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.
I am a creature of habit. I spend most of my duck season hunting just a few spots in a very small area of public land, generally with just my boyfriend Hank or my hunting buddy Charlie. It’s not easy to get a spot – the system is a combination of chance, savvy and speed – but we’ve got the routine down. Our hunting has all the ritual and consistency of a Catholic Mass.
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.
Duck season approacheth in my neck of the woods, and that means it’s time to remember the three immutable rules of the duck gods:
1. Don’t be a snob. I think my friend and hunting guide Jason Adversalo expressed this principle the most clearly: “Someone’s got to kill a spoonie. Until someone kills a spoonie, we’re not going to have a good hunt.”
Last weekend found me at my high school reunion in Visalia, California, seated amongst a bunch of my Class of ’83 brethren who were generally quite happy to find that I’d joined the ranks of gun-totin’, wildlife-killin’ mamas. I was not a fan of guns back in the day, and my family preferred slaughtering animals we’d raised ourselves.
We were lamenting the fact that our reunion hadn’t been one week later, when I could have enjoyed a dove hunt or two while I was there. I’ve never gone dove hunting there, deep in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, but I vividly remember quiet country mornings punctuated by the gentle call of the mourning dove. I used to call back at them with my Tonette, a little red plastic flute that’s like a recorder, only much easier to play. As an adult who hunts now, that memory translates into, “Mmmmmmm, bet there’s some good huntin’ there…”
“You should come back down!” my friend John said.
“I wish. I have so much work to do,” I said. I already knew this reunion would set me back so enough that I’d be hyperventilating within days. (I was right, but who cares – it was fun.)
“I know this great spot…” he said.
“Oh yeah?” I’ve never been one to fight Temptation very hard. I kinda dig Temptation.
“Yeah, two years ago I got my limit of 10 with 12 shots.”
I should mention that John is a competition shooter.
“And how’d that spot do last year?”
He shook his head. As I expected.
Two years ago we had an epic dove season in California. Can’t say I ever got a limit in 12 shots, but I got quite a few limits, and there were several days where we literally couldn’t reload fast enough for the next birds coming through. It was exciting and delicious. We ate so much dove that year. And we ate ‘em a dozen different ways, all awesome.
And then there was last year. Holy crap, it took me six hunts to get a single limit, and my shooting wasn’t the problem. The doves, which had been around all summer in substantial numbers, were just gone.
Compounding the shortage of doves was the weird weather. The rain had kept coming hard that spring, even into early summer, and the harvest of most seed crops – including the delicious and holy dove attractant safflower – had been delayed. The previous year, the safflower field I’d hunted had been plowed, providing attractive open territory for the nervous little birds. This time around, though, it had been cut, but not plowed, making those fields a scarier place for the doves.
The hunting was so bad that I resorted to something really goofy: If I spotted a few doves flitting into the middle of that big old field, I would get up and walk very quietly through the 6-inch-high safflower stalks to where I thought they’d be. I could often get within 20 yards, at which point their heads would pop up and they’d get that “Oh shit!” look on their faces, and they’d flush.
Most of the time I shot well enough to drop at least one, and somehow I managed to find all that I dropped, despite how well they blended in with the soil, and the fact that I wouldn’t regain sight of them until they were right in front of me. Pretty sure I got about half of my birds that way last year.
So now, people like John and me are asking ourselves: What’s it gonna be this year?
And I have a prediction: The doves are going to be really dumb.
I know that sounds insensitive, and shame on me, because I actually do have a tremendous amount of respect for wild animals, and like most of them better than I like most people. However, there is a basis for my statement.
For the past three summers, I have trapped and banded mourning doves in my front yard in cooperation with (and under the license of) the California Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Geological Service. For the past three summers I have seen distinctly different behaviors.
My first summer, the banding was epic. I trapped one bird three times (obviously he was very traumatized by the experience), and one day I trapped three birds 15 minutes apart – they just couldn’t wait until I left the front yard so they could come down off the roof and dive into that trap. That year, the dove season was epic.
Last summer, the banding wasn’t as good, though get this: I trapped the bird that I’d trapped three times the summer before, and three days after I trapped him, he was trapped by another bander 500 miles away in Palm Springs. That’s how doves roll.
But I digress. During the last week of banding season (which ends 10 days before dove hunting season starts) my trapping was really anemic. It seemed like the doves had all just left. And lo and behold, we had a crappy season.
This summer was again very different. The first thing I noticed was that the doves would be here in droves one day, then utterly absent for a week.
And while I didn’t re-trap any birds this year, I generally found the doves in my neighborhood to be entirely too trusting. I would pass within five feet of them on morning runs and they wouldn’t flush. And in my own front yard, I could pull into the driveway, unload groceries and walk into my house and the doves wouldn’t move.
That’s dumb. Seriously, I can’t believe they weren’t all eaten by the neighborhood cats.
So what does this mean for this dove season?
I have no clue. But I’ll start finding out today.
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.
Upland vest on, fistful of shells in pocket, shotgun in hand, good. Now close the car door quietly and walk over the levee in the burgeoning pre-dawn light.
I was a little more nervous than usual on this rabbit hunt in July because I was not alone – a woman from Berkeley was filming my hunt for possible inclusion in a documentary.
I don’t know how it happens. I teach, so I have summers off, but somehow my days of sun-filled freedom succumb to some of the most mundane tasks.
The other day I was staring at my endless to-do list when I was overcome by common sense: Why the hell had I not gone to the shooting range in more than a month?
Let’s see, eff laundry, eff dishes, eff sweeping, eff vacuuming. Double-eff the stupid weeds in the front yard.
I had to seize the moment before drudgery yanked it back. I opened the safe, pulled out my shotgun, grabbed the last three boxes of target shells sitting in my cedar hope chest, checked my shooting-range bag for ear and eye protection and headed for the door.
But only after I wrote “shoot skeet” on my list so I’d have something to cross off when I was done. Hey, I’m an anal retentive obsessive-compulsive Dutch Virgo. Leave me alone.
Fortunately, despite my long absence, the guy at the counter of the shooting range recognized me and smiled when I walked in the door.
“Is the voice-activated thingie available?” I asked. If it weren’t for that awesome little system, I’d probably never get out to the range because I’d always be waiting for a partner who could be as spontaneous as I could.
“For skeet, right?” he responded. “It’s on No. 4.”
I walked out, unsheathed my gun, grabbed the voice controller and headed to Station One, which was – mercifully – in shade. I popped one in the chamber.
“Pull!” I yelled into the microphone.
I unloaded, and as I walked to the coin box to see if it was stuck on trap mode, I felt in my pocket and realized I’d never dropped a token in the slot. Talk about out of practice!
Laughing at myself, popped my three coins in, went back to Station One, loaded the gun and yelled, “Pull!”
This time I heard the clay being launched right over my head. Gun to cheek, find it, find it, find it, ba...?
Good Lord. I’d safetied.
Oh well, it’s never a bad thing to be thwarted on the range by overzealous safety measures, right?
Now let’s try this again. “Pull!”
On it! Oh shi…
I’d safetied AGAIN. That’s not overzealous caution. That’s just dumb.
I looked around furtively to see if anyone had noticed. No one was close enough to see, but I’d already convinced myself I was an utter moron, and I’m the person whose opinion matters most when it comes to my shooting.
So of course, once I got the clays flying and my safety off at the same time, I proceeded to shoot like crap. My routine is high, low, double on every station through Station Seven, and I was hitting less than half of the clays – unusually bad. This didn’t bode well for dove season.
Then when I got to Station Four, I nailed all of them – high, low and double. I grinned. Nothing like making the tough shots when you’re missing the no-brainers.
On Station Five, I did it again.
“Yes!” I yelled defiantly to the shooting gods.
Then I quickly admonished myself: “Don’t be a cocky bitch!”
That was good for a giggle. Taken literally, those two words just don’t go together.
Walking to Station Six, I realized my arms were getting tired. My shotgun has a solid-core adjustable-comb stock, which makes it pretty heavy, and the voice system isn’t that light either. But seriously, my arms were tiring out before I’d made the complete circuit? Lame. But come to think of it, I hadn’t crossed “work out” off my to-do list for quite a while.
At stations Six and Seven, I did OK – not great. Then it was time for Station Eight.
I’m a little obsessed with shooting well at Station Eight, because when I nail those shots with an audience of strangers watching, it just plain feels good. “Yeah, guys, I can shoot.”
High house first: Miss!
Low house next: Miss!
I looked around … good, there still wasn’t anyone watching, besides my own worst enemy.
I was going to head back to Station One when I remembered what had happened on an outing this spring. I’d taken a total shotgun newbie to the range, and when we got to Station Eight, she asked why I didn’t do doubles there.
“Uh, because that would be ridiculous?” I ventured. Then I said, “What the hell,” and had her pull doubles. I missed both.
This time, I found myself saying “What the hell” again.
I hit the doubles button and yelled, “Pull!”
To my astonishment, I pulverized both clays, and I laughed maniacally as the shards crashed down around me. That felt really good. Why the hell wasn’t anyone watching now?
After that, I did better. My shooting wasn’t perfect, but it was reasonably good. Good enough that next time I came to Station Eight, I pulled doubles again.
And NAILED ‘em.
Again, no audience. Except for the person whose opinion matters the most. Things were looking up.
“I need to kill something.”
Those words have been running through my mind for three months. Sometimes I want to yell them, sending the words tearing through my suburban neighborhood, a cry of desperation that few of my neighbors would understand.
Learning to shoot and hunt at the age of 41 was such a revelation to me that I find myself constantly offering to help other women get into the shooting sports. Often, all it takes is the mere mention that I hunt to pique other women’s interest. Over and over, I’ve watched their eyes light up as the mental calculation leads them to the obvious: “If she can do it, I can do it too.”
For two months now, I’ve been slogging through the long, dark tunnel that is Not Duck Season. I feel actual anguish at having been ripped away from my marsh. The cast of winged characters – game and non-game – that made me laugh, curse and shout for joy has been replaced with the relentless torment of humans who exasperate and aggravate me.
The end of duck season always comes like a hard slap in the face. You can see it coming, almost in slow motion, but you’re still taken aback by its abrupt, stinging finality.
So when you get an unexpected shot at a post-season hunt – not just any post-season hunt, but one of epic potential – it feels like a dream.