Branching Out

Saturday morning, after 10, gray, damp, rain holding off, me reading, phone rings. My buddy Cooker’s calling from the field on his cell, hunting over young male springer spaniel, Gizmo.

“Hey, I’m hunting down by Duncan’s and, trust me, it’s your kinda covert. You ought to head down. You’ll like it. I’ve already killed a hen, flushed two roosters and have the place to myself. It’s three times the size of (your favorite covert), and thicker.”

Intending to hunt later, anyway, it was exactly the kind of impetus needed to rouse me from the La-Z-Boy, having already fed the dogs and endured their pathetic, expressive gestures toward the truck, like, “Pretty please, can we go hunting?” So, yeah, I was ready and so were the dogs.

I bookmarked the page I was reading in Gary Snyder’s book of essays, “The Practice of the Wild,” me focused on “Good, Wild, Sacred” — so powerful and dynamic that I was reading it for the second time in two days, and will assuredly return to it someday. Check it out online. This guy Snyder, best known as a West Coast poet, is on a higher plane than bestselling novelists like Cormac McCarthy or Barbara Kingsolver or even, in my humble opinion, heartlander Wendell Berry, himself a cut above. But why digress, back to the phone call from my buddy.

An added enticement to the wetland he was luring me to was the fact that many years ago I had lived in a then brand new condominium complex along its eastern perimeter, so I knew it held pheasants. I vividly recall seeing them scooting around like roadrunners in the parking lot back then. Plus, Cooker had encouraged me to the site before, but I had begged off — first, because there was no need to travel so far to find enjoyable hunting and, second, because I suspected the hunting pressure would be more than I was willing to travel for.

Call me spoiled if you will but, basically, if I don’t have a covert to myself, I don’t want to be there. Crowded coverts are too hectic, with too many hunters and gun dogs, many of them winded, out-of-control pests. The problem is that in this new era of focused stocking on state Wildlife Management Areas and neglecting the old private coverts I grew up hunting, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find what I consider a quality hunt, especially on Saturdays. So don’t expect me to pinpoint new finds to my liking. Forget that! Maybe I’m selfish, but I’m not looking for company. Pushed away from coverts I hunted regularly five years ago, I’ve been forced to find new ones that fit my tastes. And how did I go about finding them? By revisiting old private coverts I once hunted and upon returning discovered they still held birds and few hunters. Some of these spots are not directly stocked but eventually attract pheasants released into adjacent sites with inferior cover. Even farm-raised pheasants that survive the first few flushes and become acclimated to their new digs have a way of finding thick, wet, thorny cover loaded with seeds and berries to feed on.

Saturday, I arrived on the scene around noontime, and steady rain had begun falling maybe five miles west of my destination. It was not rain that would even tempt me to cancel a hunt, but did indeed require windshield wipers. Fact is I prefer gray, threatening skies and light rain for pheasant hunts, the low pressure driving the scent downward and creating optimal scenting conditions for hunting dogs. Although I would have preferred foggy 40s for temperature, hey, I wasn’t complaining, and I can’t say I was expecting much, either. I just figured I’d check out a new covert and give the dogs a robust, pleasing romp.

I met my friend at a home across the street from the expansive, alluring aquifer we were about to hunt, met the work-at-home, data-processing wife of his friend, sampled a couple of leftover bite-sized Halloween Milky Ways for energy and headed out. Cooker didn’t steer me wrong. After meeting him as a softball teammate in Northampton, we’ve hunted birds for nearly a quarter-century together, and he knows my covert preferences, namely punishing, thorny tangles that are cattail wet and thick with brush, bordered by mixed wetland forest of poplar, soft maple and alders that in places jut out into play as refuge fingers. Well, I must say it was all there and then some. Not only that but pheasants were flying for their lives, the dogs floppy ears flying up out of the brush. Better still, the only shots I heard were ours, and I never saw another hunter or even a hunter’s vehicle anywhere along the road on my way home through a densely populated suburban neighborhood that’s grown since I lived there.

Traveling a familiar road I often take as a shortcut, I checked out a couple of other farms with wetlands known to hold pheasants and never saw a trace of hunters anywhere. Of course, hunters and especially guns are not real popular in this particular town, so I wouldn’t expect a sea of orange and one sharp barrage of gunfire after another. Still, pheasants are not stocked in posted areas closed to hunting, and I know from trusted friends who wouldn’t steer me wrong that the farms I was passing are still stocked.

Hmmmmm? I guess I’ll have to do a little research, poke around a little more when I have time, and see what else develops. I’d call what I discovered on my maiden weekend voyage promising indeed, in a place I briefly called home, no less.

Yes, with coverts I’ve gravitated to for years now annoyingly overcrowded, I may well have found a hidden gem buried in, from a political perspective, the most unlikely of places.

Sometimes a man must branch out in search of something new.


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