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?

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