Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Oh, no. It was happening again.

When I first started getting the hang of duck hunting, it never failed: If Hank was having a good day of shooting, I would be shooting atrociously. And if I was having a good day, he couldn’t hit a damn thing.

Generally, it’s great being a hunting couple, but days like this can send a five-ton wrecking ball careening into your domestic tranquility. And, man, once the bad attitude seeps in, your shooting is really doomed.
                                                                                              
I thought we’d gotten past that, but it was happening again. On the first morning of closing weekend. At a club that’s a veritable Ducky Disneyland – an invitation that’s such a good score I won’t even hint where I was.

We were hunting under high fog in a tree-studded wetland. Hank was putting the smackdown on specklebelly geese that dropped into shooting range to penetrate the fog. I was missing.

Restless, I’d spot a place just beyond a fog-shrouded tree line where all the ducks seemed to be landing, and I’d leave the blind and head that way – to the place where surely my shooting would improve – only to hear lots of bang-bang splash-splash back at the blind. Then I’d come back to the blind only to see all the ducks going right where I’d just been.

Sigh.

But I kept my eye on the specks that Hank wasn’t killing, and I didn’t have to see too many flights headed one direction before the wanderlust hit again.

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Holly Heyser models her Redneck Burka.

“I’m gonna walk that way,” I announced, and left the blind with nothing but my gun and my proudest invention of the year: the Redneck Burka. It’s a super shaggy homemade ghillie balaclava that I’d manufacture and sell if I had even a tiny bit of business sense, but, hey, I’m a writer who works for a non-profit – that should tell you everything you need to know about my entrepreneurial acumen.

I was actually doing something I’d wanted to do forever, and with the owner’s blessing, no less: I was jump shooting in immaculate waterfowl habitat. It’s like jump shooting public land, only a thousand times better, and with no competition. Hank and I were all alone in a pretty big area that was filthy with fowl.

So I walked, like Dorothy following the Yellow Brick Road. Only my guide was the yodels of God-knows-how-many specklebelly geese. And I was creeping, not skipping.

They sounded so close, but every time I thought they were just over the next tule patch, they weren’t. I walked through several little smartweed-lined potholes. I crossed a road. I walked through several more potholes.

I was really far from where Hank and I had started our morning, and with no sun to guide me, I couldn’t be entirely sure I knew the way back. But I didn’t care. I kept going.

And finally I reached a place that set my brain on fire. I mean just the thought of it as I write this sends chills racing through my body. Stuff you dream of that never happens, now on the verge of happening.

The sound of the geese was loud, unmistakably close now, though I still couldn’t see them, which served my purposes fine, because they couldn’t see me. I could hear the relaxed grunting sounds of happy geese as clearly now as I’d heard the piercing yodels before.

But it was what was happening in the sky that told me I had arrived: New arrivals constantly interrupted my advance, forcing me to freeze. Five specks coming in here, wings cupped for the final descent. Pairs of mallards zooming in there. Over and over. It was like one of those scenes in sci-fi movies where the protagonists arrive in some great city buzzing with the comings and goings of space ships. It was unreal. It was thrilling.

As I kept moving in, I passed on easily a dozen shots I’d normally take. Because normally, you never know if you’ll get a better chance. But I could hear my better chance right in front of me. I was so close now that I could hear a sound I’ve heard only once before, with my friend Megan up in Oregon, when specks surrounded us in a wheat field because speck season was closed: These birds were buzzing. Not the buzz their wings make in flight, but the sound of 10,000 happy bees.

Heart rate elevated. Rapid breathing. Holy shit.

As I rounded the last tule patch that provided tall cover for me, I crouched down to the height of the smartweed and advanced slowly, like a cat on final approach, grateful for the added cover afforded by my Redneck Burka.

I could see one now! Through a foot-wide gap in the smartweed, a lone speck, its neck erect, 15 yards in front of me. A sentinel.

He looked my direction and began the goose equivalent of nervously shifting from one foot to the next. Ohshitohshitohshit he saw something he didn’t like. Me.

In a microsecond, the happy buzzing stopped and the pothole exploded.

This is precisely where you need time to slow down, but it did not. I fired once and dropped the lowest speck. I lost my balance and as I tilted backward, I did what you do when you lose balance – I tightened my grip and fired a shot into absolutely nothing. A wasted shot! I regained my balance and shot at the next bird I could find, to no avail.

It was over. I should have dropped three specks, but I’d gotten one. No longer inhibited by the need for stealth, I marched forward to claim my bird, which at least I’d killed cleanly, reloading as I went.

And this spot was so hot that birds were still coming in, and in that avian confusion I stoned a hen mallard. And when I went to pick her up, another bird came zooming by, and I stoned that one too – a gorgeous drake ringneck. The sheer abundance of this place was dazzling.

By the time I decided it was time to return to Hank, I had six birds in hand: one speck, two mallards and three ringnecks. I would’ve stayed to finish my limit, but our host had urged us to show some restraint in the morning so we could hunt a woodie hole in the afternoon.

So I began the journey back with birds clutched tenuously between arthritic fingers – why had I not brought a duck strap? Oh yeah, because I’d expected to fail all morning. Never have I been happier to be wrong.

I made it back to the road I’d crossed, but for the life of me, I couldn’t find the blind, so I resorted to the echolocation system that Hank and I use when we get separated while mushroom hunting.

“Marco!”

Nothing.

“Marco!”

Nothing.

“Marco!”

Nothing.

Then, eventually, “Holly!”

I marched toward the distant sound of his voice, fingers and arms aching. We finally caught sight of each other, and when he saw the load I was carrying, he smiled.

“I was worried you were mad!” he said.

“No,” I told him. “I was just having a great time.”

Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at hollyheyser.com

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 February 2015 23:26
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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