I finally get to call myself a “hunter.”
While it’s true we’ve been scouting and researching and target shooting and researching and scouting some more and even going on hunting outings, I had yet, until just recently, to actually take a shot at a single animal during a hunt. We saw an animal here or there while scouting. And we hit plenty of targets in practice. But on our actual hunting ventures, it has been nearly post-apocalyptic. It’s like the animals have calendars, too, and when it says “opening day” they all disappear.
I was beginning to believe I was some sort of hunting curse and that I would need to ban myself from hunting with my husband. He’d gone out with friends and come home with grouse. He’d gone out on his own last season and come home with ducks. And yet this year, every time we went out together, there was not an animal to be found.
And then we went duck hunting.
Up at dawn for our first duck hunt of the season.
My First Duck Hunt
We hunt on a cattle ranch south of where we live, in a town called Chimacum. The Short family ranch hosts wildlife viewing three days a week and waterfowl hunting three days a week. It’s ironic, and yet authentic. Watch the snow geese on Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Shoot the ducks and geese on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. Sunday, everybody gets to rest. It is both strange and equitable. Somewhat like nature herself.
Don’t worry, cows. I’ve been practicing.
So that is where we went last Saturday morning. We reserved our blind and hunting range, and had to be there by 8:00am. We got up early, ate breakfast, and filled our Thermos with coffee. We got to the location, and I remembered how to load my gun. Truly, I can’t be the only person who spontaneously forgets how to load her gun when out on a hunt, right? I have faith that I am not. I just want to do well, and do right by the animals, and so I always get nervous. Especially because I have never taken an animal on a hunt before.
“Go that way,” my husband whispered. “And walk quieter.”
Somehow my boots are always louder than his.
I walked the direction he pointed.
“Wait until you hear me,” he whispered. He would go around the other end of the hedge, down toward the pond. I would wait here in the cattle field where the ducks could not see me. If all went well they would fly right in front of me when he flushed them.
Every sparrow made me jitter. Every distant moo gave me a jolt.
And then I heard my husband’s voice.
“Coming your way!” he called, and somehow I heard him through the mist.
A half-dozen ducks were in front of me. I aimed. I accounted for a little lead. And I pulled the trigger. My gun punched me in the shoulder.
A duck fell from the sky.
My Wingmaster Wing(wo)man
I hunt with an old Remington 870 Wingmaster. A 1968 Wingmaster, in fact. I’m a sucker for old guns. You know why? Because those old guns that everyone tells stories about? They work. She may not have the longest barrel or the longest range, and she may not take your fancy modern 3.5” shell, but she’s mine and she brings me dinner. And she’s darn pretty, too.
Not to mention, when you’re crawling through brush (which apparently is what all of western Washington is made of), that shorter barrel is a blessing in disguise. I see people on TV complain about the terrain they have to hike through when hunting, and I’ve not once seen anything as miserable as what we have here. When you find yourself so entangled in brush that you actually cannot move without falling over, when you’re cut to the bone by blackberry thorns, and when your lower back aches because you haven’t stood straight in half a mile, then you’ll have a hint of what a western Washington hunt entails.
The Joy of Nature
Which is another reason I think bird hunting might be where it’s at. I love sitting in the blind. I won’t lie. A gun, a sunrise, and coffee is a great way to start my day. “Oh yes, honey. I’ll watch the sky while you jump in the kayak and retrieve the downed birds. No problem.”
I’d rather get a few birds than hike all day and not see a deer. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I get that deer or get that coveted elk in my sight. But right now, the idea of big game hunting feels a bit like meditation. It might be something I need, but it’s not something I’m good at yet.
But a bird hunt? Yeah, I can do that. I can quack away on my duck call. I can watch the sunrise. I can listen to the little birds flick through the bushes beside me and swear at the hawks every time they make me think they’re a duck in my peripheral vision. I can squint my hearing and whisper to my husband, “Baby, do you think that’s geese?”
How to Hit a Duck
And then sometimes, you actually get to fire on a duck. You pull the trigger and then wait to see if it falls. And, if you’re smart, you wait again to see if it gets back up. And after a moment, you think, “I just did that. That worked.” I’ve only done it a few times now myself, but the feeling has been the same each time, and is likely to remain.
I did that. I did that for myself. I’m providing for myself. I’m participating in nature. I’m here. You’re here. We’re all doing what we’ve been put here to do.
And by the way, clays are much harder to hit than ducks. This is my opinion, based on little experience, but based on my experience nonetheless. Clays are smaller and faster. That said, ducks are evasive. They do have that in their favor. No one tells you ducks will actually dodge your shots. But still, somehow ducks are easier for me to hit.
After some analysis (of my two hunts so far – I’m so experienced, you know), I’m theorizing that it’s because I don’t think when I shoot a duck. I’m surprised. I raise my gun. I watch the duck. I pull the trigger. On the range, I watch the clay. I think about lead time. I try to construct the right picture. I close an eye and open an eye to double check. I wonder if I’m swinging through or if I’ve stopped moving my gun. Oh yeah, and then I finally pull the trigger. Like…half an hour later.
The ducks? I just shoot the ducks.
And I hit them more often than not so far.
My First Day, My First Two Ducks
That first day, I hit two ducks. One mallard hen and one teal hen.
I was proud and sad in the very same space. I was grateful more than anything else. I was thrilled. I felt accomplished. And I felt responsible for myself and my place on this planet.
That day – last Saturday – I became a hunter. I went out. There were animals. I brought two home of my own accord. I was responsible. I was respectful. And, yes, it was, in its own way, fun. It’s a thrill, and I won’t deny it. But it’s a hard, hard thing to hunt an animal. And while I don’t like to look in the eyes of those ducks, I feel good for knowing where my food came from and for knowing I earned it being on my plate.
Winslow’s two ducks and my two ducks.
The Act of Hunting
Which brings me to the difficult part. No matter how much you practice on the range, no matter how good or bad of a shot you are, no matter if you’re hungry or hunting for sport, it still comes down to one thing. When you pull that trigger and that shot lands, you’re killing an animal. You are making yourself more important than that other being. You are ending a life. That should never be easy.
If we hadn’t raised animals and processed animals over the course of this past year, I think my first hunt would have been a tougher emotional experience. But I’ve helped Winslow process enough animals at this point, and even pulled the trigger a few times myself before, that hunting didn’t feel like such an alien act.
That said, certainly the fact that the animal is at a distance helps. When you get up close to an animal and you realize it requires a second shot, that is a harder thing. And I still find it challenging to touch an injured animal. It’s as if touching it makes too much of a connection that it has life inside. I still apologize and say a little prayer. And I think – I hope – that I will always feel that need.
Life Is a Circle
Everything taken requires something given. I eat dinner tonight because a duck gave its life for me. Someday someone will live on this planet because I am no longer here to take my space. Nature has a rhythm and cycle, a sense and a need. I am grateful more than anything to participate in that cycle. To not be someone who stands outside it, but someone who lives within it.
Thank you, nature. Thank you, ducks. I am grateful for all you provide and am humbled by your beautiful science, your intricate architecture, and your exquisite design.