Adjustments

The grandsons were in town over the weekend, bringing with them a nasty, contagious, Vermont elementary school virus my immune system couldn’t fight off. Thus I’m a little under the weather yet maintaining my regular routine, sort of, with the help of Alka-Seltzer Plus.

It’s Wednesday. I just left the dogs out in the kennel, and they’re all fired, anticipating a hunt. Oh, how they love cold, clear November air and bright, sunny fall skies; better still, damp, gray and cold, low pressure, scent clinging low to the ground. When I assured them I’d be back for a swamp romp, their tell-tails told me they understood. First, though, it’s column day.

Yesterday, Tuesday, after a few days picking away at homestead chores  — I seldom hunt Saturdays or holidays anymore because of the crowds — I went out briefly in the morning and never got a flush in an area I in the past hunted two or three times a week but hadn’t visited in 20 years before last week. Then an insider’s tip drew me back to the familiar site. That day, my buddy had called to chat about another subject and during our rambling conversation told me he had walked his dogs there that morning and they flushed four pheasants from the eastern border of a dense swamp and marshy ponds I know well. A hunting buddy called a few minutes after we hung up, I told him to meet me there, and, yes, we killed two rapid-fire cock birds in a half-hour, one of them sporting an elusive Hatfield Fish & Game Club tag to add to my historic field-lanyard collection. It’s the only blue tag among many silver ones, so it sticks out and, no, it’s not gonna make it back to Hatfield for the annual raffle drawing of submitted numbered tags.

Upon awakening Tuesday, I felt like maybe I should stay home and rest but knew the dogs must be getting itchy, so I hoped to take them out if I could get my feet under me. Unsure of where to go, I figured why not return to that big, dense swamp and probe it a little deeper to see what came flying out? Figuring it’d be as good a place as any to hunt, I loaded the dogs into the truck for a noontime romp that had potential but ultimately bore no fruit; well, no birds, at least, which in no way implies that the meandering, mile-long maneuver through swampy, thorny, vine-tangled terrain dotted with thick cattail clumps I skirted on a cool, damp day wasn’t pleasing indeed.

When we returned to my truck with an empty gamebag, I didn’t know if I had another hunt in me but left the option open, figuring I’d take a circuitous route home to Greenfield through old, trusted pheasant country, aimed particularly at one covert I still hunt when vacant. Once there, not a hunter to be seen, so I slowed down and, not up to par, figured multiple hunters had already been through the spot and accelerated homeward, where sat a pile of exciting, nearly completed archaeological reading that could well develop into something quite radioactive to write about. But more on that another day. Let’s stay focused on hunting today.

For some reason, on that pleasant Tuesday drive, passing one site after another that once got stocked but does no longer, I quite out of the blue got to thinking about a conversation I had more than 30 years ago with then MassWildlife Game Manager Bill Pollack. When I told him where I worked, he immediately warmed up, said he knew the area well, having graduated from UMass/Amherst and hunted birds in the Amherst/Hadley/Sunderland area for decades. Then this fond reminiscence plummeted into somber lament for the coverts lost to development and highways over the years. He called it sad that the area no longer looked like it did during his school days, circa 1950, when there were more farms and fields and fence-rows and swales, and less sprawl.

“Trust me,” he cautioned, “It won’t get better.”

Well, no truer words could have been spoken, and those prophetic words have never left me, echoing through my consciousness now and again.

Which brings us to the present. How could I not think of Dave Vachula, the big Hatfield right-hander, and neighboring farmer Bob Thayer as I drove through Bradstreet, the site of many productive hunts 30 years ago, accompanied by friends like Timmy Dash, Bruce Van Boeckel and Tommy Valiton, all dead and gone. Yes, back in those days, privately owned acreage along what I call Hopewell Swamp was generously stocked by the state at many locations between Hatfield Pond and the base of Mt. Sugarloaf. Not only that but so was Hopewell Plain above and the Connecticut River floodplain below, right to the riverbank, spreading out the birds and hunting pressure, which makes hunter-conflicts far less likely. Nowadays, the stocking routine has changed dramatically, due mostly, I guess, to all the land gobbled up during MassWildlife’s aggressive land-acquisition program over the past three decades. Although I can’t say I view the current program negatively, it has definitely changed the Pioneer Valley pheasant-stocking philosophy and where I most often hunt.

Today, state Wildlife Management Areas get the lion’s share of birds, receiving two stockings per week, while many of the private coverts that used to get weekly birds get none. This 21st-century routine creates crowded state coverts, where parking can be a challenge and hunting has become strictly put-and-take, leaving little chance for stocked birds to survive more than a day or two. Still, I have not forgotten what it was like years ago at places like the vast fields between the Pilgrim Airport and Hatfield Pond, or between the airport and Straits Road, all of it open to hunting and holding birds if willing to bleed a little in thorny, foreboding swamps to find them These days, none of that dense, wet cover is stocked unless the local club throws a few birds in for the fellas who kill them soon after release. Also, that whole plain between Little Egypt and Christian Lane, once stocked at several points along the way, is now totally neglected along with the big open piece between Christian Lane and Route 116 in South Deerfield. Years ago, you could take a walk with your dog anywhere out there and expect to flush pheasants, with partridge and woodcock an added bonus on the right day. Today, sad but true, you feel fortunate to find a random stray pheasant anywhere within that vast acreage, and and the same can be said of the brushy railroad-track edges along the western perimeter, once productive, now barren.

Yes, all I can say is that on that slow, winding ride home early Tuesday afternoon, I looped through North Hatfield, Whately and the Mill River, Stillwater and Wisdom sections of Deerfield, passing one covert after another that was once stocked and is no longer. Sure, some of that change was brought by development, but not all of it; in fact, not as much as the folks making decisions would have you believe. The fact is that there’s been a policy change focused on stocking state-owned coverts that draw crowds, diminishing the quality of the hunt.

I’m not belly-aching, just thinking back to the good old days and that friendly, visionary warning from a man nearing retirement as head of the state’s pheasant-stocking program, circa 1982. He said it wouldn’t get better and was right. So, now, here I sit, close in age to Pollack that day we spoke, wondering what I should tell my grandsons about the future of wing-shooting?

I fear the worst.

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