Sunday, February 7, 2010

Closing Day: Ducks, beer and ... regret?

Alison, Darren and I were safely ensconced in the only open table at Granzella's last Sunday afternoon - beer and burgers on their way - when my phone made that magic-wand sound that heralds the arrival of a text message.

I didn't even have to look to know who it was and what it was going to say.

Charlie Peebles (1/31 2:59 pm): One grhd jumped him.

I shook my head. I knew this would happen. I'd called it. I shared the news with Darren and Alison. "Charlie just got a greenhead." Read more...
The day had started 11 hours earlier at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge check station with pretty much zero hope.

It was closing day of the 2009-10 duck season. My favorite place to hunt, the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, was still closed due to flooding. The ducks seemed to have vacated the entire area ever since a big storm had come through two weeks earlier.

I'd hunted Sac the day before with Charlie, my new duck hunting buddy who'd been showing me the ropes at Delevan for the past month. Charlie can hunt - he's a been-doing-it-forever, get-limits-almost-every-day kind of guy - but he and I had walked out with just one duck between the two of us that day. We would've been skunked if a wounded pintail hen hadn't dropped into our pond just as we'd decided to pull up our decoys and go.

At least we'd had fog in the morning that day, so we'd seen ducks, even if it was just for a microsecond at a time as they emerged from, then just as quickly melted into, the gray mist. But today for the closer? At 4:15 a.m., the sky was clear and bright, just coming off a full moon. We were screwed, and we all knew it.

It was a shame. This was my first hunt with Darren, a new hunter I'd met in November at the wild-duck cookoff in Sacramento. It was his reservation that was getting us on the refuge. But the only thing that was likely to make the day memorable for him was the fact that it was his first closer.

There were five of us hunting that morning - Charlie, Don (another veteran Delevan duck hunter), Alison (another new hunter), Darren and me - and we headed out in two groups to the place Charlie and I had been hunting lately in free roam. It was nothing like Charlie's proven spots at Delevan, but we'd seen enough ducks there to know it wasn't a dud.

We began setting up decoys in two holes about 100 yards from one another, hoping we'd get ducks to work between our two spreads. As we did we could hear a vast flock of snow geese lift from some rice field to the west and head our way, their ridiculous barking coming closer and closer. At one point, I think we all just stood there, faces up, mouths agape, decoys in hand, as the silhouettes of the geese passed in front of the moon.

These are the moments that make you glad you're there - glad you got up at 2 a.m., glad you worked up a sweat trudging down a dark and muddy road in big old clunky waders, glad you'd joined the manic fraternity of duck hunters.

At some point, I clamped my mouth shut, grateful that a goose hadn't crapped in it. I went back to throwing the decoys out, knowing that we'd just seen what would probably be the only noteworthy flight of the day.

* * *

Our cynicism was warranted. Charlie got off one futile shot at a pair of spoonies that circled just a bit too high over the patch of tules where we hid. Alison and Darren had a lone teal fly right over them, but they saw him too late to shoulder their guns. That was it.

Well, we did have a flock of ibis work our spreads. As they flew over Alison and Darren, I turned suddenly to Charlie. "Uh oh, we put the two new hunters alone there together..."

We watched to see if they'd shoulder their guns, but they didn't. They'd been hunting enough to ID the birds correctly. Whew!

Not long after that, Charlie and Don wandered off to see if they couldn't find ducks. I went over to Alison and Darren's spot and we all sat on a little island there, making no attempt to hide because all we were seeing was ibis, blackbirds and the little marsh wrens that flitted through our tules.

The sun felt heavenly - end-of-season warm. Spring was coming. The wild mustard was already flowering all around us. We basked in the sunlight, scanning the horizon in futility.

Don had left us for good - he'd spend the rest of his day wandering free roam - but Charlie came back with two spoonies, a crip he'd found, and another one he'd jumped. Alison gratefully accepted them. It's her first year of duck hunting and she wants all the ducks she can get.

We went back into our respective hiding places, but it was clear we were all getting bored. "Wanna go hunt snipe?" I yelled in Darren and Alison's direction.

"Yeah!" Alison yelled back.

Having just hiked all over creation in his waders, Charlie sat this one out. But I met the other two on a dike where we stripped off as much gear as we could and set out for the field where Charlie, Alison and I had hunted snipe the weekend before.

As we dipped into the field, we spotted a small herd of deer working one edge. That would constitute most of the wildlife we'd see in that field, because the snipe just weren't flying.

Well, one or two did. I downed one with one shot, and Darren and I bee-lined to the spot, only to find nothing there. Damn. After searching for a while, we all sat down in the grass, grateful for a rest.

"Somehow," Darren said, "I never would've imagined that I'd be spending closing day of duck season in a dry field surrounded by two women and a herd of deer."

Yep, that pretty much summed it up. We walked to the end of the field and back, then returned to our duck blinds to see if the action had improved there.

It hadn't.

* * *

Normally, I hunt until sunset on closing day. I like saying good-bye to the season at the last moment I can be out there. That's what Boyfriend and I usually do, at least. But Boyfriend was home on the couch, recovering from surgery on his ruptured Achilles tendon. It was my first closing day without him.

I'd told Charlie that morning that I had alternate plans.

"I need three more ducks to get more ducks than I did last year," I said. This is still important to me - it's my fourth season, and I still have this expectation that I'll do better every year. "If I have two more ducks by 2 p.m., I'll stick it out to try to get that last duck. But if I don't have anything, I'm probably going to bail."

Charlie's a die-hard sunrise-to-sunset duck hunter, but even he had to acknowledge my plan seemed reasonable.

At 1:30, I looked over to Darren and Alison's blind and saw them sitting in plain sight on the island. One look said it all: They were done. And there was no reason to believe the next 30 minutes would bring any flurry of activity.

"Wanna bail?" I yelled.


So we pulled up our decoys and headed back to our cars.

When we hatched our plan to go to Granzella's, I turned to Charlie, knowing his answer would be no. He was going to hunt to the bitter end. "I know you'll be texting me at the end of the day saying you got your limit," I chided him.

I knew this because Charlie is just flat-out charmed. If I left a hunt early, he'd text me later about how many more ducks he'd gotten. On days when we couldn't hunt the refuges, he had this slough he'd stop at after work, and he'd always text me telling me about the ducks he killed there. "Got a canvasback." "Got two greenheads."

I was totally jealous.

But today I resolved not to be. There were no birds flying. And this was my chance to take two new duck hunters to a legendary Sacramento Valley restaurant - a cavernous place filled with the mounts of all variety of game animals. A restaurant where you could stroll in wearing muddy camo and stinking of the marsh and no one would think twice about it.

Once we were at the restaurant, the feelings of futility began to recede with each sip of beer. I brought in my book of hunt area maps and we all showed each other where we'd hunted at various refuges, and where we wanted to hunt in the future.

Alison and Darren swapped newbie stories, and talked about how they'd been preparing their ducks. We talked about gear and guns we coveted. And we plotted what we could hunt in the months to come: wild turkey, wild boar and ... pigeons! No need to wait until the Sept. 1 dove opener to resume wingshooting.

Alison and Darren's eyes lit up, and I saw in them what I had discovered in myself just three short years ago - that intensity that still hasn't worn off. It's what bound us, and almost every other duck hunter I'd met. We were three people who'd have no reason to know each other if it weren't for this insane shared passion for duck hunting. Now we were friends.

Staying until sunset and to try getting a duck or two would've been nice, but this camaraderie was priceless.

If only my phone would stop making that noise.


Charlie Peebles (1/31/4:10 pm): One sn6w more 2 come

He doesn't have a full keyboard like I do, so his texts come in choppy like that. But it wasn't hard to figure out what he was saying: He was cleaning up. Wherever he was, the snow geese were piling in.

Me (1/31 4:11 pm): We are all laughing in our beer. And we're dry and clean and thppppppdt!

Charlie Peebles (1/31 4:15 pm): Yeah but I got ducks.

Alison, Darren and I had finished our meals and paid up. We said our good-byes - the real end of duck season - and headed back down I-5 in our respective cars.

And my phone kept making that sound.

Charlie Peebles (1/31 4:44 pm): 2 snw shoud b 3

Charlie Peebles (1/31 4:45 pm): One pin

Charlie Peebles (1/31 4:51 PM): Add gad

Right about then Charlie called me. "This is unbelievable! I never would've expected this. I wish you could be here ... uh ... gotta go!" Click!

Charlie Peebles (1/31 5:01 pm): 3d 2sn on way out

So he'd gotten five birds after we'd left - three ducks and two snow geese, four of these birds literally in the waning minutes of the season. Unbelievable.

I had to laugh. I was jealous. I couldn't help but second-guess my decision to leave the refuge when I did.

But not for too long.

I'd hogged Charlie to myself for the better part of a month, hungry for the deep duck hunting knowledge he'd shared, eager to see the ducks he'd take me to, grateful for the new friendship that had grown between us. Spending time with two brand new duck hunters - and only slightly newer friends than Charlie was - had been the right choice.

And besides, Charlie had found us a primo spot to go next year.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Josh said...

Nice post. Friendship is great, ain't it?

I posted my closer story, too, if you'd like to read it. The short version: I think I got us some good goose spots over a great spread next year on the Delta. Stay close.
: )

Holly Heyser said...

Your post (which you were too modest to link to, but click here, folks) reminded my why I'm almost scared to get a double on anything.

And yeah, friendship is grand. My new friends this season definitely outweighed the ducks I got - on many levels.

Anonymous said...

Hehe, sometimes "toughing it out" against all odds can pay off...sometimes not.

I can remember being almost in the same position as you were years ago when hunting with a couple of buddies at our field setup on Andrus Is. in the Delta.

It got to be about 12:30 on an absolutely windless, bluebird Closing Day and we hadn't even seen a goose.

Finally Dick and Jim announced they'd had it and retired for exactly your table fare, Burgers and Beer up at the Lighthouse, just a short distance away, in preparation for spending the afternoon there watching the Superbowl.

"Aren't you coming?"

"Naw, I'm gonna tough it out a little longer, then I'll pick up the Speck shells (decoys) that I put out. I'll be up in awhile"

They'd only been gone about 45 minutes when I decided maybe they'd had the better idea.

I'd just gotten out of the blind and headed out towards the dekes when I heard the sound of laughing geese from somewhere in front of me.

I hit the deck and layed myself out prone, almost on top of my shotgun as here came about a dozen Whitefronts, heading straight for the decoys right on the deck.

They flew over the decoys low and I waited until they were almost right over me. I pushed myself up into sitting position and grabbed my gun up. Only had time to get off 2 quick shots but at about 25 and then 20 yards how could you miss?

I went and picked up my 2 nice Whitefronts, then the decoys, and headed to the rig.

A few minutes later my friends smiled at me from their perches at the bar watching the T.V. "Did ya get anything ha ha?"

"Only two Specks"


Sometimes it pays off to wait, sometimes not...

Bill C.-Orygun

Holly Heyser said...

True, Bill C. True.

But... While I will always wonder "what if" about that day, I won't regret it. It was fun to share one of my post-hunt rituals, and fun to see Alison and Darren socially at the end of their first season. Some day I'll drag Charlie to Granzella's too, but when you get up at 2 a.m. and hunt until sunset, sometimes all ya wanna do when it's over is just GO HOME.

Of course, next year, I'm pretty sure I'll hunt until sunset...

Greg Damitz said...

How old is Charlie? I've noticed that the older gentlemen 70+ tend to stay to the the final bell on the last weekend. I don't know if it has to do more with missing the marsh for a year or the very realistic realization that this could be their last season in the marsh. Mother Nature and Father Time can be very unkind to us. I ended my season on the last saturday by giving up the island we had to a late 70s or early 80s gentleman that was looking for a place to move to in the pond we were in.Spent another 30 minutes in the lot talking to a similarily aged gentleman that did not seem to want to leave.


Holly Heyser said...

Charlie's only 59 (unless he's had a birthday since I last asked).

But I too normally have a tendency to want to hunt as long as I can - I'm new, I have much to learn and experience, and at 44, I'm kinda in a hurry to rack up experience because I haven't been doing this since I was 10 and I want to experience as much as I can before my arthritis becomes too much to bear.

This day really was a weird one for me. It was really hard having Hank at home for the last five weeks of season - I was always aware of how little time I was spending at home with him when managing things on his own wasn't easy.

And one of my goals this season was to help people who were new to hunting, and I've found that the social experiences with the hunters I've met are an important part of the whole experience, so I really did want to share that with Alison and Darren instead of just saying "seeya" as we all went to our respective homes.

Anonymous said...

Don't take it so hard. The duck spirits were laughing at you. That's all that happened. In my humble opinion.


Holly Heyser said...

No doubt, Jean. No doubt!

Josh said...

Yeah, I was dreaming about getting doubles out of these flocks, and the second I saw it happen, my heart jumped into my throat, because I just knew I wasn't going to find one of them.

This was my worst loss year ever.

However, we did decide that Kevin will always bring Ranger with him, and if we go out for snipe, he stays in the truck until we need him - as low as those birds jump, that poor dog'd get a rump-ful of steel shot if he were out there, too. However, he's got one heck of a nose, and has retrieved doves for us regularly, so I don't expect he'd have problems with snipe.

Peebs said...

Still 59 but I usually stay out until sunset I like it out there. Many days I'll have a limit of ducks and will stay just to see how many birds I could have gotten, maybe pick up a goose. I will normanly leave early if there is hunting pressure as i do not want to stop someone from getting their birds, but even then I usually go somewhere else and check it out.

Holly Heyser said...

You da man, Charlie! I'm taking notes...

oldfatslow said...

I've enjoyed your posts
over the last few seasons.
The stories and the friends
really make for a good hunt.
Please keep writing them.


Holly Heyser said...

Belatedly: Thank you, OFS! And don't worry, it seems I'm incapable of NOT blogging about my hunts. Just gotta get out and hunt again. What season is it now?

Laurie Smith said...


I don't know about you, but my friends and I are going through a severe bout of depression,and don't know what to do with ourselves now that the season has ended. No worries it'll be over in about nine months!