I know that if you want to hunt wild and hard to find pheasants in Montana you have one of two choices, either cold weather or very cold weather, and lots of hard hunting which means a bunch of miles on foot.

Although my first shooting trip to South America took place in 1972 I didn't get to shoot in Uruguay until 1997. In retrospect I hate that I missed shooting in that country and enjoying those wonderful people for so many decades. This had been a winter trip, so the duck and partridge seasons were in full swing. Of course, it was summer back here in the USA.

I had never thought of Mexico as a bird-hunting destination, but spending a week there has really changed my perspective. Some of the most exciting and fun hunting I've experienced recently can be had out of Los Moiches, Mexico where a variety of bird hunting is available along with excellent fishing and train touring as well.

Winter Hunting Memories

Another time, I was duck hunting with a good friend on the Massachusetts coast and taking a few pictures at sunrise. It was very cold and I tucked my very expensive camera into my gunning coat. Suddenly, a banded Red Leg came over the decoys and I leaped up and dropped him into the blocks with a single shot. In my zest, my camera flew out of my gunning coat and landed in a tidal pool that was several feet deep. We figured that northern red leg duck cost about $1,800 dollars to bring down, not counting guns and ammunition.

Dark (Duck) Thoughts

I have a friend who is a contractor, who likes to hunt black ducks. He handles his downed birds with as much grace as a piece of scrap lumber. Not that he doesn’t appreciate his birds, he does, and he is a simple, but effective cook. But as much as I enjoy gunning with him, he and I are two different animals, if you will.

Thoughts On Waterfowl

One day last season, another hunter and myself put up a flock of seven-hundred black duck as we cut across the bay. That’s one continuous flock, all at once, of seven-hundred birds. Earlier, that morning, we put up another flock of two-hundred black duck. This has been the norm for many years where we gun on the Massachusetts coast.

My First Duck Hunt

by Hellen Lee-Keller, PhD.

I got up early on a frosty winter morning to prepare for my first duck hunt ever. Sacramento can get pretty chilly in the morning. I packed my new camouflage bag with snacks, camera, money, ID, and all sorts of other goodies that Holly told me that I'd need for our day out. After getting all geared up, I kissed my hubby goodbye and headed out the door.

Derek wore a bemused smile on his face as he watched his Los Angeles-bred wife march out the door carrying a camouflage bag and wearing a Ducks Unlimited camouflage cap on her way to help and watch someone shoot ducks out of the sky. In fact, that bemused expression has been rather constant on his face since before Christmas when I found out Holly is a hunter and that I wanted to become one, too.

Bugs and More Bugs

You see, Derek grew up in Georgia where lots of folks hunt. So the thought of his short, Asian, loudly articulate, and very prissy wife going out into the bugs (I hate bugs!), wearing camouflage (not elegant), and sitting-in-wait in the tall grass (more bugs, disgusting water, and God only know what else is lurking in there) just brings on too much cognitive dissonance.

But he is extremely supportive of all the hobbies that I pick up. Just the day before, he drove me around town, even though he was hung over, as I was searching for the perfect cap, bag, and hooded poncho (must be in shadow-grass pattern) to wear out on my first ducking hunting foray.

Would the Duck Scream Out in Pain?

As I was driving over to Holly's lots of questions ran through my mind. How would I feel when Holly shot a duck? (While Holly, apparently was a bit worried that she'd drag my butt out into the wild and not shoot anything, I blithely had supreme confidence that she would. She's determined that way.) Would it scream out in pain? Would it freak me out? How would I feel about eating snacks without being able to wash my hands first? Would I be cold? Would the repair on her spare set of waders keep the water out? (I hate cold, wet feet!) Would I get tired and bored?

Still mulling over these questions, I came up to Holly and Hank's house. A cute ‘50s ranch-style sitting on a quarter acre. Holly took me into the back room where she had laid out several items for me to try on: her camo jacket, a face mask, cap and hood. She also brought along another sweatshirt, just in case I got cold.

Then she inspected my gear and was absolutely delighted with my bag. Just perfect, she said. I felt quite pleased.

Now the Waders

Then we headed out to the garage to try on the waders. Now I’m not sure if I mentioned that Holly is about a foot taller than I am. But the waders, being flexible, fit rather nicely and with the top of the waders snugly fitting under my arms; I felt reassured that if I fell into the water that I would be covered unless the water was very deep. She had already loaded up her car with the wheelbarrow, lots of decoys, and a bunch of other paraphernalia. Mountains of stuff. She tossed in the last of her items, and we headed off.

On the way there, we mostly talked about grading (both miserably procrastinating until the last minute--love teaching, hate grading), our jobs, our former jobs, and the other usual stuff when two academic women get together.

I also got to find out a little bit more about where she grew up. That was by accident. We were talking about the scenery of the Central Valley. It's low and flat, surrounded by buttes and mountain ranges. It's stunningly beautiful. And it's always amazing to me to think that I'm living on the bottom of a sea bed that had dried out. Anyway, she was telling me how much she loves it and thinks it's beautiful, in a way that I've come to recognize over the past year and a half.

Since Derek and I moved to Sacramento, we've come across many locals who extol the virtues of the Central Valley in a slightly over-earnest, too enthusiastic way when they find out that we're from San Diego, and that I grew up in Los Angeles. At first it was a bit annoying because we are very happy here and couldn't figure out why people assumed that we weren't.

Then, we figured it out. People had a hard time believing that we actually like it here: their hometown, their home region. Yes, it's an odd bit of chauvinism, but aside from the few exceptional cases, it's also a sweet kind of chauvinism. They love it and they want others to love it, too, not in an obnoxious my-town-go-home sort of way but in the way that Holly was expressing it. Their love of the region. It's nice to be living in a place where people take pride in it, but not to the point where they are overly protective.

Into the Refuge

All this to say that Holly lived for a part of her life, up and down the Central Valley region. This was before she became the urbane and sophisticated political journalist. So as we were both commenting on how much we loved the beauty of California, it struck me that I wanted to take a picture of the road up to Delevan National Wildlife Refuge. When I turned to the backseat to look for my camera, I couldn't see my bag! To be fair, there was so much camo back there, it was kinda hard to sort through the various items to see it. But after much digging, it slowly and horrifyingly dawned on me that I might have left my bag at Holly's. So, Holly pulled over at a rest stop and we searched. Sure enough, I left the damn thing at her house. When I told Derek about this later, he was amused and simply replied, "I guess the camouflage worked so well that you couldn't see it to bring it." I, on the other hand, was disheartened. My camera! My ID and money! My snacks!

Holly was unfazed and said that there was a convenience store where we could pick up some snacks and so we did. I had to also get a new cap. I had to trade my perfect cap that matched my perfect camo bag for a cap that was all-wrong and didn't match anything. I’m sure you ladies will understand my sorrow. But, I have to admit that it was serviceable.

When we arrived, Diane, who runs the place, kidded Holly about being a "Bird Watcher" because apparently Holly had not shot many ducks at Delevan. So, she assigned us to Blind 2 because it had an average of 3 ducks shot per day. She was rooting for us.

When Your Back End Falls Asleep

Throughout the day I mostly I sat in on a camp stool, just an inch or two above the waterline with my feet dangling in or floating on the water, but toasty and dry. Now in case this sounds uncomfortable and miserable, it's not. In fact, I fell asleep for a bit, sitting on the stool with the sun gently shining on me. When I was awake, I tried to be very still, but after several hours the back end starts to fall asleep. So, I would shift a little and try to be subtle about it.

Well, let me tell you, it did not deter the ducks. Because both times I was stirring on my damp seat, I saw Holly rise up, then BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! followed by a shout, "I hit it!" Next thing I would see was Holly wading out into the water to retrieve her kill.

Holly Gets a Widgeon

The first time this happened, I stood up in amazement. I hadn't seen a thing! Once she reached the duck, she gently picked it up by the neck, gave it a few quick twirls to break the neck and watched to make sure it was dead. The first one had jerky nerve twitches, so she gave it a couple more twirls before she proudly held it up for me to see. It was a lovely, lovely duck. A widgeon, I believe. Beautiful coloring and good size. I was impressed. The same procedure happened the second time, but I was quicker to look up at the first BLAM! so I saw the second duck fall out of the sky.

Ducks, when they fall and if they aren't killed instantly, fall to the water and float with their heads ducking into the water. No quacking, no sound. I wonder if it's shock, I think it might be a way to cope with the pain of the injury. Our cat Lucy did that at the end of her life when she was in pain. She'd hide her head, quietly. So, I'm guessing that they are coping with the shock and pain. So, it's kinda nice to think that hunters quickly retrieve their prey to finish the job immediately. It's not like fishing where people toss the fish into a bucket after taking the hook out of them to keep them "fresher." It always seemed like it must hurt and that they must be pissed off swimming in a cramped bucket with a giant wound in their mouth or throat.

When the sun set, we headed home. Once we got back to Holly's we could take a closer look at the birds as we plucked and prepared them for the freezer.


Holly shows off her prize ducks
The next part of hunting is plucking, cleaning, and gutting. It's not that difficult and quite what I expected.

After we plucked all their feathers, I was simply amazed at how downy they are underneath. They were both grey underneath and reminded me so much of our little kittens. All soft and downy.

Hank had figured out that a good way to pull off the down is to wax them. Yes, ladies, just like your own legs. So, Holly dipped them both into a vat of hot water and paraffin and the ducks came out with a nice crust of wax. The wax grips onto the down so, as you pull away, it all comes off rather neatly. There are parts that you need to go over and pull with your fingers, but on the whole it comes of in strips.

I didn't take pictures of the gutting, which is expectedly gory. But it's pretty much what you'd expect, entrails and organs and blood.

So, after my first duck-hunting trip, I am looking forward to next season so that I can start hunting ducks. It's too late in this season for me to get licensed, learn to shoot, buy a shotgun, and get all the gear. Holly and Hank are so enthusiastic that they think that, if I hurry, I'll be ready to get in one shoot this season, but I'm methodical and I like to make sure I know what I'm doing. So, knowing myself, I’ll be ready for next season. In the meanwhile, if Holly is willing to bring along the noisy fidgeter, I'm ready to head out again.

Hellen Lee-Keller joined the faculty of California State University, Sacramento in 2006 as an Assistant Professor of Multi-Ethnic Literatures in the English Department. She holds a doctorate in Literature with a concentration on Cultural Studies from University of California, San Diego. She earned an M.A. in Humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills. And she has two B.A. degrees in Fine Art and Women's Art Practice and in French Studies from University of California, Santa Cruz and University of California, Irvine, respectively. She teaches courses that emphasize the intersections between race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, and class formations in cultural production in the United States. Since she is currently searching for the perfect shotgun, light enough for a small woman to carry but powerful enough to get the job done, she will entertain all recommendations and advice. She can be contacted at leekeller@csus.edu.

I'm not usually the kind of woman who hollers out to perfect strangers in public. But, my choices were continue lurking around a Memphis airport telephone booth or find out if the two women strolling by, one in a camouflage jacket, were my ride to Hunter's Paradise Lodge.

"Hey, are you Shannon?" I blurted.

The woman in the camo coat, who was pushing a cart piled high with pink luggage accented with white polka dots, turned around and said "You must be Tammy."

Imagine my relief. I was lucky because the two women I had waylaid, Ann Smith of the NRA and Team Winchester's Heather Reddemann, were on the same Winchester/Mississippi Department of Tourism duck hunt I had been invited to. Turns out the woman I was supposed to meet, Winchester hunt hostess Shannon Salyer, was delayed at the Houston airport.

Heather Redmann and Shannon Salyer

Within moments of meeting each other, Ann, Heather and I were in fast food heaven at the airport Arby's. In a rush of introductions and comparing notes on people we knew in common, I finally got the scoop on the pink polka-dotted suitcases. I quickly realized that Heather was a serious waterfowler with a capital S. Not the kind of young woman I would associate with Barbie Doll bags. I learned, though, it was Heather's foolproof way to ensure that when (not if) the airlines lost her luggage; it would be easy to describe and find. It made sense in a kooky kind of way.

Shannon finally arrived many curly fries later, and we all piled into an SUV and headed south.

The Mississippi Delta is known as the birthplace of the blues and the land of catfish, cotton and waterfowl -everything from snow geese and specklebellies to mallards, wood ducks, scaups and shovelers. Lucky bum that I am, I was cruising down I-55 with three new friends on our way to hunt these heavenly creatures.

Our destination was Hunter's Paradise Lodge outside of Charleston, Miss. in Tallahatchie County. Presumably it was the same area where Billie Joe McAllister flung himself off that bridge. When I asked the local guides about it, they looked at me like I was a flake. However, it was too late. I couldn't get the song or the movie out of my head for days.

When the pseudo female voice from our SUV's navi system curtly instructed us to "turn right in .2 miles," we were more than ready to finally arrive at Hunter's Paradise. Lodge owner Tim Gray and his guides immediately whisked our luggage inside, and soon we were mingling with the rest of our hunting party: co-host Mike Jones from the Mississippi Department of Tourism, freelancer Stephanie Mallory and Hillary Mizelle of Grand View Media. It was immediately clear this was a fun group of people, and I was quite pleased at how things were turning out.

As my roommate Ann and I were chatting and unpacking, I was hit with the sinking feeling I had forgotten to pack something. Last time I traveled it was undergarments. This time it was my toiletry kit. No deodorant, shampoo or facial cleanser. Just as this group was getting to know me, I had to be the doofus who couldn't remember to pack a toothbrush. For the rest of the trip, I was forced to panhandle for contact solution, toothpaste and lotion. But everyone was kind to me, and I decided I could make do with the group's generosity and the odds and ends I found in my briefcase. At least I didn't forget my hunting boots.

The first night at Hunter's Paradise, I vowed to eat dessert like there was no tomorrow. That was a good decision, as Lucille, camp cook, makes a mean chocolate chip cake. I even woke up one morning before the rest so I could devour the last piece. I admit it was a desperate act for someone living on the shampoo charity of others.

After dinner, Tim visited with the group about what we could expect on the hunt, covered some safety basics and let us check out the firearms we would use. I was pleased that we'd be shooting some quality sporting arms. There was a nice selection of Browning Silver and Gold autoloaders in 12 and 20-gauges. Both models are a splendid choice because they employ Active Valve gas operation making them low recoil choices as well as a beautiful combination of wood and metal. I chose a sweet little Silver 20-gauge because it shouldered almost perfectly. We also examined our Winchester ammo choices (12 and 20 gauge Supreme Elite Xtended Range HD Waterfowl and Xpert Hi-Velocity Steel). I knew I'd enjoy getting to test the various loads to discover what would have maximum impact on birds and minimum impact on me. Tim, who has duck hunted since he was 8 years old, left no doubt he is passionate about waterfowling. For some, hunting ducks and geese is a hobby. For Tim, it's a way of life. By age 18, he had already decided he was going to own, or at least run a guide service so he could introduce others to what he loved. For the next 20 years, Tim worked towards his dream while he held "bill-paying jobs" before finally opening Hunter's Paradise Lodge.

Today, it's a popular destination for duck hunters across the country. Situated in the Mississippi Flyway, the area boasts a heavy concentration of waterfowl. I was getting pumped just thinking about birds circling our decoys, and finally cupping their wings as they made the commitment to join their faux friends.

Our first morning, after only four hours of sleep, we were up and pulling on waterfowl bibs, coats and boots - ready for snow goose action. About an hour later, our vehicle was bouncing down a mud road leading to the middle of a field. Just as the guides were getting ready to unleash a bevy of decoys, it happened. A flash in the distance. Could it be lightening?

The ensuing clap of thunder verified that it was, in fact, lightening. And we got to see many more examples of it. For the next 16 hours I swear, every thunderstorm in North America rolled across the Delta. Luckily, we got a brief respite after sunrise when we saw the wind hurl about 25,000 snow geese high overhead. I was thankful my layout blind had doors, because with that many birds in the air, chances of being pooped on were pretty high.

The first wave of rain that morning alternated between a gentle pitter patter on my layout blind to fatter, more frequent raindrops. Tucked away in our little camo coffins, we stayed fairly dry, each in our own little world watching birds and clouds sail by. As morning progressed, a blasting wind and cold rain conspired to make our surrender inevitable. Finally, the guides began to load up dogs and decoys, while we tried to snap a few photos. Afraid to ruin cameras, we packed them up and stood with our backs to the wind. And passed the time telling stories and laughing at how funny we looked with hoods cinched tightly around our faces. This was a plucky group of women so I might have been alone in this thought, but I was thankful to be excused from picking up blinds and decoys in a driving rain.

After this gallant effort, we headed back to the lodge where our growling stomachs were greeted by one of Lucille's big country brunches. Hurrah!

Hillary Mizelle

It rained the rest of the day. And I don't mean sprinkled. Or drizzled. I mean a full on toad-floating downpour. There wasn't much more to do beyond accept our fate. Fortunately, the lodge is a spacious and comfortable place to fritter away an afternoon. A great room includes a huge living room, ringed with several comfy sofas and a big screen TV, perfect accoutrements for a mid-day snooze. Connected to that is a roomy, cafeteria style dining room while the six bedrooms are off the beaten path down a quiet hallway. Five private bathrooms means even in a group of women, nobody has to wait for a post hunt shower.

After eating, a few of the women grabbed blankets and sprawled out on the sofas for a siesta, but not before checking email and text messages first.

Others sat at one of the many dining room tables, looking at photos, snacking and talking. While we waited out the rain, Mike Jones filled me in on the birding opportunities in Mississippi, which are plentiful and easy to identify thanks to the tourism department's handy map and brochure. Shannon, Heather and I also discussed the art and science of waterfowling and the best ways to reduce felt recoil. We agreed that while butt pads and shooting vest pads work wonders, gun type and fit as well as proper stance and handling are key.

The next morning, after it had rained about 6 inches, I figured the ducks would be scattered from one end of the state to the other with so much water available. Still, Tim and his guides were steadfast about getting us out there for a chance to shoot some ducks. They set us up on some old catfish ponds less than a half hour away from the lodge, which also meant a bit more shut eye for us hunters. It was drizzly, windy and cold (an ongoing theme), and we were all dressed to the teeth, each in our own way resembling the Pillsbury Dough Boy or some other enormous roly poly figure. Kirstie Pike, who founded Próis, sent us beanies and neck gaiters from her line of functional women's hunting apparel. We pulled the hats down over our ears and pulled the gaitors up over our noses so all that was visible were our eyeballs. Still, we managed to shoot some ducks. And some photos.

Driving back to the lodge through the Mississippi Delta, I could almost imagine what this swampy wilderness looked like 100 years ago. The fertile soils of this alluvial floodplain were too good to pass up for the sharecroppers and landowners of yesteryear, and they quickly cleared it for cotton. Today, you'll see huge working farms, growing cotton, soybeans and rice, bordered by acres of forest and sloughs. Though impressively flat, the meandering rivers and pools of water lend the area a backroad beauty no serious traveler should miss.

While the weather remained a challenge, I got just enough of a taste to want to go back. There's no question that if the weather had cooperated, we would have had our hands full shooting ducks and geese. Next time, though, I'm making contingency plans in case there's another monsoon. The Delta is a hotbed of American culture and on my return visit, I'm going to soak it up.

First, I'd head over to Clarksdale to check out the Delta Blues Museum and maybe actor Morgan Freeman's joint, Ground Zero Blues Club. Then there's the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center in nearby Indianola. In Oxford, there are several historical sites linked to Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulker that I'd like to see.

Just to be well rounded, I think I'd opt for some wacky entertainment, too - the Catfish Museum in Belzoni or the Jim Henson Museum to pay homage to Kermit the Frog's birthplace in Leland. Maybe I'd wrap things up with a stop at the Home of Scissors, World Champion Hog just outside of Charleston on Route 32. While there's plenty to see and do, it's worth going back just to take another shot at duck hunting.

After eight reflective hours in the Memphis airport (the inconvenience of storms had moved from duck hunting to air travel), I realized that the take home message from this trip was that when you're in a wonderful area, eating delicious food and surrounded by people who are smart, funny and thoughtful, a limit of ducks is merely a bonus.

Tammy Sapp was raised in an outdoors family who enjoyed spending time together trapping, fishing, camping and hiking. That outdoor background inspired her to pursue a career in the wildlife field. Sapp worked for 11 years at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation as an outdoor writer, photographer and publications supervisor. She then spent the next 11 years overseeing the communications department for the National Wild Turkey Federation. As the NWTF's senior vice president of communications, she supervised the production of six national magazines and played a leading role in launching three national television shows and several Web sites. Today, Sapp edits an e-newsletter called the Women's Outdoor Wire, writes the Outdoor Scene blog and works as a media and agency relations coordinator for MyOutdoorTV.com.


Useful links:

http://www.huntersparadiselodge.com/

http://www.myoutdoortv.com/

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If you love goose hunting then western Canada is Mecca. Last fall my hunting partner Mark and I planned a trip to western Canada to the province of Alberta. Our connection up there works and lives in the fast growing region and city of Grand Prairie.

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