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.

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