Saturday, December 31, 2011

Duck hunters: Buy this jacket!

One of my favorite "discoveries" as a new hunter was the ghillie suit - I'd had no idea that human beings would actually want to walk around looking like Swamp Thing. It just seemed so ridiculous.

But Hank talked about wanting a ghillie jacket for a while, and two years ago, I bought one for him for Christmas. He didn't get a chance to wear it right away because his Achilles tendon popped and he couldn't even walk for a couple months, much less hunt.

When duck season began last year, though, he started wearing it all the time, and he loved it. From a distance, the jacket's shaggy outline really did make it much harder to see him hiding in cattails and tules. (Usually it's surprisingly easy to spot hunters in the marsh.)

So this year, I asked for this ghillie jacket for Christmas, and Hank obliged. Wednesday was the first chance I got to try it out, and it was amazing.

I wore it in conjunction with a black balaclava I have from my Minnesota distance running days, and though I was sitting in a tule patch that didn't afford much cover, the ducks just did not see me.

Better yet, whenever I was walking around and birds approached, I'd just hunker down over the water and disappear. Several times when I did that, I got the opportunity to stand and shoot, and the birds really didn't get that I was a hunter who was going to shoot them. What I mean is they didn't flare immediately, and I killed two or three birds this way.

It's pretty rare that a single piece of clothing makes such a noticeable difference in your hunt, but this one really did.

In fact, it works so well it makes me wonder why more duck hunters don't wear these. It is nothing but a mesh shell. If it's cold, you can wear it over a jacket. If it's warm, this is the most ventilated camo you could possibly hope to wear.

I was worried that all the flaps of fabric would catch the butt of my gun, but they didn't. Ever.

My only complaint is about the pockets, which are located in the side seams over the hips, as with a normal jacket. Because they're not deep and don't have a zipper, you wouldn't want to put anything important in them - I just used them for empty shells that I picked up while walking around.

And the pockets are hard to find, though I don't think that should be surprising with all those flaps of fabric.

If I were the designer at Cabela's (hey, wait, I've worked with them before - maybe I should mention this to them), I would add a zipped inner breast pocket for things like licenses and car keys. Hell, I know how to sew (a little) - I may just add that myself.

Regardless, I highly recommend this jacket. Mine is the "big game" version, and while I learned just yesterday that there's also a waterfowl ghillie, I think it really doesn't matter which one you use because the flaps largely obscure the camo pattern anyway. I mean, that's the whole point.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Coming up in 2012: A cool new book about hunting

At the risk of appearing cruel, I've got a great new book I want to tell you about. What's cruel about it? The book doesn't come out until June. The good news is you can pre-order it.

"Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner" (Grand Central Publishing) is Lily Raff McCaulou's tale of moving from New York City to Bend, Oregon, to take a job as a newspaper reporter.

There are two things she discovers very quickly in Bend: One is her husband-to-be, Scott, and the other is that hunting isn't at all what she had always thought it was, having grown up in an uber-liberal suburb of Washington, D.C.

Scott introduces Lily to fly fishing, and Lily decides on her own that she'd also like to try hunting, which Scott doesn't do. So without a specific mentor to inspire and guide her, she goes for it.

Wow - totally intrepid. I love her already.

This book is an important read for many segments of the hunting community for many reasons, the first being the most obvious:

Every hunter I know loves the vicarious thrill of reliving his or her own learning experiences through the tales of another new hunter. When that hunter is an articulate adult, so much the better.

I've also met about a dozen new huntresses this year who I'm pretty sure will relate to this tale as well, because they're still in the thick of learning this strange new world.

It's not just the vicarious thrill that's important here, though: Lily's tale demonstrates just how hard it is to break into hunting when you don't know a soul who hunts.

Some of this difficulty is inevitable: We all have to go through learning how to shoot straight, learning when to shoot, trying out gear, and learning how to process game.

But some of the difficulty could be avoided if state wildlife agencies, non-profits and even gun stores recognized that not all new hunters were raised in hunting families, that they really do need everything spelled out explicitly - and patiently.

For example, Lily goes to three gun shops before she finds someone who respects her wishes (she wants to shoot a 20 gauge), patiently explains things like how to shoulder a gun, and recommends a place to practice shooting and find mentors.

And because she decided to start hunting after the one and only adult hunter ed class that year has been held, she ends up in a children's course. Really? One adult class per year?

Another audience that needs to read this book is politically conservative hunters, even though they'll chafe at some of what Lily has to say. (I don't know if she would call herself a liberal, but she's clear that her upbringing was, and she reminds me of a lot of new hunters I've met who come from similar backgrounds.)

Why should they read this? In general, I believe it's important to understand the thought processes of people you disagree with, but more importantly, we need to understand that there are plenty of people from liberal backgrounds who can embrace guns and hunting if we'd just stop berating their politics long enough to let them in.

Really. It's OK. We don't all have to belch "Barack" to be hunters.

Finally, hunting organizations need to hear what Lily has to say.

She quickly becomes an advocate for hunting, and being a journalist, she really knows how to do the research to back up her opinions. But she also holds up a mirror to some hunter-based organizations. She really wanted to join some, but found so many of their messages to be off-putting, particularly those geared toward trophy measurement and record-keeping.

I think all hunters who are active in these organizations know that funding conservation is an important, if not the most important, thing that most of them do. But it sure doesn't look that way to Lily, and if that's the message she's getting from these organizations, you can bet non-hunters don't see them in any better light. I know it's not just Lily who feels this way: I work with a lot of new hunters, and they ask the exact same kinds of questions she does.

Now, I may have just made this book sound like broccoli - something you should read, not necessarily something you want to read - but I promise you it's not. The reason I'm reviewing this book is that when Hank passed it to me (he got an early copy for review), I devoured it in two evenings. And unlike some books I've read, this one didn't make me swear even once - even though I don't agree with all of her positions on hunting issues.

Lily is curious, intrepid, smart and articulate. She's a fantastic addition to the hunting community, and I think you'll enjoy her story as much as I have.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

On sluicing ducks

It finally happened: I came home from a hunt with seven ducks last week, and while my shooting wasn't amazing, it felt like I'd gotten through my really bad case of the yips.

Now, I'd love to regale you with the details of some of my incredibly awesome shots that day - the wigeon I dropped so hard he bounced three feet off the water when he hit, the spoonie I nearly dropped into my lap - but that's not what this post is about.

This post is about two greenwing teal I shot on the water.

I'd started my morning at one of my favorite spots under a bright crescent moon and a sky littered with stars. In other words, it was going to be a clear and bright day.

Once shoot time arrived, the flight was really good - I heard gunshots all over the refuge, and while I missed a lot in that first hour, I did drop one duck, a hen wigeon.

Then the fog rolled in, and the shooting stopped abruptly. Ducks don't fly in the fog.

There was no telling how long this was going to last, so I made a decision: It was time for a walkabout.

The beauty of where I hunt on my refuge is that it's free roam. When you hunt "assigned blinds," you have to stay within 100 feet of a particular spot. If the ducks don't happen to want to be there that day, you're effed. But in free roam, you are free to go to the ducks, so long as you're not getting too close to other hunters.

On this morning, I knew there were likely to be some crippled ducks who'd been injured, but not killed, by some of the hunters. Wounded ducks like to hide in cover. My strategy would be to walk through the grass where they hide, look for cripples, and shoot them. More meat for my table, and the end of suffering for wounded animals.

Not 60 seconds into my walkabout, I saw a duck in the grass, head up and alert. I knew he saw me, but he wasn't going anyplace. Crip! I took stock of my surroundings, determined that the angle and direction of my shot wasn't going to intersect any nearby hunters, and shot the duck. He went belly-up.

As I walked toward him to pick him up, I saw another duck doing the same thing - he hadn't gotten up when I fired the first shot. Another crip! So I shot him. He got up and flew, then dropped, so I got him too.

I took both birds - drake greenwings - back to my tule patch, went to my car for more ammunition, then returned to my spot just as the fog was lifting and the shooting resumed all around me.

When I went home that afternoon and started plucking my birds, I was in for a surprise: Neither teal had a mark on him except for the shots I'd fired. No broken wings. No pellets to the breasts. Just the distinctive wounds caused by sluicing: shots that rake across the back.

They hadn't been wounded! So why had they just sat there? Maybe they hoped I couldn't see them. Maybe they didn't want to fly in the fog. Who knows?

My first thought upon making this little discovery was, "Good! These'll be great eaters." Shot holes in the breast don't make for great presentation on the plate. These would be perfect. And they were little fatties, too.

My next thought was that this discovery changed my shots from noble - putting ducks out of their misery - to "unsportsmanlike."

So here's the big question: If I'd known they weren't cripples, would I have shot them on the water anyway?

The answer is "Hell yes!"

Why? Let's start with the reason why many duck hunters would say, "Hell no!" Shooting a duck on the water - also known as "sluicing" or "water swatting" - is considered by some to be unsportsmanlike because the shot is too easy, and the bird doesn't have sufficient chance to elude the hunter.

Me? I don't care.

I hunt to put food on the table, not to impress anyone else with my tremendous wingshooting abilities. While I love making a good shot, and I'm proud of myself when I shoot well, that's just not what hunting's about for me.

But let's take a visual look at the core argument.

Is it sportsmanlike to shoot these ducks?

Of course. Classic shot. How about these:

Sure, as long as there are no hunters hiding in those tules in the background. And these:

That was a test. If that image doesn't make you nearly pee yourself with excitement, you are obviously not a duck hunter.

How about this one? His feet are about a centimeter off the water.

Yep, still flapping those wings. Totally sportsmanlike! And this one?

Ah yes, this is where we - or at least some of us - draw the line. It's that last centimeter that makes all the difference in the world, right?

Nope. I call bullshit.

Now, you don't have to shoot that duck. I really don't care. Choosing not to take a shot is never "wrong," regardless of the reason.

But I don't think it's "wrong" for me to take that shot either. And I flat-out don't believe that the sitting duck is the most vulnerable duck (and therefore the "easiest" to shoot) in this series of drawings. These ducks are:

Why? Neither these ducks nor the sitting duck know you're there, so all of them are vulnerable. They're all pretty easy shots because they've really slowed down, and the three on the left, while still moving, are coming straight at you. Stick the damn bead on a bird and pull the trigger.

But let's say you miss one of these shots (which, God help me, I've done way too many times), or you attract their attention and spook them before pulling the trigger. Now that the ducks are alerted, they're going to want to get the hell out of Dodge.

The sitting duck need only launch into the air, which he can do with astonishing speed. The landing ducks, on the other hand, must reverse course. They must stop their downward movement before they can start moving up and out. So, this is really the shot that's "too easy" and "unsportsmanlike," right?

Yeah, I didn't think so.

This is the problem with some of the ethical lines we hunters draw in the sand (or in the marsh, in this case). I believe our core concern should be making the cleanest kill possible with shots that won't lead to any unintentional wounding of other hunters or dogs who might be nearby.

I mean, do we really think the duck gives a damn whether we shot him on the water or when he was still a foot off the water? If he ain't dead yet, he's thinking, "Ow! Ow! Ow! I've gotta get out of here," not, "That unsportsmanlike bastard just shot me on the water!"

And I don't feel any less guilty for ending a bird's life when it's midair, as opposed to when it's on the water. I've killed it, either way.

Hunting is, at its core, tricking animals into making mistakes that cost them their lives. On the water or in the air, that duck you're shooting has been fooled into believing he's safe there. That means you've done the first part of your job well. Now it's time to shoot him - if you choose to.

But tell me readers: What do you think? What's your line in the sand? Why?

Let the comments begin!

P.S. While I love it when everyone agrees with me, I really want to hear about it if you disagree, because I want to hear WHY - challenging my position helps me see whether my arguments are on point, and it occasionally changes my mind. Really!

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

Nothing like a little snap shooting to shake things up

...And a partridge in a pear tree! (Don't freak out about the duck count - these aren't all mine.)

Yesterday was our semi-annual mixed-bag extravaganza hunt in Amador County with our friend Evan, and the beauty of this hunt - aside from the fact that almost all small game is legal to hunt at this time of year - is that it's all snap shooting.

Loyal readers know that if I have more than two seconds to shoot, I will overthink my shot, every time. In light of how horribly I've been shooting in the marsh (see previous morose blog post), I really needed some serious snap shooting to shake me out of my slump.

The full story behind this photo will be my Jan. 1 Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang! column for Shotgun Life, but I wanted to share one piece of it today:

We were hunting pigeons at a barn on a cattle ranch and for some reason, birds kept coming back to the barn despite all the shooting and carnage (usually they're much smarter). At one point while Evan was off chasing pigeons down the hill, Hank and I were heading back to the barn, and a pigeon came flying in.

As Hank was uttering the words, "Look, there's one," I was already lifting my gun, pulling the trigger and watching that bird cartwheel out of the sky.

"Wow! Great shot!" Hank said. Words I can never hear enough. Especially considering Hank is the one who normally shoots before I can mount my gun.

I know the photo above is tasteless, and so is my smug satisfaction. But dammit, it feels good to shoot well and bring home bounty like this, so I have no apologies. Just gratitude.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Salvation: How 'fighter squadrons,' the Tebow move and a perfect hen spoonie rescued my hunt

I've had the yips something fierce this duck season. I mean, so bad on most days that I feel like it's my first year of duck hunting again - I can't hit a thing. It has been utterly demoralizing. I mean, I've heard of bad days, but entire bad seasons?

God, I loathe failure.

There have been some pretty fierce external stressors this fall that I can't control, but I've been trying lots of other stuff to rectify the situation: practicing my gun mount in front of the mirror, coaching myself to wait to shoot until the mount feels perfect, keeping my spirits up.

I went gonzo at the hardware store to fix a problem with the adjustable-comb stock of my shotgun coming loose frequently. I changed chokes on my gun. And on Wednesday morning, I decided to hunt alone to try to isolate my problem in privacy.

Well, you must know by now how it went. I won't chronicle every single moment of my epic suckage, but suffice to say I whiffed on not one, but two pairs of mallards that got up out of the grass near me and came flying straight to my tule patch at easy shooting height. Exact same shot. Twice in a row. Oh. My. God.

My buddy Charlie, who couldn't hunt Wednesday, texted me mid-morning.


I responded morosely: "I think if I put my muzzle in my mouth i'd still miss."

It's weird: With the exception of two hunts this fall - both in places where the ducks would come in close because we weren't surrounded by other hunters - I feel like I've just lost my sight picture.

Ideally, your brain remembers everything about your good shots - how you're swinging, the angle of the bird's flight, where the bird is in relation to the muzzle, how the stock feels on your cheek and shoulder. I tell new hunters that's why they need to shoot a lot: They need to train their brain to recognize what works and what doesn't work.

That subconscious memory is also what makes a hunter "feel the Force" - that feeling you get when you just know that if you pull the trigger now, the shot is going to connect.

I haven't been getting that feeling at all this season.

Fighting my pouty inner child, who kept telling me to just quit Wednesday morning, I decided to walk around in an area where crippled ducks tend to hide. Not 50 yards into my walk, I saw the unmistakable shadow of a duck swimming away from me through the grass, head pressed low to the water to avoid detection.

I raised my gun, aimed a bit to the left to put most of the shot on his head, pulled the trigger, and he started flapping, dead.

"Thank God," I told myself, "that I can still kill a duck on the water."

Strangely enough, that inglorious shot made me feel better. I'd gone home empty-handed on Sunday, and I didn't want to have to tell the folks at the hunter check station that I'd been skunked again. This bird took care of that.They didn't need to know I'd gotten it on crip patrol.

I kept walking, hoping to find more crippled ducks, when I realized there were a LOT of coots around me, some even in shooting range. Coots have a bad reputation as a really stanky bird - not good eats. But Hank knows how to cook them, and the night before, he'd asked me to bring home a bunch if I got the opportunity.

I watched and waited for several birds to cross in front of my muzzle at the same time, pulled the trigger, and went up to collect four coots. I'd pick up a fifth cripple shortly after that.

I knew I'd take a lot of ribbing from fellow hunters because almost no one shoots coots on purpose. But Hank would be happy. And I'd managed NOT to botch an easy shot. Yay.

It was just enough "success" to convince me what I had to do: I was going to stay all damn day and keep shooting and shooting and shooting until I could get it right. I walked back to my car to get more ammo (tail between legs), then went back to my tule patch.

By this time, there were few ducks in the air, and the very few I was seeing were going to nearby hunters' decoy spreads, not mine. It was the worst kind of duck hunting weather: bright, cloudless and still.

One by one, the other hunters began leaving. "Good," I thought to myself. "Now I can miss in total privacy." It felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Now if I could just get some ducks to swing by.

Ducks were definitely still in the air, but nowhere near me. I kept seeing them bomb into an area about 300 yards from me where there were no tule patches that could hide hunters - just thin grass rising 12 to 18 inches above the water.


I decided to stalk them.

This is inherently funny, stalking birds in an area where there was no place to hide. Except that low grass.

I walked upright at first, slowly, to avoid splashing sounds. As I drew closer, I dropped my torso like a cat, moving even more smoothly. Or like that "keep on truckin'" image that was so popular in the 1970s.

When I felt I was getting close enough for my head to be seen over that grass, I dropped to my knees and kept going. True fact: When you're walking on your knees in waders, you have to be careful how you pick up each knee, because the waders are so buoyant that they'll knock you on your side. It was hard not to giggle.

In front of me, I heard the unmistakable sound of birds lifting from the water. Would they come in shooting distance? Yes they would! I shot from my knees, and missed.

Keep going, Holly!

I snuck forward a bit more. More birds lifted. I shot again. Missed.

Keep going, Holly!

Not long after that last gun blast, I heard that sound that takes my breath away: It sounds like a squadron of fighter jets bombing in. It is the sound air makes against ducks' bodies when they lock wings and dive hard because they want to land now.

It is both thrilling and baffling, because you cannot figure out where they hell they're going to come into sight, and you don't want to jerk your head around looking for them.

I finally caught a glimpse of this squadron, out of range, and marveled. They dropped to the water maybe 80 yards from me.

I kept knee-walking in that direction, and then froze because yet another squadron was coming in. And another. And another.

This was the kind of dazzling, breath-taking scene you could witness only when almost every other duck hunter has gone home. And everything about it was amplified by how beautiful the day had become: warm, breezy, bright. The birds' bodies - when I could look at them without being seen - literally glistened in that light. It was pure magic, the kind that brings tears to my eyes (then and now). The kind that makes me feel so privileged to be in that place.

I got as close as I could to an open area of water that was attracting the ducks, and decided that rather than staying on my knees - not ideal for shooting - that I needed to be ready to stand. So I adopted the Tebow move:

From this position, I could continue avoiding detection, but be ready to stand quickly if a duck flew in range. Yes, it was really hard keeping my gun out of the water. And yes, pretty much every shell in my shell belt was now submerged. I didn't care.

Ducks flew in, ducks flew out, close enough to make me gasp, but never quite in range.

I made a deal with the hunting gods: Let me get one good shot, and I'll leave these ducks alone, go back to my tule patch and be happy if not one more bird flies by me today.

A spoonie hen dropped into that open water, almost close enough to shoot, but not quite. There was a patch of grass between me and her, so I couldn't see her, but I knew she was there. Then another spoonie dropped into the same open water, also too far to shoot.

I waited.

I heard the huff-huff-huff of spoonie wings. The first one was getting up. Would she come near me?

Yes. She arced in my direction. When she was just the right distance, I stood calmly, mounted my gun, started swinging, felt the Force, pulled the trigger. She dropped straight to the water, dead.

I squeezed my eyes shut, willing that sight picture to burn its way into my memory, thanking the hunting gods for listening to me. Then I picked up her twitching body and walked back to my tule patch, where not one more duck came near me before the sun dropped below the Coastal Range, signalling the end of shoot time.

I can't honestly say that I believe this will be the end of the yips for me. I'd like it to, but I've been disappointed every other time this season that I thought I was on the right track, so I refuse to hope. I have a low tolerance for disappointment these days.

But I can say this: I am extremely grateful for that afternoon in the marsh. It was a gift, in every way.

Related story: Wanna know what I did with those coots? Well, it's up to Hank to cook them, but I "found" a great way to process them to get rid of the stank - click here to check it out.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Video: How to skin a duck

Yes, I know it's a coot, not a duck.
I know - blasphemy, right? I mean, I love duck skin, and my favorite way to eat duck is roasted whole with skin on.

But sometimes you get a bird that you know is going to taste "off." You know your mallards and pintails are going to taste great, but spoonies, gadwalls and wigeon can be a bit funky, depending on where you live and what those birds are eating there. Coots and sea birds? Stinkers, consistently.

The good news that all the foul flavor lives in skin and fat, so you can still make use of much of that stanky bird. All you need to know is how to skin it.

I shot this video on how to skin a duck a couple weekends ago after Hank and I went hunting for diver ducks on San Francisco Bay (San Pablo Bay, to be more exact). Then last weekend I went hunting at my usual Sacramento Valley spot without Hank and he sent me off with a grocery list: He wanted five coots if I got the opportunity to get some. He said something about recipe development.

I got him his coots (you can read that story here), and rather than make him do the dirty work, I decided to give skinning a try myself, based on the instructional video. I'll be damned if it didn't work - and it worked well! Cleaning went really fast. (It helped to have a quality pair of kitchen shears.) I may shoot coots more often.

Two notes on the video: If you choose to save the first section of wing, as shown near the beginning of the video, to get that meat, all you do is keep pulling off the skin, rather than stopping at the breast and clipping it off. You'll see what I mean. And if you don't want the wing, just clip it off at its base.

And if you like liver, go ahead and use the liver from a coot. The diver/sea duck warnings don't apply.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The difference between sufficient binoculars and good binoculars: Nikon Monarch 3 review

I was hunting pigs one day with my friend Phillip when his binoculars caught my eye. They had a built-in rangefinder and they were a top brand.

"How much did they cost?" I asked.

"Three thousand," he said. Gasp!

I asked what made them worth that much, and that's when he enlightened me: "Affordable" binoculars are fine for limited use, but when you use them a lot - for example, if you're a hunting guide who scans the land with them all day long, day after day - they'll strain your eyes. A good pair of binoculars doesn't do that.

I took a look through his binoculars. I couldn't see the difference, so I took his word for it.

Yesterday, though, I took a pair of Nikon Monarch 3 binoculars for a test ride at a local wildlife area, and I finally got it.

First, I need to preface my remarks by saying I have never paid for a pair of binoculars. When I first started hunting, I borrowed Hank's binoculars. He couldn't remember how much they cost, but I'm gonna say it was less than $200.

Then another company - one known for respectable quality at an affordable price - sent me a pair of binoculars for review. At the time, they retailed for about $200, but I looked them up yesterday and found the price had dropped to $165. I liked them, and I saw no reason to upgrade.

Then, earlier this fall, a Nikon rep asked if I'd like to review the new Monarch 3, and I said, "Sure!"

I was actually kind of excited about it because I shoot Nikon cameras (for food photography and duck feather photography), and I love Nikon.

At home, I took them out in the back yard to glass the field behind my house. Switching back and forth between the Nikon binos and my other review binos, they seemed pretty similar.

Then I took them on a few duck hunts. I know, I know, we don't generally glass for ducks. But by the time I got these binoculars, I had only a day or two left in my deer hunting season, so I figured I could glass for ducks when things were quiet. Again, I had no problems with them. So far, so good.

Yesterday, though, I put them to a test that finally made the difference clear: About an hour before sunset, I took both pairs of binoculars to a nearby wildlife area that I'm hoping to hunt this season.

I hoisted the older binoculars and scanned the area, picking out landscape features near and far, looking from all different angles, including facing into the impending sunset. Yep, all good.

Then I lifted the Monarch 3s and holy crap! Looking through them was easier, no doubt about it. It was actually the last thing I expected to find, because $250 puts these at the moderate end of the binocular price range (binos at Cabela's range from $30 to $3,000). I thought I'd need a much more expensive pair of binoculars to notice that difference.

Now here's the problem: I can't tell you why they felt better. But it was a familiar feeling.

When I took up serious photography in 2007, I got a Nikon camera body and two "kit" lenses for $1,000, which is definitely cheap in the camera world. The quality of my photos was good - I was getting published in food magazines, and many of the photos you see in Hank's book (Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast) came out of those lenses.

Later, I got a $550 60 mm macro lens for Christmas, and when I upgraded to a better camera body in 2010, I also decided to spring for a new 24-70 mm lens, which cost $1,800. With these lenses, all of my photos now just looked better. More crisp, more clear, more beautiful. More professional.

That's how the Monarch 3 feels compared with my older review binoculars, except it wasn't just the quality of the image, but the ease of looking through them. My eyes just didn't have to work as hard to process the image.

You can read about all the Monarch 3 features and specs by clicking here, and if you can make sense of them, you know far more about binoculars than I do and you're probably laughing at me by now.

But I will single out one more feature I am eminently qualified to discuss: The focus knob on the Monarch 3, as promised on the Nikon website, is really smooth and easy to work - much easier than my other binoculars.

I never had any problem focusing with the other ones, but because I have arthritis in my hands, being able to adjust focus easily is a huge plus. That's actually the main reason I got a Bushnell scope for my .270 a couple years ago, not a Leupold - I found it very difficult to move the Leupold magnification ring.

Upshot: I can wholeheartedly recommend these binoculars. I'm feeling very lucky to have them.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Three chicks was the LEAST weird thing about this hunt

"Three girls?"

That's how guide R.J. Waldron responded when Hank let him know who'd be going on our San Francisco Bay diver duck hunt last weekend: Three of the five hunters on board would be women.

It was a first for R.J., and the special considerations immediately became apparent when we met at the dock in Vallejo at 5 a.m.

"Where's the bathroom? Wait, it's locked!"

I run with a tough group of huntresses, though, so we immediately kicked into Marine mode: Improvise, adapt and overcome. We found a dark corner in the parking lot and one by one took care of business. And then for good measure, we did it one more time.

There was a special urgency: We'd be shooting from a pontoon blind on San Pablo Bay that day, and with high winds, it was highly unlikely that we'd want to risk dropping trou on the edge of a rocking pontoon.

This was going to be an interesting hunt. Hank and I have hunted and fished with R.J. several times, and we love him. He's good at what he does, and he's absolutely hysterical - he'll keep you laughing through any slow times that might come your way. This guy should have a TV show.

But our fellow hunters included my pal Alison, who's in her third season of hunting, but had never hunted Bay divers; Noelia, who just went on her first duck hunt a few weeks ago; and her husband Frankie, who's also fairly new to duck hunting.

Hunting divers is really different than hunting puddle ducks. They fly fast as hell, and they are adept escape artists who can dive after being shot and surface 100 yards away. "If their heads are up, keep shooting until you're sure they're dead," we warned.

This hunt was going to be a first for Hank and me too: We had never hunted from a pontoon blind - normally, we hunted divers from the edge of an island - so we didn't know what to expect. How on earth would we be able to shoot straight when we weren't on terra firma?

The dark ride to the pontoon blind was very, very wet, so we all huddled at the bottom of R.J.'s boat like refugees, shouting whenever we got slapped by little walls of salt water. Finally, the boat slowed and we dared to lift our heads.

"It's here somewhere," R.J. was saying. And he was right: There it was.

I'm not sure what I expected a pontoon blind to be like - perhaps something like a party yacht with a big, luxurious deck.

Turns out I was wrong! This blind was like a floating six-man pit blind - just enough room for a chair for each of us, and enough floor space to cram our camo bags o' stuff.

Curiously, the blue-gray floating blind had palm fronds tacked up all around it. Why? Obviously, R.J. knows there are no palm trees in San Francisco Bay. But he said scaup were really wary of the blind until he put up the palm fronds, so there you go.

Once everyone was on board, we organized ourselves in semidarkness, the sky lightening over a thoroughly urban landscape. Alison discovered she couldn't load the magazine of her shotgun. We tried taking it apart, but we needed pliers and didn't have any. R.J., concerned that Alison's gun might be unsafe, handed his gun to her.

Now that we were settled in, R.J.'s partner on this trip, Jim, sped away from the pontoon in R.J.'s boat, ready to zip back in and pick up any ducks we might get. Yeah, no way in hell would you use a dog in these conditions.

Then we waited.

Bay diver hunts are SO different from what we usually do. The pre-dawn on a good hunt-day in puddle duck land is usually criss-crossed with ducks, often flying so close to you that it takes your breath away. You can't see anything but their silhouettes, but their calls identify them for you: the meep of the gadwall, the whistle of the wigeon, the high-pitched tweet of the greenwing teal and the quack and zhwee of the hen and drake mallard.

But Bay divers? There was no strafing. No sound but the wind and waves. No silhouettes except for the faint black dots we strained to see hundreds of yards away from our blind.

"It's always like this in the first half hour," R.J. assured us.

Right again. Before long, we started spotting ducks, but only rarely with blue sky behind them - that would be too easy. They fly so low that we almost always had to pick them out against the roiling blue-green-black of the bay.

Well, that's usually how we spotted them. Sometimes after looking at birds behind us, our eyes just over the top of the blind (think "Kilroy was here"), we'd all turn around only to find a duck or two had dropped into our decoys. It shouldn't have surprised us - you'd never hear the splash of a duck over the noise of the wind and waves.

That's how we got our first kill of the day: A little bufflehead dropped in, and bam, Frankie was the first one on the board.

Next the birds started coming into my end of the blind. Scaup (bam, one in the bag), then scoters (bam, one in the bag), then I had to play musical chairs with Alison or I was going to hog every damn bird on the bay.

And then it just started going really well. We had a pretty steady stream of ducks working us (and ducks slipping into our decoys when we weren't looking), and before long, everyone was on the board.

That's always what you want to see in a big group of hunters like this, particularly when people are laying out good cash to hunt based on your recommendation of the guide. But it was especially awesome on this day, because this was when Noelia got her first duck ever.

I was with Noelia on her first hunt a few weeks ago, and it had been a super slow day. She'd gotten to take a few shots, but she hadn't connected.

Today, though, was different. A bird had taken us by surprise and was barreling in on Noelia's side of the blind. "Take it, take it!" we yelled, and by God, she did, with a perfect shot.

What was it? A scoter. That's a hell of an unusual first duck! We cheered her. She looked happy. "First duck" was such a recent memory for everyone in that blind - we remembered clearly how good it feels when you finally connect.

Actually, it felt really good when I was connecting on this hunt, and this is my sixth year of duck hunting. I've been shooting like crap for most of the season (you can read all about that in my latest column for Shotgun Life). I really needed a hunt where ducks just dropped when I shot, and this was that hunt.

Sadly, though, we couldn't keep doing it all morning. After a couple of hours, the wind started picking up. A lot. The bay was all whitecaps. R.J. wasn't liking it, so he radioed to Jim to come in so they could pick up decoys and get us out of there.

"Everyone, life vests on!" he hollered when Jim arrived, and we obeyed. One by one we got off the pontoon blind, then hunkered down on the floor of his boat and braved the spray until we reached the calm waters along a jetty.

... Where he informed us we could get off.

I was confused. Looked like a great place to throw down crab pots, but hunting ducks?

Yes, R.J. said. This spot had served him well on other extremely windy days - ducks flocked to its calm.

OK, that didn't exactly happen this time, though one scoter we'd been watching on the water actually got up and flew straight at Hank. Big mistake - bam, down.

Then some mallards came over, and we were so discombobulated by their presence that we missed. Same thing happened when a trio of spoonie hens came over. Hank's scoter would be the last bird of the day.

R.J. was disappointed, but we had a pretty good idea what was going on: This was the third day of extreme wind in four days, and the birds were just tired. They were probably hunkering their fat little butts down in a rice field nearby.

No matter. While none of us got limits, I think we were all pretty happy with the outing. It had been a crazy adventure, from the rocking pontoon to the rocky jetty, and we all went home with ducks - Noelia with her first.

That's a good day in anyone's book.

L-R: Noelia, Francis, Alison, me and Hank

© Holly A. Heyser 2011