Sunday, January 31, 2010

Question du jour: What's hunting got to do with respecting animals?

I did a radio interview last week with Radio Netherlands Worldwide about hunting as an alternative to buying factory-farmed meat, and after I left the studio, I couldn't stop thinking about this one word that I'd kept saying in reference to meat and animals: "respect."

In particular, I talked about how much more I respected animals since I started hunting. I've said that many times before, but in this interview, I also talked about how I grew up in a family that raised animals for meat.

Afterward, that left me wondering: Taking responsibility for killing animals that provide your meat increases your respect for the food they provide. But why was it that hunting increased my respect for the animals themselves? Read more...
I'd answered that question for myself before: When you hunt, you see animals at their full potential - most often doing their best to evade you, but also exhibiting playfulness, resourcefulness and - in the event you wound one - sheer will to live. Sometimes you win. More often than not, they do. Wild animals are not the defenseless, cowering Bambis so many non-hunters think them to be.

So why the hell hadn't I respected animals when I raised them for food? Suddenly, the dots connected: Those animals weren't free. They could be playful, or even manipulative, but they rarely showed resourcefulness or cunning because they didn't have to. They simply waited to be fed every day. Or milked. Or slaughtered.

I didn't respect them because they weren't free to be what they really are meant to be. They were just slaves.

This was an interesting little revelation in light of the fact that I also mentioned during this interview that hunting connects me to what I truly am - what my species and its antecedents have been for 2 million years. What I am meant to be.

And the more I hunt, the more I look at non-hunting people around me and feel sorry for them, because they don't even know what they've lost.

This revelation also struck me because one defense I have heard from some people who eat meat but hate hunting is that domestic animals were meant to be eaten while the wild animals I shoot would be running around happy as a clam if I just didn't pull the trigger.

That defense has always pissed me off because it sounded so much like one of the rationalizations for for black slavery in America: They're meant to be slaves. They're born into it. So it's OK to eat captive animals. But wild animals weren't born for that. It's not OK to eat them.

Of course, the fact is, we're all destined to become food for something else, whether we're eaten by sharks or mountain lions or we merely feed grass and trees and mushrooms wherever we're buried. And I have no problem eating animals, wild or domestic.

But it bothers me that people - some people, at least - value captive meat animals so much less than wild ones. I believe it's why we have allowed some of the more grotesque practices of factory farming to take place - crowding, mutilation, genetic manipulation. And now I'm thinking the reason for that is that we see them as nothing more than slaves.

This discussion could go a hundred different directions from here - Hutch, I can already hear your fingers tapping on the keys. So have at it, folks. I'm interested in hearing what you think.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Friday, January 29, 2010

The F&S Booth Babe saga continues

When I wrote a blog post Wednesday about being irritated with Field & Stream running a photo gallery of SHOT Show Booth Babes, I thought to myself, Hell, there goes your chance of ever writing for Field & Stream!

So when I woke up the next morning and saw the name "Anthony Licata" in my inbox, I must say I just about pissed myself. I know that name, I know that name... That's the editor of Field & Stream. The editor!

I clicked on every other email before I summoned the courage to click on that one. Reminded me of my old days as a reporter when my blood would run cold at the sight of the blinking red voicemail light on my phone the morning a controversial story ran.

Click.
"I really liked your post calling us out on our annual booth babes gallery. You make a lot of great points.

"Would you be interested in writing a guest post our our Field Notes blog that takes on this topic?"

Uhhhhhhhhhhhh. Yes!

So I did. And you can see it by clicking here.

The comments actually start off eerily supportive, but they quickly turn into pretty much what I expected.

WA Mtnhunter: Let's see a photo of the author. That could explain a few things. Just a thought.....

crm3006: WA Mtnhunter- Follow the link to her blog, click on her picture, enlarge it if you dare, ALL IS EXPLAINED!!

Well, gentlemen, it's hard to argue with your incredibly intelligent rejoinders. You're right: It's jealousy. When I was young and cute, I thoroughly enjoyed having chicks dressed as sluts for my role models. But now it just pisses me off. Drat! You've figured me out!

Yep, it's a little rough making my debut in Field & Stream by attacking readers' sacred cow. (And, why no, I didn't say that to employ udder imagery at all!)

But I've had some great conversations with Licata now, and this whole thing has stirred up a pretty lively discussion both on the F&S website and here. Never hurts to get people thinking. So I guess I can't complain.

Have a nice weekend, folks. I'm goin' duck huntin'. And I'm gonna look sexy doing it! Because that's what matters, right?

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Ahem, there are GIRLS in the room!

Oh, lord, I hate writing about this subject because the last thing I want to do is come off sounding like a shrill feminist. I personally am not fond of Feminazis, and I cringe when I see bumper stickers that say, "Think women aren't leaders? You're following one." Barf. No, effing barf.


The venerable Field & Stream has just posted its annual SHOT Show Booth Babe Roundup - a photo gallery.

In case you're not familiar with SHOT, it's an enormous hunting and firearms trade show where vendors pitch their products to merchants and media. Hunting and firearms industries being dominated by men, many vendors hire hot babes to stand there and make sure all the passers-by can see their abundant cleavage so maybe some of them will come in for a look-see. At the product, of course. Read more...
It's basic marketing. We see it a lot.

Personally, I don't get my undies in a twist about it. I know men are biologically driven to open their wallets more easily in the presence of nice tits.

But I'm a little irked with Field & Stream.

My problem is this: Hunting is not a men's locker room anymore.

While male hunters are losing numbers, the number of women hunters is holding fairly steady. And the number of girls ages 6-15 who hunt has nearly doubled since 1991, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service's most recent National Survey.

What's my point? We know that boys and young men have traditionally loved hunting mags like Field & Stream. It stands to reason that this growing number of girls who hunt might also like and read such magazines and their associated websites. And if they subscribe to F&S's email newsletter, as I do, what they saw in their inbox this morning was something touting the Booth Babe Roundup as the top story.


Why does this bother me? It's about the messages this is sending. One is that this is what girls are supposed to look like. Of course, the rest of the media already shoves lots of bad messages down girls' throats, leaving them feeling like they must be rail thin and have a huge rack in order to be acceptable, leading to a whole lot of anorexia and - for those with money, anyway - boob jobs.

It just makes me sad that it's not only Cosmo and other fashion magazines where they're getting this message. They're getting it from a hunting magazine too.

Another message is that this is the kind of women male hunters want to see in their hunting mags. Well, of course it is - men like hot babes. I don't begrudge them that. But could we just remember that there are young female readers too?

It's not just F&S that forgets; I see this in hunting forums all the time. Last year some brain surgeon posted a joke in the "Campfire" section of an Internet hunting forum. The question was, "Why can't women work on cars?" The answer was a photo of a woman so incredibly busty that she couldn't roll under the front of a BMW.

Most guys wouldn't share that joke directly with a 12-year-old girl, yet they forget that there are girls in the room when the room is an Internet forum.

I expect that of the oafs on some of these forums.

I do not expect it from a venerable magazine.

End of tirade. I've got work to do.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Extreme(ly weird) duck hunting

Saturday was the third time I have hunted the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge in my four seasons as a duck hunter, and for the third time in a row, I came home from that refuge duckless.

But it'll probably be among the most memorable duck hunts I'll ever have, because it was marked from start to finish by the unexpected.

The fact that I got no ducks was not surprising. The ducks had largely cleared out of the area the previous Sunday, the day before a huge storm came in. There was a break in in that storm this weekend, but that didn't help.

But here's what did make the day a delight: Read more...
1. Good friends. I got to hunt Sac's free roam with three of my newest duck hunting friends: My Delevan free-roam buddy Charlie, his hunting buddy Don and my new huntress friend Alison.

2. Strange visitor. While we didn't get many ducks coming through our little pothole, Don alerted us all to the most unusual visitor I've had so far on a duck hunt: A little blacktail deer was tromping through our water about 20 yards from us.

When he saw us staring at him, he jumped a little more vigorously through the water. But he could only go so fast - the refuge had plowed a bunch of this area when it was a dry field, so walking in the thick mud was a challenge - even for a nimble little deer.

3. Scream Like a Girl Part I. I got to hear Alison scream. Here's how that went:

Boom! Boom boom boom! from the tule patch where Alison and Charlie were.

Scream! (of joy)

(Plop goes the wigeon.)

"(Bleep) yeah!"

Love that girl. She is enthusiastic and eager to learn and a joy to hunt with.

4. Still no ducks, but... When we were all looking off into the distance for birds, we spotted a herd of six deer working through a flooded field to our north. Dang. Lots of deer here!

5. Diversion. At one point during the lull (well, OK, the whole morning was actually a lull), Charlie wandered off looking for greener pastures and found them.

"I jumped some snipe over there," he said when he returned from his walkabout.

Oooooooh. Boyfriend loves snipe and has been begging all his hunting friends - including me - to get him some ever since surgery on a ruptured Achilles took him out for the rest of the season.

Well, hell, there were no ducks flying lower than 500 yards, so we might as well check out the snipe. Don opted to stay in the duck blind - he'd be leaving for the day soon - and Charlie, Alison and I headed to the boggy snipe field.

6. This is actually fun! I've never hunted snipe, and I've never really been that excited about hunting snipe, because when duck season is on, I want to hunt ducks. But I found that hunting snipe was really fun.

Once Charlie pointed them out, noting the sound they make when they take off (skaip!, or at least that's how my Audubon book describes it), they were easy to spot. And really challenging to shoot, the way they zig-zag. A lot of them were lifting in front of us, then flying back between us. (Isn't there a comedy routine that involves just such shooting peril?)

But the key here is "a lot." There were a lot of snipe in this field, so after having fired just a few futile shots all morning, we were suddenly shooting a lot. And we had confirmed for Alison that snipe hunting is not, in fact, a practical joke.

7. Woot! Woot! Wah. Charlie got the first one. I got the second. And I couldn't find him.

We were walking in a field of bunch grass, so when my bird went down, I couldn't see him on the ground. But I made a bee-line in that direction, never taking my eyes off the spot. That's what I'd done when Charlie's bird went down - we triangulated to the exact spot it fell. But in this case, I couldn't see my bird lying there.

He could have run, still alive. Or he could have plowed into that grass, dead, but speeding like a long-beaked missile and just burrowing into some spot where we couldn't find him. The three of us combed the area, parting bunches of grass, for a good ten minutes before we had to give up. Hell.

8. Rabbit anyone? After we gave up that search, I looked up on a dike 20 yards ahead of us and saw a jack rabbit speeding away from us. I raised my gun and...

"You can't shoot them here!" Charlie said.

... and lowered it, watching as the jack flattened his ears on his back, running flatter than I've ever seen a jack rabbit run. That in and of itself was pretty cool.

9. Finally! We resumed the snipe hunting and I dropped one. I charged to the spot and as I was charging, another snipe lifted in front of me - skaip! - and flew straight down the line I was walking toward that other snipe.

It would've been an easy shot. I could've dropped him probably five feet from my bird. Get the downed bird first, Holly. Don't risk losing two. So that's what I did. One bird found, another now hiding in the grass a safe distance from us.

10. Other denizens of the bog. We were walking our line through the field when something rustled maybe 30 yards in front of us. Our eyes widened as two beautiful specklebelly geese lifted in front of us and flew away.

We were, unfortunately, in California's Special Management Area, where speck hunting is limited to half the bag limit for most of the rest of the state, and it ends in mid-December. So we held fire on the closest specks I'd seen in two months. (Why the limits? Long story - read here for the details - you'll find them about halfway down the story.)

11. Scream Like a Girl Part II. After a quick break - wow, it was hot walking that field in full duck gear - we turned back to hunt all the birds that had flown between and behind us.

I heard a quick rustling five yards in front of me and prepared for a super easy shot at a snipe.

Unfortunately, it was a hen pheasant, which for some reason scared the shit out of me.

I screamed.

Charlie laughed his ass off.

12. Duck? After shooting at and missing several snipe on the return trip, we finally returned to our duck blind, two snipe richer, many shells poorer and exhausted from the long walk.

Not too long after we settled in, a hen mallard came diving down from the stratosphere and actually worked our spread. Charlie hit her. She landed a good 75 yards away, and Charlie and I both went after her, though we were pretty sure she'd fallen dead.

Groan! Walking through that soft mud was brutal. We cursed whoever had decided to disc that field.

But yay! We had another duck!

13. Beauty. Saturday was the big break between storm systems and the sky was beautiful. A stiff south-southeast wind kept engineering scenery changes, alternating between stunning blue sky, enormous white thunderheads and dark, black clouds.

For a while, there was a thick, thick rainbow rising from a distant line of trees to our north. A grind of snow geese lifted in front of it and the geese made their way across the bands of colors, like glittering confetti blowing in the wind. If a duck had flown by when we were watching that, we probably never would've seen it.

14. Oh for the love of Pete... When we finally pulled out at 4 p.m. and made our way back to the parking lot, we jumped two more deer in a little canal about 20 yards ahead of us. Can you tell they don't let you hunt deer here? Or jack rabbits. Don't forget that.

15. Ow. As we neared the cars, I became convinced I had a blister on my right heel. We had walked that much. (This set of waders has never given me a blister.) When we all changed at our cars, I found not only the blister, but an enormous hole in my sock on the same foot. My socks were in perfectly good shape that morning. I've never put a hole in a sock duck hunting. Or even upland hunting. Wow. That's one hell of a hunt.

The three of us sat there shooting the breeze for a while in the parking lot, watching the other hunters come in as the sun began to drop to the horizon. And finally, it was time to go. We made tentative plans for our next hunts, hugged each other good-bye and made our way out of the refuge.

What a hunt. It was probably the happiest I've been going home without ducks. I'd seen cool things, I'd made good use of a lull - trying something new - and I had a present for Boyfriend that I knew he'd be really happy about: two snipe.

Back at home, I regaled him with the tales of the day, my legs stretched out on an impromptu ottoman (read: folding chair) and a glass of whisky in my left hand when...

16. Scream Like a Girl Part III. ... a series of the most ferocious cramps I've ever felt coursed through my quads - the parts I'd used to lift my wader-weighted legs as I high-stepped it through the boggy bunch grass hunting snipe.

The cramps hit over and over again. It was like I was being electrocuted. I screamed. A lot. I writhed on the floor, trying to make it stop. I begged for a massage from my boyfriend, whom, you might remember, was laid up on the couch with a healing Achilles. God bless him, he said yes.

Dang. That was one hell of a hunt. The cramps were an unexpectedly painful reminder. But I still wouldn't trade that hunt for anything.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Cripples: The search for answers

Duck scavenger. Cripple Queen. Crip magnet.

That's me this season. Usually when I count my ducks for the season, I include a count for the ducks I've hit but lost. This year, I should add a column for other people's crips I've shot or picked up, because there have been so many. It's been downright freakish.

Sometimes they're the duck that's shot elsewhere and happens to come to my pond to die. A gift from the sky.

In one case, though, it was a bull sprig handed to me by a pheasant hunter after his dog found him. The bird was alive and looked "fine" - I had to finish him off. But when I plucked and dressed him, I was so disheartened by what I saw: A good 15 shot holes. An angry red wing wound, maybe the result of marsh critters picking at a shot wound. And when I opened him up, the horrifying stench that revealed his guts had been shot up and had been leaking for days.

I wanted to cry. I had to throw his poor carcass away because the meat was obviously tainted. That's something I hate to do, but that's not what upset me; it was the thought of him living like that for who knows how long. I am willing to accept that animals must die for us to eat meat, but I'm hard-pressed to feel good about the ones that are shot for nothing because we can't recover them.

This bizarre streak I'm on has raised lots and lots of questions for me, and answers have been hard to find. Read more...
The most obvious question was asked by our token vegan/non-hunter Hutch in the comment thread on my last post: How can you reconcile this - the fact that so many birds are wounded and not retrieved by the hunters who shot them?

Well, honestly, Hutch, it sucks. I reconcile it because I acknowledge that pretty much every breath we take as humans does incidental damage - we cannot walk through this world without leaving a wake. No animal can. Lots of animals die as unintended victims of the quest to produce vegan food too.

The fact that I'm a hunter means I face this fact pretty directly. Many people have no idea what the incidental cost of their grocery-store food was - from rodents killed by plows to eggs crushed by farm machinery to hawks smacked by the semis that delivered the food to our local markets. With my hunting, I know all too well the incidental cost.

That leaves two other questions: What is the magnitude of the situation? And what can be done to minimize it?

Now, many anti-hunters have quoted statistics on the wounding loss rate in bird hunting - anywhere from 30 percent to 50 percent or even worse. But sorry, I'm not going to trust that until I see who did the studies, and it seems they never provide links to these studies.

(And I have seen first hand how anti-hunting organizations like HSUS will just make stuff up - like the "fact" that hunters don't eat doves because there's so little meat on them. Please. Note the photo on the left. Don't lick your computer screen.)

Then I came across a page on "reducing wounding losses" on the South Dakota Game & Fish website. Here's what it said:

So, what is the magnitude of struck-but-unretrieved waterfowl in the U.S. and Canada? U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) harvest survey results show that hunters reported an average annual wounding loss rate of 18 percent from the 1930’s to the present time. However, hunters do not see all the birds that they wound. Numerous U.S. and Canada research studies have been published involving trained observers that record the harvest efficiency of thousands of duck hunters in the field. These studies document wounding rates of more than 30 percent. Therefore, if you reconcile hunter and trained observer reports, the wounding rate on ducks is at least 25 percent.

First of all, this came from a source I trusted - South Dakota does not have a vested interest in making hunting look bad. In fact, that state invests quite a bit in hunting tourism. You know, the pheasants there are as thick as mosquitoes in a Minnesota summer.

Second, the hunter-reported wounding rate of 18 percent wasn't too far off of mine - I'm at 14 percent for my entire four seasons of duck hunting. It was 18 percent last season, and it's 10 percent this season. (Though having lost four crips and picked up 10, I feel perhaps I should have a negative wounding rate in the cosmic accounting of such things.)

But I still have questions about these studies: Do they in any way account for what happens to the bird after it is hit, but flies off (or, as is often the case with me, hides in tules where it can't be retrieved)?

This season I have gotten many cripples that were obviously shot the same day, so if trained observers were watching the loss but didn't see me get the bird, would that still count as a loss?

Then there are the other birds that heal and just keep on living. I got one on Sunday with my friend Charlie: A Ross's goose came flying at our blind so low I thought it was a seagull. Until we realized it was a goose.

We shot. He fell.

"Did you see his leg hanging down?" Charlie asked me as I went to pick him up. "I think he was wounded."

When I dressed the goose, I indeed found that his leg had been wounded - it hung strangely, and I could feel a piece of shot in it. But I couldn't find any evidence of the wound - it had completely healed over. Would that goose have counted as a wounding loss, even though he continued to live until Charlie and I brought him down for good?

Unfortunately, I have not gotten to look at any of these studies first-hand, so I don't know the answers. (Anyone know where I can find 'em? Please tell me.)

But in all honesty, this is quibbling. Everyone who hunts birds knows that we lose some of them. We don't get to use scoped rifles on standing birds; we use shotguns on speeding birds, and you have to be a really good shot to kill them instantly every time. And even big game hunting where you do get to aim scoped rifles at standing animals has wounding losses. It is a fact of life.

So the more important issue is what can we do to reduce wounding losses?

Kansas Wildlife & Parks has a nice brochure detailing 15 causes of, and 15 solutions to, wounding losses.

The key causes? Poor shooting skills. Poor distance estimation. Using the wrong load or choke for what you're hunting. Taking shots with a high likelihood of the bird landing in dense cover.

The part about distance estimation is interesting. Somewhere in my research on this subject, I read that many hunters will estimate that a bird is at 40 yards when it is really 30 yards away. I know I do that - I routinely pass on shots I later realize are 30 yards because they feel too far for me. I want them closer. When they're closer, the birds tend to drop a higher percentage of the time. And while sometimes people will chide me for not taking shots they thought were achievable, doing this research has made me feel good about my conservative bent on shooting.

Now, the part about the shot we use. There's a respected hunter and ballistics researcher named Tom Roster who has done extensive studies on this subject, and he has produced the "Steel Shot Lethality Table" that lays out exactly what you need to use to be most effective.

The Holy Grail! Something I could analyze with respect to the type of hunting I do and make the best choices.

But good luck finding that thing. It's copyrighted, and for the life of me, I haven't been able to find it on the Internet - not even in a place where I could pay for it, which I'd gladly do. (Hey, as a writer and photographer, I totally respect copyright.) At least one state game agency includes the table in its hunter guidebook. I found a PDF of that guidebook online, and the PDF included a reference to the table, but the table itself was not in the online version.

I have seen references to the table though. The South Dakota page I mentioned earlier says steel No. 3 shot has shown the best all-around performance for taking ducks. But what choke? And I shoot Hevi-Shot, which has different properties than steel - where does that fit in the equation? And does it matter that I shoot a 20 gauge - is this table geared toward people who shoot 12 gauge?

I've seen other people quote this table saying No. 4 is better, or even No. 6. So clearly, hearsay is not doing anyone a great deal of good here.

I've called Roster because I'd love to talk to him about this, but I haven't heard back yet. I'll keep trying.

In the meantime, I'm going to keep working on reducing my wounding losses. I've spent good money to have my gun fitted to make my shooting more accurate. I do practice with skeet and sporting clays when I can, though I know the predictability of clays doesn't do justice to the unpredictability of live birds. I use Hevi-Shot at a freakin' $2.40 per shell because I believe it's more lethal, even though there are only three shot sizes for 20 gauge (2, 4 and 6 - I use mostly 4s).

I've even given serious thought to whether I should get a 12 gauge. Pride makes me want to perfect my shooting on the 20 gauge - to be accurate with the smaller number of pellets I get in my shells. There's a faction out there that sees the 20 gauge as a more honorable way to hunt. But would I knock them down more consistently with a 12 gauge?

In the field, I continue to do what I've always done - and what I see many other hunters doing as well: I look long and hard for ducks I drop, and believe me, I have done some epic searches - with success, even without a dog. (Oh yeah, dog. But a well-trained dog is an expense I can't afford right now, and I refuse to take a poorly trained (i.e., self-trained) dog into the field.)

And I gladly pick up other people's cripples. Even if they're not the best-tasting birds. Even if they might be emaciated from having sat out there for a few days before I finished them off. Because I don't believe any bird should be shot for nothing.

Not if I can help it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The newbie, the scavenger and by far the most bizarre duck hunt yet

The photos from today's hunt are ... well, not your usual duck hunting photos. But this was a most unusual hunt, on so many levels that it's hard to figure out where to start. So maybe you should just click that play button below and by the time you've seen these three photos, perhaps I'll know how to explain why I can't stop smiling tonight ...

OK, here we go. That first photo is Alison. Alison is a new hunter. Who lives in Berkeley. So all you haters out there, stop hating - you now know there is at least ONE hunter in Berkeley.

I met Alison in September at that cool event California Waterfowl did where women could pay $150 to 1) take shooting lessons, 2) take their hunter safety course, 3) get their license and stamps and 4) go on their first hunt - for pheasants.

Alison has been very diligent about pursuing hunting opportunities since then. She did a guided hunt up at Tule Lake, and I helped hook her up with a guy named "Nabs" from the Duck Hunting Chat for a hunt last month at the Gray Lodge Wildlife Area. She emailed me on Saturday and said she had been drawn for a hunt at the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area today, and did I want to go? That's how it all started.

Random Interruption No. 1: On the way out to our blind this morning, I asked Alison what made her decide she wanted to hunt. (She is now my third female hunting buddy whose significant other - boyfriend, in her case - doesn't hunt.)

You know what the spark was? It was Eliza Dushku, who played "Faith" on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." Dushku hunts. Last August, she went on the Jimmy Kimmel Live! show, announced that she hunts and even shot her bow onstage. PETA, naturally, pitched a hissy fit.

Hey PETA, I'm so, so sorry that your efforts to attract attention and make money by picking on Dushku - who's all about eating what she kills - did not affect my new friend Alison. Wah.

So, the hunt. Alison and I got to our blind and set up a good hour before shoot time - using a whole bunch of her brand new decoys. We were stationed in one of several clumps of tules that ringed our blind, and we were surrounded by big water. After a night of hard rain, we could see more stars than clouds, and there was a good wind coming from the south. Everything felt good.

And as the horizon to the east began to lighten, the ducks crisscrossed the airspace over our blind. They landed in our decoys, took off, landed again, dropped in from all directions.

"Oh my God," I said. This was Alison's third duck hunt and I wondered if she realized how extraordinary this was. I warned her that the ducks would not fly like this after shoot time. But I had the sneaking feeling this would be an amazing day.

I prepped her: If ducks came in where we both could get them, she should pick one on the left and I'd take one on the right. Otherwise, if one came where just one of us could shoot - and felt comfortable shooting - we should just blaze away.

When shoot time arrived, the ducks were still flying vigorously, but we couldn't get a shot off - there was so much shooting around us that every time ducks started working our blind, someone else nearby would shoot and our ducks would flare.

Finally, one duck came in at an angle where I could get it. I fired once, and dropped the duck. Spoonie hen.

I settled back in and a greenwing teal came by at a similarly good angle for me. I fired once and dropped it stone dead.

My first thought was, "Well, thank God you're not totally sucking in front of the new girl."

My next thought was, "Oh, this won't last."

Finally some ducks came in where Alison could get at them, and soon enough she dropped a teal stone dead. I was ecstatic for her. This woman had invested lots of time and money in her new pursuit, and it was beautiful to see her get that precious little reward that says, "You can do it! Keep it up!"

I immediately recalled my first season. Three ducks, literally hundreds of shells. Each duck was precious.

And teal - that's good eating!

The guys in the blind to our south, meanwhile, were slaughtering ducks like crazy.

Today, the "X" was on their blind, a measly little mudpile with zero cover. That morning at the hunter check station, we'd heard guys mumbling about how amazing this blind was. The hunters who were just in front Alison's reservation took that blind. And it was a good choice. They could do no wrong - ducks came in no matter what they did.

But they didn't always kill them. On one volley, they wounded a duck that came flying our way, low and on my side. Spoonie drake. I could see his lower bill hanging crazily - ugly injury. I shot and he swooped down to a grassy island where he could hide. I charged toward him, determined to finish him off quickly.

This is when things got weird.

When I neared the little island, I caught a glimpse of another duck - mallard? - as he burst away from the opposite side. Obviously wounded. Hmmmmm...

I raised my gun and shot my duck on the water. He went belly up.

Then I began to chase the other duck. As I crossed the island, yet another wounded duck burst out of hiding about 20 yards from me. He tried to lift off, and I shot. Belly up.

I doublechecked: Yep, two ducks belly up.

Back to that other wounded duck. He was making his way toward a grass-lined dirt road, where I'd probably never find him without a dog. I leveled my gun and shot him on the water.

I picked him up. Not mallard. Drake spoonie. Went back to the island. Got the first drake spoonie. Got the other duck. Another drake spoonie! Well, lordy lordy.

Random Interruption No. 2: When I was planning this hunt, Boyfriend - who is laid up after surgery from a ruptured Achilles (ouch!) - encouraged me to take one of the blinds at Yolo known for lots of scaup and other divers.

"I need some ducks that are more challenging to cook," he said. You know, for his blog.

Well, hell, I wasn't going to take poor Alison to a diver hole. We picked one that had lots of teal coming out of it.

Spoonies... Hey, they can be challenging to cook! I blame Boyfriend.

I walked back to Alison with a twisted grin on my face, three ducks in hand. "This has never happened to me before!" I said.

Not three ducks on one fetch. An never four spoonies in one hunt. I always tell people I'm not that picky, but this was really pushing it...

But... wow, I had five ducks in hand! And only three of them were cripples.

Random Interruption No. 3: Remember my crazy streak of bringing home nothing but cripples for the longest time this season? Well, by golly. I was still at it.

And there's nothing wrong with that. It actually gives me some comfort to know that while I am picking up ducks others have wounded, perhaps other hunters are doing the same for me. Only maybe not with any spoonies I wound.

Poor spoonies. Nobody loves them.

So later in the morning, Alison and I were sitting there in the most unusual and uncomfortable position: facing into the wind, because that's where the ducks were flying, and into the rising sun, for the same reason.

I was looking off to my right when she said, "Hey, a duck just fell over there!"

"Who shot it?" I asked. I looked where she pointed off to our left and saw what appeared to be a dead duck a good 150 yards away. And no one from any of the blinds around us was getting up to get it.

"Oh hell," I said as I trudged out for a really long walk in the water. I haven't been to the gym in two weeks, but with all the long walks I've taken in marshes lately, I haven't missed it. Duck hunting without a dog to do all your fetching is great exercise.

The closer I got to the bird, the more identifying marks I could see. I was pretty sure it was a...

... pintail!

I picked it up pleased to have this duck to hand to Alison - a beautiful bull sprig. Good eating. That and the teal she already had in hand are the two best-eating ducks there are.

On the way back to the blind, two guys walking up the road on the edge of our pond shouted, "Wigeon!"

I looked over and their dog had flushed a wounded wigeon from the grass.

"Cool!" I said.

Was it our bird? Someone else's bird? Who knew. But their dog grabbed the bird, and they handed him to me. I thanked them.

"Nice bull sprig!" they said.

"Thanks," I replied, with absolutely zero reason to be proud. The Duck Scavenger strikes again!!!

Back at the blind, Alison looked at me perplexed. "What happened?"

I handed her two ducks and explained. She now had three and I had five, and honestly, that is so much better than so many hunts I've been on that I was pretty happy. And so was she.

* * *

The morning was wearing on, but the shooting opportunity continued pretty steadily. Alison hammered a drake spoonie. I whiffed on some bufflehead - oh, how I want to be able to actually hit a bufflehead! Some scaup came over, out of range.

We both whiffed on some more shots. Alison slammed down another teal. Damn, this girl is good!

And at one point, when I looked out across the water to our left, I saw a duck where only a wounded duck would be - out in the middle of a bunch of hunters, shooting going on all over the place.

Sigh. "Here we go again..."

I chased the crippled little bird - looked like a scaup! - to a little grassy island and got close enough to fire a water shot. My pattern sprayed across that duck, and I'll be damned if it didn't dive and surface five feet from where I shot it, apparently unharmed.

Freakin' scaup.

I charged through the water to narrow the gap between us. Shot again and killed it this time.

Yay! A scaup for Boyfriend. My sixth duck. Another scavenged cripple.

* * *

Alison and I were running low on shells. At Yolo - like most of the best public duck hunting land in the state - there's a 25-shell limit in the field. You can have more in your car, but you have to walk back to get them. We call it the Walk of Shame, and the flight was so vigorous that hunters had been doing it all morning. But not us.

Could we get to the Magic 14 with what we had left?

We whiffed on some more shots. Good lord.

I chased another cripple, this time without success. On my way back, some spoonies that had been shot at in a nearby blind came bombing into our blind. One dropped in right in front of Alison. She whacked him about a foot off the water.

"Nice shot!" I yelled from where I'd stood.

Six and six. Just a few shells left for each of us.

We missed a couple more. One shell left in each of our guns. We'd have to be good.

Some teal came in hard - and close. We raised our guns. Alison fired, and missed. I got my bead on one of them in perfect range. I could fire on the same group - we'd be done at the same time!

But my bead met the duck right as he passed in front of the sun. A perfect duck eclipse. Blinded, I dropped my gun and let him fly. Sigh. I'd so wanted to fire that last shot with Alison.

It was getting close to noon, but the ducks kept flying. Some spoonies started working close, and I thought, "What the hell!" I fired at a drake. Missed.

"That's it!" I said. And we began to clean up.

* * *

When I opened my blind bag to put something away, I saw my camera there.

"Alison, I have to take your picture! Do you have a duck strap?"

She did, but she needed to dig it out.

"OK, I'll go pull in some more decoys while you're doing that," I said.

I went on one side of our blind and yanked a windwhacker pole from the mud. As I was doing that, I looked back toward the blind. Across the blind.

I'll be damned.

There was a duck on the water. Had to be a crip. Here we go again.

I charged around the blind, threw my windwhacker poles and blades into a clump of tules and went after that duck. No gun. No shells. Just me, in my waders, chasing a ...

a ...

... bufflehead!

Oh dear lord, do you know what it's like chasing divers? Even when you shoot them on the water, they somehow evade you. And now I was chasing one with nothing.

I charged at this duck hard. Like Robert Patrick in Terminator 2. Arms swinging hard and straight to propel me forward. I glanced back and saw that Alison hadn't noticed yet what was going on.

Ha! You didn't know just how much I would chase after cripples, didja!

I was gaining on the buffie, but when I got 15 yards away, she went for a dive. I charged toward the spot, looking for air bubbles. There were none. I angled toward the road, where she could find cover. Finally she popped up again - off to my right.

I charged again and narrowed the gap more. At 10 yards, she dove again. Ohhh, if I had a gun!

This time I could see her as she swam under water. I closed the distance. Plunged my arm into the water and missed. Plunged again and missed. Charged forward a few more steps, plunged again, and emerged with a duck.

My heart wilted when I brought her up. A shattered wing. And she'd taken shot in the eye. What a tough little bird. I helicoptered her to end it.

She was my first bufflehead, and while I'd still not gotten one using my gun, the accomplishment of chasing her down without one was just as significant. I still can't believe I did it. I'm just sorry that she didn't die quickly - I wouldn't wish the suffering and the chase on anyone.

But here I was with bird No. 7, and Alison looking at me like, What the hell?

"OK, let's take pictures now!"

I encouraged her to ham it up and took her picture:

Six ducks - on her third hunt!

And she took mine:

Well, there's one great eating duck in there

On the walk back to our car, and back in the parking lot, every group of male hunters that saw us seemed just delighted to see two girls with all those ducks. Back at the check station, the DFG staff seemed equally happy to see how successful we'd been - even after I admitted there were a lot of crips in the bag.

"Wanna take our picture?" I asked.

Random Interruption No. 4: OK, guys, I know all you single male hunters are going to want to marry Alison now, because she's a total babe, and she hunts! But she's got a boyfriend.

Consolation prize: I now know of
two dating websites for hunters: Hunters Blind Date and Rut 2 the Heart. Check 'em out.

Alison and I parted company after I gave her my tips on dressing ducks. She had plans for tonight - perhaps cooking both teal and the pintail or wigeon for her boyfriend and some friends.

I admired her energy. I was beat.

But back at home, I was exuberant, recounting all the details of the hunt for Boyfriend, who occupied his now-customary position on the couch, the leg in a cast propped up on pillows, the laptop providing his only window to the outside world.

He smiled, but looked a little wan. He misses hunting.

* * *

Alison and I texted back and forth a bit this evening. Her energy had run out at some point while she was dressing all her ducks, and she and her boyfriend had ordered out for tacos. That made me feel a little less old.

But our drive to hunt remains high. You can bet we'll be going out again soon.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Which hunting photo is upsetting?

When you spend much of your free time in the pursuit and preparation of wild game, it's so easy to forget how the rest of the world sees meat. Then along come the little reminders.

Case in point: Boyfriend and I have a story (his) and photos (mine) in the current issue of Edward Behr's the Art of Eating. The article, "Duck Hunt: In Search of California's Perfect Wild Waterfowl," is about how much duck flavors can vary not just from one species to the next, but from one county to the next.

I've worked with Behr before and I know he likes gritty realism in the photos he publishes - none of that highly polished stuff you find in most food magazines - so I selected photos for this story with that in mind.

In addition to two fairly benign hunter-and-dog shots from the field, I gave him several fairly graphic shots from the picking shed at the Salinas Club in the Grasslands. These are the three he chose:

Even I've got to admit the second one is kinda grisly. But the Art of Eating has a really sophisticated foodie audience - "Everyday with Rachael Ray" this ain't. And I've found that non-hunting foodies tend to understand better than most other non-hunters I've encountered that meat comes from formerly living animals.

So when the issue finally came out, can you guess which shot bothered some of the readers?

The third one, of the dog with the duck in its mouth.

Now I should be clear that no one complained about the morality of hunting or eating meat. Good Lord, the cover story for this issue is about "The Fair of the Fattened Ox" in Italy, which culminates in the prize-winning oxen being led off to slaughter. These readers aren't anti-meat.

But apparently some people weren't prepared to see that lifeless duck in the dog's mouth. I think it was just too close to the moment of death.

Or, perhaps, more accurately, too close to its last moment of life.

While this was the last photo I expected to upset anyone, I think I can make sense of it.

Industrial agriculture has sheltered most of us from the reality that our meat comes from individual living creatures. We no longer raise meat animals in our back yards; our neighbors no longer raise them down the street. They are fattened on vast farms and slaughtered in big facilities that most of us never have to see.

While we can intellectually grasp that meat comes from individual animals, most of us don't have to face the reality behind that fact. It's just like how we understand that people go hungry all over the world every day, but we don't get upset about it until we see the photo of the starving child, with his distended belly and flies on his face. Then it becomes more real.

And even the foodies, who are among the most aware people in our country in terms of where food comes from, aren't immune to the shock that accompanies the reality of individual death.

It's one of the things that makes me grateful that I hunt. I saw most of the meat I eat when it was still a living animal. I apologized to many of these animals for taking their lives, or thanked them, or both. And I don't take one single bite for granted.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Thought-provoking blogs worth reading

I was on my way home from a duck hunt yesterday when Boyfriend told me he'd found a new blog that was really cool: People. Animals. Nature. Thoughts and stories from a vegan-turned-hunter, by Tovar Cerulli.

Obviously, the title alone got my attention - I am fascinated by the polar opposites of veganism and hunting. And I feel kinship with anyone who, like me, is the last person you'd expect to have become a hunter.

I'm happy to report that the content I found there - it's so new there are only two posts - lived up the my expectations. I especially liked the first post about meat eaters who refuse to eat wild game.

I rarely write about brand new blogs because you just can't tell if the blogger is going to be committed enough to continue producing great content after the initial rush has worn off. But this one is so intriguing I'm willing to gamble on it.

Another blog worth your attention today: Galen Geer at The Thinking Hunter has a new post raising some questions about whether the great thinkers of hunting should get together and start rethinking whether the concept of Fair Chase is still fair.

I love this topic, though my views can be pretty contrarian. I blame Phillip Loughlin at The Hog Blog for challenging me to rethink some of my assumptions during some pretty vigorous debates we had in my first year of blogging. No matter how you feel about the subject, though, if you like discussing Fair Chase, you should head over to Galen's blog and weigh in.

(And thanks, Phillip, in case I haven't said it enough. In addition to challenging me to think, you taught me how incredibly important disagreement can be in the context of a blog discussion.)

Postscript: Turns out Phillip was cooking up another interesting discussion on his blog today. Check out what he's got to say on the topic of baiting wild hogs.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010