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


native said...

Excellent Holly!
Just like driving down a long country road at 55mph, and then walking down that same road the very next day at 2mph.

We just don't realize how much we missed the previous day when traveling by car because the focus is entirely different!

I have been Snipe Hunting before, Pepa would set me up at one end of a brushy area with a pillow case, and tell me to wait till one comes running towards me and into the open end of that pillow case!
I would stand there for a couple of hours before I realized that I had been duped into baby sitting myself. L.O.L.!

P.S. I have told you before! Two Pairs Of Socks!
One thin white inner and one thick wool (smart wool) outer. And purchase boots large enough to accommodate that set up.
You will never experience another blister ever again!

Holly Heyser said...

Great analogy on the difference between driving a road and walking it!

SimplyOutdoors said...

This definitely sounds like a great hunt. And some of my best hunts never involved killing anything; it's all about being there - being in that moment. It's priceless.

And I can relate to screaming about the pheasant. I've had them take off right between my legs before as we were stalking deer through a CRP field. You're in good company, because I screamed like a girl too.

I'm envious about one other part of this post too. I wish I could be hot for just one day. It's always so dang cold here this time of year.

Josh said...

This is why, and how, I hunt almost every time.

This is my favorite hunting story from you, because I relate to the whole thing. I was squirming in my seat reading it, wanting to have been out there with you, and wanting to go NOW.

I went for snipe and geese yesterday, and there is nothing better. I also found a snipe mecca, with at least 200 birds, often flying in flocks of 20-60 birds. I've never seen it before in my entire life.

Yeah, Holly! Great hunt!

Greg Damitz said...

Drink water and then some more water. Most cramps are brought on from exertion while being partially dehydrated. Nice story of making the most of a slow day. Sunday was brutally slow at the Lodge. We decoy hunted a few hours and one of my son's friends went jump shooting for an hour. At 9 we pulled the plug and headed to the Black Bear Diner for their Big Foot country fried steak breakfast. Just being in the marsh and that breakfast made the 150 mile round trip worth it.


Greg Damitz said...

About the socks get some liners and pick up a pair or two of the Lacrosse socks at Sportsmans. They have a yellow band around the top and are super thick.


Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Yay, snipe!!! I shot one earlier this year, but honestly, you really need 3-4 to feed even two people, and even then you need potatoes and veggies and things. But at least we can have one snipe-y meal. Thanks, Holly!

BTW, Josh, you send any of those snipe to Mecca?

Oh yeah, and I can definitely relate to the bird-flushing-at-feet thing. Happened to me on my first pheasant hunt in South Dakota... and I screamed like a girl. Niskie also laughed his ass off...

Anonymous said...

Had the cramps you describe on the last day of A zone deer season. I second the water suggestion. A little salt doesn't hurt if you're drinking water and sweating a whole bunch.
All in all, it sounds like a day full of the good kind of learning and a wonderful hunt.


Alison said...

I don't mean to scream, I'm just really startled every time I hit something!

That was a ton of fun, we've GOT to go snipe hunting again, preferably wearing lighter clothing. It got way too hot for me.

And two layers of socks is the way to go, totally.

Josh said...

Much girl screaming in my life over pheasants, too. Also, mountain quail (I squeal when I see them, after I scream). Also, depending on how dark it got and how fresh those mountain lion/bear/chupacabra tracks were back there, chipmunks make me jumpy.

Hank, I got two - I thought I twitted about it, but I guess not. One was a passing shot, one of my best shots, ever. The other one (and this goes to how many birds there were) I shot on the ground, accidentally, when I missed another one. I didn't know I'd hit it until it stumbled when it tried to flush.

Phillip said...

Water first, then whiskey.

Sounds like another great day in the field... and that's a great way to make up for the slow duck flight.

Holly Heyser said...

Simply: Oh, it wasn't hot. It was actually pretty chilly for much of the day. But the sun was out for the portion where we were snipe hunting, and we were dressed for sitting in blinds...

Josh: Wow, Snipe Mecca sounds GREAT! Very cool!

To everyone who mentioned water: Yes, I actually did drink water in the afternoon and after the end of the hunt - bourbon wasn't the first thing I reached for. I also knew potassium would help, but I found my multivitamin lacking. Forgot until the next morning that oranges - which we have in abundance in our back yard - are also pretty high in potassium.

Alison, we may well end up snipe hunting again if the duck flight stays like this and we end up back at Sac. I advise bringing a change of clothes so you can switch out.

And about those socks: I think I'm going to take up darning. The more I hunt, the more I abhor waste of all kinds. It'll keep me busy when the long, sad off-season begins a week from today. Sniff sniff.

Anonymous said...

As we are waxing poetic today I'll put in my two bits. I have hunted for more years than Alison has been alive and Holly had I not been lucky in High school could have been my daughter. Over the last few year the joy of hunting has waned for me, yeah I go out and by skill and luck I usually get a limit of ducks. That's the problem for me it had become how many and what kind I got that made a good day. By the end of season I was tired and couldn't wait for it to end. Not this year on the days I have hunted with Holly, Alison and Susan I doubt I have shot a box of shells at ducks but have enjoyed those hunts more than any of the ones where I got seven Greenheads. I really don't want this season to end and while hopefully there will be many more this one will be one of my best. Thank you girls.

Anonymous said...

Just checking in, and glad to have done so. After reading what Charlie wrote, it really got to me. Thanks to all of you for sharing.

My season has seen a lot of loading and unloading of unfired shells, but it still has been memorable, and enjoyable. And some how, when my muscles are sore after a hunt, I feel better!

J.B. in Indiana

Holly Heyser said...

Charlie: Wow.

I'm glad to hear these hunts have meant as much to you as they have to me. I've said this to you before privately, but it's worth saying here that I've worried about being a total mooch, leaning on you so much for access, advice, knowledge (not to mention the ducks you send home with me). I'm glad to know there's something in it for you, too. Guess I didn't expect that.

And J.B.: Yes, you picked a perfect time to check in! It's not always easy going home when you've pulled the trigger very little or none at all - it can get really discouraging. I have been deeply discouraged several times this season. That's why I've felt pretty blessed to come home happy after the last couple of very slow hunts.

There's something about turning it into an adventure that makes it absolutely electric. Reminds me of my tomboyish days as a kid when my tomboy girlfriends and I would just go out and create our own fun - turning our red wagons into covered wagons with nothing but junk from our yards, sailing plastic boats in the drainage ditch, or heading out into the field behind our house with walkie talkies one of us got for Christmas. There's something magical about taking what's around you and making the perfect day with it. We don't get to do that much as adults.

Unknown said...


Loved reading about this hunt! It reminded me of the empty-handed duck hunt where I met a river otter nose to nose, or the deer hunt where I was bored spitless in a snowstorm and freezing until flock after flock of tundra swans showed up flying over my blind for over an hour. One just never knows what they'll come across when heading outdoors. :)

And I had to laugh at your tomboy memories. I did the same with the walkie talkies. Though, I never made a covered wagon, I made many a set of armor out of old boxes and tin foil. This princess slew her own dragons. ;)

Anonymous said...

What a great story.

Some of my most memorable hunts of the last few years were ones in which I didn't pull the trigger.

My favorite was three or four years ago on a late-season Wednesday afternoon at Lower Klamath.

Everything was frozen over, hard.

So I threw my honker decoys out in field seven hoping to get some geese.

I didn't even see any come my way.

But, as I lay there shivering in the foot-high wheat stubble, I watched as a coyote started to sneak up on my spread.

To this day, I think he was working my decoys, though I know coyotes aren't usually that dumb.

He got within about 50 yards, when he stopped, tilted his head back and howled and yipped.

What was even more amazing was there were about four or five other coyotes several hundred yards out in the field with him and they all joined in.

Truly, one of the most serene, amazing things I've ever been a part of.

Ryan Sabalow