Family A-Fare

What better way to traipse off to my annual December vacation than by telling a Thanksgiving tale – one about a Warwick hunter-gatherer family with a freezerful of healthy game-meat before the first shot of the Massachusetts shotgun deer hunting season is fired?

Yes, that long passed Harvest Moon in the midnight sky smiled favorably upon the Wayne and Tracey Kirley family, which has had one of those years a hunting family will never forget. Some years are tough, day after day without so much as a glimpse of a distant whitetail flag waving goodbye; others, well, they’re quite the opposite. For some reason beyond human comprehension, you just seem to be in the right place at the right time more often than anyone could dream of. It just happens that way … sometimes. Not often.

“I’ve got a lotta meat in the freezer,” said 49-year-old Wayne, caught at home Monday evening on the phone after slaughtering a dozen holiday turkeys. “We’ve got 12 (beef cattle) out back that I won’t need for meat this year. Maybe I’ll sell a couple.”

Thus far, with the Bay State shotgun deer season right on the doorstep, the Kirleys have killed three nice bucks totaling over 500 pounds field-dressed, plus meat from a 445-pound bear in the freezer. Quite a harvest season.

First, 15-year-old son Joshua (who’s since turned 16) bagged a 7-point, 121-pound buck during the one-day, Sept. 30 Massachusetts Youth Deer Hunt held annually on the fourth Saturday following Labor Day for young hunters. Then came Wayne’s opening-day, Nov. 8 New Hampshire buck sporting a beautiful 12-point rack and tipping the scales at 195 pounds, a nice buck regardless of where you’re hunting. But the Kirley crew wasn’t done yet. Uh-uh. Not by a long shot.

Wife Tracey made her contribution by bagging a nice 8-point, 175-pound New Hampshire buck on Nov. 14, four days before Wayne, hunting New Hampshire deer and Bay State bear along the Richmond, N.H./Warwick line, spotted the big bruin sauntering through the Warwick woods and dropped it with two well-placed .243 bullets. His work had just begun. Then all he had to do was field-dress the cumbersome beast that would have tipped the scales at 523 pounds in the round and get the 445-pound carcass home. Praise the heavens that son Josh was in a stand within earshot.

When the Franklin Tech teen heard the shot at around 8 a.m., he knew it was his dad. Confirmation soon arrived beneath his tree stand, where Wayne arrived wearing a furtive, cat-that-swallowed-the-canary grin.

“Come with me,” he said to his son, signaling him to descend his tree stand. “I’ve got something to show you.”

“What?”

“You’ll see.”

Wayne made quite a playful ordeal of the hike by blindfolding his son and leading him by the hand to the top of the ridgeline where the dead bruin lay. On the scene, blindfold removed, the awestruck kid took one look and gasped, “Wow! What do you think he weighs?”

The answer was soon discovered … the hard way. But first they had to return home to retrieve an ice-fishing sled for assistance in dragging the carcass some 400 yards to a trail they could access with a 4-wheeler. Hoping to tan the hide for a bear rug, Wayne did his best to protect the fur.

“I’ll tell you we had a helluva time getting that bear out of the woods,” Wayne recalled. “I shot him at 8 and didn’t get home till 5. We needed the sled, a 4-wheeler and a tractor with a bucket-loader. I think in the future I’ll be happy with a 200- to 250-pounder.”

The tractor became necessary because the 2-wheel-drive 4-wheeler could not haul the bear up a hill encountered. So, Wayne stayed with the bear as Josh went home for the tractor. When he returned, they were able to roll the beast into the bucket, tip it back and drive it home, where Wayne was determined to quickly get it to the Grrrr Gear checking station in Orange, then back home to skin it before the meat spoiled. Because bears have heavy coats and a thick layer of insulating fat underneath for hibernation, Wayne knew the meat would quickly spoil if he didn’t skin it.

“They say the guy who shot that big bear last year (in New Salem) lost all the meat,” he said. “So, I wanted to get the hide off quickly and do everything I could to prevent that from happening to me.”

Good thinking. According to wife Tracey’s father, the Orange butcher who carved up the carcass had 150 pounds of fat with the packaged meat. Asked what he planned to do with the fat, Wayne said his family will render it, fry it up and eat it.

“It’s delicious, very similar to pig fat, which is good for you when properly prepared,” he said. “I guess it’s full of vitamin K2,” which sounds like it came straight out of the Paleo-diet playbook.

Could it be that some of that ancient, sizzling fireside delicacy will wind up on the Kirley Thanksgiving table alongside homegrown turkey and wild venison? You bethca. And, hey, while they’re at it, why not a little pan-fried backstrap of bruin seared to tender, tasty perfection in its own fat?

What a good, old-fashioned, New England meal – in fact, probably closer to the first Thanksgiving feast of Pilgrim and Wampanoag lore than what’s on the plate these days.

Like they say, it’s tough duty but someone’s gotta do it.

Gundog Memories

Gundogs are like valued friends, teammates and hunting buddies. You build rapport and trust, learn their strengths and weaknesses, compare and rate them against others. The joy they add to daily life is worth the care.

Before I owned a gundog, we used to hunt pheasants without one as teens. It was a coordinated maneuver  with one or two other hunters. We’d enter a covert, preferably a narrow one with cropland on one side, maybe a pond or stream on the other, and alternate between walking and standing still to listen for the sound of fleeing pheasant footsteps through the brush. When we heard one, we’d work as a team in pursuit. Eventually, we’d close in on the running bird we’d detected back in the old cocks-only days and either flush him and shoot him on the wing or shoot him on the ground running ahead of us like a rabbit. It was a game, and we made it work for us but it cannot compare to hunting over a good flush-and-retrieve dog, which I personally prefer to a pointer. Of course, that’s just me. A personal preference. Walking up and flushing a pheasant in front of a dog locked on point is not my game. I prefer the chaos and many challenges of the flush-and-retrieve game.

My first gundog experience — the one that convinced me I had to own one — was over Smoky, Pasiecnik Farm’s pet black Lab that loved to flush pheasants on their stocked East Whately acreage along the Connecticut River. I’d stop in the barnyard, pick up the dog and hunt out back near the pond and around the edges of Hopewell Swamp with much success.

A year or two later, married but before my kids were born, I bought my first Lab, Sugarloaf Saro Jane, call name Sara, over whom I hunted for 12 enjoyable years. Back then, considerably more private valley coverts were stocked than today, greatly increasing the acreage and spreading out hunting pressure. Sara came out of a storied, Retriever Hall of Fame Lab named River Oaks Corky from the Midwest. What spirit. What stamina. What enthusiasm. She was a great gundog, family pet and loyal companion who lived for a dozen productive years. Sadly, it all ended abruptly on a midday Halifax, Vt., road while hunting woodcock and partridge with my softball buddy Cooker.

At the time, I had already taken on my first English springer spaniel, Pepper, a 5-year-old field-trial castoff that had won an event or two and placed in others but had been overhandled, thus was  afraid to err. “Take him and give him a lot of TLC,” Cooker told me, “and you’re gonna have a great hunting dog.” He was right on the money. Pepper was a great dog once he knew I was good with free-wheeling hunts.

In the earliest days of Pepper, we were getting to know each other in the field when Sara got hit by that speeding station wagon stirring up a dust storm down a rural southern Vermont dirt road. I heard the car’s skid, the dog’s yelps and  went to the road, where I  found her alive but unable to get up. I picked her up off the road, placed her in the back of my Jeep Cherokee and brought her to the Vet. Diagnosed with a  broken back, she had to be put down — a mournful day, my last as a Lab owner.

Since then, I have gone with springers, which are built for the coverts I love to hunt. Not edges and cornfield perimeters. Been there, done that. I prefer dense, thorny wetlands interspersed with alder and poplar stands, rose bush and bull briar, cattails and ragweed and goldenrod and Christmas berry. Springers are bred for dense cover, and I have had many good ones, the best of them my last three — Ringo, Lily and Chubby, all three of them troopers, not to mention extraordinary flush-and-retrieve swamp busters. Ringo lived to 12, took ill overnight and went quickly. Lily, 13, and Chub-Chub are still alive and well, the former by now a geriatric tag-along, still enthusiastic and more than capable of finding, flushing and retrieving gamebirds, but a far cry from what she once was.

Chubby got his first taste of hunting as mother Lily’s tagalong companion for a couple of years, then blew right past her as the dominant animal in the field. Chub-Chub is a cute name I gave him as a butterball puppy before deciding to keep him. Impressed by his willingness to please and obey simple commands at 4- to 6-weeks old, I just couldn’t part with him, knew he was a natural. But trust me: he’s not one bit chubby. Uh-uh. He’s a big, strong, lean, world-class athlete who’s capable of overpowering any covert on this slice of Pioneer Valley paradise. His nose is great, he’s biddable and he never hesitates or delays to deliver a dead bird to hand. He aims to please. In fact, lives for it.

This past spring, Cooker, a professional field-trialer who’s often in the company of the top springers on the planet, bred his field-trial bitch to Chubby. Lily had come out of Cooker’s breeding. He wanted me to have her for a brood bitch at his disposal. Problem was that although a great gundog, she was a poor reproducer. Bred three times to sires chosen by Cooker, her largest litter was three, not what he was looking for. Chubby is the product of her third litter, which also produced a long-legged, hunting dynamo named Sarah by the Heath hunter who bought her. When that dog died of infection at 3 coming out of heat, her owner cried like a baby, said it was the best gundog he’d ever owned, and is now after me to breed Chub-Chub to his new bitch. I’m sure Chubby would not object.

Despite the fact that Chub-Chub is the best gundog I’ve owned, I still miss Ringo, who I interchangeably called Ringy or Bingo or Bingy, all of which he responded to … when he felt like it. Son of national-champion Denalisunflos Ring, ol’ Bingy came to me with indomitable spirit and insatiable hunting instinct, delivered at 11 months old in a Westfield parking lot off the Mass Pike by New York field-trialer Gary Wilson. That dog was always hunting, be it in the yard, on a walk in the park, in the woods or field. He got into hedgehogs four times. That said, I was stunned when he understood that my neighbor’s chickens were taboo. Yes, it’s a fact. He miraculously did ignore those chickens … 99 percent of the time. The exception was, once in a great while, when, on a random, whimsical indiscretion, he’d chase one down, preferably the rooster, in a noisy, neighborhood outburst, grabbing it firmly by the back and proudly retrieving it  to me.

“Drop it,” I’d order as he approached, and, yes, he’d  obey … sometimes even before I pushed the button to sound his Tri-Tronics shock-collar’s audible warning signal.

Actually, it was Bingy who introduced me too such collars, which basically provide a handler with a half-mile leash. “That dog needs a collar,” advised Cooker in a large Hadley covert no longer open to hunting. What he objected to was quintessential Bingy, a rambunctious hunting dog who refused to kennel up and go home after three solid hours of exhausting hunting. Not ready to call it a day like us, he angled into the cover bordering our parking place, stood on an elevation looking back at us with his  ears perked up, and spun off into the overgrown field. He wanted us to follow. Cooker wanted to go home. I went into the field with a lead in my vest and feigned hunting long enough to fool him and get the lead over his head. A Tri-Tronics collar arrived in the mail a week later and I have used such collars ever since. It’s peace of mind to know you can always stop a dog chasing a wild flush toward a road and the kind of death my dear Sara endured.

I often mention Ol’ Bingy when hunting through barren tangles with my buddy Killer. It usually happens after we’ve scoured a covert for an hour or so without a flush — not because the dogs can’t find birds, but because the birds aren’t there. Then, bemoaning our misfortune  and discussing where to hunt next, we hear the distant call of a ring-necked rooster buried deep in the alder swamp.

“Good thing Bingy isn’t here,” I say to Killer, who knows exactly what I mean, even though Bingy’s been dead for six years. The fact is, we both witnessed that animal find peasants making faraway calls many, many times when permitted. Hunting furiously for even the faintest scent of a pheasant to trail, Bingy would hear a cock crowing, face it and freeze, ears perked at full-alert, and look back at me begging for the friendly command to “Find it.” He knew the drill and was begging for the challenge. Sometimes I cooperated. Sometimes I didn’t. But when I had time to kill, I’d give him the command he eagerly anticipated and off he’d go in a straight line way out of earshot and range.

Never fail, it wouldn’t take long before we’d hear the familiar “cuck-cuck-cuck” of a flushing rooster that may or may not fly our way. Sometimes it would fly within range and come tumbling down, but that was rare. More often, it’d flush in the opposite direction or angle into the playing field where we could mark and try to reflush it. Either way, I’d whistle Ringy back or, when he didn’t respond, use the collar to bring him in.

You’d be surprised how many of those distant callers ended up in our game bags. No lie. Call it Bingy’s legacy. Like his national-champion sire, there was no quit in Ringo — a memorable gun dog who savored individual sovereignty. If you’re not clear what that means, Google it. It’s a free-spirited political philosophy that’s dear to  Woodstock Nation.

Swamp Bustin’

Tan and tattered, they dangle from their shoulder-straps’ bridle-leather diamond-shaped tab on a wooden clothes hanger looped over half of an old, wooden yoke’s bow screwed to the carriage-shed wall as a hook. Who put that creative shed hanger there I do not know, but there are two just like it in the stables, plus other old, dusty, yokes strewn among old boards on the loft floor, and yet another yoke wired for lighting and suspended by chains from a rafter at the mouth of the shed’s western bay garage. Thrifty old pack-rat Yankees didn’t throw anything away, and quite were clever at finding new uses for old, obsolete tools, contraptions and parts thereof.

The shredded garment hanging inside the breezy, sun-splashed eastern carriage shed is my Filson, oil finish, double-tin bibs that I believe I’ve seen marketed as “rugged field and workwear” that’ll last a lifetime with proper care. A coat of that material, yes, maybe a lifetime. But not hunting bibs, which take destructive thorny abuse. Still, for my money I have learned through experience that double-tin cloth offers swamp-busting bird hunters the best, most durable and protective attire on the market.

In nearly 50 years of plowing through dense, punishing, swampy tangles and brambles, I would wear nothing else for bibs or vests, which actually last a little longer than bibs. With proper touch-up application of waterproof wax, aided by a hot blow-drier, the bibs will indeed stand up to the thorniest wetland terrain for awhile. For the sake of your well-being, though, don’t attempt to navigate such coverts without shooting glasses to protect your eyes from scratches; that and proper waterproof footwear for traction and comfort. But a lifetime of wear for double-tin bibs? Uh-uh, I ain’t buyin’ it. For walks in the park, yes, maybe. They may even survive for decades if limited to touring high, lonesome, hardwood ridges, Harvard Yard, or even patches of upland juniper and laurel. But rosebush, bull briar, blackberries, grapes and bittersweet? Not a chance, Pal. And that’s leaving out barbed-wire fences that must be crossed from time to time.

In my heyday, I would get three years, tops, from these bibs, but actually closer to two. By the middle of the third six-week upland-bird season, the tattered legs would routinely creep to mid-shin, high time to break in a new pair for the next season. Please, don’t misread me, though. I’m not complaining. Just stating facts based on decades of field-testing by brush-busting dense, wet, intimidating swamps where cackling cocks, whistling woodcocks and motoring partridge furiously flush through tall alders.

I admit I’ve probably been rougher on tin-cloth than the average Joe. But that’s why I buy it: to make otherwise impenetrable tangles accessible and safe as I try to follow and handle my gundogs with a buddy paralleling us along the edge. It’s always worked for me, offering the same challenging routine for decades, hunting with a long list of devoted hunters, fine wing-shooters and a spirited cast of characters at that— among them the likes of Fast Eddie, Ol’ Smitty, Hopper, Count and brother Young Count, Dr. Bruce, Tomcat, Cooker and Killer. That’s quite a mix. Trust me. Three of them dead, all joined by a common thread — their love of hunting and action. Among them were outlaws, brawlers, butchers, medicine men, coaches, trappers and gamblers — all of them participating, like me, for the love of hunting and shooting, enjoying the rambunctious dogs, savoring the chilly air and robust exercise. I call it busting loose, with loud, continual, playful barbs and banter bouncing back and forth.

Swamp bird-hunting is not like sitting still and quiet in a stand or blind and waiting for or calling your prey to pass. No. This is a noisy, chaotic chase through daunting, tangled cover. It’s getting hung up on low, undetected vines or hidden, rusty strands of barbed-wire, and falling face-first, bracing the fall with your elbows in soft mud to keep your horizontal shotgun out of it. It’s bleeding from your cheeks, neck, and outer ears, your hands, wrists or forearms. It’s sweating profusely, glasses fogging when you take an anticipatory stand for a flush. It’s quickly removing the fogged glasses and spinning them across the back of your shoulders on their retainer cord just in time or maybe a little too late to bring down a noisy flush through woody, leafy obstructions.

There’s no denying that age brings with it complications that cannot be avoided. Your eyes, ears, legs, dexterity and endurance diminish over time. Your waistline expands as your muscle mass contracts, and you’re just not as strong, limber or stable as you once were. Plus, your reflexes, your quickness and gait slow down just enough to transform old, consistent success to new, humbling failure. It’s inevitable, no matter who you are or how well you take care of yourself. Yes, there’s truth to that old saying that you can’t hold back Father Time.

Though I recognize my own signs of aging, I’m not ashamed to admit or display them. That said, my enthusiasm hasn’t waned one iota. My stamina, speed and agility? Yes, diminished. But not so for my passion and enthusiasm for the hunt, the chase, the camaraderie, the dogs and the sporting challenge. Like those Filson bibs we started with, though tattered, torn and shredded, we both answer the bell. Come to think of it, the same can be said of old hag Lily, my 13-year-old springer spaniel who’s pushing 100 in dogs’ age and still wagging her tail to wet, thorny hell and back. What admirable spirit. I was looking for a suitable grave for her a year ago after her second TIA. Now she’s on the hunt. It’s miraculous, could, I suppose, end in the blink of an eye.

Even my shotgun’s aging. For the past 20-some years I’ve been shooting 2½-inch shells with  7/8-ounce loads through my pre-World War II, 16-gauge, Jean Breuil side-by-side, a sweet, worn little shotgun that increased the degree of difficulty since all but retiring my trusty old 12-gauge Browning Citori over-and-under. That gun threw too much lead, destroyed too much meat, thus the move to a smaller gauge, smaller shell and lighter load, all of which limit range and reduce your flush/kill success rate.

No, I ain’t complaining or making excuses; just fessin’ up to the fact that age is creeping up on the whole damn shootin’ match. But like those tattered and torn Filson bibs waiting out in the shed for their daily hunt, and like my current 73-year-old hunting buddy, Killer, I still go to the post and enjoy every minute, hit or miss. Still, I prefer the former. When I hit ’em, I avoid Killer’s baritone barbs, which can be and often are even more penetrating than those long Hawthorn spikes that can do a job on a man.

You gotta try to avoid that kind of abuse. It’s irritating, poisonous and, well, part of the game. But missing a shot you usually hit is kinda like fouling out to the catcher when a pitcher serves up a cookie right your wheelhouse. I’ve done that, too. You gotta just let it go and wait for your next at-bat, understanding that failure rears its ugly head even to the best of ’em.

If every swing produces a hit, every wing-shot a kill, the sporting challenge is gone, dead and boring.

This And That And The Other Thing

The stimuli were there: gray, foreboding skies and an autumn chill greeting me for my morning stroll to the mailbox. Then came a call from a friend who, in a roundabout way, recounted a recent purchase of a reasonably priced Belgium Browning Sweet 16. Now, here I sit at my customary Wednesday-morning  station — books here, reports there, coffee cup, portable phone, fly-swatter — trying to bang out a weekly column, wondering where it’s going to lead.

With all sorts of potential entry points, why not begin by mentioning recent emails, always a pipeline for “news” and chatter, even gossip. Let’s begin with a cautionary note from a new Meadows neighborhood-watch site I recently joined — a sort  of narrowed down Facebook page. There, on Tuesday, came a warning for motorists to be extra careful of squirrels, which were “going nuts over all the nuts on the road” following heavy overnight wind and rains. I must say this astute observation was right on the mark. On a subsequent drive down the road, dancing squirrels were darting out in front of my truck, stopping suddenly, raising their tails and scooting back where they came from to avoid getting squashed. I didn’t hit any, but not all of them make it, of course. It made me wonder how much the mortality rate has increased over the transition from horse and buggy to automobile. My guess is that the number is staggering.

I’ll get to another email later, one about gundog Lily that I’ll save for last; but, first, onto one I hammered out to MassWildlife. Figuring there must be some harvest numbers by now for the annual September segment of the three-part  bear season, I reached out to information  guru Marion Larson, once an Amherst High School cross-country star, for my answer. Well, yes, indeed she did have numbers and got back to me promptly. Licensed hunters took 148 bears, 59 females, 86 males and three of unknown gender during the 17-day season that always produces more kills than the other two combined. The total is down from last year’s harvest of 190. The reason for the decline is anyone’s guess, but it’s not because there are fewer bears in the woods.

With it a certainty that the bear population has only increased since a year ago, there must be other factors in play, among them  availability of natural foods. When they’re plentiful, hunters’ success rates around cornfields tend to diminish. Corn-fed bears are easier to pattern than those patrolling lowland swamps or upland hardwood ridges. So when nuts, fruits and berries are plentiful, bears become difficult to pattern and hunter success rates plummet. In my travels, the hard- and soft-mast crops appear to be strong, especially apples, which seem to be everywhere this fall. What this meant to the three-week September hunt is open to conjecture. I’ll let the experts figure that one out once the triple-tier, 47-day season ends on the final day of the shotgun deer season.

Now, onto my final topic, it the work of a new, previously unknown emailer who appeared recently in my inbox. His name is John Kelley, his focus the Philip’s War battlefield at Riverside/Gill that’s under current historical/archaeological scrutiny. Apparently, his primary focus is on my Saturday column. Still,  he must  check in here, too, from time to time, judging from his most recent message. Kelley is putting together a documentary film related to the battlefield research and wants to get together for a chat, which I’m more than willing to accommodate during a busy time of the year for me: bird hunting season. Because of my tight schedule when hunting, my response was that I could possibly arrange something on the weekend, when I typically avoid going out due to increased weekend pressure.
Well, Kelley immediately responded to me with “anytime Saturday works for me,” followed by and unrelated question that surprised me: “Is your 13-year-old hunting dog still with us?”

That query touched me in a tender spot.  I wanted to respond. So, here it is … in black and white for all to read.

Shockingly, the answer to his poignant question about Lily is yes. In fact, she’s made a remarkable comeback to a functional gundog, though geriatric and not close to the covert-rattling, brush-buster she once was. Still, the fact is that last year at this time I was looking for a suitable place to bury this dear, spirited  companion. Not for a freakin’ second did I anticipate she would be around for another hunting season. In fact, I did not expect her to see spring.

After the second of what I am now certain were TIAs or mini-strokes, this liver-and-white springer spaniel bitch with indomitable drive is again flushing and retrieving pheasants and woodcock. No, she can’t compete with son Chubby, a 6-year-old dynamo who’s in his prime and covers much more ground. But she would suffice as the lone gundog for a hunter or two. In fact, her pace might be perfect for hunters who have themselves lost a step or two. Hunting behind her would be easy compared to an animal like Chub-Chub, who blows through thick cover like it’s not there. When a pheasant finds a lane to run down when chased by a hard-charger like Chubby, even a young hunter may not be in position to get a crack at distant flushes that may result. Geriatric Lily’s deliberate approach and tighter quarters create closer flushes that take longer to develop and burst up well within range.

Ol’ Lily-butt will be 14 on April 28, 2018, my 39th anniversary. Honestly, facing cold reality, I know she could well be gone by then. But given what I have witnessed thus far during the first weeks of this bird-hunting season, I have a strong suspicion she’ll see another spring and beyond. Then again, I accept that it could all be over fast. If she finally succumbs to a sudden collapse and mortal tremors in some mucky alder-swamp tangle due to cardiac arrest, so be it. She’s had a great life and will have expired doing precisely what she loves most and was born to do. Call it   dying while doing what you live for?

We should all be so blessed. Few are. That I have tasted and grown to accept.

October Ain’t What It Used To Be

It was Day 6 of the 36-day pheasant season and I had not hunted or even given it much thought. Too hot. Cooler days ahead.

OK, there’s no denying I’m getting old and ain’t what I once was physically. Nonetheless, I still have the enthusiasm and physical (limping) prowess to navigate punishing coverts. That said, I don’t recall ever looking forward to 60- and 70-something-degree hunting days. No thank you, please.

Ideal bird-hunting weather for me and the dogs is gray and damp with a light breeze and temps in the 40s. A little rain? Even better. If it takes a pair of fingerless wool gloves for comfort, no problem, they don’t get in the way. For me, summer weather doesn’t cut it for plowing through dense, thorny, tangled cover in heavy Tin Cloth bibs and knee-high rubber boots. That goes for young, hard-charging bucks with more brawn than brain, too. Hey, I’ve been there, done that. Now know better.

So, there I was, before 8 a.m. a week ago today, two weekly columns in the rearview, reading Brian Fagan’s new book, “Fishing.” Sitting in the southwest parlor, my mind traipsed off from a page to thoughts of calling a friend to go hunting, and, lo, my wife, getting ready for work, walked through the dining room toward the laundry. Figuring she had heard a weather forecast, I asked for a report. Beautiful, she said, 70s and sunny.

“Ugh,” I thought. “Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder.”

So, should I or should I not open my season? That was the pressing question. I can’t deny that I was getting itchy, almost guilty, in fact, at leaving two dogs born to flush and retrieve game birds inactive.
I waited until about 9:30 to telephone my hunting buddy Killer, who knows the drill like few others. We have always worked well as a team, and I know I can count on him to be in the right spot at the right time as I handle the dogs. The phone rang six times. No answer. I knew he’d call back, and he did at about 10.

“You caught me sleepin’,” he sheepishly admitted. “Was up late last night with the ballgame.”

A Yankees fan with a Yankees hat and a Yankees decal on his truck (that and a sign that reads, “Honk again, I’m reloading”) he was a happy camper. Once trailing 0-2 in their best-of-seven ALCS versus the

Astros, the Pinstripers had won 5-0 to assume a 3-2 series lead heading back to Houston for Games 6 and 7. The Big Apple was bloated with confidence and enthusiasm, nothing new in Yankee land. As we all know, the Bronx Bombers have enjoyed more than their share of success over a storied existence.

“Are you up for a quick hunt?” I ask. “The dogs are ready and so am I, kinda. Joey says it’s supposed to be 70, too hot for that jungle. We don’t have to overdo it.”

“Yeah,” he answered. “I figured the weather wasn’t right for you, but knew that sooner or later you’d call. I can be ready by 11.”

“OK,” I said. “I’ll get dressed, feed the dogs and see you then.”

I took my Filson bibs and vest off hangers in the carriage shed, picked my boots off the floor below and, on a preparatory whim, walked a few steps to the west wall, where I laid open the hard gun case resting on a nearby splayed-leg table. Then I went back inside to dress and grab my shotgun. Once dressed, I inspected my side-by-side and discovered that it could use a quick once-over with an oil rag and a few clock-oil drops around the safety and triggers.

Chores complete, I loaded my gear into the truck, backed it out between the barn and an ancient stone hitching post, opened the tailgate and two porta kennels under the cap and walked back toward the kennel, 13-year-old Lily barking and wagging for breakfast, 6-year-old son Chubby digging for a stone to lug out to his cook-house feeding station. He goes through the same routine every morning, dropping the stone atop his food and eating around it in a Wagner Ware skillet. Don’t ask why. He just does … every freakin’ day. This time he broke his routine a tad by racing to the skillet, dropping the stone and enthusiastically coming back out to greet me. Whether he recognized my bibs and vest by sight or scent I cannot say but, trust me, he knew precisely where we were going. For the first time in recent memory, he jumped up and gently placed his two front paws on my thigh. He then displayed another obvious indicator that he knew where we were headed by finishing his food and running straight to his crate in the truck and staying inside until I arrived to fasten the door shut. He usually wanders some, lifting his leg on the hitching post and barn corner before taking a quick sprint around the front yard and leaping up into his crate. Not this time. Uh-uh. Chub-Chub was wired to hunt, and so was Lily. After finishing her breakfast, she too ran straight to the truck.

I picked up Killer a couple of miles down the road and we drove off to a familiar covert where my roots lie. Upon arrival, I drove five yards past the landing and backed in as I always do to keep the dogs away from the road. We had the big, dense covert to ourselves. As we put on our vests and took out our guns, I asked Ol’ Killer if he could hear the thumping of Lily’s tail against the side of her plastic porta-kennel.

“She’s amazing,” I praised. “Last year at this time I was looking for a suitable place to bury her. Yeah, she’s seen better days, but she knows this covert and is eager to hunt. She’s always had spirit.”

“Yep,” said Ol’ Killer, pointing to the tangles below, “and if she drops dead out there from cardiac arrest, she’ll expire doing what she most loves.”

“You taking’ about her or us,” I chuckled.

“Us, too, I guess” he smiled. “Good way to go. Which reminds me of the Waitkus brothers that used to own a gun shop over by Stop & Shop. I think it was Francis who went missing one day while pheasant hunting in the North Meadows. When they went looking for him, they found his truck, then found his English setter lying next to his body. We should all be so lucky.”

Doors locked, vests on, guns loaded, we released the dogs and started on a route we’ve taken many times before. After a rainy spring and summer, the covert is thicker than ever, the alders noticeably taller. I never thought I’d say such a thing but they may need to brush-hog that field before the alders take over and make it as impenetrable as the adjacent alder swamp I used to hunt. Still, at this point it’s a good covert that’s challenging for dogs and hunters alike. Tall alders and thick underbrush is the bad news. The good news is that stocked pheasants have a chance, will acclimate and do accumulate there. An added bonus this year is the surrounding acreage, private land that has not been hayed for a couple of years, providing expansive pheasant habitat.

Chubby jumped down and started attacking the cover, head high, nose working as he bound over and plowed through dense quarters. Old mother Lily took a less aggressive, though far from pathetic approach. They both know the game and were enthusiastically seeking scent. We flushed nothing in the first section and headed north to take our customary eastern loop down to a brook. You never know when a pheasant or woodcock will flush — once in a great while these days, even a partridge.

We crossed a dry, cattail ditch into the back field. Still, no action. Then, about midway down the overgrown field, tall alders obscuring former sight planes, I caught a flash and, too late, saw a large hen woodcock flying away. Although Chubby flushed it no more than 20 yards in front of me, I never heard the flush. Past me, I hollered, “Woodcock coming at ya,” to Killer, who found it out of range. Then, another flush, this one a hen pheasant I never saw because of the high cover. I whistled Chubby back and both dogs soon appeared, panting, in need of water. We continued hunting through dense, thorny cover to the end of the first leg, where I crossed another dry gully leading to the brook. There, both dogs jumped in and took lusty, slurping gulps of water as they swam.

Exiting the brook refreshed, the dogs shook off and we doubled back toward Killer, who was, as usual, right where he should be. The two dogs were hunting out in front of me as I snaked my way under a tall maple and I heard another hen pheasant flush, then three shots.

“Get it?” I hollered.

“Yep, it’s down about 50 yards out,” he responded. “I marked it.”

He stayed put while I took the dogs toward the dead pheasant, Killer directing me.

“Right in that area,” he said when I reached the place where the bird fell.

I told the dogs to “fetch it up,” and both of them scour the thick cover without ever indicating fresh scent. They ranged out wider and wider, quartering, but still no indication of scent or imminent retrieve. Then Chubby swung around toward me and sat by my side, panting. It was hot, the cover was thick, it was our first time out and he needed water. A dry dog’s scenting capability is greatly diminished.

I left the spot toward a wet swamp some 200-yards south of us. They booth needed a drink, I told Killer. I’d be back. Plus, who knew when another bird was going to flush. Well, that didn’t happen but the dogs did find water and get refreshed for more hunting. Ten or 15 minutes later, I arrived back at the place where Killer had marked the dead pheasant and I could see that Chubby again needed water after another couple hundred yards through thick cover. By this time, I too was overheated. Sweating profusely, salt burning both of my eyes under protective glasses. When Chubby sat down five feet away, overheated and panting, I had seen enough of this opening-day fiasco.

“Come on, Killer,” I called out to my buddy 50 yards behind me, “let’s call it a day. Too hot. I couldn’t hit anything with my eyes burning like they are. Plus, the dogs are hot. Let’s get outta here.”

Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I left a dead bird in the field, even a difficult blind retrieve like this one. If I could have kept the dogs watered, I’m confident we would have found it. But water was elusive, it was getting hotter by the minute and I had endured enough.

A couple days later, I took an inquisitive phone call from another longtime hunting buddy who’d hunted the same covert on the same and subsequent days behind field-trial gundogs. Go figure: he had encountered similar problems – too hot, too dry, and a dead bird left in the field.

This global-warming problem our government wants to ignore for economic reasons is killing bird-hunting as wing-shooters of my vintage know it. Maybe in the future we’ll have to consider changing the dates to November and December for cooler weather.

All I can say is that October ain’t what it used to be.

Familiar Surroundings

Apparently, word doesn’t travel quite as fast as it once did in small towns. Then again, South Deerfield ain’t as little as it used to be.

We’re not talking here about 1997, when I left my hometown for Greenfield, setting my roots 714 feet from a better place called Shelburne. By then, what is known in the vernacular as Sowdeerfeel was already much bigger and different than when I was a boy and everyone knew everybody. Back then, word traveled lightning fast from mouth to mouth, be it at the drug store or gas station, bar or restaurant, barber shop, market or coffee shop. Let’s just say nothing was sacred, no one was immune. Talk was cheap and rampant, some playful, some vicious indeed. Thus, my customary response to recycled tales of youthful misbehaviors and indiscretions is quite consistent … and weak.

“I’m a victim small-town gossip,” I explain, more often than not to hearty laughter.

Anyway, enough of that. Back to the topic at hand, that of word traveling slower in my old hometown these days. A example slapped me upside the head Wednesday morning, between 9 and 10, as I stood chatting with two affable farm brothers in cool air, the bright sun peeking over the near eastern horizon. The boys were examining my pickup as I returned from a 20-foot walk to the lip of a hill overlooking the old Turnip Yard west of North Hillside Road. Below was familiar meadow, swamp, woods and cropland where I once shot many pheasant, woodcock and partridge. One quick glance instantly reconnected me to this site. I could visualize cackling pheasants, shotgun blasts and gundog retrieves like they were happening before my eyes, right there.

“My god,” I said, gesturing downhill toward maybe 75 acres of wet woods surrounded on all sides by fertile open meadow and tree lines, “I used to hunt down there daily this time of year back in the day. Had a lotta fun. Lotta stories. The best ones can never be written about.”

As I looked off to the distant western hills, I thought back to a dead hunting buddy who now has an annual football MVP award named after him, and to other old friends who hunted with me as well. Lots and lots of memories. Good ones. Sometimes we’d access the private land from the north end, out beyond the railroad tracks slicing through Albin Ripka’s farm. Other times we’d enter from the south end by Jackson Road, just before the dry bridge, passing an old, decaying tavern and tobacco barn before hitting cornfields, parking and hunting in the opposite direction. It’s boring to hunt the same route every day. You gotta change it up day to day, put a little different spin on the same covert.

You could literally spend the whole day hunting the Turnip Yard, meandering here and there, up and down, following frisky dogs through one covert to another, never certain whether you’d flush pheasant, grouse or woodcock, maybe even ducks and geese or turkeys. Also,  it was not unusual to kick up a nice whitetail buck from his daytime  lair in a thorny old apple orchard. Once in a while when things were slow, we’d even venture into the woods looking for wise pheasants taking forest shelter, maybe even a grouse if we were lucky.

“The stocking trucks used to release birds on all four sides of this huge parcel,” I said, pointing westward,  to the boys. “They’d make several stops one day a week, spreading dozens of pheasants all around the woods’ perimeter.”

“Yeah,” responded one of the brothers, “they used to drive right through this barnyard and down the hill. Our dog would sometimes catch pheasants. Then one time a stocking truck got stuck in the brook down there and we had to pull him out with a tractor. We asked him not to come back after that.”

So there you have it: one of many reasons why that large private covert no longer receives a weekly allotment of state-stocked ringnecks. Yes, times changed overnight that day, long, long ago. What’s hard for me to swallow is that I was hearing such a story for the first time so many years after the fact. Likely, there are many similar tales circling the entire expansive lot owned by many different families. Fact is that landowners change over time, and when they do, new ones can be more territorial and less welcoming than their predecessors. Maybe they like privacy, don’t want to hear gunshots or encounter hunters around their property. As a result, they nail up “No Trespassing” signs and/or tell stocking crews and hunters alike to beat it.

You’d need a calculator to add up all the good, productive pheasant, grouse and woodcock coverts that have gone that route here in the Pioneer Valley over the past 30 years. Add to that all the open land that’s been developed just in my lifetime and the habitat has dramatically diminished. With those coverts went our reproductive pheasant population once protected by cocks-only hunting seasons that spared hens for spring mating with surviving cocks. Another factor weighing against a reproductive pheasant population these days is burgeoning predator populations of bobcats, coyotes, foxes, fishers and birds of prey.

The little stocking-truck mishap reported by the brothers Wednesday must have occurred at least 20 years ago, because I know my hunting days on that parcel ended before I moved to Greenfield. That doesn’t mean I haven’t hunted there at any time over the past two decades. I have, but only after being tipped off by a farmer friend raising silage corn there that he was flushing pheasants during the harvest. That was many years ago, but I knew the terrain, was confident there would be no hunting pressure and had luck working the thick ragweed and goldenrod fields bordering the corn stubble with friends. Back then I was hunting behind Ringo, a springer spaniel in his heyday during the first decade of the new millennium. Even Lily, now 13, must have been there in her younger days. I can’t recall. The pheasants we found there that year and in a few subsequent years must have found their way across Route 5&10 from Fuller’s Swamp and the Long Hill plain overlooking it from the south, behind the butterfly conservatory.

So, take note young lads. Stocked pheasants that survive their first couple of flushes get acclimated, are good fliers and will wander off to explore adjacent coverts for food and security. That’s why, for me over the years, I have always preferred the last three weeks of the season over the first three. Late season is the time to escape the crowds and flush birds where the hunters ain’t.
With the majority of birds stocked nowadays on state Wildlife Management Areas, your options are more limited than they were before, say, about 1990, when most pheasant were released on private farm property lining both sides of the Connecticut River. But if you do your homework, understand pheasant behavior and are adventurous, you can still find secluded coverts that attract and hold birds where there’s no hunting pressure.

That said, here it is Day 5 of the season and I have yet to get out in the field. That’s OK. There’s no rush. I bought my license, my side-by-side is ready, and my Tin Cloth bibs and game vest are hanging out in the carriage shed, my tall rubber boots standing on the floor below. Actually, I’m ahead of the game from a year ago, when I bought my license on Oct. 23. So, there’s still plenty of time to do what I love doing — that is breathing fresh, invigorating air into my lungs and breaking a sweat through punishing cover while watching my gundogs trail, flush and retrieve game birds.

You can’t beat the excitement or the exercise, and wing-shooting can indeed be challenging, especially after surviving birds learn shielded escape routes to swamp refuge that’s inaccessible to hunters. Often that’s where the contest is made more equitable by beavers.

Although humans seem to have an aversion to beavers these days, wildlife loves the furry, dam-building, wetland-flooding beasts.

Isn’t that what you’d call an impasse?

Walnut Wisdom

The big black walnut across the street, naked and gray, muscular limbs flexed to the heavens, whispers through a warm west wind that pheasant season is near. I appreciate the reminder, marveling at my tall, dignified neighbor’s grace, strength and perfect form, worthy of a gilt-framed canvas.

Looking across at that stately tree can stir thoughts of a similar native nut tree I myself never had the privilege of knowing. That would be the proud American chestnut, which folks are still trying to revive in hybrid form to once again grace our forests. How better they would be for again having them.

A chestnut crook cane I carry when walking the dogs or hiking is a daily reminder of that once-ubiquitous and quite useful tree that framed New England buildings for centuries before departing. Found tucked away in the back corner of a deep, narrow closet at home, it’s light to carry, strong and water resistant. Plus, it’s mellow amber tone and heavy oak-like grain, accentuated by Boston polish Butcher’s Wax, has a beauty of its own.

By the way, don’t let anyone convince you American chestnuts died of  natural causes. That’s just another great American myth. We killed that proud North American tree and will likely extirpate many like it if we don’t change our destructive ways. But enough of that soliloquy. Back to what I once knew as upland bird season, now simply pheasant season. It opens Saturday.

The reason I can no longer refer to this annual six-or-so-week fall season as upland-bird hunting is that our woodcock and grouse populations seem to have vanished, or at least dramatically diminished. Last year, hunting the same coverts I’ve toured for parts of five decades, following an excellent gun dog, I flushed maybe three or four woodcock and, for the first time ever, not a single, solitary partridge. That’s right! Not one freakin’ gray ghost. That would have been impossible 30 years ago, when woodcock flight birds would flutter and dance out of alder swamps in rapid succession and partridge would burst sporadically from the same coverts, disappearing behind obstacle cover faster than they appeared.

So scarce have partridge (the most difficult of all wing-shooting targets I’ve  encountered) become that I no longer even hunt my favorite grouse  coverts. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure I’d still get flushes if I went, but not nearly the number I could once count on. Thus, I choose not to kill partridge these days. I don’t even tempt the fates, just can  no longer justify hunting them for the sake of proving I can still shoot. I have nothing to prove there. I hunt for fresh air, camaraderie, exercise and the joy of interpreting my dogs actions and positioning myself within range of cackling flushes.

Ah, yes, within range. It’s a concept that reminds me of a boyhood friend I often  hunted with back in the 1980s. Oh, how I remember being tangled up in  thorns blocking a tight alder lane — singing my spiciest swamp music with blood streaming down my cheek or neck — when a big, loud cock bird would come cackling out of tall, fluffy cattails. I’d mount my double-barrel, find room to swing on the flying bird and ultimately choose not to pull even the back trigger when I finally caught up to my target at 50 yards going away.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” my buddy, Fast Eddie, would holler. “Couldn’t you see that bird?”

“Yeah, I saw him,” I’d answer, “but by the time I caught up with him, he was out of range.”

There’s no denying that Fast Eddie and I had different approaches to determining what was in and out of range in the pucker brush. That said, his scolding response to my answer was difficult to debate.

“There’s only one way to figure out if it’s out of range,” he’d bellow, “Let the lead fly. If the bird keeps flying, then it was out of range.”

“Yeah, I guess so,” I’d concede. “Either that or I just missed.”

Anyway, back to the season at hand, the state says it’ll again stock 40,000 pheasants statewide, plus about 5,000 additional birds raised by sporting clubs will supplement the allotment in selected private coverts. What’s best about club birds is that they’re banded for identification and are still released on private property, which not so long ago was the rule, not the exception. Oh, how times have changed in that respect. Nowadays most birds are released on state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), which are typically more congested with hunters than private coverts were years ago. Although I may indeed be going to seed and getting a little cranky in my senior years, give me private coverts any day of the week, even if it does take more work to find birds. Who wants to go out and fill their bag limit in a half-hour or choose paths that get cut off by other hunters and dogs? Not this hombre. I need space, the thicker and thornier the cover the better. Dense cover separates the men from the boys, whether you’re walking on two or four legs.

Back in the god old days before the vast majority of pheasants were stocked on WMAs, the enjoyment and success rate of hunts increased as the season endured. The reason was that pheasants that survived their first few flushes would fly off to refuge, ultimately spreading out in marshes lining both sides of the Connecticut River floodplain. That scenario provided hunters the opportunity for long, rambling, circuitous and productive hunts minus interference from other hunters. And even if you did run into hunters when pulling into a desired spot, it was not a problem. All you had to do was drive off to the next covert, which you’d likely have to yourself. That dynamic has changed now that the vast majority of birds are released on WMAs, where rivalry among hunters can create bad blood leading to potential conflict.

Sometimes I wonder if ever the day will arrive when I’ll answer, “No thanks,” to that naked black walnut tree across the street luring  me to the alder swamps and cattail bogs. Though I can’t see it happening, it may well could.  And,  if it ever does, well, then I’ll probably just  write about it.

Petersham Cougar Confirmation

Although it seems like old news by now, really, it’s not that old. Plus, there’s an exciting new “breaking” element, which, frankly, is not all that surprising.

First, a little background. On the morning of June 28, 2016, Petersham horse owner Anne Marie Zukowski went out to feed her 16-year-old German Hanoverian named Summit and was immediately suspicious that something wasn’t right when the horse was in the wrong stall. Upon closer inspection, she found deep, ugly claw-mark gouges on the horse’s shoulder, then blood and hair around stable and barnyard. She pondered possible culprits and thought, “Gee, could it have been a mountain lion?”

Hmmmm? Scary indeed.

Concerned about her horse’s well-being, Zukowski brought him for medical treatment to the Tufts University animal hospital and alerted law-enforcement officials to her problem. Among the agencies to visit the site and review the evidence were police, game wardens and MassWildlife, which concluded that her horse had injured itself by rushing through a gate and catching a shoulder on its open latch. Furious at what she interpreted as an insulting,  condescending, clueless hypothesis, and with the resources to pay for independent analysis, she gathered blood and hair samples left on the scene and sealed them in a plastic bag. Then she searched for a reputable lab to identify the animal that had left the biological calling cards around her stables.

The samples wound up at the University of Florida at Gainsville’s Maples Center for Forensic Medicine, which tested them and determined in November that they had been left by a cougar or mountain lion or puma or whatever you choose to call it. The long and the short of this finding was that her horse had not been attacked by a bear, a big bobcat or a sharp, open gate latch. No sir. It was a mountain lion, rare indeed in these parts, with females and thus reproductive populations said to be extinct east of the Mississippi River. Some question that assessment.

When MassWildlife officials criticized Zukowski’s method of specimen collection and said they knew nothing of the lab she had used and thus had issues with the finding, she grew more incensed and felt disrespected. At that point, a watchdog group called “Cougars of the Valley,” which investigates New England cougar sightings and the sites of reported incidents like Zukowski’s, jumped in, paying to send what was left of the biological materials in Florida to Melanie Culver, one of the nation’s most respected cougar researchers. When MassWildlife officials claimed they were unfamiliar with Ms. Culver as well, Cougars of the Valley spokesman Ray Weber begged to differ. MassWildlife had sent 1990s Quabbin scat samples to Culver’s Arizona lab, which ruled they had been left by a cougar.

Stationed at the University of Arizona, Culver is an assistant Wildlife and Fisheries Science professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, and assistant leader of the Arizona Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit. Her Culver Lab there analyzed Zukowski’s biological data and confirmed the University of Florida’s findings. Yes, that’s right, the Petersham horse had been attacked by a cougar. Not only that, but a cougar of North American origin. So, howdya like them apples, Ant Martha?

Culver took it a step farther that the Florida lab by identifying the cougar’s gender. It was a male, which may have come as a disappointment to Weber, who was heard wondering aloud on the phone one day what would happen if the beast turned out to be a female, far east of where there are said to be none.

“Can you imagine the reaction of wildlife officials if the Arizona lab finds that the cougar was female?” he enthusiastically asked in June, after the Arizona lab had blood and hair samples in hand. “Wouldn’t that be something, considering officials’ total refusal to admit the possibility that cougars are coming back, and that some of the reported New England sightings are real?”

Well, although the Petersham cat was a male, how long do you suppose it’ll take for a female to make an appearance in Great Lakes country or expansive ranges like the Adirondacks, Catskills, Poconos, Green and White Mountains? Or how about the Berkshires and Appalachians, or even Conway or Colrain? Some say it’s impossible, that too many cougars are killed under liberal hunting quotas in Western states like the Dakotas and Montana, which produce wandering dispersers from overpopulated habitats. Then you have overzealous law-enforcement officers in Minnesota or Illinois or Iowa, who shoot first and ask questions later, killing cougars in the name of public safety before they get close to the Eastern Seaboard. But don’t forget that wayward males have already found their way here, including the first confirmed case killed on a Milford, Conn., highway on June 11, 2011, just weeks after the United States Fish and Wildlife Service declared Eastern cougars extinct instead of endangered. Now this in Petersham. What’s next? Fact is, Northeastern cougar rewildling is looking more and more possible, perhaps even probable, as the years pass and the forests continue to grow —  no matter how long the odds, what the chorus of detractors says or how loud they scream it.

In the meantime, there’s still loose ends in Arizona. Culver, a Ph.D geneticist, is trying to match the Petersham cougar’s DNA to samples in a national database. She’ll likely soon know what gene pool this big cat came from. Is it a North Dakota cat? South Dakota? Montana? Idaho? How interesting!

Remember when that Milford, Conn., cat was killed by a motorist and the initial response from state and federal wildlife officials was that it was probably a released pet that had been set free after growing too big and dangerous to care for. Examination and biological analysis proved that skeptical knee-jerk opinion to be dead wrong. Not only did that 3-year-old, 140-pound male disperser hail from the Black Hills of South Dakota, it had traveled 2,000 miles in just less than two years, depositing a documented DNA trail through Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan and New York before meeting his maker in the evening shadows of New York City. The Petersham cat likely followed a similar path and is possibly still lurking somewhere in the Norhteastern neighborhood.

After months of anxious anticipation, Weber finally alerted me to Culver’s finding last Thursday afternoon by email. I had eagerly awaited the Arizona lab’s confirmation all summer and had checked with Weber several times in an effort to stay in front of the story. When I placed a follow-up phone call to Weber Thursday, I was concerned to learn he had forwarded Culver’s findings to MassWildlife, which has from the start tried to discredit the story with its familiar deny-and-distract song and dance routine. Knowing from experience that the state agency doesn’t like to acknowledge the presence of cougars, I gambled, figuring they’d rather sweep it under the rug than make a media splash.

Well, now the cat’s out of the bag, so to speak. There’s no denying that a cougar attacked a horse in the Quabbin community of Petersham. At this point, I’m not sure what intrigues me more — the cat’s gene pool or the state’s impending response.

Stay tuned. It could get humorous.

Maple Feedback

It didn’t take long for an informed reader to respond with a diagnosis for a curiosity brought to light in passing here last week.

I wondered aloud why maple leaves were drying on their stems and dropping prematurely before ever reaching their yellow, orange and red fall splendor. Most perplexing to me, no dendrologist by any stretch, was that I would have expected bright fall colors following a wet spring and summer that would suggest healthy trees and plants. But again, that’s just an unfounded, knee-jerk, pedestrian opinion based on observation totally devoid of scientific training.

Well, not so fast with the prevailing wisdom, which I understand is often buoyed by misconception. So, now the facts, supplied by a reader with knowledge about the subject who preferred not to be named.
“In yesterday’s column, you mention the perplexing amount of browning of maple leaves, given the expectation it would be a good foliage year because we’ve had plentiful rainfall,” she wrote last week. “Unfortunately, lots of rain also means lots of fungal leaf diseases. It’s been a particularly banner year for one called maple anthracnose.”

She went on to cite a passage from last week’s UMass Extension Service “Landscape Message,” which reported that: Scattered sugar maples are browning and will not be producing their normal brilliant fall color. In some cases, this is due to maple anthracnose, which has been widespread and destructive this season. Several different fungi are responsible for maple anthracnose, which is initiated by abundant early season rainfall.

Accompanying this helpful information, my source sent a UMass/Amherst Web link explaining the pest named anthracnose of maple, with the subtitles “Hosts,” “Symptom and Disease Cycle” and “Management.”

The disease attacks sugar, red, Norway, silver and Japanese maples, which covers most if not all of our maples here in this slice of paradise. And this makes sense to me, given what I’ve observed in resent travels along the Green River and its Hinsdale Brook tributary that flows through my backyard. Floating downstream are maple leaves of varying size and color.

Now, a little subplot that came my way quite by chance and telephone Wednesday morning. The questioner, a neighborhood reader responding to last week’s column, had a question about maple trees’ helicopter seeds, which seem to be clinging to their stems long after the trees lose their leaves. A farmer with university training about plants and trees, not to mention more than six decades of Greenfield Meadows observation, the man opines that the seeds are usually long gone by the time the leaves fall.

Hmmmmm? Back to our unnamed female source, introduced above, for the potential answer. Well, she did her best, but without input from her resident plant pathologist, who is out of work until next week.
Although she  won’t be able to check with him about what might be going on until Monday, she responded to my Wednesday email and did share what she’d  gleaned from other sources, plus threw in a little personal extrapolation:

“We had a heavy seed-set this year for a combination of reasons, so the seeds are even more obvious than usual. Factors are: the timing of spring frosts didn’t kill many flower buds, so more flowers than usual turned to seed; maples tend to produce a massive quantity of seed in two- to five-year cycles; and an over-abundance of seeds can indicate the tree experienced stress the previous year, likely from last year’s drought. Producing a bumper crop of seeds is the tree’s way of carrying on the species, should the stress continue and the tree die off.

“Different varieties vary widely when the seeds ripen and fall, though sugar maples tend to hang on to theirs, sometimes not dropping them until after leaf fall. Seems to me we haven’t had any high wind events in the last few weeks (thunderstorms, hurricanes, etc.) that would hasten knocking them off the trees.

“So, that’s my thought — a mast year for seeds, making them more obvious, and not enough windy weather yet to knock them down. I’ll check with our plant pathologist next week to see if he has any other thoughts.”

The extension service recommends removing diseased leaves from the ground under maple trees in an effort to prevent the fungus from taking root and returning next year. That goes especially in areas with many young trees in the understory. Mature maples apparently do a better job of fighting off disease than their immature offspring.

Myself, I’d be more inclined to let nature take its course. The maples that survive, young and old, will probably be better off for it. The ones that don’t make it will make room for fresh growth. Since when did trees ever need humans to survive? That’s a self-serving timber-industry myth. Recent research says forests are more than capable of managing themselves. Don’t doubt it.

Stay tuned.

*****

For the record, mention of this maple-tree conundrum in last week’s column came in the form of introductory digression in a story about me flushing a bald eagle hunting a maturing brood of common mergansers where I walk along the Green River daily.

The day the column hit the street, say 11 a.m., I was releasing my dogs from their porta-kennels for our daily walk when I caught sight of a fisherman trudging along a tree line toward his parked Chevy Blazer, which I had just passed a short distance up the road. On a whim, I decided to change my normal path and intercept him to see what he caught. Well, as it turned out, he was the type of angler (there are many) who is willing to give up little information; basically a “That’s for me to know and you to find out” kinda guy.

His body language screaming that he wasn’t eager to chat, I ignored the signals and approached him. I didn’t introduce myself (he looked vaguely familiar), just cut off his path to inquire how he’d done.
“Nothing,” he said, spinning gear in hand, which may or may not have been true. I have all summer seen random trout rise along this stretch of the river and told him so. Like the fish, I guess, he just wasn’t biting. Not in the information-giving mood. I knew better than to press him. For what? I knew the trout were there.

I changed gears and launched into a quick query about prematurely dying and falling maple leaves. Had he noticed? If so, any insights?

He surprised me in two ways. First, that he was willing to engage in the discussion, and second, to off a hypothesis.

“Whether you know it or not,” he informed me, “we’re experiencing a late-summer drought. The leaves are falling because the trees are dry.”

Hmmmmm? Was I missing something? Had I not detected a drought despite observing and actually walking along and/or through a couple of neighborhood waterways daily? It didn’t seem like a drought to me.

Back home near a phone, I placed a call to my buddy Killer. He keeps a large vegetable garden in Old Deerfield’s North Meadows and would know if we were in the midst of a drought I hadn’t detected. “No,” he said. “There’s no drought.”

That evening at work, I queried a colleague who toils daily on a commercial family produce farm in my neighborhood. Asked if there’s a late-season drought underway, he flashed an incredulous grin and uttered a knee-jerk negative response, saying almost sarcastically, “Not that I know of.”

Honestly, I didn’t think so, and the rivers and brooks didn’t tell me so, but I never dismiss an angler’s assessment based in river conditions. Maybe he knew something to which I had been oblivious.

Of course, that isn’t to say anglers are always right. When it comes to rainfall and growing seasons, don’t farmers know better?

River Ritual

With crisp, radiant yellows and purples adding a colorful splash to the marshes, and presses prepared to crank out sweet fall cider, I must say it has thus far been an odd  September. Peculiar indeed. First, unseasonably cool temps, now perplexing foliage developments.

Have you noticed sugar maples shedding drab-colored leaves prematurely, before they even show a hint of their normal autumn splendor? Seems awfully early to me. But why? There was more than enough spring and summer rain to keep our trees healthy, and we’re still awaiting our first frost. Nonetheless, with October still more than a week away, a man could justify firing up his leaf blower. Very weird.

We’ll have to monitor this situation in the weeks to come, see what happens with the oaks, the beeches, the front-yard Japanese maples cresting  to their scarlet crescendo. Something just seems amiss. What, I can’t yet put my finger on.

Meanwhile, the squirrel season is here, and soon upland and lowland hunters will be silently sitting in deer stands, busting up turkey flocks to entice back with regrouping calls, chasing rabbits with baying beagles, and wing-shooting pheasant, partridge, woodcock and waterfowl alike. Which leads me to an interesting weekend sighting in the Green River. Wearing my Keen Newport sandals to walk the river through knee-and waist-high water with the dogs, we were rollicking upstream toward a large red rock along the east bank that exudes spiritual aura.

Lily and Chubby were visibly happy about my decision to walk up the river. Their enthusiasm showed in their gait as soon as I walked to the west bank and entered the water along a placid section of shallow, silt-bedded flat-water. They love river romps and displayed their enthusiasm by racing upriver along the banks and briefly into the woods, joyously swimming through the deep spots, always searching for scents to investigate and chase. I too enjoy such activity, particularly watching the dogs and interpreting their responses to habitat stimuli, myself always on the lookout  for slimy rocks and creepy critters.

We pass the first bend and, crossing an ankle-high riffle on an angle, something ahead catches my eye. I stop, look upward and — Wow! — a large bald eagle has flushed from a riverside hardwood limb 50 yards upstream. Its fanned white tail and white head are dead identification giveaways. Had it just stayed on its quiet perch, we would likely have walked right past the big bird of prey and proud patriotic symbol without detecting it. He or she. who knows? All I can say is that it was large. Graceful, too. Its wide wingspan looked even larger as it flew away, tunneling through the narrow, canopied river corridor.

The dogs didn’t miss it. Not a chance. They both stopped, Chub-Chub beneath the tree from which the majestic bird flew, old mother Lily, worn but still spry and happy, just across the narrow riffle from me. As the eagle leaned elegantly into a gentle bend curling leftward toward the spirit rock where people swim and chill, sudden commotion flushed from the river. As the eagle passed them, six common mergansers took off, flushing downstream right at me, flying low and fast.

Chub-Chub saw them. In fact, I’d bet he knew they were there before they flew. He has an incredible nose and has been playing with that hen and drake and their brood for a couple of months now. He searches for them daily, finding them two or three times a week up and down the river.

Many times, when the wind’s just right, I’ve seen Chub-Chub catch scent of those mergansers from 100 yards away, maybe more, and get all jacked up looking for them. Once he’s got them marked, he excitedly charges into the river, often bouncing on all fours, head high, on an all-out freakin’ mission. I soon hear a whoosh of wings and tell-tale quack-quack-quacking, with alert Chubby in dogged, splashy pursuit, all fired-up and showy. Early-on during what has become a continuing saga, the hen and drake would flush loudly and fly low and slow to tease the dogs away from their skittering goslings, who could fly just good enough to stay ahead of the dogs. Then, as the little ones got their wings, they’d all flush together and flee, perhaps 10 or 12, all gone in an instant, usually upstream. When Chubby knew he had no chance of catching them, he’d freeze in a classic gundog pose, standing either onshore or in the shallows, watching, his white, quarter-docked tail wagging with excitement. Other times he’d swim furiously, breathing hard, determined to catch up before reluctantly conceding defeat.

In recent weeks, I had noticed that the brood seemed to be diminishing. What started off as 10 little ones was dwindling down to eight and six and now, on this latest sighting, four or five. Not sure if  there was one or two adults. I figured either snapping turtles or coyotes or bobcats or, yes, maybe birds of prey were randomly picking them off. But how could I be sure? Then, there it was, a bald eagle, a very likely culprit once the little ones had grown into a worthwhile meal. That eagle was definitely perched right there along the riverbank waiting for that unsuspecting brood to drift into the killing field. The dogs and I had interrupted the bird’s lunchtime hunt, likely saving an unfortunate, luck-of-the-draw merganser.

The young are now indistinguishable from the adults when flying. Maybe when swimming, too. I can’t say I worry much about predation. Enough brood members always survive to sustain a viable population, while predators eat enough to survive and feed their young. It’s not about death and killing. It’s about life and living.

Call it Mother Nature’s way — with humans often the great disrupters, who just have a way of throwing the whole process totally out of whack.