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?
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.
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 hollyheyser.com.