In the winter of 2008, when most “Angelenos” were packing their fur-cuffed Ralph Lauren ski coats and boarding flights to snowy destinations where they would lounge by roaring fires and sip hot coffee and Bailey’s Irish Cream, I was standing in line at TSA in a water-proof double-lined “Duck Blind” patterned jacket in the stifling 80 degree heat waiting to check a 12ga. at the Jet Blue terminal in Burbank. This was my first time flying with a gun and apparently the Burbank TSA agents’ first time checking a gun.
You don’t see a lot of hunters out here in Los Angeles. Of course, it could just be they’re all very well camouflaged during the day – dressed in suits and ties, buried under stacks of Xerox white paper awash in bad florescent lighting.
My younger brother, the year before, had invited me up north to discover the thrill of duck hunting. Nate had been introduced to the sport by a high school friend, and was becoming a very proficient hunter. He joined the Butte City Duck Club and his membership fee included just one seat in a three-man blind that sat on the edge of a rice check. On weekends when he knew his blind partners would not be hunting, he always invited a friend – and that year, he invited me.
Although I didn’t actually “hunt” anything that first year (I was just along for the ride as the unofficial photographer) I fell in love with the sport right there on the spot. I mean, what’s not to love about a foggy 4 am wake-up call, rising out of bed to the smell of coffee brewed in a French press? What’s not to love about a muddy five-mile ATV ride in pitch-blackness lit only by the beam of your headlamp? What’s not to love about hunkering down in a cold damp hole for eight hours while field mice and frogs run about your feet?
What’s not to love about the deafening crack of twelve gauge shotgun blasts ringing in your ears or the snap of cartilage between your fingers as you wring the last breath out of tonight’s dinner? What’s not to love?
Located just 20 miles South of Chico or 20 miles East of Willows – depending on how you orient yourself, the Butte City Duck Club is idyllically situated in a natural flyway where birds are constantly traveling between the new Llano Seco National Wildlife Refuge to the north and the Howard Slough, Little Dry Creek, and Gray Lodge state Wildlife Areas to the south.
Huntable birds include the Blue Winged Teal, Cinnamon Teal, Widgeon, Pintail, Mallard, Shoveler (also sometimes referred to as a “spoony”), the odd Wood Duck, Red Head and Canada goose.
Landing at the Oakland airport, Butte City was just another short 2-hour drive north where an upper bunk-bed in a tow-behind pop-out camping trailer called my name.
The year I shot my first waterfowl we arrived at the Butte City Duck Club the day after Thanksgiving, 2009. The weather was bright and sunny and the local birds, knowing better, didn’t fly over our blind more than but two or three times. They were stale, decoy shy and call shy. Not even the Lucky Duck mobiles or quiver butts could get them to take a second look. No, in such bright and sunny conditions, birds see quite well. They can see objects in great detail at a distance of two-and-a-half times farther than a human. But we hunters think we’re pretty clever, don’t we? Covering our selves in thatched grass huts and zipping our dogs up in camouflaged vests. At 100 feet above us, I’m sure the birds looked down, shook their heads and snickered to each other “Hey look at that, a bunch of dumbasses sitting in a hole with a stupid dog in clothes.”
Combined, I don’t think the three of us had an occasion to shoot even an entire box of shells – and even then we were pretty much skyscraping. Without ample wind and rain to drive the birds down, they really have no reason to land in a suspicious pond.
I was disappointed to say the least. Since over the last nine months I had been honing my shooting skills at the Angeles Shooting Range in Little Tujunga and at the Lynwood Rod & Gun Club which I joined almost immediately following the purchase of my first gun, a 3” 12ga. Browning Silver Hunter. I had done a lot of research leading up to the purchase. The Silver Hunter got high marks, was as reliable as any of the other makes on the market and was light (only 7.3lbs) – making it an ideal size for a smaller female hunter.
With weekly practice, I quickly became very proficient at skeet, trap, and a game called pot shooting. Lynwood Rod & Gun Club is a pot-shooting club. The game combines traditional trap throws, with long distances, and gambling. In some games, to win, you have to break clays at more than 100yards away. Yes, you read that right. 100 yards. To ensure your greatest advantage – you better load your own. My recipe – which I won’t divulge in detail – is a combination of Longshot gunpowder, 6-petal wads and Nitro Gold Remington hulls.
My next Butte City duck hunt occurred the weekend of December 18th of the same year, just a week before Christmas. With a big goose egg to show for my last effort I was determined not to come home empty-handed. It was a blustery winter night and we were hoping the wind would stick around until the next morning. But by 4:45 it was calm and we packed our bags with about 100 rounds of Black Cloud #3 ammo, a half dozen beers, some water, beef jerky and peanut M&Ms.
At about 7:30 am that morning I sailed my first widgeon into the end of the check. The day waned on and the three of us, my brother, myself and another club member, Skip, only got about a dozen more shots off before we called it a day and climbed out of the blind. But I had one – a 100% improvement over my last trip out.
On Sunday we headed back out under improved weather conditions. The fog had settled in the night before and the clouds encroached lowering the ceiling and forcing the birds down. Gunfire rang out from every blind around us flaring the birds that flew overhead. My brother did a great job of pulling the singles and pairs off of other people’s checks and into ours. By noon we had each bagged our limit – six or seven Widgeon, a couple spoonies, one or two Teals and even a couple Green Heads for Nate.
Monday the weather had lifted and most of the birds had flown elsewhere. I was satisfied with my bounty and was eager to clean my share and pack them for the flight home, but a race for the Oakland airport would delay my feathered friends from making it back to Orange County until several days later. Arriving at Oakland Airport just 45 minutes before take off, my camo jacket splattered in blood, and my gun case caked in mud, I got funny stares from old women in gaudy clip on earrings.
Our harvest that weekend totaled 42. On Christmas Eve, packed in an insulated golf bag and ice were the breasts from seven Widgeons, one Shoveler and one Blue Winged Teal. I prepared the widgeon by wrapping it in bacon and barbequing it on an open flame with wild mushroom and asparagus risotto.
Since then, I’ve hunted Butte another half dozen times. Last winter, was the first winter I didn’t do any waterfowl hunting as I was 8 months pregnant and couldn’t quite fathom climbing in and out of a sunken steel blind. But I did enjoy the Dove season opener in Sonoma, plus two unsuccessful back-to-back turkey hunts in San Diego County and finally, one triumphant pheasant hunt in San Bernardino.
This coming fall, my brother Nate will move to Colorado with his new wife, Katie. There will be plenty of natural lakes, ponds, rivers and sloughs to attract migrating birds from the high mountains of Montana, the Dakotas and Saskatchewan. I look forward to the season and the challenges an unfamiliar hunting ground will undoubtedly present.
Author: Kathy Dumalski