It’s been exactly 24 hours since I stepped out of the marsh, ending one of the toughest hunts I’ve ever endured. I sit here sore, tired and more than a little fuzzy in the mind. This is not the post I expected to write today, but I need to write down some things all new hunters need to know.
Hunting can hurt. A lot. It can be physically, mentally and emotionally draining, leaving you battered and wondering why on God’s Green Acre did you ever take up this pursuit in the first place. Veteran hunters know what I am talking about: You’ve had your share of hard-knock days. But newcomers, especially those of you coming from the food world, may have this notion that all hunts end in happiness and a great meal. This is the part where I tell you that no, they don’t.
OH DARK THIRTY
Yesterday began with soaring hopes — even higher than on a normal hunt day. Our friend Alison had drawn the duck hunting equivalent of Willy Wonka’s Golden Ticket: A Top 5 draw at the Little Dry Creek Wildlife Refuge. This is widely considered the best public hunting area in California, and it is one of a very few places where hunters can find wood ducks and lots and lots of mallards. Little Dry Creek, or LDC, is someplace special.
We had a lovely meal the night before (I made pasta and served it with truffles) and went to bed early, because we had to wake up at 2:30 a.m. so we could get on the road by 3 o’clock. Everyone knows you need to wake up early to hunt and fish, but nothing is quite like California’s public refuge system, where you must be there a full two hours before shooting light to reserve your spot. This alone weeds out many hunters.
Mercifully, when we got there it was only drizzling, and, at 50 degrees, relatively warm. We are in the midst of a week-long series of storms, and they have hammered California to the brink of mass flooding. So it didn’t feel too bad when we went to choose our hunting blind. Alison’s draw meant she got fourth pick out of all the spots to hunt on the refuge. As expected, the two best blinds were already taken. I was mentally leaning toward one near those two, but all of us were swayed by Blind 8, which had a staggeringly high average of 5.3. This means that on average, each person who hunts that blind comes home with more than five birds. That’s unheard of, so Blind 8 it was.
Big mistake. What we did not know was that Blind 8 is more than two miles from the nearest parking lot. That’s two miles walking in waders, and, in my case, pushing a cart loaded with decoys and other paraphernalia. It was a wretched slog, and by the time we got to the blind I was a neoprene-encased ball of sweat.
Then we got a look at the blind: It was out in the open. No trees anywhere, like the area near the two best blinds. That meant no wood ducks, and not many mallards. Damn. Nevertheless, we set our decoys out and settled in.
That’s when the rain picked up. Hard. I can’t hunt the rain very well. I wear glasses, so whenever I crane my neck around to look for birds I get a face full of spray that blinds me. So I limit myself to the narrow channel made by my head when it is directly in the path of the wind-driven rain. Not ideal.
Dawn arrived and scores of ducks flew around us. It was everything we could have hoped for. Only I found that I could not hit the broad side of a barn. I have no idea why I was missing so badly. Surely the rain had something to do with it, but even in storms I normally shoot OK. Holly, on the other hand, was having the shoot day of her life.
It grew lighter, and the flight of ducks began to wane. Rain hammered down on us. I studied the spots of rust on my shotgun. All the rough weather I’ve carried my poor gun through has pitted the barrel; I need to get it repaired, but not before the duck season ends at the end of January. Little Tinkerbelle, which is what I call my shotgun (it weighs only 5 pounds) would soon have a date with gun oil. A duck flew by, startling me. I shot. I missed. Damn.
THE CREEPING MENACE
I am cold. The sweat of my body has cooled, and I find myself shivering uncontrollably, teeth chattering out SOS in Morse code. I huddle close to myself, trying to get a grip. A duck flies by. I am too slow, and miss again. Why is my reaction time so bad? Oh no. I know what this is: hypothermia.
A half-hour goes by in the driving rain, and I am thinking about the long walk back to the truck, where dry clothes and a heater await. But then a miracle happens — the clouds part and the sun shines through an ice blue sky. I drink in the warmth and stop shivering for the first time since dawn. Another bird flies by, I shoot, and hit it! But the ringneck doesn’t go down. Another shot, and it crash-lands in to the marsh. Thank God! It was Alison’s shot, and she finally has herself a duck.
An hour or so later. I still have no ducks, and the sun hides behind a cloud. I start to shiver again. That’s when I remember that on the drive up, Holly had said the temperature was supposed to drop all day. I exhale, and see my breath. Hypothermia has returned.
RACING TO THE WARMTH
I don’t remember a whole lot about that last hour, only that several times I huddled against myself, eyes shut, only to hear Holly say, “Didn’t you see that bird?” No, I thought to myself, I am too busy trying to keep myself alive.
Finally we called it quits. I was elated, or at least light-headed. But even as I picked up decoys, I had to stop twice to unclench my frozen hands. Warmth did not seep back into me until I started pushing the cart on the long trek back to the truck. New sweat warmed the old.
Once in the parking lot I stripped down and put on warm clothes. I immediately felt better physically, but I still couldn’t fathom why I’d missed so many birds. I’d shot 15 times, and the closest I came was nicking the ringneck duck Alison brought down. Hypothermia or no, I haven’t missed that much in years. Holly shot her limit.
So here I sit, with that horror show behind me. This is hunting, folks. Sometimes it leaves scars. And we don’t always win. I thought you should know that. But also know this: I’ll be out again Wednesday, rain or shine.