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.