But who am I to turn down an invitation to a club in California’s legendary Butte Sink? This little region at the foot of the volcanic Sutter Buttes has the best duck hunting in the state.
I didn’t see a soul when I pulled up at 5 a.m., right on time. The clubhouse, with two wings of sleeping quarters, was entirely on flood-friendly stilts, with parking and kennels on the ground. There were at least three staircases. Which one should I take? The last thing I wanted to do was walk into some guy-only area and start my morning with a faux pas (like I did with the infamous tighty whitie incident back in 2008, which resulted in an informal ban on women guests at that club for a while).
I pulled out my cell phone and dialed up my host, George, a retired vascular surgeon I hadn’t met yet. He didn’t pick up, but as I was hanging up, one of the members appeared and escorted me up the correct staircase to the common area, where a fire was blazing and the men were emerging from their rooms as breakfast was being cooked.
They were all quite welcoming, all friendly and relaxed. This was pretty much the opposite of my normal pre-hunt ritual on public land, where clusters of hunters already in their waders size each other up while we’re waiting in a cold, dimly lit gravel corral for our number to be called, each of us hoping we can beat the competition to our favored spot.
And I’d get breakfast too? Wow.
I heaped bacon, eggs and hash browns on my plate.
George dished up some oatmeal. “I want to live forever,” he explained.
George and I were the first to leave the communal table, both eager to get set up. We boated out to the blind he’d chosen for the day, his dog Dowser keeping me warm in the frosty darkness as we motored down willow-lined canals. When we stopped, I could see we were someplace special, even in the dark. This wasn’t the vast, spoonie-friendly open water I was used to hunting; this looked like a cozy mallard and wood duck hole, beautiful habitat that showed its age – in a good way.
When George had finished setting out the decoys, he steered the boat into its hiding place, and we climbed up into the two-man blind, well concealed by brush. It felt like a private little fort.
When shoot time came, it was clear this wasn’t going to be a lights-out day, but the action was plenty good for me. The blind was positioned adjacent to a honey hole that appeared to be sucking in every woody and mallard in the region, and occasionally, the birds would swing close enough on their way into or out of that hole for us to take a shot.
I dropped the first duck of the day – a greenhead – on one shot. George got the next bird, and I got the next (both woodies), and so it went. But here’s the thing: I was an amazing shot that day. I was dropping almost everything I shot at, and most of them with just one shot. When I finally missed a bird, George seemed relieved that I was actually human.
“Oh, don’t be fooled – I’m not normally this good,” I told him. The week before, it had taken me a box and a half of shells to get my limit of seven ducks. But he wasn’t convinced. And miraculously, despite having spoken out loud about it, I continued shooting well.
My fifth bird was a drake wigeon. My shot hit him hard – I could see him shudder – but his wings locked and he sailed across our pond. This was the kind of bird that could go a long way before dropping dead, but I couldn’t take another shot without shooting over George’s head. Without hesitation, he picked up where I left off and dropped the bird in some tules just outside of our little hole.
Dowser shot down the ramp from the blind, but she hadn’t gotten a good mark on the bird, so I offered to get out of the blind and lead her in the right direction.
“Sure!” he said. As I climbed out, he said, “Just be careful – right beyond that tree there’s a ditch.”
I went out with my eyes locked on the spot, hoping I’d see the bird floating there as I went around the tree so it would be an easy retrieve. Nope, no bird…
Aaaaah! I fell back as my left foot found the submerged ditch. Oh, how quickly I forgot about that ditch.
Backward is not good. In what felt like slow motion, I lurched forward as hard as I could, dipping my gun stock in the water. This motion stopped the fall, but not without tilting far enough to my right for the top of my chest waders to dip into the water.
The water slipped in gently at first, like the hand of a man who knows what he’s doing, and knows he’s welcome to do it. I gasped as cold water encircled my bra.
I lurched again, which served only to invite another rush of water, nothing gentle or welcome about it. Much more like a teenager crashing into third base. My shirt was soaked.
Then as I found my balance and stood up, my shell belt shifted, breaking the seal. All that water around my torso rushed down in a big whoosh. It was like … oh, hell, I’ll let you figure out for yourself where that simile is going.
Back upright, I pointed Dowser in the right direction, and before long she emerged from the tules with that wigeon in her mouth. What a relief! It would’ve sucked if I’d gone through all of that and not even gotten the duck.
I climbed back up into the blind and George and I immediately started laughing. “We should go in so you can change and warm up,” he said.
“No!” I said. This was the best I’d ever shot and I’d be damned if I was going to stop now. I had only five ducks!
“I’m fine,” I told him. “I’m wearing Smartwool, and it stays warm when it’s wet.” I was actually surprisingly comfortable, due at least in part to the fact that everything above the top of my waders was dry, and the sun was shining.
“I sure wish I had video of that!” George said, endearing him to me forever. I wish he’d had video too – it must’ve been hilarious. He poured me a cup of tea from his Thermos and I clutched it gratefully with both hands.
We hunted for maybe another 90 minutes. I quickly got one more bird, but it slowed way down after that. The next group of woodies that came through should’ve been a gimme shot, but I was starting to get cold and I missed cleanly. I really, really wanted to get a seventh bird, but with the flight slowing down and my joints getting chilled and creaky, it seemed wiser to call it, so we went in.
This is the part where it came in really handy to be at such a nice club: George sent me in for a hot shower, and he loaned me socks, a fleece shirt and a jacket to wear while my own base layers took a spin in the club’s dryer.
While I showered, George told all the returning hunters the story: I’d killed six ducks with nine shells, I’d continued hunting even after swamping my waders and I was a good caller to boot. By the time I emerged from his bathroom warm and dry, I had a reputation. A good one! I felt like Athena.
I doubt my insecurity will ever leave me for good, but it couldn’t have picked a better time to take a day off. That’s good enough for me.
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.