Counting My Ducks

Last duck season was my best ever: I was a pretty good shot most days, and I got to hunt in some great locations on some great days, so I killed 120 ducks and geese.

Hank swears he killed more than I did. This drives me bonkers. It’s not just because I’m competitive – for sure I am! I just don’t believe it because he doesn’t keep track. He’s just guessing. We’ve had this conversation several times. He likes to get my goat; I like to win.

But each time after the laughter subsides, I have this nagging thought: Shouldn’t I be approaching the phase where the body count isn’t paramount?

I was emailing with a friend about this.

Harry was telling me he drives his hunting buddies crazy because he really doesn’t want to shoot birds unless he can get them right over the decoys. “If you’re hunting with me, you can shoot `em however you want,” he said, “but I want `em over decoys.”

I actually like the idea of challenging myself. But I’m just a wee bit OCD, so I knew right away what would have to happen to make it work. “I’d have to figure out a way to quantify it,” I told him. “I know myself. Something HAS to be measurable.”

So I’ve been thinking about this since then. How can I change my duck hunting spreadsheet − yes, I have one, and it’s AWESOME − to measure something beyond body count?

I already count drakes vs. hens. Without making much effort either way, I generally get a 2-to-1 ratio of drakes to hens, with the inexplicable exception of spoonies, where it’s 50-50. I’m guessing the most avid drakes-only hunter would cheer that.

A couple years ago, I started tracking shotshells per duck on the strap. The rationale was that it would better measure my efficacy, not penalizing me for hunting on slow days. Unfortunately, that was the year I had an incredibly long streak of horrible shooting, and the count was so demoralizing that I had to delete the column to avoid the downward spiral of depression.

If I wanted to rise to the challenge Harry embraces, it would seem obvious to count the number of birds or groups I can get to finish. But where I hunt on public land, it’s way too crowded to get the birds flaps down over the dekes. If no one is taking “my” birds on a swing toward me, then someone is firing a shot nearby, causing all birds in the vicinity to flare. I can count the number of times I’ve had ducks over decoys on public land on two hands, and most of those were lucky accidents.

Besides, even if I hunted in a place where “over decoys” was a realistic goal, most the people I hunt with would not share my goal.

At this point, I can feel your question: Holly, why do you have to count at all?

The answer is it’s just how my brain works. I like counting, I like analyzing numbers, and I’m not afraid to let my inner nerd fly free.

Harry actually solved my problem in that very same conversation, though I didn’t realize it until later. He said this year he would be focusing on making clean kills.

How have I not been counting that already? It is not only my No. 1 goal, but really the core value of my hunting ethics because of the whole do-unto-others thing – if something were hunting me for food, I’d prefer to die quickly.

Last year, it definitely felt like I was stoning more birds than I had before, which creates a great positive feedback loop: Stone birds dead. Feel the satisfaction of a good shot. Realize it was good because the bird was in close range. Continue taking close-range shots. Continue stoning birds dead.

Counting would tell me just how well – or poorly – I’m actually doing.

Of course, I already know this is easier said than done – in the heat of the moment, it’s all too easy to take iffy shots because you really want to get that bird.

But I also know that what we measure is what we strive for – think school testing standards – so counting the ratio of clean kills to imperfect shots will really motivate me to practice my shooting all summer and choose my shots more carefully come fall.

OCD tendencies harnessed for good. Problem solved.

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


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