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On The Trail

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Finally, a cool gray day on which to chase the dogs through a tangled, thorny swamp, though I must admit Wednesday was still a bit warm for me.

I guess I could have chosen the easy route today, having written 850 words Monday, following a pleasant, windy, sunny hunt in an anonymous place. Two robust hours through dense, wet cover, and three kills: a cock pheasant and two woodcock, also two other woodcock flushes that eluded me. That’s a good day in my book, lots of exercise and fresh air. The biggest problem was burdocks; my dogs were loaded with them, on their ears, their chests, along both rib cages. I think I’ll have to get my buddy over with his Oster clippers. It’s that bad. Lily and Chubby just refuse to sit still and allow me to remove the spiky critters with a metal comb. I removed the easy ones. That’s it. What a freakin’ mess.

On Wednesday, more of the same in a different covert farther away than I prefer to travel with the price of gas what it is. I’ll do just about anything to get away from hunter-orange brigades in familiar old coverts that have become crazy the past couple of years. On the way home, walking out of a convenience store with coffee, a young fella wearing an orange cap spotted my attire and approached, asking if I had any luck. Yes, a couple of roosters and two woodcock. I don’t think he believed me. He wanted to see them. I opened my tailgate, dogs wagging their tails. The four birds were laying on the bed. When he asked me where I got them, I could have given him my old buddy Big Stash’s favorite answer — “In the neck!” — but chose instead Chi-CO-pee, emphasis on the CO. The look told me he understood.

We got to blabbing and I disclosed an embarrassing mistake I had made earlier. I realized just before turning down the final road to park that I had forgotten my vest. Yep, left it hanging in clear view on its carriage-shed nail. Just what I needed, one more reminder that I’m getting old, this a day after accepting an offer from the Outdoor Writers Association of America to change my status from “Active” to “Senior Active,” eliminating annoying periodic audits I’ve grown to accept. Had it been a forgotten shotgun, I would have checked myself into the nearest Alzheimer’s clinic for 24-hour observation. But it was just a vest. No big deal. Yeah, it would make things more difficult if I needed a game-bag. But I was wearing rugged bibs, had two boxes of shells in the truck, could get through it and did, with aplomb. I just put five shells in each hip pocket, stuffed the woodcock between my bibs and belt, and dangled that first pheasant by my side from its feet, dropping it for the final flush, even tossing it a few times for young Chubby to retrieve. When the second rooster came up t’other side of an alder clump, I dropped a passing shot, ending my hunt. Lily soon retrieved the ringneck and we took the long trek back to the truck, gun in one hand, two cock birds dangling from the other, the two woodcock tucked away. Oh well, what’s a little more blood on a stained, faded, patched hunting shirt?

Bird hunting is, for me, about patterns. Always has been. The problem is that those patterns change due to factors beyond my control. For one thing, I have over the years familiarized many hunting buddies with favorite coverts, where they continue to follow my paths with other dogs and hunters. No problem. When my favorite spots get too busy, I just revisit old ones I have neglected for decades. When I discover a place where the flushes are frequent, the pressure thin, I keep it to myself and carve out a new route, continually checking other trusty old coverts in passing. Such locations exist on both sides of the Connecticut River, and it’s getting to the point where I must be secretive about good quiet sites others would love to earn of.

I’m not hesitant to confess that I miss old friends’ private coverts which no longer get stocked for one reason or another. Stocking patterns change. Not always for the better. It seems the state prefers loading up its own Wildlife Management Areas these days, with the one at Swift River receiving daily allotments, others closer to home guaranteed two stockings per week. It’s no secret now that it’s “out there” on the web, and the fellas are always on the lookout, patrolling, hoping to arrive at a field full of freshly stocked birds that are little challenge to bag. Experienced gun dogs often catch such birds and bring them back without a pellet in them — called table birds by some — to me, not a meat hunter, a waste of time.

Give me a two-hour hunt with three or four flushes and I’m happy, no cluster flushes or orange-clad troops, please. That said, it’s gotten to the point where a man can no longer bide time for a day or two after a covert’s been stocked, because by the time you arrive, there’ll likely be nothing left, especially early in the season, before pheasants discover impenetrable sanctuaries of thick alders and sharp prickers, the ground below mostly submerged in deep beaver-dam slop. Pheasants that survive the first few hours and days soon learn how to stay out of harm’s way by taking daily refuge on “islands” in such beaver wetlands and flying back and forth from feeding sites. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon but don’t often identify locations. Perceptive hunters observe such activity, learn acclimated birds’ habits and know survivors will frequent the same feeding zones over and over again once their new habitat becomes their home.

I may be wrong but it sure seems to me that there are more pheasant hunters out there nowadays with good gun dogs than 20 years ago. Then again, maybe I was spoiled back then, when I knew the owners of private coverts and hunted their property often, usually with the place to myself, never crowded. Those were the days when, if a truck was parked at my first choice, no problem, I’d just move on until I found an vacant covert. These days, the WMAs seem to receive most of the birds, which makes for crowded, less enjoyable and potentially more dangerous hunting, the possibility of hunter and/or dog conflict always a concern. I suppose that’s one reason why WMAs are being stocked just before dark, the strategy likely being that then there’ll be birds left for the following day. The problem is that many of the birds stocked at dusk never see sunrise, quickly devoured in unfamiliar surroundings by opportunistic predators, such as coyotes, foxes, fishers and birds of prey. I received a call this past weekend from a friend who hunted Northfield early Saturday morning and found 10 pheasant carcasses killed and eaten by coyotes or foxes. He knows the difference between canid kills and those of hawks or owls. His hunt over in a parking lot, my friend met a pair of hunters who had toured an adjacent field with similar findings. They discovered a dozen freshly killed and partially eaten carcasses. That’s 22 pheasants killed overnight in one WMA. How many birds do you suppose they released Friday evening just before dark?

Sure, it’s a fact that exaggeration is always a possibility. But even if the reporters doubled the carcasses they found, that’s still 11 dead birds, which is far too many. Had those birds been stocked in the morning and 11 taken by hunters before dark, the survivors would more likely be there the next day, having been given the luxury of several daylight hours to familiarize themselves with a new, wild habitat.

I suppose it is what it is: put-and-take hunting that’s drawing quite a crowd. No wonder gentleman wing-shooters chase grouse and woodcock, wild birds that are better for you in the plate if you can find them.

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Read his blog at tavernfare.com. Send email to gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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