Duck hunting and the perils of getting your hopes up

When it comes to duck hunting, I’m the functional equivalent of a 7-year-old. This is my seventh season of hunting, and every time I go out, regardless any indications that would temper the optimism of a wiser hunter, each hunt always holds the promise of Christmas. There’s always an excellent chance that the ducks will swarm around the blind like mosquitoes, my shooting will be immaculate, and the day will be one I remember forever.

At 47, I know better than to think this way, but just like a kid, I can’t stop myself.

This is what was going through my mind at 5:30 a.m. on Opening Day here in California’s legendary Butte Sink, where my hunting partners and I were trudging toward our blind in what is considered the best public land hunting in the state. The only thing that was swarming around us like mosquitoes was … mosquitoes. Horrific and relentless clouds of them. It was a warm October morning, and we’ve had nothing even close to the kind of freeze that would put them in check.

Even more ominous was what I’d been afraid to utter out loud, but that Todd finally said:

“I haven’t heard a single duck.”

“Yeah, I noticed that,” I responded nervously.

I’ve hunted some really horrible days – blue skies, warm, no breeze, horrible location – and I can’t remember a single one in which I didn’t hear even a single duck on the walk to the blind.

Perhaps this was just one of Fate’s cruel smackdowns – a reminder that there is no Santa Claus.

Todd’s invitation to join him on this hunt was like finding Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket in a candy bar wrapper when all I was looking for was a snack. At that point, my plans for the rapidly approaching Opening Day on Oct. 20 had been to cross my fingers. I don’t belong to a duck club. I didn’t have any invitations. And the sweatline to get onto my favorite wildlife refuge without a reservation was going to be packed.

Then I got this email from Todd. He had been a reader of my old hunting blog, someone whose name I had seen online, but whom I’d never met. He emailed to say how much he’d liked my blog, and that he had a reservation at a state wildlife area called Little Dry Creek, and would I like to join him?

Would I like to join him???

A reservation at LDC, as it’s known, is more coveted than any other in the state because it’s the hardest to get, and the hunting there can be very, very good – especially if you had the No. 4 reservation as Todd did, assuring him one of the best blinds. He had room for two guests, and my answer was, “Hell yes!” My boyfriend Hank was out of town, but my buddy Charlie, who’s shared a lifetime of duck hunting knowledge with me, said he’d join us.

Now, here’s the funny thing: Despite LDC’s reputation, I had at this point had three horrible hunts there and one excellent one. The latter was my best day of duck hunting so far, not because the flight was outstanding, but because I got my limit of seven ducks with 15 shells, a record I’ve yet to match. The three bad hunts? I think I didn’t fire more than three shots on any of them

But this was Opening Day at Little Dry Creek!

I’d had this opportunity once before, six years ago when my boyfriend had gotten the No. 4 reservation at LDC for the opener. But I had just gotten my hunting license and hadn’t even fired my new shotgun yet. I told him the hunt would be wasted on me, that he should take someone else. He did, and he came home in a state of duck-induced ecstasy, telling breathless tales of so many ducks flying around him so close that he could hardly choose which one to shoot at.

I hadn’t even been on a duck hunt yet, but I could tell it had been a special experience. So you can’t really blame me, can you, for getting my hopes up with that little bit of knowledge at the back of my head?

When Todd, Charlie and I reached the blind, we began to hear geese, which was at least somewhat comforting. I love ducks infinitely more than geese, but I would be grateful for a shot at anything the way the day was looking.

And when we were just finishing setting up our decoys, we started to hear a few ducks. Mallard, wigeon, teal.

You would’ve thought I’d just sighted Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. At the age of 47. Every shred of skepticism and doubt evacuated my brain, posthaste.

Danger, danger! Don’t get your hopes up!

As we settled into our pit blinds, we started seeing the shadows of ducks whizzing by. It’s going to be OK,I told myself. Not necessarily epic, but OK.

In a matter of a few minutes, the sky over our heads – and I mean right over our heads – was filled with not hundreds, but literally thousands of ducks. I found myself gasping repeatedly, covering my mouth with my hand to silence myself. There was no need; I couldn’t be heard over the cacophony.

Charlie, Todd and I kept looking at each other with wide, “Is this really happening?” eyes. I began to shake. I was close to tears, so amazing was the sight.

When shoot time came, there were so many ducks in the sky, so much chaos, that the sound of shots didn’t scare more than a fraction of them away. The three of us were shooting in all different directions, dropping ducks everywhere. We were drenched with sweat and covered with mosquitoes but we hardly noticed.

Todd limited first. Then I did. Charlie was holding out for mallards, which had been somewhat scarce, as 90 percent of the birds we were seeing were pintails and wigeon, in equal numbers. We could have left early, but we just sat in our blind for several hours marveling at the spectacle, ducks flying all around us, from all different directions, all very close. I can say without a shred of exaggeration that we easily could have gotten ten limits apiece.

Through my six prior seasons of duck hunting, this was the dream I’d been chasing. I’d finally gotten to see something truly magical. I was in a state of ecstasy that still hasn’t really worn off.

The next day I went hunting with Charlie back at our usual spot, and while I got my limit, the flight wasn’t one-hundredth of what it had been the day before. The next weekend, I found myself back at Little Dry Creek with another No. 4 reservation at the invitation of another friend, and while it was good – really good – it wasn’t like Opening Day.

It will probably be years before I experience anything like that again. But I’m OK with that, because I now know days like this are actually possible. That’s all I need to keep fueling my little-girl optimism.

Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, photographer and college journalism lecturer who lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com.

Last modified on Monday, 17 December 2012 01:30
Holly A. Heyser

Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, food photographer and college journalism lecturer. She writes a blog about hunting at http://norcalcazadora.blogspot.com.and shoots food photos for boyfriend Hank Shaw, who writes a blog about wild food at http://honest-food.net.

Website: norcalcazadora.blogspot.com
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