What Real Men Do

•January 9, 2016 • 4 Comments

My fiancée Danielle informed me recently that she had unfriended someone on Facebook because they’d posted something about how real men don’t kill wild things, they take pictures. That she was offended on my behalf – though I was not aware of the post, nor would I have cared one way or another about this guy’s opinion – is one of a thousand reasons why I love her. She has my back. But I think too, she’s learned a lot about why I hunt, witnessed all the conscientious effort that goes into it, and not least of all, tasted the savory, story-rich results. So, on her own, she knows that her former friend is wrong and that, knowing both of us, there’s far more to real manhood than slogans and moralizing.

It did get me thinking. I’ve never, in all my years as a hunter, questioned the real man-ness of any guy who didn’t hunt. I’ve tried to explain why I hunt – explain, not apologize or rationalize – on occasion, but mostly to get people to leave me to it, not take it up for themselves. To hunt or not to hunt is a deeply personal choice. And never mind what a bunch of smug, picture-taking yuppies do to the environment versus the nearly invisible conservationist hunter.

So why do some people feel the need to tell us to trade our guns or bows in for cameras in order to join the ranks of real men? This particular former friend is an overly bouyant scuba diver, so clearly he’s stuffing some dead things in his gaping mouth, just not any that he has killed himself. Doesn’t that mean he’s maintaining real man-ness at the expense of some poor guy in the fishing fleet or butcher’s shop who’s had to sacrifice his real man-ness for the sake of this corpulent moralizer?

Forced to consider all this, I’m led to the question of what is a real man anyway? When did it become manly to eat from styrofoam and plastic wrap but not from an animal you have stalked, killed, gutted and butchered all by yourself? If left in the woods, would the photo-taking “real” man survive or the one who knows how to hunt for food? But that’s what these Facebook posters have put on the scale, not me. I think a real man pays his debts, supports his family, does right by others, builds and fixes things, respects others and in doing so, minds his own fucking business. Have I left anything out?

So I wonder what someone who thumps his chest with the claim of “I take photos, not animals” is truly, deeply, psychologically saying. My guess is he’s trying to change the equation to one that suits his absence of skills, for it takes none to order in a restaurant or pluck from the meat department freezer.

But I’m OK with that. I don’t care that some men in America wouldn’t last a day in the wilds. Not every guy can stand a post or gut a deer. I respect the ones who admit it. I am more than willing to share with those who can’t, or teach and encourage those who would like to gain the skills. Just know that when you try to declare your real man-ness  based on your inability or unwillingness to get your own food, those of us who can and do, we pity you. We see straight through to your deep-seated feelings of inadequacy. And not to rub salt in the wound, but I know a few women who put wild food on their table. So maybe it’s just about being real. Some can handle it. I don’t mind the ones who can’t. But the ones who feel compelled to make comparisons? They are the saddest bunch of all.

 

 

Hunting the Eagle

•December 5, 2015 • 2 Comments

Most everything that we do or that happens to us is the last link in a chain. Those links are often invisible until we get to the end of it, and then suddenly we can look back and see very clearly where the chain started and, depending on how it played out, whether it was heavy and rusted or a bright chrome steel.

The first link in this chain was the California Waterfowl Association’s annual dinner and 70th anniversary celebration in Sacramento in August. The truth of it is, our main motivation for attending this particular dinner was that our good friend and neighbor, Tracy Fremd, was receiving the Artemis Award, which honors a woman each year whose efforts support hunting and conservation.

The second link was when a hunt came up for auction at Eagle Lakes Ranch in Othello, Washington. I hadn’t heard of it but Tracy, who was sitting at our table, had hunted it and loved the place. “Bid on it!” she urged me, and so I did. After the high bidder generously donated it back to CWA, my second place bid became the new winner. A quick text to my son Griff, my once constant hunting companion but now grown up and far away once-a-year partner, forged the third link in the chain:

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For me, the duck hunter, and Griff, the goose hunter, the promise of a duck and goose combo hunt was ideal. A previous rare hunt with Griff had been the only good hunt I had on the rice that year, so it felt like Lady Luck was polishing the chain.

The next link was tricky. It turned out that between the demands of his vaping business, Fate Mods, and his last semester in college, the only time Griff could go was the weekend after Thanksgiving. So I called Kaci at Eagle Lakes and could hear link number four clinking onto the chain when she said that weekend was open.

Three months later, gear packed, we flew up North to meet the birds coming South. I lamented the full moon that graced the calendar, but that proved of no consequence, since we saw neither sun nor moon for the next three days. What we did see upon our arrival was a lodge like something at Yosemite. Animal heads and mounted ducks and geese adorned the great room, with a massive central fireplace and – cocktail aficionado that I am – a full bar and lots of big cushy leather chairs to sink into while sipping one. The rooms, too, were grand, and ours was labeled Eagle One. We felt, well, presidential, and another link fell into place.

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A 4 am wake up call and a hearty breakfast got our first day started. After scraping the ice from our windows, we followed the guide Dan to our duck spot, a pothole cleared by ice-eaters in a frozen, flooded field of corn. Approaching the spot in the dark, we heard what must’ve been a hundred ducks crowded together, cold and bitchy and quacking up a storm. It didn’t take long for them to return once we’d settled in, their brilliant green heads muted by the overcast as they swooped in, and fell to the three of us – me, Griff, and a retired firefighter named Gary. Griff doubled on a pair, and I even managed to connect on my share.

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By 8am it was over and 21 big beautiful ducks had splashed down in the icy water or slammed onto the frozen fringe. Gary and I managed to bring ourselves and our guns back up the steep, frosty hill to the truck, so it was up to Griff to haul our bounty. For hunters who’ve spent many a 100-degree opener in the desert by the Salton Sea, the snowy scene that morning was a new and beautiful thing.

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We dropped our ducks off at the processing shed and returned to the lodge, plopping down in some overstuffed chairs. Neither of us is used to a limit, let alone one by early morning, so we wondered what to do with the rest of the day. Watch football? No, we aren’t big sports fans. Get a drink? Way too early for that. Fortunately it wasn’t long before Kaci asked if we wanted to add a goose hunt to our Saturday, and not more than a fraction of a second before we answered yes!

With a different guide this time (though all of them seemed to be some other guide’s son or brother or cousin), we were soon in layout blinds on a field of winter feed. And just like that morning, it wasn’t long before the birds showed up. The guide Tim peeled off singles and pairs until we had our six lessors and two honkers.

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Two great hunts. And two more links in the chain had fallen into place.   Back at the lodge, I pondered our good fortune over a reheated steak sandwich lunch. It matters a lot to me that the few and far-between hunts that Griff and I have are good ones. That mission was accomplished by morning, and now, barely mid-afternoon, I was savoring the gravy – a second great hunt in a single day! The chain was shining up nicely.

That evening the bar was in full swing, noisy with talk of epic shots, embarrassing misses, and just the pure joy of being here rather than back at work. But with another day to rest up and get ready for, things wound up early.

Next morning we were at it again, wolfing down eggs, sausages, and hash browns before heading to an “X” some thirty minutes away. This time it was a larger group – Mike, his brother, and Mike’s son R.J. joined Griff and I for a last round of geese. Decoys in place, we hopped into our pit blinds and closed the lids.

The action was a little slower that morning. Geese were everywhere, but it seemed that so were the fields they could fly to. Our guide Brian talked plenty into a closer look, and quite a few into landing. Griff amazed everyone by knocking down a low crossing goose, in the quick second it appeared between two groups of decoys. And despite a malfunctioning gun, Mike’s son R.J. did his share of fine shooting. When a large flock finally came in, and nine birds fell, the smoke was still hanging in the air when Mike declared you know, it’s a good thing our kids can shoot. Isn’t that the truth! And for me, it’s always the best last link in a chain of events.

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An old maiden’s voyage

•October 25, 2015 • 1 Comment

 

Beat up, banged up, and older than my grown kids

Beat up, banged up, and older than my grown kids

River hunting means not caring if you get a rezzie, not having to crowd around the refuge shack at 3am slapping bugs, and not having every working bird sent suddenly skyward by a blast from two ponds over. It’s peaceful, unhurried, and relaxing. It also means needing a boat.

So I bought one after last season – my first – and slowly but surely have been tranforming a tired old fishing boat into a duck boat. Mostly cosmetic – paint, new camo seats – since that’s as far as my skills go, with a little rewiring and new trailer lights. It looks good. Well, at least better.

From rust bucket to river ducker.

From rust bucket to river ducker.

Then came time for its maiden voyage this weekend. Yeah, a little late, since most guys were out for the opening day of waterfowl season. But six and seven day work weeks have left no time for getting out on the water. They do make it hurt a little less when you have to buy three new tires because one is flat and the other one and spare are about to be. So the trip to the lake got detoured by a few hours while we waited at Big O tires.

Finally off the trailer and in the water at Jenkinson’s Lake, came the moment of truth. And nothing. It wouldn’t start. More tries, and still nothing, even after borrowing a kayaker’s minivan to jump the battery. Then suddenly, after losing count of the attempts, the old Evinrude sputtered to life. Left Danielle and the dogs on the dock – just so someone could go for help if the old maid sank and me with her.

To my surprise, she ran well, slowly at first and then, throttling up, cutting nicely through the water. After several laps around that section of the lake, I brought her back to the dock to pick up my crew, relieved that the old boat had fared better than the Titanic on her maiden voyage.

Wet at last

Wet at last

Ready for round 2, I went to fire her up again. And nothing. Battery, maybe. Bad fuel? A clog or break somewhere? Or something worse, and probably more expensive?

Whatever it is, it’s going to take more than me and my paint cans to assess and fix. So we loaded her up on the trailer and headed home, happy that she’d finally gotten wet, hadn’t sunk, had made it around the lake a few times, but well short of any high fiving. Now to find a marine mechanic so that when the ducks are here in force, me and my old maid of a boat will be out there ready for them.

10 Years of Zenhunting

•February 15, 2015 • 9 Comments

Taking pictures has never been a priority in the field. It has always been more about recording events in my mind, to be remembered and written about later.  Now that the season is over and a new year is upon us, it seemed fitting to gather up ten years of the photos that were taken and create an album.

Up The River

•January 27, 2015 • Leave a Comment
The opposite of camo

The opposite of camo

Up the river. Not always a great place to be going; a Heart of Darkness, Apocalypse Now kind of place. Or your trip to New York’s infamous old prison – Sing Sing – via the Hudson. But sometimes it can be a good thing. Like my last hunt of the season, on a river south of my house.

This season was short on waterfowl hunts. A couple of letters for Gray Lodge became paper airplanes. Another for Sac should’ve been skipped but wasn’t and produced nothing but an aching back and a muddy cart. Then came the #1 draw for Little Dry Creek, which delivered limits, plus geese, and a helluva good time for three guys. Refuge hunting at its finest.

And then I discovered there’s something beyond the refuge, beyond the clubs. There’s the river.

Ever since I started waterfowling, I’ve heard guys say they hunt “the river,” different rivers of course, depending on who was talking. Down south, the rivers were rumored to be stinking sewers, or maybe hunters just said that to keep others away. Up north, the only river I’ve been on is the American. I’ve seen ducks on it, dealing with rapids a lot more effortlessly than me in my kayak. But pulling out a shotgun there – with tourists and the weeds ‘n seeds bunch paddling beside me – probably not a good idea.  But I’ve always been curious about river hunting, picturing that lone gunman drifting stealthily around a bend to ambush loafing ducks. Or those crews in bigger boats with swivel seats and grass walls, decoys all around. Just never got the opportunity.

Until Dan, from that day at LDC, invited me along on a river hunt.

We met at the boat ramp, me there early and excited for this new adventure. Happy, too, to be free of the cart, the bag of decoys, cover material. I even had extra shells in my bag, well, because I could. The fog was low and thick when we shoved off, and motoring up the river I was grateful that Dan knew the waterway, turning before I even saw the river bend, slowing down before I even saw the overhanging tree that could’ve taken off our heads. Used to hitting the rutted mud paths out to a blind, it was a strange way, for me anyway, to get to a spot. Mysterious, dark, headlights bouncing off the shroud of fog that surrounded us. Add a foreboding soundtrack and the smell of death, I would’ve thought we were heading up the Nung River in Cambodia.

That morning, making our way through the eerie fog and dark, seemed like a search for Col. Kurtz. The afternoon was more of a pleasure cruise.

That morning, making our way through the eerie fog and dark, seemed like a search for Col. Kurtz. The afternoon was more of a pleasure cruise.

After awhile Dan turned off into a little notched out part of the river. Minutes later, decoys were out, spinner up, and we were sitting back on the brushy shore awaiting shoot time. And when it came, our only notice was the time on our iPhones, not shots going off around us. Bliss.

Dawn came without the sun; the fog lifting off our shoulders but never clearing. We could hear ducks and geese, but most flew overhead unseen in the early hours. Later, small groups would circle our little bay, curious but not committed. We saw and heard flocks of wood ducks – something I’ve never had on my strap. None came within range but it was good just to know they were there. I claimed a nice drake mallard a little later, which confounded the dog by falling in a tree just out of his reach. Two more mallards drifted by right in front of us and – six rapid fire shots later – they flew on without a feather out of place. One of those easy shots that make you shake your head in amazement when you miss. Seconds later I doubled on a pair of speeding teal, which was gratifying and both soothed the earlier miss and made it all the more of a head scratcher.

Hours of watching ducks circle and then depart followed, until two mallards swooped in behind us and Dan knocked down both in a tough straight up overhead shot. The low overcast seemed to swallow up most of our potential targets, but I was happy to have a mallard and two teal for the fridge. They were icing on a cake made of beautiful scenery, the natural peacefulness of the river, and a hunting buddy that shares the notion that hunting should get you away from it all not in the middle of it: the neighboring shots that mess up working birds, the 3am crowd at the check station, guys yelling at their dogs or whooping it up every time they kill a duck.

"Blue" takes in the scenery on the way back.

“Baloo” takes in the scenery on the way back.

That night I put the mallard breasts in a good brine, and two days later – coated in flour, egg and Panko breadcrumbs – smiled at the sizzle as they slipped into the skillet. They reminded me of a good morning on the river, a new place, a first time hunt, the kind of relaxing and soul-refreshing day that duck hunting ought to be. But they did raise a question: I wonder if anyone’s got a duck boat for sale?

Ducks on a log will beat ducks on a tailgate every time.

Ducks on a log will beat ducks on a tailgate every time.

Hitler gets a rezzie

•January 16, 2015 • 1 Comment

The Golden Ticket

•January 3, 2015 • 7 Comments

I don’t know when I first put in for Little Dry Creek on the season long application. It’s probably been nine or ten seasons of checking that box, along with other Northern California refuges like Delevan, Sacramento, and Colusa, most of those when a draw meant an eight-hour drive from South Orange County.

My youngest son Griff or I would get the rare draw – a slow two-duck Sunday at Colusa and an epic stormy day at Delevan when a Eurasian Wigeon and a dozen other ducks fell from the sky and the wind spinner left its stake and flew two ponds over. But mostly we were content to hunt Wister near the Salton Sea. And those hot, stinking ponds produced a lot of indelible moments, especially in the go-go years when ducks and geese were swirling around us even as we were fetching ones we’d just downed.

A Wigeon double for Griff at Delevan in 2005, just after the storm passed and the sun came out.

A Wigeon double for Griff at Delevan in 2005, just after the storm passed.

Still we yearned for a shot at Little Dry Creek, the rare jewel, whispered about, glistening in the distance out of reach. Even hard-to-get San Jacinto and Kern draws would pepper our season, but never a nod from LDC.

Fast forward to 2011: my move up north and three seasons of checking all the boxes for all the refuges – Grizzly, Gray Lodge, Delevan, Sac, Llano Seco, and more. Cards came for every one of them. Except Little Dry Creek. Until this fourth season. But not just any draw for LDC; the golden ticket.

Then rain came, days and days of it. Roads closed, refuges closed. I watched the muddy water in my backyard creek rush past and imagined my long-awaited golden ticket floating away on it, tossed in the chop, torn by the rocks, the words Little Dry Creek and #1 reduced to a stain.

Finally the weather changed and the rains stopped. Glenn Underwood posted optimistic news about roads drying and refuges opening, including LDC. The refuge staff told me things looked good for my Wednesday hunt and the gleam returned to my golden ticket. But a new dilemma emerged; who to invite along on my reservation.

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I called my Southern California friend Matt (mouthcallinmatt), someone who’d proven to be a good luck charm on two previous Northern California hunts, including a high number draw at Llano Seco when Matt’s legendary calling skills and super-sized cart full of decoys turned a wet cow pasture into a place the geese couldn’t resist. But Matt couldn’t make the trip. So invites went out to the big posters on the refuge forums. Big Daddy Gaddy’s “I’m all in on that” added one, and #1wingnut left the river to fill up the card.

Conventional wisdom seemed to be that the #1 draw takes blind #1. But a check of the sheets had better things to say about a different blind, so that one became our pick. Yellow cards in our pockets, we headed out to our designated parking lot, with me wondering if LDC would prove worth all those years of waiting.

After a long haul out, we got to our mud island surrounded by tules. Decoys out, dog situated in her hut, a little blind material up to block the wind and the ducks’ view, we awaited shoot time and listened as dark shapes whooshed by low and all around us. Mike and Dan sipped their coffee and I downed a Monster, a habit I picked up from all the years of hunting with Griff. Then the “chime” of distant shots announced the time.

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Mike was the first to bring one down, a big beautiful greenhead and our only mallard of the day. Then Dan and I started in on our mixed bag of wigeon, gaddies, pintails and the occasional speck. The morning flight filled the sky with birds; flocks of ducks zooming by below skeins of snows and specks. It was almost but not quite pass shooting as small groups skirted our island, and we thinned them by one or two whenever they came closer than surviving this migration would allow. Of the thousand that made it safely to the closed zone only yards beyond our spot, three limits of ducks and a few geese did not.

Most of them were retrieved by hand; after the first few, the dog refused to go in the water. At first I chalked it up to Schatzie going from a kennel in the garage, per the ex-Mrs. Zenhunter, to the soft indoor life of sleeping on our bed that the fiancée encourages. But then I saw Mike’s bright red hands after he reached in the water feeling around for the spinner’s missing leg and couldn’t really blame her. I wonder if she misses the swimming pool temperature of ponds down south.

It was the perfect day, with great hunting partners and birds all around, to get ready for even if they didn’t wing our way, or just to watch. A few times of facing or looking the wrong way when something whizzed by right overhead, as usual. And memorable shots, like Dan putting two shots into a speck as it tried to catch the wind’s express elevator up, then a long moment before his gamble on a third shot – this one dialed-in – brought it down. Good, too, were the duck and another speck that crashed on our island with muddy thuds. Best of all, for me, was that last duck on my strap, a pintail that fluttered in and seemed to pose above the decoys, until a single dose of #2s peppered that beautiful chocolate head. That was an image that I want to keep crisp in my mind in the years to come. Especially since it was exactly like my last shot and last duck of the 2005 season, another hovering pintail, on that unforgettable Delevan road trip with Griff.

Like that Delevan hunt, the day at Little Dry Creek was worth the hike, worth the cold. And well worth the wait.

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