Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Freaky: That unfamiliar feeling of hunting success

I'm in a bit of a freaky situation right now: I've been incredibly successful on five out of my past seven hunts.

I've gotten three limits of ducks - the most limits I've ever gotten in one season. I got six ducks hunting alone one day, the most I've ever gotten solo. I've shot a limit with just 15 shells, and six of those ducks required only one shot apiece - my best shooting ever. I've gotten my first double, and my first Scotch double (two with one shot - very thrifty!). I've felt so blessed with full straps that on one hunt, I handed over six ducks to a hunting partner - a form of generosity that comes only with the supreme confidence that I can get more ducks later.

All of this success leaves me feeling quite confused and concerned. Read more...
I am so accustomed to not shooting well that I fear this string of successes is a fluke that will end shortly (probably within 24 hours, now that I'm actually writing about it).

But what if it continues? What will I have to write about if I'm not frustrated and foiled at every turn in the field? I can't think of anything more boring than a hunting blog about perpetual success. That would lack dramatic tension and come off as boastful. Gag.

Every once in a while, though, this thought penetrates the swirling fog of neurosis and self-doubt: Maybe I'm just getting good at this.

Not that I'll never have a bad day again - streaks of poor shooting happen to everyone. And a streak of shooting this good may remain rare. But for the past four years, I've been striving to be a better shot and a smarter hunter, and I'm thinking maybe it's starting to work.

For the first time, I feel like I have really good news for all the new hunters I work with: It's OK if you're not great now. It's OK if your first few seasons leave you spending more time buying ammunition than plucking ducks. It's OK if you miss a lot. Why? Because eventually, your hard work will pay off.

But there are two words in that sentence that are vital: hard work.

I've spent a lot of time lately trying to dissect my success. Why is it happening now? What I've come up with is this:

Practice. Gun fit. Twelve gauge. I listed these in order of importance, but let's take it from the other direction:

The 12 gauge: I switched from a 20 gauge to a 12 gauge this year knowing that using the larger shell puts more shot in the air, which can increase my odds of success. That may be contributing to my success, but I know a 12 gauge alone isn't enough to do the trick.

Gun fit: Gun fit is huge. Some people are blessed with physiques that work well with shotguns as they are made, but not me. I shoot left-handed and have a long neck and high cheekbones, which makes gun fit tough for me. When I got my 12 gauge Beretta 3901 (I call her Sarah Connor), I ended up buying an adjustable-comb stock, which allows me to move the comb of the stock really far to the left while keeping the butt where it needs to be to hit my shoulder correctly.

If I had tried to use this gun as-is when I got it, I'd be failing miserably, because I'd never be able to get my face in the right position on the stock.

Practice: This one, I believe, is truly the most important. If you've ever read anything about success or mastery, you'll see declarations that it takes six to ten years, or 10,000 hours, of practice to get really good at something. This is the logic behind the apprentice-journeyman-master stages of many crafts.

I've been hunting for slightly more than four years now, and I've been passionate about it from the start. I hunt - especially ducks - at virtually every opportunity I find. And when there's nothing to hunt, I'm constantly looking for people to go shoot skeet with me. When my gun range, the Cordova Shooting Center, got a sweet voice-activated system for shooting skeet solo this year, that allowed me to go whenever I wanted, no partner needed.

This year, I cranked up my shooting activity to its highest level ever: I shot skeet with my new shotgun a LOT this summer, more than ever before. Come Sept. 1, I went dove hunting at every opportunity, not just once or twice as in previous years (with much gratitude to my friend Bill Templin, who graciously shared his primo spot with me). I've gone duck hunting at least once a week since the season started, and during school breaks when I can endure the sleep deprivation, I've gone hunting two or three times a week.

It's all adding up now. I've had enough successful shooting that my brain and muscles are capable of doing what's necessary without requiring conscious thought on my part - consistently, not just occasionally. Thank God. I really wondered if the day would ever come (and if you don't believe me, check out my first blog post).

New hunters, I'm here to tell you it can happen!

Of course, like I said, the fact that I'm writing this post almost certainly means I will get a mighty and humiliating smackdown, and probably very soon.

But unlike all the other smackdowns I have endured in my previous four years of hunting, I now know that I'm capable of doing well. Shooting poorly in the future won't mean I'm hopeless, as I have feared for so long now; it will simply mean I'm having a bad day.

And besides, it'll give me something to write about.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Huntress Livy said...

Its awesome that you've had such incredible success... and you should be boasting about it because we vicarously live through you. As hunters, we all know that such success/luck/skill, or whatever else you want to call it, can change in a moment, so relish in it! I've been fortunate with great success this year too.... until Sunday when I wounded a doe that I couldn't recover. If only I had adhered to my own words "take your time" I wanted the meat and rushed my shot and now no one benefits. But I have a great learning lesson which is what hunting is all about. I just hope I only made a mere flesh wound on the poor doe.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks, Livy! And my condolences about the doe. I don't think most non-hunters understand how much it pains us when something like that happens, how hard we try to avoid that situation, and how sometimes, despite our experience or skill, we take a bad shot.

I'm with you: Let's hope it was just a flesh wound, because we know deer are incredibly hardy animals who can survive wounds inflicted by unsuccessful predators of every stripe.

And yes, it is definitely the heart-rending failures that motivate us to work harder at achieving clean success.

Mike Dwyer said...

I think you've figured out why you're having all the luck. The off-season practice is probably a big part of it. When I used to shoot sporting clays I ALWAYS shot better during the dove season.

DarrenM said...

You have totally just jinxed yourself. Fully and completely jinxed! :) But seriously, congrats on the hard work paying off!

Let me know next time you're going to Cordova perhaps on my lunch break. I still haven't forgiven myself yet for missing the easiest shot my life on Sunday and it's been 48 hours filled with loathing and self-hatred!

Albert A Rasch said...

Feared by man and fowl alike, her fearsome, fire breathing, left hand cannon never misses. She is "La Cazadora."

Newest line in Cabellas Big Game Hunt video game...

Best Regards,
Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
In Afghanistan: It's Been a Long Road

Ryan Sabalow said...

Curious, Holly, what size choke do you use?

For years, I've been using a modified on ducks without much trouble.

But, this year, since I'm goose hunting more, I'm having a helluva time knocking down honkers well in range even with BBs and BBB-size shot.

The birds are obviously hit, but they don't go down. In one case, I tracked a wounded honker I'd shot at 30 yards for close to a mile.

I literally followed the blood trail in the snow that had dripped down from the wounded bird as it flew.

In another case, I hit a goose square in the head and it still flew off, flying all sideways before my buddy tuned him up on a follow-up shot.

That guy swears it's because I'm using a modified and my pellets are so bunched up they're not doing the mass damage that breaks wings and rips up a bunch of organs, knocking big geese out of the sky like a nice wide improved cylinder or open choke would.

He also shoots 3 1/2-inch shells on the big birds.

I don't have that option.

Anyway, you guys have gone on some goose hunts this year.

Did you have any similar problems?

If not, I'm wondering if it was 'cause you were using wider chokes.

Mike Dwyer said...

Ryan - how much do you lead your geese? I shoot a modified choke with 3 inch BB shells. I don't lead the birds at all. I put the bead on their beaks and pull the trigger. All birds hit the ground dead last year.

Ryan Sabalow said...

That's what I try to do, Mike. I just don't get it.

Holly Heyser said...

Mike, it was hugely expensive - I was easily spending $200 a month on ammo and range fees. But as long as I have enough disposable income to do that, it's worth it to be a better shot.

Albert: Fire-breathing? That's not a legal method of take here.

Ryan: I'm using a light modified - between IC and M (and that is for steel, not the lead rating). Previously, I was using a choke rated IC for lead, so I guess my pattern probably has opened up a tad.

That said, I haven't gotten a single goose this year, but I probably haven't taken a lot of shots at them either. Frankly, I just don't care about geese that much. Duck tastes better, and I love how clever ducks are, how easily they can make us look like fools.

Ryan Sabalow said...


I have no problem looking like a fool while hunting ducks or geese.

Or just walking down the street for that matter.

I still love hunting ducks. They're really fun and they taste epic.

But I've come to equally love that sound of a stone-dead honker slamming down on the ice.

Plus, calling in a flock of 20 bawling honkers from a mile off is one of the most exciting things in the outdoors.

By the time they get overhead, Gaddy dog and I am so jazzed up we can barely sit still.

They're pretty dang tasty too when chopped up and made into sausage or meatballs or something.

I look forward all year to eating honker-breast jerky, especially when I'm out fishing in the springtime.

Holly Heyser said...

Oh yeah, Darren: I know! I am SCREWED tomorrow!!!

But, you are exactly one of the people I had in mind when I wrote this. As much as you hunt, you're going to be awesome (though you'll still miss stupid easy shots - I think that's a given for everyone).

Re Cordova, I could do a lunchtime shoot during my winter break, but not once school has started. School is far from Cordova, and I can't have a gun in my car there, so I always have to go home before going anywhere that shooting is required.

Ryan, maybe if I killed a few more geese I'd catch the buzz. But in four-plus years, I have bagged a grand total of six geese, at best. Given that most of those shots have been group efforts, it's hard to know for sure.

And given that every guided goose hunt we've ever tried has failed one way or another, the opportunity just hasn't been there. Wah!

Ryan Sabalow said...


I've had days this year where I could have killed 10 geese easy, though the limit's just two.

Here's one such day:


Not sure it's still that good, but my longstanding goose-hunt offer is still out there if you ever want to take me up on it.

The best part is that, even if you don't get shooting, there usually isn't another hunter in sight.

I'll trade that for a full duck strap and getting screamed at by goons at Delevan any day.

SimplyOutdoors said...

It definitely sounds like all that hard work is definitely paying off, and you deserve it, Holly.

If you would, though, could you send some of that mojo over my way. I only have a few days left in my whitetail season, and I'm running out of days.

Mike Dwyer said...

I have to agree with Ryan about the geese. I love duck hunting but I have become a complete addict when it comes to geese. Most of the groups I get to shoot at can be heard over a mile out. Getting them to come all the way in is a huge adrenalin rush. Here's the story from my season ender back in January.


Holly Heyser said...

Wow, you love goose hunting that much when you can get ONLY TWO??? Wow.

California waterfowlers complain too much. We can get seven ducks and eight geese right now, though there's a limit of six dark geese, six light geese and four specklebellies.

Nice story, though.

Tovar@AMindfulCarnivore said...

Congrats on the fine successes, Holly! Sounds like you've got the gun, the fit, the skill, and -- this season anyway -- the mojo, too.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

I rejoice in your success, and I'm taking your advice very much to heart. I know I'm getting insufficient practice with my ill-fitting 20-gauge, and I'll be correcting that, for next year.

Mike Dwyer said...

Keep in mind Holly that we consider a turkey hunt successful if we bring one home and geese are about the same size. Unfortunately the snows do not make it this far east in KY. Huge limit on them (at one point a few years ago there was no limit). Two Canadas is plenty for me for an afternoon in the field though I do miss those days of hunting ducks in flooded timber and bringing home a gaggle.

Anonymous said...


Congratulations on this season's successes, both in your shooting ability as well as as your hunting prowess and success (and you realize part of the hunting success is the "Hunting Gods" smiling down on you? I.e. Luck)

I predict that it will remain at a new, higher, plateau for you from here on out.

However, never fear, there will still be days when things unexplicably "fall apart".

Don't ask me how I know. *wink*

Bill C.-Orygun

Anonymous said...

We just got our first waterfowl reservation notice for New Year's Day! We're terrified and afraid to chicken out. Does this mean NYE in a Sacramento Red Roof Inn? We don't even have decoys! Panic.

BTW--it's Delevan! Do you and Hank want to go with us?

Keith and Jacqueline from San Francisco.

Holly Heyser said...

Thanks Tovar! But it's still hard. As expected, I did not have a stellar day today, in part because the flight was pretty poor, but also because I didn't shoot as well as I have for my past few hunts. LOL, I knew that was coming!

Mike, I don't think one turkey is enough either!

Bill C., I think you're right. I didn't get skunked today, at least.

Keith and Jacqueline, we just got back from Delevan. The answer is yes, and don't worry about the decoys - just your own personal gear: guns, waders, jackets, and ideally a tule seat. Best not to buy much more gear than that until you start to develop an idea of how to use it, and what best suits your purposes.

Hank is emailing you now so we can have a more detailed conversation. Congratulations! That's a nice score for a first duck hunt :-)

Phillip said...

Congrats, Holly. We all knew it would happen, and glad to hear it finally has.

Ghostrifle said...

Hi Holly

Merry Christmas, wishing you all the best from a Ghost of Christmas.

Kirk Mantay said...

I would brag if I'd had a good year. Keep bragging. If nothing else, you're documenting memories for the future, when, like me, perhaps you have a really bad season.

No shame in it!