Monday, April 26, 2010

Piss, vinegar and the Humane Society

Lord, it's nearly the end of April and I've hardly blogged at all this month because I've had a strange little case of writer's block.

But I pushed that block off the edge of a cliff tonight, and all that piss and vinegar I've been holding back for weeks is coming out. Right now.

Where to begin?

There's been a little debate in California for the past couple months about a state proposal to expand bear hunting here.
There were two key components to the proposal: One was to expand the number of bears that could be taken each year because our bear population is thriving (can't tell you how often I've heard about black bears coming out of the hills of Southern California to take a dip in people's swimming pools in the summer - seriously). The other component was to allow houndsmen to use GPS tracking collars on their dogs.

I didn't really dive into this debate for one key reason: I haven't hunted bears.

I'm confident that our Department of Fish and Game wouldn't expand hunting if it didn't think game populations could withstand it - that's a no-brainer rooted in science. But I haven't hunted with hounds and doing so doesn't personally interest me, so I didn't feel I could bring much to that part of the debate - and, as you can imagine, that was the part that packed the biggest freak-out factor.

But I watched from the sidelines nonetheless, and got more and more irritated as pretty much every story quoted the Humane Society of the U.S. describing bear hunters as "trophy hunters."

We all know why the HSUS does this: Public support for meat hunting is very high - 85 percent - while public support for trophy hunting is very low - 28 percent (source: Responsive Management, 2006). So, if you can paint hunters as being motivated by the trophy - which is often interpreted by the non-hunting public as tossing the meat - you can effectively turn the hunters in question into villains.

I saw this in story after story, and when an LA Times article on the topic popped up in my alerts last week, I'd finally had enough.

I freely admit that the tipping point was the fact that the reporter had drunk the Kool-Aid and led the story with this offensively unfounded statement: As outdoor activities in California go, bear hunting is not particularly popular. Officials estimate that, at most, 1% of the state's population hunts black bears. Many of the other 99% are appalled that anyone does. That's crap, and I fired off a comment to that effect.

But by that time I was pretty disappointed that so many of my colleagues in the biz weren't challenging the HSUS on the completely fabricated suggestion that people in California just hunt bears for trophies, so I called bullshit on that too.

The fact is that there is absolutely nothing to back up the claim - period.

Of course, I don't have anything to suggest that bear hunters here are solely driven by the desire for bear meat either. But here's what I do have that I'm pretty sure the HSUS doesn't: I know a LOT of people who hunt, and because I have real conversations with them, I'm pretty familiar with their motivations.

Which are? Complex. We hunt because we love hunting. For some of us, meat is a huge motivation - personally, I won't kill anything that I won't eat (aside from bugs - not going there quite yet). For others, the meat is merely a bonus. And I've actually met one person who doesn't eat what he kills.

Most of us would love to bag a glorious trophy animal - who wouldn't be excited about that? But most of us can't afford to hunt solely for trophies. So the HSUS's assertion just doesn't ring true.

But hey, HSUS, if you've got an actual fact to back up your claim, bring it. I may only have a pair of jacks on this, but I'm pretty sure you don't even have a deuce.

Unfortunately, the HSUS won on this issue. The DFG pulled its proposal (you can read a little more about that here on Phillip's Hog Blog, which gets into some very serious issues I'm not even touching on here, because I'm focused on the trophy-versus-meat issue).

On the bright side, during my little spate of comments on the LA Times website, I heard from a friend who thanked me for speaking up on hunters' behalf on the issue. We got to emailing back and forth about bears and he offered to hook me up on a hunt.

I told him I was very specifically looking for bears that feast on the avocado groves in SoCal. You know the deal - you are what you eat, so that's gonna one tasty bear.

"Oh, look at you, specifically looking for guacamole bears!" he replied.

Notice how he wasn't shocked that I didn't give a flying fig about trophy quality? Shocking. It's what happens when you know what you're talking about.

P.S., if you want to read about hunters who value the fur and the meat, check out the latest posting at Base Camp Legends, which I saw just after hitting publish on this post. Be sure to read the comments.

Special thanks to my friend T. Michael Riddle for turning me on to a nice soundtrack for my piss-n-vinegar mood tonight. Dude, Heavens Door and Ala Camita? Sweet.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Fruitless hunts, blogs and newspapers

Dear Blog:

I've been cheating on you.

I know you suspected something was going on because it's been 11 days since I caressed you with a new blog post.

But I swear there's a good reason for it! Read more...
See, I've been doing this freelance work. No, really, I have evidence - check out this story in today's Sacramento Bee. It's about pig hunting.

I would've put the story of that pig hunt on your lovely black page, but honestly, nothing happened. I was with Phillip, and it seems whenever I go hunting with him anymore, I don't see any damn pigs. I can only write so many stories about not getting anything before this starts feeling like an endless re-run of Tred Barta's show.

But hey, I can turn an unproductive pig hunt into a newspaper story no problem!

Anyway, dear Blog, you should check out this pig story: It's already 2 p.m., and there is not one single negative comment on it! No one calling me a cruel, cold-hearted bitch for killing poor defenseless wild animals. Isn't that weird?

I'm thinking it's one of three things:

1) The public is accepting hunting much more these days.

2) No one cares if you kill a pig because they're scraggly and dirty.

3) The readers noticed that I didn't actually kill a pig, so they doubt that I have the skills to be a cruel, cold-hearted bitch.

No, Blog, no! I'm not trying to distract you. I'll get back to posting more often as soon as I'm out of the weeds. One more freelance piece to do, a little more craziness at my day job, and then everything will be right as rain.

I promise.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Getting lucky: Sarah Connor, decoy love and money shots

I didn't have much of anything planned for this weekend until my phone rang Friday morning. Caller ID told me it was my friend Evan, so I didn't hit the "ignore" button like I usually do. Whenever Evan calls, guns, beer and good times are usually just around the corner.

"What are you doing tomorrow? Wanna go turkey hunting?"

Hell yes, I wanted to go turkey hunting! Ever since duck season ended, I hadn't put one damn thing in the freezer. I'd gone on one total dud of a pig hunt, and my long-awaited turkey hunt with a serious expert had been canceled. Here I was with my brand-new 12 gauge Sarah Connor and I hadn't fired her at anything more exciting than clays.

I needed some action.

"OK, we're going with my friend Ricky," Evan said. "Meet me at the Chevron Station in Ione at 5:30."

"See you then," I said.
I arrived at the Chevron station at 5:20 a.m. Evan pulled in at 5:40. Ricky showed up at 5:50 and we all proceeded to talk for another 15-20 minutes. Boy was I glad I'd gotten up at 4 a.m.

The gas station was doing a ridiculously bustling business for that hour of the day. "Shift change at the prison," Evan explained.

Ricky pulled something out of his truck and cradled it lovingly. It was a turkey hen decoy. "Check out the paint," he said, pointing out the sheen under the dull glare of the gas station lights. "It's from DSD. It's hand painted. Expensive but good."

I had to admit it was nice. Way nicer than my decoys, which warped easily and didn't seem to fool anything. I hoped I wouldn't accidentally shoot it. That would suck.

Ricky talked a little bit about his business, Gamehog Outdoors. He makes hunting videos, and people gobble 'em up. He'd been shooting turkey hunts since the season had opened the weekend before, and while he'd gotten some good footage, due to a series of snafus he hadn't gotten a money shot yet.

I glanced up at the sky and saw it was beginning to get light. The shift-change traffic had died down. It was like a signal. "We should get going," Ricky said.

Evan hopped in Ricky's truck and I followed them to a cattle ranch just outside of town. Lights off, we drove through the gate and down a dirt road, then pulled off to the side and shut off our engines.

The second I opened my car door, I heard gobbling. Gobbling to the left. Gobbling out front. Gobbling to the right. The oak trees that dotted these rolling hills were filled with turkeys.

You wanted action, Holly? Looks like you're going to get it.

Ricky grabbed his decoy, tripod and camera and started walking. Evan and I grabbed our shotguns and followed him under the lightening sky.

We came to a cattle guard and Ricky stopped. Should we go for the turkeys on the left or on the right? Left, he decided, and we made our way across a small creek and set up under some trees at the edge of a pasture. It was just like I'd seen on the TV shows - a classic setup. But would it work like TV, or was that just a fantasy world?

Evan and I sat close to one another and stared out into the field as Ricky began calling behind us.

Good Lord, this boy could call! I'd read about all the different sounds turkeys make, but I had never heard anyone call like he did, using so much of the turkey vocabulary so beautifully. It was a freakin' love song.

But it quickly became apparent that the turkeys in front of us had stopped responding. They were all out in the field about 300 yards from us, and Ricky could see jakes chasing each other around, not paying a bit of attention to his serenade.

The turkeys behind us, though, were gobbling every time Ricky purred. A few whispers later, we picked up and moved back across the creek, carefully avoiding all the fresh cow pies in our path.

Then the responses stopped. We saw a turkey on the ground to our left and ducked back where he couldn't see us. Ricky glassed that bird, assessed the situation again and determined we needed to go back where we started.

Was this going to be one of those hunts? In my mind, I could see all my other turkey hunts with Evan, where we always seemed to be 100 yards away from turkeys that knew all too well the limited range of our shotguns.

This time when we sat back down, though, Ricky could see a lone turkey off in the distance:

Without the distractions of the flock, Ricky was sure his song would work this time. So he started calling again.

"OK, he's going to head this way," I heard Ricky whisper behind me.

I had never seen a turkey get called in except on TV. The one turkey I'd killed two years earlier had just wandered by where I was sitting, so I hadn't yet experienced that spine-tingling call-and-response scenario, with a tom swaggering ever closer.

Evan had told me that the shot would be mine, so I got ready. A mask covered my face and a hood blurred my outline. I pulled Sarah Connor's stock toward my left shoulder. My right hand, propped up by my knees, cradled the foreend. My head was scrunched low so I wouldn't have to move much to take the shot. I was ready.

Ricky called. I squinted into the distance. The turkey moved all right. To the left:

We watched in disbelief as the bird made his way back to the thick woods at the edge of the pasture. Run run run, stop. Run run run, stop. You've got to be kidding.

I tracked him with my muzzle anyway, but I knew it was futile.

Ricky, though, kept calling, and the bird stopped just short of the woods. Then he sprinted straight toward us. Run run run, stop.

My heart started thumping, and I struggled to breathe slowly.

Run run run, stop.

My heart thumped harder. I gulped and tried to hold the muzzle steady.

Run run run, stop.

Was this really happening?

I watched him as he poofed up his chest and fanned out his tail, then took a nibble from the grass at his feet, acting disinterested in the presence of that immaculate plastic hen.

I thought he was close enough, but I'm a terrible judge of distance. Was that 20 yards?

If I waited until he got too close, I'd run the risk being seen. Or if he didn't see us and just kept coming in, my shot might pattern so tight that I'd miss him.

Or he might hear my heart fixing to thump right out of my chest.

Do it, Holly.

I centered the bead on his neck and pulled the trigger.

The recoil threw my shoulder back hard. So that's what a magnum load feels like, eh?

The bird went down and stayed down. Textbook.

Now I was trembling uncontrollably.

I threw back my hood, pulled down my face mask and turned to Evan and Ricky, stunned.

"That was awesome!"

Ricky was happy too, because he'd gotten his first money shot of the season.

We walked over to the bird.

Not a huge old tom, just a jake with a five-inch beard. But the experience had been amazing, and now he was mine.

We all took photos. Evan sent one to the person who had bailed on hunting with him that day, creating the opening for me. Nyah nyah, look what you missed!

And me, I felt like I'd broken in Sarah Connor in fine form - one shot at a game animal, one kill.

We all went out to breakfast at the Ione Cafe, my treat. Ricky, sitting across the table from me, pulled one hand to his face and inhaled deeply. "My hand smells like turkey," he said.

I'd done the same thing on the drive to the cafe. "I know! Mine too!"

It'd almost seemed too easy. No struggle. No sweat.

But I guess sometimes we all get lucky.

Harlequin surveys a bird that's bigger than she can handle.

This bird has especially fluffy down.

Boyfriend breaks him down...

...and tonight we feasted on Turkey Marsala.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cooking Wild: Hunt Fish Forage Feast

Hunting and food. The connection between those two things is pretty obvious to those of us who hunt, but all too often the culinary aspect of what we do has been marginalized in the media.

But there are glimmers of hope. Field & Stream recently did a huge spread on cooking wild game, featuring the work of prominent chefs and home cooks alike. Mainstream media stories about hunting - like this one on National Public Radio - are mentioning food before they get to the predictable anti-hunting gripes from HSUS.

And now we have an entire new magazine dedicated to the food we eat: Cooking Wild: Hunt Fish Forage Feast. Read more...
I have high hopes for this magazine, in part because I'm watching news from all over the country about urban nouveau hunters who are taking to the field because they care about the food they eat. They are good for the future of hunting, and this magazine is a resource that will sustain them.

The other reason I have high hopes is that I know two of the key players in this endeavor.

Associate Editor Sarah Swenty is a good friend and duck-hunting buddy of mine who has appeared in this blog before (she's the one who helped me field-test the new Cabela's Cazadora Women's Waders - you can see her in the photo in the upper lefthand corner of this blog). She's also the coordinator for the 2010 federal Duck Stamp Contest.

And Managing Editor Andy Donald is a longtime hunter who works in the restaurant business here in Northern California. I haven't hunted with him yet, but I've interviewed him twice for hunting articles I've written for the Sacramento Bee. As you can see here, he gives good quote:

"To put it simply, the magazine is going to answer the question, 'You killed it, now what?' Cooking Wild is here to help!”

Checking out this new magazine is easy, because you can sign up for a free copy of the inaugural issue (which will include a recipe by Boyfriend and a photo or two by me). Just click here and follow the links. The first issue is expected to go out around the end of this month.

I hope you'll join me in welcoming this new voice into our community - the timing couldn't be better.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010