North Carolina Waterfowl Should Fear Sister in Arms

Heather Hatley is a good enough shot that she impressed her friend, Cody Baker, who also is a competitive gunner.

Waterfowl Hunting no longer is a pastime that’s the sole domain of grungy guys.

The scuffling of shoes, water running, men stumbling in the dark as they pulled on chest waders and Gore-Tex camouflage coats, and the smell of coffee permeated the old farmhouse at 4 a.m.Outside the wind clawed at the windows. Even though it was nearing the end of the 2004-05 waterfowl season and this was eastern North Carolina where it’s not supposed to get extremely cold, temperatures hadn’t climbed much higher than 28 degrees for a week. The wind-chill factor made outside conditions feel like 17 degrees each morning.

But it was perfect waterfowling weather, so it
shouldn’t have been a surprise that Tar Heel duck hunters had gathered to close out the season. But the last person you’d probably expect to find at a house filled with middle-age hunters and Lab lovers would be a petite 15-year-old girl, who appeared as if she’d be more comfortable in a warm gymnasium, cheering on a high school basketball team, or at home in her bedroom, listening to Cold Play or Green Day CDs.

But if you were lucky enough last year to be at the shakedown cruise for Watson’s Lodge (at Scranton south of Lake Mattamuskeet), you’d have seen the petite teen-ager getting ready for a day in a duck blind with a group of grizzled grungzoids.

Each morning, as 20-some male hunters prepared for the day’s hunts (tundra swan hunts also were on the menu), Heather Hatley donned camouflage clothing, stuck face mask, shells and gloves in her pockets and toted her 20-gauge auto-loader out to her dad’s truck an hour before daybreak. Like the men, she was primed for a freezing boat ride to a blind along one of the creeks off the Pungo River and ready to take on fast-flying ducks. And not only would she prove her mettle by knocking down her share of bluebills and buffleheads, she capped the last day by nailing her first tundra swan.

She had accompanied her father, Chris Hatley of Salisbury, to a house Scranton resident, Joe Don Sawyer has converted into a hunting lodge (see sidebar).

Hatley and his partner, Tommy Smith of Concord, arranged the annual season-ender hunt as a reward to volunteers who helped them with youth deer hunts sponsored by the Southern Piedmont Chapter of Quality Deer Management Association. Hatley and Smith formed their own organization in 2005, Hunters Helping Kids, to get youths interested in the traditions of hunting.

Hatley’s daughter began to shoot skeet competitively in March 2004, and a scant six months later, during August, she won the N.C. Sub-Junior Skeet title with a high-90s (average) score (out of 100 targets) in .410, .28, .20 and 12-gauge competition, along with the E1 12-gauge championship.

Skeet (as opposed to trap) features eight shooting stations arranged at the ends a 21-yard-radius semi-circle, with two “houses” at each end of the semicircle. Gunners take turns firing from one of eight stations, firing at clay targets that fly from the houses. The last shooting station (No. 8) is at the base of the radius and between the houses, so clay birds fly almost directly over the shooter’s head. A trap range, on the other hand, has five stations, each 9 feet apart, aligned along the edge of a semi-circle 16 yards from a trap machine. A trap-throwing device zips clay targets in front and away from the shooters.

Skeet probably duplicates duck flights better than trap, which is more of an upland gamebird wing-shooting exercise.

Heather said she got started with “backyard” shooting, popping away at clay targets when she was 11 or 12 years old.

“My dad has a small skeet-launcher we used,” she said. “I started with a .410 (the smallest-gauge shotgun that provides little recoil and a good starter gun for learners), but I didn’t use it for long. Then I went to a .20-gauge, then a .28-gauge and a 12-gauge.”

Her skeet gun is a Browning Citori over-and-under with interchangeable choke tubes.

“She started shooting when she was about 6 or 7 years old,” Chris Hatley said. “She shot a .22 rifle back then. She started (skeet) because of her sister (Holly), trying to beat her. Now they shoot every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday (at a skeet club).”

Since her junior year of high school began in 2005, her dad said Heather has concentrated on trying to re-qualify for East Rowan’s Hunter Safety team, so she entered relatively few competitive events this summer.

Her favorite duck gun is a Mossberg 20-gauge auto-loader.

“I started taking her duck hunting with me four years ago,” Hatley said. “She’s got no problem hitting ducks. In fact, she hits more than I do.”

“I really started (competitive) shooting in March 2004,” she said. “This guy, Joe Early, helped me get started in that. My older sister, Holly, does it, too (Holly was the 2004 State Open Ladies Champion runner-up). Joe Early reloads my shells.”

Her first taste of competitive clay-target shooting occurred at Morganton. “It was a small shoot,” she said.

Then it was on to the state shoot in August 2004 where she won the Sub-Junior at Old Hickory Gun Club near Rocky Mount.

“I’ll probably try to go on up (the competitive shooting ladder), maybe even trying to qualify for the Olympic team,” she said, “if I get good enough.”

Last year she also received encouragement from a companion shooter, Cody Baker, 16, a sophomore at West Davidson High School. Heather was a sophomore, too, but at East Rowan High.

“I met (Baker) at a skeet club,” she said.

So who’s the better shot?

“Well,” she said with a sly smile, “it depends on the day each of us is having.”

Very diplomatic.

Her introduction to duck hunting happened several years ago, however not in the shooting vein. She was involved in a more traditional approach that convinced her to take up hunting.

“My dad and some of his friends hunted ducks at High Rock Lake,” she said. “I helped them clean (the birds), and my mom did the cooking.”

But soon Heather decided it would be more fun to be on the hunting end than the cleaning and cooking end.

“I’ve been coming down here (to Mattamuskeet with her dad) for about 4 years,” she said.

None of the rough-and-tumble hunters at Scranton wanted to challenge Heather’s shooting skills and that proved to be a wise choice as she returned to Sawyer’s new lodge each day with her share of ducks. About 5 feet, 5 inches tall and a natural blond, she didn’t appear extremely suited for the cold weather and tough shooting, but she never complained and held up as well as any of the men.

She said being outside suited her just fine.

“I like to be outside,” she said, “and I like duck hunting. At home I ride horses; I don’t play sports (at the high school).”

Naturally, she said her love of the outdoors and traditional male sports has confounded some of her high school classmates, particularly the girls.

“Most of them don’t say anything,” she said. “A few of them who know I like to hunt have asked me how could I do that, shoot little ducks. But no one really gives me a hard time. If they did give me a hard time, I’d just tell ’em this is just something I like to do.”

Heather said it helps she also has a best friend, Amber McKenzie, who understands her interest in shooting and hunting.

“We shoot (skeet) together, but she doesn’t shoot competitively,” she said.

So, she said, it really doesn’t matter to her if she catches a lot of flak because of her pastime.

“I’m probably going to continue to shoot and hunt,” she said. “I wish more girls would get involved in this. Besides, I like hunting with the guys.”

Heather said she never feels uncomfortable hunting waterfowl and staying at a lodge with a bunch of old men, although conversations tend to get a little raunchy at times.

“It’s kind of like a slumber party,” she said, eyes twinkling, “but the stories the men tell are a lot different.”

About Craig Holt 1382 Articles
Craig Holt of Snow Camp has been an outdoor writer for almost 40 years, working for several newspapers, then serving as managing editor for North Carolina Sportsman and South Carolina Sportsman before becoming a full-time free-lancer in 2009.

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