Holly and I wait all year for duck season, a 100-day marathon in the marshes that occupies a full quarter of our year here in Northern California. We chase ducks and geese with such drive because we think that of all the game birds, nothing quite beats a fat wild duck for the table.
Last weekend the starting gun sounded — literally — at 6:54 a.m. in a semi-flooded rice blind outside of Willows. It ended at 6:13 p.m. in a swamp in the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge outside of Maxwell. The weekend turned out to be a microcosm of all the joys and frustrations any marathon entails.
Ever see runners fidget at the starting line? It’s the same with duck hunters. Even though the season is so long, the first weekend is almost always one of the best hunts of the year. And everyone who has a spot to hunt that weekend is equally excited: It’s the same feeling as I had as a boy on Christmas Eve, coupled with that astonishing physiological change my body undergoes when it gets ready for the exertion of a distance race — only hunting is my main source of physical exertion now. I can only describe it as a thrill that flushes through me, a slightly nauseous feeling that precedes a sense of heightened awareness.
I still get that feeling, even after five seasons of duck hunting, and despite the fact that my real opener this year was hunting ducks in Canada for three days at the beginning of the month. It’s a feeling like your senses have all opened up for the first time. City life dulls them, only in the marsh do I feel fully awake.
My friends Kevin, Josh and Paul invited me to share their blind on Saturday morning. Kevin had laid out cash to rent a blind from a local outfitter, who kept saying, “Oh yeah, you’ll limit out on specks by 8:30.” Always a bad sign, as the favorite saying of guides of any stripe is “Oh man, you shoulda been here yesterday!” Still, I had high hopes of drawing in some specklebelly geese, which are the finest eating birds in California.
When we saw our pond my heart sank. Not enough water. Both ponds were only soggy, fit more for snipe hunting than for ducks and geese. Nevertheless, Josh and I set out a spread of 30 goose decoys and got into the pit blind, buried in a “check,” which is a small berm that “checks” wave action and separates water in each rice field during the growing season.
Geese are not early flyers as a rule, so we settled in for some bird watching and joke-telling, all the while scanning the sky for ducks or geese close enough to call.
As the sun rose, we kept scanning. Nada. Nothing. We had one group of ducks swing around looking, but they surely must have been wondering why their “friends,” an array of decoys set behind us, were sitting in mud. They flew off.
Finally I heard specks yodel close. Specklebelly geese call to each other with a high-pitched ululation; it sounds like they each ate a small Bedouin woman. In between they bark and squawk at each other. You can hear them easily from a mile away, and when they get close the din lifts the hairs on the back of your neck.
I glanced behind me, and a flock of geese was RIGHT THERE! Easily in shooting range, I could have killed two — but then no one else in the blind would have been able to fire a shot. So I whispered, “they’re right behind us!” As everyone else turned around, the geese noticed the movement and Kevin’s dog jumped, all at the same time. The specks lifted up about 70 yards in a heartbeat and did not swing over the blind again.
It was our only real chance of the morning, although Josh did shoot a snipe on our way back to the trucks. I was pretty bummed, as was everyone. Never before had I gone through an opener without firing a shot.
Redemption came Sunday.
My number had been drawn in the lottery to hunt a public wildlife area called Howard Slough on Sunday: The way it works in California is that hunters pay to get their license number entered into a lottery, and the state Dept. of Fish & Game draws random numbers every hunt day, which are Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays. The lottery can be fierce, especially for certain refuges such as Little Dry Creek, which offer as good a hunt as any private club.
The catch? You need to be at the refuge two hours before shoot time, which meant I’d need to wake up around 2:30 a.m. — no one should be waking up when the bars are still open. After rising at 3:20 a.m. the previous night, I just couldn’t do it. I was a wreck. Every duck season is the same: I need time to build up my “get up early” callous, as I normally don’t wake up until 7 a.m.
So we skipped Howard Slough, much to Holly’s chagrin. But we did have our backup plan, which was to walk onto another spot, the Delevan National Wildlife Refuge, and hunt the afternoon. We have a pretty good record of getting on there, and we know that swamp well.
Sure enough, after a few hours’ wait we got Blind No. 1. Last year this blind was a moonscape, but the refuge managers shifted the little island hunters use as their place to hide to a larger dry spot with better reeds and tules camouflaging it. Holly and I set up our decoys and hid in the reeds.
We didn’t have to wait long for birds. Within 15 minutes we had more ducks swing close than I had Saturday, and I took a shot at a passing spoonie (also known as a Northern shoveller) 20 minutes into the hunt. I missed, but no matter, there’d be more ducks.
I love hunting when it’s just Holly and me; I know, we have an odd sense of “quality time” together, but it works for us. We understand how we like to hunt, and can communicate with little effort. This year we added something new, too — Holly had been working on her calling all year, and when she busted out her mallard call, she sounded great. Last year she stuck to a whistle that imitates teal, pintail and wigeon, which is far easier to operate. Mallard calls (for you non-hunters, this is what you are thinking of when you hear a duck quack in your mind) are far harder to play. But Holly has it down now.
That meant we could call together, and two calls playing together in a ducky harmony-melody is a far stronger siren song to passing ducks. Over the course of the afternoon we got all kinds of birds to “work,” which means swing around our decoys looking to land. I lost track of close-flying birds after the first dozen.
Holly was having an off day shooting — it happens — but fortunately I was not. The first bird I killed was a lone drake mallard. I dropped it on the first shot, but thought its head was still up as it fell, so I shot again. And again when it hit the water. Twice more to be sure. Definitely excessive, and I am hoping I did not wreck the meat. But I couldn’t help thinking about a redhead duck I shot two years before that had looked like that on the water: It dove underwater before I could grab it, and I never saw that duck again.
To really understand this you also have to know that although I shot more than 40 birds last season, I did not shoot a single mallard. In fact, I have not shot a mallard — not including my Canada trip — since the 2007-2008 season. I wanted this bird.
I did get him, and shortly thereafter a pair of mallards swung close. I lifted and killed the drake with one shot through the head. It was an unreal shot. But then I did it again with a pintail. Then a spoonie hen came in for a landing in the decoys; I shot it so close I hit the poor bird with the shotgun wad. Not ideal. I passed on two spoonie drakes — one because I wanted Holly to hit it, as she was having such a tough day shooting — before a pair of wigeon flew in, working perfectly.
Again, I lifted on the drake and dropped him with one shot. I felt like that priest in “Caddyshack” who was golfing the game of his life in a rainstorm; I kept looking skyward for lightning.
Our “lightning” came in the form of absolutely no action during the hunt’s final hour. The wind died, the birds stopped flying and the mosquitoes came out in force. Hunt’s over.
In the end, I had five birds and Holly added a wigeon. Six birds for a public land hunt is pretty good in my book, and the knowledge I could have shot a limit of seven had I lifted on those spoonies made it even sweeter.
I probably won’t hunt ducks again until mid-November, as I am headed out to Minnesota this week to meet an old friend to hunt ruffed grouse in the North Woods. I have never hunted grouse before, and am excited about it. But grouse are a diversion to me. Ducks are our obsession until the curtain falls on a cold day at the end of January, 100 days from now.
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