Monday, October 25, 2010

Duck opener: Hell and back for 7 birds

It's something of a joke here in our part of NorCal that you need sunscreen and mosquito repellent for the duck opener. Seriously, it's that balmy in late October. Normally.

But this year has been really odd. Rain lasted into June. Summer was unusually cool. The worst hot spell of the year came in late September. And yesterday - the Sunday of the duck opener for most of the state - we had one hell of a big storm.

Now, when I say big storm, I'm talking massive, ceaseless downpour, and winds that ranged from 20 mph in the quiet moments (which were rare) to probably 40 in the worst gusts. And it was a south wind, which usually doesn't hunt very well in these parts. Not ideal.

This was, of course, the day that Boyfriend got drawn for a reservation at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, which is my very favorite place to hunt ducks. Even more favorite than some of the posh, you're-a-moron-if-you-can't-kill-your-limit clubs that I'm occasionally lucky enough to hunt.

But it would be my first chance to hunt ducks this season, so no way in hell would I bail.

Boyfriend and I met our hunting buddies Charlie and Kevin at the Delevan hunter check station at 0-dark-30 Sunday morning and plotted. There were two assigned blinds that were so good we'd take them if they were available, but otherwise we were headed to free roam, the Wild West of the refuge, crowded as hell, competitive to a degree that would deter most, but ducky enough to be worth it, if you knew where to go, and how to play the game there.

When the last prime blind was snapped up before Boyfriend's number was called, the decision was made for us: free roam.

Charlie set out first, and Boyfriend, Kevin and I followed. After hunting with Charlie for five weeks last season after Boyfriend was felled by a ruptured Achilles tendon, I knew precisely where Charlie was going, so I could get us there. We trudged through the storm in darkness, just a few square feet in front of us lit by our headlamps. We were just coming off of a full moon, but the storm was so thick you wouldn't know it.

We pushed out decoy cart through mud that clung to the wheels in bigger and bigger clumps with every turn. We kept our heads low to keep the rain from stinging our faces.

Have I mentioned that this is extremely weird for opening weekend here?

My headlamp caught the glow of two eyes as something scurried across the dirt road. Baby opossum. This being only the second day of hunting at Delevan this season, we agreed that he was probably thinking, "What the hell are you humans doing here in this weather?"

It was a question I'd ask myself several times that day.

When it felt like I'd gotten to the right spot on the road, we ditched our cart and dragged our decoy boat into the water and headed - as best I could tell - south. I couldn't see Charlie's light, which should've been there already, but I wasn't worried, because I knew he was perfectly able to set up in the dark.

The walk was sheer misery: Fighting the wind, walking through water, wearing heavy 3.5 mm neoprene, slogging through the soft, muddy bottom, no reassuring light ahead.

And our boat was taking on water.

We stopped, shifted things a bit, and set out again. Still no Charlie light. And then we hit land.

What the hell? There was no land in the spot we were headed to.

I saw a light near me in the darkness and went toward it. "Charlie?" I yelled into the wind as soon as I was close enough that I could be assured he'd hear me.

"No!" the shape yelled back. "But my name is Charles."

"Nice to meet you Charles. I'm Holly."

OK, truly, public-land duck hunting is so full of bizarre scenes like this that I can't help but laugh.

I went back to Boyfriend and Kevin to tell them that I'd gotten us massively lost. What a loser! I pulled out my phone, dialed Charlie and thrust it under my hood, hoping the driving rain wouldn't destroy it. We could barely hear each other, but I determined we'd gotten turned around when we rearranged the load on the boat.

Great. We'd have to cross that water again.

This time we made it. I'd been to this spot with Charlie before, and everything was in place. Except for Charlie.

I dialed him again. Three or four times. And with lots of yelling into our phones, I finally understood that his boat had taken on too much water and he'd had to go back to land to empty it, before setting out again. I blinked my headlamp at him. He blinked his at me. Reassurance in the darkness: He was close. He would get there.

Now, I know there are some readers here - some of whom I've just met - who desperately want to start hunting ducks. And I know you're reading this thinking, "No effin' way!" But stay strong, sisters - this was a really unusual experience, not the norm. And I'm so glad I didn't bring one of you on this hunt, because this would've been a really rough first outing for you.

When shoot time arrived, it became clear very quickly that we were not on the "X" that day. Some ducks were coming our way, but most were breaking west or flying too high over us, just to bomb in somewhere to the south. Where all the gunfire was. Dammit.

We started eking out a few ducks. Boyfriend and Kevin brought down a mallard apiece. I hit a duck that was - as would become clear as I saw it sailing, mortally wounded - a spoonie hen. My first duck of the season, the most maligned bird in duckdom.

Charlie took out a teal from a group that had evaded Boyfriend, which I knew only because the wind briefly blew his profanities my direction.

Here's the funny thing about shooting in the wind: It is hard! Ducks will fly into the wind, which is the only way they can control their direction. But with winds blowing at duckflight speed, they had to labor mightily to make any progress. This meant that as they were flying into us, they appeared to be - and practically were - holding still!

Yep. They were sitting ducks. And there we were with scatterguns! We should've had our limits in an hour. Right?

Wrong. Wouldn't you know it, there's something really difficult about shooting in that situation.

Ducks can skid sideways without warning when the wind shifts even slightly. Your shot can be blown off trajectory. I'm pretty sure each of us missed shots that would've been total no-brainers at a gun range. It was frustrating as hell.

At one point - I kid you not - I saw a small non-game bird, maybe the size of a blackbird, flying backward. It was facing me, and utterly helpless against the wind, it was blown backward into a clump of tules. Even though I was grumpy as hell because of all the shells I was wasting, I couldn't help but laugh at that.

Even so, the weather was torture. Kevin had leaky waders, and he succumbed midmorning. Boyfriend and I left when I was almost out of shells, and my last shell would've been a waste - ultra-light No. 6 shot, guaranteed to be gone with the wind.

Charlie, as was normal for him, stayed until the bitter end, sending me text messages with his new water-resistant phone about the birds he downed after Boyfriend and I were safely ensconced at Granzella's for a late lunch.

Me (10/24 1:56 p.m.): So, how many things have you killed since we left???

Charlie (10/24 2:02 p.m.): Sure u want 2 know? 2 grnhead and a pin

Me (10/24 2:09 p.m.): Hank and I just killed two beers.

Charlie's a maniac - he will hunt the entire day, and even if he's limited, he'll stay to the bitter end just to watch the action. And by staying to the bitter end, he usually brings home a full strap.

Me? I just can't hunt like that on a Sunday. I have to recharge my batteries to get through the week ahead. Classes to teach, a massive pile of grading to do, and a freelance story for the local paper on top of that.

I know my limits. And I hate them.

* * *

Between Boyfriend and me, we brought home seven ducks yesterday. He got five (yes, I hate him), and I got two, my spoonie hen - my No. 1 Duck for the 10-11 season! - and a ring-necked drake. Funny, it was the same score as our first duck hunt of the season together last year, a Sunday that was windy, yet sunny and warm.

While I worked at school today, he did the plucking duty, the start of the process of turning our hard work into amazing food.

He rendered down the fat from our seven ducks and got this, which is astonishing:

When he pulled the innards from his pintails, he found one liver so fatty that, by God, this was unheard-of wild foie gras. It was the fattest liver we have ever seen on a wild duck. This girl must've been parked in a rice field stuffing herself for weeks, no foie gras force-feeding funnel needed.

Fat liver on the left, normal liver on the right:

Then, he cooked one of the last ducks we have left from the 09-10 season, a monster drake mallard that was corpulent beyond belief:

It was dressed quite simply with some Fiori di Cervia sea salt, which was pretty much the most orgasmic thing you could put on a slow-roasted duck. I mean, there was no way in hell we'd use our napkins instead of our tongues to clean our fingers. Table manners be damned.

We sat there, tearing into that duck, fingers glistening, duck fat dripping down our chins.

Funny, I recently read a blog in which a new duck hunter declared that all duck hunters were lying when they said ducks tasted great. Finding a way to make ducks taste even acceptable was immense labor for him.

I am happy to report this guy was wrong. Almost inexcusably wrong. Wild ducks are the most amazing gift nature has to offer our palates.

Boyfriend and I clinked glasses.

"To a new duck season!" I said.

I wouldn't miss it for anything. No matter how poorly I shoot, no matter how miserable the weather is. It's worth it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Anonymous said...

It was worth it I'd say!

Great read and to me, it sounded like a ton of fun, but then again I'm used to those kind of things happening on my hunting trips. (getting turned around, sinking boats, etc.) They do make for some of the best memories though.

Best of luck to you this coming season and I'm lookin' forward to hearing all about it! ☺

Greg Damitz said...

I hunted Delevan as well sunday. we took a subpar blind instead of freeroam to be able to spend a little more time at the vehicle out of the elements. We bailed at 10:30 a.m. as this was our second day of "December in October" weather and I had had enough. We left with 3 specs and 5 ducks. Added to saturdays take it's a good start on kabobs, spec steaks and the salami pile. I hate weather on the opener. Give me a calm, balmy day and I'll show you 7 green. This weekend made it hard on picking quality ducks.

Matt Ames said...

I love that kind of hunting!! That's what separates the men and women from the boys and girls! ;)

With that said, I redid the floor in my bathroom. There was no wind and rain in there, but the next day I was as sore as I would've been if I had hunted instead.

Charlie sounds like a guy after my own heart. When my brother and I hunt together, we almost never call it quits until it's just about too dark to walk back without flashlights.

Well, I'm glad you had a fun time. It's hunts like these that really build what I like to call duck'n character. :)

A Reel Lady said...

Great job on the duck kills. In OK the wind never stops blowing, so we're somewhat used to the craziness that shooting at anything in the wind brings. However crazy rain is something we rarely encounter, I have heard from older trapshooters if you shoot a tight pattern in the rain you can see it break through the sheets of rain and watch your lead/steel hit your target. Might be fun to witness.

Anonymous said...

I was waiting - waiting -waiting for your first season duck post. I was not disappointed. Thanks for a great read.
I am hoping to do my first hunt of the season on Thursday.


Holly Heyser said...

Kari: It was very tiring, but in the end, two-duck days like this can be way more memorable than seven-duck days.

Back when I cared about baseball, I used to go to Giants games at Candlestick Park, and everyone who stayed for extra innings at a night game in that freakishly frigid park came away with a "Croix de Candlestick" pin. I feel like we need something like that for duck hunting on insane days like these.

Greg: Damn, I'm sorry I didn't catch on to who you were out there! Next time you're at Delevan, keep an eye out for me - I'll have a short pony tail sticking out of my baseball cap. I know I'll be there this Sunday, and so far the forecast looks better. North wind - woot!

Matt: We've gotta get you out with Charlie! If you'd been free this Sunday, it would've happened sooner rather than later, but I know it's not always possible.

Reel Lady: That sounds very cool. Not that I'd go out of my way to experience it. Oh, who am I kidding, of course I would!

Jean: Thanks! It was like so many of my hunting stories. Yesterday morning I told Hank I had no idea what I was going to say about this hunt, but it pretty much took care of it self when I sat down at the keyboard.

Good luck out there Thursday!

Mark Coleman said...

I hunted dove in the remnants of a hurricane one opener and had the same "birds flying slow into the wind" experience. It took me half a box of shells to figure out that the same wind that was slowing the birds to a crawl was blowing my shot stream sideways at 40 mph. Funny how vividly you remember days like that.

Alison said...

Hahah, that text exchange with Charlie is hilarious! He's like a duck magnet. Never fails.

Holly Heyser said...

Mark, sadly, I hadn't really gotten it after half a box. Part of the problem was that we were, of course, sitting with the wind at our back. But I think I too often got in the mindset that it ws precisely at my back, when in fact it was blowing diagonally across me. I'm pretty sure I repeatedly failed to make that calculation before shooting, especially since I spent the summer trying to avoid thinking before shooting.

Alison: There was more to that exchange, but mostly it involved me cursing ;-).

Josh said...

Great story, and I'm not sorry for you and the weather, not one bit.

On a balmy Monday afternoon, I plucked pheasants with your boyfriend. I left some Thrifty Italian for you two, one vodka and one brandy, hopefully to help you toast the new season, too.

I can't wait to get out to the field with you.

Holly Heyser said...

Be careful what you ask for, Josh! ;-)

Lindsay Macomber said...

Im ready to go. Rain or shine.

I asked hubby for the cazadora waders...he looked at me cross eyed at the price (I just bought a new hunting vest). Any suggestions that will make do until I can convince him and myself that I LOVE duck hunting and will do it every year?


DarrenM said...

Can I have "Tweets I regret" for $400 please, Alex?

The answer: "NorCalCazadora: It's raining! Finally, real rain! I just hope it keeps up through next weekend - hunting the duck opener in the rain would be AWESOME. 1:52 PM Oct 17th"


Holly Heyser said...

Yes, Darren, yes you can! LOL

Holly Heyser said...

And oh, Lindsay, ask your hubbie if the price is worth not having to hear you complain about poorly fitting men's waders all season. :-)

Peebs said...

For Hollies shooting what she didn't say was that there four of us so we spread out across the tulie/cattail patch I was on the east side Hollie beside me and the others on the west side the birds were following a channel that ran up the west side and scirting the patch so most of her shots were at birds that already been shot at or in a solid flare add a wind that was closer to 40 mph than 20 and you don't get a whole lot of hits. The afternoon was different the wind died off and the birds came in flocks. It was farily easy to get my limit as well as all the other hunters in our pond. I finally left early because I couldn't stand to see mallards swimming 10ft from me.

Holly Heyser said...

Peebs, you are KILLING ME!

So glad I get a do-over this Sunday :-) Still don't think I'd be able to stay all day because next week may be as insane as this week. But if the weather isn't so horrific, it'd be easier to convince me...

Jon Roth said...

Crazy start to the season no doubt, felt like January! Even though our club shoots better with less weather, we had a good shoot. I shot 4 on Saturday (got the sucky blind draw) and a limit on Sunday (best blind draw). 11 ducks for the two day weekend total, 8 mallards and 3 gadwall. More gadwall around here than I've seen in years! Sounds like a good, typical trek out to Delevan!

Peebs said...

How does 4 mals 2pins and a widge do? But we are going to be in another storm looks like anyway.

Gorges Smythe said...

Sounds "exciting", but worth it.

Albert A Rasch said...


You all are so lucky. All we have is Talibanannas, and they are so tough and stringy, that it doesn't matter how much you pound them, they are still inedible!

I'm not kidding, when I get out of this God forsaken dust bowl, I am going to find a place with abundant fur, fish, and feathers, and build a home. I'll have no excuse for failing to post hunting and fishing stories after that.

Best Regards,
Albert A Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles: Instincts and Hunting

Holly Heyser said...

Come home soon, Albert!

SimplyOutdoors said...

I've been in a sinking - actually sunk (it was a shallow bottom) - boat, and I've hunted in some nasty wind before.

But I've never duck hunted.

I'm think I'm already experienced, though, and need to give it a try:)

It sounds like a great opening morning, despite the weather. Way to stick it out!

gary said...

I am not so sure if opening day of anything and perfect weather go together, but they sure make for the memories. Within a couple years those 40 mph winds will be up to 60 and rising, thats just a fact of hunting. Good times and good memories.

Galen Geer said...

Hey Holly,
Great Hunt! Great Story! Great Food! Too bad about the book in the following blog. But hey, Great Read. I'll bet your fingers got really, really cold.

Holly Heyser said...

Surprisingly, my fingers didn't feel too bad. It was in the 50s for the whole day, and my biggest problem with my hands is they were waterlogged, like I'd spent four hours in a swimming pool.

I never put on gloves because I wasn't cold at first. Then my hands were just too wet to get the gloves on.

The worst cold I felt was at the back of the neck, there my waterproof jacket (yes, the one from Scheel's!) wasn't very waterproof, and with the wind blowing it against my neck, it gave me some serious shivers. And that was where I was most sore at day's end - my shoulders, from tensing up to shiver.

The hardest part of the storm was that it was just exhausting fighting the wind. Whenever I was out walking in open water, the wind blew so hard that it literally knocked me back, and almost over. When I went to pick up my first duck, it was a really long haul, because she sailed so far before hitting the water. She was DOA, but her wings were out, so she sailed quite a ways. Once she was on the water, she was belly-up, but she just kept floating farther and farther away, really fast, when I charged after her. It was just nuts!

Quackity Gal said...


Great start to your opener. I didn't get a bird Saturday, but had a good time with Winston!

Sunday I was invited down to Volta. Ug, Volta mud! I recovered 2 cripple green-winged teal. My buddy got a green-winged AND a blue-winged teal! He missed the cinnamon, otherwise we could've claimed a teal trifecta on opening weekend! Can ya believe that?!

See ya around!