Friday, December 26, 2008

Another Cold War Relic

When I stumbled into a long-closed Nike base while hunting woodcock in November, I blogged about it here.

Byron York and his family visited a different base in November. His reflections appeared in a well crafted story in the National Review Online. The piece needs no help that I can give it, so I’ll cut right to the chase with the link.

Friday, November 07, 2008

A Falls Of Woodcock

"Bean" the American Water Spaniel and I brought our first woodcock home from Corky’s Covert on October 10, 1994. Over time, we really came to love that ground. Not only was it a magnet for flight birds; but it also had the cool feature of a clear if distant view of Niagara Falls. As time marched on, the dogwood cover changed as did land use by resident neighbors. It's probably needless to say that neither of these developments improved the hunting. Sadly, we haven’t chased woodcock at Corky's for several years now.

So when my friend Jim S. recently invited Gordie and me to hunt woodcock on land near Corky’s, we were delighted. We visited the property behind Walt’s house around 3 p. m. in the final week of the 2008 season. I immediately recognized the cover that I’d learned to love almost 15 years earlier. Much of the dogwood was only waist to head high, offering the luxury of a second shot at birds whiffed with the first barrel.

The Niagara Falls Skyline From Walt’s
Not that the birds were easy, mind. We burned through some powder before we, ahem, warmed up our gun mounting techniques. But the woodcock were in, and Gordie had a ball rousting them up for us into the crisp blue sky.

One bird that we saluted flew over a barbed wire perimeter and came down inside in a small dogwood patch. Jim knew where a hole in the fence might get us an opportunity to reflush this possibly nicked bird. Moments later, we passed several large concrete slabs covering the ground. I asked Jim, and he confirmed the nature of these slabs: we were hunting on the grounds of an old Nike base. For those too young to remember, Nikes were a system of defensive missiles buried in communities here and there in the 1950’s and 60’s. If you’d like, you can read a bit about that history here. I enjoyed the irony of happily hunting wild birds in an attractive covert on the site of a Cold War icon.

Jim In Long Shadows At The Perimeter
Did Ike Like Nikes? Absolutely!
Cold War High Tech
It’s always terrific to find a cover that is a cracker jack replacement for one that’s been lost. Now that woodcock season has ended, I’ll scout it thoroughly over the snowy season to be ready to walk up the best spots come next October.

Jim is throwing a small dinner party tonight, featuring woodcock we’ve shot and the backstrap of a deer he arrowed. I got off easy, and only have to bring the wine. It sounds like a good time!

Gordie Clearly Relishing 3 Yummy Woodcock

Saturday morning addendum:

When I guessed that we'd have "a good time" Friday, I grossly underestimated the excellent table that Jim and Laurie would set for us last night. Read the menu and drool:
  • jalapeno and banana peppers sauteed with prosciutto, Parmesan and aromatics and served with chunks of bread;
  • sauteed chopped woodcock heart and liver over croutons warmed in a skillet of garlic butter;
  • plucked and roasted woodcock, done rare;
  • backstrap and other cuts of venison, done rare. Cherries in a thin glaze, for spooning over the venison, simmered in a pan nearby;
  • diced goose breast in a cream sauce, served over spaetzle;
  • green salad featuring raspberries and grapefruit;
  • big, dry red wine;
  • pumpkin tarts under whipped cream; and
  • Zaya, a 12 year old rum from Trinidad, served neat in Irish crystal.
I'm eager to let Gordie help Jim get some mallards and a pheasant or two, maybe even a rabbit. Whatever Jim wants. I can't wait to taste what surprises he'll cook up next time.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Grouse Covert Hunting Pays Grouse Hunter Off Later

When I was a newlywed in 1978, my father in law introduced me to small game hunting. He was a North Country vet living on a going-back dairy farm off Route 30 just north of Malone. His youth – during the Great Depression – and later his work for struggling small dairy farmers never left him much time or money for training bird dogs. But the North Country had a great abundance of snowshoe hares then – his buddies called them white rabbits – and Doc just loved to hear beagle music as his hounds ran through the cedar swamps, birch clumps and pine patches just behind the barn.

I flushed more grouse by accident back then and there than I do now on purpose in western New York’s Southern Tier. Maybe it’s because Doc’s land was my formative hunting ground, or maybe it’s simply that I saw a lot of birds erupt from that sort of landscape. For whatever reasons, that habitat has remained my personal vision of what proper grouse cover looks like.

Thirty years and 400 miles to the south and west later, early successional forests are not common on public land hereabouts. In fact, they're damned scarce. Imagine my delight, then, when I recently followed up some scouting leads and discovered a place that looks “just right.” I flushed a bird there on my initial visit, and got a shot at one on the next. By concentrating on this particular parcel, I’m finally hunting grouse instead of grouse coverts. And it paid off just the other day.

We weren't 10 minutes out of the car when Gordie, a flushing spaniel, began working ground scent on the edge of a dry creek bed. I could see his enthusiasm ratcheting up, and, happily succumbing to optimism, I took a set-up step with my left foot in the direction in which the dog was working. With incredible timing, the pup flushed the bird not a dozen yards in front of me, and I had a rather easy shot for the 20 gauge L. L. Bean “Uplander” from B. Rizzini. The retrieve was short and sweet, and before there was any sweat in my hatband, Gordie had his first-ever local grouse.

Gordie Already Eager For His Next Cast
In the remainder of the 2 hours we hunted there, Gordie flushed two more grouse and three woodcock. I had good shots at only one of each. I’m still not sure whether to be happy that I grabbed a good shotshell for that first grouse, or angry that the rest of the box was so obviously defective. Since I’ll be getting back there a time or two before the deer hunters take over in November, I guess it’s OK that I left some birds for seed.

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bird Hunting In Western NY On The First Weekend In October

Blue Skies And Rolling Farmland Near NY Grouse Country
I opted for staying local on the first weekend in October. On Saturday, I hunted/ explored a spot I had only driven past and labeled “Check Out” on my map last year. It had several areas of obvious “disturbance,” and seemed a fair bet to hold some partridge. Since the covert is only 68 miles from my front door, it is also far and away the closest possible spot in which I might bang-bang-damn a grouse.

I parked the car just off the road and, after determining that 280° was “in,” put Gordie down. For the next 30 minutes, we walked either on the remnants of a skidder trail or armpit deep in brutal blackberry canes. “Disturbed” was an apt description for more than the landscape. When the trail petered out against a mature canopy, we turned south for about 400 yards so we’d have the easier walking just inside the edge of the blackberry-canopy border on our way out. His stub of a tail a merry blur, Gordie showed his appreciation of this more user-friendly cover by snuffling under, around or through it all in the pleasant morning shade.

After almost an hour, Gordie flushed a beautiful red phase bird from a large rotting log into a golden shaft of sunlight. I whiffed gracefully at this calendar-art shot, but sent Gordie out for a precautionary sniff anyway before we moved on. As it turned out, we were less than 60 seconds from where the car sat parked.

On my way to a second parking spot, I stopped for howdy and shake with the dairy farmer whose property is adjacent to this bit of state land. After I explained what I was doing, he told me that he’d often seen partridge near a road just a bit to the north, and encouraged me to give it a try. I thanked him and promised that I would. But when I got there, the block of cover was a bigger bite than I wanted to chew, so I saved it for another time.

I parked once more and hunted another disturbed piece of cover. It, too, was very attractive, but we had no flushes in our short hour on the ground. Even so, with the bird and cover I’d seen, and with the farmer’s endorsement (unless he just wanted me away from the edge of his herd ;-) I felt very pleased to have added a decent partridge place that was birdy and close to home.

On Sunday, family commitments left us just an hour to see whether we could take a pheasant left over from the morning’s hunts at my release club. The weather was again gorgeous; but in 58 minutes, Gordie didn’t make game once. I already had my 16 ga SxS broken and resting on my shoulder for the last 100 yards to the car when the dog went into hyperdrive. I swung the AyA 4/53 from right to left and was rewarded with a dense puff of feathers floating slowly downward in the after-shot stillness. In a jiffy Gordie brought me the stone-dead hen and we were done for the day.

I was delighted with the mild report, at both ends, of the shell I’d used. For the record, it was a 2.75” RST 16 ga. “Best” Lite 1 oz. load of #6 lead. Although the load put very little hurt on me, the pheasant was mercifully dead in the air.

On Monday, woodcock season opened, so out we went for our third species in three days. We went to an old spot we’ve been scouting for the last two weeks, turning up a bird or so on about half the visits. Today, unfortunately, belonged in the wrong half, although Gordie worked with enthusiasm for an hour and a quarter. I noticed with disappointment that a single Posted sign suddenly has appeared in a corner of our hunting area. But the posting was the only small blemish on three days that were otherwise terrific.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Finally Comfortable With A Bare Bones 3-Shotgun Battery

Just like a great white shark, my wife rolled her eyes and knifed in for the kill. “You’re just getting old, Hon.”

I’d awaken with a stiff neck, my penance for the simple sin of sleeping crookedly. Getting old, indeed. Actually, I’d suspected as much all Spring. I could barely raise a ho-hum of enthusiasm when the lurid reviews of new guns continued to arrive in the usual magazines.

Shrugging off these geriatric messages as groundless, I washed down a multiple vitamin and my prescribed drugs with a stout glass of prune juice and then waddled off to check my logs. The record showed that I’ve bought 27 shotguns since 1979, but have traded or given away all but three. Each of these survivors solves multiple problems from the set that’s evolved in the course of my hunting. I can’t imagine adding another shotgun. But I’d consider upgrading any of these arms if a more functional and prettier piece came along simultaneously with a winning lottery ticket.

Here’s how the guns left my safe. In NY, we have woodcock and grouse to hunt in the uplands. I also enjoy jump shooting wood ducks in front of my English Cocker, and the occasional mallard over decoys. When we hunt pheasants in NY, the birds were most probably released, although some spend lots more time on their own in the wild than others. For me, other than the occasional pigeon or chukar planted for dog training, that’s the complete roster of my targets.

That’s not all. I no longer hunt deer. I’m not interested in turkeys, or even geese. Official gunning at spaniel field games isn’t appealing anymore, either. And, as much as I have tried, I still can’t work a pump gun well. In “Pheasants of the Mind,” the late Datus Proper said it better than I can: “I like the toolness of the pumpguns, the way they clank like 1932 Fords. I would enjoy carrying one around to aggravate the dudes. It happens, however, that I shoot better with a double-barreled gun....”

As most rough shooters ultimately do, I’ve settled on lighter weight arms, acknowledging that we carry a gun for much greater time periods than we shoot it. Here’s what I’ve saved.

My smallest-framed gun is a 20 gauge O/U, an L. L. Bean “New Englander” from B. Rizzini. Since I don’t shoot registered 4-gun skeet, there’s really no pressing need for me to own a 28 gauge. A 20 can be almost as svelte – too much daintiness as an impediment to good shooting is a good topic for another day – and, when down-loaded with ¾ oz. loads, probably throws patterns just as effective as those from the much-hyped 28. This Rizzini has a rubber recoil pad, a plain fore end (no Schnabel) and a rounded pistol grip. As did Don Zutz, I find that my left hand is on plane with my right in a scaled 20 gauge O/U stocked this way, and strongly believe this adds a comfortable synergy to my shooting. Hunt records do not discourage me in this belief.

The New Englander is my gun of choice for woodcock and early season grouse. I rarely swap out the .005” and .010” choke tubes, and own no loads for it other than Remington’s STS20SC in #8 lead.

This particular configuration is about as good as it gets for me. If I ever were to consider an upgrade, without question I’d work with Rich Cole in Maine to have a similar style gun built for me with a custom sized stock wrapped around the universally popular Beretta 686 action.

20 gauge B. Rizzini L. L. Bean “New Englander”
To my eye, the 16 gauge has the prettiest silhouette of all the SxS’s. The tubes on a .410 or 28 gauge SxS sometimes appear too thin for the stock and action; and some 12 gauge SxS’s are too popeyed at the fences for my taste. My 16 gauge SxS is an AyA 4/53 Classic from Cabela’s. It has lovely 29” fixed choke barrels, double triggers, a splinter fore end agreeably matched with a straight right hand, and a checkered butt. The 4/53 Classic also comes with “upgraded wood” and a stock oval, and is not punishing to look at. When I shouldered this arm in Cabela’s Wheeling, WV Gun Library, I was instantly taken with its weight, balance, and out-of-box fit. I traded two former eye apples and a bit of cash for it, and so far have been delighted.

I like hunting mid- and late-season grouse with a 16 gauge. I’ve also had success with the gauge at the release club where I shoot pheasants and, on occasion, wood ducks and mallards. Ironically, the 16 is a gauge I could enjoy for all my hunting, but, because of ammunition constraints, would also be the first of my trio to go if I somehow had to get by with just two guns.

This 4/53 may be a bit too tightly choked to become a dedicated grouse gun. Further, because my hands are sensitive to cold, the double triggers are not easy for my gloved fingers to negotiate after winter sets in. If CSMC ever offers a 16 gauge RBL with a reliable single, non-selective trigger, I would strongly consider going for the upgrade. If that seems like it’s a long time coming and the 4/53 otherwise performs well in the interim, I’d probably have Mike Orlen open up the fixed chokes on the AyA just a bit.

Of all the mistakes I’ve made buying shotguns, the worst was in ordering a 16 gauge Huglu O/U in 1995 from a now out-of-business vendor in Charlottesville, VA. When the gun finally arrived, it was 6 months late, 16 oz. overweight at 7 lb. 2 oz., and off in varying degree from several specs on my order sheet. There’ll be more on this gun later.

16 gauge AyA 4/53 Classic
My “big gun” now is a 6 lb. 0 oz. 24” 3-shot 12 gauge Benelli Ultra Light auto built around the Montefeltro action. Somehow the Benelli engineers have kept its felt recoil to a minimum. Further, the gun seems to point exactly where I look, swings incredibly well, and goes bang every time. It has arguably become the most effective gun I’ve ever owned.

I use this gun for all birds shot while training dogs; for pheasants and ducks; and, with small steel shot, for an occasional snipe. As much as I cherish my 20 gauge O/U, this sweet-shooting auto would probably be the last gun to go if the big bad wolf were ever to blow down my financial house.

Of all the mistakes I’ve made in selling off shotguns, I wish most that I’d kept the 12 gauge Arrieta 557. The gun was wonderfully crafted, with a lovely stick of well marbled walnut for my right hand. Its sin was in having fixed chokes cut precisely as I had ordered them: too tight. If I had had the wit to have its barrels opened up a bit, a whole lot of time, money and missed birds might have been avoided. To close the circle on the story, I got this gun in trade for some cash and that damned Huglu.

12 gauge Benelli Ultra Light
So that’s how I’ve arrived where I’m happily sitting tonight. It’d be nice if a new game were to make another gun purchase interesting. But if I could add a new gun, or instead a new friend to pursue my old faithfuls with, I’d opt for the latter in a heartbeat.

Anyone who has a favorite battery – specially if you’re from an area of the world whose hunting is different from that in the northeast USA – is encouraged to email its description and any supporting jpegs, and we’ll add it to the bottom of this entry, making sure to give you full credit for your work.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Preseason Grouse Scouting

Veterans will easily recognize the spot on the left side of the road
but dead center in the photo as a grouse. Cold Duck's meager budget
last year suggested a 16 ga. SxS over a telephoto lens.
When Cousin Richard mentioned he was heading to his camp in the southern Adirondacks to perform some minor maintenance, I promptly volunteered for a 4-day weekend’s worth. After we spent two days porch painting, rug laying and wood cutting, the womenfolk generously granted us Saturday morning to head out on a random scoot scouting for grouse.

We found some birds near a fire tower and carefully marked the location in the deLorme. In case you’re interested, the spot is precisely 100 miles northeast of Syracuse. Don’t shoot ‘em all if you get there first.

Our nephew Patrick D. arrived in camp Friday night, and tossed in with Rick and me on Saturday. Pat will be a senior at RPI this Fall, but he’s eagerly picking up woodcraft, too. The grouse – we call them “partridge” in the Adirondacks – in the lead photo was the first he’d seen, so we tried to get a closer look, but the bird hot footed into the scrub and disappeared when we tried to sneak out of the Jeep.

On our way back to camp, we ran into some likely looking water that Rick wanted to try. The tea coloring is typical of Adirondack trout streams.

Cousin Richard bumping a huge stonefly downstream
Since we were all heading home on Sunday morning, we dedicated the rest of Saturday to celebrating a successful camp. Dolly Parton-esque chicken breasts were the featured item, fatted calves being in short supply, while tasty bowls left over from the last 3 nights’ feasts filled in all the gaps on the table. What with a few cold beers down at the lake in the afternoon, a crisp gin and tonic or so at cocktail time, and plenty of Pinot Grigio to wash down supper, we were right happy campers when it came time for a roaring fire and just a wee dram or two.

Patrick is a talented student and a hard worker. I’m not surprised that he was offered a great job in his “co-op” year at school. Since he’s just turned 21, he was waiting his chance to take his place alongside us old folks, and, with a few well-earned bucks in his pocket, more than happy to share the bottle of Black Bush he’d picked up. As the shadows lengthened and the fire burned down, the yarns and their deliveries got cranked way up. Along about midnight (I am told), I gave everyone a crooked smile and tacked unsteadily toward my bunk.

Great camp smells like percolating coffee and bacon on the griddle bounced me from bed around 7 on Sunday morning. All the veterans were up and bustling, either helping with breakfast, or packing the cars for departure, or in Rick’s case, rigging another fly rod to fish a favorite river on his drive home. Everyone was accounted for except Patrick.

It certainly had been an instructive trip for Pat. He’d seen partridge, and the gnarlies where they like to hang out. He’d learned the difference between a stonefly dead drifted down and an AuSable Wulff fished dry up. He’d paddled a kayak, split wood, and spun yarns admirably. And, after he finally left the pitching deck of his bunk, he gathered powerful empirical evidence about when to say “when.”

Rick and I are looking forward to the pleasure of Pat’s company when partridge open in northern NY on September 20.

All that's left is hair of the dog.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Video of Woodcock Feeding Amid Snow and Ice

Michel Gelinas passionately bands and hunts woodcock in Quebec behind his Braque Francais pointers. We have maintained a friendly correspondence over the last dozen years, and enjoyed a hunt together in the country around Malone, NY in 2000. I speak no French, but his good dogs communicated with me just fine. More about Michel and his dogs can be found at his website listed in the Links.

Michel has sent along a fascinating video shot on April 6, 2008 by one of his friends. It shows woodcock seeking and finding worms along the recently thawed bank of a Quebec watercourse. The images suggest that the woodcock do a fair amount of walking as they seek food, and that their searches are not confined to bare patches of topsoil. Additionally, the birds' bobbing gait sure looks to me like they're sending up John Travolta's dancing in Saturday Night Fever. So little Bec likes to get down, eh: who knew?

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Frankly, Scarlett, I Just Don't Care Very Much

Murphy’s Chessie “Rommel” farted again, drawing tears that blurred a sky full of chill rain but no ducks. My prospects for roasting a fat mallard any time soon had been flimsy to begin with. On recent Niagara River hunts, Rommel had retrieved ducks successfully; not whole ducks, though, just duck parts. Too bad Rommel doesn’t eat beaks or guts first. Neither do I.

Half an hour after the rain turned white, so did my toes, nose, and fingers. Noticing me shivering glumly, Murphy asked if I wanted to pick up and have a hot breakfast. The hairs on Rommel’s nape bristled when Murphy reached toward the decoy sack.

I chattered through lying teeth that I didn’t care. Maybe I didn’t, but getting the hell out of there had definitely crossed my mind. It was after we collected the dekes and began schlepping our gear back to Murphy’s pickup that it hit me. The phrase “I don’t care” is often about as genuine as one of Murphy’s rubber ducks.

Like a puppy’s growling during a game of tug of war, “I don’t care” can be a soft-pedaled misdirection from the actual “I’d be delighted.” When a young Nimrod's eyes first start to shine on grandpa's well worn scatterguns hanging on the wall, the twinkle is contagious. When the boy finally asks, his grandfather might tell him to take down any gun he wants and to go enjoy himself; grandpa doesn’t care. But the old man’s faint smile tells a different story.

Most commonly, though, “I don’t care” is intended as a literal declaration. For example, Angler B might tell Angler A he honestly doesn’t care which pond they try first on a pleasant summer morning. In this particular case, Angler B should refrain from expressing a geographical preference, such as for casting from the pond’s rocky-bottomed western shore, lest his initial declaration become littoral.

“I don’t care” has a salty side, too, and is versatile enough to use when the gloves come off. A hunter will occasionally float a harebrained scheme – like hunting turkeys with beagles, or making coot jerky – past a buddy, looking for some encouragement. Saying that he doesn’t care what his pal does slams the door on that conversation. If needed, emphasis can be added with a well nuanced eye-roll.

Chillier still is this response for a guy met now and then in camp. He habitually carries his gun with the safety off so he’s ready for a quick “sound shot.” His companions bob and weave every time his gun barrels trace through their torsos in merry arcs. When the host asks whether it’s OK for this jerk to hunt at camp next weekend, the nays are phrased to spare the host’s feelings, but just barely. Even in the funny papers, the thrust of “I don’t &%#@$ care” is crystal clear.

While the example above crashes on the ear, the most ominous expression of not caring is delivered less with a bang than a whisper. Imagine a sportsman receiving an email from his buddy who’s discovered a pond stiff with foot-long brook trout just north of Saranac Lake. Better still, the region was logged about 6 years ago, leaving the cedar and birch clumps that remain a bonasa bonanza. His buddy wants him to drive up late in September so they can enjoy an early season Adirondack cast ‘n blast. The sportsman is excited, and hurries to share the good news with his wife. He thinks better of it when he sees her enjoying herself on the riding mower out back, and so, not wanting to interrupt her fun, he decides to wait for a more opportune moment.

An hour later, still in her sweaty work clothes, sipping a lemonade, she smiles happily at him after hanging up the phone. Now is the time, he senses, to announce his plans, and he does so with breathless enthusiasm. What he’s forgotten is his promise, made after his salmon fishing expedition last September, not to miss their wedding anniversary again this year. What he doesn’t know is that her phone call confirmed reservations for a romantic anniversary dinner on the very night his buddy expects him at camp. He watches as his wife gently sets down her lemonade, walks toward the bathroom to shower, and sweetly tells him to do whatever he thinks is right. She says she doesn’t care, then quietly clicks the door behind her.

This fellow has just heard Bad News, just like the deer that’s heard the snick of a 12 gauge slug being chambered in a pumpgun nearby. For both, any hope of a long and happy life depends on their responses to these dangerous environmental sounds. Even if they both scoot at just the right moment, only the deer can hope for a bloodless getaway. Heck, it’ll even be safe enough one day for the deer to come back.

If Murphy ever invites me back to hunt with Rommel, I’ll probably say something like “Sure…OK... I don’t care... Or maybe we could hunt with my dog this time.” And if Murphy says he doesn’t care, either, maybe I’ll be enjoying that roasted mallard after all.