Cougar Crossing

Noontime Saturday. Sunny. I’m running a fever indoors as the outdoor thermometer is forecast to drop. Sitting on a burgundy leather wing chair near the dining-room woodstove, I’m pulling on tall, green rubber boots with aggressive treads for a trip out back to the dogs under icy conditions. No reason to take another tumble like the one that broke a couple of ribs on my right side four or five years back.

I feel a cool breeze, detect commotion, then hear conversation moving my way from the carriage-shed door, through a parlor, a bedroom and the kitchen, where an unfamiliar man in sunglasses appears. It’s Craig Herdiech, who I last heard from by telephone years ago in connection with some columns about  rattlesnakes. His mother had grown up in Greenfield, where she remembered a neighborhood rattlesnake den along the southern periphery of White Ash Swamp before the area around Cherry Rum Plaza was developed or the Route 2 bypass existed.

I knew his baseball-coach dad, Bill, a Greenfield native, long before I knew him, and had met his mom, Joan. I first became familiar with the kid when he was a ballplayer during the early years of my Recorder tenure. He was then a teen making his way through high school and playing on the Vets Field diamond. These days, no longer a kid, he enjoys dabbling in the some of the same type of stuff that keeps my wheels spinning, my gears grinding — that is, what he refers to as “bushwhacking” with his pal “Franny” Welcome and others. Welcome, too, first came into my viewfinder as a high school athlete, he at Turners Falls. Then I crossed paths with him on the local semi-fast softball diamonds. He’s always been friendly when we’ve bumped into each other.

Anyway, back to Herdiech, following my wife through the kitchen Saturday, his facial expression and gestures screaming with excitement. The man wanted to talk to me about something.

“Oh, there he is, Craig, sitting right there,” my wife says, pointing.

I look up, don’t recognize him.

“Hi Gary.”

“Hi. Did she say Craig?”

“Yeah. Craig Herdiech.”

“Oh, hi, good to see you.”

I rise to shake hands.

“So, what brings you out here today?”

There’s no hiding it. He’s all jacked up.

“You’ll never guess what I just saw in Northfield, coming back from Winchester, New Hampshire,” he blurts.

I had a pretty good idea.


“Yep, a mountain lion,” he reported. “I can’t say I saw much of it because it was hauling ass, bounding across the road. It crossed right in front of my car soon after I turned west onto Route 10 toward the bridge.


“About a half-hour ago. I came right here.”

“There was no mistaking it,” he continued, transitioning into his next phase of description by spreading his arms wide. “Its tail was this long. It all happened fast. Just a few long bounds and it was gone,” over the bank headed south toward Llewelyn’s Farm.

OK. There you have it. Another Franklin County cougar sighting. How does one assess such a sighting; even one who’s evaluated many? Well, No. 1, observation told me the excitement was real and palpable, No. 2 the man ventured far out of his way to report it face to face, and No. 3, this has to be the fifth or sixth credible Northfield sighting that’s come my way over the past 15 or 20 years. Remember, there’s no shortage of deep, mountainous woods around Northfield, no matter which side of the Connecticut River you’re on, and I’ve received credible reports from both sides.

I see no reason to doubt the man. Well, that is unless I follow the policy of state and federal wildlife officials who refuse to accept any sightings as evidence. It’s true that all reports of cougar sightings are not accurate. There is such a thing as a mistaken identity. I have seen it myself, when people send me photos of bobcats or orange tabbies walking along a distant wood line. Still, to assume that all sightings are misidentifications, hallucinations, LSD flashbacks or wild hoaxes by publicity seekers is not a wise or valid predetermination. Cougars were historically here, much of our landscape has reforested, deer populations have rebounded, and bears and moose and turkeys have come back. So why not the return of the big cat? How could it be impossible?

Remember, officials chose to ignore several reported sightings in southern Connecticut back in 2013, then had to explain a cougar carcass on the highway, one ultimately identified by DNA as a South Dakota “disperser.” Then, closer to home in June of 2016, the attack on a Petersham horse that officials said could not possibly have been committed by a cougar was indeed proven to be a cougar-attack by two reputable forensic labs that analyzed the biological materials gathered on the scene by the horse’s irate owner. Like many cougar reporters before her, she felt disrespected, believing condescending officials called to the scene had treated her like an idiot. That’s what you’re up against if you want to report a cougar sighting in New England.

So now, here we go again. Huh? A noontime Saturday cougar passing through Northfield at an unlikely riverside spot?


Why not?

Foot-Free Winter Thaw

It wasn’t expected. In fact, I was surprised … before I tossed it around and thought it out.

Oh yeah. That’s right. I forgot. Animals can’t reason. Hmmmm, really? Well, believe what you will. Myself, I have other views, give animals more credit than that, am convinced they are capable of thinking, understanding and forming judgments based on logic and buttressed by keen instincts.

When you think of it, that midday deer sighting — five of them in the bright 1 p.m. sunlight Tuesday, walking right down my neighbor’s driveway and across Colrain Road, forcing me to stop my truck and let them pass — was perfectly predictable. They, like me, had been immobilized by the frigid cold and were, on the first thaw in two or more weeks, off on a joyous caper the minute snow softened. Frankly, that was my precise reason for delaying a daily walk with the dogs. I was consciously awaiting snowmelt to start dripping off my slate roof before my departure.

Still, the sighting surprised me. Five deer strolling through my residential neighborhood in broad noontime daylight has never been a common sight. It occurred on my way home, not 100 yards from the southern tip of my property. I knew the deer, have been familiar with them since summer: two mature does, one with two fawns, the other with one. I knew they liked to travel together. From what I witnessed Tuesday, I’d say it’s a family unit composed of a grandma, her 2016 daughter and their fawns. I’d guess the older, larger doe had two fawns, her daughter one, but it could well have gone the other way around. Yes, perhaps the younger adult dropped two fawns to her mom’s one. Does it really matter? The fact is that there are two mature does and three fawns that have been enjoying each other’s company since June.

Why this extended-family hypothesis? Well, because of the way the larger of the two does seemed to be in charge during the Tuesday sighting. She crossed the road first, the other four close behind. Then, once she had safely crossed the road, she displayed her dominance by taking a couple of bounds 25 yards ahead, stopping in an angled forward pose looking back and waiting for her four companions to pass before following them into a small hayfield and toward a wooded brook lane. She was obviously the leader.

It didn’t take long to get additional information about the deer. By chance, as I was putting my dogs in their backyard kennel, I heard something, looked back and saw my neighbors, husband and wife, standing in the yard by a stone hitching post along the gabled south end of the barn. They wanted to chat.

I closed Lily and Chub-Chub into the kennel and walked toward my neighbors, him with a pair of cross-country skis in hand. They were headed up the closes Brook Road

“Did you see those five deer that just walked down Bernie’s driveway,” I asked.

“No, we missed ‘em.”

“Well, I didn’t really investigate closely but I had to stop and let them cross the road. I think they walked right down the driveway. Take a look. There’ll be tracks.”

“It doesn’t surprise me,” said the ski-toting man. “The deer have been up on the hill behind the paddock for a couple of weeks. Alan logged off a piece and they’ve been feeding on the browse. There’s tracks everywhere back there. Plus, Bernie dumped a pile of pumpkins under his apple tree and they’ve been feeding on them regularly, too.”

“Makes sense,” I responded. “Plus, they get a lot of sun over on that sidehill. It’s been brutally cold.”

Deer are interesting critters. Smart, too. Never cease to amaze me. After two or three weeks feeding on browse and hanging tight where there was sun and feed, they were eliminating wide travels on slick, crunchy snow that places them in peril. Now, with a melt on, they were moving to familiar haunts through snow softened by the afternoon sun. They looked healthy, alert and agile, their coats dark and full. I was happy to see that all five of those deer that have been skirting me all summer and fall had survived hunting season. Not only that, but the small doe I was told got killed by a car on Plain Road in the greasy snowstorm falling on the final day of shotgun season eve had not been one of the fawns, as I had suspected. Given where it was hit, it was definitely one of the eight does a Plain Road couple had told me they often saw feeding in front of the home during deer season. Just not one of the fawns. I’m cool with that.

As for the trophy buck I’ve been watching, well, who knows his whereabouts these days? He may have rejoined those two bucks he traveled with all summer, if they survived deer season. Then again, maybe he’s off on his own, or traveling with other neighborhood bucks that have dropped their antlers on the forest floor. Come to think of it, he may have made his way to the well-known Leyden Glen deer yard on a steep southern exposure that’s been attracting dozens of migrant winter deer for decades. According to a deer biologist I queried, some of those deer likely travel 40 or 50 miles to that yard, then disburse to their home haunts when spring breaks.

If you want to see evidence, take a ride in March to the intersection of Greenfield’s Eunice Williams Drive and Leyden Road once the snow starts meting and see the spectacle of fields full of feeding deer for yourself. My sons used to count 60 or 70 in one field right off the road, calling me all excited on their cell phones encouraging me to hop in the car to take a look. They weren’t exaggerating. I’ve seen those deer with my own eyes, an impressive sight indeed, one you’d have a hard time believing without witnessing it.

Yes indeed, the deer in my Greenfield Meadows neighborhood seem to be multiplying rapidly these days. I shouldn’t be surprised. But apparently not everyone is experiencing similar phenomena. Just a week or two back an old friend called to chat from t’other side of Eaglebrook Hill, where many a big buck has been killed by hunters in my lifetime.

“Have they been killing any big bucks in your neck of the woods this year?” I asked.

“Nahhh,” he scoffed. “To be honest with you, there aren’t as many deer up here as there used to be, and hunting is dying. There used to be a lot of hunters up here years ago, their vehicles parked along the roads. Now it’s hard to find a hunter. Soon there will be none. The times they are a changin’.”

The man  knows. He’s a straight shooter.

By the way, he’s not saying the overall deer herd is down on Deerfield Mountain, just up on his plateau overlooking the Connecticut River. The deer aren’t far away, though. A bottomland farmer a mile or two up the road has told my friend his croplands are overrun with bold, nuisance deer eating his crops.

As fewer and fewer deer are killed by hunting, the state’s deer-management tool, this problem will spill over into residential gardens and home landscaping, like it already has in many suburban southern New England neighborhoods.


Bucking Trends

By the time this column hits the street, the snow will be falling and I’ll probably be suspended in anxiety about throwing another pulley from the snowblower mounted to my John Deere tractor. Just Wednesday, my friend and I replaced the one I found on the ground after the last storm cleanup. With two more adjacent ones in the same assembly, what’s to stop the other idler from going, or even the bigger drive pulley? It’s going to bug me until I’m done with this latest storm.

Yeah, yeah, I know I shouldn’t get all worked up about it but, hey, I’m not 30 anymore. Far from it, in fact, and such worries just becomes more bothersome as I age. Seems like there’s always some vexing issue, be it the mower or snowblower, weed-whacker, hedge-trimmer or leaf blower, a frozen pipe, a leak in the heating-oil tank, filling the woodshed and woodstove, removing the ash into a stove-side bucket, roofing, painting, the dogs, running to Vermont in a snowstorm for the grandchildren. Years ago, I took  it all in stride, smiling and joking along the way, putting one foot in front of the other, picking away to put chores behind me in a timely fashion. Some call it putting your nose to the grindstone. Been there, done that. It just gets more difficult with the physical deterioration age brings. That cord of wood which once took half an hour to toss into the woodshed now takes an hour. The heavy chunks I used to flick in with my right hand and wrist now take two hands and a jolting surge of energy  traveling all the way from the tip of my toes to my fingertips, with a heavy dose of calf, thigh and shoulder power in between. I get the idea that if I live long enough, wood chores will be too much.  I guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get there.

I suppose similar dynamics affect a big buck like the one I’ve been watching in my neighborhood this year. Which is not to suggest that this regal animal is losing it. Uh-uh. He’s in his prime. A big, healthy, trophy buck with a beautiful, wide set of antlers, the nicest buck I’ve seen in my 20 years of residing and walking the fertile, terraced, Greenfield Meadows bottomland, framed on the east by the meandering Green River. Though I’ve seen others to rival him, he’s the best. Sort of from the we’re-all-in-this-thing-together perspective, I can’t imagine that some sort of melancholia has not set in for this proud beast these days. Exhausted from the doe-chasing rut or breeding season and needing protein to rebuild his strength, he has likely dropped those massive antlers by now and must battle bitter cold that requires additional calorie intake. Acorns are preferred feed in such cold if deer can break through the dense, icy snow to get them. If not, they must settle for browse, which can get them through lean times but not for the whole winter.

This extended deep freeze also complicates river crossings, which, in icy conditions can change a deer’s habits and reduce his range. I have not found a river-crossing in more than a week. Not one, even at the spot where that buck has been crossing regularly for weeks. Deer are wary of ice and search for shallow riffles to cross. These days, with most of the river frozen solid, even the riffles are inaccessible because of treacherous ice creeping out farther and farther on both sides of the riffles. Deer avoid ice because their hooves are not made for it and they can get splayed out a helplessly stranded and unable to regain their feet. Predators like coyotes and coywolves know this and actually work in unison to force a deer they’re chasing toward pathetic, icy kills. In recent days, I’ve crossed more canid than deer tracks in my travels, which tells me they’re on the prowl for vulnerable deer. Why not? There’s ice everywhere, including across wind-swept hayfields. One ill-placed bound on an open field these days can quickly place a deer helplessly and fatally on its belly, in a position well known to opportunistic canids, who move in for a lightning kill. I think you can probably find graphic photos of such deer-kills online from the Quabbin or Great Lakes and other bodies of water where wildlife photographers capture icy, crimson mortality in living color.

I have not crossed my big buck’s track this week, but I did check out a place where he was seen crossing the road by a neighboring farmer who knew the deer from a backyard sighting. He spotted him two weeks back near a winter-rye cover-crop where deer were feeding following the last snow before the deep freeze. Since then, he’s only seen the buck once, maybe two miles north, crossing the road in front of his SUV at night. How did he know it was the same deer? Because, simply stated, he doesn’t believe there is more than one buck like that in the neighborhood. All right. Fair enough. He’s been in The Meadows three times longer than I have.

Well, this week, taking the back-way home from Vermont through Bernardston, over the Pumping Station covered bridge, I cased out the neighborhood with houses I refer to as Sewell Dunton’s or Bob Dobias’, a likely spot for that buck-crossing which unfolded before my neighbor’s eyes. There, in that neighborhood a mile north of my home, a blind man could have seen the deeply carved deer run cutting across an open field behind a weathered barn leading into territory I have often hunted.

When I pointed out the run to my disbelieving wife, she said, “Deer made that path?”

“Definitely,” I responded, “and I’d bet the house that’s where our neighbor saw that big buck cross. Just making his rounds and staying apprised of the late-rut situation, always in search of one last doe to breed, probably a young one coming into season for the first time.”

I called my buddy Killer Wednesday to alert him about the run in an area he still religiously hunts with his stepson.

“You ought to get over there before the snow falls and take a look at that run,” I told him. “It may alter the way you hunt it.”

Killer did take a 6-pointer in late November about a mile uphill from the site, but he and his stepson went through that little wetland, apples here and there, and the sidehill several fruitless times during deer season. Despite lots of deer sign, they never saw so much as a flag in there.

Could it be that the deer leaving all that sign were a football field or two north of where they were hunting?

One never knows.

“I’m going to take a little ride out there right now to scope it out,” Killer said. “It ain’t far. Thanks for the information.”

My pleasure. That’s what friends are for.

A deer hunter never has enough eyes scanning the landscape, appreciates every little edge he can find to be successful. Then again, dumb luck can drop the deer of a lifetime into your lap as though delivered from heaven.

The trick is to get in the woods. I’ve never heard of a guy shooting one while reading with his feet up in front of a woodstove.

Bottomland Buck

The cold, waxing Wolf Moon peered from the low southern sky through the black upper limbs  of my struggling front-yard sugar maple — it long-ago struck  by lightning but still hanging on — spinning my thoughts a half-mile or so down the road to my daily walking path, bordered east by the Green River, known to  Eastern Algonquians in deep history as the  Picomeagan or “boring river.”

There, walking late mornings with my dogs, rain or shine, hot or cold, I’m always searching, detecting subtle  hints of the critters who share this riverside wetland, sometimes freezing silent and still to let me and my pets pass. Plus, when the time is right, I’m always looking for salubrious fiddleheads and occasional oyster mushrooms, healthy, wild sustenance to warm my simmering soul.

Although I once hunted deer and still love hunting pheasants over my gundogs, I am no threat to the whitetails who were born and live where I ramble. Down there, they are seldom far away. Signs of are everywhere: in the hayfields, through the Christmas-tree farm, up and down escarpment paths, and at riffle river-crossings. I have learned their patterns and do believe they know mine, not to mention the sound of my voice, my whistle and my black Tacoma pickup. The deer along the periphery of my daily walks have accepted me as a non-threatening intruder sharing a place, just passing through with a lame, robust gait. Even my dogs are no threat. They occasionally alert me to deer presence, most often Chubby, who’ll stop and face a scent or soft sound in an erect, attentive stance that points me in the right direction.

Always alert and examining the landscape, I can’t deny my once-exceptional eyesight has diminished. Now more than ever I rely on my dogs to sharpen my senses. It works. The dogs have no interest in chasing deer, treating them the same as thorses and cows, sheep and goats — as four-legged curiosities with whom they’d just as soon sniff, touch noses and befriend.

Over the past four weeks, I enjoyed my annual December vacation, time I once reserved for deer hunting, which no longer excites me. Frankly, it’s too much work, especially when fortunate enough to kill one. Though I love venison and it’s good for you, it just isn’t worth the drag, hoisting the carcass to the barn rafters by block and tackle, skinning and butchering chores. That’s a young man’s game. They can have it. I’m now more than content savoring occasional venison handouts that come to me by way of gifts from family and friends. It always tastes great, especially chops, seared in bacon fat and served with onions, peppers, garlic and mushrooms, the wilder the better. Even the cholesterol is good for you.

I do miss sitting on stand and blending into the habitat in a place where deer are likely to pass, and I also miss quietly departing those morning stands at 10:30 or so and picking my way along a slow, observant path, still-hunting along upland spines and dropping down through marshy depressions, always checking for daily feeding and breeding sign. Fact is, I still do a lot of that stuff without gun in  hand, and that includes during deer season, walking where deer lurk, even trophy bucks, the likes of which few hunters ever kill. This was such a month. Yes, as hunters searched the uplands for trophy bucks, I was entertained by a bottomland beauty, often in places too close to occupied dwellings for legal hunting. Smart buck. Why chase through the hinterlands for does when neighbors are reporting eight routinely feeding at dusk in the hayfields bordering their lawns? Plus, along the terrace rims on both sides of the river, there are many giant oak trees with acorns scattered across the forest floor. So why test the upland ridges echoing out shotgun roars? A fool’s errand.

All summer this big, handsome buck has lived in The Meadows where I reside, feeding through croplands and hayfields with a couple of subordinates until rutting season began. Then the tagalongs were on their own, taking precaution to stay out of the dominant buck’s way. In the week leading up to shotgun deer season, I had twice seen that big buck tending a doe off the side of the road during my pre-midnight drive home from work. Then, at 11:10 a.m. the day before shotgun season began, with a Sunday trip looming to transport my grandsons home to Vermont, there he was again, in broad daylight, looking me square in the eye from 20 yards away, his wide antler spread extending far out beyond his ears. I couldn’t count the points, but there were at least eight, and off he ran, halfway across the open field, stopping broadside 60 yards out to look back at me and the dogs, the three of us standing in awe. Then he disappeared across a driveway and down into a marsh, probably hot on the scent of does.

A tall, dark, distinctive deer, I saw him again just after 11 a.m. on the final day of shotgun season while walking with my dogs down into a secluded floodplain, snowstorm brewing. Head down, the big buck was drinking along the opposite bank of a bend in the river. My eyes aren’t what they used to be but I thought it was a deer, obscured through a thin patch of young trees, my dogs out ahead of me. Not certain I wasn’t seeing an optical illusion created by flood-strewn tree trucks tangled along the S-turn riverbank, I continued 20 yards down the hill to an broad opening that provided an unobstructed view. Sure enough, the big buck raised his head and faced me, clearly displaying his incredible antlers from some 80 yards away. Seemingly not alarmed, he proceeded to take three or four slow steps toward me before dropping his head to within a foot of the riverbank and pawing at the cobbles a couple of times, like a bullfight bull, before slowly turning left and taking three or four smooth steps, disappearing into the thick, brown, riverside knotweed, never a trace of a flag. What a sighting. For the second straight time, not so much as an alarmed white tail, just a graceful stroll into cover concealment.

Since that day, I have tracked that big buck’s movements. I know his wide track, where he’s bedding, where he prefers crossing the icy river, and when he seems to prefer passing through. A neighboring farmer reported to his son that he saw the buck in his backyard last week, describing it as a beauty, the kind you don’t often see, sporting “at least 10 points.” I’m sure others in the neighborhood have seen him. Maybe someone has a photo. Plus, I must admit a hunter appeared to be aware of him. I crossed the man’s boot prints in fresh blackpowder-season snow, likely trying to pick up the buck’s trail. If it hasn’t already happened, that buck will soon lose his antlers, making him off-limits to hunters. Though I’d love to find the sheds, I won’t kill myself looking.

“You ought to pile corn or apples along a fence to feed him,” offered a clever old friend. “That’s what some people do to get a buck to drop his antlers where they can find them.”

Hmmmm? First I’ve heard of that trick. I think I’ll pass. Is it legal?

Hopefully, the big neighborhood buck will be back next year, bigger, better and smarter. Maybe his face will gray. Honestly, I’m not sure I could kill that buck. I guess I’ve grown softhearted with age, have over the years developed great respect for old-sage bucks with trophy antlers.

Like they say, you can’t eat the horns, or even get soup stock out of them, no matter how long they simmer. Young bucks are better eating, anyway, but not nearly as fun to watch.

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.”


“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?