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On The Trail

On the Trail: Adjustments

The grandsons were in town over the weekend and they brought with them a nasty, highly contagious, Vermont elementary school virus my immune system couldn’t fight off. Thus I’m a little under the weather yet maintaining my regular routine, sort of, with the help of Alka-Seltzer Plus cocktails every four hours.

It’s Wednesday, I just left the dogs out in the kennel and they’re all fired up with anticipation of a hunt. Oh, how they love cold, clear air and bright, sunny skies; better still, damp, gray and cold, low pressure, scent clinging low to the ground. Anyway, I assured them I’d be back for a swamp romp and their tell-tails told me they understood. But first things first: it’s column day.

Yesterday, Tuesday, after a few idle days — I seldom hunt pheasants on Saturday or holidays anymore because there are just too many people out — I went out briefly in the morning and never got a flush in an area I in the past hunted two or three times a week but hadn’t visited in 20 years before last week, when an insider’s tip drew me back. That day, my buddy had called to chat about another subject and during our rambling conversation told me he had walked his dogs at the site that morning and they flushed four pheasants from the border of a dense swamp and marshy ponds I know well. Then, when a hunting buddy called a few minutes after we hung up, I told him to meet me there and we killed two rapid-fire cock birds in a half-hour, one of them sporting an elusive Hatfield Fish & Game Club tag to add to the historic field-lanyard collection. It’s the only blue tag among many silver ones, so it sticks out and, no, it’s not gonna make it back to Hatfield for the annual drawing of submitted tag numbers.

Upon awakening Tuesday, I felt like maybe I should stay home and rest but knew the dogs must be getting itchy so committed to taking them out once I got my feet under me. Unsure of where to go, I figured why not return to that big swamp and explore a little deeper to see what came flying out? Figuring it’d be as good a place as any to hunt, I loaded the dogs into the truck for a noontime romp that had potential but ultimately bore no fruit, well, no birds, which doesn’t mean the zig-zagging, mile-long maneuver through swampy, thorny, vine-tangled terrain dotted with thick cattail clusters on a cool, gray day wasn’t refreshing.

When we got back to my truck empty-handed, I wasn’t certain I had another hunt in me but left that option open and decided on a circuitous route home to Greenfield through old, trusted pheasant coverts, especially one I still hunt often. Well, once there, I slowed down and even though no one was hunting there, I figured multiple hunters had been through the spot and headed home, where some exciting archaeological reading that could develop into something quite toxic was waiting to be finished. But more on that another day. Let’s stay focused on hunting today.

For some reason, on that pleasant Tuesday drive, passing one site after another where I used to hunt but no longer gets stocked, I, quite out of the blue, got to thinking about a conversation I had more than 30 years ago with then MassWildlife Game Manager Bill Pollack, a generation older than me and originally from somewhere in eastern or central Massachusetts — something tells me Southborough. When I told him where I worked, he immediately warmed up and said he knew the area well, having graduated from UMass/Amherst and hunted birds in the Amherst/Hadley/Sunderland area for decades. Then his happy reminiscence plummeted into somber lament for coverts lost to development over the years. He called it sad that the area didn’t look anything like it did his school days, circa 1950, when there were more farms and fields, fence-rows and swales, fewer malls and less sprawl. “Trust me,” he cautioned, “It won’t get better.”

No truer words could have been spoken — words that have never left me.

Which brings us to the present. How could I not think of Dave Vachula, the big Hatfield right-hander, and neighboring farmer Bob Thayer as I drove through Bradstreet, the site of many a hunt 30 years ago with the likes of Timmy Dash, Bruce Van Boeckel and Tommy Valiton, all dead. Yes, back in those days, privately owned acreage along what I call Hopewell Swamp was generously stocked by the state at many spots between Hatfield Pond and the base of Mt. Sugarloaf. Not only that but so was Hopewell Plain above and the Connecticut River bank below, spreading around the birds and hunting pressure and making hunter conflict far less likely. Nowadays, the stocking routine has changed dramatically, due mostly, I guess, to all the land purchased during MassWildlife’s aggressive land-acquisition program over the past 30 years. Although I can’t say I view the current routine negatively, it has definitely changed the Pioneer Valley pheasant-stocking philosophy.

Today, state Wildlife Management Areas get the lion’s share of birds, receiving two stockings per week, while many of the private coverts that used to get weekly birds get none. What that new routine creates is crowded state coverts, where parking can be difficult and hunting has become strictly put-and-take, leaving little chance for freshly stocked birds to survive more than a day or two, if that. Still, I have not forgotten what it was like years ago at places like the vast fields between the Pilgrim Airport and Hatfield Pond, or between the airport and Straits Road, all of it open to hunting and holding birds if willing to walk through punishing swamps to find them. These days, none of that dense, wet cover is stocked unless the local club throws a few birds in for the fellas, again birds that have a slim chance of living a week. Also, that whole plain between Little Egypt and Christian Lane, once stocked at several points along the way, now totally neglected along with the big open piece between Christian Lane and Route 116. Years ago, you could take a walk with your dog anywhere out there and expect to flush birds, with partridge and woodcock and added bonus on the right day. These days you’d feel fortunate to find a random stray pheasant anywhere within that vast acreage, sad but true, and the same can be said of the brushy railroad-track edges to the west that were once productive, now barren.

Yes, all I can say is that on that winding ride home Tuesday afternoon, with me under the weather and looking for an excuse not to get out of the truck to hunt, I looped through North Hatfield, Whately and the Mill River, Stillwater and Wisdom sections of Deerfield, passing one place after another that was once stocked and is no longer. Sure, some of that’s due to development, but not all of it. In fact, not as much as the people making decisions would have you believe. The fact is that it’s more a policy change focused on stocking the state’s heavily hunted management areas, where hunters flock in droves and the quality of the hunt has diminished whether the birds are flushing or not.

I’m not belly-aching, just thinking back to the good old days and that friendly, visionary warning from a man nearing retirement as head of the state’s pheasant-stocking program circa 1982. He said it wouldn’t get better and was right on the money.

So now, with me at a similar age to Pollack that day we spoke, I wonder what I should tell my grandsons about the future of wing-shooting?

Why do I fear the worst?

Recorder sports editor Gary Sanderson is a longtime member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Blog: www.tavernfare.com. Email: gary@oldtavernfarm.com.

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