Guerrilla in a Ballroom: a Brief Lesson in Civilized Hunting

As something of a militant public-land duck hunter, it is a point of pride for me that I can do well – sometimes really well – in a section of marsh so crowded with hunters that most people I know refuse to go there.

“Let ‘em work” – are you kidding me? Birds don’t “work” in this place – the second they get into range for any hunter, a volley is unleashed, and if those birds don’t die, they’re outta there, along with every other bird that had been thinking about dropping down for a look-see.

On a recent hunt there, my buddy Charlie and I watched, mouths agape, as three snow geese became enchanted with a chorus of robust voice calling from three tule patches, and made one pass, and another … and … another! … before someone dropped one. Three passes! Pretty sure that’ll be in my mental highlight reel forever.

Lord, when I watch hunting shows where mallards work and work and work before assuming the holy position – cupped and committed! – I think to myself, “Must be nice.” Imagine, a mallard practically motionless 20 yards in front of your face. How could you miss?

Then I go back to my guerrilla-style hunting, bring home ducks, and realize life’s not so bad.

Of course, the problem with this is, much like a girl who’s been waging guerrilla war in the jungle, if you stick me in a ballroom, I’m not gonna know how to act.

This has been on my mind a lot lately because I have an invitation to a really nice club later this month, a club so storied and venerable that I’m not allowed to spend the night there because I lack a “y” chromosome, the kind of place where, I’ve been informed, they “mostly shoot over the decoys.”

So how does that work?

I got a preview last weekend on public land. Not my usual spot, but another place my friend Jake hunts. We had to hustle to stake our claim, and after the decoys were all set up, I asked the question I should’ve asked long before: “So, do they come in really close here? I’m shooting a modified choke. Do you think I should change it?”

Jake was non-committal, which I interpreted to mean, “They might. Or they might not.”

I left the modified choke in.

The flight before shoot time was amazing, with lots of cheeping teal, meeping gadwall and whistling pintail and wigeon zipping around us. But I knew that didn’t mean anything – by this point in the season, I knew it was likely to turn off like a light after the first shots were fired.

When shoot time came, Jake and I were not the first to shoot, but we didn’t have to wait long.

It’s all kinda fuzzy how it went down, but I was looking at Jake across the tule patch when his eyes widened and he said something like “On your right!” No mistaking the urgency there.

I spun around in time to see four (I think) ducks landing no more than eight yards in front of me, coming in from the right. The light was dim, but I could see a hen about two feet off the water, and a drake about four feet off and others I couldn’t afford to even look at because I had already acquired my targets.

“Holy shit!” my inner guerrilla shouted (in the ballroom). I don’t think I actually screamed, but I might as well have, because I felt like I did the first time a pheasant exploded at my feet. OK, the first 20 times.

Oh, had I only adopted a pheasant-hunting mentality.

I shouldered my gun and took aim at the hen (Hen Police, don’t freak out – I’d already determined they were all spoonies).

Bam! She dropped.

In a moment of rare greed, I swung on the drake, who was now about eight feet in the air, still around the same distance out.

Bam! I missed. He was practically frozen in the air in front of me, and I missed.

I can’t remember what happened next. I either shot again, or I turned my attention to the bird on the water. Jake said something later about me emptying my gun. Did I do that?

Regardless, my hen was swimming away quite vigorously. Jake’s black Lab Lucy was already in the water so it wasn’t safe to shoot again, but I followed her out. Lucy came within nipping distance and the hen flapped quite vigorously on the water, quickly putting a lot of distance between them. Clearly I hadn’t hurt her too badly.

I shot at her again, and watched my pattern hit the water two feet behind her. Regained composure, shot again, put the pattern right on her. But she was still swimming.

Fortunately, she was in thick grass, and it wasn’t hard to get to her and finish her with a quick twirl.

Wow. Four shots. Maybe five. Man, I’d be a crappy witness.

Jake and I replayed that scene a few times, and I had to laugh at myself. Those ducks were so close that my pattern was probably at best the size of a baseball. I had so much time, but I panicked like they were rabbits, bodies halfway into the briar. When I dressed the spoonie, it was clear that my first shot had just hit her wingtips – it was a miracle she stayed down.

For the rest of the morning, I fervently wished another group would come in like that so I could do it right. But the “replay” button in hunting is notoriously sticky – I know it’ll be years before I see that sight again. We got a few shots after that and left with better straps than most that day, but nothing came in again like those spoonies.

I guess that was my jungle-floor lesson in ballroom dancing. I should probably count myself lucky.

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

What Duck Season is All About: a Post-Dinner Grace

Lord, I’d like to thank you for the meal I just ate. 

Thank you for blessing me with an incredibly fat little greenwing teal for my first duck of the season – it makes for a much better “grace” than the coot I accidentally got for the second bird of the season.

Thank you for inspiring my boyfriend to run off on book tour with both boning knives, forcing me to buy a really nice one that I used to debone that teal, giving me every bit of fat and skin that little guy had to offer.

Thank you for the perfect sear that I managed to achieve without filling the entire house with duck-fat smoke. The cats really appreciate it when the smoke alarm doesn’t go off.

Thank you for inspiring me to pop some spinach into the fat remaining in that pan while my duck halves rested on the cutting board under a foil tent, and for reminding me to get feta cheese at the store on the way home from work – it was really, really good on the sauteed spinach. I will forgive you for not delivering ripe lemons yet – the splash of vinegar was a good enough hit of acidity to do the trick.

Thank you for a meal so perfectly delicious that the neighbors probably thought I was doing something nasty at the kitchen table, what with all the moaning and incomprehensible utterances coming out of my mouth. I was really just eating. And what more perfect sacrament could there be to mark the start of duck season?

In your name I pray for all of the people who’ve not yet had the good fortune of eating a greenwing teal. May you bless them with the drive, the means and the utter lack of common sense to become duck hunters. I don’t need the competition, Lord, but as you well know, ducks could use the extra habitat that all those hunters would pay for. And it never hurts to have another friend putting in for reservations at the refuge.

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

Dove Hunting: The Harder You Work, the Luckier You Get

Here are two things you don’t often see in the same sentence outside of Argentina: “dove hunting” and “adventure.”

Nintey-nine percent of my dove hunting until this year had been decidedly non-adventurous, because mostly what I’ve done is drive to a farm, park my car, set up at the edge of a field where they’ve just harvested something doves love to eat, then wait for the birds.

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On Being a Bird Hunter: Killing That Which You Love, Admiring That Which You Kill

Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to be a bird.

Funny thought, I know, coming from someone who spends a lot of time shooting birds, picking up their (ideally) limp bodies, disemboweling them and ultimately eating them, seemingly without a shred of remorse as their fat – blessed natural fat – drips down her chin. From where I sit, being a bird shouldn’t seem enviable, right?

But it is.

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Psychological training and Holy ****! miracles

Bang! Miss.

Bang! Miss.

Bang! Miss.

It actually went on much longer than that, but you get the idea: I was shooting badly. Very badly.

And to make things infinitely worse, I was shooting sporting clays with four of my new co-workers from the California Waterfowl Association at its annual Staff Day event. Yeah, it’s a duck hunting organization. OK, conservation too, but for the purposes of this discussion, I need to highlight that I was shooting badly — cringe! a girl shooting badly — among fellow hunters. Guy hunters.

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Judgment Day: A Duck Hunter Among Bird Watchers

So I went on this tour with a bunch of bird watchers the other day. I’m not becoming a bird watcher (at least not in the non-consumptive sense); I just had a chance to get a guided tour of an area I hunt a lot, and I was hoping to learn more about it and maybe even pick up some intelligence I could use this winter.

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When There’s Good Reason to Take a Shotgun to Your Doctor’s Office. At Least Part of One.

My doctor and I had been talking for a few minutes when I decided it was time to pop the question.

“Do you know anything about shotguns?”

He shook his head no. I evaluated him for a second when he said that. He was young and fresh-faced, and I saw no glimmer of recognition in his eyes – no clue why a patient would bring that up in a discussion about that unpleasant little blob on her MRI.

“Well, this is important. I brought a shotgun stock with me – just the plastic – nothing that shoots – no ammunition. It’s in my backpack. Can I take it out and show it to you so can see how I use it?”

“Sure,” he said. No fear showed on his face – and this just two days after the Boston Marathon bombings had put everyone on edge about what deranged people can do. Good. This was going well.

I pulled my black synthetic Beretta 3901 stock out of the backpack, gave him the spiel about how your dominant eye is the rear sight in shotgun shooting, then showed him how my face is supposed to rest on the comb – head forward and jutting to the left.

“Is this bad?”

It was one of the most important questions I would ask that day.

“Hmm,” he said, checking me out from a few angles. “It might be, if you stay in that position for a long time.”

“Well, you’re not supposed to. It’s more like this,” I said, walking him through the steps of see duck, wait for duck to get close, stand and shoulder gun, swing, bang, bang. OK, I said three bangs and omitted the swearing.

“Could this have caused the problem?”

He shrugged.

“This is an important part of my life. This is how we put meat on our table.”

And that’s as far as I’ve gotten on the question, and it’s only because it’s spring that I’m not panicking.

I’ve had a bad neck since I made the poor decision in 1986 to try to bike across a road with some really fast oncoming traffic and didn’t quite make it to the other side. The biggest impact (since my body slammed onto the asphalt) has been a lifetime of headaches rooted in the vertebrae at the top of my neck, but another problem has been brewing a little bit lower for the past couple years. And in the past few months, it started getting bad – especially when I spent prolonged periods looking to the left or looking down.

An MRI revealed the problem: a herniated disc in my neck, on the left side, between C6 and C7. Mercifully it’s nothing warranting surgery, but I’m now busily working with a physical therapist on things I can do to minimize pain, and can’t do if I want to avoid pain and further damage. And I don’t know yet where my bird hunting fits into that.

Have I mentioned bird hunting is my life?

I haven’t gone shooting since the end of duck season, and I’m a bit afraid to even think about it right now because we’re trying to promote some healing in the disc before I go putting it through normal paces. But I’m thinking about it a lot, and wondering what I’ll have to do to make sure I can keep doing what I love.

Maybe a super duper amazing custom stock so I don’t have to do all that scrunching?

All I know for now is this: Down and left hurt. Down and left are where my head has to go for me to shoot my shotgun.


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

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