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.

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The Importance of Failure

A friend of mine recently shared an interesting article provocatively titled, “The Learning Myth: Why I Never Tell My Son He’s Smart.”

I thought it was going to be a treatise on how to avoid making your child obnoxious, arrogant or insufferable, which I can get behind 100 percent. (Feel free to hurl insults – I am one of those childless adults who has little practical experience with how difficult it is to raise great children).

But I was wrong. It was actually more important.

“Researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows,” writes Salman Khan. “They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.”

What this had to do with Khan not telling his son he’s smart was this: Praising the boy for the sometimes painful struggle to do something difficult rewards a mindset of intellectual growth, rather than the expectation of easy success.

What this has to do with shooting and hunting should be obvious, unless you’re an elderly Olympic shooter who can’t remember missing any target in the past 50 years: Shooting isn’t easy, but failure and perseverance will ultimately reward you with the thrill of learning, which ultimately leads to connecting with your target more often.

The importance of failure is something I share with all the new shooters I work with. While it’s great to smash that clay, your brain learns from missing it, too: It learns what not to do.

Having pretty much zero innate shooting talent, I know full well how hard this can be for new shooters to accept. You see other people with great hand-eye coordination dropping more ducks with fewer shells than you, and you wonder if you’re ever going to get the hang of it.

The answer, of course, is that if you persevere, you will get better.

While I have little natural athletic talent – yup, I was always picked last for every team in school – I was blessed with tenacity that I never really put to good use until I was 30, when I decided to enroll in a tae kwon do school.

Tae kwon do is one of the flashier martial arts, incorporating a lot of aerial kicks that look beautiful if you’ve got a knack for them. With me, though, I just looked like a cat that’d been hurled into the air and blasted with a hose while she was up there for good measure: utterly graceless. But I did ‘em anyway, and I did in fact get better at them.

When I took up hunting 11 years later, I was grateful I’d conquered my lifelong expectation to be perfect at everything I did. While that attitude had made me look accomplished, it had really served only to narrow the range of endeavors I was willing to attempt.

Very early on, I started going out duck hunting by myself. If I always went with other hunters who did the calling and called the shots, I’d never know whether my calling and my perception of “in range” were improving.

It was more than a year before I killed a single duck while hunting alone, and another year before I killed more than one duck while hunting alone. This wasn’t for lack of shooting. It wasn’t uncommon for me to bring home a shell box that was empty as my strap. I just had not even remotely mastered the timing, mount and follow-through required to drop a duck.

But there were other things I began to learn right away. What kind of calling brought birds closer. What kind of concealment it took to avoid flaring incoming birds. What I needed to bring into the field to stay comfortable, hydrated and fed. What kind of weather produced good hunts. What kinds of birds made what sounds as they whizzed past me unscathed.

Even when I was frustrated with my results, I finished almost every hunt feeling like I’d learned something useful, and that was enough to keep my self-esteem afloat until I got the hang of things a few years later.

With the 2014 hunting season nearly upon us, I’m confident that this season, too, will be full of learning as I navigate the challenges (and probably benefits) of hunting waterfowl during the worst drought California has experienced in decades.

Oddly enough – or maybe not so oddly – I’m excited about the adventure.

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


I’m afraid to add up how much money I’ve been spending at the shooting range these days.

Seriously. I don’t want to know. I just walk up to the counter, hand over the plastic and sign the slip without looking at the amount. It’s super easy if I just don’t bother putting on reading glasses!

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The One True Way to Shoot a Shotgun

Oooooh, I can feel it already: You read that headline and you wanted to punch me.

That or you’re still reading this story because you’re a terrible shot, desperate for anything that might make you better.

If it’s the latter, go get your gun fitted. Then practice, practice, practice.

If it’s the former … well, good instinct!

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Hunting Zeppelins

Ducks are fast. On the rare occasions that they’re slow, I can’t hit them to save my life. How do you lead a bird on a crossing shot when he’s at one-quarter speed?

Four blind mates and I answered this question in Texas earlier this year with a resounding “I don’t know.” A bull sprig attempted suicide by floating behind our blind at close range like dandelion fuzz in a light breeze, only to escape unharmed after we all emptied our guns.

To me, ducks’ speed is an enormous part of their charm. The action is fast. Success is a bright burst of light. Failure can be so absurd that all you can do is laugh.

This is part of why I don’t gravitate toward goose hunting – geese coming in have all the charm of zeppelins, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t go out of my way to shoot zeppelins.

Admittedly, another reason I don’t love goose hunting is probably that the vast majority of my goose hunts have absolutely sucked. As in “no geese were harmed in the writing of this column.”

I’ve seen photos of good goose hunts. I’m not talking about the pictures of hunters bolted to the ground by six specklebellies in one hand and four snows in the other (that’s a perfect goose hunt in California). I’m talking about those images of 30 geese descending on a thicket of layout blinds, half a dozen with feet about to touch the ground, the rest so committed that you know they are SCREWED, no matter how much the guys in those blinds shoot like I do. A sight picture like that in real life might be sufficient to sway me.

I have not seen it yet. But I came close enough last month that I might be starting to get it.

It was the last day of the spring goose season in our region of California, and we went out with our favorite guide, R.J. Waldron, whose repartee flies the speed of buffleheads and just as far under the radar if you don’t keep up. The past couple days had been windless and lackluster, and on this warmish morning, the wind was flirting with us just enough to arouse irrational hope.

The first specklebellies that flew by stoked that hope. We held stock still in our Tyvek suits, white clown paint on our faces, as the birds sloooooowly circled into, and out of, our vision. When they were just far enough behind us to be out of sight, that curlicue squeal seemed so loud and so close that R.J.’s call would just have to come. My heart thudded as I mentally rehearsed how I’d grab my gun and SLAY one of those birds so decisively that the whole line of hunters would cheer.

Then that sound drifted farther away and I remembered why I hate goose hunting. “Are they gone?” I whispered to my boyfriend, who seemed to be better positioned to see them.


Then, inexplicably, a lone speck came floating in right in front of us. Coming, coming, coming. Floating. Dropping. Hearts pounding – all of them had to be. Still coming.

This is when the bird is supposed to break away to perpetuate my disappointment. But he kept coming.

“Kill him!” R.J. barked. By the time I got my bead on him, he was already falling. Not my shot, but wow, so THAT’s what it looks like and feels like when a goose is coming in. I liked it.

And that’s how the morning went, with small groups of specks and snows drifting in, sometimes playing the circling game, sometimes just slipping gently in front of us, almost always losing at least one or two comrades in the volley. One time all four hit the ground.

I fired only 13 shots that morning, and I could probably claim four or five birds (soooo hard to tell when you’re gang shooting). That’s a pretty solid hunt.

With one lone-bird exception in which some decoys were seriously harmed – not by me! – none of these birds that day was feet down. It wasn’t that kind of day.

But it was close enough that that I got it:Goose hunting is slow seduction. It is your racing heart – not your racing hands – that is the attraction. And I think I’d like to feel that again.

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

Extreme Bird Hunting – RAWR!

Drinking espresso in the hunting lodge at 5 a.m., it was really easy to act nonchalant about what we were about to do. Nothing but a little weather, right? I mean, I came 2,000 miles to Markham, Texas, to hunt sandhill cranes! I wasn’t going to let a little chest cold and freezing rain get in the way of that, was I?

Mmm hmmmmmm.

Look, I don’t seek this stuff out. I know “extreme” everything is in vogue right now. It’s the theme of just about every ad you see for hunting gear. But I generally prefer comfort and safety over bragging rights for engaging in the most idiotic behavior in pursuit of feathered quarry.

But I was there. I’d flown in the day before to meet up with my boyfriend Hank in the final stop of his four-month book tour, and Jesse, Hank’s chef friend from Austin. I was finally meeting Susan, a fellow hunting writer I’d been emailing for years. This was it!

Rob, one of our hosts, had laid it all out the night before: Unfortunately, the field we would be hunting had been plowed recently, burying the food that had attracted the sandhill cranes there in the first place. That had reduced the number of cranes hanging out in the area by a good 75 percent.

OK, expectations lowered! What else?

Well, here’s how we hunt them: We go out as far into the field as possible, dig holes in the dirt, then lie in them, covered with burlap and surrounded by crane decoys, and hope that those pterodactyls swing by close enough to shoot.

“Like a grave,” Hank said.

Holy crap, if this was a Stephen King novel, that would be the prescient remark that signaled everything was about to go wrong.

Anything else?

Don’t look at their bodies. Look at their heads. You’re shooting a dove. Hunt’s usually done by 8 – if you haven’t gotten any by then, you probably won’t.

Armed with that advice and triple-wrapped in layers of warmth, we ventured out into the darkness. The first thing I remember is the searing pain of freezing rain hitting our faces as we rode ATVs to the field. I had it easy – I was wearing a balaclava, and I bowed my head and covered my face with my gloved hands. Jesse didn’t have it so good – as the driver of our ATV, he had to suck it up so he could look where he was driving.

Once at our destination, we grabbed everything – guns, gear, shovels, burlap, decoys – and headed out into the dark field. As the one with the chest cold, I was given a light load: a giant heap of burlap. The guys would carry the heavy stuff, and dig the holes when we arrived.

It took no more than five steps in that field for my wader boots to accumulate about 15 pounds of mud, and three more to max out my compromised lungs. I put my head down and staggered on, gasping for air, while the guys’ lights grew more and more dim the farther ahead they got.

The holes were mostly ready when I got there. Not graves, but little depressions for your butt, a backrest formed by the excavated dirt. Great ergonomics. Really muddy, though.

Hesitating at first – this was going to be filthy! – we all got in and covered up.

It was one of those days so gray you might never figure out what moment “daylight” had arrived, but the world around us slowly began to take shape.

And it wasn’t shaped like birds at all. Just black earth and gray, wet sky.

At one point, without warning, half a dozen small fast somethings zipped by right in front of us, just a few feet off the ground.

“Teal,” Rob said.

A while after that, Rob heaved out of his hole and started slapping the decoys, sending showers of ice flying.

Wow. Must be pretty cold! Strangely, though, I was reasonably comfortable. I had layered well, and someone at the lodge had loaned me a muff that I’d stuffed with a chemical handwarmer, which kept the temperature of my hands just north of miserable.

Hank and Jesse got up and smacked decoys too, but I stayed in my cocoon, lest I break the seal of warmth that was protecting me.

They all settled back in and we re-commenced waiting. And waiting.

Later: “What time is it?” someone asked.

I pulled my left hand out of the muff and looked at my watch. “Almost 8.”

Rob gently threw it out there, “Hey, it’s your hunt…”

Hank pounced. “I’m ready to call it. Hol?”


Everyone seemed relieved, and we began picking up our stuff, which very quickly revealed how wet we really were. While I had been in my little cocoon, I couldn’t feel that my gloves had gotten soaked in the rain that morning, but it took seconds for the wind to drive that point home once I got up. My hands became shaking chunks of pain. Head down. One foot after the other.

If this were a photo shoot to advertise hunting gear, this would be that moment – the heroic hunter fighting the elements! Only in those photos, they’ve usually got a dead goose in one hand. And they look heroic, not pathetic, which is, I’m pretty sure, how I looked at that moment. OK, and they’re always guys in those photos, but that’s a separate issue.

The ride back to the lodge was more painful than the ride out, our bodies already sapped of heat. We stripped off muddy waders and jackets on the porch and flew inside the lodge to huddle around heaters and watch television coverage of the ice storm that had pretty much shut down all the major cities in Texas that morning while we’d been out hunting.

Later, someone told us the wind chill had been 0.

And it was all for … nothing. No shots fired. No cranes anywhere near us. Our quarry that day was nothing more than bragging rights. “Yeah, we hunted that storm. It was crazy!” For a brief moment, we were the iconic warrior hunters that the hunting world romanticizes.

And of course, five days later, predictably, my chest cold morphed into a pretty gnarly case of bronchitis.

So here’s the big question: Would I do it again?

I know what the answer should be, but I can’t bring myself to say it. I can’t say I wouldn’t do that again.

I mean, it was totally stupid, given my health, the weather conditions and the knowledge that the majority of cranes had moved onto (literally) greener pastures. And I sure wouldn’t want to hunt in weather like that all the time. I’m not ashamed to say I’m a spoiled Pacific Flyway hunter.

But the pure essence of hunting is heading out into uncertainty and enduring whatever comes your way because you might be rewarded for it. While each of us has our own limits defined by temperature, distance and terrain, anyone who hunts seriously embraces the risk – no, the probability: This might be all for nothing.

So yeah. Maybe I would do it again.

But I think I’d want better gloves.

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

Athena, Warrior Duck Huntress

It’s a little bit weird going to a duck club that is 1) fabulously expensive, 2) a century old and 3) allows women to hunt there, but doesn’t allow us to spend the night. Even in my eighth season of hunting, I still feel a little intimidated when I hunt with a guy I’ve just met, worried that I’ll represent my gender poorly. But walking into a club this exclusive ratchets up my insecurity tenfold. I grew up pretty poor – went my entire senior year in high school without a flush toilet – and when I’m around wealth, I live in constant (and probably justified) fear that I’ll say or do something gauche.

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