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Ann Kercheville

Ann Kercheville

Ann Kercheville is President of Joshua Creek Ranch. Located in the renowned Texas Hill Country just 45 minutes northwest of San Antonio and 90 minutes southwest of Austin, Joshua Creek Ranch occupies a uniquely diverse terrain including miles of Joshua Creek and Guadalupe River bottomland planted in fields of grain crops for prime upland and deer hunting habitats. You can visit their web site at http://www.joshuacreek.com.

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Ken Hartshorn

Ken Hartshorn

Ken is a technical writer and has spent the majority of his career documenting storage hardware and software products for start-up companies. Although start-ups demand long hours, he always finds time to get to the club and break some clays. Ken is not a shooting instructor and he is not a professional shooter. He’s part of the majority of people who love to shoot clays just for the sheer fun of it.

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Lars Jacob

Lars Jacob

Unless Lars Jacob is running dogs, wetting a fly line or turkey hunting, everything he does revolves around shotgunning. Jacob has been teaching the finer art of wingshooting for over 30 years. He has run programs and gun rooms for the Dutch River Club, Covey & Nye and Orvis Company to name a few. Jacob is the founder and CEO of Lars Jacob Wingshooting, LLC and LJW Roving Syndicate. In addition to instruction, Jacob is recognized as one of the country’s finest gun fitters and recently worked with Perazzi’s Al Kondak to develop the Perazzi Ladies Sporter. He has a soft spot for side-by-sides and has introduced thousands of shooters to the nuances associated with shooting such shotguns. For more information visit www.larsjacobwingshooting.com.

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Ducks are fast. On the rare occasions that they’re slow, I can’t hit them to save my life. How do you lead a bird on a crossing shot when he’s at one-quarter speed?

Four blind mates and I answered this question in Texas earlier this year with a resounding “I don’t know.” A bull sprig attempted suicide by floating behind our blind at close range like dandelion fuzz in a light breeze, only to escape unharmed after we all emptied our guns.

To me, ducks’ speed is an enormous part of their charm. The action is fast. Success is a bright burst of light. Failure can be so absurd that all you can do is laugh.

This is part of why I don’t gravitate toward goose hunting – geese coming in have all the charm of zeppelins, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t go out of my way to shoot zeppelins.

Admittedly, another reason I don’t love goose hunting is probably that the vast majority of my goose hunts have absolutely sucked. As in “no geese were harmed in the writing of this column.”

I’ve seen photos of good goose hunts. I’m not talking about the pictures of hunters bolted to the ground by six specklebellies in one hand and four snows in the other (that’s a perfect goose hunt in California). I’m talking about those images of 30 geese descending on a thicket of layout blinds, half a dozen with feet about to touch the ground, the rest so committed that you know they are SCREWED, no matter how much the guys in those blinds shoot like I do. A sight picture like that in real life might be sufficient to sway me.

I have not seen it yet. But I came close enough last month that I might be starting to get it.

It was the last day of the spring goose season in our region of California, and we went out with our favorite guide, R.J. Waldron, whose repartee flies the speed of buffleheads and just as far under the radar if you don’t keep up. The past couple days had been windless and lackluster, and on this warmish morning, the wind was flirting with us just enough to arouse irrational hope.

The first specklebellies that flew by stoked that hope. We held stock still in our Tyvek suits, white clown paint on our faces, as the birds sloooooowly circled into, and out of, our vision. When they were just far enough behind us to be out of sight, that curlicue squeal seemed so loud and so close that R.J.’s call would just have to come. My heart thudded as I mentally rehearsed how I’d grab my gun and SLAY one of those birds so decisively that the whole line of hunters would cheer.

Then that sound drifted farther away and I remembered why I hate goose hunting. “Are they gone?” I whispered to my boyfriend, who seemed to be better positioned to see them.

“Yeah.”

Then, inexplicably, a lone speck came floating in right in front of us. Coming, coming, coming. Floating. Dropping. Hearts pounding – all of them had to be. Still coming.

This is when the bird is supposed to break away to perpetuate my disappointment. But he kept coming.

“Kill him!” R.J. barked. By the time I got my bead on him, he was already falling. Not my shot, but wow, so THAT’s what it looks like and feels like when a goose is coming in. I liked it.

And that’s how the morning went, with small groups of specks and snows drifting in, sometimes playing the circling game, sometimes just slipping gently in front of us, almost always losing at least one or two comrades in the volley. One time all four hit the ground.

I fired only 13 shots that morning, and I could probably claim four or five birds (soooo hard to tell when you’re gang shooting). That’s a pretty solid hunt.

With one lone-bird exception in which some decoys were seriously harmed – not by me! – none of these birds that day was feet down. It wasn’t that kind of day.

But it was close enough that that I got it:Goose hunting is slow seduction. It is your racing heart – not your racing hands – that is the attraction. And I think I’d like to feel that again.

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.

January through March are the very busiest months we have each year at Joshua Creek Ranch. By then many open hunting seasons have ended around the country and the weather is far too savage in certain areas for shooters to enjoy an outdoor adventure. So for those shotgunning enthusiasts who want to continue wingshooting during inviting weather conditions, Joshua Creek Ranch is a popular winter destination. In years past, we’ve focused entirely on our hunting guests during these months -- never dividing our attention to include the hosting of significant sporting clays events during this peak of our hunting season.

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?

Mmm hmmmmmm.

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.

Anything else?

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?”

“Yes!”

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.

It’s a little bit weird going to a duck club that is 1) fabulously expensive, 2) a century old and 3) allows women to hunt there, but doesn’t allow us to spend the night. Even in my eighth season of hunting, I still feel a little intimidated when I hunt with a guy I’ve just met, worried that I’ll represent my gender poorly. But walking into a club this exclusive ratchets up my insecurity tenfold. I grew up pretty poor – went my entire senior year in high school without a flush toilet – and when I’m around wealth, I live in constant (and probably justified) fear that I’ll say or do something gauche.

Realistically we have only two seasons here in this Texas Hill Country. The autumn/winter seasons sort of run together with mostly mild days, intermittent cold nights and lots of sunshine for six to eight months. Then spring comes and all too soon yields to four months of warm (sometimes VERY warm) summer weather, marked by long, sunny, and mostly dry days. As for Joshua Creek Ranch, we have just two seasons as well. They happen to coincide with the autumn/winter and summer seasons. We refer to our seasons here as “hunting” and “farming/construction.”

It’s no great intellectual leap to figure out which time of year is my favorite. Obviously it’s the autumn/winter/hunting season when the torturous temperatures of the Texas summer fade away to brisk mornings in the 40s, and delightfully sunny afternoons in the 60s. It’s paradise, and tends to stay that way for six to eight months.

Not only does it feel like paradise, it looks like paradise. Historically rainy September gives a last burst of growth to the parched yet resilient pasture grasses that endured the hot summer. The upland bird hunting habitat gets better by the day until the first frost that typically comes by Thanksgiving. From then through the rest of the hunting season tufted tops of long golden grasses wave in the afternoon breeze, sheltering quail, pheasant and partridge till their scent is detected by the expert pointing dogs at the Joshua Creek Ranch.

There’s a sound of paradise, too. It’s the “buzz” of the bird hunting business that resumes at Joshua Creek Ranch each October through March. The phone is ringing with requests for reservations, guests are arriving, shotgun blasts are heard in the distance, aroma of the fire pits fills the evening air, porch lights are flickering at all the lodges, and the dining room beckons the hunters with delectable presentations of quail, pheasant, and venison. What fun. It’s like a giant household with company coming and going all the time.

RickterryThe new CEO of Joshua Creek Ranch, Rick Terry.

This particular autumn/winter hunting season of 2013-14, I’ve got still another reason for calling these my favorite months of the year. A new chapter opened for Joshua Creek Ranch in November with the hiring of a Rick Terry as CEO to join our team of dedicated individuals. Rick’s primary objective: enabling Joshua Creek Ranch to raise its services to an even higher level of excellence. And there’s a secondary objective I’m equally excited about: enabling ME to focus on some things beyond Joshua Creek Ranch, like grandchildren, travel adventures with my husband, Joe, and taking time to enjoy this Ranch in addition to working at it.

I won’t deny that it’s hard taking a step back from this business that’s largely consumed me for 25 years. And I probably couldn’t do it except for the encouragement of Joe and my confidence in the professional management and marketing expertise of Rick. But I’ll still have a role and it’s one that really lights a fire in me.

  You know the CEO’s primary objective I mentioned, the one about “raising the Joshua Creek Ranch services to an even higher level of excellence?” Well, I get to be involved in defining and developing the infrastructure for those services. In fact, we’ve already accomplished one of them that is serving our clients right now in this current hunting season. A seldom-used bunk bedroom at Cypress Lodge (our lodge where meals are served) was converted to a private dining/conference room. The flexibility that this opens to guests is fantastic. Couples can enjoy a quiet candlelit dinner in the main dining room while a group of hunters cheer their favorite college football team to victory in the private dining room. A corporate group can carry on a private business conversation over their meal while other guests dine jovially in the nearby comfort of the main dining hall.

Exceptional services and facilities planning are underway as I write. New, high-end private accommodations are on the drawing board, as well as an extension of the sporting-clays course. A duck shooting scenario is in the works and hunting habitat improvements are in the making for spring 2014.

The new chapter that’s opened for Joshua Creek Ranch is an exciting opportunity for our business, our staff, our members and clients, and for me as well. We’re ALL-IN for the plans we have to raise the level of excellence for services at Joshua Creek Ranch. There’s so much to look forward to!

Ann Kercheville is President of Joshua Creek Ranch. Located in the renowned Texas Hill Country just 45 minutes northwest of San Antonio and 90 minutes southwest of Austin, Joshua Creek Ranch occupies a uniquely diverse terrain including miles of Joshua Creek and Guadalupe River bottomland planted in fields of grain crops for prime upland and deer hunting habitats. You can visit their web site at http://www.joshuacreek.com.          

As something of a militant public-land duck hunter, it is a point of pride for me that I can do well – sometimes really well – in a section of marsh so crowded with hunters that most people I know refuse to go there.

“Let ‘em work” – are you kidding me? Birds don’t “work” in this place – the second they get into range for any hunter, a volley is unleashed, and if those birds don’t die, they’re outta there, along with every other bird that had been thinking about dropping down for a look-see.

On a recent hunt there, my buddy Charlie and I watched, mouths agape, as three snow geese became enchanted with a chorus of robust voice calling from three tule patches, and made one pass, and another … and … another! … before someone dropped one. Three passes! Pretty sure that’ll be in my mental highlight reel forever.

Lord, when I watch hunting shows where mallards work and work and work before assuming the holy position – cupped and committed! – I think to myself, “Must be nice.” Imagine, a mallard practically motionless 20 yards in front of your face. How could you miss?

Then I go back to my guerrilla-style hunting, bring home ducks, and realize life’s not so bad.

Of course, the problem with this is, much like a girl who’s been waging guerrilla war in the jungle, if you stick me in a ballroom, I’m not gonna know how to act.

This has been on my mind a lot lately because I have an invitation to a really nice club later this month, a club so storied and venerable that I’m not allowed to spend the night there because I lack a “y” chromosome, the kind of place where, I’ve been informed, they “mostly shoot over the decoys.”

So how does that work?

I got a preview last weekend on public land. Not my usual spot, but another place my friend Jake hunts. We had to hustle to stake our claim, and after the decoys were all set up, I asked the question I should’ve asked long before: “So, do they come in really close here? I’m shooting a modified choke. Do you think I should change it?”

Jake was non-committal, which I interpreted to mean, “They might. Or they might not.”

I left the modified choke in.

The flight before shoot time was amazing, with lots of cheeping teal, meeping gadwall and whistling pintail and wigeon zipping around us. But I knew that didn’t mean anything – by this point in the season, I knew it was likely to turn off like a light after the first shots were fired.

When shoot time came, Jake and I were not the first to shoot, but we didn’t have to wait long.

It’s all kinda fuzzy how it went down, but I was looking at Jake across the tule patch when his eyes widened and he said something like “On your right!” No mistaking the urgency there.

I spun around in time to see four (I think) ducks landing no more than eight yards in front of me, coming in from the right. The light was dim, but I could see a hen about two feet off the water, and a drake about four feet off and others I couldn’t afford to even look at because I had already acquired my targets.

“Holy shit!” my inner guerrilla shouted (in the ballroom). I don’t think I actually screamed, but I might as well have, because I felt like I did the first time a pheasant exploded at my feet. OK, the first 20 times.

Oh, had I only adopted a pheasant-hunting mentality.

I shouldered my gun and took aim at the hen (Hen Police, don’t freak out – I’d already determined they were all spoonies).

Bam! She dropped.

In a moment of rare greed, I swung on the drake, who was now about eight feet in the air, still around the same distance out.

Bam! I missed. He was practically frozen in the air in front of me, and I missed.

I can’t remember what happened next. I either shot again, or I turned my attention to the bird on the water. Jake said something later about me emptying my gun. Did I do that?

Regardless, my hen was swimming away quite vigorously. Jake’s black Lab Lucy was already in the water so it wasn’t safe to shoot again, but I followed her out. Lucy came within nipping distance and the hen flapped quite vigorously on the water, quickly putting a lot of distance between them. Clearly I hadn’t hurt her too badly.

I shot at her again, and watched my pattern hit the water two feet behind her. Regained composure, shot again, put the pattern right on her. But she was still swimming.

Fortunately, she was in thick grass, and it wasn’t hard to get to her and finish her with a quick twirl.

Wow. Four shots. Maybe five. Man, I’d be a crappy witness.

Jake and I replayed that scene a few times, and I had to laugh at myself. Those ducks were so close that my pattern was probably at best the size of a baseball. I had so much time, but I panicked like they were rabbits, bodies halfway into the briar. When I dressed the spoonie, it was clear that my first shot had just hit her wingtips – it was a miracle she stayed down.

For the rest of the morning, I fervently wished another group would come in like that so I could do it right. But the “replay” button in hunting is notoriously sticky – I know it’ll be years before I see that sight again. We got a few shots after that and left with better straps than most that day, but nothing came in again like those spoonies.

I guess that was my jungle-floor lesson in ballroom dancing. I should probably count myself lucky.

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.

Lord, I'd like to thank you for the meal I just ate. 

Thank you for blessing me with an incredibly fat little greenwing teal for my first duck of the season - it makes for a much better "grace" than the coot I accidentally got for the second bird of the season.

Thank you for inspiring my boyfriend to run off on book tour with both boning knives, forcing me to buy a really nice one that I used to debone that teal, giving me every bit of fat and skin that little guy had to offer.

Thank you for the perfect sear that I managed to achieve without filling the entire house with duck-fat smoke. The cats really appreciate it when the smoke alarm doesn't go off.

Thank you for inspiring me to pop some spinach into the fat remaining in that pan while my duck halves rested on the cutting board under a foil tent, and for reminding me to get feta cheese at the store on the way home from work - it was really, really good on the sauteed spinach. I will forgive you for not delivering ripe lemons yet - the splash of vinegar was a good enough hit of acidity to do the trick.

Thank you for a meal so perfectly delicious that the neighbors probably thought I was doing something nasty at the kitchen table, what with all the moaning and incomprehensible utterances coming out of my mouth. I was really just eating. And what more perfect sacrament could there be to mark the start of duck season?

In your name I pray for all of the people who've not yet had the good fortune of eating a greenwing teal. May you bless them with the drive, the means and the utter lack of common sense to become duck hunters. I don't need the competition, Lord, but as you well know, ducks could use the extra habitat that all those hunters would pay for. And it never hurts to have another friend putting in for reservations at the refuge.

Amen.
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 www.hollyheyser.com.

Here are two things you don’t often see in the same sentence outside of Argentina: “dove hunting” and “adventure.”

Nintey-nine percent of my dove hunting until this year had been decidedly non-adventurous, because mostly what I’ve done is drive to a farm, park my car, set up at the edge of a field where they’ve just harvested something doves love to eat, then wait for the birds.

September marks the end of summer for most of us, at least according to the calendar. Wish someone would tell the Texas weather gods it’s time to show us some signs of autumn. We need a break from the heat and drought that tortures us every year about this time.

I will never forget my first hunt, and I don’t mean that in a good way. This story has a villain.