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


Bpaul said...

I'm very curious to hear how the cooking and eating end of this trip goes. I have no experience with diver duck cuisine.


Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Nice hunt, Holly. Now that deer season's almost over (grrr ...), it's time to think about birds again.

Blessed said...

the cold around here is making me glad I'm staying in and not hunting (I think I've gotten soft in the 4 years since I had my first baby!) but stories like this one make me itch to get out in the duck blind again!

Phillip said...

Sounds like almost enough fun to get me back out in the marsh this year... dog or no dog.

Anonymous said...

It's a small world. I did this same hunt with RJ a couple of weeks ago as my first ever duck hunt and first guided hunt. It was great.

He's a friend of mine, but I've booked trips with him for halibut, sturgeon and striper. As soon as he's on the job, I'm always impressed with how hard the guy works to make sure everyone is successful and has a good time.

Great story, Holly.

Neil H

Holly Heyser said...

BPaul, we skinned the ducks and I'm pretty sure Hank will be making sausage with most of them. Once you strip off the fat and skin, they taste fine. (I hope to post a video on how to skin them by this weekend.)

Tamar, I hear you on the deer. I'm very sad I didn't get one, but I wasn't able to make much time to get out there.

Blessed, I'm so glad I live in California. I get chilled sometimes, but most of our duck hunting happens in temps from the 40s to the 60s.

Phillip: Do it! Come hunt Delevan with me.

Neil, isn't he awesome? And he really is funny. It's always non-stop hilarity with R.J.

Phillip said...

Careful what you ask for, Holly... although I do think I'm gonna try to slip out to Grizzly Island on Sunday afternoon.

Tox said...

Any plans for a weekday outing in the next few weeks? I'm still in process of exchanging my waders for the correct size, and have comp time coming....Would be nifty to try a hunt without waiting on the waders.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Bpaul: I plan on meatballs or sausage with the (skinned) breasts, I'll braise the legs, and the hearts and gizzards go into the bag with the puddle ducks. Livers in the SF Bay are often contaminated with a lot of selenium, so we toss them. Sad Panda.

Anonymous said...

There used to be a liveaboard barge anchored off Sausalito that looked like a little Taj Mahal. It had palm trees planted on the barge.

I do not know if it still exists.

When you said no palm trees on the bay, I saw this memory of someone's flight of fancy, and thought it worth a mention.