Skinny Challenge

The challenge arrived last week in the form of a text message to the colleague I call Big Boiczyk, a young man who faces me daily from across our joined, rectangular Recorder desks.

“Hey, you’ll get a kick out of this one,” he chuckled. “It’s Skinny Williams. He’s says he’s ready to go goose hunting with the master. He still wants you to take him hunting.”

“Goose hunting? Tell him I stopped shooting geese after the last one I ate 40 years ago. I hunt pheasants these days, pretty-much exclusively now that woodcock and grouse have diminished so. If he wants to go pheasant hunting with me, great. I’ll take him. I could use a set of young legs in the field with me.”

A short pause ensued before the arrival of another text.

“He wants to know when the season opens.”

“Well, it depends. Woodcock opens next week. Pheasant season opens a little more than week later on Oct. 15. Tell him I avoid opening day. Too many hunters out on that first Saturday. Does he have a license? I don’t hunt with outlaws.”

Another short pause, a little fiddling with his cell phone, and Big Boiczyk comes right back at me.

“Yeah, he’s says he can do you one better than that. He has a license to carry.”

“Big deal,” I responded. “So do I. What’s he want? A shootout?”

So there you have it. A potential new hunting buddy with young eyes, fresh legs and plenty of personality. Perfect. My kind a fella.

Not a total surprise, the Frontier Regional School baseball coach had first broached the idea of hunting with me last spring while on the phone reporting a score. At the time, I didn’t know if the young man was serious. Now a follow-up. How about that? Superb! I’m always looking for companionship. I’ll show him the ropes, and rattle his cage every chance I get.

I must believe there’s good reason for him to reach out to me. After all, he’s coaching in my hometown of South Deerfield, where, even though I’ve lived elsewhere for the last 20 years, wild tales of my youth  endure. I can’t say I’m proud or ashamed of everything they talk and laugh about. But I’m sure he’s heard plenty. Remember, the Frontier athletic director is my baby brother Martin. So, take it to the bank: Skinny’s been egged on plenty, and heartily encouraged to take a little whirl through the alder swamp with the old man whose reputation precedes him in that neck of the woods.

It reminds me of a conversation I enjoyed a couple of years ago with the two Scott sisters one fine afternoon standing in their front-yard promontory point in Whately. Looking across the Mill River Watershed and Great Swamp to as fine a profile of the giant Sugarloaf beaver available, the younger sister, Heather, grinned and told me her late dad, “used to tell us stories about you.”

“Well,” I responded with a wry, maybe even slightly timid grin, “although I prefer to tell folks who don’t know me  that I’m a victim of small-town gossip, my friends know that if you multiply what you hear by five, you’re probably in the ballpark.”

“I like that,” she laughed out loud.

Oh well, so now this  new character named Chris “Skinny” Williams is jumping into the fray with me and my mother-son springer-spaniel gundogs: Lily, 12 a seasoned veteran with maybe one productive year left, and Chubby, a 5-year-old dynamo entering his prime. My buddy Cooker — a professional trainer, breeder and field-trialer — says with gleaming admiration that he’s never seen Chub-Chub tire in the field. He attributes the 52-pound animal’s endurance to what is known in his game as “a big pump,” which in layman’s terms means heart. No one who’s witnessed Chub-Chub scour a covert would disagree, and I see it daily, with or without a gun in hand. Nose-driven, Chub-Chub is a fine-tuned, high-performance machine with a total aim to please and cooperate. In Cooker’s world, they call him biddable, the opposite of unbidden, I suppose. I’m comfy  either way.

Having a rich baseball background and plenty of diamond yarns, I’m glad Skinny’s a hardball man. There happen to be many transferable skills between baseball and wing-shooting, many similarities between hitting a pitch and a flying bird. Both tasks require a plan, a check list, patience, precision and execution. Plus, never underestimate the value of experience and hunting familiar coverts where the shooter knows the flight tendencies and preferred  escape routes.

I have hunted with many trusted pals over the years — fellas like Fast Eddie, Big Stash, Ole Smitty, Young Count, Doc Van Boeckel, Tommie Valiton, Cooker and Killer — all of them highly capable and compatible, with an uncanny ability to be in the right place at the right time, even without communication. Three of them are no longer with us, one by way of a tragic, youthful car accident, another by hateful disease, the other by sudden cardiac arrest in the Maine woods he so loved. They’re all gone but not forgotten, with many stories spontaneously there for the taking.

Who knows? Maybe Skinny the ballplayer will surprise me with his readiness for the wing-shooting challenge. Perhaps he’s proud, has visited the skeet and trap ranges to sharpen his skills and will step right up to the plate ready to perform. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about skeet and trap shooters it is that shooting-club or Sporting-Clays proficiency does not always translate into excellence in the field, where thorny tangles, tall tree lines, knee-deep mud, ditches, and high, dense alder screens can change the success rate dramatically. Have you even seen major-league superstars look like rank amateurs striking out on a breaking ball in the dirt or fouling back a meatball? Well, it happens to wing-shooters in the field, too, usually after they get leg-weary, stumble, get momentarily distracted and/or lose their concentration. Or a shooter can simply mess up the execution sequence with an awkward mount resulting from pressure to get off a quick shot before the flying bird disappears behind a dense, bushy screen.

I still remember where I learned that wing shots can indeed be made through dense cover. I was grouse and woodcock hunting in the Whately highlands with late Boston Herald outdoor scribe Dixie White in an old orchard tangled throughout with wild grape vines. Handling my springer, Pepper, not 10 yards from Dixie — who was carrying a gorgeous little European 20-guage side-by-side that likely cost more than the Jeep Cherokee I drove up Henhawk Trail — I heard a timberdoodle flush, mounted quickly and saw just a flash behind a tall, wide, grape-tangled apple tree. I didn’t shoot but Dixie did and, too my astonishment, Pepper promptly returned with a lean, limp male woodcock in his mouth.

“How’d you sneak one through that wall?” I asked Dixie, who was the same vintage as my father. “Myself, I wouldn’t even bother pulling the trigger on a shot like that.”

“Remember, all it takes is a pellet or two to take down woodcock and grouse,” he said with a told-you-so grin. “You’d be surprised how many pellets can get through a tangle like that.”

Lesson learned. Yes, seeing is believing. And since that day, I have seen many impossible targets come down dead, including larger pheasants that are tougher to bring down on such shots.

Hopefully, I won’t disappoint Skinny, given all the tall tales he’s likely heard. Maybe I’ll get the chance to mentor this spirited young man, who, by the way, I have never laid eyes on. My usual style is to go the low-pressure route, starting by quietly watching, evaluating and assessing before finally imparting friendly advice aimed at easily correctable flaws and improved success. Then again, maybe young Skinny has a thing or two to teach me about wing-shooting.

That, he’ll have to prove — kinda like Dixie’s incredible shot through the gnarly, grape-vine-entangled wild apple tree.

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