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On The Trail: This & that


Wednesday, November 01, 2017

The stimuli were there: gray, foreboding skies and an autumn chill greeting me for my morning stroll to the mailbox. Then came a call from a friend who, in a roundabout way, recounted a recent purchase of a reasonably priced Belgium Browning Sweet 16. Now, here I sit at my customary Wednesday-morning station — books here, reports there, coffee cup, portable phone, fly-swatter — trying to bang out a weekly column, wondering where it’s going to lead.

With all sorts of potential entry points, why not begin by mentioning recent emails, always a pipeline for “news” and chatter, even gossip. Let’s begin with a cautionary note from a new Meadows neighborhood-watch site I recently joined — a sort of narrowed down Facebook page. There, on Tuesday, came a warning for motorists to be extra careful of squirrels, which were “going nuts over all the nuts on the road” following heavy overnight wind and rains. I must say this astute observation was right on the mark. On a subsequent drive down the road, dancing squirrels were darting out in front of my truck, stopping suddenly, raising their tails and scooting back where they came from to avoid getting squashed. I didn’t hit any, but not all of them make it, of course. It made me wonder how much the mortality rate has increased over the transition from horse and buggy to automobile. My guess is that the number is staggering.

I’ll get to another email later, one about gundog Lily that I’ll save for last; but, first, onto one I hammered out to MassWildlife. Figuring there must be some harvest numbers by now for the annual September segment of the three-part bear season, I reached out to information guru Marion Larson, once an Amherst High School cross-country star, for my answer. Well, yes, indeed she did have numbers and got back to me promptly. Licensed hunters took 148 bears, 59 females, 86 males and three of unknown gender during the 17-day season that always produces more kills than the other two combined. The total is down from last year’s harvest of 190. The reason for the decline is anyone’s guess, but it’s not because there are fewer bears in the woods.

With it a certainty that the bear population has only increased since a year ago, there must be other factors in play, among them availability of natural foods. When they’re plentiful, hunters’ success rates around cornfields tend to diminish. Corn-fed bears are easier to pattern than those patrolling lowland swamps or upland hardwood ridges. So when nuts, fruits and berries are plentiful, bears become difficult to pattern and hunter success rates plummet. In my travels, the hard- and soft-mast crops appear to be strong, especially apples, which seem to be everywhere this fall. What this meant to the three-week September hunt is open to conjecture. I’ll let the experts figure that one out once the triple-tier, 47-day season ends on the final day of the shotgun deer season.

Now, onto my final topic, it the work of a new, previously unknown emailer who appeared recently in my inbox. His name is John Kelley, his focus the Philip’s War battlefield at Riverside/Gill that’s under current historical/archaeological scrutiny. Apparently, his primary focus is on my Saturday column. Still, he must check in here, too, from time to time, judging from his most recent message. Kelley is putting together a documentary film related to the battlefield research and wants to get together for a chat, which I’m more than willing to accommodate during a busy time of the year for me: bird hunting season. Because of my tight schedule when hunting, my response was that I could possibly arrange something on the weekend, when I typically avoid going out due to increased weekend pressure.

Well, Kelley immediately responded to me with “anytime Saturday works for me,” followed by and unrelated question that surprised me: “Is your 13-year-old hunting dog still with us?”

That query touched me in a tender spot. I wanted to respond. So, here it is ... in black and white for all to read.

Shockingly, the answer to his poignant question about Lily is yes. In fact, she’s made a remarkable comeback to a functional gundog, though geriatric and not close to the covert-rattling, brush-buster she once was. Still, the fact is that last year at this time I was looking for a suitable place to bury this dear, spirited companion. Not for a freakin’ second did I anticipate she would be around for another hunting season. In fact, I did not expect her to see spring.

After the second of what I am now certain were TIAs or mini-strokes, this liver-and-white springer spaniel bitch with indomitable drive is again flushing and retrieving pheasants and woodcock. No, she can’t compete with son Chubby, a 6-year-old dynamo who’s in his prime and covers much more ground. But she would suffice as the lone gundog for a hunter or two. In fact, her pace might be perfect for hunters who have themselves lost a step or two. Hunting behind her would be easy compared to an animal like Chub-Chub, who blows through thick cover like it’s not there. When a pheasant finds a lane to run down when chased by a hard-charger like Chubby, even a young hunter may not be in position to get a crack at distant flushes that may result. Geriatric Lily’s deliberate approach and tighter quarters create closer flushes that take longer to develop and burst up well within range.

Ol’ Lily-butt will be 14 on April 28, 2018, my 39th anniversary. Honestly, facing cold reality, I know she could well be gone by then. But given what I have witnessed thus far during the first weeks of this bird-hunting season, I have a strong suspicion she’ll see another spring and beyond. Then again, I accept that it could all be over fast. If she finally succumbs to a sudden collapse and mortal tremors in some mucky alder-swamp tangle due to cardiac arrest, so be it. She’s had a great life and will have expired doing precisely what she loves most and was born to do. Call it dying while doing what you live for?

We should all be so blessed. Few are. That I have tasted and grown to accept.

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.