When you hunt strange birds in a foreign country, there’s this inescapable regret that accompanies your departure: As you pack your shotgun, you wish you would’ve tried to hunt that one beguiling bird just one more time. At the airport, you search for overpriced souvenirs with the bird’s likeness. And before you even land at LAX, you’re no longer confident you can remember what the bird sounded like, much less imitate it for the friends eagerly awaiting your tales.
The boyfriend and I just got back from one of those hunting trips of a lifetime: We spent 11 days in New Zealand on an exchange program hunting lovely paradise shelducks, a beautiful shrieking rail called a pukeko, and alarmingly large black swans.
“You’re gonna hate this part,” I warned Ninja.
My 19-year-old co-worker – nicknamed for her ability to get anything done efficiently and well – immediately began to cringe and squeal, which was exactly what I wanted.
It had been a very good duck hunt. Clear, bright December day. Sky swept clean by a raging north wind. And at this particular spot in a small marsh surrounded by grazing cattle, we were where the birds wanted to be.
The first weekend in January is one of my favorite here, because that’s when my organization, California Waterfowl, does one of the coolest things ever: We take a group of college wildlife biology students from non-hunting backgrounds, teach them to shoot, put them through hunter education, then take them on a hunt. All in one weekend.
Oh, no. It was happening again.
When I first started getting the hang of duck hunting, it never failed: If Hank was having a good day of shooting, I would be shooting atrociously. And if I was having a good day, he couldn’t hit a damn thing.
This is my ninth season of duck hunting, and while the number of women duck hunters here in the Sacramento Valley has grown a lot since I got started, I’ve realized this season that we, as a class of hunters, have some work to do.
Two epiphanies have driven this train of thought.
The first was in October, when I went on a women’s hunt at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, up on the high-desert border between California and Oregon. I hunted that day with three women and a kid, all of whom I’d just met.
Two of the women were experienced waterfowlers, but I was the only one blowing duck calls. One was comfortable only with a honker call. The other – Megan, whom I count today as a dear new friend – gave up on calling years ago in the face of her brother’s ridicule.
For some reason, this day crystallized eight years of personal observation: Most women duck hunters I’ve encountered don’t call at all, use only whistles, or call only when no one else is around. Often, those women tend to disparage their own calling skills.
Obviously, there are exceptions, but there was no denying the cumulative weight of the anecdotes: Whether we’ve been picked on or are just scared to blow a bad note (which doesn’t seem to stop some incredibly bad male callers I’ve heard), we tend to leave the calling to others.
This epiphany had some very cool ripple effects, which I’ll come back to after Epiphany No. 2:
In November, I traveled 12 hours with a female coworker to hunt mallards over flooded corn in Eastern Washington – the subject of last month’s Butt, Belly, Beak, Bang. Before I left, my boyfriend Hank had been on a hunting/cooking trip to Texas, and at some point he was telling the guys there that I was going on an out-of-state duck hunt without him the following week.
One guy’s glowing reaction: “I want one!”
I’ve heard that plenty. While some troglodytes still exist in duck hunting, most men I’ve met would love it if their wives and girlfriends were into duck hunting as much as they were. Or at all.
But that wasn’t what this guy meant. Hank explained they were all blown away that I would go on a hunt that far away without him.
I’m pretty sure I cocked my head and furrowed my eyebrows at Hank when he said this, much the way our cat Harlequin looks at us when we’re eating something yummy and she can’t figure out why we aren’t sharing.
You see, in this case, this experience did NOT square with eight years of personal observation. My circle of duck hunting friends and acquaintances here in Northern California includes a bunch of women who frequently hunt without their significant others, in several cases because their significant others don’t hunt.
I chewed on that story all the way up to Washington, and the night after our first hunt, I told my hunting partner, Regina, about it. She had the same reaction I did, so we decided to test the women-don’t-hunt-without-their-men hypothesis on our guide, Mike Franklin, the next morning.
During a rare lull in the shooting – maybe a full minute or even two without ducks working – I turned to Mike. “I’ve got a two-part question for you, Mike.”
“OK?” he said slowly, maybe just a bit taken aback by the formality.
“One, how often do women hunt with you up here, and two, how often do they come up here without their boyfriends or husbands?”
He answered quickly. “Rarely, and never.”
We were blown away. Regina and I were his first unaccompanied female hunters! And he’s not a newbie – he’s been guiding for decades.
Is my circle of intrepid gal-pal duck hunters in NorCal that unusual?
I’ve met enough women duck hunters around this country to know we are not unique. But we might still be on the rare side, and I’m uneasy with that. It’s not that I think women should hunt ducks exactly the way men do; I think I’m just really bothered by the timidity implicit in all of this. It’s 2015. We should be way beyond timid by now.
It reminds me of something my friend Dana asked me on my very first hunt with her, in my second season of duck hunting. We were clinging to hot cups of tea and coffee while we waited for shoot time, sitting in a blind along a river. This was our get-to-know-each-other hunt, and Dana had already established that I was more than a bit bonkers about duck hunting.
“OK, here’s a question,” she said. “If you lost Hank for some reason – God forbid! – would you still hunt?”
I didn’t hesitate.
“Oh yeah. And if he left me, there’d be a fight over the decoys.” It was the answer Dana was looking for.
I may be asking a similar question of other women duck hunters down the road. Would you go on a big duck hunting trip without your husband? Even if the real answer is no, I hope something stops them from saying it long enough to at least consider the possibilities.
Now, I promised to tell you about the ripple effects of Epiphany No. 1.
I left that hunt in October thinking hard about my own calling, how I’d never considered my calling good enough to invest in a quality mallard call. Yep, I’m insecure too. So I ordered a good call that several of my (male) hunting friends liked: the Zink Green Machine.
Then I bundled up a bunch of my starter calls and shipped them up to Megan, and ordered her a copy of Zink’s “Mallards Gone Wild” CD, which has lengthy recordings of mallards that you can “sing along” with. That CD was what had finally given me the courage to blow a mallard call a couple years ago in the first place.
When I told Megan the package was on its way, she gave her old call – the one she’d given up on – to the kid who’d gone with us on the women’s hunt back in October.
Around the same time, I told a board member of the non-profit I work for about the whole series of events, and how excited I was to be taking my calling more seriously. Craig has been a calling contest and call-makers contest judge, so I figured he would understand this was an important moment for me.
Apparently he did. A few days later, I received a package from him: He was giving me one of his custom JJ Lares calls, along with extra reeds that would increase the difficulty of using the call, but also the quality.
I recognized immediately it was a very generous gift, and the wide eyes of everyone else who’s seen that call on my lanyard since then confirms it.
There’s a message here: Nothing about our state as female duck hunters is permanent. Everything can change.
Sometimes all it takes is someone telling you, “Hell yes, you can do this. Now get going!”
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 hollyheyser.com
My boyfriend was skeptical.
I was about to go on a hunt where I was told to expect to shoot nothing but greenheads flaps down over decoys.
“They always say that,” Hank said, “but it’s rarely the case.”
“I don’t know,” I responded. “I’ve seen video from these hunts. It looks pretty good.”
And our guide, Mike Franklin at Pacific Wings Prairie Outfitters, had juiced my anticipation with his description of carefully managed flooded corn ponds with aerators to keep the water from freezing.
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.
September had all the makings of an epic dove season in Northern California. The state was filthy with doves, our daily limit had been boosted from 10 to 15 and I was shooting really well, thanks to spending way too much money on skeet and sporting clays this summer.
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 hollyheyser.com.
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!