Hunting the Drought: The Opening Act

In the days and weeks leading up to the California duck hunting opener, the reports from my buddy Charlie were good. The lake we hunted in his neck of the woods was filthy with puddle ducks. That would’ve been a head-scratcher in any normal year, because this was strictly a diver lake.

But this is no normal year.

California is in the middle of its worst drought on record, and water is scarce in the puddlers’ normal haunts in the great Central Valley, so, as predicted, ducks were dispersing hither and yon to find any water. Hence their appearance at the lake.

All the experts – and keep in mind that I work with a bunch of duck experts – had been saying where there’s water, there’d probably be good hunting.

So this would be a bonanza, right?

Well, maybe. Lake levels were so low that getting around would be extremely difficult. Motor boats would be S.O.L., and even kayakers like us would likely have to get out and drag our vessels through mud that hadn’t seen daylight in God knows how many years. Maybe back in the 1970s, the last time we had a drought close to this one in scale.

With daily scouting, Charlie had determined there was one spot where we’d likely be assured of a good hunt.

But if anyone beat us there, pickings would be slim. With so much land exposed, the distance between the tules we’d hide in and the shoreline that the birds would skirt would be just too great. So he planned to get to the good spot at 3 a.m.

I texted Charlie at 3:44 a.m. as I was ready to pull out of my driveway.

“Good morning, Sunshine!”

This is what I always say.

Two minutes later, he texted back. “Got beat to the spot.”

“F***!” I responded. “Is it still worth coming out?”

He took a little too long to respond, which I took as a maybe, so I just kept driving, mulling strategies to cope with our challenges. And I came up with a good one: My kayak doubles as a layout blind. I could put it on the edge of the shore, cover myself up with camo netting, and shoot at any ducks that came by. Who needs tules?

When I pulled into the parking area two hours later, I saw LOTS of trucks. Fortunately, Charlie was holding down our No. 2 spot, so I wouldn’t have to compete with these crowds. Later, he would tell me he’d talked to some of these folks, and one pair said they’d driven up that morning from the distant San Joaquin Valley, shut out from their normal hunting opportunities. They’d never been to the lake before, and arrived under a waning crescent moon, with no idea what the conditions were, or where they’d even find ducks.

Wow. That’s desperate.

I paddled out in the direction Charlie told me to go, hoping to spot the landmarks he’d described where I’d need to edge a little to the left here, a little to the right there, then find the spot where I’d have to get out and drag my boat across a mud flat.

Well, in retrospect, the thought that I might not find the mudflat was a little hilarious, because you really couldn’t head too far in any direction without hitting one. When my boat came to a stop, I got out, scanned for Charlie’s light – I hoped it was Charlie’s light – and started dragging.

Oh. My. God.

A 50-pound kayak loaded with gun and gear. My thighs out of hunting shape and no match for the sucking mud. A set of lungs that apparently weren’t going to bring anything to the table either. And I didn’t even know if I was heading the right direction – for all I knew, I was heading into an 80-yard stretch of mud, not just 20 yards of it.

I tried texting Charlie and autocorrect thwarted me, repeatedly, until I just began swearing at the phone. Loudly.

Finally I got out a coherent sentence. “I can’t do this in the dark,” I texted. “I’m going back to the bend and hunting from my boat.”

He said he’d come get me. I told him no, repeatedly. It was too close to shoot time! And finally he conceded. I dragged the boat back across the little ground I’d made, then paddled to a spot where I’d killed birds before, back when the water was several feet higher.

As I set up, a pair of hunters set up across the water 50 yards from me, and another guy paddled out in a rowboat to set up in the water about 50 yards from me, forming a perfect triangle of hunters who were too damned close to each other.

“Better not shoot me,” I mumbled, hoping for the best.

I was still pulling my camo netting over me when the shots started ringing out, mostly from the spot we’d lost to the early birds. After 10 minutes, a duck finally came zipping over me. I raised my gun, swung, shot and watched that bird go down. On land right behind me, to boot.

I lurched out of the boat, getting tangled in my netting, and strode to the spot where it had dropped.

Um.

It was a coot.

Well, at least it was a great shot. And I’ve got this boyfriend who knows how to cook coot well enough to fool anyone into thinking it’s premium game meat. So, whatever. Screw you coot haters anyway.

I tucked back into my boat with my little prize and listened to the shooting at our spot, and occasionally called at birds. Another duck came speeding by, already in range, no need to call. Swing, shoot, down.

Woot!

I was pretty sure this was actually a duck, and it was lifeless on the water in front of me. I tried walking out to get him but I quickly hit deep water, and had to go back for my kayak. Drag, dag, paddle, paddle…

…. oh shit, do NOT tell me those are the white shoulders of a bull spoonie!

I paddled closer. Ha ha, they weren’t! It was the white belly of a greenhead. Great shot AND a great duck. Things were looking up.

Except they weren’t – that was it. The ducks quickly figured out things weren’t the same this morning as they’d been the day before, and the only place they were flying was … our spot. Where we’d hear constant shooting for at least the next hour.

I texted Charlie and said I was coming over to see him so I could check out the spot in daylight, and when I hit that mudflat, I discovered the daylight didn’t make a damn bit of difference. I just wasn’t up to the task.

“I’m done.” I texted him.

He was too, so he came out to meet me. We paddled around for a bit, catching up – like so many duck hunting buddies, we hadn’t seen each other since January. And we wondered aloud if this place would even be huntable this year. Things were looking grim.

At least I hadn’t been skunked.

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 www.hollyheyser.com.

Last modified on Saturday, 01 November 2014 07:42
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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