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.

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