I would have written this a day or so ago but I’ve frankly been too tired. Duck hunting ended Sunday, capping what has been quite a season for Holly and me.
Slowly but surely we’re getting the hang of this waterfowl hunting thing. We’re choosing our places to hunt more wisely, we’re calling and decoying birds better, we’re taking better shots — and we’re taking home a lot more birds, which thrills my cook’s instincts.
I don’t keep too close a track on how many ducks and geese I shot this year, but I think I came out with 39, which is a few more than last year. Holly did way better than last year; she’s written about her season here.
Last weekend’s finale was something of an orgy of duck hunting. Saturday I drew a reservation for the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area. Holly wanted to save her strength, so she sat it out. I took Josh instead, who had taken me snipe hunting two weeks ago.
So I got up at 3:30 a.m. and drove over to Yolo, which is mercifully close. Josh and I got a blind that I know holds diver ducks, because I really wanted to see if I could get myself a goldeneye, a scaup or a redhead. We did see a few, but none close enough to shoot.
What we did see were lots of teal. Now the ducks and geese are just starting to pair up (which is one reason why the biologists end the season on them now), so the hen teal are already beginning to talk to their mates: Think of a standard mallard quack but kick the octave up three or four levels. It sounds like a crazed little munchkin cackling uncontrollably. Pretty funny.
Josh had never hunted a refuge for ducks before, so I really wanted to give him the first shot. When a pair of teal whizzed by, I whispered, “Your shot, your shot, your shot!” And Josh dropped his first-ever cinnamon teal, a beautiful drake.
The birds weren’t really flying well and it was slow hunting after that. The final weekend of the season most birds are a) wary as hell — they’ve seen a lot of hunters by then, and b) starting to think about finding a mate and making some whoopie. But a few birds did come by. Josh shot another cinnamon teal drake, and then so did I — my first-ever. About an hour later I killed a drake wigeon, and then the flight pretty much stopped. We called it a day about 12:30.
I was zonked when I got home, in part because I knew Sunday would be even harder. Basically I just watched Rocky movies in a persistant vegetative state. And then 2:15 a.m. arrived, and Holly and I headed out to the marsh again.
This time it was to Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, where we were invited to hunt with our new friend David and his dog Coal Pit (one of the coolest dog names ever). David had a primo reservation and we had our choice of blinds, so we chose the same pond I’d shot my banded snow goose in the previous Sunday.
We set up and totally expected to shoot the lights out. I had images of eating lunch at Granzella’s by noon. Not so much. Very few birds flew in the first hour, although David and Holly each got one; I should have shot a teal, but missed. And then it shut off. An hour went by. Two. Three. I was getting frustrated. Then about 15 minutes after I’d expected to be eating a linguica sandwich down the road in Williams, two snow geese flew by. Low. Real low.
Bang! Bang-Bang! Both dropped. David had shot one, and mine sailed off into an adjacent pond. Oh no! I thought I would lose this bird, so I hauled myself as fast as I could through sucking mud to the place I’d seen the goose drop. Shortly before the heart attack came, I saw the goose in the water, stone dead. Phew.
When I made it back to the blind, I noticed a lone gadwall flying, um, directly over me. Well, shit, if it was going to do that…I had all the time in the world to get a good lead on the bird, and with one shot to the head it went down. Two birds now, I am happy. We can go.
Not really, because Holly still only had one bird and desperately wanted another. A few hours went by. We were now well into the afternoon. Finally Holly shot a hen cinnamon teal and she too had a brace of birds. But by then it was nearly 3:30 p.m. and oh hell the sun goes down on the season at 5:22 so why not tough it out? Clearly madness had set in.
But we were rewarded. Holly got another duck, then downed a snow goose I had been planning to shoot. I was pretty irked. For about 10 minutes, until yet another set of snow geese sailed into our decoys. I managed to kill one, which, thanks to Coal Pit, we quickly found in the tules – this was one case where having a dog was a very, very good thing. That was it for birds, but there was still the sunset.
I love seeing the sun set on the season. Holly and I were hunting when the sun rose on the season back in October, and we were hunting now, with just minutes left before a 9-month break. Little black swallows danced everywhere, and the geese were beginning their massive evening flight. It is unspeakably beautiful to be there at just that moment.
To try to explain this juxtaposition of beauty and death to an outsider is tough. There’s sweat and pain and boredom and mistakes (lots of mistakes!), but also elation and sadness and the deep gratification that you can do this — you need not rely on someone else to provide you with the meat you eat. It makes me feel more alive, like a more complete human. Like I said, it’s tough to explain.
The hours of plucking and gutting and prepping the birds for the freezer are also part of the deal. It can take more than an hour to properly pluck a snow goose, so by the time you are finished there’s no way in hell any sane person is going to waste any of it. To me this is important — sending your birds to someone else for plucking seems like cheating.
And finally, there’s the eating. I love wild duck, and would happily forego all other meats if I had to if I could still savor a fat pintail, a rich specklebelly goose, a dainty teal. But even to this there are limits. Suffice to say Holly and I have eaten a lot of duck this season.
Time for a break. I had a wonderful season this year: lots of birds, my first cinnamon teal, my first-ever banded bird. But I am glad it’s over. I am tired, and there’s been something nagging at the back of my mind for several weeks now:
I really — really — want a salad.