Swamp Busters

Bird season in the Happy Valley is glorious yet short for those who love it.

With it comes cold mornings — windshield scrapers always at the ready — and crisp, cool afternoons; sometimes sunny, sometimes gray, some wet and soggy days, others dry and crunchy, some windy and blustery, others still as a walk-in freezer locker.

An early-season bonus is the brilliant backdrop colored with broad splashes of distant orange sugarbush, ridge-top coppertone oak groves and always the pale yellow alders and poplars of the bottomland marsh being hunted, the mellow yellow complemented nicely by a drab brown underbody of post-frost goldenrod and ragweed cover lipped by cattail patches concealing hidden hummocks that can drop a man on his face in a flash.

Veterans know enough to be wary of cattails for reasons other than the cumbersome hummocks. Often along the border of such cattail stands are found deep, muddy channels that are barely discernible though impossible to cross afoot. One wrong forward step will instantly sink a man over his waist, never a pleasant predicament.

Plus there’s always the presence of hidden head-high prickers of various types, especially bull briars, which can stop a man dead in his tracks, literally, necessitating immediate reassessment before backing out of a dense thorny tangle in search of a kinder-gentler route.

Some hunters carry pruning shears to clear their paths. Others fear that if they do carry such a tool, it’s likely they’ll eventually puncture a car seat or expensive leather sofa at home. Thus they choose instead to plow through thorny tangles by raising their shotguns overhead and bulldozing through them wearing heavy Tin Cloth bibs and jackets, sleeved upper arms shielding their face from long, sharp thorns that can produce deep, bloody scratches.

Then again, such bullish moves always invite face-first falls most often broken by bent elbows extended with hands and forearms turned up to protect the shotgun. The silhouette embedded immediately afterward in the soft turf prominently displays two deep, conical dimples and the outline of a body that has temporarily matted down thick brush.

Such defensive landings from unexpected tumbles don’t save faces and necks from ugly abrasions and blood, which come with the territory in thick swamps where wary game birds lurk. Yes, it’s true that such unwelcome surprises are as inevitable as flushing riled-up ring-necked roosters for anyone who regularly hunts punishing cover through black unforgiving muck.

Gun dogs? Well, it’s even more challenging for them, even though they’re built for swamp-busting. Their tongues more often than not get sliced open, producing profuse bleeding that splashes customary crimson streaks and stains back onto their shoulders and sides. Though they don’t seem to mind the blood even a little bit, enthusiastic, all-out chases through flooded, beaver-infested wetlands present potentially more serious injuries when puncture wounds along the underbelly and rib cage are inflicted by sharp, pointed, spear-like stumps of small alders and poplars left by beavers’ handiwork. The shiny black wetland colonizers fill the gaps between sticks with mud as filler/waterproofing for their dams and huts.

These swampland beaver spikes left behind protrude straight upward from muck and standing water, and can puncture dogs’ feet and torso alike. And the danger is that such wounds bring with them a high vulnerability to bacterial infection from giardia, always present in such soupy beaver habitat. Unless treated in a timely fashion by thorough washing and subsequent application of an antibiotic salve, there’s a good chance that a serious abscess will form, eventually requiring costly veterinary intervention. And if you choose to save money and let the infection run its course (usually a mistake), be prepared for a systemic infection known in medical jargon as “going septic,” a dreadful diagnosis no one ever wants to hear for man or beast.

Another veterinary problem gun-dog owners can encounter, particularly early in the season after the first hard frosts, is tick-delivered Lyme disease that can result from a bite in habitat frequented by deer. For this reason, it’s a must to treat such dogs with monthly doses of topical medicine that covers the animals’ entire body after hand-depositing a head-to-tail application of drops along the length of the backbone. If on the day after application you find ticks embedded on your animal’s face or neck (the most common places to find them) and think the expensive medication isn’t working, fear not. The medicine kills ticks for a month after application. If you don’t believe it, pull them off and expect to find them dead and dried to a crusty brown. Mission accomplished. Lyme disease is said to require a 72-hour incubation period.

With all the negatives behind us, how about a positive or two? We’re talking about things like dogs making game, wildly wagging their tails, jumping, bounding, narrowing their quarter tighter and tighter, all jacked up for the flush and retrieve. Experienced hunters recognize just from the furious sound of a brush-busting dog that their invisible pet is hot on scent. At that point, it’s always advisable to stay close, position your hands right, raise your gun to a half-ready position from which it’ll be easy shoulder, and at all times keep your front foot pointed in the direction of the dog.

Eventually comes the best sound to emanate from such an exercise — that “cuck-cuck-cuck-cuck” of a scolding, flushing ring-necked rooster trying to fly to safety. The next sounds are a deafening roar or two, then a simple “fetch it up” command from hunter to loyal pet.

Honestly, it gets no better, very similar to taking a cut and hitting a baseball on the sweet spot. Talk about excitement and anticipation. It’s all there in brilliant, vivid fall colors, an added bonus indeed before the deep freeze of barren winter.

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