Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Pretty Fish Are Big Enough

Little boys didn’t drive or own shotguns in 1956, so I had to be content reading about hunting timberdoodles with setters and Parkers in Field & Stream. Fishing, on the other hand, was not only allowed but encouraged, probably to get me out from under a loving and clever Mom’s feet.
Much of my early fishing was enjoyed with my closest friend and cousin Bill K. We started with dirt cheap bait casting outfits and night crawlers, fishing ponds, streams and lakes for whatever they held. By high school we’d graduated to spinning outfits, slinging plastic worms and Mepps spinners at bass and trout. As happens in life, we saw each other only on major holidays during our college years, blond women for a time replacing brown trout in our dreams.
Walking up trout in streams with a fly rod emerged as my favorite type of fishing after I started teaching. I used my Horrocks-Ibbotson “Ike Walton” fiberglass fly rod (Model #1348) from high school days until 1984 when I had a local TU member build me a custom 8 1/2’ 5 weight made of genuine boron! I upgraded reels at the same time, skyrocketing from my trusty but lowly H-I “Rainbow Reel” (Model #1107) all the way up to a Martin MG-7. I hope you’ll pardon my swagger.
Later in 1984 I received a disturbing surprise from the Be Careful What You Ask For Dept. My wife Nancy was still competing nationally in road races - for example, she was invited to and ran in the ’84 Olympic Trials - and was a marketable, if not quite tier one, “star.”
Nancy and Frank Shorter post race in Montana

The committee of the Anchorage Women’s Marathon solicited her to give pre race clinics, appear on local TV spots, attend some dinners and parties, and hand out roses at the finish line of their August race. For accepting this sweet gig she was awarded an all-expenses 2-week trip to Alaska complete with a financial honorarium. Sweetheart that she is, Nancy negotiated away the cash and turned it into a round trip ticket for me.
One day a local Anchorage paper advertised overnight floatplane mini vacations into nearby fishing lodges. I later figured out that the ads were selling the odd room that had not been pre-booked by Swells from the Lower 48: while I don’t recall exactly what price was asked, it was something like $100. My wife kissed me on the forehead and drove me to the deHavilland.

There was an unfamiliar noise coming from the creek behind the lodge when I checked in. After I hit the water 45 minutes later, I discovered that fish tails flapping through the shallows were raising the racket. The phrase “stacked like cordwood” accurately described the sockeye run. I began catching one fish after another. They were all of about the same size, which was much bigger than any trout I’d ever caught or even seen before. Like this:

After we returned to western NY, I soon discovered that the thrill of catching brightly colored, naturally reproducing local rainbows in the 4” - 6” range had been heavily discounted by my Alaskan experience. A TV advertisement then current bragged that “you never come all the way back from Alaska!” I guess not.
By 1990, lingering injuries forced Nancy to consider trading her racing shoes for whatever was the next best thing. She opted for golf. Since this was something we could enjoy together - she’s too antsy to enjoy fishing - it wasn’t much of a sacrifice for me to mothball the fly rod at the time and enjoy the local course with a brand new set of golfing friends.
It wasn’t until a year or so ago that I got the urge to break out the fly rod again. When local temperatures hit 95 on the 4th of July this summer, I finally decided it’d be lots more fun to wade in a trout stream than play golf in a sauna. I started scouting water I hadn’t fished for 20  - sometimes 45! - years. It didn’t take long to find fish, either. They were still nice to look at, and they were still small.

But it was different this time. The joy of catching and releasing vividly colored stream-bred trout, even 5 inchers, came back with a sweet vengeance. Life’s twists and turns over 26 years have a way of transforming a guy’s perspective. Sorry, Tom, but I had come back home again.
I’m very much looking forward to the 2011 season. I think I’ll pick up an 8’ 4 weight, if for no better reason than to continue my reckless cycle of buying a new rod and reel every 25 years. Adirondack brook trout need no help in the good looks department. But if the new rig brings out the inner musky in a 6” brookie, no one will hear me complaining.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Beautiful Day For Chasing Mid-Season Woodcock

I decided to stay home and hunt woodcock today rather than drive 95 miles southeasterly to hunt grouse. Late yesterday afternoon, a tornado warning was issued for grouse country, and I guessed that, tornado or not (it was “not”), the grouse might be a bit skittish this morning.
We enjoyed breakfast under a cloudless blue sky. A fresh southwest breeze waved the branches of trees still wearing more than a leaf or two. Gordie and I headed out at half past one and arrived at this field 5 minutes later.
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I’m obviously not much of a photographer, but this snap gives a sense of the redbush meadows where I’ve been chasing woodcock since 1994. The dogwoods that were knee to waist high then are now 10 to 15 feet high. The immaculately maintained snow sled lanes running through them then are now overgrown and rutted badly from ATVs. Successful shooting over Gordie is a lot more difficult than it was over Bean, my curmudgeonly American Water Spaniel.
Still, there’s something to say for being into birds in 5 minutes, even if the sharp sticks poking at my eyes get thicker every year. And, as I’ve mentioned before, I’m delighted to hunt in places where I have some history.
We had good luck today. I shot 4 times at 6 birds that gave us 7 flushes. I convinced a brace of woodcock to accept my invitation to tomorrow’s dinner. The sun was beaming down so brightly when I photographed today’s first bird that my orange vest bled to yellow in the photo. The Prince of Wales grip on my 20 gauge Cole Custom has been a delight both when carrying and shooting.
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I decided to try one more spot, the field at the end of my street. If my Big Field Covert is growing up, then my End of Street Covert is almost completely overgrown. The first time I walked into this field in 1994, the pines in the snap below were about 8 feet tall. The area within 30 yards radius of those pines was a genuine hotspot. These pines are more than 40 feet tall today, and I got torn up when I dithered into the now-gone hotspot around them two years ago.
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When I saw those pines today, it reminded me of an anecdote I’d read concerning Sam Snead. Balls, Sticks & Stuff tells the story nicely:.
“There's a story often told about an elderly Sam Snead, playing at Augusta National in a practice round prior to the Masters.  He was playing with a much younger player who could really crank the ball out there off the tee.
Most of the way around, the younger player asked Snead for advice on how to play the tricky Augusta National course and Snead was more than happy to oblige, his Southern hospitality ingrained in the mountains of Virginia was too reflexive not to do so.
As the two stood on the 13th tee, a par-five dogleg left around tall Georgia pines and Rae's Creek, Snead offered this peace of advice.  ‘You know, when I was your age, I used to just take a driver and hit it high up and over those trees.’  The younger player had the honor, so he addressed the ball with his driver, took a mighty cut, and the ball sailed into the trees, hitting the pines only about halfway up their trunks.
The younger player looked bewildered and Snead followed-up.  ‘Of course, when I was your age, those trees were much shorter.’"
I’ll have to snooker Patrick like that the next time he and I chase birds at the end of the street.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

My 20 Gauge Beretta Cole Custom With Prince Of Wales Grip

Crank up the volume and fire up this Johnny Cash classic. Then scroll down to read why, just like John, "I'll have the only one there is around."
I started messing around with O/Us in 1994. The first one I handled was a 20 gauge field grade Citori. I liked the gun generally, and very much liked its rounded semi-pistol grip. For some reason, I didn’t buy one, and I don’t remember exactly what I bought instead. But it didn’t stay in the safe long, and its sale started a long and expensive education in shotgun swapping.
Since then, I’ve learned that the Citori’s grip is one of several that’re promiscuously designated as “Prince of Wales" grips. I’ve done a bit of homework on the subject, and blogged the results in Cold Duck in January, 2009. Quite a few gunners are apparently interested in the “PoW grip” as it’s sometimes abbreviated. The little netspy that tells me who is googling what parts of Cold Duck reveals that the PoW article gets pinged more than any other. Well, except for this, which is a hotly queried question from Cheyenne through Cape Town to Calcutta. Go figure. No, really.
When I saw a lovely Woodward-style PoW grip pictured on a Rich Cole Custom Beretta, I was absolutely smitten. So in June I traveled to Cole’s shop in Harpswell, ME to get measured for a 20 gauge 686. I’m delighted to introduce the little beauty that Rich has built for me.
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The snap above shows why this Cole Beretta is a “Custom.” The PoW grip, black receiver with gold lettering, “field” forearm and black recoil pad that I’d specified are clearly visible. If I say so myself, the walnut ain’t bad looking, either.
The tactile sensation of this PoW grip is sinfully delicious! Very nice work, Rich.
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The snap above very clearly highlights the PoW grip.

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The snap above shows Gordie wondering why he’s making faces for the camera while there’s still daylight left on woodcock's opening day.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

The 2010 Woodcock Opener In Western NY

Dismal morning rains set me to working on my HoneyDo List. But by the time I’d cleared the dishes from a light lunch, only spotty light showers remained. Gordie and I jumped into the car at 1:30, and 10 minutes later I was locked and loaded and he was quartering across a long-familiar trail. He flushed the first bird of the season maybe 3 minutes later. He reflushed it 2 minutes later, and reflushed it again after another 2 minutes.
We had a ball. In about an hour and a quarter, Gordie flushed 4 different birds a total of 7 times. Fifteen years ago, I’d have had a 50-50 chance of bringing home a limit over young Bean with such a flush count. But this covert has gotten really thick over time.  Today I didn’t get to pull the trigger once.
Tomorrow I may try the same spot - I was, as usual, the only hunter afield - or another spot even closer to home. The weather is expected to clear. We’ll have a ball again, for sure. If Artemis is willing, I’ll get to reward his hard work with a taste of feathers.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Looks Like Another Autumn'll Go To The Dogs

A cerulean sky shone through high spruce branches on my new father in law’s gone-back farm. It was Boxing Day, 1978 – the day after Christmas – and I was enjoying my first hunt. We were chasing snowshoe hares with beagles.

The farm was about an hour north of Lake Placid and the High Peaks, and not quite a half hour south of the St. Lawrence River. The rolling terrain boasted a tangled collection of cedar, pine and spruce, white birch, soft maple, popple and apple, cut here and there with tiny streams. Dad, or Doc, was an old school country veterinarian who cared for the local farms’ horses and cows. Today his buddies and their dogs were gathered for a fun hunt that promised a special perk: giving a newbie the business.

Sarge, a tri color male whose stumpy legs barely provided clearance for his abundant abdomen, gave a soulful bawl from 100 yards or so to my rear. I didn’t know then that when “dog the farthest, rabbit the closest.” Moments later, a “white rabbit” sort of hip hopped past me on the skid trail that circled the spruce stand from which I kept watch. It was an easy one shot kill with the 20 gauge Stevens pump that Doc had lent me.

I came running from the trees into the opening where the hare temporarily froze me with a death stare from its beady black eye. The sun was warm and bright outside the spruce stand, though, and when I picked up my first prize, it warmed me through like a hug from Mama.

Back at the house afterwards, Dad’s buddies were palpably relieved that the newbie had killed a white rabbit instead of Sarge. But when they asked me about how The Kill went down, I couldn’t resist turning the tables and pulling their legs instead. I straight-faced told them I saw the rabbit climbing through the lower branches of the spruces, and so I took the easy shot when it swung from one tree to the next. Full disclosure: I had already been a public school teacher for 8 years, so I had the “teacher look” pretty down pat by then. And I had those boys on the hook, too. But then I let ‘em off easy with a big grin, and, good guys that they were, they welcomed me as “family” into their community.

By New Year’s Day, I'd acquired my first shotgun – a 20 gauge Mossberg 500 – and by February, my wife and I were joined by Jupp the Wonderbeagle. For the next 10 years, Jupp taught me all about hunting. He taught me to trust him. He suggested the utility in a division of labor: he would find the critters, and I would shoot them. He taught me that he deserved two bites of my Big Mac on rides home, and a dry spot on my right thigh for his soggy chin.

Although Jupp was a pure rabbit dog, we bounced plenty of grouse by accident. I recall one bird erupting from the snow underfoot while I stood watch for rabbits on my snowshoes. I went a$$ over teacup in the deep, soft and very cold snow. It took 10 minutes to swim my way upright.

Grouse shooting, it seemed, would have to wait.

Jupp’s successor Doc was a heart breaking disappointment. By Doc’s time, I concede, there were more whitetails in our secret spots than bunnies. But he spent too many nights on the loose, chasing whatever wherever and making my wife tearful. I found a nice farm where a lucky little girl was gifted a pretty beagle she could festoon with pink ribbons. Served the s-o-b right!

Doc the beagle made me yearn for a close working “people dog,” and that’s how I dithered into flushing spaniels. There was a spaniel club near my home, and its members fanned my interest. In Spring 1994, we brought home Bean, an American Water Spaniel. Bean started my education all over again. He proved to be exceeding clever from his first minutes off the plane from Wisconsin. I discovered that I had better train Bean or he would damn sure train me. Water Spaniels are an independent minded lot; so while Bean finally accepted a bit of training – calling it “polish” would be a gross exaggeration – it's more accurate to say that we came to a shaky but productive truce.

“Partridge,” as they’re called in the North Country, were what I’d always dreamed of hunting after reading the paeans written to them by Ed Zern, Ted Trueblood, Cory Ford, and “Tap” Tapply in old Field & Stream magazines that my mentor Alois “Louie” R. gifted me. But my home near Niagara Falls didn’t have nearly so many grouse – actually, it had no grouse – as did Dad’s back 40. Fortunately, my home coverts were loaded with woodcock, so Bean the puppy had plenty of birds to learn on while I perfected the technique of mounting a scatter gun, swinging smoothly through the flying feathered target, and blasting branches and bark off innocent trees while the woodcock twittered blissfully away. What a great time we had!

In 2005, Bean passed the torch to Gordie, a black and tan English Cocker. Gordie is 29 pounds of exuberant muscle with a great nose and a hyper kinetic stub tail. Gordie was gifted at birth with oodles of talent – his marks of fallen birds are exceptional; no kidding – but he’s quite the willing pupil as well. He cut his eye teeth on woodcock in many of the same fields that Bean and I “discovered” a decade earlier.

Gordie helping me brag about my two for twofer

In recent years, I’ve renewed the pursuit of grouse hunting that I’d forsaken when old Bean needed easier pickin’s. In southwestern NY, I spend much more time scouting for grouse spots than in shooting the critters. The closest coverts are at least 90 miles from my driveway. But I’ve found some spots that please my eye, and remind me of the uplands behind Dad’s and his buddies’ farms. I’ve even kicked up a bird or two. Since my 61 year old legs aren’t going to last forever, I’ve decided to whistle up my sweet young dog and go for the gusto while I can. It’s possible I enjoy partridge hunting even more these days; but for sure I’m a lot mellower about "all day hunts" and bag sizes than that newbie was.

A grouse of the year in southwest NY

Adirondack grouse open on September 20. Southern Tier grouse open on October 1, and woodcock five days later. We’ll be out chasing them on most days until the start of deer season. If we’re lucky, we might have a day or two that’ll be worthy of another story.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Quick Adirondack Scout

Back in February, my s-i-l Martha D. rented a camp near Old Forge for the first week in August. Cheered by the prospect of mooched suppers on a screened lakeside porch, I immediately started planning a compact Adirondack scout. Here’s its brief travelogue.

I headed east on Sunday, August 1. On my way to camp I checked out the Penn Mountain SF as a possible grouse hot spot. It looked vaguely promising, and I may give it a try when I’m in the neighborhood. While passing through this hardwood forest, I came upon a small cemetery. The solitude of the place now belies that a community of pioneers once tried to scratch out a living here in the skinny Tug Hill soil. I’ve wandered into such cemeteries in the Adirondacks before. Each time I’ve walked the grounds for a bit and tried to connect the silent stones with the lives of those who made this area home. The experience is personally cathartic and comforting.

I pulled into camp shortly before supper. There was just time to sip the first cold adult beverage of the day and snap the kids while they were doing the cooking. They did a bang-up job, too.
Paul with his friend Laura

Matt and Ali ready the people food while Patrick preps for the beagle

Rebecca mixing Mojitos

After supper, Patrick, Rebecca (who co-produced this video last summer) and I rowed out to a swimming platform in the middle of a small bay

where I introduced them to fly casting. Both kids did really well. I was specially impressed with Rebecca’s initial casts; she was much more thespian than Olympian in her teen years. Who knew?

On Monday morning, Matt, Alison and Patrick joined me for a visit to the Hornbeck Boat works in Olmstedville. I was interested in trying one of his lightweight solo boats.

Peter demonstrated proper form for entering his little boats,

and then I was on my own in his on-site pond.

I was surprised by the sea worthiness and secure feel of his 10.5 footer. Because I expect to have a canine passenger now and then, I was more interested in his 12- and 13-foot offerings.

I suspect I’ll get back there soon to make a decision on exactly which one.

On Tuesday, I left camp and spent the day in serious grouse scouting. I found very promising locations in Lewis and Clinton counties. Bunking for the night in Plattsburgh, I was lucky to find an eatery called Mangia’s. After a crisp salad and fresh warm bread, I enjoyed sea scallops wrapped in shaved zucchini over linguini in a delicate cream sauce with corn pesto, along with a nice pinot grigio. "Camp life" is tough, eh?

On Wednesday, I headed home. The grouse scouting en route was productive after a fashion, as I “added by subtraction” of several referred spots that were way too mature. I did find a porky in the middle of one road. I figured that it would be arrogant enough to let me drive up and snap it through the open window. Wrong. Maybe it objected to The Scent of a Subaru.

I'm so juiced by this little scouting vacation that I'm going to have Sam play it again soon. Look for the report in a week or so.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

If I’m Golfing, I’m Not Grousing

Not the bang-bang-damn! kind of grousing.
There’s two kinds of golf bitching that just drive me nuts. In one form, Golf Guy buttonholes you when you’re mowing the lawn or enjoying a fish fry at the local pub with your spouse; that is, unbeckoned. GG gushes to you about his recent score - even though the actual tally is not what he wants you to hear, anyway - but finishes with “...and that was with two double bogeys and a triple bogey on 17.” The narrative does not include that, had he missed the hole with his ham-fisted 40’ birdie putt on 3, his ball would have rolled into the lake. Similar beneficent Acts of God in his round are also conveniently elided.
My b-i-l Roy B. is not just a good stick, but he “gets it” as well. If I were to ask him how he’s done lately, he might reply with something like “I had an 83 at Panther Pass the other day, and a 79 playing with Howie last Sunday at Meadow Brook.” Well played, Roy - three times.
The other form flows from the hacker you’re sharing a cart with whose command of golf cliches vastly exceeds his command of his swing. He’ll pull one into the swamp guarding the left side of a landing area and then announce, dramatically, to anyone and no one, “Don’t come over the top, Stupid!” Upon regaining his seat in the cart, he’ll confide that he’s been working on his inside-out move with the Medicus, and he can’t understand how he possibly could make that last mistake. Why only last week...
He changes the golf buzz words and repeats as needed for 18 long holes. Where’s the beer girl?
Whenever some poor soul asks me to help him get started in golf, I offer him my humble Beginning Golfer's Golden Rule:

Always behave at the course so that a veteran golfmate never has to ask why the worst golfer in the group is spoiling his day.

This rule can be fleshed out quite well with only 3 commandments:
  • Do not say anything unless spoken to. If you must say something, complement a better player’s shot after his ball stops rolling.
  • When it is your turn to hit, execute only a brief waggle and then make your swing. After watching the ball stop rolling, bag your club, go directly to wherever your ball landed and, when it’s your turn, do it all over again.
  • Buy the first round of drinks at the 19th hole.
I guarantee that following this advice will earn even a chop a second invitation from his group. Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus would gladly have you back if only you follow these 3 commandments. For some reason, it's harder to follow them than it might seem.
Now that I think about it, swap a few words or concepts - when a partridge takes off..., or speak only well of your partner’s dog... - and the same rules would get the new hunter off on the right foot, too.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Golf And Guns Give Me The Fits

I’ve been interested for some time in buying a shotgun from a fellow up in Maine. But it wasn’t until I recently smacked several successful shots with a PING G15 driver at a “demo day” that an equipment shopping trip began brewing in my brain.

My nephew Patrick D., written up in Cold Duck here, here, and here, bought a house last year near Albany. He’d invited me to stay with him if I ever headed East on one of my trips. Since he’s located about half-way to Maine, his digs were the perfect place to overnight on my out- and in-bound legs. When I discovered a great PING fitter located about half-way to Patrick’s, the itinerary wrote itself.

I hit the road around 10 a.m. on Wednesday for the drive to Greater Golf in Endicott, NY. I’d read about GG’s talent for club fitting, specially Mizunos and PINGs, so I thought I’d get their opinion on whether my 12° G10 driver was still the best option for me.
Co-owner Craig Mabee greeted me at the counter, and I was soon limbering up on his state-of-the-art simulator. After a half dozen balls, Craig noted that my G10 was launching at 14° to 16°, a bit higher than optimal. So he disappeared and came back carrying a G15 with a low spin Serrano shaft. The sim noted scant improvement after I hit several balls. Craig disappeared again and came back with a different head for the Serrano shaft. My ball started launching at 12° to 13°, closer to what Craig was looking for; the cone of my left-right misses narrowed; and roll-out distance increased markedly. I was delighted to see that the lessons I’ve taken in the last two years, and the practice behind them, had changed my swing enough to earn me a “younger man’s club” - the new driver’s loft was 10.5°. I placed my order with Craig, popped back into the Subaru, and headed to Patrick’s.
Pat and his friend Emily met me at the door. We exchanged pleasantries and a cold beer, then headed out for dinner and a fine night out.
After driving through rain all day Thursday, I arrived in Freeport around 4 p.m. I’d previously made a date to have dinner with old friend Beth G. and her husband Paul. We met at the Azure Cafe and had a great meal while we did some catching up. Thanks for a great evening, you two!

I’ve previously expressed my affection for the 20 gauge over/ under. Having shot it in several flavors, I remain most pleased with Beretta’s 686 line. The more I’d read about Rich Cole’s custom Beretta work, the more I reasoned that a gun from him, cut to my size, would be money very well spent.
Rich spent 2.5 hours fitting me on a sunny Friday morning. I’ve done this dance before, and he was by far the best partner I’ve ever had. After a “dry” fitting in the shop to set the try gun with preliminary dimensions, we went outside to attack the pattern board. I’m afraid that the board, of all things, is not my strongest suit; and poor Rich tried to hide his disappointment with my inconsistent mounts and too-fast shots. But, with time and interaction, we got the numbers close enough to satisfy us both.
Then came the fun stuff: picking options! I ordered a 20 gauge 686 with 28” barrels (and since it’ll be a grouse and woodcock gun, I chose Cylinder, Skeet1, and Improved Cylinder for my 3 choke tubes). I asked that the gun fall within an ounce of 6 lbs. 3 oz., so Rich selected several blanks that he said were a bit lighter than average. Since the gun will earn its keep hunting, I wanted a stock with strong grain in the wrist; and after considering the several blanks Rich had selected, we agreed on a lovely piece of walnut with just enough visible grain.
I’d previously noted on his website that Rich offers a lovely Prince of Wales grip. After handling one in his inventory, I found it tactilely and visually appealing, and ordered it for my gun. Here’s an approximate picture of what the new gun will look like:

My gun will have two important differences from the one pictured above. It will have a blued receiver 

and a black Decelerator to match.

I'll post photos and an initial review of the new Cole 686 after it arrives after August 15. Heroic tales of the hunt, I hope, will follow soon after Northern grouse open on September 20.

Cold Duck won't show any photos of the new driver, though. There wouldn't be much interest in a "glam shot" of what appears to be a stick with a toaster glued to its far end. But expect a story if titanic drives suddenly start flying off its face, presenting me with the novel problem of seeing whose ass I've just kicked.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

John, Paul, Gordie and Ringo

Crank up the volume right now and join the Lads from Liverpool and Gordie as they follow the sun.

Old Sol has begun his annual struggle to overcome winter's grip on the land. With the sun higher in the sky, it's winning its battle to compress the snowpack, warm the earth, and cause little patches of green and brown to sprout through our recently white landscape.

The sun's streaming through our windows and skylights, too, bouncing off white walls and doors, and collecting into little pools of heat that Gordie loves to doze in. The sunlight's a tonic for him, and a soothed Gordie brings us a smile as well. He knows every hot spot in the house, and moves camp with the sun as it travels from room to room.

Gordie clearly enjoys warming his bones in the sun. But he's been reluctant to fully explain why. If anyone can speak for him, please do so in the Comments.

* * * * * * *

In the Every Silver Lining has a Cloud Dept., the greatly anticipated Spring sun will soon bring Mud Season with it.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Almost As Happy Not Hitting 'Em Where They Ain't Anymore

As reported here earlier, my nephew Patrick D. shot his first woodcock last November behind Gordie. Patrick killed his bird as it skimmed over a dogwood clump that was three times taller than it'd been when I first hunted "Secret Spot" in 1994.

Back then, I would often put my gun over my shoulder and with Bean on leash, walk to that field 300 yards down the street. I didn’t hunt there to save travel time. Secret Spot was a magnet for woodcock, and the hunting was terrific. But it is remorselessly maturing, and it attracts a few less birds every year.

“Maturing” seems to describe most all the places I’ve hunted over the last 30 years. So I’m always searching for new coverts. Usually “new” means “new to me,” but not always. While scouting county forests two years ago, I found a hilltop that had been “disturbed,” probably in a strong blow. Chain saws cleared only some of the mess. So a divinely hellish covert exists now where a venatic dead zone existed then. With good habitat shrinking, finding a likely new spot is definitely a cause for celebration.

Even so, lately I’m increasingly content to hunt in familiar coverts where old and friendly ghosts sit cheerily on my shoulder. What these too ripe spots may lack in bird numbers, they more than make up for in shared history. Hunters like to style that ground as sacred where they've hunted "in the good old days" with close friends canine or human, still living or gone. "Sacred" may be a reach. But the phrase acknowledges the strong link hunters hold between the land, their companions, and their collective memory of time spent together afield.

A vest full of dead birds just doesn't float my boat much anymore. A nice bird well taken, by Gordie at each end and with a middlin' shot from the gun is much more the current model for a great day afield. Could be I’m just getting old. Aging brings a melancholy familiarity with the prospect of shuffling off this mortal coil. Maybe this is learned behavior, reinforced by the relentless daily obits. On the other hand, Dwayne Hoover, a character in Kurt Vonnegut's "Breakfast of Champions," sported a sour outlook simply because his "chemicals" weren’t working properly. I don’t know. My bald cells and dumb cells are doing just fine. Prospering, in fact.

When the shooting starts this Fall, I won't be turning down any invitations to hunt beautiful places lousy with birds. I won't spend October sitting by the phone waiting for a call, either.  I'll have no problem hunting in my familiar but past prime places. I've got lots of good company there.

Like this hillside where Bean retrieved his first grouse. Technically, this was Bean's second grouse. The first got caught up in spruce branches on my father in law's land, thus necessitating my first retrieve (I recall that Beanie was not impressed).

Bean Retrieved His First Grouse On This Hill
And there's the flooded timber behind Cousin Richard's camp in Speculator where he took his first wood duck. We'd seen woodies galore a week before while hunting early season grouse in 1997. The following weekend, we splashed three. Enthused by that success, we've hunted the same spot every year thereafter, and haven't seen a duck since.

Good Days Together In Speculator
But come September, Richard and I'll be chasing early season grouse up in Spec' again. I can't wait. Not that we've ever killed one in September. But those old friends on my shoulder will be all rowdy and ready to rumble. I hope I never have to turn them down.

* * * * * * * * * *

Apologies are due to Wee Willie Keeler for hijacking his quote. For the baseball challenged, here's the history:

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Lake Placid's Craig Wood

Craig Wood, “The Blond Bomber,” was born in Lake Placid in 1901. He learned to play golf while caddying at Lake Placid courses where the game was becoming increasingly fashionable in the decade leading up to WWI.

After attending Clarkson College, Wood for a time lived the golf journeyman’s life. Following his first professional stint in Kentucky, he worked at several clubs in New Jersey in the years from 1927 to 1938.

It was in New Jersey in 1928 that he won his first professional tournament. He earned 21 career victories in all, including the Masters and the U.S. Open (1941) and the Canadian Open (1942). He was second in the PGA Championship held at the Park Country Club in Buffalo in 1934. He was also a successful Ryder Cup player.

Having been raised in a working class family in the turn of the 20th century Adirondacks, it’s not surprising that Wood liked to spend time hunting and fishing when he was away from the golf course. Peter Martin reveals in his book “Craig Wood” that the golfer "used to use bits of venison as trout bait.” As an older married man living in New York City, he enjoyed the outdoors at his 1,200 acre “Big Indian" hunting lodge in the nearby Catskills.

In 1948 the Lake Placid Golf and Country Club was renamed in his honor. Craig Wood Golf Course is actually located a steep drive up ski-jump Highway 73 in North Elba, about a mile from pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown’s farm. Designed by Seymour Dunn, the course is framed in mountain views, with holes 11 through 17 being specially scenic and challenging.

The course’s clubhouse features the Caddy Shack Restaurant on its second floor. The beers and Adirondack vistas served up on its open porch are delicious.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Out With The New, In With The Old

In January, 2009, while keeping a perfectly straight face, I wrote:
So there you have it. I now have my perfect 3-gun battery. It's swell to know I'll never even want another gun. No, really. Trust me.
Reports of my fidelity were greatly exaggerated.

It turns out I was closer to the truth when I wrote in August, 2008:
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.
I should have read my own writing. I never considered that I might not shoot the M2 as effectively as I did the Ultra Light. I doubt that my problem was solely the M2's light weight; Benelli lists my old 24" 12 gauge BUL at 6.0 pounds and the 26" 20 gauge M2 at 5.8 pounds. But an unaccustomed number of birds gliding safely over the hedgerow, for whatever reasons, confirmed that I wasn’t swinging the 20 gauge M2 very well.

So I recently traded it and returned to the 12 gauge Benelli Ultra Light. This time the gun sports a 26” barrel which will serve it well in its mission of shooting larger birds – ducks and pheasants – out to middlin’ distances. With its protective WeatherCoat finish, the BUL will also serve as my rainy day gun for grouse and woodcock.

I like to use low brass shells to toss light loads at about 1200 fps. When possible and justified, I keep the shells color-coded, too. For chasing woodcock and grouse with the BUL, I’ll load it with Winchester AA Xtra-Lite Target Shells in #8 lead (AAL128). I have a long and successful history killing pheasants with Remington’s ShurShot Heavy Dove load of 9/8 ounce of #6 lead (R12HD6). Even so, I’m going to try a box of Fiocchi’s Light Field Upland load of 17/16 ounce of #6 lead (12FLDL). I don’t shoot ducks very often, so I expect I'll just mooch non toxic shot from my genial duck hunting buddy and b-i-l Dean A.

I'm really happy to be reunited with Benelli's 12 gauge Ultra Light. This one won't get away so easily. That said, there’s another shoe yet to drop in this gun trading business. But whether my perfect 3-gun battery will shrink to 2 or expand to 4 is a story for another day.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

50 Years Enjoyed In Woods, Pond, Field & Stream

Field & Stream Cover from November, 1934
In 1959, struggling under the academic burdens of 6th grade, I was nevertheless open to a curriculum extension. My adult neighbor Alois R. routinely brought home all manner of trout, rabbits, grouse and deer. I was often invited to hear how they were taken, and to observe how they were processed. Mr. R.’s son had grown to a certain age, no longer young but not old enough, when his Dad just didn’t quite "get it" anymore. So “Louie,” as his wife Gladys instructed me to call him, picked me up as a sort of project son.

Prior to my first-ever outing trouting, I spent a tough hour under his critical eye learning to snell a fixed dropper below a snug slider we’d use to attach salted minnows for a downstream drift. As beaten up as I felt when I got home, I was even prouder several days later when I showed Louie the rigs I’d tied myself. I still have a few of my originals tucked away in my equally ancient tackle box.

In addition to sharing his camp, his beloved beagle “Pepper,” and his great good nature with me, Louie also presented me with his old Field & Stream magazines. Those magazines were like the proverbial seeds that fall on fertile ground. I devoured each issue page by page.

I was delightedly surprised this New Year’s Day to find the October, 1959 issue of Field & Stream buried with some tax records I was searching for. Having pored through this issue again, I'm not sure which reading was more eye-opening. Things sure have changed these past 50 years.

Here’s what you found inside in 1959:
  • Phone numbers without area codes. Remember when numbers looked like Baldwin 9-9415; Chestnut 6-2000; and Palace 4-5214?

  • Great prices by today’s standards. The Browning Superposed listed from $280. Model 12s listed from $94.95. Model 37 Featherlights listed from $105.

  • Advertisements for preserve bird hunts in NY. The preserves were all “downstate,” meaning a not too inconvenient drive from NY City. I would have guessed preserves weren't popularized until a bit later.

  • Articles by now iconic writers A. J. McClane, Warren Page, Clare Conley, H. G. Tapply, Robert Ruark, Corey Ford, Ted Trueblood, and Ed Zern. All in one month’s issue! For 35¢!

  • Two advertisements for tiger hunts under the heading “India," and one offering safari in Vietnam:

    “Experienced guides dedicated to give you the very best in hunting thrills for Big Game – Elephant, Tiger, Gaur, and many others.”
    The first official large unit military action of the Viet Nam War occurred on September 26, 1959 when the Vietcong ambushed two ARVN companies. I suspect that demand for gaur safaris dried up soon thereafter; and this may have been the last issue to contain such an advertisement.

  • Hunting season dates and limits for all 49 states. Hawaii was admitted to the Union on August 21, 1959, and presumably was otherwise busy when asked to forward its sporting calendar. Surprisingly, there was a Hungarian Partridge season in NY with 3/ day and 9/ season limits.

  • An “original Frontier Six-Shooter” in .22 calibre for $47.50. Here is the quaint ordering information:

    “Send cash, check or money order. When ordering pistols, enclose a signed statement reading: ‘I am not an alien, have never been convicted of a crime of violence. I am 21 years or over.’”

And here’s what you didn’t:
  • Forget about websites or email addresses: there are no zip codes in the ads. For those of you young enough not to remember, this is not an omission.

My friend Bill D. from The Black & Tan Bombshell will probably think the title picture shows a Gordon Setter; and it probably does. But regular readers will recognize that the dog is a dead ringer for my ECS “Gordie.” The February, 1935 cover dog, just like my good old “Bean,” was an American Water Spaniel. Prints of both covers were presented to me at Christmas several years ago, and hang proudly on our living room wall.

Field & Stream Cover from February, 1935

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Trust Is A Must If You Lust After Cooperation That’s Robust

In the off season, Gordie and I enjoy going for walks down a long service road that meanders through an expansive meadow bordered by a forest of mixed-age oaks. It’s a pleasant place to walk. Deer browse; red tails soar over head; foxes and coyotes slink off when we give them a hard look.

A technician uses this road for his job maintaining servers at an otherwise deserted TV tower at its dead end. Whenever I see him slowly rolling toward us, I whistle Gordie in and hup him at my feet. The little spaniel comes running in every time, sits before me, and studies my face with keen attention lest he miss the signal to release and resume his joyous romping. The first time that Roger saw this modest performance, he was immoderately impressed. He lowered the driver’s window, lavishly complimented Gordie’s behavior, and asked me facetiously if I’d train his neighbor’s %@$#&$% dog. Since that initial meeting, we’ve chewed the fat on many occasions; and every time he sees Gordie scoot in and park his butt, he shakes his head with a grin just like he did that first day.

I’m not a particularly good dog trainer. In Gordie, I had great luck in getting an especially cooperative pup. I also knew that he was a well-bred dog from a great kennel, and from a breed known for its biddability. And I’d gotten lots of help from reading and from talking with people whose dogs were well trained. One of the best pieces of training advice I received was this injunction: Never fool your dog.

When Gordie was a pup, he got lots of sweet talk and ear scritches when he obeyed the command “Here!” Now, when he comes in on command, even after he’s bumped and chased a bird to hell and gone, or rolled in dead raccoon, he still gets rewarded for compliance with his last command. Never fool your dog.

Whenever I put on my boots and grab the walking stick, Gordie wriggles with excitement over our impending walk. On a day when our route starts at the back gate, he knows he must sit there on command, not just until I open the gate, but until he’s released with the magic word. He always sits there like a turtle basking on a hot rock, because he knows that compliance always produces a fun run. Never fool your dog.

When Gordie was learning to fetch tossed dead pigeons, I never tricked him by either failing to toss a presented bird or tossing it into an impossibly difficult spot. Gordie always found his early marks, and got lots of love when he brought them to me. Now, there is no quit in him when I give the “Dead bird!” command. Good habits are forged if you never fool your dog.

My friends' simple injunction remains good advice. No foolin'.