Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Last Chance

There are some moments that will stick in the mind forever. The 2009 deer season will be one I'll always remember quite simply because it was the first "season" I hunted until the last drop.  Opening day of whitetail hunting in Pennsylvania is a circus event.  In the event one is fortunate enough to hunt private land, the memories can be peaceful and memorable.  However, public land is a different story.  I've learned to prepare myself mentally for disappointment.  I don't mean disappointment in not scoring venison; that can happen on any type of land one may hunt.  Disappointment in mankind is more like it. My brother uses the term "hilljack" quite liberally to describe your run of the mill fool in the woods.  We encountered one on opening day this year, and he ruined our hunt.  I do blame myself for what happened after our dear friend departed the forest, however. Around 4 p.m, a group of drivers walked right under my stand as they attempted to push out deer.  I've never seen this happen on opening day, so I wasn't expecting it—mostly because I was hunting public land.  I consider it downright discourteous to make a drive on the opener and destroy another man's hunt.  Jaded and discouraged, I packed up my stand about 20 minutes early.  This was my biggest mistake. It literally broke my heart when I returned to retrieve the rest of my stand at dusk and there was a deer standing not 20 yards from my tree.  I hadn't spotted a deer all day, and suddenly the tail end of one was bounding gracefully away into the thicket.  I never saw if it was a buck or a doe, but it was a nice-sized deer. My imagination ran wild and added to the heartache. The next day I discovered my scope was off after shooting at a doe in the cross-hairs. I couldn't understand how I could have missed her, until I decided to check the rifle at the range on the following Friday. Turned out the scope was inaccurate, and I thought I had done well by sighting it in August— before the mad rush of shooters who appear Thanksgiving weekend. 

Hunting is good for the soul; it teaches one humility.  Boy, was I ever humiliated by the events of the first week.  I had spotted on deer when I was unarmed; I missed a deer when I was armed.  I had to re-sight my scope, and I was leery of returning to some of the most promising spots we had scouted before the opener, mostly because I didn't want another day ruined by severe hunting pressure.  Regrouping, I began to read.  Articles in regards to locating late season deer, especially bucks, flashed across my laptop screen on a nightly basis. The same themes continued to dominate:  thick cover, bedding areas, food, and south facing hillsides. In the end I discovered that one of my favorite haunts was the best place to start all over again. I had pegged a grouse there a few weeks before, so I decided to venture into an area a little less accessible to hunters in general.

Six days into the season, I was growing desperate enough to set up my stand at midnight in the complete darkness.  I had a two-hour class Friday night after teaching all day.  I sacrificed a hour and half break in the late afternoon to site in the scope at the range.  So, as the chill bore down, I set two stands with the aid of a headlamp.  One of the stands was for my father who was able to hunt with me that Saturday.  No luck.  But, the morning was spectacular as two inches of snow fell serenely throughout the wood.  I returned the following day to retrieve one stand and scout the area for tracks I hoped would give me an idea as to where the deer were moving. It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning, and I did find tracks, and I did kick up a deer.  It was sheltered in the thicket on a south facing hill. How about that? Discerning a small pack of does, some bear tracks, turkey tracks, rabbit tracks, and grouse tracks, I noticed a separate set of tracks that belonged to a lone deer, a large set too.  Blood pumped a little faster as my mind entertained the idea that the tracks belonged to a buck. 

The following Monday I was able to hunt for a little over an hour—I repositioned my stand to overlook a dry lake bed and running stream.  There were tracks all over the area.  I didn't return until Thursday evening.  New snow had covered the old tracks, and an icy layer of sleet crusted the terrain.  However, for the first time in a few days, I spotted the lone set of large tracks again.  This time I decided to spend my hour of daylight trailing them.  I discovered a bedding area, and with what little time I had, tried my best to pattern the trail.  I repositioned my stand again.  This time moving it well back behind a thicket.  I no longer had an open shot at the stream, but I now could cover a small, piney thicket off the to my left—the large tracks were peppered along that same hillside.  An uncanny confidence coursed through my mind, but I continued to play down my chances mentally.  After all, who really gets a shot at a buck on the last day of the season? The percentages are low.

Saturday, my last chance, arrived.  The beginning was anything but auspicious.  More ice had fallen, but it was a gem of a day.  The best day we had all season.  Clear, cold, sunny, and no wind.  However, the crunching snow announced a hunter's presence to every creature within a square mile.  Placing my father in a small hollow on the other side of the piny hill, I climbed into my stand just in time to see a doe galloping across the lake bed and hear another one rise and charge away.  Damn the snow!  As fate would have it, however, the snow would later turn out to be my greatest ally.

The sun rose and warmed the hillsides.  A group of drivers passed, and I guessed everyone was encouraged by the weather.  I nearly gave up hope after the drivers walked through, but remembering the lessons I had learned on opening day a fortnight previous, I stayed put. Four does galloped out of the thicket across the stream and stopped, listening to the drivers who were oblivious to their presence.  I scoped one of the does, a large one.  At 110 yards and shooting through bramble, I decided not to take the shot.  I didn't think I could make it. Suddenly, the pack reversed direction and sprinted across the lake bed, giving me a wide open shot, but I could not glass them with enough confidence to take a shot.  Dejected, I seriously pondered packing it in, but I remained glued to the tree.  I had watched five deer run away, and listened to another amble off in the predawn light, all on the last day!  I was sure I had lost my chance. 

An hour later, the sun continued its unimpeded climb—washing winter trees in a warm, golden glow; I watched another driver emerge hundreds of yards away along the same thicket I had traced tracks to a few evenings prior.  He swung left and disappeared.  For a fleeting moment, I thought, "I wonder where that buck is?" The does had long since departed, and I began to wonder if I had been chasing ghost tracks for a week.  The drivers disappeared much to my relief, and expecting things to quiet down until noon, I pondered the location of the afternoon hunt.

Crack, Cuh, Crack, Cuh, Crack! Adrenaline washed out the cold and brought me fully alert. Immediately, I knew it was a running deer.  Nothing moves that quickly over hilly, forested terrain. Focusing in the direction of the crunching snow, I saw a beautiful set of curving antlers moving up the lake trail.  I was awestruck. It was the buck! Exactly as his tracks had indicated, he cut into the thicket on the evergreen hill.  Somewhere within my inner cognitive confines, his three points on one side registered:  a legal buck.  Swinging the scope I sighted him.  One step beyond a scrubby pine, and I had a plate-sized shooting window.  Not hesitating, I squeezed the trigger. He collapsed immediately. 

The next few moments were surreal.  I moved up the slope through the bramble to a beautiful six-point whitetail buck. His hooves told the story; it was him.  Pausing a moment to thank him for the venison he would provide my family, a smile broke open. "Dad! Dad!"  Of course, my father couldn't hear me, so there I was sprinting through cracking snow.  In the morning light, we celebrated as primitive man would after a big kill. It was the first deer I had ever taken in the presence of my father, and perhaps, it was fitting that it was just the two of us. As he displayed a  different way to gut a deer, my boyhood days at hunting camp were brought back to life.  A memory I never had was taking shape before me.  The buck did not suffer.  He died within seconds, as the well-placed shot struck him in the neck, breaking it.  He was large in body—though his rack was smaller than average.  It did not matter to me.  The last day of the season, and I had harvested a buck.  A half-mile later, perspiring in the midday sun, we loaded up our prize and made a joyful trip home.  A successful hunt obliterates all unsuccessful adventures. It was a fine day.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Grouse, Golden Bird of the Forrest

Lately, I've been reading myself to sleep with tales from one of my favorite anthologies: "Huntings Best Short Stories".  Authors like Ernest Hemingway and Guy De Maupassant have entries in the collection, but some of my very favorite stories are written by obscure authors who managed to capture the essence and joy of hunting. The stories themselves emit heart stirring spirit, causing one to yearn for a frosty November morning, a shotgun, and a good hunting dog with whom to enjoy the adventure. One particular story I read the other night was an absolute gem.  Called, "The Road to Tinkhamtown", the story is about a man recalling a hunting trek with his dog "Shadow" as they discover an old, overgrown farm that turns out to be prime grouse cover.  It is clear that the man is dying of old age as the story is told, but in his end, he is happy.  He hears the Shadow's bell and leaves the world to hunt grouse for eternity.

While my hunt last Saturday lacks the echanting drama of "The Road to Tinkhamtown", a cherished memory was made that I know I'll recall for some time close to forever.  After some mid-morning pheasant hunting, I returned home to enjoy lunch with my wife and son.  Mid-afternoon I embarked on a journey to one of my favorite hunting haunts that I had not visited since opening day of grouse season last month.  The opener was a soaker.  Roughly 6 inches of wet snow fell two days prior, and a drenching rain pelted my father and I as we hunted dogless.  Why no dog? Simply because rabbit wasn't open yet, and I wasn't about to torture my pup by not allowing her to chase her favorite game.  Arriving somewhere near 2 p.m. Daisy and I set off into a tangle of briars and overgrown fields.  She pursued a few rabbits, which I never saw.  Rabbits are very clever, and it can be especially difficult to gather a glimpse when hunting alone with the dog.  I will be sharper later in the season, and of course, snow on the ground is a great benefit to a rabbit hunter.  

I purposely worked her along a hillside edge in hopes of flushing a grouse.  She worked the forested area to my right and I trodded down the clear cut carefully watching the dog work.  It was clear she was picking up something, but I could not discern exactly which quarry she was on at the time.  My mind wandered, "Squirrel?  Rabbit?"  As the ground began to level and the stream bed appeared in front of us, her tail whipped into a frenzy and that hearty, magical game bird, the mighty ruffed grouse, flushed, wings whirring. Somehow, I managed to stay composed, swung the shotgun to my left, and squeezed off a shot and the bird twisted through the trees.  Immediately, I knew I had hit it.  It tumbled to the right, and my heart began to gallop.  There is no sweeter sound in all of bird hunting than the flapping of grouse wings once the bird hits the forest floor.  Off we ran to find the game.  Many times I have doubted my dog, and I am glad Daisy forgives me every time.  She knew exactly where the bird had fallen.  But, in my arrogant human nature, I thought I knew.  After about 10 minutes of searching, I allowed Daisy to lead the way, no longer concerned that she might pick up a rabbit and leave me behind desperately searching for a grouse I knew I had hit hard. Sure enough, the bird lie camouflaged in the grass just off the trail.  I would have never found it without the dog.  But, what a feeling it was!  Both dog and I rejoiced at our good fortune, and once again, I realized how important all the wing-shooting practice hours in July and August had been.

There is nothing as sweet tasting as a grouse.  A bird that is not stocked or corn fed, grouse eat berries, bark, bugs, and other food  found in the forest.  They are a hearty, smart bird, and to bag one is an honor.  The grouse was the fourth of my  hunting career.  I hope to bag many more in the years to come. Some of the best hunts end with a recipe, and so, I googled grouse recipes and settled upon an old favorite my beautiful wife used when she cooked up the grouse I shot the winter before—a late January evening grouse I had surprised as Daisy ran a rabbit.  I missed the rabbit, but bagged the grouse—probably one of my best shots ever.

As we close upon Thanksgiving weekend, I can't help but hope that the weather cooperates for a Friday or Saturday hunt.  I've been fortunate enough to score a pheasant on the last day of the fall season for the past two years. I am not sure if it will work out this year, but hope is a good thing.  Deer season is coming, and I am already excited.  For the next few nights, I'll drift off to sleep by reading "The Harlows' Christmas Dinner": a true deer hunt classic written in 1903.  It's impossible to keep a dry eye reading the beautiful story about two young boys who set out to provide a little meat for their mother's Christmas table. 

Daisy's Score Card:

Pheasant: 15
Rabbit: 3
Turkey: 1
Grouse: 1

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Navigating the Labyrinth

Saturday was a day for the memory book. After Dad scored his first rabbit run by Daisy, we moved toward the standing corn fields.  Working our way from the wood line, George and I surprised a pair of fine cock birds.  Unfortunately for my brother, his gun jammed, and as he hurriedly worked to chamber another round, the second rooster rose helicopter fashion.  I never saw the first bird, but I killed the second bird on my second blast.  Upon skinning our harvest later that afternoon, I discovered that I had hit the bird with both shots.  Pheasants never cease to amaze me with their extreme toughness. Not many animals can take a shotgun round and continue flying. At any rate, my first bird of the day proved to be the biggest bird I've bagged all season. Fortunately, the breast was still intact, and it made a wonderful meal a few nights later.

It was an exciting start to our mid-morning plunge into the corn.  The birds used the cover to their advantage all day.  A rooster flushed well out of range and we did not take it. However, ever persistent, Daisy was eventually able to corner the same bird in an opposite field and George took it with a single shot. With two birds and a rabbit, we rambled into the overgrown clear cut that nearly all hunters avoid.  It's thick and treacherous, but full of game. A flock of turkeys, pressured by Daisy's methodical pace, flushed, and George squared up a hen.  His first turkey ever.  It was cause for celebration and a sweet taste of revenge, as we have had the misfortune of running into turkeys out of season.  More often that not, I shed clothing and chase down the dog, sometimes this takes place over the course of a mile or two.  Running a mile full bore through the woods is more like trying to sprint an obstacle course. 

After wading through the bramble, we returned to the far corn fields—in reality, elaborate mazes for the birds, Daisy worked the forest edge and pushed out two running hens.  George and I sprinted after them in a spirited attempt to make them flush.  They did.  Pulling up abruptly as the second hen rocketed over the stalk tips, my Mossberg 12 gauge found its mark cleanly and the hen folded nicely.  It was a shot I could not have made a year ago.  Summer practice paid dividends in the field once again.

By lunchtime we called it a day.  George had to be at work, and Dad and I were looking forward to a little college football. Not that we could have hunted longer, everyone, dog included, was exhausted. It was a banner day for the pup.  She scored a trifecta: rabbit, pheasant, and turkey.  One hit short of the cycle. If we had flushed and bagged grouse, it would have been unforgettable, but Saturday was as good as they come.

Daisy's Bird (Pheasant) Count:  14
Rabbits: 2
Turkey: 1

Monday, November 2, 2009

Running Birds and Foul Weather

The pendulum swung dramatically in the opposite direction this week.  Broke out for an evening hunt last Friday.  Daisy picked up the trail of one bird, which I saw, but it refused to fly.  The bugger ran about 200 yards and disappeared in a lush field of winter wheat.  Returning to the car by nightfall, another hunter and I exchanged disparaging tales in regards to running birds. Awoke Saturday with new hope.  Unfortunately, the weather didn't cooperate again.  Spencer shot a rabbit, which Daisy ran from the thick patch above the marsh. I was in the gnarly maze with her and saw the rabbit at my feet as it bolted away to the outer fields.  After four hours of hard hunting, Daisy flushed a beautiful rooster, but unfortunately, the bird escaped unharmed.  Two hours later, the skies opened up and added to our damp spirits, but luck struck just before the last bend in the trail, and I spotted a wily cockbird sneaking through the swamp grass.  We immediately cut off its escape route and Daisy was all over its trail.  The bird held surprisingly tight in a thin hedgerow.  Nearly 100 yards later, it tried to run, not fly.  Waiting for what felt like an eternity, I gave up on the bird flying, and knocked it down for good. I can't say I felt particularly wonderful about bagging that bird.  But, after hunting all day, it was nice to have at least one wild chicken for the pot; it was the least I could do.  I didn't make it out again until tonight, a blustery and bitterly cold early November evening.  My brother met Daisy and I by the lake fields.  Daisy picked up a few trails, and we heard a smattering of shots, but nothing broke our way.  The sunset was particulary beautiful.  It looked like a late January sky tonight, not November.  I am wondering if the final stocking will be tomorrow.  I hope it is, because it didn't seem like there were any birds out tonight.  If the fields are filled with new birds Friday, Saturday has real potential.  The best news already is the weather report.  Finally, for the first time all season, I won't have to slog around in snow and rain.  Sunny and mild.  Can't wait for Saturday!

Daisy's Bird Count:  11
Daisy's Rabbit Count: 1 (Keep in mind that we haven't ventured out specifically for rabbits yet.  Her count will increase by January's end.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Opening Day 2009

Awoke exhausted from the school week, yet excited for the pursuit of winged beauties.  Daisy and I practiced some runs on birds the Thursday evening prior.  She flushed near about 12 pheasants, mostly roosters. It was a pleasantly mild autumn evening. Saturday wasn’t.  Steady rain dropped from the slate skies.  Yet, opening day is a special time regardless of the weather. Immediately upon entering the first field, I spotted at least three birds outside of the hedgerow.  But, thinking foolishly in my haste, I failed to seal off the exit route and all the birds flushed well outside of range. We worked our way toward the lakeside bramble.  The darkened morning made seeing difficult, and a few birds flushed, heard, but not seen. Finally, near the marsh, Daisy flushed two, most likely a rooster and a hen.   In my excitement, I blasted the hen clear off the hemlock branch it landed upon.  Somewhat unsporting, but yet, forgivable.  Dad missed a flushing rooster, which was a bit too far out of reach.  So, with one hen in the bag we headed along the outside fields.  The rain kept a steady beat upon our heads. Working the long curving hedgerow more known for its rabbit holes than pheasant, Daisy bugled. I rushed to the end of the hedgerow, switching places with Charles, in hopes of blocking the birds from clamoring into the forest. I almost made it in time.  Seven birds stood out in the open.  I discharged three times, somewhat wildly, knocking down one bird as it rose off the ground.  The bird flew off again.   One cock flew directly over Dad’s head and he pegged it.   Daisy lept back into the hedgerow and flushed a nice rooster, which took flight to my left—about 30 yards away.  Tracking it, I hit it hard as it reached the middle of the field.  I released another round as it began its fall, hitting it again.  Still too excited mind you, but it was nice to knock down a ringneck on the first good flush of the day. 

Three birds in hand, a fellow brought up the bird I had hit first.  It was killed. So, four birds. We worked toward the back grape fields.  After at least 45 minutes of walking, we spotted two roosters in the wooded lanes.  I set a strategy to run ahead and block off escape routes.  Dad and Charles worked toward me with Daisy.  She flushed one and someone fired—later I discovered that Dad had taken the shot and killed the fifth bird of the morning.  I was a bit too antsy.  Instead of staying still,  I walked toward them through the hedgerow and flushed at least three birds.  Again, one swung off to the my left at about 20 yards, and I made my best shot of the day, striking it in the head.  It folded up quite nicely.  So, we packed in our morning hunt with six birds.  Our afternoon goal:  present Charles with a decent flush.

The sun rolled out after I cleaned our morning kill, and we hopped back into action around 2:30 p.m. Daisy flushed a nice rooster in the brambles.  I fired and knocked it down in front of Dad, who also shot it.  Nine-life bird.  The old rooster escaped and was taken on the ground by a pair of hunters with a pup.  We moved on to the swamp rows.  Daisy opened up hotly and I tore up the cover behind her in order to put pressure on the bird.  Dad at my left.  Charley at my right.  A quick little hen blasted away from some dead fall, a few feet in front of me and inches from Daisy.  Dad killed it cleanly with his second shot.  “Damn, Charley!” I shouted. “We’ve got to place you on the right side!” Always amiable, Charley played it off, but I know the growing frustration that wears away at the hunter’s heart who would do anything for just one good flush, one good shot, and one good bird to dissipate the disappointment.  About an hour away from sunset, Daisy picked up a new trail.  We followed.  She worked methodically, yet surely.  There was a bird.  If there is anything I’ve learned from the little holy terror, it’s that her nose always knows. Dad spotted the bird making for cover.  Almost immediately Daisy broke out full throttle.  Caught in the opposite hedgerow, I charged through thorns in an attempt to prevent the bird from flushing away from the shooters.  Halfway across the open lane, the bird did flush, but not like I thought.  Daisy placed it perfectly.  First shot clean miss.  Second shot cracked the bird hard, and the third shot killed it in the air.  Charley’s bird.  It was the prettiest flush and the most beautiful bird of the day.

Daisy's 2009 Bird Count: 8

Tuesday Evening Hunt

Perhaps the finest night I’ve ever had afield with Daisy.  Finally, I broke through for her. All the practice over the summer is paying dividends. I am falling in love with the Mossberg 12 gauge.  Daisy flushed a wily, old rooster in the heavy brambles.  I hit it hard with one shot and it crashed landed.  It scampered only a few feet before dying.  Took some pictures and rewarded the dog with a beef stick.  We moved on to the hemlock thicket above the lake.  Daisy opened up hotly, but I made another mistake.  Tried to follow her into the thicket instead of waiting in the field.  Saw the rooster flushing away, but could not shoot cleanly due to the thick overhead cover.  We worked the long curving hedgerow to no avail, but as we moved across the hayfield, Daisy picked up a short trail as I scrambled over a red-berried deadfall. Suddenly, in a flapping of wings, what I thought to be a wounded bird raised a commotion under the cover.  I lowered the gun and tried to find a better position, when the hen, apparently unscathed, burst out into the open, and escaped my shot. It presented me with the most difficult target a bird heading directly away often does, so my shot was difficult, yet the disappointment lurked inside.  Knowing the bird had landed unharmed about 100 yards down a clear lane, we made our way toward it.  Daisy never completely lost its scent, of this I am sure as I observed her continue to work the bird, despite the fact that it had taken flight.   She was literally scenting the path it followed through the air.  Within minutes she picked up on it hotly.  Switching back and forth between wood lines, I quickly sought a good shooting position, and no sooner had I stepped into place than did little Daisy flush the same hen.  An amazingly fast hen, she zinged away and I missed her with the first shot again!  But, I nailed her with the second shot from about 35 yards and she fell dead.  It was my best shot of the season so far.  A great night! In two hours, we had made a lifelong memory.  This is the evening hunt I know I’ll look back upon years from now and say, “Finally, I am becoming a proficient pheasant hunter”.   Vest heavy with birds, I thanked the hunting gods for sending me the best dog a man could ever want.

Daisy’s 2009 Bird Count: 10