The (Unwelcome) Return of Duck Hunting Mediocrity

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One more duck.

That’s what I told myself Sunday afternoon as I crept through a patch of nut grass in the marsh, bent low over the water to minimize my outline, straining to keep an eye on the birds without them seeing me.

Pintails! Just one of them would break me out of this wretched, embarrassing and demoralizing streak of ones and twos that has plagued the first six weeks of my duck season.

Last year, I killed more ducks than I had my first four years of duck hunting combined. The conclusion seemed obvious: I was now officially an awesome duck hunter.

I basked in this knowledge for the next nine months, eagerly awaiting my next season of routinely bagging limits.

This season, however, hasn’t quite turned out that way.

Oh, I didn’t mind getting skunked on the opener. The public land where I usually hunt was closed, so I had to hunt a marginal spot.

But the next weekend? I did my worst shooting in probably three years. Thirty-six shells and just one bird to show for it: a drake spoonie. Wow.

Even this, though, I could rationalize. I’m shooting new ammunition that flies at a substantially different speed than I’m used to, and I was going to have to adjust my lead. All I needed was a few solid kills to correct my mental sight picture.

The next weekend, I hunted at a swank private club, the kind of place where no one ever shoots spoonies because they have so many mallards. The kind of place where they normally get limits by 9:30 a.m.

After missing a teal that sped past our blind, I stoned a wigeon on the first shot, and soon I had stacked up five birds. Whew! Everything was back to normal – I was shooting well again.

Of course, you know where this is going: Between slow days and mediocre (at best) shooting, every hunt since then has been a one- or two-duck day, and that has kept my ego circling the drain.

I am a person whose talents tend toward the creative, such as writing and photography. I am not a natural at anything physical, whether it’s kickball (always the last one chosen for the team in grade school), running (knock-kneed, pigeon-toed and graceless) or shooting. I want to be great, but it’s hard work for me just to be average.

So after having tasted great success last year, I now find myself deeply afraid that I have reverted to my usual labored mediocrity. I don’t like it. I need a good hunt.

I went into this weekend hoping for the best, but of course, Saturday was slow. I hunted all day and killed just two ducks. I didn’t kill them well, either; I just broke their wings, so I had to chase them, one – a spoonie hen – for nearly a quarter mile.

I decided to give it another try on Sunday, despite a forecast for dense fog.

My buddy Charlie and I started by hitting some spots that occasionally hunt well in the fog. Not on this day.

Next we worked a big area where we’d seen some cripples. I came out with two: a spoonie hen and a poor little greenwing teal hen who was so emaciated that you’d be forgiven if you mistook her little carcass for a mourning dove.

We moved next to our regular hunting spot, which was as dead as I felt. “Just one more bird,” I told Charlie. “I just need to break this streak.”

But I didn’t – I missed on the very few occasions birds came close enough for me to shoot at them.

At 1 p.m., I called it.

It was on my way back to the car, a little boat full of gear and decoys in tow, that I spotted those pintails just beyond the nut grass. Here was my chance!

The stalk was excruciating. I moved slowly to avoid excessive ripples on the water. I bent with my torso parallel to the water, my head up as far as I could push it so I could keep an eye on the birds. The coots on the pond sensed my presence and began moving away, but not the ducks.

When I reached the end of the grass, I wasn’t as close as I wanted to be, but I knew I was as close as I was going to get. I stood up. Fired one shot. Watched all the ducks fly away unharmed.


Back home, I shared my lament with my boyfriend, who’d been hunting pheasants that day.

“It’s the November doldrums,” he said. “It’s always like this for you in November.”

Huh? Really?

Bleary-eyed, I checked the spreadsheet where I record all of my duck hunts, and there it was: Last year I got precisely 16 ducks in the first 37 days of my season – the exact same number as this year. Lots of zero-, one- and two-duck days. And it was my best season ever.

I’m still shaking my head at that. And lecturing myself.

Lighten up, Holly. Just hunt.

Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, food photographer and college journalism lecturer. She writes a blog about hunting at shoots food photos for boyfriend Hank Shaw, who writes a blog about wild food at

Last modified on Wednesday, 30 November 2011 20:47
Holly A. Heyser

Holly A. Heyser is a hunter, forager, writer, food photographer and college journalism lecturer. She writes a blog about hunting at shoots food photos for boyfriend Hank Shaw, who writes a blog about wild food at