Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Here's how to stay in touch

For the readers who've expressed interest in following my freelance work now that I've stopped posting to this blog, click here. If you want email notification when I post new material there, be sure to click on the "subscribe" link under "About this website" in the upper right-hand corner of the new website. Thanks for your interest!

Monday, March 26, 2012

Swan song ...

... and you know it's not going to be a little ditty about swan hunting. I wish! Nope, it is what you think it is: I'm done.

I'd hoped to make it to 500 posts, but this one makes 472. I'd hoped to make it to five years, but this makes it four years, 142 days. I guess I can live without that pretty symmetry, even though my Dutch Virgo heart lusts for it. I've learned to accept such imperfections in life.

Writing this blog has affected my life profoundly, and I say that without so much as a shred of exaggeration. First and foremost, the conversations I have had with readers here have driven me to think deeply about hunting and debate it passionately. Friends and enemies of hunting alike have challenged me to be fearlessly honest about what I do and why I do it. So I lay it all out there, all the time, to the point where my mother says things to me like, "You're so naked." Yep.

This blog has also helped me connect with like-thinkers all over the English-speaking world. When I look at the circle of close friends and hunting buddies who surround me now, easily two-thirds of them initially connected with me because of this blog. There is an even wider circle of people I've emailed regularly - people I may never meet, but should I ever find myself in their neck of the woods, I know I've got a place to stay and someone to hunt with.

And on a very personal level, this blog helped revive the joy of writing, something that, for me, had been eroding steadily since I began working for newspapers in 1988. I loved all of my jobs, and I loved the beats I covered, but the mandate for "objectivity" - the requirement that I strip any personal passions from what I wrote - was a literary prophylactic - safe, but no fun.

So why stop blogging? A lot of reasons. I started to tear up as I began writing this post, wondering if I might be doing the wrong thing, but as I went over the list of reasons one more time, I knew I'd made the right choice.

The most obvious reason has been staring at me for the past two weeks, which is how long it had been since I blogged. I was on Spring Break last week and I still didn't blog, because I just didn't have anything to say. Oh, I'm sure there will be more funny tales from the marsh, and more political kerfuffles to get indignant about. And, hey, the mourning doves are back in my front yard, many of them sporting bands I'm sure I put on them last year or the year before that. Whoa. Stop the presses.

It's just gotten harder and harder to break new ground on a regular basis. Wanna be provocative? Let's see, sluicing birds? Did that one already. "Sport" is a dumb term for hunting? Did that, too. Castigating idiots on hunting TV? Done ad nauseum (though frankly, I think the producers still need to hear it on a regular basis).

Let's see, how about my philosophy of life on earth? Human civilization? Still disastrous and unsustainable. Animals? Still my kin, even the ones I eat. Would I still go feral if it were even remotely possible? Yes, but only if Hank goes feral with me. You wouldn't expect me to give up Hank's cooking, would you?

So that's the big thing.

In more practical terms, maintaining a blog takes an enormous amount of time, and quite honestly, I can't afford to pour the majority of my creative energy into a blog that pays me in one year substantially less than what I make in one week at my day job, or in two solid freelance assignments.

I would like to do more freelance writing. Hell, I'd like to write a book, though I use the term "like" loosely, because the truth is that writing a book scares the shit out of me. But as long as I keep saying everything I have to say in this blog, I will never get around to starting a book. I am, as the old saying goes, giving away the milk, both financially and creatively.

So am I done, done, like really done? I'm old enough to know better than to say "never." The door will remain open. This blog will remain right where it is, and if I conclude this was a dumb decision - what was I drinking that day??? - you know me: I'll be back with a blog post that starts with the confession: I was wrong. And if you're one of the people who subscribes to my email feed, you'll get that early-morning email telling you I've posted.

But what I really hope is that you'll find me stretching my wings elsewhere. I'll still be writing my monthly "Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang" column for Shotgun Life. And who knows - maybe there are other magazines that can make room for a hunting writer who's not afraid to use condom metaphors, or to describe a moment on a turkey hunt as being "like getting a chance to fix your wedgie when no one's looking." (I never got to say stuff like that at newspapers, either.)

Or maybe I'll just go feral.

Just in case I do check out, I need to thank some people right now. One of my first commenters - just three days after I wrote my first blog post ever - was Marian from Marian's Hunting Stories. And you know what? She still comments. God bless you, Marian.

My next commenter who left a calling card? Suburban Bushwhacker - also still super active in the hunting blogger community. Next one: Rex from the Deer Camp Blog - still alive and kicking. Not long after that,  Phillip of the Hog Blog made his first appearance. To this day, I consider Phillip a close friend and a good hunting buddy, even though he just moved a gazillion miles away to Texas.

A blogger doesn't exist if nobody reads and comments on her work, so you four were huge for me. It was because of you and your positive feedback that I realized I had something to say, and developed the courage to say it.

So, that's it. That's all I've got. I've enjoyed this like you wouldn't believe. But now it's time to move on.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Monday, March 12, 2012

Duck Dynasty: The mainstreaming of duck hunting, or just another hillbilly show? Or both?

Hmmmmmmmm ... so much to say on this topic. Let's start with the word in my headline that is most likely to be interpreted as a pejorative: "hillbilly." I assure you it is not, at least not on my part. Having spent five years in the South, I cringe when I hear any region of the South and its people being mocked, and it happens with some frequency.

But I used this word for a reason, which I will get to shortly. But first:

Something interesting happened last year in the world of hunting TV. First, the bad news: Steven Rinella's outstanding hunting show, "The Wild Within," did not get picked up for a second season on the Travel Channel.

Thankfully, Rinella didn't disappear: He now has a show called "Meat Eater" on the Sportsman Channel, and it's still outstanding. But I'm disappointed that Rinella and his message about the value of hunting for your own food won't be out there for mainstream audiences anymore.

At the same time that was going on, I heard a rumor that Duck Commander was leaving the Outdoor Channel for ... A&E.

A&E? Seriously? You're going to put ducks getting shot out of the sky on A&E? It didn't make sense, but when I saw Duck Commander was still on the Outdoor Channel last year - unfortunately at hours that didn't work for me - I figured the rumors must've been wrong.

But it turns out they were right. I was searching for a duck recipe on Hank's blog this weekend and there it was in an ad on the search page: Duck Dynasty - a new show on A&E, debuting March 21.

Well, I'll be damned. If you click on that Duck Dynasty link, I think you'll see that this show has the potential to be every bit as entertaining as the hunting show on the Outdoor Channel was, because the Robertsons are just plain interesting and entertaining people.

But the question remained: Why the Duck Commander crew move to A&E even as Rinella was leaving mainstream TV?

I got what might be part of the answer to that question second-hand, from a TV industry insider: "Hillbillies" are in these days.

Ah yes, how could I have forgotten? The History Channel's "Swamp People," a show about Louisiana alligator hunters, has been a monster success.

Who doesn't love alligator hunter Troy Landry? If I walk through a crowd at my university shouting, "Shooooot 'em! Shooooooooooooot 'em!," chances are that everyone around me will know exactly what I'm talking about - and they'll start laughing.

And not necessarily in a negative way. I don't think people love to make fun of Troy and his thick Cajun accent; I think they just love Troy. And thanks to Troy, a television industry already obsessed with reality shows has concluded that thick-accented Southern characters are a golden ticket. Especially if they kill things for a living.

I'm not surprised that America likes a show about killing alligators. Alligators are scary. They can eat us for breakfast.

But is America ready for a show about a family whose business is rooted in killing birds that are widely regarded as cute and harmless? Will the Robertson family charm make it palatable to the masses?

I guess we'll start getting the answer to that on March 21, 10 p.m. (9 p.m. Central). I'll be watching.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Thursday, March 1, 2012

How a dead mountain lion roars

Dan Richards

One of the things they teach you in hunter education here in California is that it’s wise to avoid parading your dead animals around in ways that offend and upset non-hunters. Put the dead deer in the bed of your pickup, the instructors say; don’t strap it to the hood and drive it around town to show off.

There is, however, a huge exception that is unwritten, but generally understood: When we hunters are among our own, showing off our success to friends is allowed, even encouraged. We post “hero shots” of us with our prey on internet hunting forums. I’ve got a few hero shots on this blog. And the hunting magazines I read gleefully display hero shots of kids with their first (insert game animal here).

But it turns out there’s an exception to that rule too, and Dan Richards found that out the hard way last month when he sent a photo of himself holding up a mountain lion he killed in Idaho to the Western Outdoor News, a weekly hook-n-bullet newspaper.

While his hunt was 100 percent legal in Idaho, it would’ve been illegal in California, because Californians have repeatedly voted to ban mountain lion hunting.

So, who cares, right?

Here’s the hitch: Richards is the president of the California Fish and Game Commission.

Now who cares? The Humane Society of the U.S., which is ever alert to opportunities it can exploit. HSUS pitched a fit, alerted its members and started spouting off to the press.

“It’s not illegal. But he’s thumbed his nose at the people of California,” HSUS president Wayne Pacelle told the San Jose Mercury News. “He’s supposed to be representing the interests of all California citizens. It seems like such a tone-deaf action. What part of ‘no’ doesn’t he understand?”

Well, that’s ridiculous, pure and simple. California voters banned gay marriage in 2008 – a decision I disagree with as much as I disagree with the mountain lion hunting ban – but I don’t hear anyone screaming about gay Californians who get married in other states where it’s legal.

The problem is that logic is irrelevant here: Non-hunters, especially non-hunters in California – have a visceral reaction to predator hunting. It doesn’t matter that Richards did nothing wrong, because he did something unwise by putting it out there where the anti-hunters could exploit it.

There is a long list of people who are now calling for his resignation, including a raft of Democratic state legislators, who have the majority in both houses, and the authority to vote for his removal.

Interestingly enough, the list also includes Democratic Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who won national attention in 2004 when, as mayor of San Francisco, he ordered the city-county clerk’s office to issue marriage licenses to gay couples, despite the fact that gay marriage wasn’t legal. (Uh, what part of ‘no’ doesn’t he understand?)

Sadly, it just doesn’t matter that this is a kerfuffle rife with hypocrisy. This is a state under one-party control, a state whose major population centers – Los Angeles and San Francisco – are pretty sympathetic to the animal-rights cause, even as many of their denizens line up to gobble burgers made from dead cows at trendy fast food places like In-N-Out Burger.

Richards may lose his position on the Fish and Game Commission, and if he does, hunters here will likely pay the price. All of us.

Will hunting be banned without him on the Commission? I doubt it. But will hunters’ rights and opportunities erode faster? In all likelihood, yes.

There is, however, one wild card in this hand, and that’s Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, known nationwide to people of a certain age as Gov. Moonbeam. While the Legislature can remove commission members, it’s the governor who appoints them, so it would be his call on who would take Richards’ place if he’s ousted.

This is Brown’s second time around as governor after a nearly three-decade break, and he’s not always predictable. When he was gearing up for his 2010 run, he brilliantly posted one of those "25 Random Things” memes on Facebook, and one of them was this:

13. I’ve been duck hunting with Chief Justice Warren, but not with Vice President Cheney.

So, if Richards is booted, Brown could surprise us and appoint another hunter. But with the precarious state of hunting here in the land of fruits and nuts, I’d just rather not be in a position where I have to depend on that.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Book review: 'The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance'

I know a lot of what Tovar Cerulli has dubbed "adult-onset hunters." Northern California is full of people who are looking to divest themselves of everything that is wrong with the industrial food complex, and while some go vegetarian and others go local, there's a third group that's turning to hunting.

That said, I don't think any of our stories holds a candle to Tovar's tale, which we've been reading in bits and pieces on his blog for the past two years, and which we now see in its entirety in his new book, "The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian's Hunt for Sustenance."

Taking up hunting when you didn't grow up doing it is a leap for anyone, but Tovar has leaped the furthest of all, going from veganism to hunting, a few small bites at a time.

One important note: If you're a frequent reader of Tovar's blog, don't skip this book thinking you've read it all. "The Mindful Carnivore" is not a retread of blog posts; it is an eloquent and sometimes suspenseful account of his quest to become a mindful eater.

Tovar's tale begins in the purest of places: a childhood in which he feasts without qualms on the world around him, whether it's berries he picks, frogs he catches by hand or trout he catches with hooks. The older he gets, though, the more doubt and conscience creep in. He stops fishing. He stops eating meat. And in the ultimate attempt to feed himself without doing harm to fellow sentient creatures, he goes vegan. Read more...
Even in veganism, though, he finds there is no way to eliminate harm to animals. Soybean farmers shoot deer in droves to save their crops. The local organic farmer from whom he buys produce is constantly smoke-bombing woodchuck burrows. And even Tovar finds himself crushing beetles that prey on his vegetable garden.

When health concerns prompt Tovar and his wife Cath to reintroduce some animal products to their diet, they start slowly: local, organic yogurt; eggs from cage-free hens. He is rewarded with energy, vitality and a diminishment of allergies. He could have stopped there, but he brings fish and chicken back into his life. Finally, he begins contemplating what was heretofore unimaginable: hunting.

Tovar's transformation is not one of those mind-boggling 180s, like going from atheism to Catholicism in a week. He never loses the immense compassion and respect for animals that drove him to veganism in the first place. This means his process of becoming a hunter is filled with fear and uncertainty. Fear that he'll shoot poorly and maim an animal, becoming the kind of hunter he'd always loathed. Uncertainty about whether what he's doing is the right thing.

Reading Tovar's book, I'm pretty sure Tovar and I are very different kinds of hunters.

I do share his fear of merely maiming animals with poor shots, and his belief that hunting is a kinder way to acquire meat than industrial farming. But I find it easier to accept some of hunting's downsides, particularly the wounding rate (as opposed to clean kills and clean misses) with bird hunting.

I'm also quite unabashed about the joy that hunting brings to me. While I take animal deaths seriously - I often apologize to, and thank, the animals I kill - that doesn't stop me from shouting with excitement when I am successful. And I freely admit that hunting tickles my synapses in a way that is utterly addictive.

Tovar's experience, on the other hand, will be unrecognizable to many hunters because there is, for him, no joy in the successful hunt - only the feeling that he is approaching his need for protein in the most honest and responsible way he can.

Reflecting on his first deer kill, Tovar writes, "Hunting ... would not put me on a new high road to moral certainty. If this first experience of killing a deer was any indication, it would bring me face-to-face with ambiguity every time. Perhaps that was how it ought to be."

I believe that's a message that will resonate with both vegetarians and non-hunting omnivores who are uneasy with the ways in which industrial farming has trivialized the lives and deaths of the animals we eat and use. Even if they don't choose to follow the path Tovar has taken, I think they'll be inclined to respect it.

It's also a message that unabashed hunting fiends like myself would do well to remember if we'd like to earn the same kind of respect.

POSTSCRIPT: If you'd like to read other reviews of "The Mindful Carnivore," click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Monday, February 13, 2012

Scenes from the Marsh: Ladies, you're gonna love this

Me, with short hair in 2010
It was the second-to-last day of duck season, and I was done. I'd been hunting all day long, I was exhausted, and my friend Alison and I had just finished the quarter-mile slog through the marsh to get back to the parking lot, working up a fresh sweat in our already-damp waders.

I pulled my decoy boat up the ramp and grabbed two items that I'd take to my car immediately: my gun, and my strap of ducks. The rest could wait until I'd changed into dry clothes.

Not far from the ramp, a man was standing with his son, who looked to be maybe 11 years old or so. The dad was watching me.

"How'd you do?" he asked.

"Well, it took all day, but I finally got my limit," I said, lifting my strap. It was bursting with drake spoonies - five, the most I'd ever gotten in one hunt - and I'd rounded it out to seven with a drake gadwall and a hen ruddy.

"Really?!?" he said.

Wait for it now...
"...Two girls!?!"

Oh, yes he did.

Dead silence.

"Yeah!" I responded.

"Hell, we were surprised too, because having vajayjays makes it so freakin' hard to kill ducks. I mean, who knew that such a low-profile body part could cause so much trouble?

"And boobs! Dear God, the boobs! Count your blessings, man," I told him, shaking my head. "Boobs are the worst - all that jiggling really flares the ducks."

Dead silence.

... OK, that's not what I said. Let me start over again:

"Two girls!?!"

Dead silence.

"Hey pal," I said. "I'm not a girl. I'm a woman, old enough to be your brat's grandma. And I'm not some two-bit poser pretending to like hunting to get attention. I'm a hunter. I'm dead serious. And frankly, I'm menopausal, so if I were you, I'd shut the f*** up and get out of my way."

Dead silence.

... OK, OK, I didn't really say that either. Let's try this again:

"Two girls!?!"

Dead silence.

"Yeah," I said.

"How'd you do?"

"Oh, we're not hunting today," he said. "My son got the No. 2 draw for the junior hunt next weekend. We've never been here before. Where would you recommend we go?"

I told him what the hunting was like where I'd come from - free roam, the Wild West of the refuge - and told him my next favorite spots on the refuge, places you go if you don't want to compete with other hunters for the best spot.

"Yeah, that's what that guy over there said, too," he said, motioning to another hunter in the parking lot.

"Well, good luck next weekend," I said.


Truth is, while it was a ridiculous question - "Two girls!?!" - I couldn't bring myself to feel remotely indignant.  The only thing I had to suppress was my laughter.

And to be completely honest, it's not an empty gesture when I carry that strap of ducks from water's edge to my car. When I do that, I am saying to any stranger who wants to know, "Yeah, I can kill ducks," because I know there actually are people out there who find that surprising.

Hell, sometimes I find it surprising, but not because of my gender. My surprise stems from a lifetime of athletic inadequacy and a crushing lack of confidence.

So, I can't well display that strap of bravado and take offense when someone rises to the bait, right?

The truth is, this dad was probably just another duck hunter who'd never met a female duck hunter before, and that's not his fault.

Let's just hope his son grows up thinking of women like me as just another part of the hunting landscape. That'd be good enough for me.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Friday, February 10, 2012

Scenes from the Marsh: The Shot

If you follow this blog, or my Twitter feed or any other medium I use to communicate, you know I shot like absolute crap for most of this duck season. My confidence in shreds, there were days I left the marsh early because I just couldn't take the epic suckage, and days I stayed to the end, only to be rewarded with more bad shooting right up until sunset.

But for the last two weekends of the season, I rallied. I finally started shooting like I had during the previous season. Relief coursed through my veins. It was intoxicating. And it made me shoot even better.

On the last day of the season, I made what had to be the best shot of my life. Read more...
Closing day was slow from the first minute of shoot time. In sunny and windless skies, the birds just weren't moving around much. The ducks were tired. The hunters were tired. We were all ready for it to be over.

On days like that, we tend to gather periodically in our tule patches: We grab snacks, take drinks of our sodas and yak casually.

This is, of course, precisely when ducks strike.

So I was standing there around noon, talking to Monique and Charlie, my gun resting on my little decoy boat, when out of the corner of my eye, I caught it: a duck barreling in from the south, low and already close enough to shoot.

Normally when ducks are coming in, we whisper to each other: "Single from the west, high." "Five from the east, low." This gets everyone's eyes on the birds so we can be ready if they come our way.

But with this duck, there was no time for that. I grabbed my gun, wheeled back to face south, raised my gun - out of time, out of time, out of time - and pulled the trigger. The butt was a good six inches from my left shoulder. The comb was nowhere near my face.


That duck dropped, stone dead.

"OHMYGODDIDYOUSEETHAT?!?!?!?" I shouted to, oh, everyone in the marsh.

I had to plow through 15 yards of thick mush grass to get to her, but there was no rush. She was very obviously dead, floating on the water, twitching in the way only dead animals twitch.

I exclaimed again: "Did you see that? Did you see that?" But I don't think anyone actually saw the shot, because they didn't have time even to see the bird, much less watch me shoot from the hip. (OK, from the low chest, but still.)

Now, I have taken shots like that - with an unmounted gun - many, many times. When you least expect it, ducks will come out of nowhere. Usually, if you even get a chance to fire a shot, you miss by a mile, and everyone has a good laugh.

But this? Wow.

That duck - a hen spoonie - was my fifth duck of the day. My last duck of the day. My last duck of the season. And even though I'd really hoped to finish the season with a limit of seven ducks - I'd gotten seven the day before - I was perfectly satisfied to end my season on that note.

I still can't say for sure why I shot so badly for most of the season. I'm just glad that I don't have to go through the next nine months wondering what the hell's wrong with me.

And just for insurance, I'm going to get my ass to the shooting range a lot more this year. I've got to ride this wave of confidence while it lasts.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Guns, ammo and Google - an op-ed in the Mercury News

I don't make a habit of blogging about everything I get published in newspapers and magazines, but I thought this one would be of special interest to hunters and hunting bloggers/website operators.

It's an uphill battle convincing folks that there are legitimate uses for guns and ammo, but it's one very much worth fighting.

If you'd like to comment, I hope you'll comment on the Merc's site. I mean, you're welcome to comment here, but I think we really need to reach a wider audience on this issue.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

How to choose a shotgun for hunting

Me and Sarah Connor in 2010
One of the hard things about taking up hunting with with few role models in your life is that you have to make a really important purchasing decision  - buying your gun - with almost no frame of reference.

Now, I love my shotgun, a Beretta 3901 I call Sarah Connor. When I am on, I can make some pretty badass shots - one will be the subject of my next Scene from the Marsh.

But if I had to do it all over again, would this be the gun I'd buy? Hmmmmmmmm ... probably not.

That painful lack of fidelity to my firearm is the subject of my latest "Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang" column in Shotgun Life. What I want to do here, though, is provide a framework for new hunters like @Ashley_English, who inspired this post with a tweet last month: "Myself & several other ladies want to hunt & all need guns. Suggestions?"

First question: What kind of hunting do you want to do?

Big game: You should probably get a rifle, unless you live or hunt in places where you must hunt with shotguns. (Shotguns have a shorter effective range, which can be a good thing if you're hunting in fairly dense woods; if you hunt wide-open spaces like we have in the West, get a rifle.)

Small game: You should probably get a shotgun, which is good for fast-moving targets like rabbits, though you can also hunt small game with a .22 rifle.

Birds: Definitely get a shotgun.

Yes, experts, I know you can use falcons or archery to get small game and birds, but we're talking about guns here.

I'm going to focus on shotguns, because that's what I use for 99 percent of my hunting, and I haven't had the kind of buyer's remorse with my rifle (Savage .270) as I have with my shotgun. Besides, did you notice that you can use a shotgun for all three types of hunting listed above?

Next question: What kind of shotgun - pump, autoloader or double?

There are a thousand ways to answer this question, but I've come up with a little test that could provide a solid starting point for your decision. Make a score sheet like the one shown here. Answer the questions below it, and put a "1" in the appropriate column(s), as directed. The column with the highest total might just be your true love.

BUDGET: What can you afford? Let's start with the assumption that you want a quality gun, because I strongly recommend that you buy the best gun you can afford. With quality manufacturers, you'll find the pump is the cheapest (<$600), autoloader is in the middle ($1,000-$2,000), and the double gun - over-and-under or side-by-side - is the spendiest (>$2,000). Score one for the price range of your choice/preference. Amounts may vary, but the price hierarchy should hold.

DURABILITY: Are you the kind of person who has wood floors and keeps them unscratched and immaculately polished? Do you waterproof your deck every year? You'll probably do well with a beautiful engraved double gun. Do you constantly leave garden implements in the rain to rust? Get a pump. Somewhere in between? Score one for the autoloader.

PRESTIGE: Do you enjoy the look and feel of things that are classic, traditional and elegant? Double gun. Is power and speed more important? Autoloader. Couldn't give a rat's ass what people think of the gun you're carrying? Pump.

EASE OF CLEANING: Do you secretly enjoy things that are complicated to take apart and clean? Autoloader. Are you more likely to keep your gun clean if it takes very little time to clean it? Score one each for the double gun and pump.

VOLUNTARY LIMITS. Do you like imposing voluntary limits on yourself to keep things challenging? Score one for the double gun, because it fires only two shots before reloading. Do you want to shoot as much as is legally possible? Score one each for the autoloader and the pump, which can legally fire three shots at game before reloading.

SPAZ FACTOR: If you are methodical and take your time, score one each for the double and the auto loader. If you're a spaz who needs to be restrained a bit for your own good, score one for the pump - having to work that pump to chamber a new round can slow you down in a good way.

RECOIL: How big of a deal is recoil? Not worried about it? Score one each for double gun and the pump. Want maximum recoil protection? Score one for the autoloader.

* * *

The reason I devised this test is that if I had asked myself these questions, I would've made a better-informed decision about what type of shotgun to purchase. The key factors for me:

Rough on your gear: I actually take pretty good care of my gear, but I hunt primarily ducks, and that means I'm around a lot of water - not just what I'm hunting in, but what's coming down from the sky. While the autoloader is a popular choice among duck hunters, you've got to take really good care of it after you've been out in stormy conditions. I've always followed Beretta's care instructions with my autoloader, but it never gave me this important piece of advice: After exposing your gun to a lot of water, store it muzzle down with the breach bolt open. I did the opposite, which allowed rust to form in an impossible-to-reach place, causing my gun to jam frequently. (My gunsmith was able to fix it, thankfully.)

Spaz: My buddy Charlie says one of the things he loves about the pump is that he has to manually chamber each round using the pump (my autoloader chambers shells for me). Having to chamber manually slows him down just a bit, giving him time to reset himself a bit if that first shot didn't connect.

Prestige: I'm in the "don't give a rat's ass" column. My gun is a tool, not a status symbol. I feel the same way about my car. (But hey, if you've got the money and love to indulge in really beautiful tools, go for it.)

Considering these factors, as well as price and ease of cleaning, I now wish I'd gotten a pump. But I'm probably going to keep Sarah Connor as long as she keeps killing ducks for me - no reason to throw out a gun that's working.

Final question: What gauge?

12 gauge: Hands down, the 12 gauge is the most popular gauge for duck hunters. It's a big shell that puts a lot of shot in the air, which is a good thing when you're shooting at fast and wily birds.

The downside is that gauge corresponds, to a certain extent, to gun size, so if you're small in stature, you may want a smaller gun so you're lifting less weight every time you shoot. But be aware: The heavier the gun, the less recoil you'll feel, so you do have a price to pay for a lighter gun.

I started with a 20 gauge, and while you can find waterfowl shot for it, and you can kill ducks with it, I'm a lot happier with the 12 gauge. I would advise those interested primarily in duck hunting to go with the 12 gauge if it doesn't feel unbearably heavy.

20 gauge: There is a bit of a prestige factor to shooting ducks with a 20 gauge because it requires you to be a better shot. There are actually some clubs that require hunters to shoot 20 gauge or smaller to improve the odds for the ducks. Yeah, I'm not interested in that.

The 20 gauge is a lot more popular for upland bird hunting, though, and if you're putting in a couple miles of walking, carrying less weight might be really important to you. Personally, I have no problem lugging big ole 12 gauge Sarah Connor on a walking-intensive hunt.

Sub-gauges: 12 and 20 are standard, but there is also the 10 gauge, the 16 gauge, the 28 gauge, and the .410 - the only shotgun measured in caliber instead of gauge. I've shot a .410, but not a 16 or 28, so I have little experience with them. If you're interested in them, though, prepare to pay more for shot, and/or to rely on mail order. You probably won't find ammo for these guns at Walmart.

Last advice

Keep in mind that what I've devised here is a simplistic guide that doesn't take into account the myriad differences between guns within the type and size categories I've listed. Use this as a starting point to help you consider your priorities, and when you're ready to make your purchase, do the following:

1) Choose a gun store with knowledgeable staff, such as Cabelas, Sportsman's Warehouse, Gander Mountain, Bass Pro and any number of small local stores dedicated to hunters and anglers. If you go to multi-purpose stores like Big 5 or Walmart, you may not get that same depth of knowledge from behind the counter.

2) Discuss your priorities with the person at the gun counter so he or she can tell you about various features within each class of gun. Make sure to tell him or her if you're left-handed or left-eye dominant, which means you might want to shoot left-handed. Most shotguns can be altered for left-handed shooting, but some can't.

3) Try on guns like you try on shoes - check them for fit and comfort. Shoulder them, put your cheek on the stock, put your hands on the grip and fore end, swing the gun across the line of taxidermied animals that likely hang above the gun counter. Some guns will feel better than others when you do this.

If you are right-handed, 5-10 and 185 pounds, you're in luck - you're the person most shotguns are made for. If you're not, you may need to have a gunsmith alter your gun's fit. And if you're tiny, you might want to consider a children's model.

4) If you don't feel the person behind the counter is taking you seriously or interested in helping you make a good decision, walk away and try another store. The purchase of a firearm is a big deal, and you need to be comfortable with it. Besides, anyone who makes you feel stupid or unappreciated does not deserve your money.

Got questions or suggestions? Just leave a comment below.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Scenes from the Marsh: Oopsiecoot

My marsh withdrawals continue, and I keep clinging to memories, knowing the next duck season is now nine months away.

And the Oopsiecoot is a good one.

It's appropriate that my last Scene from the Marsh was about Charlie's awesome sniper - er - ghillie suit. We've been having a little debate in the comments on that post about the effectiveness of ghillies, and the Oopsiecoot is Exhibit No. 1 in my case.

It was the second-to-last day of season - aka, Saturday - and we were hunting a spot we'd never been in before because all our good spots were taken.

My usual hunting peeps spread out: Charlie and Alison in one patch, me and Hank in another, Don in the next one, his nephew in one farther west of us. Things were fairly slow, but every time someone got up and walked around, it would stir up the coots, and they'd go looking for new spots to hang out from an altitude of, oh, 5 feet over the marsh.

Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Now, there's nothing unusual about coots flying near hunters - most hunters here won't shoot them on purpose. Hell, even Hank and I don't shoot them often, and Hank knows how to prepare them.

But when we're wearing our ghillies, the coots come really close.

I watched one approaching our tule patch Saturday and it quickly became clear that bird was going to come right over us, oblivious to our presence. This happens a LOT when we wear our ghillies.

When it got right between Hank and me, literally a foot and a half over the tules, I shouted, "BOO!" And just as the word was leaving my lips, Hank reached up, and his hand got literally within a foot of that coot.

That bird came UNGLUED, wings, legs and crazy white beak flailing in all directions. We just laughed and laughed and laughed.

This is what we love about the marsh - the comedy that never makes it into all-too-serious hunting TV.

When Hank and I were talking about it later, he reminded me of a story Charlie had told me, and had told Hank that day: Charlie had a duck come over him like that one day, really low. I think it was a wigeon or a gadwall - Charlie will correct me here.

When he reached up to startle that duck, it screamed.

If you know anything about ducks, you know a scream is not really part of their vocabulary. Wish I could've been there for that one.

Does this make us all sadistic bastards? It's possible. But I freely confess that I think it's just as funny to startle humans this way. I can only hope that the ducks laugh as hard as we do, in their own quacky way. They must, because ruddies like to startle us like this all the time.

This reminded me of one of my favorite videos by my students. It is all at once over the top, funny, and weird. Check it out:

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Monday, January 30, 2012

Scenes from the Marsh: Charlie's ghillie

Duck season ended here yesterday, and I find myself alternately relieved that I won't be getting up at 3 a.m. several days a week anymore, and sad that I've had to say good-bye to the marsh for the next nine months.

What makes me feel better is replaying some of my favorite scenes from the marsh this season, and one of them was this:

My buddy Charlie
Last season, Hank wore a ghillie jacket on duck hunts and he really liked it, so I asked him to get me one for Christmas during this season. He did, and I found it noticeably improved my concealment in the marsh. This inspired my duck hunting buddy Charlie to get one of his own.

Hank's and my jackets came from Cabela's - you can see them on the left. But Charlie's was something different altogether. Instead of flaps of gauzy nylon camouflage fabric, Charlie's jacket is covered with golden brown strings - which, as you can see, blend in nicely with the tule patches where we hide.

His ghillie's hood forms a scraggly mane, and when you see it, how can you help but think of the Lion King with a shotgun and a cigarette?

OK, let's skip over the fact that Charlie will never allow me to photograph him again. Let's just talk about the conversation we had about his ghillie as we walked through the water back to the parking lot as the sun was setting on the marsh yesterday.

I can't remember exactly how it came up, but Charlie was saying that the jacket also came with pants and a gun cover as well.

"Really? I said. "What kind of hunting is it for?"

I'd heard of turkey hunters going to such extremes, but usually there's more green in turkey hunting ghillies.

"It's for killing humans," Charlie said. "It's a sniper suit."


But, hey, whatever works!

Note to Safety Freaks: Charlie ain't stupid: He took a lighter to this jacket to test its flammability before lighting up a smoke while wearing it. It passed the test.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Duck hunting: 'Cheap, fast or good - pick two'

"Cheap, fast or good - pick two." This was a pearl of wisdom one of my students shared with me last semester.

He was a photographer with way more professional experience than I have, coming back to school to finish his degree, and we were discussing how to price photo shoots. I have a whole book on pricing photography that didn't say as much as that little six-word phrase. I'm truly blessed to have students who can teach me so much.

Last weekend, I was reminded that this principle - you can't have it all - applies just as perfectly to duck hunting.

A while back, I'd sent a plaintive email to one of my duck hunting buddies, Alison.We hunted with her a lot last season, but this year I'd hunted with her only once, on a sweet diver duck hunt on San Francisco Bay.

"Alison, we miss you! When are you going to come out and play with us again???"

She joined my buddy Charlie and me last weekend at the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, where we got the low-down.

Alison used to live in Berkeley, and now lives in San Francisco, which is as far west as you can go around here before hitting ocean. She is a budding duck hunting fiend, but hunting with us - on public land in the Sacramento Valley, well northeast of the Bay Area - required her to get up at 2 or 2:30 a.m. Pretty brutal.

The hunting, though, was good. On the last day of the season last year, Alison was one duck away from getting her first limit ever when the non-hunter she'd brought along as an observer had some sort of allergic reaction that required a hasty departure. Ooooooooh, so close!

This year, Alison decided to splurge a bit, going in with some friends on a leased blind in a Sacramento Valley rice field. This blind was closer to where she lived, but more importantly it gave her two additional benefits:

One, she could always be assured that the blind would be available. On public land, it's a crapshoot, every single hunt day.

And two, she could stroll in just before shoot time, instead of two hours before shoot time, which is the norm for public-land duck hunting here. She'd now bought herself a 4 a.m. wake-up time.

So how had that worked out for her this year?

One spoonie hen. She'd missed some hunt days due to illness and travel, but when she did make it out to her blind she was getting nothing. That one spoonie hen had dropped into the decoys one day, and sat there for half an hour before Alison and her blindmates decided to take that hen out.

Alison returned to Delevan last weekend on literally the only rainy hunt day we've had this season. It was cold and windy. The flight was anemic. Alison's face and hands were bright red when I gave up and left at lunchtime.

But, by God, she and Charlie stuck with it, and she walked out at the end of that day with a full strap of ducks.

By now, dear reader, you must be thinking what an ass I am for writing a whole blog post about poor Alison. That may well be true, but not only did I check with her before writing this - I also freely admit that I did almost the exact same thing that Alison did.

When I started hunting ducks in 2006, Hank and I belonged to a "club" that leased hunting properties from ranches, which meant lots of barley fields where we could hunt pigs, and rice fields where we could hunt ducks. It cost $1,200 a year - not bad.

But it didn't take too long to figure out that we almost always got more ducks at state-run refuges and wildlife areas. I can't remember what it cost to hunt those areas in 2006-07, but a season pass to hunt them this year costs $146.62. It's likely that I'll have used this pass 19 times before the season ends on Sunday, which amounts to $7.72 per hunt.

The question Hank and I asked ourselves was this: Was it more important to sleep in, or bring home more ducks? Within two years, we'd bailed from that club.

Now, you can have an amazing private-land duck hunting experience. I know, because I've been invited to partake of this privilege, where you roll in 30 minutes before shoot time, hop onto an ATV, drive out to a blind you know no one else will have taken, and enjoy 90 minutes of fast-paced, fun and productive hunting.

The first time I hunted a place like that, I was gauche enough to ask how much it'd cost. I was told that the last person to buy into that club paid $125,000 to join, plus an annual fee that helped maintain a gorgeous Disneyland of Ducks. (If you checked out Hank's and my recent video on how to pluck and wax a duck, this was the place where we learned about waxing.)

The last time I hunted a place like this, I kept my damned mouth shut, because I was pretty sure the property was worth way more than would be remotely polite to discuss.

So here's the deal:

You can have good duck hunting that's fast, both in terms of how late you roll in and how quickly you roll out, but you need beaucoup bucks to do it. Those are your premium private clubs.

You can have cheap hunting that's totally awesome, but it's going to require a substantial investment of time and risk. That's your premium public land hunting.

Or you can have cheap(ish) hunting that's fast, but to put it politely, it's really not that good. That's your low-end private land hunting.

This is why I spend the majority of my time hunting crowded national wildlife refuges.

And perhaps it's also why duck hunters - shown below in the "migratory bird" hunting category - are outnumbered by virtually every other kind of hunter.

There ain't no easy button - you've got to want it. Bad.

Source: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service 2006 National Survey (yes, a newer one is coming out soon).

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

How to act like a major ass when hunting public land

The public land where I hunt ducks is incredibly crowded, but for the most part, hunters there get along just fine.

Every once in a while, though, you get a hunter who thrives on being a major jerk. And if you're lucky like I was last week, you get to watch karma slap him around a bit.

I was hunting surrounded by friends last Wednesday. Hank and Charlie were in my tule patch. Our friend Don was a little to the west of us. And Rick, a friend who's a relatively new duck hunter, was in a patch to our north.

It was a pretty typical day: Everyone in our area was getting shots at ducks. Not that picture-perfect shot at birds coming in for a landing in your decoys - that doesn't happen too often in crowded public land - but shots at ducks flying over or past your tule patch within shotgun range.

Apparently, that wasn't good enough for the two guys hunting a patch to the northeast of Rick.

I was back at the parking lot when Rick came into the marsh mid-morning and settled into his patch, so I missed this part, but Hank and Charlie told me that the guys hollered at him for being too close. He wasn't too close - hunters occupy those two spaces all the time without any problems whatsoever.

Then one of the guys started hollering at Rick for taking shots he thought were too high, and he called Rick an asshole.

Later, I got a duck on a second shot that I usually can't make and I raised my shotgun with both hands in triumph. "I never get that shot!" I yelled to Hank and Charlie.

I couldn't hear it because I was sloshing through the water to pick up my duck, but Don later told me that one of the jerks started ridiculing me, something like, "Look, I'm a girl, I got a duck!"

Then when Hank and Charlie took shots at (and missed) some gadwalls that came straight over us, one of the jerks came unglued.

"Let 'em work, asshole! Maybe if you let 'em work, you wouldn't sail 'em so far!" (For the non-waterfowlers out there, "sailing" is hitting a bird that then sails a long way from you before dropping; the ideal shot is one that drops the bird right there.)

This was the first verbal assault that I'd heard from them that day, and it really pissed me off. I responded poorly: I yelled some unkind things right back at 'em, and we traded insults back and forth for a minute.

Why was this the wrong thing to do? 1) It's bad to escalate, and 2) it's especially bad to escalate when everyone is carrying loaded guns. I know this, but I let my temper get the best of me, and fortunately we all settled down.

Rick, on the other hand, was about to become a saint.

One problem with yelling at fellow hunters for shooting at birds that appear to be too high, or sailing birds, or shooting at birds that you think are coming your way (instead of "letting 'em work") is this: We all do it from time to time. It's not ideal, but any hunter capable of being honest with him- or herself has to admit this.

So you know what's gonna happen next, right? You got it. One of the jerks hit a bird and sailed it, and it landed right in front of Rick, still very much alive.

The hunter started sloshing out to pick up the bird, and Rick shouted cheerfully, "Want me to anchor that bird for you?"

"Yes!" the hunter answered, so Rick shot the duck before it could escape into grass where the other hunter might never find it.

I marveled as I watched the scene unfold, and yes, I delighted in watching someone from the hostile hunting party eat crow.

The jerks didn't dish out any more crap during the remainder of my time there that afternoon.

I wondered if they'd learned an important lesson, or if they'd just been temporarily silenced by karma. I'm inclined to believe it was the latter - bullies aren't that easily chastened.

But I sure learned my lesson: Next time that moron or anyone who's an ass tries to wreck my day in the marsh, I think I'll be content to keep my mouth shut and let the bastard hang himself with his own words. It sure doesn't take long.

And even more importantly, I learned that we are all far better off when we cheerfully help those around us. A little bit of nice goes a long way in the marsh.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Sunday, January 8, 2012

A raging case of TMI in a dark parking lot

I've had many forgettable conversations with total strangers in dark parking lots at 5 a.m., but the one I had yesterday will stick with me forever ... kinda like the smell and taste of the last food you ate before going on a rollicking vomit-fest from stomach flu.

I was preparing to hunt at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge with Hank and our friend David and the guy in the truck parked next to my car started chatting with us. It started with the usual pre-hunt talk - what was your resi number (we had the No. 5 reservation), what blind did you take (Blind 11).

At some point he realized I was a chick (which is literally half the reason I've grown out my hair - so I can stop looking like a guy in dark parking lots at 5 a.m.), and he volunteered that his wife hunts too, and she's a good shot. "A really good shot," he added.

So far, so good, right?

Something went terribly wrong after that.

He said his wife works at UPS (fine), and that she's one of the few non-lesbian female drivers there (OK, whatever).

Apparently one hot lesbian there is nicknamed "Bucky," "which," he says knowingly to Hank and David, "should be the first clue that she's a lesbian."

Uh ... I'm gonna be the first to admit that I have no idea why "Bucky" is a lesbian nickname. I know that Bucky Badger is the mascot at the University of Wisconsin. And I know that "bucky balls" are a form of molecule. But bucky lesbians? Hmmm. Maybe there's a hot lesbian porn star my students haven't told me about yet? (Oh yes, they're well-versed in porn these days.)

This is where the conversation gets truly awesome, because this guy starts going on and on and on about how he and his wife get all kinds of invitations for threesomes as a result of her working in this lesbian-rich environment, and how perilous it is for a guy to get into that kind of situation because it's so hard to compete with another chick and ...

Well, thank God he and his hunting party were in a hurry to get to their blind, averting what could've been an awkward conversation that went on until dawn.

After the guy and his pals had walked a decent distance away, I turned to Hank and David and said, "What. The. F**K?"

They just shook their heads.

The last time I was on the receiving end of such inappropriate verbal diarrhea was at the end of a Ronnie Montrose show when I was waiting for a friend who was on the road crew. The guy sitting next to me spent literally 30 minutes telling me how all he wanted for his 46th birthday was a blowjob from his wife, and she wouldn't give it to him, even though he'd gotten her a really nice surround sound system for her birthday that year.

That was at a BAR, where you can pretty much count on hearing more than you want to know about other people's sex lives. Not a dark parking lot at a national wildlife refuge.

The good news is that this guy told us it was the first time in three years that he'd hunted a refuge. With any luck he'll go back to his little private club and never talk to me again.


© Holly A. Heyser 2012

Monday, January 2, 2012

Video: How to pluck a duck

If there's one thing that makes killing ducks look easy, it's plucking them - especially if you like to eat them skin-on, roasted whole. Getting that down off can be a real pain in the butt.

But a few years back, Hank hunted with a friend at a duck club that had a totally sweet operation for processing ducks, and the key feature was the wax pot.

After plucking off maybe two-thirds of the top feathers, hunters at this club would dip their birds in a cauldron of hot melted wax, then put them in a barrel of cool water to set the wax. After that, all they had to do was peel off the wax and voila! The down was all gone, revealing pretty skin, suitable for roasting whole.

We adapted this operation to work in our garage, and at long last, we've made a video that shows how to do it.

I wouldn't say it makes plucking ducks easy - it still takes time. But it does leave you with some really beautiful ducks to eat, and that's the whole point.

Some additional notes about what you see in the video:

The pot: It's a cheap aluminum tamale pot from a Mexican market. Cheap is important, because this thing will get grimy, and you probably won't want to use it for food in the kitchen anymore after you use it for waxing ducks.

The burner: Ours is a totally lame portable electric burner. We keep talking about switching to a turkey deep fryer with a powerful gas burner and thermostat, but we haven't gotten around to it yet. Maybe there will be some on sale, now that the season of eating whole turkeys has passed.

Heating the water: We give the wax pot a head start by filling it out of a faucet right next to the water heater, so the water comes out blazing hot. It really does take a while to heat up, because it's two-thirds full. If I plan to pluck when I get home, I'll call Hank and ask him to get the pot started so it's nice and hot when I arrive 75 minutes later.

The mess: Yeah, it's super messy, which is why we do it in the garage. But it's way easier sweeping up clumps of wax than chasing tufts of down.

Got anymore questions? Comment here or on the video itself and we'll answer the best we can.

© Holly A. Heyser 2012