Do rivers speak? Well, if you listen.

Cool, sunny Sunday morning, 10-ish, variable wind gusting to stir small, random oak-leave tornados out in the open along the north wood line of a closed, two-acre meadow. A splendid day for a walk with the dogs — nose-dominant beasts that rely on winds to deliver information that can quickly accelerate their pace.

Descending the earthen ramp down into Sunken Meadow’s north end after finishing the top loop, the swollen Green River below spoke from surging flat water riled into semi rapids, the water displaying that trademark, clay-based, gray-green hue from which it likely got its name. Suddenly, a large, heavy splash and its lingering disturbance drew the dogs racing to the water’s edge as I curiously observed.

Despite many years of using this short, double-rutted farm road and even walking midstream during the summer with my wife, grandchildren and pets, I had never before seen a trout or any fish rise in that typically placid section of water. But there was no mistaking the sound, a large trout rising aggressively through the surface and landing loudly, likely enticed by some tasty aquatic insect capable of escape. What type of insect I can’t say, but from the sound and aftermath rings on the water, some type of fast emerger must have shot to the surface like a tiny air bubble — or possibly even a large terrestrial of some sort had been blown down onto the surface. Who knows? It could have even been a waterlogged mouse or small snake swept into the stream and gobbled up in a flash by a big, opportunistic brown or rainbow.

Anyone who fishes hatches learns to differentiate between quiet, rolling, slurping rises and fast, furious, splashy ones like Sunday’s. The prevailing type of rise is always the one to fish, because trout feed on the preferred food of the moment. Fickle, they’ll take something else if tantalized by enticing movement, shape or bright color. But if you want continuous, cast-after-cast action, you must figure out what they’re feeding on, then find something similar in your fly box. In fishing jargon, that’s called matching the hatch, which isn’t always easy if you haven’t studied stream entomology focused on Mayflies, stoneflies and caddis flies.

I stood motionless, looking down and hoping to catch another quick rise that never came before impatience pulled me away. Maybe the fish was aware of my dogs’ presence, or maybe the rise was just one random opportunity answered, the taking of unexpected prey the fish happened to spot passing in the strong, cold, cloudy current. Can’t say for sue. But I didn’t have time to linger and moved along on my merry way, whistling the dogs up from the river’s edge for a wetland romp they know and love.

As I followed the base of the escarpment along the western edge looking at the infant skunk cabbage populating its wooded underbelly and wetland below, I wondered when the wild, immature plants would attract the first foraging bears, which eagerly hunt it as a preferred spring food. Last year, right there, we had jumped a bear from behind thick wild rose bushes. Then, after writing about it here, a neighbor I still have never met sent me a cell-phone photo of the big black beast ripping apart a large, round hay bale wrapped in white plastic just around the corner. Ah, for the wonders of cyberspace news.

As I observantly walked on full alert, my springtime imagination, always fertile, carried me back to the deep history of the river known to natives as the Picomegan. Those were the days before rainbow and brown trout were introduced to area waters by state hatcheries. Our first people, for many millennia before European invasion, would have caught beautiful brook trout the likes of which few locals today know. These native trout would have populated the river when the temperature was right and migrated up colder tributaries for summer refuge and fall spawning. Plus, our Pocumtucks, named by those who discovered them here in the upper Pioneer Valley, would have taken advantage of the anadromous fish — shad, herring and occasional Atlantic salmon — migrating each spring upstream from the mouth of the Connecticut River at Long Island Sound to spawn in freshwater. The Green River would have attracted these migratory saltwater fish annually, as would the Connecticut’s other local major tributaries, namely the Deerfield, Falls, Millers and Sawmill rivers. Even Deerfield River tributaries like the South and Bear rivers and Poland, Clesson and Dragon brooks would have pulled in a small sampling of anadromous fish, not to mention big brookies seeking summer refuge and fall spawning beds.

It’s not difficult to fantasize about deep history so far in the past, bygone days when people respected the earth, air and water, birds, beasts, fish and reptiles, and treated them with reverence, even when hunting and eating them, wearing their skins for clothing, or adorning themselves with teeth, claws, quills, feathers and fangs. These indigenous people viewed themselves as part of the whole, no better or worse than the other components of nature, just beings living in harmony with the rest, animate and inanimate, wet or dry, dangerous or harmless, poisonous or benign. They knew that it only takes one selfish violator to disrupt the delicate balance and make life tougher for all. Somewhere along the way, we Occidentals have forgotten that formula. Sad indeed.

Enough! Back to that Sunday walk disrupted by a lunker splash. On the upper leg we had first walked, peering through tall budding hardwoods and underbrush standing on the upper terrace, I thought I spotted a rare human form moving along the riverbank near a big riverside apple tree standing tall in the southeast corner below. As I approached from afar, I smelled smoke and, turning the corner, saw it rising from near the river, presumably on my side. Wrong! What I found was two young fellas, 30ish fishermen with a campfire burning across the river in a safe, stone enclosure on the stony opposite bank. Upon inquiry, they bemoaned a strong, rapid current limiting their success. They had caught a couple of holdover rainbows and one small brookie that had likely made its way into the river from the nearby mouth of Allen Brook.

Lily and Chubby looked across the river with friendly wags but weren’t going to bother swimming across the swollen river to meet strangers, who I told about the nice trout I saw rise a short distance upstream. I immediately regretted sharing the information, wasn’t crazy about the idea of them catching and removing that nice trout from the river. Maybe grandson Rynie and I could chase it down later in the week. The 9-year-old boy had arrived the previous evening and is here from Vermont for school vacation. I had planned to ask him to help me replace floating flyline on the reel for a classic bamboo fly rod. I’d like nothing better than to hook that big, heavy trout and hand the boy the rod for battle. If he wins and wants to take it home for display and breakfast, so be it. I’d be fine with that. But at some point I’d like to tell him I hope he’ll one day be a catch-and-release man committed to conservation.

Somewhere along the line, I’ll introduce him to a motto I’m confident he’ll remember. It’ll go something like this: If you’re hungry, kill and eat it; if not, throw it back for another day. A stream harboring trout is better than one without.

Springtime Buzz

Illuminated in a high, bright morning sun, it and a refreshing south breeze in my face, there it lay, clear as day: my trodden trail carved into a short March-brown hayfield, the thin, angled depression still easily discernible after a long, cold, snowy winter freeze, no foot-traffic I’m aware of in quite some time.

I myself hadn’t taken that familiar route for months, probably last walking it in mid-January, before the fields iced over with treacherous ice that promptly left me with broken ribs and sat me nightly for eight long weeks in a La-Z-Boy-recliner sleeper chair, never missing a day of work or interfering much with my many daily winter routine. Yet there it was, the path, still easy to follow, pointing south-southeast. Even Chubby ran down it, as he often uses my paths. Why? You tell me.
And while you’re at it, explain to me why deer often follow those same paths.

Do you find it surprising? You shouldn’t. Haven’t man and beast shared the same trails as long as they have coexisted? Oh well, so much for the age-old advice to never leave sign of your presence in woods where you hunt for deer. I long ago learned that advice was bunk. Honestly, I have walked a predawn trail into a morning stand and, lo, an hour later watched wary deer cautiously walk virtually the same path right past me. Doubt me if you will, but it’s true, and has often happened over the years, seemingly less in the evening.

Though I have seen just one deer thus far this spring, they’re back as roadside attractions in my neighborhood. My colleague and neighbor told me Monday that on Sunday evening before dark he saw five blending in along a wood line I daily walk. I told him I had that day followed their tracks through a thin patch of woods between fields, then all the way across the muddy upper edge of that wooded escarpment before dropping down into Sunken Meadow. There, I have been noticing a large solitary track for a couple of weeks now. It’s not the distinctive splayed track of the soon-to-be 5-year-old buck I’ve gotten to know. I suspected through winter that he may be dead, taken by a bowhunter across the street from my home. But then, just last week I encountered that track in wet snow and it may have been his. We’ll see.

A nice buck with a black snout, he patrols the Greenfield Meadows and its bordering ridges. The last time I saw him was a year ago, towering over four thin, leggy does across the brook from me at dusk in March. The last time I saw his antlers was two falls ago on the side of the midnight road, a nice 6- or 7-pointer. Not a spectacular trophy rack, but a keeper for sure.

The deer whose tracks I’ve been daily following are bedding in the cattail wetland lips surrounding the hayfields I traverse. They stay hidden by day and come out before dark to feed in the fields, where they seem to be concentrating on the red- and white-clover stubble clinging to damp brown turf like week-old whiskers on a heavy-bearded chin. The shoots may not be big, tall and luxurious, but they’re plenty green and nutritious, in fact more so than at any other time of year. That’s why hungry winter deer gravitate to it and other fresh spring growth, and it’s why we humans will soon be hunting wetlands for wild fiddleheads and visiting asparagus farms to help make for a healthy spring. Just Tuesday morning I searched through two of my favorite fiddlehead stands, below an escarpment’s snow-covered underbelly, and couldn’t find so much as a hint of any sprouts poking through. Not so for wild leaks and skunk cabbage, which have emerged through a carpet of brittle leaves that retain moisture in the soil to incubate young growth.

Home, at the southeast corner of the barn, the first rhubarb sprig this week broke through 75-year-old horse manure I spread from under the stables in the fall. Rain will bring many more in the days to come as my daffodils, not far east in a flower bed down the southern foundation, prepare to burst into brilliant spring yellow. Often they’re in bloom for Easter. Not this year, an early Easter and late spring, one the maple-syrup producers apparently aren’t bemoaning. Just this past week I spoke to two such folks, and both said they were having a good year; not their best, but better than most in recent memory. So expect the price to stabilize.

Which reminds me. On a recent trip to pick up my grandsons in Vermont ski country, a gallon was selling for 45 bucks, $7 less than the going local rate. My wife, a shopper, was anxious to buy some on the spot, where it was only advertised, not sold. Oh well. Never hurts to support local vendors. They work hard to make syrup and related products, all of which I love and am willing to pay for to sweeten my mornings.

Switching gears, so inspired was I by the recent warm snap that I even dug out all my flyfishing gear for spring inspection, just in case, focusing particularly on the aluminum-tubed bamboo rods and their zipper-cased reels hanging in a separate bag. I took out one old Orvis CFO IV reel and left it handy in its brown suede case for my grandsons’ next visit. I intend to replace 30-year-old, 4-weight, double-taper floating line on that reel to easier-to-cast 4-weight, weight-forward line I bought on sale last fall. Why not include my grandsons in the project, and explain why we’re doing it? It may plant a seed, maybe even inspire us to the river to see what we can catch. And even if that doesn’t happen, they may want a casting demonstration in the yard before trying their hand at it, beginning with roll-casts, then graduating to traditional overhead casts, which, in my opinion, they’re too young for. You start a kid with manageable bait-casting lessons.

I guess what got me thinking about those two dear young fatherless lads is today’s poignant date. Today would have been my younger son Rynie’s 30th birthday. Three years after losing their father, my grandsons lost Uncle Ry-Ry, whom they dearly loved. His passing occurred a year ago Wednesday, a day before he turned 29. Though life isn’t always fair, you must go on and make the most of the hand you’re dealt. That’s what I impress upon the boys during teaching moments.

Could there be a better setting than a rattling mountain stream singing a sweet song of freedom as kids learn to catch trout in nature’s classroom? Not in my mind. It’s oh so liberating and healthy for the young mind.

Off I go.

Lessons Learned

There’s something about flowing water that I find liberating, metaphorical to human thought and emotion — be it the rattle or roar, foaming riffles descending into roily runs and step pools, the gentle swirl of frothy eddies.

All of the above are likely spots for lurking trout when you understand water and know how to use the natural flow to trigger aggressive strikes by dead-drifting lively bait through the fish’s feeding lair in a natural, drag-free presentation. Yes, mountain streams produce a certain damp, shady, wild solitude that places me in the grip of nature, away from it all, governed by forest law.

When teaching youngsters to fasten a pair of hip boots through their belts for fish-hunting on such a stream, it’s important to start small on manageable water you can hop across in spots yet holds all the components of larger streams that will eventually be mastered using small-stream skills honed by trial and error. Fact is, once you understand flowing water and how fish feed in it, the same rules apply everywhere, big or small. But there’s always one key difference pertaining to large, deep streams, such as the Deerfield or Millers rivers, which become much easier to read and fish once they’ve settled down to their summer level. Then the runs, riffles, eddies and corner pools with overhanging roots become accessible in chest waders.

The natural evolution of an angler typically starts with live bait and a closed-face, push-button reel before advancing to open-face spinning tackle and delicate pendulum casts, long-casting of lures and spinners, flyfishing with dry and wet flies and weighted nymphs, plus streamers bright and drab that simulate bait fish.

One of the first little trout streams I learned to fish flowed out of Clapp’s Pond in the forest off Stage Road in Deerfield, feeding the Connecticut River just upstream of the Hillside/River roads intersection. There it crossed under River Road near the gate to what we originally called Kahle’s, then University Pasture, before racing through a steep ravine on the other side to a polluted Connecticut. We’d start at River Road, fish our favorite pools upstream, then pick away at the entire brook on the way back out, focusing on all the sites where we had rolled little pan trout that escaped. We’d fill a couple of fern-lined wicker creels, flea-market collectors’ items today, and bring them home for a sweet, tasty breakfast, the fingerling brookies battered and pan-fried in hot, spitting bacon fat that quickly curled up the tails in a black Griswold skillet.

Once we had it down on that little stream meandering through a steep hollow carved into the southeast terminus of Deerfield Mountain, we graduated to bigger streams like Mill River on the other side of town and Whately’s West Brook, which led us straight to the old Northampton reservoir near the chapel snuggled up to the earthen dike. There, many a large squaretail in the two- to three-pound class were caught — ah, how clear are the memories of those oven bakers of the sweetest, moistest, most succulent pinkish-orange meat. But that came later, discovered as teenagers before the new Hamp Reservoir’s spillway was built in the late Sixties, holding the water back far too long to save the big brookies we savored and have not seen since. Well, I suppose there are still some around for the taking. But let’s just say we were young back then, much more daring and capable of outrunning just about anyone giving chase through the wilds.

The hot-spot was a narrow neck that flowed under the iron bridge on the south end of the slim reservoir where I learned to take trout on Thomas Buoyant spoons, Mepps spinners and later flies. We had Steve Zayach’s dad to thank for our introduction to flies. The man was a wildlife biologist and fly-fisherman, had his equipment hanging neatly inside his Eastern Avenue garage, and he must have been OK with us borrowing it because use it we did, there and at another sweet little squaretail pond on the other side of the Connecticut River. We knew nothing about flycasting, presentation or matching the hatch, just that, according to The Count, Mr. Zayach’s son, trout preferred tiny midges enticingly twitched on the surface to draw a strike. Whether true that they preferred those tiny little artificials to larger mayflies or caddis flies or streamers from different compartments in the same flybox, we took heed and the midges seemed to do the trick over and over again at both of our favorite sneak-in sites, both reserved only for the first hour or two of light. Once lights started showing inside neighborhood homes, we were packed up and long gone in the proud Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn tradition.

By then, we had our drivers licenses and had graduated to the productive Conway streams, the South and Bear rivers and Poland Brook, and even fished the Sawmill River in Montague and Leverett now and again, particularly the lower end, sometimes as high as the base of the dam at Martin Machine (now the The Montague Bookmill), but most often in the wild, winding sanctuary that meets the Connecticut below Meadow Road. We also hunted there in the fall for pheasant, grouse and woodcock, plus jump-shot many a duck back in the day when lead shot was legal for waterfowling. To be honest, since the day lead was outlawed, I have not killed a duck. Just one of my many idiosyncrasies, I guess. But I was never much of a duck hunter, just a bird hunter who bought an annual waterfowl stamp just in case my dog flushed ducks out of small, muddy streams running through swamps I was hunting for pheasants, among them Hopewell Swamp between Christian Lane and Mount Sugarloaf.

Once we graduated to flyfishing the Deerfield, we had honed our skills and knowledge, applying what we had learned on smaller streams’ to a larger, more dangerous microcosm that from high above looked no different than those first narrow, shallow mountain streams where we learned to hunt trout. But now, instead of pendulum casts, we were using roll casts, the double-haul and shooting line through stiff winds, quickly mending it as soon as it hit the surface to produce a natural, realistic drift that fooled many a big trout, even a few big, early-morning Deerfield River browns, foolish gluttons that remained in their feeding lanes a few minutes longer than they should have.

Such rare trophy fish were always worth the harrowing hike in, negotiating a steep, switchback deer run to the river’s edge in the black of night, always hoping to drop the first cast into the river well before the birds sang their first note. Talk about magical. It was all of that and then some to be there when the river and surrounding woods awakened, the first ray of thin yellow sunlight peering over the eastern horizon still an hour or more away.

Hermit Tales

Mention in last week’s “Fish tales” column of a haggard roadside hermit familiar to travelers earlier in my lifetime along Route 5 and 10 between Greenfield and South Deerfield drew additional anecdotal information from near and far that’s worth reporting.

The feedback started right off last Thursday morning, when waiting for me on my first email adventure was a comment from an angler who, like me, fished a section of Mill River containing the site of Deerfield’s first grist mill (1693) on Sawmill Plain, not far from Pekarski’s Sausage on Route 116. He said he, too, always did his best to skirt that peculiar roadside recluse who lived just downstream. The note came from Michigan, where South Deerfield native Scott Farrick, a faithful faraway reader and intermittent correspondent over the years, now resides.

The Michigan correspondent and another emailer who chimed in later corrected me on the hermit’s name as well. They grew up in his neighborhood and said it was Victor, not Henry Kisloski, as I had speculated. Henry Kisloski was Victor’s brother. They both apparently grew up on a Sawmill Plain farm near the brook.

Anyway, Farrick’s quick Thursday-morning note read: “Sure is/was a great little stretch of water to grow up on. We knew the ‘hermit’ as Victor Kisloski. We steered clear, too. One day, when we were kids, there he was at our front door, dressed as he always was, in 19th-century style, with that snow-white beard. We were freaked but my mom answered the door. As I recall he was as polite as could be, asking if the Clark family still lived there (they were long gone). Plus he had two stray dogs and was looking for the owner. Like you guessed, surely he was odd, but he surprised us that day with a glimpse that wasn’t so scary.”

Later that afternoon came another, longer email from Scott Healey, a Sawmill Plain lad and neighbor of Farrick’s who was about the same age and often fished for trout on the stream where I had honed my skills before they found their way there. Most interesting was that, without a clue that Scott Farrick had already touched base, Healey wrote: “My best friend Jim Jobst and I would fish that brook all the time, and it was tough going if the Farrick boys had been there first.”

Healey also recalled the hermit’s name as Victor, not Henry.

Like me, Healey and friends “loved the stretch of brook between Pekarski’s and Victor’s land, especially the (old mill) waterfall.”
Now that we’ve made this man Victor Kisloski a passing fancy, a little more on the man, who was still walking the highway between Greenfield and Deerfield after I married in 1979. Following the rush of email traffic last week, I queried my wife to see if she could remember me pointing the hermit out along the road. Yes, she vividly recalled him trudging along Routes 5 and 10 and even described his distinctive attire.

Healey, a neighbor who saw much more of the eccentric chap than me, offered additional insight, writing, “Victor would walk weekly or biweekly to Greenfield for food and supplies. He was basically self-sufficient, with his gardens and his brook. Real story — he did chase Jim and me up the trail behind his shack with a hatchet one day because we both had maple twigs strung with nice trout. Although he probably was just trying to scare us and having a lot of fun doing it, we were scared and had quite a tale to tell.”

Over time, Healey’s mother, in the holiday spirit, helped soothe her son’s fears of the man by giving him an entirely different view of a character who was easily misunderstand. “Yep,” wrote Healey, “this was the same man to whom I later delivered my mom’s homemade Christmas brownies and tollhouse cookies. When I finally got the nerve to knock on the door, scared, he would open it with big, happy eyes you could barely make out through his big beard. … He also once offered Jim and me some of his garden if we wanted to try our hand at growing food.”

Plus one other Healey anecdote about a man many southern Franklin County travelers recognized on the side of the road in the Sixties and Seventies, and probably earlier, before my time: “I once watched him (Jim and I were hiding in the woods) saw down a tree by himself with a two-man bucksaw. I’m telling you, Gary, this guy was tougher than a mountain goat.”

I wouldn’t question that depiction one iota. A person must be strong to be as “different” in a non-conformist way as he was.

And to think that all this new information about an old character from days of my distant past arose from one innocent little mention of fishing an old boyhood stream I was quite fond of, and where the presence of the hermit’s humble abode scared the bejesus out of us each time we passed.

Oh yeah. One more time: he was Victor, not brother Henry.

Sorry ’bout that.

Fish Tales

The cardinals have been singing their happy song this week, brightening my outdoor morning chores with the dogs as the snow cover shrinks.

Who knows? Perhaps those beautiful red birds, too, can hear the brook gurgling through widening gaps in the thick, punky ice out back, massive, foot-thick ice chunks still strewn high along both banks, tangled among upslope trees but finally shrinking before breaking loose during the first major freshet. Or maybe my feathered friends can see that the roof slates are finally high, dry and snow-free. Hey, they may even feel through their tender little feet the subtle upward tremble of sweet sap flowing through the sugar-maple limbs from which they sing. Whatever it is that has triggered their joyous spring melodies, they sure are nice to hear after a long cold winter capped by record February snows.

Finally, over the weekend, I was able to resume my daily Sunken Meadow walks, soul-soothers for sure. I must get out early to stay atop the condensed corn snow that on mornings after cold overnights is just hard enough to keep me on top and just soft enough to prevent irritation to my braced, balky left knee. God, how I missed those daily walks for three or so weeks that seemed like an eternity! It made me feel fat and logy, like my blood and brain weren’t flowing freely. Next up is mud season, which I’ll get through. Oh yes, and so will my splattered bird dogs, who truly love mud, the wetter and dirtier the better. They have already started going to the Green River for drinks down by the big old apple tree standing sentry on the west bank along the way. No, they’re not yet swimming and standing submerged over their rib cages to slurp water. But the river that accepts my backyard brook about a half-mile upstream is wide open, much more so than the brook, and the dogs enjoy refreshing drinks after building a lather running through open fields and marsh alike, panting in pure ecstasy. That’s what a good romp does for English springers, born to run and bounce and chase and flush, especially the latter, and retrieve.

How can water not be on a man’s mind entering spring, when you must find ways to keep it away from your foundation, channeling it downhill in the opposite direction? Plus the fishing season is upon us. Soon the stocking trucks will be patrolling the highways, depositing fresh hatchery fish into our swollen trout streams and rivers, ice-out ponds and lakes. Although I seldom fish anymore, I’ve done plenty of it in my day and must admit I found myself thinking back to boyhood fishing adventures more than 50 years back on the Mill River. The stream follows Route 116 downhill from Conway through the Mill River section of Deerfield to Whately, then to its confluence with the Connecticut River at Little Naponset in Hatfield, an old hunting haunt of mine.

The stream’s name came from the mills it supported in colonial days, one of which I got to know quite well when, as an elementary school student, my mother would drop me off near the outflow of Matthews Road and I’d fish the stream down to the old Settright Farm now owned by Sam Chickering and wife Joanie, whose roots there lie deep. Back then I’d fill my wicker creel between those two spots a mile or so apart, occasionally bumping into old coach and Frontier teacher Butch Farrick during summer storms. Most of the trout were small brookies, with an occasional big one and even some rainy-day browns. I’d cover them with ferns in the creel to stay fresh and tasty. My last fishing hole was under a wooden-plank cow-pasture bridge I’d briefly fish off and sometimes catch a trout or two before calling it a day. Then I’d walk across the front half of the pasture and up a steep, wet, crumbly escarpment to the Settright porch, where I’d bang on the door and telephone my mom to retrieve me. I may be wrong but it seems to me that the door was often answered by matriarch Nellie Settright, by then old and confined to a wheelchair, yet always pleasant, happy to help a young angler.

What reminded me of that secluded stretch of an otherwise accessible stream was research for a talk I’m giving tonight at the Whately church about the town’s Connecticut River oxbow, another old haunt I frequented for sporting adventure — mostly woodcock, grouse and pheasant hunting, though it’s also a fact that I’ve caught a trout or two out of Sugarloaf Brook over the years. I’m sure my ancestors who lived there way back when also pulled many a nice, sweet squaretail with sweet orange meat out of the lower section of that brook that starts in South Deerfield center. Those were the pre-stocking days, when only native trout lurked.

Back to the Mill River, it was the site of Deerfield’s first mill, built in 1693 by none other than fur merchant Joseph Parsons, a member of my Pioneer Valley gene pool. I’m sure what I remember of the ruins at that site atop a 10-foot waterfall — wood fame remnants, likely chestnut, chunks of decomposing wooden siding, heavy, rusty iron chains and sprocket wheels strewn about — were the remains of a later upgraded mill. I’ve been told there’s nothing visible today that suggests an old grain mill once stood there. But I clearly remember the clues in the Sixties, when I routinely caught nice trout above and especially below in the deep, bubbling waterfall pool.

The only thing we had to worry about was the old hermit who lived right across from today’s Route 116 gas station/convenience store. We all knew his ragged, roadside hobo profile, and were warned by adults to avoid him. But, really, we never encountered the man astream, and I doubt he would have bothered us if we had. He was just an eccentric old recluse named, if my memory serves me, Henry Kisloski, long gone. Trust me, we knew when we were passing through his place, though, and never lingered. Local legend can do that to kids: scare the bejesus out of them.

Which reminds me of a another fishing tale I’ll share, occurring years later on another of my favorite childhood streams, introduced to me as a boy by Babe Manson. He taught me and his son, Mike, how to catch trout in that stream, which meets the Mill River along the Hatfield line. Thus it was a stream I thought ideal for teaching my boys to fish. Problem was that on our maiden voyage I parked along a pasture fence where I had always parked, and right there facing me in bright red letters was a posted sign reading “No Trespassing: Hunting, Fishing and Trapping Strictly Prohibited. Violators Will Be Prosecuted.”

Hmmmm? How could that be? It had never been posted. I felt entitled — grandfathered in, so to speak — because I knew most of the neighbors and was even related to some. I knew the new owner’s house across the street, noticed lights shining despite the early hour and figured, “What the hell? Why not give it my best shot?”

Me and the kids, Gary II and Ryan, pulled into the driveway and parked. I exited the car, went to the side door of the tidy yellow dormered antique cape, stood atop an impressive stone step and knocked. The owner appeared, I introduced myself, told him I had been fishing there since childhood and he didn’t hesitate to give us the OK.

“There’s no need to stop again,” he smiled. “You can fish here anytime you want. I’ll remember you.”

So, off we went, backtracking to our posted spot, gathering our equipment, squeezing through the locked wooden gate and walking to a deep pool fed by a fast channel. At streamside, I was baiting the kids’ hooks with pieces of lively coffee-ground nightcrawlers to entice hungry trout before pendulum-casting upstream, dead-drifting the bait toward the pool and handing them the rods when I set the hook on a strike. As they pulled nice, 8- to 12-inch brookies from the stream one after another, I was busy unhooking fish, gutting them and freeing the kids’ snags when, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed rapid movement coming our way. An older man wearing a white fishing vest and cap was hurriedly approaching, obviously unhappy. I think what was bothering him most was the fact that we were literally hooking fish on every cast while he was having little success at a downstream corner pool I knew well.

“Can’t you read the signs?” he screamed, face red, veins bulging through throat and neck. “My son owns this land and he doesn’t want you here.”

I looked down at Rynie, about 6, noticed a fearful tear streaming down his cheek and got hot. That was it. I took a couple steps toward my assailant and boldly got right up in his grill.

“Hey, pal,” I barked without a hint of fear, “do you know how to swim? Because if you don’t shut up and quit scaring these kids, you’re going in.”

He didn’t challenge me, instead walking sheepishly away and remaining dry. I never even bothered to tell him we had permission. For what? That was irrelevant.

Although I have never returned to the scene, my kids never forgot the incident and often reminded me of it with a twinkle in their eye.

“Hey, Dad,” one or the other would say, “remember that day we were fishing and you threatened to throw that mean guy in the brook?”

“Yeah, boys, how could I forget?” I’d reply, holding my thumb and forefinger less than an inch apart. “That man came about this far from taking a little dip.”

They’d just chuckle and nod.

Though I hesitated to share this ancient tale, I think it’s hunky-dory. The statute of limitations has long passed and I assume that me and that pleasant owner who granted permission are the only involved parties still living. Plus, what’s the likelihood he’ll read this? If he does, so be it. His father was being a jerk. He frightened a couple of young, innocent boys, and was asking for trouble from a younger, stronger man on a raw, gray, unruly April morn.

In the nick of time, he was wise enough to back off before receiving a humbling, violent, frigid little streamside-etiquette lesson.

Scabby Mess

Whether it was winter’s final roar or a soothing song of coming spring depends upon your perspective, I guess. But to my gray tiger cat sleeping peacefully across my lap on a bright, spring-like Monday afternoon, it was threatening indeed.

Visibly alarmed, she rose to her feet, jumped down, scooted off in the opposite direction and vanished for more than an hour. It was clear that, be it sweet melody or vicious roar, Kiki wanted no part of that short sudden earthquake created by weeks’ worth of heavy, icy, accumulated snow finally tobogganing off the barn’s slate roof to the ground. The west side broke free first, triggering the east release, the loud, trembling avalanche over in a matter of seconds, then eerie silence.

To me, the event was a clear, happy harbinger of spring. Oh how I have waited through weeks of bitter-cold trips to the woodshed for that burden stressing the barn’s chestnut frame to fall. Now it’s gone with limited if any damage to the slates, and the sugar-maples are ready to perk up and push sap upward into pails and tubes and vats that will someday soon sweeten breakfast.

Soon our winter-famished deer that have survived on buds and canes and whatever else they could find during a difficult winter will appear along the edges and around residential neighborhoods, devouring whatever greens they can find for sustenance. But something to look for in coming weeks is wild turkeys, which should first start appearing in large, noisy flocks before breaking off into smaller groups leading up to the spring mating season.

People accustomed to seeing turkeys should try to assess the status of this year’s flocks. The question is: Are the numbers dwindling? If so, the decline could be related to a disease being tracked nationwide. This turkey-flock scourge, known as lymphoproliferative disease virus (LPDV), is believed by the National Wild Turkey Federation to have, at the very least, contributed to a 15 percent population reduction across the range. The disease showed up in New York in 2012, and is now impacting Maine and New Hampshire turkeys as well.

I had not heard a word about the disease here in Massachusetts until placing a call to MassWildlife information guru Marion Larson, who confirmed through Turkey Project Leader Dave Scarpitti that the disease has indeed infiltrated our state, appearing first in 2012. Birds carrying the disease are obvious because their heads become an ugly, scabby mess that is easily detected from close range or when looking through binoculars. So take a look if you’re used to viewing turkeys through the picture window. And, of course, checking-staion personnel will also be on the lookout.

This disease began in domestic European and Israeli turkeys but somehow crossed the big pond to the sunny South approximately seven years ago before spreading in all directions. Maine and New Hampshire have been proactive in response to the disease, but the other New England states have not been as aggressive. Some states have been examining birds at checking stations, confiscating the carcasses of those infected and supplying the hunters with another harvest tag because it is not advised to eat infected turkeys.

Thus far, infected turkeys have been found in 17 states from Colorado to Maine, and seven states have reported turkey fatality resulting from the disease. According to a recent Associated Press story, the New York State turkey population has plummeted from 300,000 in 2001 to 180,000 today, not in the least bit and insignificant drop.

The same report claimed the disease is not responsible for declining numbers, but it seems that the jury’s still out on that.
In case you missed it: Bear Project Leader Laura Conlee reported a record 240 bears were harvested during the split fall season, 203 in September and 37 in November. In total, 132 males and 107 females and one unknown. Harvest breakdown by county is as follows: 78 in Berkshire; 56 in Franklin; 51 in Hampden; 43 in Hampshire; 4 in Middlesex; and 8 in Worcester.

The preliminary deer harvest for 2014 (excluding Quabbin and any data not yet received) is 11,165, which is close to last year’s harvest. The preliminary archery season harvest is 4,456, the preliminary shotgun season harvest is 4,742, and the preliminary primitive season harvest is 1,967.
Feedback: A few people responded to last week’s question about parking in Vermont near the Massachusetts border on the shore of the Sherman Reservoir, walking across the border to fish with a Massachusetts license, catching fish and returning to your vehicle in Vermont carrying legally caught fish. The question was: Should the angler be worried about getting pinched in Vermont for possessing fish without a Vermont license?
Well, all three respondents thought it bordered on paranoid to entertain such fears, claiming that hunters routinely cross state lines to hunt and transport what they kill back home without fear. In their opinions, the worst outcome would be getting approached and questioned, maybe even hassled by an overbearing law officer, but that in the end, everything would work itself out without any serious consequences. Sounds about right to me.

Legal Issue

Midday has passed, it’s cold as a witch’s heart, wind blowing, ice getting harder and slicker by the second.

The phone rings. The caller-ID informs me it’s old pal Killer, a hunting buddy who spent many a day with me chasing pheasants and deer, more of the former than the latter but plenty of both. I gotta give the man credit: he consistently displayed the uncanny ability to bring down faraway ringneck roosters with his 12-gauge howitzer … on his third shot. Perseverance pays.

Ole Killer, now 70, is a throwback from way back, a hunter/gatherer of sorts who’s always out there collecting something to supplement daily table fare. Be it fiddleheads or wild leeks, mushrooms, berries or nuts, fish, fowl or game, the man is “out there,” so to speak. A rare breed these days, he even padded his income back in the day as a trapper, one whose life revolved around dawn trap lines, pelt-preparation and fur auctions during a long, arduous fall/winter season. Where he wanders from the hunter/gatherer mode is gardening, just another way to make ends meet when you drop out of the clock-punching 9-to-5 he endured and abhorred. No, he doesn’t live in the lap of luxury, but he’s not saddled in debt, either, and, most importantly, he’s a happy camper. What else can a man ask of life?

Anyway, Ole Killer was all wound up for the recent phone call. The thorn in his paw is what would appear on the surface to be a simple question related to borderline ice-fishing that’s been bugging him for a couple years now. You see, he and his buddy have taken quite a liking to ice-fishing on the Sherman Reservoir, a Deerfield-River power-station that straddles the Massachusetts border in Rowe, touching the towns of Readsboro and Whitingham in Vermont. Many years ago, I wrote a story about a Vermont man who caught what I believe still stands as the state-record brown trout there, but I can’t say I can recall all the details. Must be getting old, I guess.

The problem tormenting Killer and his buddy is that they’re parking at a public-access in Vermont and hoofing it to the Massachusetts side to set their tip-ups and jigging stools with their Massachusetts licenses. Ole Killer is a stickler who, of course, goes by the letter of the law when it comes to hunting and fishing regulations. So he’s afraid he could get pinched by Vermont game wardens for possessing fish he’s caught in Massachusetts, then walked across the state line to his vehicle without holding a Vermont fishing license. No siree, let’s just say that Ole Killer isn’t one bit interested in getting nailed for illegal possession of fish without a Vermont license in that neighboring state’s parking lot.

After asking around last year without a satisfactory answer, he went searching for “clarification” at the recent Springfield Sportsmen’s Show’s MassWildlife booth manned by environmental police officers and came away befuddled, if not a tad irked and impatient.

“They told me they weren’t sure what to tell me, that they’d have to look into it but didn’t think anyone would bother me,” he groused. “I wasn’t happy with that answer. If wardens don’t know laws, who does? I looked and couldn’t find anything in the abstracts.”

Determined to find an answer, my buddy’s next step was a call to MassWildlife Field Headquarters in Westborough, where he was patched through to a woman whose name he couldn’t remember, then to another source, neither of whom could provide a quick, easy answer. Supposedly, they’ll research it and call him back or send snail- or email clarification of this troubling legal dilemma. Perhaps they’ll even consult with Vermont authorities first. My buddy subsequently bumped into a game warden on Ashfield Lake and again got a blank look and no answer. So, in the meantime, I guess my old hunter/gatherer buddy will just have to take his chances, because the ice is right and the fish are biting.

“Who knows? Maybe if you throw something out there in your column, you can get an answer,” Killer speculated. “You know, maybe you’ll hear from a game warden or someone who’s been checked by wardens on the Vermont side without getting cited. I still can’t understand why I can’t get this question answered.”

You gotta feel for the guy because, remember, this is also a relevant question for open-water anglers who fish Sherman Reservoir from the shore or boats, either of which would seem to present potential border “technicalities” for those parking in Vermont and fishing Massachusetts.

Apparently, my buddy Killer isn’t the least bit interested in becoming a media-darling precedent-setter, regardless of the outcome. Can you blame him? He’s trying his best to be legal.

Live & Learn

March is near, the deep-freeze just won’t let leave, and I’m dry-docked, thinking about place — my place and that of my ancestors, the one I chose not to leave and continue to learn about by the day, the month, the year, and when things get really exciting, by the very minute.

It all started as a young South Deerfield lad following frozen Bloody Brook on skates, a human snowplow pushing a shovel from Urkiel’s to Yazwinski’s, building streamside forts and fires, getting into the kind of harmless mischief I hope kids can still find in shadows hidden from adult scrutiny.

Once the snow left, we’d follow the same infamous brook, fishing rods in hand, using treble hooks to foul-hook plump suckers beneath the retaining wall in front of the old Kelleher place, even pulling out a rare little squaretail now and then dunking worms far downstream. Honestly, I can’t believe there are still brookies in that sluggish stream that took its name from crimson wartime mayhem.

When we got older and rode our bikes from one end of town to the other, picking up schoolmates along the way, we started venturing out, following gullies, fence rows and tilled edges east to the base of North Sugarloaf, where, in winter, we packed ski and toboggan trails on Boro’s and Gorey’s hills and spent long, cold, windy days horsing around, no adults invited. Then, when the snow left those hillside playgrounds, we found the Indian trail our folks told us led to the peak, a steep footpath on which we sidestepped occasional ugly vipers coiled along the climb to the high, lonesome shelf cave. Once we reached that lofty, secluded perch looking down upon the village, we felt free as mountaintop eagles waiting to set sail and soar over the valley whenever they felt like it.

As we grew bolder, we’d wander deeper off the trail into unfamiliar woods down the east slope of the ridge to see what we could find, often realizing too late that we were far away from familiar ground and must find our way back. But find it we did, no Boy Scout leader or preacher’s deputy necessary. It taught us all that we could process crises on our own, find our way home from the foggiest upland swamps and tangles by calmly assessing the predicament, reviewing the options and devising a plan. We always found a way out, which built innate confidence that we could solve our own problems without crying for help.

When I was a boy, this is what we thought we were supposed to do, having sat through nightly bedtime reading sessions with our mom going a chapter a night through “Tom Sawyer” and “Huckleberry Finn” or maybe “Drums Along the Mohawk” or “Boy Captive” tales. These oral-reading sessions endured until our heavy eyelids dropped shut, opening up a fanciful dream world. And now, here I sit, writing for the local newspaper, still trying to piece it all together in this place I call home, anxiously awaiting the day when I can share the whole story, the one preferred by sophisticated readers, bored with cream of wheat. It’s like the difference between childhood tales you’d tell a Cub Scout troop and the ones you’d share with your trusted friends and lovers. It’s no secret that the difference is significant, so much more spirit and meaning in the latter, yet still, always the danger of ruffling bright, tidy plumage, if you get the gist. What can I say? I’m a feather-ruffler from way back, and it’s way too late to change now. For what? Ecumenical-council praise or maybe an award from some fraternal order of windbags, bluffers and hypocrites? No. Not for me. It’s meaningless.

Running thin on space and trying not to curdle my slow-simmering stew — always steaming and gently bubbling in some deep, dark chamber of my soul — let me close this narrative with a new local legend I stumbled across quite by accident while reviewing a version of Sugarloaf’s indigenous beaver myth I had seen and forgotten in E.P. Pressey’s “History of Montague.” Brought to my attention by a friend assembling an exciting archaeological display in a sparkling new town-hall cherry cabinet, I read and evaluated it as OK before noticing another tale below associated with Mt. Toby, the higher peak to the east now capped by a fire tower, the expansive range straddling Sunderland, Leverett and Montague t’other side the river, as they used to say with a New England twang in this neck of the woods.

Titled “The Demon Wittum,” it’s a deep-history yarn from this splendid slice of the Pioneer Valley, involving the same indigenous transformer spirit Hobomock, a benevolent behemoth of Algonquian lore said to have bludgeoned the beaver that died submerged in Lake Hitchcock before appearing in the drained valley as Mt. Sugarloaf, North Sugarloaf and East Mountain or Pocumtuck Ridge. The question is, why did I happen upon such a relevant topic while reading about European spelunking for Paleo art? Could it be a random coincidence that in the process of studying cave art I happened upon the tale of a man-eating Mt. Toby cave-dweller? No! I don’t believe in coincidence. I think things happen for a reason, this just another example.

Pressey’s source is Deacon Phineas Field of Charlemont, a 19th century character who seemed well versed in upper-valley Indian history. So it was he who recounted for the author the ancient tale of Hobomock taking it upon himself to rid the valley of a problematic demon named Wittum. After flushing this dangerous villain from a deep, dark cave hideout high on the eastern face of Toby and chasing him through treacherous cliffside terrain to the peak, the evil spirit leaped for the river below and Hobomock followed, clubbing his fleeing foe to a bloody death. It is said that Wittum’s carcass fell to earth in a Sunderland meadow and vanished, leaving only an eternal bare spot for posterity.

So now it looks like I’ve got some exploring to do when Old Man Winter finally decides to release his white-knuckled grip on Franklin County. Yes, come joyous, inspiring spring, with the snow gone and the upland footing solid, I’ll be there to chase the legend of Wittum, probing caves, finding that “secret glen in the fastnesses of the mountain,” and hunting that bare spot in a riverside Sunderland meadow.

I do have an idea where that bare spot lies. Native elders claim that when you get to know your place well enough, even white men, the land speaks to you.

Call me crazy, but I follow the whistles and whispers of the wind sliding through trees and ledge and upland bogs. It pays to listen carefully because they deliver.

The Key Factor

Isn’t it refreshing to discover that indeed an old dog can learn new tricks?

I rode just such an updraft earlier this week while reading with interest a fascinating R. Dale Guthrie book titled “The Nature of Paleolithic Art” — cutting-edge analysis of deep-history art forms, such as but not limited to cave drawings and decorative, symbolic carvings on bone and stone tools and weapons, all told through the insightful lens of a North American artist/naturalist/anthropologist/archaeologist.

The subject was a large-mammal rule of thumb I am quite familiar with and have often written about pertaining to species like deer or mountain lions growing larger in colder latitudes. I must admit I never studied the formula dynamics but was told and had read that the reason for this was related to a need for a larger body mass to survive harsher climates. It’s no secret among hunters that a trophy Pennsylvania whitetail buck sporting eight-point antlers typically weighs in the 120- to 160-pound range while similar deer in Maine tip the scales 100 pounds heavier. So it just made sense to me and raised no red flags when I was told that deer grew larger in climates where survival is more challenging.

Although I still factor in that assessment, Guthrie introduced a new twist relating to size of European deer in Spain and northern Scandinavia climates. Acknowledging that “underlying pressures for biogeographic variations are such things as climate, terrain, population density and diet,” he identified a botanical factor that’s more important in the production of larger bodied and antlered deer in northern than southern Europe, explaining:

“One explanation for this biogeographic size gradient is that plants mature rapidly and more or less at the same time in warm climates. This means that young vegetation, which has the highest levels of nutrients, is actually available for a shorter time in Spain than in Sweden. This may seem paradoxical at first, but the levels particularly of protein and other critical growth nutrients are highest in immature plants. Although there may be several fewer months in which green forage is available at high latitudes, if animals in those regions can find six to eight weeks worth of high-protein young plants, they can grow larger than southern counterparts who may have only three weeks of such high-nutrient foraging. Protein and other critical growth nutrients are key here – not simply caloric intake.”

So there you have it: the rest of the story, articulating the salient reason why big Maine whitetails average out much larger than large North Carolina bucks.

A thoughtful friend reaching back to my grade-school daze rescued an old, folded, wrinkled Greenfield map from a library Dumpster believing I’d be interested, and he presented it to me at work one night last week. I was tickled to get it, one of 1,900 copies printed in 1953 — 1,750 sold to the public — produced for Greenfield’s bicentennial celebration. That year also happens to be the year I was born in Greenfield, which gave the map personal meaning.

Anyway, the rolled map had lain on a cluttered, winter kitchen table for a couple of days when, on a cold, snowy-day whim, I thought, “Gee, I bet there’s nobody at Staple’s right about now. Maybe I ought to run down there to see what the rehabilitation options are.”

Well, my instinct was good — not a customer at the copy center, had the place to myself. My options were limited: lamination ($6) or laminated to a board ($21). I chose the second option and declined on the black-and-white PDF. Had the technology been capable of reproducing the red color elements, I would have gone for the PDF, too.

Well, I couldn’t believe the results: crisp, clean and sharp, no trace of a fold or wrinkle, preserved and protected for posterity.

There was just one little problem, though, one that’s oh so typical and annoying about local history and careless local historians. A line of red dashes identifies the route of Deerfield’s 1704 captives being led north on foot to Canada by their French and Indian captors. The problem was that the route depicted did not agree with Thompson’s History of Greenfield as to the site of the first overnight camp in the Meadows. Or did it?

I seemed to recall Thompson placing the campsite at the confluence of my backyard Hinsdale Brook with Punch Brook, perhaps 300 yards downstream. The map placed the first encampment a mile or so south of me, at the base of Greenfield Mountain behind Butynski Farm in the Lower Meadows.

Well, I went immediately to my library and dug out Thompson to refresh my memory. On Page 90, he writes, “Until recently, the place of their encampment upon the night of the fatal day has been supposed to be in the swamp just west of the old Nims (now Butynski) farm. But later the discovery of an ancient broad ax (believed to be a portion of the Deerfield plunder) at the former junction of Hinsdale and Punch brooks makes it seem more probable that the first camp was made about in the middle of the (Upper) Meadows of Greenfield.”


I guess whoever had final say on that 1953 map wasn’t buying the broad-ax hypothesis. I tend to agree. It’s weak.

Oh yeah, maybe now I can get back to that book I briefly mentioned last week about our extinct passenger pigeon, read with interest over my December vacation.

“The Passenger Pigeon,” by Erroll Fuller (Princeton University Press, 2015), tells a poignant, wasteful, gluttonous and maybe even horrifying tale Americans should be ashamed of. This handsomely illustrated book is worth the cost ($29.95) simply as a coffee-table display piece, fun to just page through for the many colorful artists’ renderings, including some by John James Audubon himself.

There has been a run of passenger pigeon volumes in recent years to commemorate the historic passing of Martha, our last passenger pigeon that died confined in a sorry cage in 1914. It was thus the 100th anniversary of her death last year.

Isn’t it interesting how European interlopers destroyed an asset utilized for millennia by North America’s first people as a valuable source of food and rich airborne fertilizer deposited on the Earth Mother by flocks so dense and deep that they were known to block a bright midday sun for hours. Wanton, irresponsible slaughter took care of that by the turn of the 20th century, when the proud native bird was relegated to zoos, cages and museum taxidermy … similar to the likes of full-feathered Sitting Bull traveling with Buffalo Bill or Barnum & Bailey or some other traveling freak show.

We all know the pathetic disclaimer plea: “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do;” and continue to do with a greedy Occidental grin.

Snowed In

More than a month, now, sleeping in a La-Z-Boy recliner, and the winter doldrums have set in. I’ll get through it. Always have. So why dwell on it?
Which brings me to an interesting development brought by unexpected visitors. They left their tracks overnight Tuesday along the wide path my snowblower cleared to the backyard kennel and beyond, along frozen, snow-covered Hinsdale Brook’s elevated southern bank.

And to think I was committed to writing about extinct passenger pigeons and a beautifully illustrated Princeton University Press book I had read over vacation about the native bird whose massive, migrating flocks used to block out the sun for hours. But no, out of the clear, blue, sunny, Wednesday-morning sky, there they were to greet me: deer tracks, where the walking was easy and predator-free, smack-dab in my backyard between barn and cook-shed.

Just Tuesday afternoon I had noticed trails suggesting deer through the narrow line of trees on the opposite stream bank. Then, sure enough, confirmation appeared next morning on my side. I must be stuck in a holding pattern. Upon sitting down last week for this weekly chore, I had intended to write about deer. Then a wayward whim pushed me elsewhere. Now, just like that, again totally spontaneous, back to deer. Why not? The subject’s timely.

Anyway, what I had wanted to say last week was that I think it’s been a tough winter for deer, which are now entering their weakest, most vulnerable annual stage. I read that message loud and clear when, suddenly, following the storm that left our landscape dangerously icy more than a month ago, I hadn’t cut a deer track anywhere on my daily lowland travels. Before that storm, the deer sign was consistent; after it, gonzo. Spooked by the glare ice that swept me off my feet and cracked my right rib cage, and which can, with one unfortunate step, splay a deer helplessly out on its belly, the hoofed creatures knew it and took precautions.

Just like that, they disappeared from the flatlands, were out of Dodge, so to speak — not only due to treacherous walking, but also because they could no longer paw through the surface to eat grasses or nuts or low-clinging, leafy plants they dig for winter food. My guess was that they had fled to freshly logged terrain where they could devour tender, nutritious browse without having to work too hard or travel far. Either that or they had crossed the Green River and joined scores of deer in an impressive deer yard that accumulates annually above the Webb Farm on Leyden Road. If you have never been there to witness it in March when they’re breaking up and heading home, you ought to take a ride now that the covered bridge has reopened.

It was my kids who first alerted me to the late-winter herds of deer on and off the road there. Several times they entered the house excited and demanded I accompany them back to the site they had just passed. I heeded their call and was quite impressed, if not shocked, having never seen anything quite like it. In fact, I was so curious about the phenomenon that I reached out to a deer-biologist friend of mine for an explanation. Although unfamiliar with the site itself, the man understood precisely what I was describing. He informed me that such deer yards on selected southern exposures warmed by the sun and rich in winter foods annually attract deer from 20 and 30 miles away, maybe more. Then when spring breaks and the days lengthen, the yards break up and the deer return to their home ranges.

The three deer that used my backyard as overnight refuge Tuesday were not likely members of that bulging yard no more than two miles east of my place. No, these deer probably winter on the steep southern exposure just up the hill from me, feeding on whatever they can find in a given year, with browse, wild apples and residential evergreen landscaping bushes available in the neighborhood. My nighttime guests nipped at my blueberry bushes and raspberry canes and those of my abutting neighbor, and also appeared to sample buds on the same neighbor’s pruned dwarf fruit trees. They also took quince fruit from two bushes in my yard.

I find it interesting that just Tuesday afternoon I had a telephone conversation with a friend and neighbor who said that, judging from the backyard tracks behind his place, deer had probably checked out his neighbor’s Brussles sprouts — never tastier than when harvested during a winter thaw. Pungent indeed, the deer must have been attracted to the strong cabbage-like smell buried hard and deep. I doubt that they were able to mine the vegetables in this cold, but I’d bet they’ll be back when the earth thaws. They don’t forget such things.
Plus, I do expect I’ll soon see more sign of these deer, if not the deer themselves. They’ve ventured into their desperate winter feeding mode and will likely again be competing with Lily and Chubby for the quince fruit. Rock-hard in the fall, quince fruit softens by late winter, when my dogs eat it with glee.

Oooopps. Gotta go. Six plump bluebirds are feeding in the burning bush right out the window. They usually follow snowstorms into my yard, flittering from the wild-rose bush, to the burning bush to the row of mock orange for berries and seeds. Unlike deer, songbirds are not safe in my yard. In the past few weeks I have seen a sharp-shinned hawk and a barred owl snag birds in broad daylight within spitting distance of my inset porch. My wife even got a photo of that owl sitting on a low branch of the aging front-yard sugar maple a few days later and posted it on Facebook to much acclaim. I hate but accept it when nature’s mayhem occurs in my face, but it’s not nearly as bad or wasteful as what we did to the passenger pigeons I had intended to discuss today.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll get to that topic next week. Well, unless something better tickles my fickle fancy.