This year, though, the season started badly in our spot. The ducks weren’t there. Something had changed, and it looked like the area might be a dead zone for the whole season. Suddenly there was a giant hole in our routine. How would I get any ducks this year?
That’s how I found myself driving down an unfamiliar, muddy, potholed road in a rainstorm at 4:30 a.m. the day before Thanksgiving, unsure of what was ahead, staring anxiously in my rear-view mirror at the looming headlights of a hunter who knew where he was going, and clearly wanted to get there faster than I was driving.
My mission: to explore the vast “free-roam” portion of another state-run wildlife area. Getting blinds – ponds that you have all to yourself – is hard. If you can get into free-roam, though, you have the latitude to go where you want, and move if it doesn’t work out.
My strategy would be to find a spot to settle in before shoot time (I’d scoped them out ahead of time using satellite images), and when daylight came, watch where birds were working and head that way.
Once I got to the parking lot I’d picked out on the map, I was slow and fumble-fingered. Normally I toss my gear into a plastic decoy boat, drop it in the water and slosh out to my spot. Super fast. When I bring along friends, they struggle to keep up with me, being unfamiliar with the routine and unaware that it really is a race to get the best spots.
Now I was that person. Several hunters got out ahead of me. “Holly,” I told myself, “you don’t know where you’re going anyway, so don’t sweat it.”
I walked down a dark road, tracking the lights ahead of me. When they stopped bobbing and began sweeping the area like a lighthouse beacon, I know they’d found their spots. They were signaling to anyone nearby: Back off, Jack. This is my place.
I was trudging slowly. While I was carrying less gear than usual to make it easy to switch locations, I wasn’t accustomed to carrying anything on my back. I kept switching my gun from one hand to another, trying to ease the strain on my shoulders, succeeding for only seconds at a time.
After forever had passed, I came to a crossroad. I pulled out the map and tried to figure out where I was. I had no idea. But I decided to turn right. I could see the dim outline of little islands in the water on my left, and when I felt like I was far enough from all the other beacons, I headed into the water.
The island I’d chosen was not what I expected; there were no cattails or tules, just dead stalks of grass ranging from knee- to thigh-high. Thank God I’d brought a ghillie jacket – I was going to need it.
I threw out the few decoys I’d brought, set up a Windwhacker then settled onto the island. It wouldn’t work sitting on a chair – the cover wasn’t high enough – so I sat on the ground, legs splayed, and listened to the patter of rain on the back of my hood. Perfect contentment washed over me. I was dressed for the weather. I was alone. And soon I would be hunting.
Shoot time came and went without a single shot anywhere around me. It was dark, windy and wet, and birds just weren’t flying. I could see rafts of birds on the water around me, but it was so dark I wasn’t sure if they were coots, which I will hunt occasionally, or ruddy ducks, which can actually taste pretty good.
Finally, a duck whizzed by overhead. I caught the sight too late, and fired just one shot as it sped away. For some reason, the immaculate shooting I visualize before shoot time never materializes when it’s time for the real thing. Oh well.
Later I spotted two gadwalls in front of me, 30 yards up and 30 yards out, fighting the wind mightily and not getting very far. They didn’t see me! When they finally got a little closer, I lifted my gun and fired. Fired again. Fired one last time.
For some reason, if the wind is bad enough that a duck appears to be holding still in the sky, I cannot hit it. That I expect, but this miss was doubly disappointing because I just wasn’t hearing much shooting around me. It was a rare opportunity on a slow day, and I had squandered it.
I sat there for a couple more hours and watched as other dejected hunters pulled out. This was my time to get up and walk around scouting for better spots. Unfortunately, my scouting plan relied on my ability to see where ducks were going if they weren’t coming to me, and the ducks just weren’t going anywhere that I could see.
Well, at the very least I can scout terrain, I told myself, so I went on a walkabout with my gun and my map. Not surprisingly, I quickly determined that I hadn’t gone as far as I’d thought – I hadn’t hit the spot I’d hoped to go to. When I reached that place, I could see it was much better than where I’d been – a waterscape dotted by patches of cattails and tules, much like the place I’ve been hunting for years.
But there were no ducks, so I went back to my island to pack my stuff and drive around a little more.
On the way back, four ducks came out of nowhere and arced around me, little speeding bullets. Ruddies! I shot. Dropped one. And when I went to pick it up, the ruddy turned into a bufflehead. Oopsie. Not good eats. But I was grateful not to have been skunked.
The sun was out now. Back at the parking lot, another hunter was coming in, brimming with hope and optimism untempered by the piss-poor reality of the day’s flight. I told him what I’d seen, scratched his dog’s ears and headed out to another parking lot.
I was stunned at what I saw there: fields of grass, no water. Not very ducky! I decided to explore anyway. Like Columbus, I was hoping to find an alternative route to what I thought would be a good spot. Halfway there, I noticed patches of white in the grass under my feet.
I picked one and turned it over, and hot damn, there were pinkish gills. Pinks! Agaricus campestris. Good eats!
I picked a few and turned my shirt into a little basket to carry them carefully. Until this point I’d been looking up, eternally hoping to see ducks, but now I was looking down and I could see these mushrooms were everywhere.
I’d hit the jackpot. Not the one I’d hoped to hit, but a jackpot nonetheless. The weight and volume of the mushrooms I was picking would far exceed that of the lone tiny duck I had bagged.
I felt just as elated as I would on one of the few truly amazing days of duck hunting I’ve had, when there are so many ducks flying that you can afford to be choosy. There is just something exhilarating about working your butt off for almost nothing and suddenly finding yourself in unimaginable abundance. I was euphoric.
I stuffed as many pinks as I could into my shirt and went back to my car. Pheasant hunters were coming in now. Duh! Grassy fields. Of course.
They looked at me like I was crazy, picking all those wild mushrooms. Several people in an old folk’s home in our area had died recently when one of the employees prepared a wild mushroom feast with the wrong kind of mushrooms. But I knew what I had.
Most people I know think duck hunters are crazy for doing what we do, too – getting up ridiculously early and braving horrid weather to bring home a few sodden birds. But when you know what the land is capable of offering, it’s worth it, even if you aren’t successful every time. I’ll take success whenever, wherever and however I can get it.
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 hollyheyser.com.
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