling up in the boat.

Wigeon. Wigeon.

Brent was telling me a story when out of the corner of my eye, I saw a duck just as it was dropping into the decoys on my end of the boat. A drake greenwing teal. Good eats! I stood and raised my gun. The duck flew. I actually missed the first shot, but the second brought him down.

Brent laughed. The first he knew about the duck was the sound of my gun going off.

Wigeon. Gadwall. Fat, fat gadwall. When I dressed him later, I'd discover he'd been stuffing himself with grass seed all night.

Five birds in hand. Six for Brent. The rain had stopped and we could see thin strips of bright blue sky on the volcano-studded horizon, little nightlights under the purple storm clouds. This was truly my idea of heaven - a little wind, a lot of darkness, and birds flying everywhere.

Mallards were starting to fly now. And it was now safe to target pintails - no risk of accidentally going over limit.

So I did something I've never done before: I did not shoot at shootable ducks unless we knew they were mallards or pins.

This is unthinkable for me. Where I normally hunt, you'd better take every opportunity you get, or you might not bring home ducks. But the flight was amazing. We scarcely went a minute without birds working, so there was little risk in my strategy.

At one point, we had two pins coming in low, straight at my end of the boat. Right behind a bald eagle. Brent and I just busted up. Yeah, not gonna take that shot.

I missed a bull sprig that Brent had identified as probably one of the best he'd seen this season (oh well), but finally brought down a sizable hen.

Brent had gotten his seventh duck, so there was one to go for me. Time for a mallard.

It wasn't long before we noticed one coming in low, green head unmistakable, straight at my end of the boat. This was my holy grail, a duck practically in my lap, an unmissable shot.

Brent quacked a bit. The duck kept coming in. Fifty yards. Forty. Thirty.

At 25 I stood up, leveled my gun at him, and shot. He recoiled, but it was clear I hadn't hit him. Unmissable my ass.

But he was still just five feet off the water, so I shot again, and this time brought him down. Sage exploded out of the boat. The duck's head was up.

"Shoot him again," Brent yelled. But I would've taken out at least half a dozen of Brent's decoys. I saw Sage approaching, assessed the odds and didn't fire. The duck was swimming, but Sage overtook him.

I had my seventh bird - a fine drake mallard.

I turned back to Brent and we fist-bumped. "I thought you missed it and the concussion knocked it down," he said. "But then I saw his head sag right before Sage got him." (My autopsy later showed why - one shot through the shoulder, straight into the lungs - he was going fast.)

I did it! Seven birds. All mine. In less than 90 minutes of shooting time.

Me, being just a little silly.

It's safe to say I had a shit-eating grin on my face for pretty much the next 12 hours. Boyfriend was a good sport about it. But after the 15th or 20th time I told him how amazing the shoot was, he said, "OK, OK - enough!"

My shooting wasn't exactly glorious. Glorious would be seven birds in seven shots. I fired 25. (But God help me if I ever become that good of a shot. This blog would get boring fast if all I ever did was write about what a fantastic shot I am and how perfect my hunts are. Bleh.)

When I dressed all my birds, I was actually thrilled with my shooting, because my shots had caused very little meat damage. Lots of perfect breasts, unmarred by shotholes. And that teal I got - holy cow! Corpulent little bugger. That will probably be the best eating bird by far.

Boyfriend and I took Brent and his wife Suzy out for breakfast at Pappy Gander's in Merrill, and then we were off to the "cast" portion of our extravaganza. That didn't go as well for me - a stomach virus hit me a couple hours into our first morning of fishing and Jon had to call his girlfriend and have her give me a ride back to our hotel. We left the next morning - Boyfriend had limited on Saturday, and there was no way I was getting back on a boat.

The next day, Brent told me I'd shared the virus with three people up in Merrill - including him. Wow, way to treat your hosts, Holly.

I still can't eat much more than crackers. But I'm still smiling about that glorious Black Friday. And I'm already planning my next hunts.

© Holly A. Heyser 2009


gary said...

Sounded like a great hunt. Love it when things just turn out right.

Had that happen on Chuckers once - shot at one and the one behind fell out of the sky. You're right, it doesn't give you a lot of confidence in your shooting.

Holly Heyser said...

It sure doesn't! Picking up that bird is like accepting an award for something you didn't do.

But it made Black Friday's hunt all the sweeter. That memory will carry me through the many, many average hunts - and hopefully only a few poor ones - that lie ahead of me.

Phillip said...

Hey, you bratty, petulant, childish punk. You're killing birds! Stop yer bellyachin'!

And yeah, that's mostly jealousy that you had such a great hunt. Sounds like big fun.

Oh, and to be totally honest, I seldom accept any game into my bag that I didn't kill myself.

Holly Heyser said...

I know, I know! And sadly, I know what a brat I'm being when I'm acting that way too. I'm hoping it's the shoelace thing, which means I might actually grow out of it once I've been hunting longer.

So, when are we taking Fabio out?

Julia said...

Beautifully written and sounds like an amazing weekend (except for the stomach virus part). We missed our traditional rabbit hunt this Thanksgiving. There is something truly amazing about being out and about hunting on Thanksgiving Day that most people miss out on.

Phillip said...

How's the weekend of the 12-13 sound? Any day that weekend for a "local" hunt... probably Grizzly Island? We could sweatline it, or if we hunt Sunday, we could probably just drive in a couple hours before shoot time. Not much happening weatherwise right now... so shouldn't be too tough to get in.

r. hurd said...

I am amazed at how you can write so much so consistantly. It must be that you have something to say...I can relate on the poor shooting. Good luck with the rest of the season.

Josh said...

Holly, thank you for being so deferential to your readers and keeping a check on your shooting skills for us... although that photo would appear to contradict the claim...
Awesome stuff, Holly!

Holly Heyser said...

R, thanks! And yes, I have a LOT to say. It's congenital. Doesn't hurt that I've been a professional writer for decades.

Josh, you've got it exactly right. I shoot like crap for you and every other reader. God, I'm noble.

But yeah, that photo represents some decent shooting. It's an anomaly. I won't let it happen again.

Shewee woman said...

Holly, I can only dream of a hunt like that. Cast and Blast? Where to I find a little piece of heaven like that. The closest I came was duck hunting on Thanksgiving morning, Goose hunting on Saturday morning, and Deer hunting on Monday (my first time). Unfortunately, I came home with nothing all three days, as a matter of fact, I didn't even fire my gun once. I think I am heading to the sporting clays course for a fix. Have a great one, and I am glad you got your birds all by yourself!

Gretchen Steele said...

Great Read! I too am bratty about not taking what I didn't down.. I loved the line -
"unmissable my ass" seems I have uttered that similar sentiment more than I care to LOL . Glad you got into such a "good mess of birds" as we say in our neighborhood. We are still waiting on the migrators to really push in.. mostly just educated residents here at the moment.

SimplyOutdoors said...

It is definitely amazing when a plan comes together. Hunts like that will never be forgotten, and will be talked about for years to come.

Another great story.

Blessed said...

I did enjoy my Black Friday shopping... but I have to admit that Black Friday hunting was always a lot of fun. Hunting on Thanksgiving morning was better though - not as much competition in the marsh!

It's been so long since I fired my shotgun that I'm going to have to go shoot clays before I head out to the Marsh again!

Eric said...

Nice shooting Holly! Maybe you have reached a level of experience that you should pass on those hen sprig? A big bull sprig is always much nicer on the strap...Great story, keep up the good shooting!

Anonymous said...

To me the key statement of your entire (glorious) hunt report was this,

"So I did something I've never done before: I did not shoot at shootable ducks unless we knew they were mallards or pins."

When I read this I thought to myself, "Ah, now she's getting it! She's Graduated."

Of course I realize the dilemna of all too often not having the opportunity of making such a decision, but when you can recognize and take advantage of that opportunity it feels so GOOD!"

Unfortunately, so far this season, most of my hunt days have been "any Duck" days also. We've been far too devoid of "Mallard only" or "Greenhead only" hunt days.

But you were hunting in one of my all time favorite places to hunt waterfowl, the Klamath Basin, and when it's "good" there, it's AWESOME!

I eagerly await reading your next reports.

Bill C.-Orygun

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks everyone!

Eric: Honestly, it was so dark Friday morning that it was often very hard to spot the difference between drake and hen - particularly if the drake plumage wasn't vivid yet, or if they were coming straight at you or going away. But yes, I have gotten to the point where if I'm aiming at a group with several birds and I have the liberty of picking which duck to shoot at (i.e., I'm the only shooter on the group, so I wouldn't be taking a bird that logically should go to a shooting partner), I will target the drake - provided I can actually make the distinction.

Once the bead is on a group of ducks, though, I actually have to focus really hard to determine drake or hen. My vision gets really weird - hyper-focused on "flying object," barely noticing color. In my memory, the scenes are almost always black and white (or at least the desaturated tones that seem popular in the hunting mags these days). Hard to explain. But it does take conscious effort to single out drakes at that point.

Bill C., I have definitely graduated, but it's a graduation contingent on opportunity. I suspect days like I had on Friday will be the kind I get maybe two, at best three times a season. And while my shooting percentage should improve, I don't know that I'd ever turn down a duck on a slow day just because it wasn't a greenhead or a pintail.

Truthfully, I know this is blasphemy, but I'm not too concerned about getting a "limit of green." In the Sacramento Valley, almost every duck we have is a good eating duck, and a limit of greenwing would be just as pleasing to me (if not more) than a strap of bigger ducks. Delicious single-serving bird, ALWAYS tasty, and a strap of teal doesn't hurt my neck and shoulders like that heavy strap I was holding in the photo above.

But there are places where it's best to pass on spoonies if you can (the Delta), and cinnamon teal and wigeon can be kinda rank in the Grasslands, so it definitely is a graduation of sorts to be able to narrowly target the ducks I want. For me, that target will always be based on taste.

DarrenM said...

Nice looking strap, Holly! Hopefully you gave the rest of those birds some directions on how to get down here... Take I5 south and veer left-ish about when you hit Willows!

Don't worry, you didn't miss much on Black Friday shopping... although the line outside our local Walmart looked shockingly like the refuge sweatline on opening day.

Jon Roth said...

Nice job Holly. Hunts like that are just downright fun! Particularly in November! Still waiting on the birds down here.

native said...

Dang it Holly!
You are just havin' way too much fun, I am jealous!
I am making a promise right here and now that 2010 will find me back out in the field and "not" sitting here at this stinkin' computer all day!

Good story as always!

native said...

Not that I haven't thoroughly enjoyed blogging and all, but I miss gettin' out there with my Dawggies'.

I am afraid that they have forgotten what a Wild Boar even smells like anymore!

Recognize anything new in my profile pic.?

Holly Heyser said...

Michael, that's AWESOME! Love the photo :-)