Clawing for Hope in a Confidence-Crushing Season
Failure in duck hunting comes from a combination of factors that you can and can't control. But when failure becomes a constant, it starts to feel personal.
Why am I even bothering?
These words have popped into my head a lot this duck season.
To The Bone is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
It’s weird to admit that, because duck hunting is what I live for. For nine months out of the year, I dream of duck hunting; for three months out of the year, my entire life revolves around it - my sleep cycle, my (non-existent) social life, my spending, my planning.
I prepare to hunt, I hunt, I process ducks, I dry and re-pack my gear for the next hunt, and then I turn around and do it all over again, twice a week for three months.
And I take pride in being good at it. I don’t rack up the kinds of numbers that I could if I had access to a nice private duck club. I don’t even shoot as many as I used to on public land: I’ve gotten pickier, preferring to shoot mostly the ducks I love to eat. And I’m less willing to visit crowded spots where the hunting is good, but the competitive human clashes can get ugly.
However, I am willing to go on epic walks in waders, laden with heavy gear, to get a few ducks in a conflict-free zone. And using a strong work ethic to wring success out of what’s available to me feels good. That’s important, given that I don’t have tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to get into a good duck club. Oh yeah, people spend bank on duck clubs in Cali. I’ve seen buy-in costs for quality clubs as high as $1.25 million.
But, damn. This season has been rough.
It used to be that if you had a place to hunt in a drought, the hunting would be good, because the ducks are going to pack into anyplace that has water. But that wasn’t the case this year; there were just fewer ducks on the landscape. Even Opening Day - the day of the season when the most ducks are shot, by a wide margin - was tepid.
It used to be that November sucked and December was when things got good. Increasingly, it’s not getting good until late December, and the season dates haven’t shifted - and won’t - to reflect that reality.
These are not problems that mere hard work can solve. I know this. Intellectually.
In mid-December, things began to improve a bit. Some people were having good hunts - or at least not getting skunked - on public land. I could hear a bit more shooting. But everywhere I set up, as far as my eyes could see, there were no ducks in the air, even when I was in gorgeous habitat where ducks had flown obligingly in the past - lush bulrush for me to hide in, and plenty of waterfowl food plants like watergrass and smartweed, with its red-tinted stems and tiny white flowers.
The success or failure of every public-land duck hunt rides on choices you make: Which parking lot to choose? Which direction to walk? Where to set decoys? Even on a great day, some spots are just duds. And you can move once you’ve set up, but it eats your time and packs on miles.
My choices were not leading to success.
There was one morning when I hunted alone in a place renowned for pre-dawn competitive assholery. Mine was the first car to my chosen parking lot. I was the first hunter to my target pond. Instead of taking a spot where I’d fight for scraps, I got the premium spot. Only one other hunting party set up in the pond, and they did so a respectful distance from me - actually, right about where I’d set up on my glorious Closing Day hunt last year.
It was as good as it gets.
Only it wasn’t. The only ducks that came by were two teal that zipped low over the water while I was watching a flock of pintail 200 yards up. They were out of range before I could identify them as something I wanted to shoot.
I pulled up stakes after that and walked around in search of the one spot where I’d heard any shooting that morning. I discovered it was a pond that occasionally had a few birds flying over, but the hunters there were taking high shots.
I returned to my car, dumped my decoys and decided to explore. There had to be some little backwater somewhere that held a duck or two. Persistence almost always puts ducks on the strap.
I found some gorgeous spots: willow-filled corners that attract ducks hiding from the shooting, still-flooding ponds that ducks usually find before the hunters do, vast patchworks of bulrush where stealthy wading can flush mallards in range. But after logging eight miles for the day without even seeing a single duck outside of a closed zone, I gave up.
Three days later, I hunted another refuge on a day when there was actually quite a bit of shooting, but my partner and I chose the wrong pond.
We had bumped hundreds of ducks when we’d walked in, and we were absolutely surrounded with delicious watergrass. Ducks should’ve been fighting their way into our pond. But they weren’t.
I left that pond around lunchtime with one pintail, took a break, then found a spot to finish the day where spoonies were flying.
I don’t love eating spoonies, because their skin and fat is usually stinky, so you have to strip it off. I’d rather eat ducks with quality skin and fat. But I was desperate to get in some shooting, so I killed three of them - a not-proud feeling on top of the utter dejection that hung over me. I doubt they would’ve cared that they died because I was feeling desperate. But I did.
All the while, my neck was killing me (typical), and there was a tickle in the back of my throat (not typical).
The next morning, I tested positive for Covid.
Regardless of the severity of the Covid, I would need to isolate for five days - that cost me one hunt.
The illness wasn’t severe, but it also wasn’t a piece of cake - I was (and still am) too tired for my usual hard-charging routine. That cost me another hunt.
Now I was starting to panic. I’m giving up a bunch of hunting time in January - the best part of the season - to do events where I don’t get to hunt. My chances of having a happy hunt or two were rapidly diminishing.
I needed a win.
But here’s the thing: There is nothing more self-defeating than desperately needing a win.
I know this. And I still couldn’t quash that need.
Hunters are fond of saying we don’t need to kill anything to enjoy a hunt. It reassures our skeptics that we mean it when we say we enjoy the whole package that nature offers us.
And we do.
But no one enjoys going out day after day after day only to be met with failure. There are cheaper, easier and less sleep-deprived ways to immerse oneself in nature’s glories.
Ten days after I got sick, I decided I was well enough to hunt, but not like I usually do. I needed things to be easier than usual. That’s a big ask on public land.
Here’s how it went down:
I drove to one of my favorite refuges the Tuesday after Christmas to enter a lottery to get in the next morning. I needed to draw a number in the top 40 to be assured of getting in. When I got there, the line was huge. Every duck hunter within 100 miles apparently had the day off Wednesday. My odds off getting a good number sucked.
My number that would be thrown into the hat was 100. A pretty number. Pretty numbers never get good draws. I drove home knowing I was screwed. At least I could sleep in.
When the 7 p.m. draw time arrived, I kept hitting refresh on my cell phone waiting for the draw to be posted.
I drew 26! I was in. I’d have to set my alarm after all. It was the only good lottery number I’d drawn in at least a year, maybe more.
At 4:30 the next morning, hanging out in the semi-darkness near the hunter check station, my buddy and I strategized: Where were we likely to get a good spot reasonably close to a parking lot? We had one choice with many options close to a parking lot, but none we were familiar with; we had another choice we were familiar with that had max two good spots close to the parking lot, but if someone else beat us there, we’d have a longer walk to find another place to hunt.
We gambled on the latter. I braced for the same grinding failure I’d met all season.
Once our number was called, we headed out in the patchy fog to our chosen parking lot, which had only two other trucks in it. Setting out, it didn’t look like anyone was in our target pond yet, but it was hard to be sure with the fog.
Soon enough, we were there, and we were first, so we got the exact spot we wanted. We set decoys in a little hole surrounded by a loose circle of bulrush patches and small islands covered by brittle thickets of dead wild carrot and hemlock. As more hunters came into the area, no one crowded us. No conflict!
So far, so good, but now, we needed the birds to fly. Would this be a good spot, or another depressing dead zone surrounded by better shooting? I felt like I’d used a season’s worth of good luck that morning already.
But the birds did fly. They were landing in our decoys before shoot time, and they kept flying after shoot time.
Now I just needed to drop ducks close to me, because my lungs couldn’t handle a lengthy chase through water, mud and submerged vegetation. Hell, even blowing a wigeon whistle wore me out.
My first shot opportunity was a pair of spoonies. I had decided before shoot time that I wasn’t going to be picky today - I would take what came, no pouting. So I took the shot.
Shots. Both of them. Doubled. Both fell close.
A weight lifted.
This is what a duck hunt is supposed to be like. Shoot time comes. Ducks fly. You shoot the ones that come close enough.
A few hours later, I Scotch-doubled on a pair of green-winged teal to finish my limit - seven ducks and a bonus snow goose that had sailed into our pond, shot by someone else probably a mile away. All my birds had fallen close. I’d shot 15 shells. That’s a damn good day by any measure.
I had desperately needed a successful hunt. And I had gotten literally everything I needed: a good lottery number, a short walk, a good spot, a good flight, and good shots for easy retrieves.
How easily that despair turned to joy!
The feeling that failure would never end - and that it was all my fault - had passed.
And apparently the birds were finally here, California being one of the few unfrozen places after that nasty polar vortex had swept across the country.
The only question was whether I’d learned anything. Chances are good that the slow periods of our season will continue to grow longer. Have I now seen enough to stop taking it personally?
Guess I’ll find out next year.
To The Bone is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Can't imagine the COVID improved your shooting or your confidence. Ugh. I have to say that my jaw dropped at $1.25 million for any duck club buy-in. First, those are very expensive ducks. And, second, that's grotesque. What a strange place we're in.
Very impressed with your waterfowl hunting dedication!
Damn that Covid!