Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Women hunting: A beautiful sight

Of the 742 photos I took this weekend at California Waterfowl's 2010 Women's Hunting Camp, I think this one is my favorite. Not because it has any particular technical or artistic merit, but because - more than any other - it captures the mood of the day.

These women are exhilarated and filled with a confidence borne of achieving something that society doesn't expect of them. And these are just the first of many emotions they'll get to savor as they become more and more deeply involved in the pursuit that is more ancient than civilization itself: hunting to put food on their tables.

It fills me with both a maternal sense of pride in them and a sisterly desire to offer a welcoming embrace.

But enough with the sappy stuff. Let's talk about what happened here:

Ten women attended the weekend camp at Birds Landing Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays. Two of them already had hunting licenses, but eight were there to complete their hunter education, learn to shoot shotguns, get their licenses and go on their first hunt.

I was on hand all weekend to assist, educate and generally butt in a lot, which everyone tolerated generously. But lest you think this was all about philanthropy, let me set you straight: I was hungry to watch the transformation that would take place in them, and I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

Everyone arrived Saturday morning looking a little quiet and unsure as we handed out their hunter ed manual and blaze orange caps, courtesy of Prois. During the hunter education sessions, they listened to instructor George Oberstadt intensely, stopping him occasionally to grill him on the finer points of ammunition, or safety, or ethics. It was very, very serious.

After lunch, we had some hands-on sessions. I manned the "weapon familiarization" table, where I illustrated the differences between three types of shotguns and two rifles. I loved explaining the autoloaders to them: "Check out how hard you have to press this button to chamber the shell," I said, handing them my own personal shotgun, Sarah Connor. "See? They're made for man hands. They're not delicate."

Then there was testing. Again, the mood was very serious.

After that, while George graded the tests to see who would pass and become a licensed hunter, a bunch of us volunteers took the women out to the sporting clays course to take what was, for most of them, their first shots with a shotgun.

Some struggled. Some got it fairly quickly. Carole, though, was a total beast - I think she hit her first three shots in a row, which had all of us hollering like teenage boys at a strip club.

God, how I always wanted to be like Carole - a prodigy! Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately in this case, I wasn't, so I had authentic words of advice for the rest: Don't worry if you're not amazing now. With practice, all of you can become good - way better than average.

One of my favorite moments after that was watching Monique, who really struggled at first. She's cross-dominant - left-handed, right-eye dominant. She tried shooting right handed, but hated it. She switched to left and felt more comfortable, but still wasn't hitting targets. Our instructor, another George, had her do an exercise that involved pointing her right index finger as if it were the barrel of the gun. Like magic, something clicked, and after that she started slamming clays.

Relief! And joy. We were all smiles.

After shooting practice, we retreated to the blessed shade of our patio classroom, where George handed out prizes for the women with the two best test scores - Girls with Guns gun cases (uh, yeah, use that link - if you just Google them, you'll get some weird, kinky stuff), courtesy of the Tackle Box, a hook-n-bullet store in Chico (which, by the way, is gearing up to stock some women's hunting clothing from Prois).

Can I get three cheers for Rachel (right) and Sarah (left - the wife of the Darren I hunted with on closing day of duck season in January)?

Notice the smiles? Good Lord, every single one of them was sporting a huge grin as she first got her hunter ed certificate (yes, everyone passed), and then got her license. I mean, teeth, gums, everything - they were happy as hell! And I remember how it felt - you study hard, but you're filled with uncertainty, and passing that test is a big deal.

Then we sent everyone home to get a good night's rest - or at least to try - before the morning's hunt.

We started trickling into the Birds Landing parking lot at 7 a.m. Sunday, and I watched their faces, remembering vividly my fist hunt - also a planted-bird pheasant hunt, way back in 2006. You've read the materials, you've listened to your mentors, you've pulled the trigger a few times, but you have no clue what it's going to be like when a pheasant lifts up in front of you.

We split into three groups, and in my first group was Lori, with whom I'd been emailing with back and forth for a little more than a year. The dog got on birds right away, and the first flush happened right in front of Lori.


One shot, bird down!

Lori was one of the women who was already licensed, but this was her first pheasant and she was ecstatic. And seriously, I get a little teary, being so proud of her in that moment.

As the morning went on, I toggled between groups, watching as the women faced one of those challenges peculiar to planted bird hunts: These birds did not want to get up - they just ran and ran and ran.

And all of them wanted so much to be good sportswomen that they waited - often in vain - for the birds to take flight. Personally, for the price of admission, I would've sluiced the buggers. At least one of them.

When the sun got too high and the parched dogs began to wear out, we finally had to call it quits. Some got birds, others didn't, but whether they realize it or not, all of them learned something - I could see it as the morning wore on, the attentive way they monitored the dogs, guns at the ready.

Whether they realized it or not, their instincts were kicking in. Watching it was like learning it all over again - delicious.

For Renee Viehmann - the second woman from the left in the bottom row of the last photo above - these moments must have been especially sweet. Renee was a graduate of last year's CWA women's hunting camp, and she subsequently helped start the Bad Ass Girls Club. She volunteered with her Weimaraner Roxie this weekend to help introduce the next batch of women to hunting.

When the hunt was over, there was lunch. George grilled duck and goose and burgers, which we all devoured gratefully. We all talked about what it was like, about the surprises everyone encountered. We talked about what they needed to do next to pursue the kinds of hunting that interested them.

I dumped about 90 percent of my women's hunting clothing collection on a table and let everyone plow through it to see what they liked, and to try on some pieces to get a feel for fit. And can I just say that regardless of the type of clothing, chicks still dig going through another girl's closet? Totally fun.

We all stood there chatting about what we wanted to do next, then, one by one, drifted away.

But it's not over. It looks like Monique might accompany me on a deer/bear hunt in a couple weeks. Carole said she's really into trying duck hunting now. I know Sarah is going to join her husband Darren out at the waterfowl refuges, and learn what it is that got him completely obsessed last year.

Kirsten, who works for the Department of Fish and Game, is going to dive into the pursuit that her agency regulates. Raquel, who is a reporter, may write a story about this weekend, and we're going to try to hook her up for a pig hunt, which is what captivates her most. Lori is putting in her season-long application for reservations for waterfowl hunts. Angela plans to hunt turkeys with her husband.

And those are just the plans I know about. But no worries, we've all got each other's email addresses. I'm pretty sure we'll all be seeing each other again.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Postcards from women's hunting camp

We just finished Day One of California Waterfowl's 2010 Women's Hunting Camp, and while I'd normally wait until we're all done before posting anything, I just love this series of photos I got from the shooting lessons.

The three shots below cover less than half a second, capturing the moment the shooter pulls the trigger. Read more...
If you look closely at the second one (or click on it to see a full-sized version), you can see this crazy beam of orange light bouncing off her sunglasses. I don't know if it's the flash of the gunfire or an actual spark, but it almost looks as if she's literally got laser focus on her target.

And you don't have to look too closely at the third one to see the smile emerging on her face.

What a joy it is to watch a group of women - some of whom have been afraid of guns up to this point - breaking their first clays! And tomorrow morning, we hunt pheasants.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Friday, September 24, 2010

Grouse hunting in North Dakota: The immaculate point, the guilty dog and...

Hunting is a leap of faith in so many ways - a leap of faith that you can find your quarry, a leap of faith that you can get your quarry, a leap of faith that you can cook it in such a way that honors the life you took.

And as it turns out, one leap begets another. What else could compel a woman to fly 1,700 miles alone to spend three days hunting grouse with two men she knows only through the Internet? Read more...
I remember the first time I hunted alone with a man I'd never met before. I'd gotten drawn for a state-run women's pheasant hunt here in NorCal, but Boyfriend was off on Santa Rosa Island hunting elk and mule deer, so I was on my own. I went to the wildlife area hoping I'd find another woman who'd have a dog. Pheasant hunting without a dog is pretty lame.

When I got to the hunter check station, this guy was standing there.

"Do you have a dog?" he asked.


"I've got two dogs. I can hunt with you if you like."

"We can do that?"

It was a women's hunt, but it turned out men could hunt that day, provided they were with a woman who'd gotten drawn for the hunt. This guy knew that. He had faith that someone like me would come along. I had faith a dog would magically be made available to me. We didn't get anything in the bag that day, but we got along just fine.

When I told my mom about it later, she was flabbergasted that I'd go out with an armed stranger. Of course, the obvious answer to that is, "Mom, I had a gun too." But the real answer is that this is hunting, and I don't think I've ever met a hunter I couldn't relate to in some way - we are all privy to the secrets of a way of life that was once ubiquitous and now appears - to outsiders, anyway - to be an anachronism.

That was the card I held in my back pocket when I traveled to Finley, North Dakota, last weekend to hunt grouse. These guys could be total douchebags in ordinary life, but in the field we'd be fine. We were all hunters.

And in truth, I wasn't at all worried because not only were they fellow hunters; they were fellow bloggers, and between our blogs and email, I'd already engaged in the kinds of conversations with them that gave me faith they were kindred spirits.

"They" were Galen Geer of the Thinking Hunter and Chas Clifton of the Southern Rockies Nature Blog. And for three days, we hunted together, ate together, drank together and formed a jumble of crystalline memories, little ornaments that will hang in my mind forever.

Galen's German wirehair Cookie on the first (and only) immaculate point of the weekend. We were on a sunny hillside where there would almost certainly be grouse. Cookie had been acting really birdie, and then her body locked up in a flawless point. It was beautiful. Hope transformed to certainty as I moved in closer, waiting for the heart attack-inducing flush, waiting to get my first grouse ever, waiting for the chance to show that I'm becoming a good shot in this, my fourth year of hunting.

Well, the first bird flushed and flew low over Cookie (don't shoot the dog!). Another bird flushed between me and Galen (don't shoot your host in the face!). Finally one flew where I could make a clear shot. I pulled the trigger, saw a few feathers fly off its ass, then watched a bit mournfully as three birds sailed into the distance.

No worries, we eventually made it to their landing spot, and after I missed one of them, Chas stoned one, and Galen and/or I knocked down the other. Galen swears it was my shot. It was my first day hunting grouse, my first day hunting out of California, and I had my first bird in the bag.

Sheer awe. The prairie is a pretty awesome sight, but even more foreign to me was the way we were hunting: Drive around, look for good spots, hunt. If the crop has been harvested and the land hasn't been posted, you can hunt there. Pretty mind-blowing for a California girl, where hunting private land is either rare luck or a privilege you pay through the nose for.

At one point we were cruising a dirt road for good grouse spots when about a dozen doves lifted from a field of cut wheat just a few yards from the road. Galen hit the brakes. We watched as the birds flew to a line of trees. Chas and I quickly determined we'd walk on either side of the treeline, and before long I had two doves in the bag.

Pure spontaneity - what a gift.


I have many, many memories of Chas's Chessie, Fisher, but the one I love the most is the one I didn't see.

After bagging the doves on that treeline, we moved on. At one point, we all got out of the car and left the dogs inside. Galen was the first back to the car, and later he described what he found: Fisher had gotten into the front seat, and when Galen asked the dog what he was doing there, Fisher turned to Galen, his jaws went slack, and the dove just tumbled out of his mouth.

Damn, that is the photo I want to see in some of these highfalutin magazines about the glories of upland hunting. Screw all that nobility crap - let's talk about real life.

And so to Fisher, I'd like to dedicate this song. (And if you listen to it, I dare you to guess where I used to sing this...)

Galen and his wacky gun. Yes, you heard me, Galen: wacky.

Galen shoots a muzzle-loading shotgun. Waiting for him to reload was excellent empathy training for me. This is exactly how men must feel when they're waiting for their women to get out of the bathroom! Powder, wad, shot, caps, shampoo, condition, blow dry, curl, spray.

Meanwhile, he was giving me and Chas crap about all the shots we were missing. Whatever!

(OK, seriously, Galen, you knew I was going to have to raz you about that, if for no other reason than to mask my feelings of inferiority for shooting a black synthetic-stock autoloader while I'm out in the field with a couple lifelong sportsmen shooting their venerable and ever-so-picturesque double guns.)

Rosie. Galen has an enormous posse of dogs: Cookie, a rescue Bassett and two Jack Russell terriers, also known in some circles as terriorists. Rosie was one of the latter, a fearsome little bitch who was so upset that I was in Galen's office at one point that she sat in his chair, clamped onto its arms and tore them up savagely.

Yes, you gigantic two-legged piece of shit, I can do this to you, too!

That was a Kodak moment, but there I was without my camera.

The next night, when we had transitioned from hunting to dinner to drinks, I watched Rosie fussing and suddenly knew it was all a facade, and I told her so.

Galen encouraged me to give her a little nibble of the Tostitos left over from our taco dinner (did I mention that Galen's wife M is an awesome cook? Good lord!)

Rosie took the offering, and kept taking them all night, and before long she had stopped biting the toes of my boots and started looking at me with that gentility that is borne of a full stomach. The next morning, she was hanging out in my lap.

Total dog conquest! We were buddies now, and it turned out it would be Rosie, among all the dogs, that I was saddest to leave on Monday afternoon.

* * *

When I finally did leave, it was with two grouse (Chas gave me his from that first day), two doves only slightly worse for Fisher's mauling, and a bunch of stuff I bought at Scheel's in Fargo.

One way of looking at it would be that it was a pretty slim bag for more than 3,000 miles of travel and the exorbitant $125 Delta charged me for checking the ice chest, it being my third bag on the trip home.

The other way of looking at it was that I left with some really fun memories, the deep imprints of a new way of hunting for me, and quite possibly some new friends for life. Not just Rosie - Chas and Galen, too.

Now the only question is when can I get them to California?

Boyfriend can cook them the wild-game dinner of their dreams, we can take them duck hunting in a place where they can bag rice-fed fatties without freezing to death, and ... Hey, Phillip, I think we need to take these men hog hunting!

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Women's hunting clothing review: Filson women's upland vest

If you're looking for a women's upland vest that flatters the female figure, your best choice has long been - and remains - SHE Safari.

But if you're looking for a vest that is simple, sturdy and functional - and you don't mind spending a bit more money - Filson's women's upland vest would be an excellent choice.

After using the SHE vest for the past two years, I got a chance to test drive Filson's vest last weekend when I went grouse hunting in North Dakota with blog-friends Galen Geer and Chas Clifton (I'll blog on that hunt later).

Here are my impressions:
Pockets: I love Filson's enormous bellows pockets. You can dump a box of shells in each and have room to spare, and you can easily get a gloved hand into the pockets without struggle. The pockets are so deep that even with a box of shells inside them, I was able to bend at the waist without having anything spill out.

There are two compartments in each pocket, and elastic sleeves for six shells in each one. There's also an inside zipped flat pocket for your license and anything else that might need to be kept especially safe.

My only wish would be to have hand-warming side pockets for those times that you're standing still in the field freezing your fingers off - when I was hunting in North Dakota, I occasionally had to slip my fingers into the front opening of the vest Napoleon-style instead.

And for the record, while my SHE Safari vest does have side-access pockets under its much smaller bellows pockets, on my model the opening is so small I can't get my hands into them. From what I can see on the SHE website, it looks like the design has changed a bit, and the model appears to be slipping her fingers into an opening, but nothing in the description indicates it's a pocket there - she may just be sticking her fingers into the front portion of the game bag.

Game bag: No bells and whistles here - Filson's game bag is on the back only, and unlike my SHE vest, Filson's vest has no zippers to make it uber-easy to extract birds. I didn't find it a problem, but if you like six ways to access your birds, this vest won't give them to you.

One superior advantage is lining. My SHE vest was lined with nylon, which was pretty breathable, but allowed blood to seep into my clothing underneath the vest (I was told that SHE treated the lining on later models to rectify that problem, but I don't have a later model.) Filson's vest is lined with its trademark oil-finish Tin Cloth, and I'm pretty sure even bullets couldn't get through it. OK, that's an exaggeration, but it's good stuff.

Warmth: The entire Filson vest is lined with Tin Cloth, which makes it highly wind-resistant (and yes, there is some serious wind in North Dakota). However, if you're hunting someplace warm, you will find that it really doesn't breathe. At all. If I were upland hunting in warm weather, I'd definitely wear my SHE vest, but if it's at all cool outside, the Filson vest will keep you warmer. It also leaves you plenty of room for layers.

Flatterability: Generally, upland vests are not made to make women look feminine - that big ole bag in the back conspires to obscure your waistline. Filson's is no different.

The reason SHE's vest is more flattering is that its blaze accents in front are cut to accentuate the female figure. If that's important to you, go with SHE. Personally, I'm content to let my pony tail announce that I'm a girl.

Care: Because it's made with Tin Cloth, Filson's vest is not washable. You can wipe the Tin Cloth, and that's it. So if you go with this vest, ladies, wear good deodorant - you don't want to put a big stink on it.

In comparison, SHE's vest is washable, though I found that laundering does put a big, wrinkly hurt on its wax-cloth elements.

Where it was made: Filson's vest is made in the USA with imported fabric. My SHE vest was made in Guatemala.

Price: As of this writing, Filson's vest costs $145. If you're squeamish about spending a lot on a vest, that might be a bit steep for you. But my philosophy is that I'd rather spend more on something high quality than to sacrifice quality to save money. And Filson's quality is impeccable.

SHE's vest is in the same category here as Filson's - it's $15 cheaper, but also sturdy.

For the record, I paid for my SHE vest and received my Filson vest free for review - information that's always available on my disclosures page.

If I had to choose between Filson and SHE Safari: Oooh, that's a tough one. It would suck hunting in hot weather with the Filson vest. But I have to say its generous no-spill pockets and sturdy Tin Cloth lining put it over the top for me.

I may wear the SHE vest this weekend when I participate in a women's pheasant hunt, because it's still pretty warm here in Northern California. But once it cools down, I'm sure Filson's is the vest I'll be reaching for.

Photo by Chas Clifton

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Lobbing bombs at dove hunting myths

Dove season still runs for a few more days here in California, but it's over for us at the NorCal Cazadora/ Hunter Angler Gardener Cook household. We've killed our fill, and our non-hunting to-do lists runneth over.

But it's a great time to review some of the utterly moronic things the Humane Society of the United States has said about dove hunting in its effort to chip away at hunting, one species at a time.

Doves are too small to have any food value. I can think of hundreds of food items that are smaller and/or lighter than doves and still considered nutritious and/or delicious: morel mushrooms, eggs, strawberries, shrimp, fingerling potatoes, oysters, mopani worms, soybeans, pinto beans, cherries, blueberries, anchovies, sea urchins, clams, bluegills, beets, huitlacoche, Sungold Sweet tomatoes ... oh, you get the idea.

And if you'd like to see what can be done with a dove, just click on that photo montage above to enlarge the images. That's what happened to the doves we brought home last week. (We didn't even waste the bones - Boyfriend made dove stock.)

Few people eat them. Oh really? Do an Internet search for dove recipes and you'll find nearly 6 million results. Oh no, nobody out there is sharing ways to cook their kill - they just toss their birds in the garbage bin after the hunt.

Doves are shot simply for target practice. This is a slick political advertising strategy in which you take a grain of truth and distort it to meet your aims.

Here's what this lie is based on: Dove hunting is the first wingshooting season of the fall, typically starting September 1, to be followed later by seasons for grouse, partridge, quail, pheasants, ducks and geese. After a summer full of shooting nothing but skeet, dove hunting is considered an excellent warmup for the coming season.

Just because people call dove hunting a "warmup" doesn't mean we just do it for target practice. Any first bird season of the year would be called a warmup. Dove hunting just happens to be a great one because it's so challenging: Doves are wicked fast and capable of performing extreme aerobatic maneuvers. And if you're in the right spot - like I have been for the past week or so - you get lots of opportunity.

Hunters leave downed doves in the field. Another example of slick political-style manipulation here.

Yes, there are times when we can't find the doves we've shot - they land in thick vegetation, or they are simply so well camouflaged that you can't find them. You'd be amazed how invisible a dove can be on just plain dirt.

But every hunt I've been on, I've watched hunters search diligently for every dove they drop. I watched with great amusement last year as a group of men saw a dead dove on the other side of an impassible fence, and they worked together to shove a dead tree branch through the fence to bring the bird close enough for them to reach through the wire and get it.

Last Friday, I dropped two birds in a row in the same vegetation-choked canal. Both times, I plowed through blackberries and thistles, in shorts, to get to the water's edge. Both times, I ended up going waist-deep in the water. And by God, I got my birds.

So, hunters, next time HSUS tries to eliminate dove hunting in your state, step up publicly and call HSUS on its lies. And if you're going to have one of those epic dove openers where you hunt the morning and grill your kill in the afternoon, invite a lawmaker. Nothing makes a lie smell quite as rancid as tasting the truth.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Woot! I won another shotgun! Now guess what I'm gonna do with it...

After winning a shotgun in a raffle this spring at a California Waterfowl dinner, I kinda wondered what I'd do with myself at future banquets.

I'd started hunting four years ago with an excellent 20 gauge Beretta 391, and with the raffle win this spring, I now had a 12 gauge Beretta 3901, aka Sarah Connor. I am in love with that gun, and I'm shooting so well with it that I really don't want another one.

But gun raffles are a major source of the excitement and fun at duck banquets. So when I went to Cal Waterfowl's Wild Game Feed in Sacramento tonight, I couldn't resist entering the same drawing: For a $200 installment on my $1,000 life membership fee, I'd be put in a very small drawing for a TriStar Hunter Ex 12 gauge over & under.

I felt greedy. Until I remembered my recent lament. Read more...
I've gotten myself in the habit of taking new women hunters out in the field, and sometimes - as was the case when I hunted rabbits with a UC Davis biology student this summer - they don't yet have guns of their own.

I have two guns now. My 12 gauge is my main girl, so I'm happy to share the 20 gauge. The only problem is I've had it fitted to me - for left-handed shooting, for my ridiculously long neck. It'd be a poor fit even for most left handers, and a nightmare for right-handers. If only I had a right-handed gun I could lend out for those hunts...

That's it! If I win this gun, I told myself and everyone who'd listen to me - you'd be surprised how many patient listeners there are at this particular duck dinner - I would not have this gun fitted to me. I'd keep it instead as a loaner for newbie hunters who go out with me.

The raffle gods must have been pleased with my promise. Or perhaps Rebecca K. O'Connor was thinking of me - she's the one who brought me good luck when I won my other 12 gauge. (She was good luck for my dove trapping too.)

Whatever it was, when the time came for my drawing, it was my name that they called. SCORE! I now have a spare 12-gauge for people who aren't giraffe-necked left-handed shooters. (That would be, oh, almost everyone.)

This means a lot to me: Because I don't belong to any posh hunting clubs, I can't offer really primo hunting opportunities to people I take out. If you come on a hunt with me, chances are really good it'll be on public land. Now I'll at least have a decent gun that won't be a horrible fit for my guests. Yay!

And oh yeah, Boyfriend was the winning bidder tonight on a sweet Argentina dove hunt that we'll be taking in the next year. And it was my birthday today, and my students bought me a cake, which was really sweet, literally and figuratively.

All in all, a good day. It's going to take a while to wipe the smile off my face. Life is good.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Dove hunting in California: wet boots, full straps and lots of dove recipes

Dove hunting used to be something I'd do once a year, usually without much luck.

But two things have changed: First, I got a 12 gauge, slapped an adjustable-comb stock on it and have subsequently been doing my best skeet shooting ever. Like, really good, and occasionally amazing.

Second, I went out alone on the opener last week and had a wretched hunt with almost no doves flying, and my self-pitying moans caused my friend Bill from the North Area Sportsmen's Association to invite me to his spot.

Now, when I say "spot," I mean it's one of those spots. It's a big field of recently cut safflower backed by a ditch with some trees along it, surrounded by corn, sunflowers and still more safflower. You may recall that safflower is what I used this summer to trap doves so I could band them, so we know it is a certified dove attractant.

What's even better is that this spot is at the edge of the city. Literally, you have city, then this farm field. As an urban hunter, I'm used to having to drive great distances to hunt, but this one is 20-25 minutes from my house. Score!

So how's it been? A typical Cazadora affair.

Friday morning: Bill told me he'd been reading a book on dove hunting and it said the average hunter goes through five to eight shells per bird.

Oh no.

I'm more than a little obsessed with being above average.

Now I'm going to count. Damn.

The hunters lined up on either side of the ditch and waited for the doves to come in. The action was not epic, but it was steady, and you could hear plenty of shouts of "On your left, Hank!" and "Coming up behind you, Josh!"

Which reminds us that doves, as lovely and sweet as they are, are not terribly bright. They will fly down a line of yelling hunters and as often as not, keep going down that line even after being shot at. In contrast, we noted that a huge flock of pigeons (rock dove!) had the good sense to maintain a safe distance from us at the other edge of the field.

But while doves' brains are small, they're still really hard to hit because they fly fast and they're capable of some nimble aerial maneuvers. I ended up with three that morning, 15 shots fired. Thank God Bill had told me what the average was - I was on the good end of it!

Friday afternoon: When Bill said we were welcome to come back in the afternoon, my hunting DNA went nuts. It was just like duck season: I was utterly exhausted from having gotten up early TWICE that week, which happened to be the first week back at school, which is already chaotic enough. But I couldn't say no.

I headed back to that safflower field after work and took my place in line with four other hunters, and that's when it gets really good: The more hunters you have, the more you've got each other's backs, alerting each other when birds are coming someone's way.

My shooting started off pretty lame, and the doves taught me some lessons. Twice I knocked them down and approached them to find their heads still up. You have a choice when that happens: Shoot them on the ground, usually at close distance, turning them into instant sausage, or approach carefully and hope you can pounce and get them before they scoot away.

Both times, I chose the latter. Both times, they up and flew away. Guess I hadn't knocked 'em down that hard.

But my shooting improved, and by 6:30, I'd filled my strap - the first time I've ever gotten a limit of doves! Shell count for the day: 51, 5.1 shells per bird. Not bad.

Sunday morning: Back in the field again! If I were a dog, I'd've been panting excitedly and wagging my tail. I was totally getting the hang of dove hunting - I knew how much I needed to lead the birds, when I had to suck it up and shoot cripples on the ground, what trajectories best to avoid so I wouldn't drop them in places where retrieval was difficult.

In about an hour and a half, I got four birds, with 12 shells - and average of three per bird! Oh yeah, baby! Then right as I was hauling in my gear, Bill and Boyfriend shouted that birds were coming my way.

I dropped everything and emptied my gun's contents in the general direction of those doves. I swear I could hear them laughing at me as they sped away. Ha ha, where's your average now, bitch?

Still pretty good, suckas! Could it be I was becoming good at this?

Sunday night: We'd been stockpiling doves all week, and now it was time to feast! Bill came over to our place and Boyfriend started working his magic on these tasty little birds.

First up: Italian Grilled Dove Florentine.

This one was simple and delicious: Doves, sea salt, olive oil and lemon. Yum!

Next: Japanese Grilled Dove Teriyaki.

Teriyaki is a familiar flavor for hunters, who love this preparation for all kinds of game. But this one is with a home-made teriyaki sauce, a little less sweet than the over-the-counter preparations most folks are used to. Delicious!

Finally: Grilled Dove a la Mancha.

This is my old favorite, though the Florentine doves may have beat it this time. The doves are salted, painted with bacon fat repeatedly and dusted with smoked paprika - tangy and juicy.

Nothing like an outstanding meal to remind you that the hunt is only the first half of the experience.

Monday afternoon: After a dinner like that, you didn't think I'd be getting up early, did you? No way. Instead, I fought my way through the end-of-Labor-Day-weekend traffic to get back to that field for an afternoon hunt. This time, it was just me, Bill, and his German Shorthaired Pointer, Cedar.

Bill was having a regular shoot-em-up down at his end of the field, where Cedar would go out into the field, stir up the doves, and amazingly drive them not away from Bill, but right to him.

Over on my end... Well, I dropped my first bird with two shots, and he went down just behind me. In the ditch. Which was lined with blackberries and other thorny dried plants. And I was wearing shorts for the first time all week.

I needed a dog, but Cedar was really far away, so I fought my way to the edge of the ditch and scanned for my bird.

There he was, the picture of perfection, floating on the water like a lily pad - wings out, head up. Beautiful. Except I'd shot him, and was about to kill him. That is definitely the part of hunting that sucks: Your success, your dinner, means snuffing out another life, sometimes at close range. Sigh.

But first I had to get him.

I slipped to the cattail-choked edge of the water, found a dead tree branch and used it to pull the poor little thing toward me. It worked! And as I reached for him, he skittered away on the water, just a bit, just enough to challenge my balance, and suddenly I was in the water up to my waist.

But I got my bird!

I sloshed back to my seat on the other side of the ditch, my boots filled with water, my clothes soaked, my legs and arms scratched and covered in thorny things, which I began plucking off my shirt and shorts.

And when the next bird came in, would you believe I dropped him in the same spot? And yes, I went in up to my waist again.

But I had two birds with five shots, so I was feeling pretty good. Perhaps today would be the day I'd get my average below three shots per bird!

Well, of course, you know the minute you start thinking like that, the gods can smell your hubris from a mile away, and they send you a mighty smackdown.

It started when I shot at a rare pigeon who came my way. Missed. Shot at a few more birds. Missed.

Meanwhile, Bill was absolutely slaughtering them at the other end of the field.

A helicopter circled the field. It was there to shoot the epic traffic on the freeway, but I really didn't want them to swing my way for a live shot of my shooting. God forbid I should hit one and have the explosion of feathers televised live.

Then an SUV came down the road. Farmworkers, maybe. Then another one, this one with a trailer. It crept ever so slowly toward me.

For the love of Pete, get moving! I thought. If birds came in anywhere in the vicinity of that car - which was generally the direction they were coming from - I'd have to pull my swing to avoid shooting it.

The car stopped next to me. Two doves came in from behind the ditch. Perfect shooting distance. But with their trajectory, I might've dropped one in a field where I couldn't see it drop - which means losing the bird. And that car was there, which meant it was likely I couldn't keep swinging and take a second shot if a bird flew low. So I held fire.

The driver rolled down his window. "You know, you can't hit 'em if you don't shoot!"

Really? No, I didn't know that! Thanks for the tip!

At this point, mentally, I really had my tits in a ringer (as my dad used to say), and I started shooting even worse. I was plowing through ammunition. Expensive ammunition, because I converted to steel this year.

Bill, close to his limit, came over to see how things were going. I whined and acted irritated. Oooh, I hate it when I get like this. Big freakin' baby.

My confidence had utterly deserted me, and without confidence, I'm toast.

Calm down, calm down. I sat my soggy butt on my chair and breathed slowly.

How will I ever get my average back down?

Shut up, moron!

Wow, what an idiot, that I would allow my quest for a good average to get in the way of good shooting.

I decided to stop counting. And I started shooting well again. Not perfectly - there were some bad shots, and there was one dove in particular whose mid-air gyrations almost made me laugh as I was pulling the trigger. But my strap was filling up, and by the time the flight stopped - all the birds were now on the ground feeding - I had eight, just two shy of the daily limit. And I was happy with that.

I picked up my enormous pile of shells, trying to leave the farmer's field tidy, and put them in my bag without playing the numbers game.

I was proud of myself. This was the first time that I've gotten really psyched out about bad shooting - I mean really pissy - and actually pulled myself out of it.

Back at home, Boyfriend was waiting to cook me what was about to become my very favorite new dove recipe: dove breasts in a sunflower-seed crust. Boyfriend has a thing for combining game animals with the foods that they like to eat. Oh. My. God. Divine.

And if none of those four pieces of food porn appealed to you, check out Boyfriend's dove recipe page - there are more recipes there.

It's been a great dove season so far. I told Bill I won't be able to get out during the week now because it just kills me to do that and school - it's just too taxing. But maybe Friday afternoon...

And maybe I'll be shooting better again by then. Or maybe not. Who cares?

© Holly A. Heyser 2010