Friday, December 31, 2010

Duck hunting in the wind: A vivid lesson

If you want to get a duck hunter around here excited, all you need is three words: "Strong north wind."

Strong north winds tend to bring really good duck hunting. They stir up the birds, and because ducks land into the wind, you can end up with a mid-air target that's virtually holding still.

But big wind is a mixed blessing, because it also makes shooting really difficult. I got a vivid reminder of that on Wednesday.

It had been a bizarre morning.
It was supposed to start with a strong south wind and rain, but neither came to fruition. Instead we had intermittent fog, and some odd atmospheric acoustic phenomenon that made gunshots sound like the thunder I remember from my days in Virginia - the sound just ripped across the marsh like a giant bowling ball roaring across gravel.

Add to that the fact that we were surrounded by a bunch of total jacklegs.

First, a couple morons walked out into the marsh right at shoot time - you know, the time when you're supposed to hunker down and let the birds come in - and set up literally 30 yards from one of the guys in my party. Not only rude, but really unsafe.

Then, the hunters to the south of us would not stop calling. Lord, they were even calling specklebelly geese which are illegal to hunt where we were. It was like going to a movie and getting stuck next to a couple chatterboxes.

And here's the kicker: I was shooting like crap. I had a duck come straight at me nice and low, and I managed to empty my gun in its general direction without so much as ruffling a feather. I shouldn't have been surprised because I know I totally suck at the coming-straight-at-me shot, but it was demoralizing nonetheless.

Eventually, I recovered my composure and managed to bring down down two birds with really nice shots - one shot each, dead on the water, didn't know what hit 'em. No suffering. My Holy Grail.

By mid morning, all the jacklegs left, and the weather finally shifted. We felt a few poofs of breeze from the northwest, and in short order it was as if we'd been transported to a wind tunnel. Now things might get good!

I decided to move to where the chatterboxes had been and see how I might do there. This was the place I would learn my lesson about shooting in the wind.

After my ferociously stormy opening weekend hunt, all my more experienced duck hunting friends had advised me to substantially increase my lead - how far ahead of the bird I aim - when hunting in strong wind. This is because a strong wind can actually blow your shot off course.

Once that wind kicked up on Wednesday, I kept this thought at the forefront. Or so I thought.

Not long after I moved to my new spot, I saw a spoonie pair coming in on my right. They swung around in front of me at perfect range, giving me a pass shot, which I love. I aimed ahead of the drake, who was flying in front:


I waited for the Luke Skywalker moment when it felt like everything was perfect, then pulled the trigger.

Bam! Bird crumples. Dead on the water.

Only it was the hen in back who fell.

Now, there's nothing quite as disconcerting as shooting at one thing and seeing something several feet away from that object fall. It makes you question whether any bird you think you've killed was actually hit by your shot. Ever. Good lord!

This didn't stop me from being cocky, though. Seeing that the hen was dead, I took two more shots at the drake, hoping for a double. I missed him.

Then he circled back and started flying straight toward me, maybe 10 feet off the water, 20 yards away.

I raised my gun, but Dammit! Gun empty. Not enough time to reload.

Just as well. I always miss those shots anyway.

After that, I didn't manage to knock any more ducks out of the sky. I blew through all my shells, and even borrowed a few from a buddy. No use. I just couldn't wrap my mind around how big that lead needed to be.

Thank God the forecast tomorrow calls for much lighter wind. Boyfriend and I are taking out two new hunters for their very first duck hunt ever, and I'd hate to shoot like a jackleg in front of them.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Monday, December 27, 2010

Hunting science: The theory of comeuppance

When I blogged last week about how well I'd been doing lately in my duck hunting, it was actually part of a scientific study of the effects of hunter bragging on subsequent hunt success.

Hypothesis: The minute a hunter says out loud (literally, or figuratively, as in a weblog), that she has been hunting really well, the duck gods will smite her by reducing her success in subsequent hunts. Read more...
Study subject: Myself.

Control data: Over a period of three weeks, I'd brought home five to seven ducks per viable hunt day. (Note: "Viable hunt day" means there were enough ducks flying to make it possible to get that many ducks.)

Ensuing chronology:

Day 60 of the 2010-11 duck season: I blogged about said success.

Day 61: I proceeded to shoot like crap. Somehow I brought home three ducks. Two were spoonies. One of those was a team shooting effort.

Day 63: On Christmas Eve morning, my friend Dana, her husband Bill and I started our hunt in grand style: Two woodies came in, bang bang, I got 'em both. One more came in, bang, Dana got him.

That was it. Those were the only ducks that came within shooting range.

Interpretation No. 1 The Gods had forgiven me - I'd shot well with what I was given.

Interpretation No. 2: The Gods thought it would be funny to get me all excited at shoot time, then leave me hanging out there in the cold for the next six and a half hours watching videos on Dana's iPhone.

Day 64: Christmas Day. That vague funny tickle at the back of my throat became a full-fledged cold.

Interpretation: Definitely hunting gods.

Day 65: In the interest of not giving myself bronchitis, I bailed on hunting. No ducks at all.

Conclusion: Publicly acknowledging one's hunting success in any medium does, in fact, reduce hunting success.

OK, hunting gods, experiment over. Thanks for working with me! I plan to head out again on Wednesday, and I can assure you I'll do so with the utmost humility.

I promise!

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Freaky: That unfamiliar feeling of hunting success

I'm in a bit of a freaky situation right now: I've been incredibly successful on five out of my past seven hunts.

I've gotten three limits of ducks - the most limits I've ever gotten in one season. I got six ducks hunting alone one day, the most I've ever gotten solo. I've shot a limit with just 15 shells, and six of those ducks required only one shot apiece - my best shooting ever. I've gotten my first double, and my first Scotch double (two with one shot - very thrifty!). I've felt so blessed with full straps that on one hunt, I handed over six ducks to a hunting partner - a form of generosity that comes only with the supreme confidence that I can get more ducks later.

All of this success leaves me feeling quite confused and concerned. Read more...
I am so accustomed to not shooting well that I fear this string of successes is a fluke that will end shortly (probably within 24 hours, now that I'm actually writing about it).

But what if it continues? What will I have to write about if I'm not frustrated and foiled at every turn in the field? I can't think of anything more boring than a hunting blog about perpetual success. That would lack dramatic tension and come off as boastful. Gag.

Every once in a while, though, this thought penetrates the swirling fog of neurosis and self-doubt: Maybe I'm just getting good at this.

Not that I'll never have a bad day again - streaks of poor shooting happen to everyone. And a streak of shooting this good may remain rare. But for the past four years, I've been striving to be a better shot and a smarter hunter, and I'm thinking maybe it's starting to work.

For the first time, I feel like I have really good news for all the new hunters I work with: It's OK if you're not great now. It's OK if your first few seasons leave you spending more time buying ammunition than plucking ducks. It's OK if you miss a lot. Why? Because eventually, your hard work will pay off.

But there are two words in that sentence that are vital: hard work.

I've spent a lot of time lately trying to dissect my success. Why is it happening now? What I've come up with is this:

Practice. Gun fit. Twelve gauge. I listed these in order of importance, but let's take it from the other direction:

The 12 gauge: I switched from a 20 gauge to a 12 gauge this year knowing that using the larger shell puts more shot in the air, which can increase my odds of success. That may be contributing to my success, but I know a 12 gauge alone isn't enough to do the trick.

Gun fit: Gun fit is huge. Some people are blessed with physiques that work well with shotguns as they are made, but not me. I shoot left-handed and have a long neck and high cheekbones, which makes gun fit tough for me. When I got my 12 gauge Beretta 3901 (I call her Sarah Connor), I ended up buying an adjustable-comb stock, which allows me to move the comb of the stock really far to the left while keeping the butt where it needs to be to hit my shoulder correctly.

If I had tried to use this gun as-is when I got it, I'd be failing miserably, because I'd never be able to get my face in the right position on the stock.

Practice: This one, I believe, is truly the most important. If you've ever read anything about success or mastery, you'll see declarations that it takes six to ten years, or 10,000 hours, of practice to get really good at something. This is the logic behind the apprentice-journeyman-master stages of many crafts.

I've been hunting for slightly more than four years now, and I've been passionate about it from the start. I hunt - especially ducks - at virtually every opportunity I find. And when there's nothing to hunt, I'm constantly looking for people to go shoot skeet with me. When my gun range, the Cordova Shooting Center, got a sweet voice-activated system for shooting skeet solo this year, that allowed me to go whenever I wanted, no partner needed.

This year, I cranked up my shooting activity to its highest level ever: I shot skeet with my new shotgun a LOT this summer, more than ever before. Come Sept. 1, I went dove hunting at every opportunity, not just once or twice as in previous years (with much gratitude to my friend Bill Templin, who graciously shared his primo spot with me). I've gone duck hunting at least once a week since the season started, and during school breaks when I can endure the sleep deprivation, I've gone hunting two or three times a week.

It's all adding up now. I've had enough successful shooting that my brain and muscles are capable of doing what's necessary without requiring conscious thought on my part - consistently, not just occasionally. Thank God. I really wondered if the day would ever come (and if you don't believe me, check out my first blog post).

New hunters, I'm here to tell you it can happen!

Of course, like I said, the fact that I'm writing this post almost certainly means I will get a mighty and humiliating smackdown, and probably very soon.

But unlike all the other smackdowns I have endured in my previous four years of hunting, I now know that I'm capable of doing well. Shooting poorly in the future won't mean I'm hopeless, as I have feared for so long now; it will simply mean I'm having a bad day.

And besides, it'll give me something to write about.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Monday, December 20, 2010

The worst part of being a female hunter

Ladies, you know what I'm talking about. Aside from finding properly fitting hunting clothing - which is getting easier all the time - the worst part of being a female hunter is dealing with your period when you're on a hunt. But I've found something that makes it a LOT easier.

Guys, this would be your cue to hit the "back" button or close your browser, though you might want to share a link to this post with the female hunter in your life. But ladies, click on "read more" if you'd like to learn about my favorite new piece of women's hunting gear. Read more...
OK, here it is: the Diva Cup.

The Diva Cup is a soft cup made of silicone that you insert into your vagina. Unlike a tampon, which absorbs blood until it is saturated, the Diva Cup merely collects it, and you can leave it in for 12 hours.

Bonus points: It's re-usable, so you're not putting more trash into the environment when you use it. Nor do you have to worry about running out of pads or tampons, or about flushing tampons down weak toilets, or into delicate septic tanks.

Until I tried the Diva Cup earlier this month, I dreaded the days when duck hunts fell on one of the heaviest days of my period. Once I leave my house at 2 or 3 a.m., all that's available to me is Porta Potties at best, or wide open marsh - filled with LOTS of other hunters - at the worst.

Suffice it to say, I'd had several unfortunate tampon or pad failures in my waders, and even when I didn't, I spent much of my time worrying about whether I would.

I think I heard about the Diva Cup in the news when it first came out a couple years ago, but I didn't give it much thought. It came up again in conversation when I was at Cal Waterfowl's Women's Hunting Camp last September, and this time I paid attention.

I was talking to one of the women about joining me on a deer hunt, and I advised her that there was no running water or flush toilets at the campground, which could be inconvenient if she was on her period at the time.

"Oh, that's no problem," she said. "I use the Diva Cup." Then she explained how it worked.

I was intrigued. Reading about something in the news is one thing. Hearing about it from a female friend who loves it casts it in an entirely different light.

So the next time I knew I'd be going duck hunting during the worst part of my period, I ordered a Diva Cup, and I can tell you now I will never go back to tampons and pads.

There is a detailed FAQ on the Diva Cup website that can answer pretty much any question you might have about the product, but here are a few key issues I can address based on my early experience:

Is it disgusting? At first, the thought of removing a cup full of blood from your body sounds a little gross. But let's face it: Is dealing with used tampons or pads any better? Not really. And...

Is there an odor problem? NO! That's the cool part. Tampons and pads interact with air, which allows bacteria to grow, and thus, odor to develop. But the Diva Cup creates an airtight seal, so there is NO SMELL. Even if I didn't hunt, I'd welcome that benefit.

Is it messy? Generally, no. You remove it while sitting on the toilet and pour the blood out right there. Then you take it to the sink and wash it out. Because there's no blood on the outside of the cup, there's no dripping between toilet and sink.

But, I will tell you something that happened to me once (it also happened to another woman I know who used it, so I'm guessing this is not an isolated problem): One time the cup was a little slippery when I was removing it, and my fingers lost their grip. Slip! Splash! Oopsie! My bathroom looked like a scene from Goodfellas.

Should this discourage you from trying it? NO! But take my advice: Keep a firm grip when removing it, and you might want to slide your bathroom rug aside until you get the hang of it. :-)

Is it difficult to use? No, but it does take a while to get it right. There is a technique to proper insertion, and it's important to get it right so you create an airtight seal.

What if I do it wrong? Will a tidal wave come gushing out? In my experience, no. If your seal isn't perfect, what you get is a little spotting. That's it. I experienced that several times, and the friend who recommended it to me did say it took her several cycles to get the insertion just right.

That said, it won't kill you to wear a panty-liner for the first couple of cycles.

What if you're going to be away from comfy bathrooms for more than 12 hours? The manufacturer recommends washing the Diva Cup thoroughly between uses, and if you're away from running water, that's not possible. But the Diva Cup website recommends wiping it as clean as possible on those occasions, then washing it thoroughly next time you can get to running water.

The site contains full recommendations for using the Diva Cup while camping, including being sure to bury the blood you pour out, and I can't imagine the instructions would be any different for long hunts - it's just camping with guns.

Will this thing give me cramps? Funny thing about that: I found that I had almost no cramping with the Diva Cup - just a little mild discomfort during the part of my period when cramps are normally the worst.

Could it be that tampons were causing my cramps? I haven't scientifically tested it, but I can tell you I have never had a period without cramps, or with cramps as minimal as they were with the Diva Cup. After using it, I talked to another friend of mine who said she couldn't use tampons because they caused her extreme cramps, so maybe there's something to this. If so, that's a HUGE added benefit of using the Diva Cup.

Where can I get one? I know from experience that they're hard to find in drug stores, so I got mine at

Holly, why are you pimping this product? Do you have shares in the company? Nope. I get no financial benefit from recommending this product to you. I paid full price and shipping for my Diva Cup, and the Diva Cup company doesn't know me from Adam. I'm sharing this with you because menstruation has been the worst part of my hunting experiences, and having a solution to that problem is too good a thing to keep secret from my fellow huntresses.

Got any more questions? You can go directly to the Diva Cup FAQ, or leave questions here by posting a comment. Just make sure you click on the option to be notified by email of new comments so you get my answer. Or, email me if you don't feel like asking your question so publicly.

And if you decide to try it out, good luck! We may not be able to get rid of our periods, but we can make them way easier than they've ever been before.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Duck hunting frenzy: The electric mallard, the pigeons, the divers and the friend

Pant pant pant!

I've been hunting like a dog: relentlessly, joyously and with utter disregard for normal sleep requirements.

See, I taught my last class of the semester last Thursday, and something snapped. My brain knew: No longer do I have to save energy for teaching and grading and advising; I can hunt when I want, hunt as much as I want, exhaust myself, sleep, and then do it all over again!

Heh heh heh. I am totally powerless to resist this impulse. I have hunted four times in the past six days, and I am still reeling from the effects of this frenzy, constantly replaying a slideshow of crystalline memories.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The brilliant morning sun is behind me. My back is pressed against cattails, keeping my body in shade - harder for ducks to see me this way. I have finally found the perfect spot in this particular clump of tules and cattails. I am on the back side, away from the roar of half a dozen hunting parties on the other side. Away from my own decoys. I've left them behind, because I kept seeing the birds over here. Where my decoys weren't.

I hear wingbeats, then catch a glimpse through some tules of two shapes zooming toward me from my right side. In a fraction of a second, they come into full view. A mallard pair.

Now, mallards are what everyone thinks of when they think of duck hunting, but for some reason I'm not very good at getting them. I don't seem to be able to identify them clearly by sight - I'm much better at identifying by sound, which isn't always an option.

But these are close. They are 10 feet over the water, 20 yards out, zooming across the water in front of me. This is the kind of shot I can nail - I'm good at this one. Really good.

As I raise my gun smoothly to my cheek, the drake becomes a vision of splendor. Every green feather on his head is glinting golden in the sun. He is sparkling. He is electric. Time slows. He is mine.

My gun swings. At the moment the lead feels perfect - right in front of me! - I pull the trigger. Nothing happens.

Nothing happens!
I've been having problems with my gun. The breech bolt isn't consistently opening all the way, or closing all the way. In this case, the latter. The gun isn't cocked. I reach up and snap it back and forth, but the ducks are gone - they have swung out of sight. My own personal sun god is gone.

The day is remarkable nonetheless: I leave with six ducks, the most I have ever gotten while hunting alone.

I'm not upset about the mallard. Shit happens. I have an appointment with my gunsmith first thing in the morning. But for some reason, the mallard I didn't get is the most vivid memory of my morning. I don't think I've ever seen a mallard look that beautiful before.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Four of us are stretched out at the edge of a field of seedling wheat, each of us in our own camouflage sarcophagus. It's my first time in a layout blind, and I'm looking forward to that jack-in-the-box moment, enormous Canada geese feet out, wings flapping, suspended midair, right in front of us. Then - surprise! - we pop up and shoot them. This is how I can successfully hunt geese! I hardly ever get geese.
But I forgot: Boyfriend and I have never had a successful guided goose hunt. Ever. Why should this day be any different?

Our guide, George, is fantastic. The setup is immaculate. The calling is stunning. But on this day, all the geese in the valley are flying high and heading south, not entertaining any offers from the ground. The guide dials up some friends who are also hunting in the region and everyone says the same thing: They're not coming down. Period.

We've got the flaps of our layout blinds open and we're all chatting, and this group of pigeons starts circling. We start talking about how much we love eating pigeon. The birds circle close, and George says we can take a shot if we can get one.

I'd love to. I've never gotten a pigeon.

But pigeons are smart, and they drop to the ground 75 yards away from us. One of the guide crew sends his chocolate Lab Maggie out to them and they lift, and then drop into the next field.

We all decide our goose hunt is over, but Boyfriend and I are still thinking about those pigeons. We resolve to put a sneak on them. All I've got is BBs, but what the hell.

An elevated dirt road is between us and the flock, and we walk toward it, crouching to avoid detection. When we reach a treeline along that road, we separate, each of us preparing to pop out from opposite ends of the line.

When we emerge, I see the birds. They are far from me, but close to Boyfriend. He fires twice, and knocks two birds down. The one closest to me is alive, broken wing flapping in futility.

"I'll get the one on the right!" I yell, and walk toward it quickly. I'm wearing waders, and the field is soft from rain - I can't run.

The flock sets down around the wounded bird, and as I get closer, I realize they're not getting up - I might get a shot of my own.

At 40 yards, I raise my gun. I will ground-shoot if that's what it takes.

But they lift just before my finger touches the trigger. Perfect. Wings up. Exposed.
I never flock-shoot - of all the rookie mistakes I've made, that's not one of them. I always pick out a bird. But not this time. I just aim into the flock and pull the trigger. One drops. I shoot again. Another drops. It is my first double, ever. And my first pigeon. Pigeons.

Both are alive, broken wings flapping. I now have three birds to chase.

Now, far be it from me to demean the act of an animal that's trying to save it's life. Honestly, that's the hardest part of hunting for me - they're alive, trying to stay that way, and I'm doing my best to thwart them. It ain't pretty.

But if anyone had videotaped what we did next, the music that would've gone with the scene would've had to be the Benny Hill theme song.

Our friend Jim joined us in the field, each of us chasing after pigeons that couldn't fly, but that were still miraculously good at dodging us. We'd lunge, and get nothing. Lunge again and get a handful of dirt. Lunge again and come up with feathers. We looked ridiculous.

But we finally got them.

As we joined the crew in packing up the goose decoys and layout blinds, I looked up and saw five pigeons from the flock sitting on a nearby power line. I imagined they were holding vigil for their friends, waiting to see if they'd escape us.
They didn't. The pigeons finally left.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

The sky is gray and the water in front of us is a pale greenish-gray. Across the water - far across the water - we see Pittsburg. We're on Suisun Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area, and we're hunting divers. Our first diver hunt ever!

Have you ever seen the episode of Benelli's American Safari in which Tom Knapp hunts goldeneye in California? We're with the guide who took him out, R.J. Waldron of Northwind Outfitters. We spend much of our morning trying to mimic Knapp's gorgeous baritone voice.

We doubt we can mimic his feat - his group bagged 21 drake goldeneyes.

But who cares? We have something on this hunt that Knapp didn't have: Chef Sheamus Feeley of Farmstead restaurant in Napa. He's an avid duck hunter. And he brought a miniature kitchen on the hunt. So while we sit on the shore of our little island, he's cooking on a folding table about 10 yards behind us. First up: home-cured ham biscuits! Delicious. Ducks come in.

I was getting all the shots at first, which was a shame, because I was missing everything. Turns out you need to get in a groove to get the lead right on speedy diver ducks. And because they fly low on the water, I could see exactly where my pellets landed in the water as they sped by. Behind. Behind. Behind.

When the seventh group of ducks comes through our decoys, 20 yards in front of us, I finally get it right. I pull the trigger and get the first kill of the day. Kills! A Scotch double. My first ever.

Two goldeneyes tumble hard into the water.

R.J. has prepared us for this: Keep shooting until you're sure they're dead, because they will dive, and you will lose them.

My ducks, it turns out, are not dead, so we all start shooting at them. One goes belly up. The other dives, and every time we see him, he's farther out. Once they get too far away, they're really good at ducking before the shot arrives.

R.J. takes his boat out on a search-and-destroy mission - one of many that day. But we never see that duck again. The second duck of my first Scotch double. But we do see a group of seagulls feasting on something on the water 400 yards away.

And I do have one goldeneye in hand. My first one!

They're so big! For some reason I thought they'd be small, like bufflehead.
Somehow, everything goes better after that. I start hitting more ducks. I get a canvasback - something R.J. doesn't see often out there. And suddenly I've reached my limit. At 9:15 a.m. Before everyone else! That never happens.

I feel guilty - like I hogged all the ducks.

But I didn't. Four hunters left with 26 birds. And very full stomachs. Thanks, Sheamus!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

My alarm goes off at 1:30 a.m. Brutal! I need to be out the door at 2 a.m. to get to Dana's house in Atwater at 4:15. Then we hunt.

I haven't seen Dana in probably two years. We met in 2007. I had just started this blog, and she liked it. She invited me to go hunting. It was incredibly fun - I was used to hunting crowded refuges, and Dana hunted on riverbanks, far from other hunters.

The setting was intimate - by the time a bird was over the opposite bank, it was in shooting range. The whole scene was like our own personal duck hunting theater, housed under the gray sky of the San Joaquin Valley winter. I fell in love with it.
For the next two seasons, though, we couldn't get our schedules to mesh. We were long overdue for a hunt.

But this was the day. When we jump in the boat to motor out to Dana's spot, two snuggly black Labs - Tule and Kid - manage to sit on my lap for the short ride out. They're happy to be going hunting. As am I.

Dana had warned me that it had been slow. I had told her I didn't care. This was about hunting with her far more than it was about killing birds.

At our spot, we set out decoys, Dana beats a little opening in the tules for a makeshift blind and we pour coffee and tea, waiting for the first sounds of duck wings.

We talk and talk. About students (she has taught too). About young people these days. About life and death. About the connection hunting gives us to the earth, restoring us to what is right, removing us from a man-made world that is insane. About how right we believe it is that our bodies should feed and sustain other animals after we die - it's only fair.

The talk was never this deep during our hunts that first season together. I wasn't there yet. Dana had been hunting for two decades, but I'd been hunting for just a year, and all I knew was that I loved it. I didn't understand why.

But now I did, and it pleased me so much that we were on the same page. When you let a young friendship lie fallow for two years, you never know what will happen when you see each other again.

Not a single duck came in shooting range all morning. A storm was coming in, and apparently they weren't in the mood to play - they were just on the move.
"I'm sorry we didn't get any ducks," Dana said for the 10th time as we picked up decoys.

Three years ago, two years ago, even last year, I might have felt sorry myself (or sorry for myself). But I'm doing really well this season. It no longer feels like every duckless day is an indictment of my hunting skills. I know the difference between hoping and expecting. And I know what I want out of a hunt.

I grinned. "I really don't care. I came here to see you."

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Ducksnobbery: Precious moments in duck hunting

"That's a spoonie," Charlie said.

We were watching a duck that had just been shot at - unsuccessfully - by a hunter in a tule patch to the south of us at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. It was now flying toward us.

Many duck hunters spurn spoonies. They can taste pretty foul because their diet typically includes a lot of algae and invertebrates. Add to that the fact that they're surprisingly small and they have the dorkiest bill in all of duckdom (think clown shoes) and you've got the single most unpopular duck in our flyway.

Of course, Boyfriend and I have found that most Sacramento Valley spoonies gorge on rice and taste just fine as a result, so normally we have no qualms about putting them on our straps. We couldn't care less about killing only prestige ducks - we're all about the food.


But on Sunday, my buddy Charlie and I were having an epic shoot, one of those days when the ducks just kept coming. The teal - one of the best-tasting ducks I've ever eaten - had finally arrived in the valley, and they were swarming around us like mosquitoes on a Minnesota hiker who got stranded at the lake without DEET.

"Definitely a spoonie," Charlie confirmed.

My strap at this point included five teal and a wigeon. I needed one more duck to fill out my limit. As that just-shot-at duck arced toward us, I thought to myself, "Do I really want to risk putting a duck that might taste bad on such an immaculate strap?"

I kept my eyes on the bird, but I could just feel my pinky almost levitating off of my gun.


The duck drew closer, a dark silhouette against the gray sky, coming in at what would've been an excellent angle for me. I'm an average shot at best, but this was a shot I knew I could make ... if I wanted to risk tarnishing my strap.

My gun stayed in my lap as the duck entered shooting range. As it passed in front of me, I finally got a clear look at the bill and body. And I did not see the clown-shoe attachment on the front of its face.

"That's not a ...."


My mouth agape, I stared at Charlie.

"That wasn't a spoonie! You said that was a spoonie!"

He was getting up.

Wait a second. I'd just heard a splash.

"Did you kill that bird???"

"Yes," he said, sloshing away. Shortly after that, he brought back a gadwall. Boyfriend and I love gadwalls!

Charlie was chuckling to himself. He hadn't even been holding his gun when the bird got close enough to ID. Right about the time I was informing him that he was mistaken when he called this duck a spoonie, he was grabbing his gun and pow! Duck down.

Charlie was gloating.
About shooting what should've been my seventh duck!

Of course, I did end up getting my seventh duck shortly after that - another wigeon, and quite the fatty. And I did swap one of my teal for that purloined gadwall, so I got my bird after all.

But somewhere in here is a lesson. It might be that snobbery doesn't suit me well. It might be that I should never rely on others to identify incoming ducks. It might be that it's more important to shoot quickly than to correct your hunting buddy quickly.

However, would I admit any of the above to Charlie? Hell no! I'm having a much better time carrying out the threat that I made when he returned to our tule patch with that gadwall.

"You are never going to hear the end of this!"

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Christmas gifts for hunters - aka "Stuff I like"

Because I am very good at spending money, I have acquired a whole new list of holiday gift recommendations this year for the hunter in your life. Or for yourself, because, hey, you deserve it!

ART THAT NON-HUNTERS CAN LOVE: Most hunting photography I see is pretty predictable, which is why I don't have much of it in my house. But the photographer who routinely breaks out of that mold is Delta Waterfowl's Fred Greenslade.

The photo above is the most charming photo I have ever seen of a wood duck pair, and if you click here, you can purchase that photo, check out other photos in his wood duck collection, or browse his whole collection, which is awesome.

I actually ordered this photo and I can tell you the service Fred uses, SmugMug, packaged the photo flawlessly to protect it in transit, and it shipped extremely fast. Between service like that and Fred's talent, you can't go wrong with a purchase like this.

Price range: $7.50-$95, depending on the size of the print.

BRAIN CANDY FOR THE MILITANT OMNIVORE: If you've been here much, you know by now that I really like arguing, particularly in defense of hunting and eating meat.

If your favorite hunter likes arguing too, or just wants to be informed about how our dietary choices can affect our bodies and the planet, you've got to check out Lierre Keith's Vegetarian Myth. Keith is a former vegan who believes that diet wrecked her health, and this book is an extremely critical look at the purported moral, health and environmental benefits of the vegan/vegetarian diet.

This book has really shaped my understanding of the impacts of the modern diet - even as practiced by fellow omnivores - and it's a great read. If this one doesn't float your boat, be sure to check out my other book recommendations on the right side of the page here.

CRAWL ON YOUR HANDS AND KNEES MUCH? If your favorite hunter does, a pair of these neoprene knee pads from Blackhawk might make that a little more comfortable.

Notice I said "might." That's because I haven't purchased these yet. I read about them in Field and Stream a couple months ago in a story about antelope hunting and thought I should get myself a pair so I could be a little more rugged in my deer hunting. Then my deer hunting was kinda DOA, and now it's all ducks all the time.

But duck hunting is why I think these sound good: My waders have neoprene knee pads, and they enable me to drop to my knees quickly and without concern - which can be really nice when you see game and need to duck fast.

Price: $34.

SPEAKING OF WADERS... I would be nuts not to mention that Cabela's Cazadora Women's Waders - which I helped develop along with my friend Sarah a couple years ago - now come in 5mm neoprene, in addition to the 3.5mm neoprene model that came out in 2009.

Still no lightweight breathable versions yet, but one thing at a time.

Why do women need waders designed for them, you ask? Why can't your wife or girlfriend make do with what's out there for men and kids? Simple: Children's waders fit most of us poorly, and men's waders don't have boots that are small enough for most of us.

Unlike other women's hunting clothing, women's waders aren't about getting that perfect fit. They're waders, folks - nothing attractive about 'em. And even these waders have that one-size-fits-all feel that will not be perfect for everyone. (Mine, for example, have, er, too much room in the chest.)

But having a bit too much room in some places sure beats clomping around in boots that are two or three sizes too large for you.

Price: $180.

IS YOUR FAVORITE HUNTER A WOBBLY SHOT? Personally, I am, and I'm probably years away from being able to shoot off-hand.

When I first started hunting big game in 2008, I bought a bi-pod shooting stick and hated it. It wasn't steady enough, and I didn't like the rest for the gun. So this year I bought the Shooters Ridge Tri-Leg Shooting Sticks - basically a fancy version of the stuff they use in Africa - and I love them.

Now, the only hitch is that I haven't actually shot anything using them, because I didn't get a shot at any deer this year, and I have to shoot from a bench at my local shooting range.

But I do use this when I'm practicing in the back yard using the snap caps Albert Rasch made for me, and I've been much happier with how sturdy these are.

They travel compact: Each leg breaks down into three pieces held together by elastic - like tent poles for dome-style tents. When assembled, you adjust the height by simply moving the legs closer together or farther apart - no rings to turn. The top part where your gun rests is rubber coated to resist slipping and scratching.


Yes, I am biased about Prois - I'm on the Field Staff. But the reason I agreed to be on the Field Staff is because I love the hunting clothing Prois owner Kirstie Pike makes. And Kirstie's pretty awesome too - very genuine and fun.

Some of my favorite items are the technical shirts, both for hunting and shooting. The wicking fabric is super comfortable and excellent for some of the high temperatures we experience here in California's Central Valley. But cruise around the catalog and check out what else Kirstie's got - her collection has expanded a lot since she opened for business in 2008, and she has clothing for all climates.

Prices vary.

HOW DOES YOUR FAVORITE HUNTER'S SHOTGUN FIT? If s/he shoots inconsistently, that might mean his/her shotgun doesn't fit well. I've encountered that problem with every new shotgun I've gotten, because 1) I shoot left-handed, and 2) I have a super long neck and high cheekbones, which might be good for models (not that I'd know), but it's really bad for your gun fit.

I can recommend two solutions, both of which I've tried with great success:

1) GET THAT GUN FITTED. A well-trained stock man, gun-maker or gunsmith can make little adjustments in the length, cast (left-right tilt) and drop (vertical tilt) that help drop your cheek in the same spot on the stock every time, meaning you're going to hit more targets. Period.

My go-to guy is Dale Tate at the Camanche Hills Hunting Preserve in Ione, about an hour out of Sacramento. You can reach him at 209-763-9040. Every fitting comes with a shooting lesson, which means he gets to see how the gun is working for you, and if he sees any problems, he can and will take it apart and make more adjustments if he doesn't think it's just right.

People from all over the country take their guns to Dale. He's that good. (I should also mention he used to work at James Purdey & Sons, back in his native England.)

And he also makes guns, if you happen to have that kind of money. (And you know what they say - if you have to ask how much it costs, then you probably can't afford it.)

The first hunt I went on after getting my Beretta 391 adjusted by Dale, I had my best day of duck hunting ever - four ducks, and I'd never gotten more than two before. The difference was that noticeable, and that fast.

Price: Call for price on fittings - it'll be several hundred dollars (and worth every penny, no matter how much your gun cost, because hitting your target is priceless).

2) GET AN ADJUSTABLE-COMB STOCK, which allows you to make your own drop and cast adjustments. If your gun has a synthetic stock - as does my Beretta 3901 - this solution can work really well for you, because synthetic stocks are a lot harder to fit the traditional way than wood stocks are.

I bought my adjustable-comb stock from Fitaski, which makes stocks for Berettas and Remingtons, and I've been really happy with it. I had my shooting instructor, Harv Holcomb, install it for me, but since then I've been able to make my own adjustments. During skeet season, I had it so I could see a bit more rib on the gun so my barrel wouldn't obscure the clays. During duck season, I've dropped it so I can't see the rib at all.

My biggest concern when I got it was that it would catch on tules out in the field. You don't see adjustable combs out in the duck blinds hardly ever - they're mostly popular with clay shooters. But I had nothing to worry about - that stock hasn't snagged on anything yet this season, and believe me, there have been plenty of chances.

Price: I paid $200 plus shipping for my stock.

Update: I would not buy this stock again - there is a serious flaw in the interior design that results in the stock coming loose frequently. Email me if you want a detailed explanation.

IS YOUR HUNTING HONEY'S GUN SAFE TOO CROWDED? Check out rifle rods from Gun Storage Solutions.

They work simply: You staple a sheet of Velcro to the underside of the top shelf in your safe. You drop one of these big "pins" into the barrel of your gun, set the gun butt-down in the safe, then lift the pin until it connects with the Velcro. Voila! It holds the gun straight up - no need to lean it on other guns.

I've been super happy since I got these earlier this fall. Getting guns into and out of the safe is really easy now. No more swearing!

Price: I paid about $40 for a set of 10 rods.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Monday, November 29, 2010

Duck hunting: The X, the flight path to the X and nowhere near the X

Perhaps you've never heard of "the X," but for duck hunters, it is our Holy Grail, the mysterious force that determines whether we have an excellent day of hunting or we go home muttering, "At least we don't have any plucking to do tonight."

The X, simply put, is where the ducks want to be at any given time. In places where hunters have a lot of room and freedom to move around, the most successful ones are those who can consistently figure out where the X is and put themselves in that spot.

But the X has a crazy habit of moving, and when that happens, the results can be stunning - as I found out last week. Read more...
Thanksgiving is the time for our annual pilgrimage north to hunt the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge with my friend Brent.

This year, we knew the hunting might be challenging, because a cold snap had plunged the region into single digits the weekend before, and temps were going to drop again on Wednesday. That's the kind of weather pattern that can send most of the waterfowl south. But I was pretty sure we'd still see birds: Brent's a good hunter who makes it his business to know where the X is.

And besides, I already knew the cold-morning strategy from the year before, and I liked it: Sleep in, because the ducks just don't move early when it's that cold.

We headed out midmorning on Thanksgiving and cased an icy field where the birds had been feeding lately - the X! Then we motored over to our chosen spot.

Now, we didn't put ourselves precisely on the X; other hunters had beat us to the spot. But we weren't really hot about the whole layout-blind-on-ice thing anyway, me being something of a wuss about the cold, and the temperature being somewhere around 10. So we staked out a spot at the edge of the field.

And very quickly it became clear we were on the next best thing to the X - the flight path to the X.

It wasn't lights-out shooting, but we had a pretty steady stream of ducks and geese coming in right over our heads en route to the X. By the time shoot time ended at 1 p.m., we'd bagged three specklebelly geese, one Canada goose, a mallard, a pintail and a wigeon. Not bad for a hunt in the middle of a cold snap.

That night after our Thanksgiving dinner, we plotted what we'd do the next morning. That spot had worked really well - so well that it would behoove us to make sure we got there first the next day. Scratch the sleep-in strategy and set the alarms for 4 a.m. - we're going in!

I think it was 15 degrees when we headed out, and the journey in Brent's boat was slow and gratingly loud with three inches of ice to break on the canal. But that's the price you pay when you want to be there first, and it seemed like it was worth it to not only get our spot again, but get there a little earlier.

We settled in, watched the sun rise and waited for the ducks to come.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

"Release the mallards!" Brent cried. The gods did not heed him.

We'd seen a few geese here and there, but we were beginning to wonder if all the ducks really had headed south - back to where Boyfriend and I normally hunt.

Finally, around 11 a.m. - after six hours of sitting there playing the kind of mind games one plays to pretend one is not seriously cold - Brent uttered the magic words: "Ducks over the field!"

Game on!

These ducks weren’t near us, but it didn’t matter. We were on full alert now. Ducks could come in from anywhere.

They could.

But we soon realized they weren't.

It took maybe 10-15 minutes to see what was happening:

1. The X had moved a bit. Rather than being near the center of the field, it was now near the corner of the field. Where all the trucks were parked. Honestly, I think anyone with a shotgun hiding behind the Porta-Potty would've gotten a limit pretty quickly.

2. Apparently there had been a change of flight plan that we had not been informed of. Rather than flying over us en route to the X, the ducks were now entering the airspace over the field a good 200-300 yards to our west, flying to the north end of the field, banking east, and descending steadily to the X, only to scatter when the lucky bastards near the Porta-Potty fired their guns.

Honestly, if I hadn't been hoping to kill a few of those ducks, I would've been purely delighted to watch it play out. The precision and consistency with which the birds followed this path would've earned the admiration of the most demanding air traffic controllers. It was stunning.

We just shook our heads.

I understand why the X has to shift - ducks go where the food looks good, and you can't park in the same spot every day and expect the food to grow back.

But that flight path! Sure, there were some flocks that didn't follow it, but easily 90 percent of the ducks in the air did. And while my puny human brain can understand why animal migration paths stay the same for generations, I'd really like to know what happens to make all these ducks abruptly change plans - not just where to eat, but how to get there - then follow the new flight plans with such precision.

When 1 p.m. heralded the end of shoot time, we unloaded our guns, picked up decoys and headed back to the truck with not a single bird on our straps.

Back at the boat ramp, I was talking to the guys who'd been closest to the X, and they said they'd bagged 13 ducks in an hour.

"How'd you do?" they asked.

"Nothing," I said, shrugging. "We weren't on the X, and we weren't on the flight path to the X."

And truth be told, I'm OK with that. To me, witnessing such a spectacle ranks right up there with some of my more spectacular shoots.

As long as it doesn't happen too often.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

So much for nice weather in November

Normally this is the time of year I complain about the beautiful weather. What most hunters would give anything for - warm, sunny days with, at most, light wind - is horrible for duck hunters.

But this season has been seriously weird. We hunted in an insane storm on opening weekend, 40 mph winds and driving rain. A huge storm blew in this weekend right when Boyfriend and I were getting out into the field at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. And now, on the eve of our annual Thanksgiving pilgrimage to the Lower Klamath to hunt with our friend Brent, it appears blizzard is setting in up there.

And it's not even December yet!
Now, hunting in the rain is one thing. Boyfriend hates it because he wears glasses, and it's a constant battle to keep his vision clear, but for some reason I really revel in it. There's something delicious about sitting in a marsh, rain pounding the back of my head, water dripping off the bill of my cap, knowing that sane people are watching football or bundling up in front of fireplaces, but that I am in this magical place where I might be lucky enough to get a couple of the best-eating animals on earth.

But cold? Yeah. I really don't like cold. I can be one tough chick in the rain, but stick me in a marsh when it's 20 degrees out and I have issues.

The first time I hunted in serious cold (yes, everyone east of California, I consider the 20s to be serious cold), Boyfriend and I were hunting geese in a flooded rice field somewhere in the Chico area. It was clear as a bell, windy as hell, and somewhere in the low 20s. We set our decoys in the water and watched as ice quickly formed around them.

I was absolutely freezing, and because the hunting was really lame that day, I didn't fire more than a couple shots, which means even my gun was cold. Pathetic.

I chugged coffee to stay warm. And when nature called as a result of drinking all that coffee, I informed boyfriend that there was no way in hell I was baring my butt in that icy wind - I was done.

Sacrilege! Yes, leaving a duck hunt early is like leaving a baseball game before it's over. I still feel guilty about it.

That was nearly four years ago. And I really hope I've toughened up a bit, because the forecast for Klamath on the days I'll be hunting this week is for lows in the 20s and highs in the 30s.

I've done what I can. I bought a massive box of chemical hand-warming packs at Costco. I've blown hundreds of dollars at REI stocking up on SmartWool undergarments (which, by the way, are on sale this week). And I'm trying to go zen about it.

And of course, I'm hoping for good hunting. Nothing like a good shoot to make you forget all about physical discomfort.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bear hunting: A tale of two polls

I seem to have bear on the brain these days. Got my first bear tag ever this year, but I haven't filled it yet. Ate my first bear ever tonight, and damn, it was good. And then there's the latest in the bear wars.

A couple days ago, I came across this delightful little gem: The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that a majority of New Jersey voters believe bear hunting should be allowed "if wildlife scientists conclude that bears are exceeding their recommended habitat limits and are destroying private property."

Well, isn't that interesting! I distinctly remembered a poll commissioned by the Humane Society of the U.S. in New Jersey this spring that made it seem like New Jerseyans hate bear hunting. "New Poll Reveals NJ Residents Oppose Trophy Hunting of Black Bears," the headline blared.

So what's going on here? Look below the headlines and you'll see.

But first a little background: New Jersey was one of HSUS' bear battlegrounds this year. The state, faced with burgeoning bear populations, wanted to allow bear hunting again for the first time in some years.

California also wanted to expand bear hunting this year because it's seeing similar growth in bear populations, and HSUS fought the bear wars here too. In fact, I wrote back in April how peeved I was that every HSUS quote about the bear debate in California referred to "trophy hunting" of black bears.

The public takes a dim view of the notion of people hunting just for a head on the wall, so HSUS starts flinging around the word "trophy" whenever it wants to win on a hunting issue. Never mind that putting a head on your wall does not preclude feeding your family with the meat. Never mind that it's illegal to waste bear meat in California.

Long story short, Cali officials backed down in the face of HSUS histrionics, while New Jersey stood firm and its bear hunt will take place Dec. 6-11.

Now, back to those dueling polls. Let's take a look at the first question in the HSUS-commissioned poll:

The state of New Jersey has protected black bears since 1970 with only two trophy hunts permitted in the past forty years. The state is now considering allowing hunters to kill up to 400 black bears. Do you support or oppose hunting of black bears in New Jersey?

Amazingly, despite the loaded language, 35 percent of respondents (registered voters) said they support bear hunting. Forty-five percent opposed it; 20 percent said they were undecided.

Fast-forward to October, when Fairleigh Dickinson University does a PublicMind poll of New Jerseyans on the issue. It split a bunch of registered voters into two groups and asked each one a different version of the bear-hunting question. Here's the first one:

Now thinking about New Jersey wildlife including bears, do you agree or disagree with allowing bear hunting in New Jersey if wildlife scientists conclude that bears are exceeding their recommended habitat limits and are destroying private property?

Honestly, that's just as loaded as the HSUS question. HSUS painted bears as victims of trophy-hungry hunters; this poll painted humans as victims of out-of-control bears. And the results are predictable: 53 percent supported bear hunting under those conditions, 36 percent opposed it and 11 percent were unsure.

Then there was the second question, stripped of emotional taint:

Now thinking about bear hunting in New Jersey in general, do you approve or disapprove of allowing a bear hunting season in New Jersey?

The results? Forty-nine percent approved, 33 percent disapproved, 18 percent weren't sure.

If you look at it in a chart, it's pretty clear:

In case you're wondering, the margin of error refers to the accuracy of the poll. In the case of the HSUS poll, its margin means that if you actually counted all New Jerseyans' opinions on this matter, the results would be no more than 4 percentage points higher or lower than the numbers in the poll results. That figure is 5 percentage points for the Fairleigh Dickinson poll, making it less accurate than the HSUS poll. But even if you factor in those margins, you still get statistically significant variations depending on how you ask the question.

Now, strictly speaking, it's not a good idea to stack two different polls against each other, particularly when they were taken six months apart, using different methodologies. But I think there's a valid point to be made here: If you run around saying "Trophy hunt! Trophy hunt! Trophy hunt!" - which is exactly what HSUS was doing last spring at the time of its poll, not to mention in the poll question itself - it does affect public opinion.

And that's why I call BS on the HSUS when it trots out this rhetoric - it's a bad idea to let it go unanswered.

For the record: Do you want to know what kind of trophies we dig in my house? This kind:

Those are pelmeni, Russian bear dumplings. The bear was courtesy of Cork Graham, and the food was prepared, of course, by Boyfriend, who blogged about it here. It was my first taste of bear ever, and it was amazing - distinctive in a way I can only describe as sturdy, but not at all overbearing (pun slightly intended). It had a little whiff of porkiness, but not much. It was damn good. I want more.

Bear hunting, anyone?

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Monday, November 15, 2010

Impending glory: The magnificent story of Sarah's first duck hunt ever

I go into pretty much every hunt with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning, probably because I still am a youngster in terms of how long I've been hunting. But this Sunday morning, there was a little extra sizzle in my anticipation.

Not only would it be my first hunt of the season with Alison and Darren - whom I'd hunted with on the closer last season - but this time we'd be joined by Darren's wife, Sarah, who was one of the graduates of the Cal Waterfowl Women's Hunting Camp this September. It would be her first duck hunt!

Making things even better was the forecast: north wind, 10-15 mph. Nothing like a brisk north wind to stir up the ducks.

We met at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area at 3:25 a.m., picked our hunting spot, then headed out to set up. The wind was almost non-existent, but it was supposed to pick up.

And we could hear lots of birds around us - the meep of gadwalls, the squeaky whistle of wigeon, the wicked-witch cackle of teal hens, the fluting of pintails and the unmistakable quack of the loudmouth of the duck world, the hen mallard. Ah, my favorite symphony.

As shoot time approached, we still had no wind, except for the sound of vast flocks of birds crossing over us high in the air. As it became lighter, we could see them, and I can honestly say I've never seen anything like it - wave after wave after wave of ducks! Makes me all tingly just to remember it.

The only problem was that the ducks pretty much stayed at that elevation. And the wind never came up. Ever.

A couple ducks accidentally flew at the outer edge of our shooting perimeter - including a canvasback that hurtled through at rocket speeds - and we took a few unsuccessful shots at them. Then it was immense nothingness.

First we relaxed our guard a bit.

Then Alison declared it was time for her to do yoga, because that's what everyone from Berkeley does in the morning.

Then Darren and I began trying to teach Sarah and Alison how to blow mallard calls. I took some pictures of Darren's demonstration, but they're rated R, so I'll just leave that scene to your imagination. Just understand it was twice as bad as what you are imagining at this moment. Suffice it to say I nearly peed myself laughing.

Still no ducks.

Alison played "Pop Goes the Weasel" on her Mickey Saso 8-in-1 call. I played the theme song to Jeopardy. Then - and I really can't recall how we came up with the idea - we began playing all of our calls at once:

We didn't worry about pissing off other hunters, because there were no ducks in the air. We know, because when we stood up, we could see for a mile in every direction.

We traded food. Darren and Sarah brought about ten pounds of snacks with them. Alison brought a spicy trail mix. I brought mixed nuts and dried cherries, which no one wanted. (Sarah did, however, explain why everyone's least favorite nut - the Brazil nut - is always included in mixes. Something about being a superfood loaded with good nutrients.)

While we sat there chewing, I looked out on the water in front of us and spied a low-flying squadron of ducks. Six of them.

"Hup! Ut! Up!" I stammered urgently. "Those are ducks!"

The birds swung around Darren and Sarah's side of the blind so low that they never saw them through the dried flowers that lined the edge of our island. By the time I had my gun in hand and the ducks had gotten safely past Darren and Sarah's faces, they were a mile away.

"Had to be buffleheads," I said, explaining that it was my life's goal to kill a bufflehead so I could call myself Holly the Bufflehead Slayer.

As I was discussing the relative merits of eating buffleheads - not that I would know first-hand - the squadron returned for another Mach III swing past our blind.

"DAMMIT!" I shouted at them. That was so wrong.

If those little bastards were going to keep speeding past us with impunity, then we'd be ready for them. We all left our pit blinds and staked ourselves out at noon, 3 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 9 o'clock on the island - all standing so we'd see them coming and get good shot angles, no human faces in anyone's way.

Nothing was going to get past us!

And unfortunately, nothing was going to come near us either.

By the time we admitted defeat around 10:15 a.m., an armada of floating spiders had created a network of webs between all of our decoys. Seriously. When we picked up decoys, we had to shake three or four spiders off of every plastic bird.

And they must've been active all over the marsh that day, because on the walk back to our car, we were busting through long strands of spiderweb non-stop. We were certain we'd look like cotton candy by the time we returned to our cars. It was the marsh's final Eff you! of the day.

Back at the car, we wiped the camo paint off our faces, packed our gear into our cars and gave each other good-bye hugs. Then I told Sarah something every duck hunter hates to say.

"At least we don't have any plucking to do tonight."

Oh well. The season is still young.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Friday, November 12, 2010

The West: Where women love to hunt

I am rarely at a loss for words, particularly when it comes to the latest stats on women hunters (I'm thinking here of my last screed on the topic). But I've come across some new data that I'm not quite sure how to interpret.

Back in September, a friend turned me on to this study by Southwick Associates, "A Portrait of Hunters and Hunting License Trends: National Report." The study is based on actual hunting license data from 17 states, which means its basic numbers are super sturdy - an actual count, not an extrapolation based on a small sample size.

The results affirm the basic gender breakdown of hunters found in the most recent U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's National Survey: Nine percent of hunters nationwide are women.

But it goes on break the numbers down by region, and that's where we see that the West has the highest percentage of women hunters - 13 percent, which is nearly half again the national average. The Southeast has the lowest percentage of women hunters - 7 percent.

Here are the charts from the study:

I'm just not quite sure how to explain this without falling into a giant stinking vat of stereotypes about independent Western women, but something's definitely going on here.

As you could see from the map above, California wasn't one of the states in the study. But from where I sit, I can't imagine we'd drag down the numbers if we were included in it.

When I went duck hunting the past three weekends, I saw at least three other women at the refuge check station at 0-dark-30 each time.

I'm seeing a strong interest among women here to start procuring meat with a gun instead of a grocery cart, based on participation I've seen in women's shooting and hunter ed events.

And if I want to organize a girls' weekend out (in the field, not on the town, of course), I have so many hunting girlfriends I could invite that it would be no problem pulling it off.

But none of that answers the question why, which is of course what I want to know. Anyone else out there have any thoughts on the matter?

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Serendipity: Hunting, art and happiness

When you kill an animal, it seems to me you owe it to someone - God, Mother Nature or the animal himself - to make the best possible use of his body.

Boyfriend and I do the best we can: We pluck birds instead of breasting them out. We save their gizzards, livers and hearts if they're in good condition. We use their feet and bones to enrich broths.

But one thing we've always tossed aside without too much thought has been the feathers. Until now. Read more...
A couple weeks ago, one of my students - Leidhra, the editor in chief of the campus newspaper - came to school wearing these beautiful feather earrings. I recognized some of the feathers as something I might pluck off of any number of ducks we kill.

"Where'd you get those?" I asked.

"My mom made them."

I smiled. "I could give her a lot of feathers like that."

And so was born a new partnership. Instead of throwing away all those feathers that litter our garage floor in the winter, I would start setting aside some of the most beautiful for Leidhra's mom, Jennifer.

The first hunt day in this partnership, however, would be challenging: I'd brought home four hens (mallard, canvasback, spoonies) and one drake wigeon whose plumage hadn't fully developed yet.

Brown, brown, brown. Oh no.

So I started plucking, but with a new eye, one that looked for beauty in every single feather.

And it turned out beauty was everywhere.

A hen canvasback isn't just brown - there is a bronze-ish sheen to many of her feathers. I'd pay damn good money for a jacket in those colors and textures.

The ordinary shoulder feathers of a mallard and spoonie may appear drab from our normal perspective, but looked at individually, they bear a multitude of beautiful patterns of cream and brown.

The feathers of the speculum on a hen mallard are just as brilliant as a drake's. And her tail feathers sport a lovely mottled pattern of gray and white.

I dropped each little beauty into a box and took it to school, wondering whether Jennifer would like them.

I needn't have worried: She was thrilled, and not just because these would cost her a small fortune at a fly shop, where she normally gets them. Each new feather I showed her was like a magnificent Christmas present under the tree, its beauty something to be fully appreciated before moving on to the next one.

Another student who's Native American, Brittany, saw what we were doing in my office and came in for a closer look. She makes dream catchers, and asked if I might have some feathers for her too.

"Absolutely!" I said.

She told me her grandmother had hunted (and was pretty badass, too), and she had burned it into the kids' brains that you don't waste any part of an animal you kill.

This week, I came home with some beautiful drakes - pintails and a gadwall - and Jennifer was even more dazzled.

And I decided to surrender something I'd been saving: a bag of all varieties of feathers from the turkey I killed this spring.

I'd saved those feathers with an art project in mind. I envisioned a wall-hanging of deconstructed turkey, the feathers arranged in swirly, very un-turkey-like patterns on a flat surface (man, I just can't go for normal taxidermy). But I realized my life is too busy for an art project of that complexity, and I'd found two women who would make use of those feathers right now, and probably do a better job of it.

I feel giddy about this, and I'm trying pin down why.

I think part of it is that more of these birds will not only be used, but will be glorified in art. Part of it is having a non-hunter see and appreciate some of the beauty I see every time I pluck a duck (I've invited Jennifer to come over for plucking sometime so she can pluck to her artist-heart's content). Part of it is the simple joy of sharing.

But I think it's inescapable that part of it is also about revering the birds I kill. I know my saying that that makes many non-hunters cringe, if not guffaw, just as I know every hunter who reads this will know exactly what I mean.

The animals we hunt are a gift to be treasured: to be treated with respect when they're alive, and appreciated fully when we kill them. I feel like I've just taken one step in a direction toward much deeper appreciation. And it feels good.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010