I had completed hunter education, gotten a license, purchased a shotgun, read the manual cover to cover and taken a shooting lesson. I was brimming with healthy nervousness about gun safety, and completely in the dark about how this experience was going to proceed. Would I know when to stand and when to shoot? Would I hit something? How would I know if it was my shot that brought down a duck, not my boyfriend’s? What would it feel like to kill something? If you hunt, you know this: All of these are questions no amount of prepping can answer. I just had to experience it.
For my first hunt, my boyfriend Hank had made a reservation with our low-cost club for a rice field blind near Sacramento. We got there with time to spare, and I put on my clean new waders, stinking of neoprene that had spent most of its life in a box. Could the ducks smell that? I fumbled with everything, and took too long to get ready. Finally, under starlight, we walked down a dirt road and counted the rice checks that we passed until we came to the one where our blind waited.
I walked down that check, every step feeling strange and new. The earth was soft, the path not terribly beaten yet (it was still early November), the air filled with dampness and the clean scent of rice stalks not yet rotting. The path seemed to go on forever, but eventually Hank informed me we had arrived. He lifted the rusty metal lids of our blind and had me get inside while he decorated our “pond,” then joined me. We poured coffee from a Thermos and began the wait until shoot time.
That was my first indication there was a problem. Coming from the opposite direction we had walked in on the check, we saw a light bobbing toward us.
“I know we have this reservation,” Hank said.
And suddenly I found myself in a situation I immediately recognized as Not Good: Three armed people were about to argue. I didn’t like that feeling at all.
The light finally arrived at our blind, and its bearer informed us he had the reservation for this blind.
“No, we do,” Hank said.
The voice behind the light insisted the club manager had told him this was his blind for the morning, but generously offered to let us hunt with him.
Hank leaned close to speak so only I could hear.
“Do you want to do that?” he whispered.
“No!” I hissed.
On my first hunt? No way! I don’t want a stranger in the blind. What if I do something wrong? Some breach of etiquette, or worse, safety? What if I just made a fool of myself by shooting badly? I definitely did NOT want an audience.
Hank said, “Look, this is my girlfriend’s first hunt – she doesn’t want to hunt with a stranger.”
“Well, this is my blind,” the voice said.
And that’s when I learned the first rule of what to do in an argument in which all parties are armed: Walk away.
It was the correct thing to do, but I was stunned, furious and crushed that my first hunt was over before shoot time. We knew we were right. I couldn’t believe someone could barge his way into our hunt on a bluff, and go through with it even knowing he was going to wreck someone’s first hunt. What a selfish jerk.
Hank and I returned home, made fresh coffee, had breakfast and went to the shooting range so I could at least get in some shooting practice. Hank also called the club manager, who said, “I told Jose you two had the reservation, and that he could have the blind only if you hadn’t shown up there by 30 minutes before shoot time.” That was the club rule.
Randomly, he added that Jose was a cop. Great. A guy our lives could depend on. So honorable.
We found out later that it had been a miserable hunt at that particular rice field that morning – that everyone had been skunked. That was good for a half-hearted “serves him right” that really did nothing to allay the feeling I’d been cheated of an experience that was really important to me. Even if I never raised my gun, I needed to know: What’s it like out there?
A couple weeks later, a couple fields over, I got my first duck ever. But mostly we got skunked there. And at least two more times that year, we encountered squatters in blinds we’d reserved through our club. Between that irritation and the fact that there was better public-land hunting for a fraction of the price, we finally left the club.
Now I find myself working with new hunters every year, mostly women, and I see that expression on their faces – that not knowing – and realize I was not alone in needing that first experience in the field to be good. It didn’t have to be epic. I didn’t have to fire a shot. I just needed to cross that threshold into being a hunter in safety and good company.
What’s my point in telling this story? I have to assume most people reading this have a moral compass, and would heap scorn on anyone who would not only deprive someone of a first hunt, but do it with a lie.
Here’s my point: Jose, if you’re out there reading this, I just want to say I really hope you have a daughter, and I hope you take her on her first hunt, and I hope on that day, you remember what you did on the day of my first hunt, and feel the shame that you deserve. Which is to say, I hope you’ve grown up.
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.