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Colusa was really different from San Francisco. But while I was there I discovered one of my great passions, a sport I’d never heard of before: rat hunting.
I grew up duck hunting. Which I never really liked because you had to wake up at some obscene hour, wade through a freezing swamp and sit in a dark cold blind that reeked of stale farts and was covered in tobacco spit. Then you waited very quietly—absolutely no talking allowed—for what seemed like hours for some tiny lonesome bird to fly by. Usually, at this point I would be fixing a cuticle or counting the cigar butts at the bottom of the blind and miss the entire event, which so often spurred that cool frustration from my dad—I was clearly “Not Paying Attention”—and the subsequent reminder that I was very lucky to be out there with him given that I am, after all, a girl.
Pheasant hunting was much more my speed. You went at a decent hour, like in the afternoon; you were out walking around, and the birds were big, and you could chatter as much as you like. Either way, duck hunting or pheasant hunting, I can’t say I was a very good shot. Rat hunting, on the other hand, I was great at.
I first heard of rat hunting at a birthday party after I’d been married and living in Colusa for a few months. The birthday boy, Donny, was complaining that the rats were eating all his rice seeds before they had the chance to take root. The obligatory discussion about the cheapest and most effective rat poison on the market ensued, and more Coors Lights were consumed. About an hour later, Donny decided that he had had enough of his own party and that he was getting his gun and taking off to go rat hunting. I looked at my then-husband and said, “Oh this, I have to see.”
In Colusa, there was no need to go home to get your guns, everybody kept them in their pick-ups. So two girls and thee guys piled into Donny’s Chevy along with three guns and a case of Coors Light. We took off for the rice fields. Given that we’d all get a DUI, we took the back roads.
I have to be honest. Rats really scared me. They move fast, have long hairless tails, ugly toothy faces and regardless of what my mother said, I’ve always thought that they were nowhere near as afraid of me as I was of them. In fact, I thought they were out to get me. This made the idea of hunting them down all the more thrilling. Really conquering one’s fear.
The how-to’s of rat hunting. There was an old story about my ex-husband’s uncle who spent the summer driving a tractor and living in a one-room country house. Legend had it, he came home bombed one night and walked in on a whole slew of rats going crazy eating everything in his house. He got himself so worked up over all the rats that he took out his pistol and blasted twenty holes in the walls trying to “teach those little fuckers a lesson”. Now the rat hunting that I experienced was an outdoor sport, rather than an indoor one, that used shotguns and shells, rather than pistols with bullets.
The best hunting was in rice fields right after the seed was flown on and before it took root. Rice fields are long rectangles separated by little levee roads and the rats liked nibbling the seed on the edge of one field then running across the road to nibble the seed of another field. All the hunter had to do was walk along the side of the pick up while the driver slowly creeped along the road. The lights from the pick-up got the rats moving, and when one came into your line of sight, you just shot. This seemed easier said than done.
As we were driving out, we passed what was fondly called the Fields of Death. These fields absolutely stunk of dead animal. For most farmers, the killing of rats was a purely economic equation. Were the rats going to eat enough of the crop to justify the cost of the rat poison and its application? The answer for most farmers entailed putting on some rat poison, but not nearly enough to kill all the rats. It was all about return on investment. Mike, the owner of the Fields of Death, wasn’t concerned with ROI, he flat-out wasn’t rational about rats anymore. He felt that the rats had declared war on him personally and he spent every dime he could on buying up all of the rat poison in the county to cover his fields with it. Mike’s fields were located right off of Interstate 5 and for about three miles in each direction all you could smell was dead animal. For me, having the private knowledge that this smell was due to thousands of dead rotting rats had a tendency to kick in the old gag reflex.
As we drove by and I gagged into my Coors Light, Donny decided that we could hunt some fields that were out of smelling distance from Mike’s. We bumped over more dirt roads and finally arrived at our hunting grounds. We had two 12 gauges and a 20 gauge. I won’t shoot with a 12 because its kick hurts my shoulder, and most men wouldn’t be caught dead with a 20 gauge so we two girls shared it. Unlike the guys, we played rock-paper-scissors for who had to go first, not who got to go first. She was just as freaked out by the rats as I was, and there wasn’t a chance in hell that both of us would be out on the road alone.
I lost and got out of the pick-up. My husband gave me a handful of shells and told me not to shoot too far ahead. While in the safety of the truck’s cab, I thought up a few hunting strategies.
I could walk next to the window of the pick-up, feeling the security of the driver’s company but actually walking in the dark—therefore leaving an opening for the rats to sneak-up and bite my ankles without me noticing. Or I could walk out in front of the pick-up, bathed in the security of the headlights, but out of easy voice contact with the driver. This would leave me open to the possibility of hundreds of rats forming a posse and launching a full scale eating attack on me, piranha style. The third option of sitting on the hood of the pick-up was never viable for me. First, it didn’t accomplish the moment by moment face-your-fears element of the hunt that I craved. And second, the results could be much more disastrous. If the driver braked hard, I could go flying off the hood and get run over by the truck. This would leave me paralyzed, under the truck, in the dark, but aware enough to feel the rats feasting on my maimed extremities. I thought that I would alternate between the first two strategies, switching whenever I got too freaked out.
So, I stood at the side of the pick-up talking to Donny and hoping every so often so that I wasn’t such a predictable target for the sneaky rats.
Out came a big fat rat about 20 yards ahead. It was hauling across the road and just as I lifted the gun to lead it and shoot (like you’re supposed to do in duck hunting), it stopped.
Then there was another, this time the little sucker was just strolling across the road. I had all the time in the day. I lifted my gun again and shot, a good clean shot that nailed it. Boom. The rat actually blew up. It was amazing. You know when you go trap shooting and you hit a clay pigeon straight on? It just shatters into a million little pieces. That was this rat. Gone. Shattered.
Ah, the rush of the kill.
I looked at Donny. He looked at me. We were both grinning from ear to ear. He knew what was at work. I was coming down with rat hunting fever.
No sooner had I reloaded my gun when there were more rats. Actually at any given time there were no less than ten rats within eyesight. I could just keep shooting and reloading. It was no problem if I missed, because there was always another to take its place. Sometimes I could even kill three or four in one shot.
The best was when the rats just sat there in groups nibbling on the side of the road. I imagined that they were mocking me, smugly thinking that I couldn’t hit them for all the tea in China. Ahh, the satisfaction of raising my gun and wiping that smirk right off their little rat faces. Watching them all be blown into oblivion. Conquering.
This was fun. Granted, I was still a little freaked about being attacked by the rats, that feeling didn’t hold a candle to the excitement, the pure thrill of the hunt.
I shot about fifteen rats and thought that I should probably pass my gun back to the other girl for her turn. Then I thought, “Naa, let her ask for the gun.” I shot another fifteen rats before she asked if she could have a turn.
“Sure, just a second, let me just get that group up there.”
“Hang on, I just want to try for those guys.”
“In a minute, do you see them? They’re just begging me to nail them.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? You’ve never even been duck hunting.”
“My aren’t you getting pushy—have another Coors.”
“Donny, your girlfriend is a little uptight isn’t she?”
Finally, I ran out of shells.
When I turned to my husband for more, he gave me that look. The one that meant, “Not on your life. You will share come hell or high water.”
He pried the gun out of my hands and handed it to the other girl, gave her some shells and explained to her how to shoot.
I sulked in the front seat for a few minutes. Then I watched her hunting and realized that I was the better shot. I was the born rat huntress.
Carter Jackson is Californian who came to London for a three month work gig… eight years ago. She met Mr. Perfect, who turned out to be a Croydon boy, and now happily lives in South London with him and their two kids. In addition to writing and her family, she enjoys working for the same company that originally brought her over.