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