Searching For ‘Indian Al’

Honestly, I do not recall how I met “Indian Al” Niemiec, but, my oh my, did we have a blast fishing for American shad along the eastern bank of the Holyoke-tailrace, a channel feeding anadromous fish to the Barrett Fish Lift and over the dam.

We probably made acquaintance at streamside on a day when I had parked on the South Hadley Falls side and paddled my canoe across to the island. From the start, it was a match inspired by the cosmos. He showed me some of his tricks and places. I showed him some of mine. It was fair trade in the secretive world of fishing barter. He even taught me how to wade across to the island where we most probably met, picking our way through the fishy-smelling, bedrock shallows between the bridge and spillway.

Honestly, I’d love to reconnect with the man. I’ve even Googled him looking for a contact number, but he seems to have vanished into thin air along with his fly-tying business, “Native American Nymphs & Flies.” The most recent online mention I can find of him, other than my own columns, is a 1996 Bangor Daily News article about a Penobscot River fishing event he attended. Maybe he’s moved Down East. Perhaps he’s retired and guiding. Then again, it’s possible he’s moved on to the Happy Hunting Grounds. If so, my condolences to his Chicopee family. He was a good man with a great streamside smile to go with boundless energy and insightful angling acumen. He could cut it with the best fishermen and fly-tiers. Clever and creative, many of his patterns were his own, crafted after years of experience on streams, lakes and ponds. He fished them all with aplomb.

Proof of Niemiec’s fly-tying skill stands upright on shelves in my home, where three framed shadow-boxes display examples of his dries, wets and streamers. There is even a story behind the purchase of those display cases sometime in the early to mid-1980s. Having assembled simple arrangements to display his wares to potential retailers, one from Connecticut suggested that he build fancier, framed versions with calligraphic labels to sell. When he went forward with the project, the demand was such that he tired of tying flies for the wall instead of the water. Though there was money in it, he frankly preferred selling his artificials for anglers, not collectors. I do feel fortunate to have been on the scene at the time, now a beneficiary who treasures his handsome display cases that are always handy for reference.

“Indian Al” and I were within a year or so in age, maybe even born the same year, if I’m not mistaken. What I do clearly remember is name-dropping all the Chicopee ballplayers I played against and he seemed to know them all, having either gone to school with them or grown up in the same neighborhood. A sinewy man, he stood about 5-foot-8, weighed about 150 pounds and often wore a knotted-leather headband to keep his black, shoulder-length hair behind his ears. I heard from friends that he could hold his own in any hockey game, and that his reputation was that of a fierce competitor and annoying pest in the mold of “The Rat,” Kenny Linesman, or “Little Ball of Hate,” Brad Marchand.

When we first met, the name of his business was “Indian Nymphs & Flies.” Then, somewhat surprisingly to me, he went politically correct and changed the Indian to Native American, likely out of respect to our indigenous people.

The last I heard from the man was in the fall, probably before the year 1990. Always up for a challenge, he had tired of trout fishing and learned to catch shad. Then he tired of shad and moved to Quabbin angling for ice-out landlocked salmon and lake trout surface-feeding at tributary outflows. Next, bored with that game, he turned to smallmouth-bass fishing in rivers. When he stopped by to ask if I knew of any good, quiet places where big “smallies” lurked, I introduced him to the silty final mile of the Deerfield River from the stone-crusher down. Which reminds me: Do people still know of that now-iron-gated site as the stone-crusher? It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if the remains of that South Meadows landmark once operated by Greenfield’s Wunsch family is now obsolete among the young crowd, even in Deerfield.

But let us not digress. Back to my last communication from Niemiec. In October or November of the year I showed him the lower Deerfield along with secret access routes, a package with a return address to Niemiec appeared in my South Deerfield mailbox. About the size of a small book, I opened it and found inside a box of 50 weighted Orvis nymphs. Atop the clear plastic cover was a note thanking me for providing him on a summer of fishing fun. As a token of appreciation, he had gifted me a selection of my favorite nymphs tied by him. I still have many of those flies tucked away somewhere in wallets and vests. Maybe someday I’ll cast them into a riffle dropping into a deep channel where trout feed.

If anyone knows what became of my old fishing buddy, please do give me a holler. I’d love to reacquaint, reminisce and maybe, just maybe even again wet a line with the man from Chicopee.

*****

 

With all lifts and ladders open this week, anadromous fish were running up the Connecticut River and its tributaries before Tuesday’s heavy rains increased river flow. Surprisingly, they were all still operating at midday Wednesday, so the higher water didn’t necessitate temporary fish-passageway shutdowns. Though water temperatures at Holyoke were still a little low for this time of year (60 degrees Fahrenheit), 14,500 shad had passed Holyoke by 4:30 p.m. Wednesday. Thus far, the total return to the river system of 52,001, is about a 10th of last year’s final total of 543,289. Don’t worry, fellas, the shad are on their way. When the river warms to the mid-60s, they should be coming like gangbusters. So, take it to the bank: The next couple of weeks should offer the season’s best fishing. The good fishing hasn’t even reached Franklin County yet, with the best still to come at Montague’s popular Rock Dam. Yes, it’s that time of year, if only the colorfully clad whitewater enthusiasts can stay out of the fishing channels. … Fat freakin’ chance.

Blooming Trees, Running Fish, Climate Fools

The Japanese maples have burst into their spring crimson splendor, complemented by nearby cherry trees blooming pink to add their colorful tint to my home’s frontage for the arrival of in-laws Judy from Guatemala, Buzz from Maine and Jan from Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. In between the red and pink is yellow forsythia and the soon-to-be magenta flowers of an old, budding heirloom apple planted long before my arrival to Greenfield’s Upper Meadows.

Yesterday, my lawn tractor serviced and purring like a kitten, I completed my first mowing and a little trimming, passing several bushes I know I must eventually trim after they blossom — mock orange, bridal wreath, multiflora rose and burning bush, all of them attractors of pretty songbirds who eat their berries and spread them throughout the neighborhood. Nature’s way. Nothing works better.

Since last week, I’ve noticed the forest understory sprouting leaves to obstruct the sight lines of spring turkey hunters in the woods for this, the second week of the four-week season. I know from experience that hunting gets tougher in some ways and better in others once the browse buds sprout into tender, soft-green leaves. This furry underbrush muffles the gobbles of an oncoming tom vociferously responding to your calls, making it all the more difficult to detect faraway movement and get set up before it’s too late. Although that can present problems, on the other hand the gobbler’s view of the hunter is also obstructed, possibly to a hunter’s advantage once the bird gets in close. I’ve experienced both scenarios with my own eyes and ears, will never forget them, and maybe, just maybe will live it again in retirement leisure, if there is such a thing. We can only hope.

As the air warms and landscape oozes pastel yellows and greens, there’s very little to report on the anadromous-fish front. Yes, the West Springfield Fishway has opened and passed an insignificant number of shad, and the Holyoke Fishlift opened Monday. But with the Connecticut River main stem still running high and cold, stuck below 50 Fahrenheit, the season of migrating herring, shad, lamprey eel, striped bass and the occasional Atlantic salmon is still in front of us. Yes, a little late on average but, as they say, it’ll all come out in the wash. In fact, from a fishing perspective, this year’s conditions may indeed produce a recreational boon, with eager, roadblocked shad coming like gangbusters for a few weeks once the water warms into the 60s they love. It may happen fast. All depends on the weather. Then, by early June it’ll all be over when migrating fish  begin to spawn, establishing stony lairs  and producing progeny who’ll  soon leave their   freshwater birthplace to grow to maturity in saltwater and return to spawn as mostly  3- to- 5-year-old adults.

Now, of course we must be aware that there is such a thing as anomalies when it comes to anadromous fish runs. That too I have witnessed. Back in 1984, the section of Route 5 & 10 between Woolman Hill and the northernmost Old Deerfield entrance was underwater on my way home from work after midnight on Saturday, June 2. It’s the only time in my lifetime that I recall that road being underwater. That year, on my June 30 birthday, I remember catching frisky, pugnacious shad hand-over-fist, wading, with black Lab Sugarloaf Saro Jane sitting on a rock to my left below the South River’s outflow into the Deerfield River. Never since has that been possible at that site or anywhere else in Franklin County on such a late date. In fact, I can’t recall another year when shad fishing would have been worthwhile after June 15th, and that may even be stretching it.

Still, it could happen. Especially in these days of increasing New England flooding disaster brought on by — dare I say it? — climate change. Uh-oh. Now I’m opening myself up to throaty, frothing criticism from the folks drinking Trump Kool-Aid stirred and chilled on Fox-News. You know the Scott Pruitt/Sen. Jim Inhofe Oklamoma disclaimer: “More research is needed before we can attribute our warming planet to fossil-fuel use by humans.

Give me a freakin’ break! Talk about burying your head in the sand for the “glory” of petroleum riches.

Count me among the growing Bill McKibbon 350.org school. You know, the advocacy group straight out of progressive Middlebury, Vt., committed to reducing our carbon footprint … the faster the better.  McKibbon gets it and isn’t afraid to deliver his urgent message to a chorus of GOP boos and catcalls. Everyone should start thinking like McKibben before it’s too late.

So, consider me on the record, for posterity, as a believer, not a misguided, knee-jerk denier parroting Fox-Fake News spin.

Dawg Days, Forest Fight

I celebrated my 39th wedding anniversary Saturday; plus  gundog Lily’s 14th birthday. That bitch never ceases to amaze me, still patrolling terrain, flat or steep, wet or dry, with that happy tail and youthful gait. She’s incredible.

Nearing noon that day, having already grabbed everything needed for my daily ramble with the dogs, my wife caught something out the parlor window and hollered out to me in the kitchen, “Someone’s here.”

I walked out to the carriage-shed door to see who it was. Though I didn’t recognize the green, full-sized American pickup at first glance, I did immediately know occupant Fran Ryan as soon as he stepped out onto the driveway. I also knew his mission.

Resident of a Heath hilltop overlooking Hagar’s Farm, he had stopped by a week earlier when I wasn’t home. My wife gave him Chubby’s AKC registration, which I had copied and left out handy on a Hepplewhite stand. He wanted to register the litter of five sired by my 6-year-old springer spaniel stud. On the ground for a few weeks, five of the six whelped pups  had survived — three males, two females. The dam, Citari’s Tina, was in the truck, gently panting, sticking her head out the partially opened driver’s-side window seeking  affection. I obliged.

As Fran and I chatted about the litter, turkeys, beef cattle and life in the bucolic western hills, I could hear Chubby and Lily barking out back. They could hear us talking, wanted to visit and were ready for breakfast and their morning meadow romp. Ten or 15 minutes later, I was out by the kennel, food scooped into their Wagner cast-iron skillets on the cook-shed floor.

I opened the kennel door and both dogs sprinted to their feeding stations as they always do, but Chub-Chub never even lowered his head, opting instead for an all-out sprint like only he can do it, around the front corner of the barn and out of sight toward the driveway. No one will ever convince me that dog didn’t know paramour Tina had been in the neighborhood, and he was determined to renew their acquaintance, racing around the front-yard perimeter in a frantic, athletic search. What a nose that dog has. He never saw Tina, and she never uttered a peep, but he sure knew she was there. No question about it.

Anyway, enough about Chub-Chub and Tina, onto other random spring reports, beginning with the fact that fiddlehead season is upon us. My buddy was picking them by midweek last, and the ones I monitor have popped as well. How can a man beat fiddlehead ferns for natural springtime sustenance? Someone asked me last week how many weeks they’re around for the picking. Well, I suppose if a man really put his mind to it and wanted to gather enough for a small army, then he could probably get more than a month out of the ordeal, starting in, say, Hadley/Hatfield and working north. If picking just one spot, then you might  get a week. Not more. Maybe less. So, fellas, get out there before they’re gone. They go from tender curlicue vittles tightly clinging to the ground to foot-high ostrich ferns in a few days or less when the conditions are right.

Something else from a friend I spotted the other day outside his truck, getting his tackle ready to fish down the road from my home: the rainbow trout in the Green River these days are nice, in the 16- to 18-inch category.

“You know the game,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “They’re fun to catch. I won’t deny it. But give me native squaretails for eating any day of the freakin’ week.”

He’s not alone or inaccurate in his assessment of hatchery-stocked trout as table fare. Pellet-fed for rapid growth, their meat is white and on the dry side, not the moist, succulent pink of native brookies, large and small. On the other hand, in these days of popular catch-and-release fishing, fly- and spin-casting anglers alike can have a ball catching heavy sky-pilot rainbows in free-flowing, stone-bedded streams  like the Deerfield, Millers, North, Sawmill and Green rivers.

Oh yeah. Before I forget. The Holyoke fish lift  opened Wednesday under hot, sunny skies. It usually opens a little earlier, but the water has been high and cold, thus the delay. Shad will soon be running like gangbusters. That time of year.

One last thing before I sign off. Those five wild turkeys I wrote about flushing last week on my daily walk haven’t gone far. No, I can’t say I’ve seen them since Chubby-Chub-Chub scattered them across the river that day to late police officer Szulborki’s place. But I did hear them Monday morning, opening day of the 24-day spring hunting season. Skirting a gate high above the Green River, I heard the familiar hen yelps hunters imitate to draw in long-bearded, sharp-spurred gobblers within rage of their tightly choked shotguns.

“Schuck-schuck-schuck-schuck-schuck-schuck-schuck-schuck. … Schuck-schuck-schuck-schuck.”

Chubby and Lily didn’t identify the sound, but I did, and it wasn’t the call of a hunter. No. It had to be one of those four hens Chub-Chub scattered to the other side of the river last week. And take it to the bank: the gobbler who was with them that day wasn’t far away. They never are this time of year – mating and nesting season.

It gets no better than that in the wild world. In fact, even theological civilization enjoys it in some uninhibited pockets … where they ain’t shy about admitting it.

 

*****

 

Wendell Historical Commissioner Lisa Hoag is fighting the good fight for her town, and protecting its deep history. The result was a petition circulating in recent days, one to which state Senator Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, offered support on Wednesday. Yes, her initiative seems to be gaining momentum. In fact, spreading like wildfire.

The goal is to stop a Wendell Brook Road logging project aimed at a 110-year-old oak forest containing what Hoag believes to be features of an indigenous ceremonial landscape. First off, this forward-thinking, progressive-forestry advocate took aim at preserving big trees that become better carbon filters the larger they grow, potentially stemming global warming. Secondly, there are many stone features on the ground below that she believes should be protected for posterity out of respect for our indigenous past.

Keep an eye on this issue. It’s current, worth supporting and ain’t going away.

Isn’t it time to rethink the tired old concept of forestry management for economic gain and increased wildlife populations that sell hunting licenses, and instead support  a new initiative targeting improved ecosystem, biodiversity and planet health. Forestry experts now believe that cutting down 110-year-old oak forests is not cool. Aware of this new school of thought, Hoag is fixin’ for a fight. We need more like her.

Anyone who wants to support the petition can find it at https://tinyurl.com/savebrookrdforest. The forest-tour pamphlet is available at https://tinyurl.com/brook-rd-logging-public-tour

Reading Signals

A gentle mist was falling for my noontime Wednesday walk and Lily and Chubby were rarin’ to go. Oh, how they love rainy days, which greatly enhance their scenting capabilities, producing a rambunctious hunting gait, tail in a joyous, eager wag reminiscent of how I once felt those first few days outside for baseball practice. Of course, such euphoric states of mind could lead to trouble that kept you off the diamond for disciplinary reasons … but that’s a story for another day, one many can identify with.

We’ll stick to Wednesday for now, though, one of those spring days when you could feel the yard and the forest understory greening — yellow daffodils drooping to the ground, anxiously awaiting the strong upward pull of a bright sun, one rhubarb plant ahead of the other, it ready to pick, entirely obscuring the narrow-brick facing below the base of the red barn boards. There is no rhubarb better than the first pick. So, don’t let it get too tall. Even early rhubarb is better young, small, sweet and tender, even better when mixed with native strawberries still to come. Yes, yes, asparagus also coming soon, then my own raspberries and blueberries to sweeten morning cereals.

But enough spring thoughts sprung by soft, warm rain. There’s a story to tell about that Wednesday walk with the dogs, one I’ve been waiting longer than anticipated to finally tell …

Lo, I finally saw my first Greenfield Meadows turkey of the year last week, on Friday I believe, a mile of so down the road from home in a field where I have often seen turkeys during my 20 years living there. A small, drab hen, it was feeding not far from the road, head down, scratching at the turf as it slowly walked. I’d call it somewhat curious behavior by a hen at this stage of their annual cycle when, typically, you don’t see just one. Then again, maybe there were others nearby that I didn’t see. I can’t say I spent much time studying the scene. Yes, my first spring sighting, but I knew there would be many more, probably sooner than later.

Monday morning on my daily walk, I bumped into a couple of women, hired hands for a local farmer, walking their dogs around noon. I passed them once without exchanging greetings, again down along a narrow wetland and, to my surprise, a third time when they had doubled back along the Green River. There I had a chance to address them, sharing the fact that I had seen my first Meadows turkey of the season a few days earlier.

“Male or female?’ asked one.

“One lonely hen,” I responded.

“Interesting,” she responded. “We saw two nice toms in that field by the red house, probably the same day.”

Yes, interesting indeed. Turkeys are back in the bottomland just in time for turkey season, which opens Monday.

Back to Wednesday, anxious to get my walk behind me, I drove out into the hayfield farther than usual and, on a whim, took a few passes at some muddy ruts I had created one stupid day weeks ago when I was in a hurry to run the dogs and get home to meet the furnace man. I had been waiting ever since that unfortunate day for the right conditions to try and flatten those embarrassing ruts out on a wet day, employing the same vehicle and tires that foolishly created them. The Wednesday project helped a little, but I must return with the proper tools to make those annoying ruts disappear.

Anyway, we got around the gate leading down from hayfields to Sunken Meadow, followed the surging Green River to the bottom of the short hill and headed straight south toward a narrow wetland where I’ve been playing with two pairs of mated wood ducks. Which reminds me: my naturalist brother-in-law from Maine told me last week that he had seen my narrative about wood ducks perching in trees. The topic has been a fascination of his for years, he said, before directing me to YouTube videos demonstrating how nestlings use their claws to scale the vertacle inner walls of manmade duck boxes on their first trip out to the wild. Check it out. It’s interesting. Wood ducks can climb trees, too, apparently; which makes sense, because they do nest on woody cavities.

Just past the place where I’ve flushed the wood ducks several times in recent weeks, at a staghorn sumac corner, I caught something out of the corner of my eye and spotted a large bird ascending through a riverside softwood stand. It must have heard us, I thought, because Chub-Chub and Lily were near me, totally unaware of the flush. Not for long. Uh-ah.

Chubby, scenting with his head high, picked something up and increased his speed toward where I had seen the bird flush. Not sure what it was, I had considered a large bird of prey or maybe a goose or duck, though I thought the latter unlikely because of the way it flew through, not along the perimeter, of the wood lot. Then I noticed Chubby downshift to achieve his fastest, wildest hunting sprint that’s fascinating to watch. He was on a furious chase that told me it was definitely a turkey I had seen. That’s why it went so effortlessly and comfortably through the woods. Turkeys can fly through the crowns of trees like partridge when spooked.

Well, sure enough, seconds later, four more big birds flushed from just inside the woodlot and followed the path of that initial flush across the Green River. Just as the last one flew, Lily, maybe 50 yards out, picked up the same scent line Chub-Chub had followed and picked up the pace faster than a 13-year-old bitch who’ll turn 14 Saturday should be capable of attaining. Yes, that warty, fatty-tumored, scraggly, old hag ran like the frisky 6-year-old I remember well on the trail of a pheasant flush or retrieve. This, mind you, after two mini-strokes I witnessed with my own eyes. What an incredible dog she’s been. Near the end, I presume, she may yet fool me again. Her spirit is indomitable and quite extraordinary for a dog her age. And take it to the bank: her hips are tight as they get. No problem there. Her genes are good. That I knew before she arrived at my my home in 2004, no papers of proof required.

As for the five turkeys I witnessed flushing with ease through the tall, riverside, softwood canopy, well, I gotta believe that first, unprovoked flush was a wary gobbler, the subsequent four his spring hen harem. Call it experienced observation borne of watching turkeys and turkey behavior for decades. I may be wrong, but just the way it all unfolded suggested to me that the gobbler took flight as a warning of impending danger and the hens hung in there until Chub-Chub sent them scurrying off to find their sultan.

You can’t make it up.

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.

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