On The Trail: Walnut wisdom

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The big black walnut across the street, naked and gray, muscular limbs flexed to the heavens, whispers through a warm west wind that pheasant season is near. I appreciate the reminder, marveling at my tall, dignified neighbor’s grace, strength and perfect form worthy of a gilt-framed canvas.

Looking across at that stately tree can stir thoughts of a similar native nut tree I myself never had the privilege of knowing. That would be the proud American chestnut, which folks are still trying to revive in hybrid form to once again grace our forests. How better they would be for again having them.

I am reminded daily of that once-ubiquitous and useful tree that framed buildings by the old crook cane I carry when walking the dogs. Found tucked away in the back corner of a deep, narrow closet at home, it’s light to carry, strong and water resistant. Plus, it’s mellow amber tone and heavy oak-like grain, accentuated by Boston polish wax, has a beauty of its own.

Don’t let anyone tell you American chestnuts died of natural causes. That’s a great American myth. We killed them, and will likely extirpate many like them if we don’t change our destructive ways. But enough of that soliloquy. Back to what I once knew as upland bird season, now simply pheasant season, which opens Saturday.

The reason I can no longer refer to this annual six-or-so-week fall season as upland-bird hunting is that our woodcock and grouse populations seem to have disappeared, or at least dramatically diminished. Last year, hunting the same coverts I’ve toured for parts of five decades, following an excellent gun dog, I flushed maybe three or four woodcock and, for the first time ever, not a single, solitary partridge. That’s right! Not one freakin’ gray ghost. That would have been impossible 30 years ago, when woodcock flight birds would flutter and dance out of alder swamps in rapid succession and partridge would burst from the same coverts, vanishing behind cover faster than they appeared. So scarce have partridge (the most difficult of all wing-shooting targets I’ve encountered) become that I no longer even hunt my favorite grouse coverts. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure I’d still get flushes there, but not nearly the number I once could count on. Thus, I choose to leave partridge alone these days. I won’t even tempt the fates because I can no longer justify killing them for the sake of proving I can still shoot. I have nothing to prove. I hunt for the fresh air, exercise and the joy of reading my dogs and positioning myself within range of cackling flushes.

Ah, yes, within range. The concept reminds me of a boyhood friend I often hunted with back in the 1980s. How well I remember being tangled up in thorns blocking a tight lane through alders — singing my spiciest swamp music with blood streaming down my cheek or neck — when a big, loud cock bird would come cackling out of fluffy cattails. I’d mount my double-barrel, find room to swing on the flying bird and choose not to discharge a going-away hay-banger at 50 yards.

“Why didn’t you shoot?” my buddy, Fast Eddie, would holler. “Couldn’t you see that bird?”

“Yeah, I saw him,” I’d answer, “but by the time I caught up with him, he was out of range.”

There’s no denying that Fast Eddie and I had different approaches to determining what was in and out of range in the pucker brush, and his scolding response to my answer was always difficult to argue with.

“There’s only one way to figure out if it’s out of range,” he’d bellow, “Let the lead fly. If the bird keeps flying, then it was out of range.”

“Yeah, I guess so. Either that or I missed.”

Anyway, back to the season at hand, the state says it’ll again stock 40,000 pheasants statewide, plus about 5,000 additional birds raised by sporting clubs will supplement the allotment in selected private coverts. What’s best about club birds is that they’re banded for identification and are still released on private property, which not so long ago was the rule, not the exception. Oh, how times have changed in that respect. Nowadays most birds are released on state Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), which are typically more congested with hunters than private coverts were years ago. Although I may indeed be going to seed and getting a little cranky in my senior years, give me private coverts any day of the week, even if it does take more work to find birds. Who wants to go out and fill their bag limit in a half-hour or choose paths that get cut off by other hunters and dogs? Not this hombre. I need space, the thicker and thornier the cover the better. Dense cover separates the men from the boys, whether you’re walking on two or four legs.

Back in the god old days before the vast majority of pheasants were stocked on WMAs, the enjoyment and success rate of hunts increased as the season endured. The reason was that pheasants that survived their first few flushes would fly off to refuge, ultimately spreading out in marshes lining both sides of the Connecticut River floodplain. That scenario provided hunters the opportunity for long, rambling, circuitous and productive hunts minus interference from other hunters. And even if you did run into hunters when pulling into a desired spot, it was not a problem. All you had to do was drive off to the next covert, which you’d likely have to yourself. That dynamic has changed now that the vast majority of birds are released on WMAs, where rivalry among hunters can create bad blood leading to potential conflict.

Sometimes I wonder if ever the day will arrive when I’ll answer, “No thanks,” to that naked black walnut tree across the street luring me to the alder swamps and cattail bogs. Though I can’t see it happening, it may well could. And, if it ever does, well, then I’ll probably just write about it.

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.