Talkin’ Turkey

You know you’re getting old when, day in, day out, you read about baseball diamonds, football fields, gyms and most-valuable-player awards named after people who were either your coaches, teammates or opponents, also friends and folks you knew well.Which brings me to turkey hunting and the spring season that opens in a little more than a week. The thought of that, too, reminds me that my days in this place I call home are growing deep. Yes, it’s true: I remember when there were no wild turkeys here.

As unimaginable as that may seem to peach-fuzzed farm boys accustomed to shooing bold winter flocks of them away from silage piles or backyard compost heaps and students viewing them daily through school-bus windows, there was no such thing as a wild turkey in Franklin County when I was a kid. Like black bears and moose — and dare I say cougars — they started to appear on the horizon like ghosts or magic-mushroom flashbacks, the occurrences about as frequent and ridiculed as UFO sightings. But come they did and, with the possible exception of cougars, they’re now here to stay with ubiquitous presence along our roadsides, be they rural or suburban.

It was quite a success story, that of the Bay Sate wild-turkey-restoration program shepherded by scholarly Jim Cardoza, another man I knew and valued greatly as a source. Funny. As new wildlife settle into old haunts, old privileges like being able to make spontaneous phone calls to state wildlife officials for comment exist no longer. Those with the most to hide call it progress. Not me. I know it’s not that, but rather one more way to craft a response and hide uncomfortable truths concerning sensitive issues gone awry. Oh well. What can you do besides complain, which gets you nowhere? “You must just learn to live with it,” say pragmatic moderates. Well, I hate moderates, always trying to excuse the inexcusable while shaping an obedient party line and succumbing to Orwellian influences.

But why go there? I’ve said enough about that. Back to wild turkeys, which took to restoration like the true-believers wished and prayed Atlantic salmon could have. Sorry boys. Too late, no matter what the Trumpian deniers and wishy-washy middle of the roaders tell you about our warming planet. Regionally, this warming has brought turkeys to parts of northern New England where they were not found in the days when Indians called it theirs. Montpelier, St. Johnsbury and Lydonville, Vt.? Uh-uh. Lancaster, N.H.? No siree. Freedom, Me.? Not a chance. The winters in those northern haunts were just too harsh back in the day. Not anymore. My sister-in-lay reports wild turkeys wintering over in a place called Lost Nation, located between Burke Mt. and rough-and-tumble Island Pond. That’s up there, Dude, definetely no place for turkeys 100 years ago. Times have changed.

Here, I remember first getting newspaper wind of the trap-and-relocation projects of the 70s but didn’t start seeing turkeys until the early ’80s. Even then you had to go looking. I’m pretty sure I had started writing this column by the time of the first Massachusetts hunting season opened. Very few permits were then drawn by lottery and the hunting territory was limited to parts of Berkshire County. I was definitely penning this weekly column by the time western Franklin County became part of the open territory, and I vividly recall talking about turkey hunting with semifast-pitch softball teammate Gary “Bunner” Miller, an early officer of the local National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) chapter he helped found with wife Mary Jane. A field rep for Butski Game Calls, he was probably the first turkey caller I watched demonstrate calling with mouth and friction calls, which interested me enough to learn to use them myself and call gobblers to the gun. I still own the first call I bought from him, a sweet-singing Butski walnut box call that has been a productive locator call capable of breaking difficult morning silence when nothing else seems to work. I’m sure it would still do the trick if I ventured out.

Turkey-hunting can really get your blood boiling. I learned that from buddy Joe Judd, who went on to become a hunting companion of some of the world’s finest turkey hunters, most of them affiliated in some way with Quaker Boy Game Calls, for whom he was a regional rep, not to mention a longtime officer of the WMass Chapter of the NWTF. He introduced me to daybreak gobbling at a farm not far up the hill from my current Greenfield home, and I was soon off hunting the big, challenging birds.

Later, Judd encouraged me to invest in a limited-edition state NWTF chapter Governor’s Series turkey lithograph signed by Bill Weld. I bought two low numbers (9 and 14) from the limited-edition set of 50 and still own them, along with two sets of three fancy Governor’s Series Quaker Boy box calls, again Nos. 9 and 14 from limited-edition sets of 50. I have been told that those collectible box calls, illustrated by the late artist Wally Turner, are fetching tidy sums on eBay but have held onto them for posterity. They’re all functional, expertly crafted, sweet-sounding calls that are best kept as showpieces stored in their original, clear plastic-topped boxes on mantles or library shelves. Who knows, maybe my grandsons will cash in when I’m dead and gone. Maybe they’ll even learn to make them sing.

How times have changed since those first years of turkey hunting in Franklin County, the days when proud old baseball buddy Big Stosh would show up in my South Deerfield yard around 9 a.m. with a nice longbeard in tow. I think I still have a few photos around somewhere, showing my smiling friend holding up a trophy tom under my white-blossoming apple tree. His visits were, of course, always accompanied by blow-by-blow accounts of his hunt from the first gobble to the deafening shotgun roar. Those were the days when turkey hunting was an exciting new game, one that has traveled clear across this state and to the rest of New England by now. Yes, quite a success story, with turkey flocks and strutting toms a welcome addition to bucolic roadside landscapes.

I may yet get back out in the turkey woods when I find time. There is nothing not to like about turkey hunting, from walking up dark, predawn paths, to settling into a concealed spot and listening, to calling a vociferous gobbler off the roost to the gun. It’s not always easy. Sometime gobblers get “hung up,” insisting they’ve come as far as they’re willing to come. That’s the challenge: convincing a dominant tom accustomed to calling ladies to him to go against the grain and come to your calls. When the time’s right, it works. When the time is wrong, well, it can be frustrating indeed. Been there, done that. But you always seem to come back for more.

An added bonus is that the early part of the annual season coincides with fiddlehead picking. Oh my, I couldn’t count the times I came home bird-less yet carrying a T-shirt stuffed with fresh fiddleheads to rinse off. Then again, there were times when I returned with fiddleheads and a turkey, presenting more of a morning project than I had anticipated upon firing up my truck on the way out well before first light.

How could a man complain about problems like that?

Springtime Observations

What a day. One delay after another. Not a one of them unwelcome. Must be the springtime air. Positive energy. The season of optimism. Mating and nesting. No wonder birds are singing their happy tunes.

On my way out to the dogs, delayed till noon, a blind man couldn’t have missed that brilliant cock cardinal sitting in the naked, budding, front-yard sugar maple that’s seen better days. Battered and bruised, it’s a survivor, and then some. Hit by lightning before I moved to Greenfield 21 springs ago, I’ve had it tended to a few times, including the time some 15 years ago when a June microburst swept in from the northwest and toppled a tall spruce tree at the tip of my driveway island. When I returned home, the 60-foot tree was uprooted across the eastern leg of the driveway and onto the front yard, taking out several large maple limbs that threw the tree way out of balance toward the house.

The damage necessitated a visit from my friend Blue Sky, a tree man with a conscience who removed the spruce and shaped the maple by crowning it, that is shaving maybe 15 feet off the crown. Today, it still stands, a big chunk hollowed out of the trunk’s eastern face, again in need of a little trimming, which worries me a little but not my cat, who uses it for security, or that bright red cardinal sitting there Wednesday. The bird’s joy was loud and obvious from the happy springtime melody it was singing, likely waiting for me to leave so he could fly down to the bushes to eat rose hips, mock-orange and/or burning-bush seeds, his choice, all three plentiful under his sunny maple perch.

Those quacking ducks I reported hearing last week and promised to eventually identify did indeed show themselves the very next day. This time, the wind was right for rambunctious Chubby, who entered the swollen wetland under two wild apple trees, ran through the marshy tangles and entered the standing water backed up under the escarpment lip. I could tell by his alert, playful gait and aggressive splashing that he had a noseful of something he liked very much. Sure enough, after I turned the staghorn-sumac corner and headed south toward water protruding out into the tree-farm meadow, out flushed two vociferous wood duck drakes, head extended straight out, flying fast toward a wet woodland south of me. An excited Chub-Chub wasn’t far behind, mighty proud of himself for displacing those woodies, not to mention sopped to the bone, oozing euphoria.

There is no New England duck more beautiful than the wood duck, which I stopped shooting many years ago out of respect. Woodies love beaver ponds, forest brooks and the type of wetlands where I often flushed them hunting grouse, woodcock or pheasants. Their distinctive sound in flight makes them easy to identify as soon as go airborne, and they are the only ducks I know of that perch in trees. Look it up as I did many years ago when softball buddy Pres, a talented speaker-maker and baseball nut, asked me if I had ever seen a duck perched in a tree. The bemused look I responded with told him I figured he must be having a flashback of some sort from the late Sixties. He chuckled: “I’m serious, Bags. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

I can’t remember if his unforgettable sighting occurred in Colrain, where he once lived, of Conway, where he liked to explore, but it was one or the other. I knew he was serious. Later, looking for confirmation before you could just Google it, I queried former Connecticut Valley Wildlife District Game Manager Mike Ciborowski, asking if ducks perch in trees. “Yes,” responded the fellow South Deerfield native with no hint of a wry grin or jest in his voice. “Wood ducks perch in trees.” I have still never seen it myself, but don’t doubt it, either. Ciborowski knows his birds.

Something else that stirred my curiosity this week unfolded Tuesday and Wednesday out in the middle of a hayfield near home. Walking south with Chubby and Lily Tuesday morning, Chub-Chub lit up on a scent that captured my fancy. His reaction told me it was a bird, maybe a turkey, although I have yet to see one this spring where I walk daily. On a full sprint, he ran a broad circle, crossed it through the middle back toward me, passed me and sprinted to a distant tree line along the lip of an escarpment bordering Sunken Meadow. He followed the tree line south to another tree line heading west, then started snooping around a garden, green houses and haying equipment. No luck, he knew the chase was over. “Hmmmm? Wonder what that was all about,” I pondered as I continued along my merry way. Toward the end of the walk, within sight of my truck some 100 yards away, I heard the distinctive call of an airborne killdeer passing in front of me, Chubby racing behind it with purpose. It was my first killdeer sighting of spring. Maybe that’s what Chubby was after, I thought.

Well, next day, Wednesday noontime, retracing my path of the previous day after exiting my truck, I noticed a big solitary bird standing out in the middle of the field. From afar, the profile told me Canada goose, possibly a duck, maybe even a turkey, the latter a long shot. As I got closer, dogs roaming between me and the road and unaware of the bird, I could see it was indeed a goose, which was fully tuned into our presence and ready to flee. Standing right where Chubby had gone wild the previous day, I figured goose must have been the scent he had chased.

I walked up to within maybe 60 yards of the big bird and thought maybe it was hurt and unable to fly. I hoped not, because my dogs would definitely catch it if injured, and I’d have to try to rescue it. No easy task. But, no, it was fine, honking and angling away from me on the run before taking a slow, low, laborious ascent across the field. It had no reason to hurry. Chubby caught sight of it late and pursued in a half-hearted chase that soon ended. The sighting seemed peculiar to me. No. 1, why was it alone? No. 2, why the slow ascent? Aaah, I guess it was OK. It had no reason to overreact.

A hour later, pulling into my driveway, it’s later than I like when I have to crank out a column. I park temporarily next to the hitching past west of the barn, open my pickup’s tailgate and release the dogs from their porta-kennels. They aren’t on the ground more than a second or two and, above me, the whistling sound of a wood duck passes, headed for Hinsdale Brook. I wasn’t the only one who heard it. Chubby was tuned in, standing statuesque and watching, ears perked, as the duck hooked down into the stream 20 yards upstream from the kennel.

“Leave it,” I said, and he made no effort to pursue.

He knew better. Been there, done that. Tomorrow another day.

Springtime Bramble

Eleven o’clock, gray and damp, gentle spring rain falling, dogs patiently awaiting their daily morning romp around the upper hayfield and down through a Green River-side Christmas tree farm and wetland I long ago dubbed Sunken Meadow.

On my walk out back to the kennel, I pass the two-plant rhubarb bed at the southwest corner of our red, New England, cupula-topped barn and think, “Gee, what a perfect day to dump a couple of grain-shovelfuls of old dry horse manure from the barn cellar atop those tender green leaves clinging to the ground like affectionate hands.”

I walk to the cook-shed, pick up the shovel leaning against the western doorway frame, and walk to the open barn cellar forming the western perimeter of the backyard alcove created by barn, carriage sheds and woodshed, along which a gumdrop pile of cordwood stands covered by a plastic tarp. The anxious dogs bark from their kennel. They can wait a few minutes. I have work to do, a chore that will produce immediate rewards during a predicted wet week.

Within days, the deep green rhubarb leaves I cover in horse manure will poke through and display little sign of the organic fertilizer, perhaps the droppings of Jack, Jerry and Billy — the three horses’ names written in blue and nailed above the open stable stalls — likely deposited during the first third of the 20th century. The manure was swept into that cellar pile through two small trap doors. The farmer would scrape and pull the manure across the floor using a hoe-like tool, with a hook curling up opposite the blade. This hook slipped through a ring atop both trap doors fronting the box-stall doors, and the two covers would be lifted and dropped to the side, opening the hatchway to the cellar manure piles. New England farmers sure did have an efficient way about them, using a little of everything offered them to make life easier, cheaper and healthier. It’s a way of life that’s sadly and quickly vanishing into thin air.

But, enough of that. I caught the stocking truck dumping netfuls of what I assume were rainbow trout into the river this week and promptly called my friend to alert him. I’m sure by now he’s had his fun, hooking rainbows and reeling them in, playing them through those acrobatic leaps they’re known for. Yeah, it’s fun, but give me brook trout any day of the week, a bias he wouldn’t disagree with. Brookies are native to our waters, they’re stunningly beautiful and, if native, better eating than rainbows or browns, the orange meat moist and mighty tasty. Salubrious, too, unless tainted by some source of chemical pollution, which is not as rampant as it once was. What’s interesting about those squaretails, even big ones in the two-pound range, is that their first move after the hook is set is to dig deep toward the bottom. Yes, some may eventually go into the rainbow sky-pilot routine in a final, desperate attempt to shake free, but their instinct is to head for the bottom looking for submerged tangles and sharp ledge to snap the line.

Which reminds me, I bumped my first spring deer over the weekend, up close and personal, right near the spot where a day or two earlier I had flushed two pairs of vociferous mallards hightailing it out of the swamped wetland. I heard some quacking in there just today (Wednesday) and tried to send Chubby in to flush them.

“Find ’em,” I said with the excitement of hunting season. He knew the game, racing to the edge, nose high, before turning and sprinting the perimeter going away before stopping, spinning around to face me and sprinting, occasionally bouncing, before passing me.”

“Find ’em,” I repeated.

He faced the wetland brambles, standing straight and tall, head high, nose working. Not today. A tailwind was in the ducks’ favor. They were by then silent and ready to flush. Chubby never heard them when they were quacking. We moved on. Those ducks haven’t seen the last of Chub-Chub. Trust me.

Back to the deer, I encountered it at high noon, likely a doe judging from the broad white tail visible through the dense, budding alders. The dogs had already passed that southwestern corner of our daily walk there and I was heading straight for her when I saw the flash of white and heard her heavy steps splashing away through the swamp. Must have been something in there she was eating, probably not far from the spot where she’ll drop her fawns come June. Lots of great nesting sites away from the dangers of the first cut of spring haying operations that have claimed so many fawns over the years. Just another fact of mechanized life. Wrong place, wrong time. They had nothing to fear in the days of scythes and hayricks, not all that much earlier than the days when aforementioned Jack, Jerry and Billy stabled  at Old Tavern Farm in Greenfield’s Upper Meadows, 714 feet from a better place called Shelburne. I like my western neihbor even beter nowadays, with Brook Road closed, potentially forever. Can’t say I miss the Colrain/Southern Vermont traffic one little bit. Yes, I know, it is a selfish assessment indeed. Yet straight from the heart. Just me.

Which reminds me: even though I haven’t yet bumped my first wild turkey or seen one near home in my travels, it’s time to swap the snowblower for the mower deck. Spring’s sprung. Trust me.

About Fishing … Sort Of

Even when you no longer partake, fishing never leaves you, is always there, the stimuli ubiquitous whether walking, hiking, crossing a bridge on the road or just plain fantasizing.

I am reminded daily of the activity I so loved as a boy by a backyard brook named Hinsdale — its damp smell, its rattle, its tiny white-capped riffles dancing downstream. Every time I visit the dogs dogs, that babbling brook is there to greet me, too.

The gravel-bedded  mountain stream’s voice undergoes seasonal change, from the inspirational, free-spirited rattle and roars of spring, when the fishing’s best, to the faint, soothing summer trickle, to that soft winter murmur muzzled by dense ice. Even a strong wind cannot silence that gurgling winter murmur. It’s all good and, in its own way, thought-provoking, especially for those of us who learned to fish such streams, usually alone, picking our way slowly, soft-footed, reading water, hunting wary, colorful mountain trout.

For some of us, such flowing waters represent much more, venturing deep into the spiritual realm. They symbolize the flow of life itself, its ups and down, highs and lows, circulation. Even when young, very young, you can feel a spiritual pull you aren’t ready to comprehend. You feel the exhilaration, the joyful solitude, the ephemeral thrill of the hunt, but are unable to articulate the why. Unless exceptional — like, say, the fascinating boy-wonder William James Sidis I recently learned of — it takes time and maturity to interpret the many soothing streamside stimuli that captivate your senses and nestle you into a comfortable state of mind.

Yes, as a boy or girl, you keep coming back for the joy of catching fish, of matching wits, of evaluating situations, of success and failure. But what you can’t really comprehend or recognize at a young age is that, as much as playing the game is the lure, you keep returning because you’re enraptured with the forest air, the occasional muskrat slinking under an overhanging bank, the slap of the beaver’s tail, a turkey’s gobble, the drumming partridge, the flash of a fleeing whitetail or the heavy, lumbering rumble of a black-bear retreat. That’s why you keep coming back, even if you don’t realize it until much later, when your innate sentience is sharpened to a razor’s edge.

First, as an angler, you’re greedy, snapping the neck and gutting every trout you catch, filling wicker creel after creel day after day to show your parents, your friends, anyone who’s willing to look and listen to your tale. You do it not out of disrespect for the trout, but because you’re trying to earn respect as a competent angler who enjoys consistent success. It’s not much different than filling a scrapbook with newspaper clippings documenting that you can hit home runs or pull in a long ball over your shoulder when it really matters.

These fish that go by the bagful into the freezer or immediately into bacon fat in an iron, breakfast skillet are trophies of success, proof  of fishing acumen. Same goes with the frozen bagsful you bring to your grandmother, your neighbor, your girlfriend’s dad. It’s a selfish form of charity, a statement of your mettle as an angler, a trout hunter, an outdoorsman. I suppose we all go through it before learning a better way, that of taking only what we need, not what we want to boast about and show off.

Soon to be 65, I find myself wondering if I’ll fish again when my clock-punching days expire. I wonder if I’ll still pull joy from a long-ago-mastered skill. I entertain these curious thoughts out back listening to the brook, or on my walks along the pretty Picomeagan, renamed Green River by European conquerors, my ancestors among them, because of its greenish hue created by fine, gray watershed clays.

It’s difficult to predict whether I’ll return to my boyhood streams large and small.  I can’t help but remember clinging to my baseball past on the adult softball diamond into my early 40s, hanging ’em up and never looking back. That surprised me, taught me something. I really feared missing a game I loved and had played since a young boy. I soon discovered the time was right. I didn’t need the diamond anymore. In fact, it was clear to me that I had lingered too long, should have walked away 10 years earlier. There are many other more-fulfilling activities to capture your interest. That’s what I discovered. No. 1 among them, reading and probing  and learning.

When you think about it after the fact, isn’t always all about learning — be it fishing brook trout on a stormy day, sitting on stand waiting for deer at dusk, calling a vociferous gobbler from tree to gun at daybreak, or wing-shooting game birds through obstructed wetland tangles? Once you master one activity, you move on, find another challenge to master.

Then, one day, preferably sudden and painless, you’re gone, soon a fading  memory, your ashes scattered in a blustery winter wind whistling through a high, lonesome, hardwood ridge. As united creatures of nature’s kingdom, it’s inevitable. We all get there one way or another. Here today, gone tomorrow — a poignant fact we all must accept.
Hey, that’s life. Why fight or fear it?

Thoughts Of Spring

Hallelujah! Spring has sprung. Always welcome.

It’s the time of year when surges of optimism and newfound energy propel  you through your daily rounds, placing  a gleeful hop in your step. In the background are the happy melodies of songbirds celebrating the arrival of mating and nesting season, as vociferous turkeys establish territory with loud, daybreak gobbles from distant hardwood ridges. You can’t miss the sights, sounds and smells of spring, all gleaming harbingers to days of Bermuda shorts, cotton T-shirts and Birkenstocks. What a rush.

Unfortunately, there’s no denying spring can also be  a time of potential mischief and conflict for the young. I know. I lived it. Yes, I  endured many confrontations with classroom disciplinarians who couldn’t teach and could indeed keep you away from the baseball diamond. Then, when you got to play, some coaches were more focused on character-building and discipline and dress codes than fundamentals and winning, a regimen that typically ends badly. To me, the regimented routine was too stifling, providing little wiggle-room for free-spirited enthusiasm. You know that tired old team concept that offers little space for autonomy as everyone wears the same jackets, hats and haircuts, speaks the identical diamond jargon, toes the same authoritarian line with no room for meander. Those days are long behind me. Though I have not forgotten them, I hold no lingering resentment. What did it mean? It’s history. You only live once. Why dwell on the negative? I had my day, had my fun, moved on and have not missed it a bit. Honest.

Spring, to me, always signaled fishing free-flowing streams away from the watchful eye of authority and, later, getting into my spot before dawn to hunt turkeys, deer or bear occasionally passing through dawn’s ground fog. But more than anything else, to me it meant the crack of flame-tempered, wooden Louisville Sluggers, backhanding tough trap-hops, chasing down a gapper and snagging it fully extended over your shoulder. It was trying to beat out a ground bal in the hole for an infield hit, dumping the double-play pivot man head over heels on a takeout slide, stealing a base, racing from first to third or second to home on a single. Yes, back in the day, there was nowhere I’d rather be than on a baseball diamond, or even playing three-man stickball against a brick wall for that matter.

What was not to like? It was all good, right down to playful dugout banter with teammates on the bench between at-bats, stepping into the pressure-packed batter’s box in do-or-die situations, focusing on the pitcher’s release whether batting, playing in the field or kneeling in the on-deck circle, studying the man on the mound you were about to face.

“Your at-bat starts in the on-deck circle,” I was told by a friend and former pro ballplayer I respected greatly. I never forgot his valuable advice, and passed it on to kids I coached in later years. Hitting is all about focus, discipline and having a plan. You can’t  be anxious. It’s all about being patient, waiting for your pitch, laying off the junk a pitcher wants you to chase. If confident, you succeed. If not, you fail. And dealing with failure is essential even for the great ones, who are unsuccessful more than 60 percent of the time.

When you think of it, stream-fishing for trout is  not all that different. An angler must first learn to execute pinpoint casts, placing bait where fish are feeding without spooking them. Over time, all anglers learn where fish position their feeding lairs relative to the stream’s flow. Then, once you know where to find them, you must be able to present your bait in a natural, dead-drift manner that doesn’t spook them with detectable drag. It takes timing and finesse, not all that different than spiking a curveball to the opposite field. They’re transferable skills from the diamond to the stream. Both tasks require strategy, the three-step checklist of identification, patience and execution. When all three components flow in unison, success is probable. Screw up on any one of the three and the odds are against you. Which doesn’t mean you can never make a loud splashy cast and catch a fish, or drop an ugly bloop single over the infield despite being totally fooled on a pitch. It happens, but not often enough to remain relevant for long.

Same with turkey hunting, which also requires a heavy dose of discipline and patience, even after you have learned about wild-turkey behavior. That means not being overaggressive with your calls, sitting painfully motionless and waiting for precisely the right moment to squeeze the trigger. Though I don’t recall ever squeezing the trigger on a turkey and returning empty-handed, I have seen it happen and, yes, even the best of the best can make mistakes, then, most importantly, learn from them. If you’re patient and wait till the bird’s no more than 25 yards  (preferably 10 or 15) out with his head straight up, it’s automatic. This waiting game requires total concentration and focus, a lot like a right-handed hitter recognizing a good outside slider, waiting, cutting down on his swing and shooting a line-drive single over the second-baseman’s head. Have the discipline to make contact off your back hip and you succeed. Try to pull it, and, unless very lucky, you’re done. Hitting is all about discipline. Success is less apt to visit overaggressive, undisciplined hitters swinging from the heels, just like it’s elusive to anglers who make bad casts or turkey hunters who move too much. The wrong approach seldom produces good results.

Hmmmm? What inspired this midday, first-day-of-spring ramble? Must have been that morning walk with the dogs. Even gray skies, frozen ground and predicted overnight snow couldn’t dampen my spirits. Who cares? Spring is here. I guess old-timers get the fever, too.

Deer Radiate Pure Freedom

The view from Hinsdale Brook’s southern bank behind my home — between the cook-shed, where I feed my dogs daily, and their kennel — covers maybe 100 yards north before coming to an abrupt halt at a narrow, 15-foot-high, wooded spine climbing west and obscuring a small, hollowed-out sand pit behind it.

There, while feeding my dogs a little late at noon Friday, unfolded a sight I have seen many times from a deer stand and a few times from that very spot. Such sightings never get old. That’s why I’m always alert when standing there, waiting for the dogs to finish eating, taking in the calming, soothing melody of the stream’s rattle.

Anyone who has hunted deer with a gun or camera has borne witness to this beautiful sight. First, subtle movement blending into the backdrop. Second, identification of legs, then the torso of the deer belonging to them, then the slight twitching of a tail, perking of ears, on total alert. I love to watch deer move through their habitat. Whether they suspect your presence or not, it’s the same cautions, graceful movement. Single file they pass, first one, then another, and another and another, the lead deer stopping spaced in line, attentive to the others following while scanning the terrain for danger. This time there were six. Some big, others small, all devoting full attention to their surroundings.

I knew they had heard me as they surely have many times before when they remained undetected. Deer grow to recognize environments within their range where they pass often and are never bothered. This is such a place, through my neighbor’s posted backyard, where they know they can feed in the hayfield without harassment, even within spitting distance of the home’s windows. Plus, obviously, they know my dogs are there, and they also know that they’re no threat, even at close range in the dark of night. I’ve seen their tracks follow my snowblower’s path within 10 or 15 feet of the kennel, yet never so much as a bark from Lily or Chubby. The deer and dogs have learned to coexist without commotion. Too bad humans have such a hard time duplicating this process of living with one and other and sidestepping potential conflict. Yes, these days it seems Nature’s way is seldom our chosen path. We’re of a law-and-order ilk, bellicose and belligerent, ready to raise a ruckus and put up our dukes before attempting a diplomatic resolution. Sad but true. Just look at what we have elected to run our country. That pretty much says it all. Like the old cigarette commercial used to say, all of them “would rather fight than switch.”

Not deer. They try to avoid confrontation and are instinctively more than capable of doing so. That day out by the brook, I spoke softly to those six deer in a warm, friendly voice. They knew I was there, heard the initial commotion of me greeting the hungry dogs and likely froze before cautiously advancing in an attempt to secretly skirt me. Nope, not this time. I wanted them to know I was there and said, “It’s OK, kids, I won’t hurt you. I just like to watch your quiet gait and athletic grace.”

They stopped, lifted their heads, cupped their erect ears toward me and froze, all six facing me broadside, tails still as daybreak air. What a picture, six deer of various sizes frozen like statues, senses fine-tuned to the max. The distance between the first and last of those deer was about, oh, say 50 yards, maybe a little less. They didn’t seem too alarmed, just cautious, all partially camouflaged by trees and brush. They know my voice and whistle, have heard it often, both from my yard and along my daily walking path a half mile east and little south, down along the Green River, where we share hayfields, swamps and a couple Christmas-tree fields, one small, one large. One high, one low.

I have many times seen deer through my back windows following the trees lining the opposite bank of Hinsdale Brook, which feeds the Green River over by the old Polish Picnic grounds. Just downstream and behind my neighbor’s home, they actually go under the bridge and show themselves to my neighbors across Green River Road. They are also often spotted through the back windows of folks living on the north side of Meadow Lane. Deer are creatures of habit, this group safe because no one hunts residential neighborhoods, minus the occasional bowhunter slithering into a stand unannounced and totally quiet, even when he or she takes a shot. Then again, I can’t imagine a bowhunting meat-hunter or two haven’t let fly right off their decks in such suburban neighbohoods where deer are a problem.

It won’t be long before some of those deer I spoke to last week sprout summer antlers as the does tend to spring fawns I’ll get to know. Other times, during my nighttime travels home from work, I’ll have occasional sightings of two, three or even four bucks feeding together in hayfields close to the road. Among them will likely be that big buck I came to know last fall and into the winter, bumping him twice up close and personal while walking the dogs in broad daylight during deer season.

It’s a cycle of wildlife I love to watch. Though by choice I no longer hunt them, I still love watching deer. I try to understand their habits, predict their movements, report interesting observations to hunter friends who share my interest.

Just Tuesday night I prepared about a pound of carefully butchered, gifted venison stew meat from a 5-point Vermont buck. I started by seasoning the meat with salt, pepper, garlic and rosemary in its freezer-wrap package, adding flour and shaking it before searing the chunks in hot bacon fat, then simmering it in French onion soup in a covered Griswold skillet all afternoon on the stove. On my may to work that evening, I took the pan off the cook stove and placed it on a trivet atop the soapstone wood stove, where it warmed until midnight. Then I removed it and let it cool some before placing it overnight in the refrigerator.

Served over egg noodles Wednesday night before work, it was superb. Tasty and tender. Healthy, too. Not a sliver of fat. I love venison and deer, hold the utmost respect for them and enjoy watching them.

If ever hungry and fallen on hard times, I’m confident I could put food on my table. I hope it never comes to that. Then again, maybe it would be the best thing that could happen to man like me, one devoted to something I long ago learned about in college philosophy class. It’s called individual sovereignty, a noble way indeed, and one that’s more and more difficult to live in the modern world.

Look it up. It’s vaguely synonymous with autonomy … and another dirty A word that once could get a man hanged here, and still could in places where real freedom is frowned upon as dangerous, seditious individualism.

If you want to see freedom at its finest, study a small herd of deer moving through their place. They’re governed by nature, the grandest of all deities.

Fishing Fantasy

Wouldn’t you know it. Over the weekend, I dug out a Sewell N. Dunton & Sons Tonkin-cane flyrod I’ve never cast astream, attached an Orvis CFO IV reel of chartreuse, floating, weight-forward 6 fly-line and took a few out-of-sight backyard casts for old-time’s sake. I guess I was feeling it, seeing hints of green on lawns and hayfields. Now, here I sit, early Wednesday afternoon, brisk walk with the dogs in the rearview, Mother Nature’s wet, white fertilizer falling from the sky, accumulation or lack thereof to be determined.

Call it wacky New England weather, the clocks about to be turned ahead for warmer Daylight-Savings Time, when shorts and T-shirts will replace pants and long sleeves, and the steady flow of hard-earned cash exiting our chimneys comes to a merciful halt.

The Dunton rod isn’t my best. I own better. But it’s not bad, either. In like-new condition with a spare tip to boot, I don’t even remember where I bought it. Probably at the Hadley outdoor flee market, where I used to find many treasures before sunup. I guess Dunton bamboo rods have become quite collectible in recent years. For me, its value is sentimental. Dunton was a Greenfield rod builder who lived on Green River Road a mile or so north of my current home when I was a South Deerfield lad. Dunton’s downtown rod shop was on Fiske Ave, down by today’s Mesa Verde. He salvaged Montague Rod & Reel stock, tools and machinery after the company closed in 1955 and continued pushing out rods until selling out to Thomas & Thomas in 1974.

Anyway, rod in hand out back by the brook — not in it, despite wearing knee-high rubber boots after walking — I found room for back casts and tried to recapture a rhythm I once had down pat. A low-hanging maple limb about 20 yards ahead was my challenge. The question was: Could I sneak the hookless leader underneath the branch tendrils without snagging them. The answer was no. Sure enough, the leader got hung up on the first attempt, even without a hook, getting tangled in the lowest buds and branches. Thankfully, I had my glasses on. Otherwise I could have never untangled the mini-rat’s nest, which wasn’t all that bad compared to some I’ve seen when younger and capable of freeing them along the stream without glasses. Oh well. So be it. My eyes were excellent back then, good enough to hit a baseball and tie blood knots with the finest of tippets. Today, I’m farsighted and need glasses for reading, but my vision has never been better. I can live with the realities of aging. What choice do I have?

I’m not sure what got me thinking about fishing and flycasting on this noontime whim. It may have been the swollen, green-gray Green River I had followed and observed with the dogs. It sure did look about perfect for fishing down by the big riverside apple tree. But the impetus could also have been that body of a Connecticut man found recently off South Station Road in Conway, where I caught many a nice trout and even retrieved a deer down in the gorge below the dam. Then again, maybe it was that unlikely pre-midnight telephone call at work from old buddy Peter Mallett, founder of the Millers River Fishermen’s Association. I hadn’t spoken to the man in months and, not surprisingly, we touched on a dear and familiar subject: big squaretails, that is, our native Eastern brook trout that we both happen to favor over all others. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned 15-inchers and he asked me if I could remember the last time I caught one.

“Yes,” I relied. “I remember it well.”

How could I forget that big fish which surprised me on a thunderstormy summer afternoon, the roiled river running milk-chocolate brown. Fishing a deep pool from a large overhanging ledge along the steep northern bank downstream from the roaring South Station dam, I was bait-fishing a nightcrawler backed up by attractant red beads and a silver spinner. Not my typical routine, I must have been pulling out all the stops on a slow day. I lobbed my first cast upstream into the head of a riffle and dead-drifted the bait downstream, allowing it to sink. Once the current tightened the slack, I mended my line and let it straightened again before slowly retrieving it upstream, gently twitching my rod tip now and then to entice a strike. It’s the same way you’d fish a streamer on a flyrod, but I was using open-faced spinning tackle.

When I spotted the spinner and bait coming to the surface below me, I raised my rod tip to lift the bait from the water and make my second cast when, suddenly, I caught the flash of a big fish following it to the surface before darting back under the ledge. “Hmmmmm,” I thought. “I hope it’ll come after it again.”

I rearranged the lively crawler on the hook and lobbed a shorter pendulum cast out into the current, carefully working it back toward me and lifting the rod-tip trying to tease the trout out of its lair with the shiny spinner. Bang! This time I was ready and the fish was on, running deep to its undercut refuge before racing downstream and making my drag sing in an effort to shake the hook. I fought and tired that strong fish, a female full of roe, before netting her, snapping her neck, gutting her and later baking her in aluminum foil for supper. If I caught that beautiful trout today, I’d likely throw her back. But that was back in the 70s, before I got married and slowly changed my ways.

Though I didn’t weigh or measure that fish, there was no need to. I had grown quite familiar with squaretails in the 14- and 15-inch class, and bigger, from other sites I knew and protected with silence and secrecy. Brook trout like that weigh a couple of pounds, their pink meat moist and succulent. One can only imagine the type of native brookies the first colonial settlers found working their way up into Connecticut Valley watersheds for their fall spawning runs. They must have been incredible specimens — world-class squaretails.

It’s fun to reminisce, sitting near the woodstove in the deafening silence of a damp, gray, snowy March afternoon. So, here I sit, falling snow peripherally visible out the kitchen window. I’m confident it’ll melt fast and sprout the most nutritious clover stubble of the year, drawing deer in need of sustenance after a long winter. I’m glad my idle kitchen thoughts were pulled back to that whimsical trip to the backyard with my Sewell N. Dunton bamboo rod and WF-6 floating line. I’m glad the elements got me thinking about flycasting and squaretails and free-flowing, free-thinking mountain streams that have always attracted human beings.

Hopefully, my Vermont grandsons will hear the same call of the wild I’ve passionately chased and will continue pursuing till my ashes are scattered in the wind. Maybe the boys will want me to teach them to catch trout to the soothing symphony of birdsong, babbling brooks, roaring rivers and cold, trickling mountain springs. If so, I’ll be there to introduce them to woodland magic, hooking them snugly through the upper lip and gum. The only way to escape that grip is to leap high, create slack, snap the line on the rebound and wave goodbye.

In the world of angling, there exist only those who have witnessed that escape … and liars.

Off I go.

Nesting Eagles, Nervous Turkeys

A friend called Saturday to report what he viewed as an unlikely development on a Connecticut River island near his South Deerfield family homestead sitting in the evening shadow of North Sugarloaf.

There, upon an island he has passed daily for more than 60 years, he noticed something high, large and new in a tree. Upon closer inspection, he discovered it was a bald eagles’ nest, a big one in progress. Ever since, he’s monitored it often, watching construction that’ll accept a comfortable spring brood, one or both mates in it at times.

One day, heading toward the nest from Sunderland Bridge in broad daylight, he noticed one of the eagles on the ground picking at something along the perimeter of a turf field. He at first suspected the large, white-headed raptor was eating something, perhaps a rabbit or woodchuck or wild turkey, all distinct possibilities at the location. But, no, the bird wasn’t eating at all, but rather gathering long, dry, brown grass with which to line its woody nest. That he knew when the bird took flight — peregrine falcon nests in the Mount Sugarloaf cliffs above — flying low and carrying a beakful toward the nest. Having never witnessed such a sight, he wondered aloud what his late father would have thought had he seen it. When his dad died unexpectedly at his much-loved Vermont hunting camp more than 40 years ago, there were no eagles or peregrine falcons near his home. Poisons, barnyard snipers and hunters who objected to predators competing with them for small game had taken a mighty toll on our national bird and symbol, not to mention other birds and beasts of prey. You know the mindset: kill my rabbits or turkeys or partridge or raccoons, my barnyard fowl or lambs, or especially my deer and you’re dead, Dude.

Well, times have changed. Eagles, hawks, owls and falcons are now protected, and today all are much more common locally than they ever have been in my lifetime. Predictably, we’re again beginning to hear grumbling objectors complaining about dwindling gamebird, waterfowl and small-game populations that birds of prey are impacting. Yep, now raptors are right up there with coyotes as public enemy No. 1 among some sportsmen who don’t want to hear about the interactive, complementary predator/prey relationship. Fact is that predators makes prey smarter, more cautious and elusive than the same species in habitats minus natural predators. There is much to be read about this interesting topic, which reared its ugly head after Teddy Roosevelt and his big-game-hunter ilk went the route of ridding the West of mountain lions, wolves, bears and coyotes to build deer, moose and elk populations, among others. When all of those predators except resilient coyotes became endangered species, go figure, deer, antelope, elk and mountain goat populations multiplied too fast, ate too much of the forest understory, died of malnutrition and ultimately became easy, open targets for hunters. Look it up if you don’t believe it. It’s current. Hunters with a conscience didn’t want to shoot easy targets grazing out in the open prairie with no fear of danger.

But, let us not digress … back to the eagles, a follow-up to last week’s topic of eagles preying on wild turkeys, as depicted in a west Northfield photo published here last week. Though I had never thought about eagles hunting turkeys, it made perfect sense. Now, since that column hit the street, I have had the opportunity to speak with one of my go-to guys about subjects related to birds, wildlife and habitats, all of which he passionately studies in daily observation. That man would be brother-in-law John Twomey, whose book, “Retiring To Not From,” is now in its third printing. A retired UMass professor, the book is about his lifestyle on an expansive, secluded, Waldo County, Maine gentleman’s farm, where he lives a Thoreauvian existence while managing mixed acreage as a wildlife refuge. It has been a hit among back-to-the-earthers and folks seeking a simple, efficient, off-the-grid lifestyle similar to his. Yes, this cerebral man is enjoying what used to be known as “The Good Life,” fashioned by Scott and Helen Nearing, first in Jamaica, Vt., then in Harborside, Maine, where they died and left their Good Life Center for posterity.

The man family and friends call “Buzz” phoned last weekend as he often does to speak to my wife and his sister, and I took the opportunity to inquire what he knew about eagles preying on turkeys. Bingo! A subject he was eager to discuss.

“Oh yes,” was his knee-jerk response on speaker from my wife’s chair. “In fact, my neighbor just called the other day to tell of a bald eagle taking a turkey outside his home. He watched the whole thing play out. It’s getting to be a common sight. We have 600 nesting pairs of eagles here in Maine. If you want to see video go to YouTube and search ‘eagle vs. turkey.’”

He added that he always knows when an eagle is around his slice of nirvana, where turkeys and deer are common sights in the hayfields and lowbush blueberries surrounding his home and outbuildings. He said gobbler flocks are always keenly aware of eagles and great horned owls, two mortal enemies.

“It doesn’t matter how high the eagle is soaring, the turkeys always detect it and display an alarm signal by spreading their tails and running and partially flying to the edge of the woods,” he said. “The eagle can be a speck in the sky and they see it because they are always wary. When I see a group of full-grown toms spread their tails and run and/or fly to the woods edge, I always know there’s an eagle about. Interestingly, I have never seen toms react this way to hawks or ravens.”

He expanded upon his observations by saying hens with young display the same tail spreading and fleeing to the woods (as long as the young are big enough to run well or fly) when a hawk, eagle or sometimes even a raven pass by.

“From what I have observed, the two behaviors appear to be almost identical — the difference being that toms do this in reaction to eagles, and hens with young react this way to eagles as well as hawks and ravens.”

So, there you have it from an astute observer who studies wildlife relationships in his leisure. Plus, having always raised chickens, he’s always tuned-in to birds and beasts of prey.

White Tale

Old buddy Tom White — known to many as an affable Northfield potter, avid hunter/naturalist and plain old nice guy — phoned Monday morning. Though I missed his call, he left a message and we hooked up later that afternoon.

Always monitoring wildlife around his rustic home and studio, where his domestic turkeys have been known to attract wild cousins for him to assess each spring. White had an interesting observation to share. It seems that inspection of his weekend trail camera had revealed three antlered whitetail bucks. Imagine that! There it was, pushing toward March, long after most deer have shed their antlers, and all three were still sporting headgear — two pronghorns, one with brow tines making it a 6-pointer, and a big, handsome, trophy 8-pointer he recognized.

“I’ve seen the big one before but never when hunting,” he said, which would not be surprising to anyone familiar with elusive big bucks. Think about it: buck grow large due to wisdom. Yeah, yeah, I know some may be lucky. But wisdom trumps dumb luck any day of the week, and tends to be longer lasting.

So there you have it. Three more Franklin County bucks still wearing their antlers this late in the game. Interesting indeed. Then again, word from Leverett during blackpowder season had it that some of the bucks being killed were losing their antlers on the drag from the woods. Different strokes for different folks in nature’s games.

Meanwhile, on the home front Monday morning, day after the snowstorm, I cut several tracks of the same solitary deer frolicking through the Christmas trees populating Sunken Meadow along the Green River. Given the erratic behavior displayed by the foot-free tracks, that deer appeared to have enjoyed its post-storm romp through the bottomland, bounding here and there, walking elsewhere. The tracks meandered here and there around and through the meadow, where I kept bumping into them walking the perimeter.

In one spot, approaching a large riverside apple tree that always drops early apples in the summer, I noticed straight-line tracks ahead. When I reached them, I discovered they were about five feet apart in a straight line, which seemed odd to me. I examined them carefully to confirm they were made by a deer, then backtracked maybe 12 steps to inspect the stride, which remained consistent and seemed long to me.

“Gee,” I thought. “I wonder if that deer is walking on three legs, thus a long stride caused by a hop?” But, no, that was definitely not the case. This deer just had a long stride; or at least it looked longer than normal to me. Even more intriguing, it wasn’t the track of the trophy buck I had bumped many times last year. I know that buck’s wide, heifer-like hoofprint. This long-strider’s prints, heels prominent, were narrower and without question not his.

Hmmmmm?

Well, that set of tracks continued bugging me long after passing them and, once I got home, I thought to myself, “Why didn’t I measure them with the chestnut crook cane that always accompanies my walks? Then, I would have an accurate measurement for discussion.”

The reason for my diligence regarding this subject was that I had shared the observation with White on the phone Monday afternoon and my description was greeted with silence, as though he was silently questioning it. I just let it pass.

Next day, walking the same route, the tracks were melted a little but still intact and exactly the same distance apart as the previous day. So, I laid down my cane, marked the top of the crook and found the stride to be a cane and a half long. Once I got home, I put a yardstick to the cane and discovered it was 37 inches, making the stride about 56 inches, just shy of five feet. Maybe that’s not a long stride for a deer, but it stuck out to my eye and I have seen many deer tracks. No, it wasn’t over five feet as I had suspected, but it was basically a five-foot stride, longer than usual, in my opinion.

Enough of that … but sticking to the same subject of neighborhood deer, my friend and neighbor who spotted 15 baldies in back of his home last week saw them again, this time heading down to his yard from Smead Hill in the evening. You can bet the folks at the Alexlee House up the road have seen those deer many times, likely eating their ornamental bushes.

Which reminds me: it’s getting to be that time of the year to drive through the upper Country Farms section of Greenfield by the intersection of Eunice Williams and Leyden roads, where many deer can be seen just before dark coming out of their yard on a southern exposure above the Webb Farm. It’s a sight to behold. Well worth the drive. And if you want to see more deer, take Barton Road home. They seem to like the ornamental bushes in people’s yards there, too, after a long winter.

Don’t dilly-dally. The Country Farms deer phenomenon is here today, gone tomorrow.

Neighborhood Wildlife

Damp, cool air, corn snow, puddles in meadow depressions, treacherous ice booby-trapping nighttime, backyard paths — all signs that spring is creeping in. Plus, just Tuesday morning, taking out a fresh pailful of ash and embers from my woodstove, a crimson cardinal was perched in an ornamental cherry singing his happy tune, an even better harbinger.

Down where I walk, little worth reporting. One lonely raccoon’s tracks traveling northward along the upper hayfield’s rim, across a double-rutted farm trail and over the escarpment to high, steep, undercut refuge. Also, random coyote traffic. Not much. They’re probably hunting rabbits. As for deer, well, some sign is starting to reappear, but nothing like the fall and early winter. They’re around but there’s nothing in the hayfields for them these days. Queried this week, my friend and upper Greenfield Meadows neighbor reported seeing 15 in his yard recently just before dark.

“I counted them twice,” he said. “Fifteen. They were out back along a line of white pines, feeding toward Green River Road. They wandered around, regrouped and headed up Smead Hill for the night.”

“Did one appear much larger than the rest?” I inquired.

“Yes, there was one big one that really stuck out, and some that were much smaller than the rest.”

“Antlers?”

“None.”

This final report told me the big trophy buck I’ve tracked for months is still touring the neighborhood. Another neighbor had reported in December that he often saw eight does feeding along his fence line. I know one of those deer had been killed in the road during a snowstorm soon after that report. Now 15 in my buddy’s yard, not a mile away from where the eight were regularly appearing. Do the math. The winter neighborhood herd has picked up eight deer since December, likely three or four bucks that have shed their antlers. Looks like next summer will be a good one for deer sightings around home after the does drop their fawns.

Something else I’ve often seen over the past 10 months is bald eagles, never more than one but one many times around the same location. They may be different birds, or perhaps the same one over and over. Who knows? Most often, I notice one circling high above, easily identifiable by its white head and tail. Another time I wrote about jumping one out of a riverside tree and watching it gracefully fly upstream over a dwindling brood of common mergansers. Then, there was the day after a fresh snow when I watched one circle a hayfield low and perch in broad daylight in a tall tree between a Plain Road home and a squash field. A half-hour later, it was still there, its white head signaling its presence in a naked gray tree, most likely a soft maple.

Last week, a neighbor stopped by and later called after his knocks had gone unanswered. I don’t know how I missed them. He had come straight to my home after passing two low-flying bald eagles headed east toward the Green River, just upstream from the Greenfield Pool at the Colrain-Plain roads’ crotch. Later that same day — you can’t make it up — an email from west Northfield reader Bill Copeland arrived with an interesting photo attached. After viewing last week’s photo of a deer’s remains after coyote predation, he wanted to share a backyard photo (below) of a bald eagle on the ground, wings stretched high, talons securing the wild turkey it was devouring to the ground.  The eagle dwarfs the turkey, which looks more like a partridge underneath the giant raptor.

“I meant to send you this earlier,” Copeland wrote. “Your latest column (of the deer remains) reminded me. Though not a good photo and maybe not rare, this sight of eagle-on-turkey in west Northfield is a lot gorier than eagle-on-fish.”

Honestly, I never pondered eagles preying on turkeys, but it makes a lot of sense given turkeys’ aggressive response to owl hoots emitted by hunters trying the initiate gobbling. Also, it offers another explanation why eagles are attracted to my agricultural neighborhood, where there is no shortage of turkeys to go along with fish, waterfowl, woodchucks, rabbits and many other prey. Though I can’t say for sure, I have an idea an eagle or great horned owl could maybe even take down an infant fawn embarking upon its maiden voyage out of the nest on four shaky legs. I wouldn’t bet against it.

Live and learn.