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On The Trail: Showtime!


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

It was a gray, wet, low-pressure Tuesday afternoon, about 4 o’clock, and I was wearing light, fast-drying athletic shorts and Classic-Clog Crocs, running the dogs through saturated, waist-high grass.

Yeah, yeah, I know, it’s tick season; and, yes, I have been finding the annoying little buggers lately. Saturday, I even medicated the dogs for the second time this spring. Still, I don’t live in fear of ticks, which I don’t recall ever hearing a word about as a free-range South Deerfield kid. So, I refuse to allow them get in the way of healthy daily exercise for me or my pets. If I find one crawling up my arm, my leg, my face, my neck or wherever, I just kill them, sometimes teasing my nervous wife that the poor critter walking up my arm or across my hand appears cold before I stroll into the dining room to flick it into the hot woodstove. End of story.

Then again, when not fortunate enough to detect one before it digs in and establishes residence — rare for me — I just rip it free and live with the ugly red mark that remains for weeks, confident the tick wasn’t imbedded for the required 72-hour Lyme disease-incubation period. Knock on wood. It’s always worked for me without a bout with the potentially debilitating disease.

Enough of that little tick digression, though. I didn’t sit down to write about ticks. I’d rather recount an interesting sighting that made my day soon after swiping my debit card for $712 and change for Tacoma service at Greenfield Toyota. Needing fresh air and exercise after a dry-docked day indoors, I returned home, put on my knee brace and went out back for the dogs, both of whom were anxious to ramble.

Down in the bottomland meadow, I passed and evaluated a couple of patches of four-foot ostrich ferns that were, a month or so back, tiny, tender, salubrious-green fiddlehead tendrils … yum. I turned the corner and looked up to the 20-foot escarpment lip, where my friend and I harvested five pounds of beautiful, snow-white oyster mushrooms Friday … yum, yum. I had spotted them growing along a horizontal, red-oak deadfall limb on my walk and knew they were fresh. They had not been there the previous day and had emerged overnight in the rain. When I got home, I phoned my buddy to ask him if oysters came out in the spring. “Yes,” he said, “Absolutely.” In fact, he had visited a couple of his favorite spots that very morning and come up empty. I was willing to share.

I hopped in the truck to pick him up and drive to the site, where the two of us made quick work of harvesting chores, cutting them off at the base with a knife and carrying them back to the truck in two plastic shopping bags. Oh, how I yearned for a package of venison chops to fry in bacon fat and complement them. No such luck. I cut the mushroom into long strips, sautéed them in avocado oil with onions and garlic, and “settled” for sirloin hamburgers with the wild mushrooms, onions and garlic smothered in sharp cheddar cheese. Superb. Venison would have been better. Oh well, deer-hunting is too much work for this old man, who has many other interests to occupy his time.

Ooops. There I go again. This time a mushroom digression. Damn it! Back to my Tuesday ramble with the dogs …

I continued following my path through high, dense grass, passed a couple of wild apple trees that recently lost their white blossoms and took a sharp right around a staghorn-sumac corner toward a small young poplar stand that juts out a short distance into the field. Just three short years ago a small patch of cattails stood there in six inches of beaver backwater. It’s amazing how fast those infant poplars took over. Today, there’s no trace of cattails, just a clump of 3-year-old poplars about 12 feet high. Small, random poplars have begun to appear out among the Christmas trees, which will soon be overtaken if the plot’s neglected.

Approaching these poplars along a narrow, densely vegetated alder swamp bordered by sumacs, Chub-Chub got a noseful of something that revved him up. He noticeably picked up the pace and went into those showy hops of his to elevate his noose over the cover. “Find it!” I said three or four times in an excited tone and, trust me, he knows the drill. In his prime, Chub-Chub was off in a powerful athletic pursuit.

Suddenly Old Mother Lily, 13 and apparently fully recovered from a couple of mini-strokes last year, darted around the sumac corner, well aware of what “Find it!” means. I didn’t know she heard me before she appeared in her excited, hunting gait, nose high, tail joyously wagging. She was anxious to join the chase and immediately detected the same scent that jacked up Chub-Chub. An old pro, Lily raced forward, stopped on a dime, turned into the breeze and slid quickly through the infant poplars on a straight line into the tangle behind them. In seconds, out came the most colorful, beautiful, long-beaked woodcock hen, slowly and silently flying straight at me. She angled to the right head-high within five feet of my face and Chubby, 20 yards out in the Christmas trees, caught the flight and took off after her.

As a man who’s seen many woodcock flushes over the years, I have never seen an easier target. Standing right there in my spot, I had an absolute sucker shot, not the typical scenario. Woodcocks typically burst out of a covert in erratic flight, like feathered knuckleballs, presenting difficult targets for novice, impatient wing-shooters. Because woodcocks are scarce compared to my younger days, I no longer kill them. When I did, I knew enough to be patient, waiting for the flush to peak and level off after reaching the apex of its 45-degree ascension. Then, the erratic flight smoothes out into a relatively flat, straightaway shot at a gentlemen’s trap range.

When Lily re-entered the field, the bird and Chub-Chub were out of sight, the dog bounding through tall green cover full speed ahead toward a forested marsh on the meadow’s southern perimeter. Into the trees he thrashed, and out of a dried-up beaver pond flushed that woodcock hen, angling across the open field and hooking left into a slim marsh halfway back to where Lily had flushed her. I knew from her slow and low initial flight that she was tantalizing the dogs to chase her and pull them away from her ground nest. So I called off the dogs, headed toward the Green River and back to the truck.

Once we were out of earshot, I’m sure that wild wetland game bird returned to her nestlings. By August in the hayfield above, Chub-Chub will be flushing the young timberdoodles daily, one by one, every last one of them flying back to the treeline overlooking the lower meadow where they were hatched. I saw it happen many times last year and expect a replay with this local brood.

It’s these little things that keep me ticking. The wonders of nature. They brighten my days and lift my wild spirits.

I took two friends this week to a place where the finest, cold, clean, wooded, native brook trout stream I know runs through a steep, deep, ravine. There, I often watched in boyhood amazement as fall squaretails, some very large, accumulated in a settling pool before jumping up the step falls alongside an old sawmill footprint to upstream spawning grounds. Maybe I have been there too early or too late, but I have been to that spot in recent autumns — sometimes shotgun in hand hunting partridge and woodcock while scouting for deer — and the squaretails have not been there. I wonder what the status of our native trout population there is these days? Has acid rain taken its toll? Are the summer fingerlings still there for the taking in cool, hard rains? How about the big boys we used to catch in the impoundments, using Thomas buoyant spoons, Meps spinners and artificial Mayfly spinners or duns and Wooly Buggers? Getting in there to assess the brookie status sounds like a great retirement project, one well worth exploring and writing about. I do hope they’re still there, but suspect it ain’t what it used to be. And guess what else? The good days I remember were probably better when the sawmill was operating, better still before our ancestors arrived to displace the true and tawny North Americans.

The Connecticut River shad count has already surpassed last year’s respectable total with more to come. How do I know the numbers will grow? Because water temperature is still below 65 and should remain fairly stable with rainy weather and cool nights forecast for the rest of the week. The run typically stops when water temperatures approach 70, which triggers spawning ritual and lair establishment. The river total through Tuesday was 416,108. Last year’ total was 392,057.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gsand53@outlook.com.