Indian Bummer

Bittersweet has pushed its yellow skin aside, adding a softer shade of red to the abundant Christmas berries populating our local wetlands. Both wild ornamental berries will, over time, be snipped here and there by human gatherers seeking materials for holiday wreaths to hang on front doors, and fall floral arrangements to place in vases, stoneware crocks or old, scarred walnut trenchers centered on dining-room tables.

Yes, the blotches of pleasant, uplifting colors just keep changing in this Indian summer weather so many Pioneer Valley folks eagerly anticipate annually — perfect for light yard work and soothing conversation, installation of storm windows, screen-door removal, bicycling along back roads, or hiking old, narrow trails through the high, colorful, soon to be barren upland hardwoods, where there’s just enough chill in a shady breeze to keep all comfortable.

But for the bird hunter, Indians summer can quickly devolve into Indian bummer, not in spite of the warm temperatures but because of them. For those accustomed to pounding dense, punishing cover through mucky, boggy tangles, it’s frankly too hot and uncomfortable for anyone wearing rugged old clothing standbys like Filson Tin Cloth bibs and jackets built for ultimate protection and comfort in temperatures of 50 degrees and below. Those attired in such protective garments made for brush-busting want no part of temperatures in the 60s, never mind 70s. Quite the contrary, who in their right mind would choose to follow fit, aggressive gun dogs through thick, thorny coverts wearing heavy canvas apparel. And forget shorts and T-shirts, which would in no time leave a man’s arms and legs tattered and torn to shreds.

Likewise, gun dogs, even those in tip-top shape, spirited, athletic types born for stamina and determination, perform much better and last longer under cool temperatures and gray skies. Get them out in warm, sunny conditions like we’ve had this week and you had better hunt well-watered coverts, where exhausted, overheated animals can submerge themselves in cool-down slurping streams with refreshing water to replenish what seems like their unlimited, boundless energy under ideal, cool conditions.

An option for warm weather can always be early-morning hunts while it’s still cool or even downright cold before the sun rises high enough for warmth. But the problem with that solution is that experienced wing shooters much prefer mid-morning or midday hunting, which gives pheasant and grouse time to leave their overnight roosts and deposit enticing scent, old and new, that keeps dogs jacked up while trailing scent through feeding areas, which are this year ubiquitous, bountiful crops of wild seeds and berries in marshes high, low and in between.

That is not to suggest that bird hunters are alone among hunting brethren with their cool-weather preferences. It is no different for bear hunters, who took to the woods for the second segment of the three-way split-season this year, or even the archery deer hunters, both of whom will have to check daily for ticks burrowed into warm, moist, hidden regions of their bodies, and may even get pestered by misquotes and other similar airborne pests buzzing about in extended unseasonable warmth. That’s not to mention the clothing factor. Most bowhunting and November bear-hunting clothing trends toward at least lightly insulated pants, shirts or jackets. When wearing such clothing and walking through the woods to a stand or even still-hunting from blind to blind, a hunter can work up undesirable sweat, never good when the prey has a good nose.

Plus, who wants to harvest large, heavy animals in summer temperatures? Dragging large carcasses out of the woods can be unpleasant indeed on warm days. Plus, the warm temperatures complicating the drag also mandate immediate butchering for anyone who doesn’t have access to a walk-in cooler to prevent meat from spoiling overnight. Again, short-sleeve shirts and Bermuda shorts, even camo versions for deer hunters, don’t cut it for many reason. First, the bug and pricker factor. Plus, bare arms and legs are a dead giveaway when hunting something that requires camo concealment. And that doesn’t even address the cold factor before the sun rises high enough to warm the environment. Yes, it can get mighty chilly around sunrise and sunset, when most hunters prefer being settled into their stands for some time.

The good news is that splendid fall weather similar to what we’re experiencing this week can provide hunter respite, a short window of pleasant weather perfect for catching up on seasonal chores that must be completed before winter. There will be more than enough cool and outright cold days better suited for hunting before the seasons end.

You just gotta go with the flow, fellas. Hunt when the weather’s right, which leaves many options excluding heat.

Not so much as a word on the street or in the coffee shops yet about big deer taken by local bowhunters. The peak rut can’t be far off, so anyone who’s got a good tale to share can send it to the email address listed below or call 413-772-0474.

It’s early afternoon and the home phone rings. It’s a friend with an unusual question. He says he doesn’t agree with turning his clock back in the fall for Daylight Savings Time, which gives him an extra hour in the morning and subtracts one in the evening.

“Wouldn’t you rather have an extra hour after work,” he inquired. “I’ve spoken to a lot of people, including hunters, and all of them would rather have the extra hour in the evening for chores or hobbies. So why do we keep pushing our clocks back every fall? It’s stupid.”


Seems to make sense on a number of levels.

Swamp Busters

Bird season in the Happy Valley is glorious yet short for those who love it.

With it comes cold mornings — windshield scrapers always at the ready — and crisp, cool afternoons; sometimes sunny, sometimes gray, some wet and soggy days, others dry and crunchy, some windy and blustery, others still as a walk-in freezer locker.

An early-season bonus is the brilliant backdrop colored with broad splashes of distant orange sugarbush, ridge-top coppertone oak groves and always the pale yellow alders and poplars of the bottomland marsh being hunted, the mellow yellow complemented nicely by a drab brown underbody of post-frost goldenrod and ragweed cover lipped by cattail patches concealing hidden hummocks that can drop a man on his face in a flash.

Veterans know enough to be wary of cattails for reasons other than the cumbersome hummocks. Often along the border of such cattail stands are found deep, muddy channels that are barely discernible though impossible to cross afoot. One wrong forward step will instantly sink a man over his waist, never a pleasant predicament.

Plus there’s always the presence of hidden head-high prickers of various types, especially bull briars, which can stop a man dead in his tracks, literally, necessitating immediate reassessment before backing out of a dense thorny tangle in search of a kinder-gentler route.

Some hunters carry pruning shears to clear their paths. Others fear that if they do carry such a tool, it’s likely they’ll eventually puncture a car seat or expensive leather sofa at home. Thus they choose instead to plow through thorny tangles by raising their shotguns overhead and bulldozing through them wearing heavy Tin Cloth bibs and jackets, sleeved upper arms shielding their face from long, sharp thorns that can produce deep, bloody scratches.

Then again, such bullish moves always invite face-first falls most often broken by bent elbows extended with hands and forearms turned up to protect the shotgun. The silhouette embedded immediately afterward in the soft turf prominently displays two deep, conical dimples and the outline of a body that has temporarily matted down thick brush.

Such defensive landings from unexpected tumbles don’t save faces and necks from ugly abrasions and blood, which come with the territory in thick swamps where wary game birds lurk. Yes, it’s true that such unwelcome surprises are as inevitable as flushing riled-up ring-necked roosters for anyone who regularly hunts punishing cover through black unforgiving muck.

Gun dogs? Well, it’s even more challenging for them, even though they’re built for swamp-busting. Their tongues more often than not get sliced open, producing profuse bleeding that splashes customary crimson streaks and stains back onto their shoulders and sides. Though they don’t seem to mind the blood even a little bit, enthusiastic, all-out chases through flooded, beaver-infested wetlands present potentially more serious injuries when puncture wounds along the underbelly and rib cage are inflicted by sharp, pointed, spear-like stumps of small alders and poplars left by beavers’ handiwork. The shiny black wetland colonizers fill the gaps between sticks with mud as filler/waterproofing for their dams and huts.

These swampland beaver spikes left behind protrude straight upward from muck and standing water, and can puncture dogs’ feet and torso alike. And the danger is that such wounds bring with them a high vulnerability to bacterial infection from giardia, always present in such soupy beaver habitat. Unless treated in a timely fashion by thorough washing and subsequent application of an antibiotic salve, there’s a good chance that a serious abscess will form, eventually requiring costly veterinary intervention. And if you choose to save money and let the infection run its course (usually a mistake), be prepared for a systemic infection known in medical jargon as “going septic,” a dreadful diagnosis no one ever wants to hear for man or beast.

Another veterinary problem gun-dog owners can encounter, particularly early in the season after the first hard frosts, is tick-delivered Lyme disease that can result from a bite in habitat frequented by deer. For this reason, it’s a must to treat such dogs with monthly doses of topical medicine that covers the animals’ entire body after hand-depositing a head-to-tail application of drops along the length of the backbone. If on the day after application you find ticks embedded on your animal’s face or neck (the most common places to find them) and think the expensive medication isn’t working, fear not. The medicine kills ticks for a month after application. If you don’t believe it, pull them off and expect to find them dead and dried to a crusty brown. Mission accomplished. Lyme disease is said to require a 72-hour incubation period.

With all the negatives behind us, how about a positive or two? We’re talking about things like dogs making game, wildly wagging their tails, jumping, bounding, narrowing their quarter tighter and tighter, all jacked up for the flush and retrieve. Experienced hunters recognize just from the furious sound of a brush-busting dog that their invisible pet is hot on scent. At that point, it’s always advisable to stay close, position your hands right, raise your gun to a half-ready position from which it’ll be easy shoulder, and at all times keep your front foot pointed in the direction of the dog.

Eventually comes the best sound to emanate from such an exercise — that “cuck-cuck-cuck-cuck” of a scolding, flushing ring-necked rooster trying to fly to safety. The next sounds are a deafening roar or two, then a simple “fetch it up” command from hunter to loyal pet.

Honestly, it gets no better, very similar to taking a cut and hitting a baseball on the sweet spot. Talk about excitement and anticipation. It’s all there in brilliant, vivid fall colors, an added bonus indeed before the deep freeze of barren winter.

Dry Run

High enthusiasm and low expectations hovered over the dense, thorny, tangled, frost-browned wetland below, splashed with bright sunlight in cool air, the backdrop an infinite blue sky framed at the base by brilliant fall color from a deep, foreboding wooded swamp far back on the eastern perimeter.

Opening day of pheasant season? No. Too busy. Too crowded. It was, instead, late morning on the first Monday, Day 2, when the prospect of a random flush is possible but not particularly likely following the all-out opening-day circus of eager hunters, who just can’t resist despite chaotic overflow crowds. To each his or her own.

Remember the old bumper sticker that used to be sold at outdoor-shows reading, “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work.”? Well, that applies to bird hunting, too. Especially after paths have been broken through tangled marsh for old, battered legs, and the air temps have dropped below 50. Then even robust activity can transpire without profuse, uncomfortable sweating. In fact, a veteran who knows the game and plays it right can petty-much avoid sweating on cool, windy, tailor-made days for aggressive bird hunting.

Parked on the small earthen ramp that can handle two vehicles at a heavily hunted site was a red Subaru wagon cluttered inside with plastic pails and boxes and other stuff that didn’t suggest hunting. Not bird-hunting, anyway. Plus the person who parked there seemed oblivious to hunting season, hoarding both available parking places, which seemed a bit inconsiderate even though it wasn’t a real inconvenience. There’s always more than enough room to pull over along the quiet country road situated at the base of western uplands known to have been called Sunkist Mountains.

Not 50 yards into the overgrown, thorny field, the car’s owner appeared clothed in drab colors that answered the hunting question. Nope. Not a hunter. Just a young lady scholar carrying a tall, thin, calibrated, tube-like olive staff she carried upright for a walking stick that served the dual purpose of a measuring stick when needed.

A rod? No. Three meters, which made it more than two meters shy of a rod, a 16.5-foot unit of measure used by land surveyors for vertical and horizontal measurement alike. Using it at the time for a long walking staff, the young woman said she had previously used it for measurements pertaining to a UMass grad-school project assessing activity of migrating song birds passing through the Pioneer Valley twice annually — once heading north for mating and nesting, again this time of year on their return to winter refuge in the sunny South. The casual conversation meandered from plants to birds to animals to deep history and deep ecology and Indian trails before she continued on her merry way back to the car. She would not be back this fall but still had to revisit Montague Plains.

That perchance wetland meeting in the rear view, man and dogs busted through pucker brush for less than an hour, the dogs quartering and covering what seemed like every inch of the marshy field’s north half. All that work and not so much as a flush, false start or upward twitch of the shotgun; just a furious scouring of dense, seed-dusty cover for pheasants or woodcock or maybe even a stray partridge, where they were once plentiful, today rare.

Call it a dry run. A good yet unproductive romp for all.

Future trips will be far more fruitful once stocked birds accumulate, acclimate and learn how to temporarily escape hunting pressure in the dense, impenetrable alder swamp flooded by beavers.

When these feathered transplants decide to fly into the huntable field to feed on seeds, berries, hayfield grasses and insects at the wrong time, they stand a good chance of falling to a passing hunter. If not, there’s a good chance that a fox, coyote, fisher cat or bird of prey will eventually snag them here and there until all have vanished.

Call it put-and-take hunting at its finest. Fun while it lasts, but a far cry from hunting wild birds.

Speaking of pheasant hunting, disturbing news from New Hampshire, which stocks about a quarter of the birds this state does each fall.

Hunter Christopher A. Moulton of Boscowen, N.H., was shot by an unidentified hunter Friday morning at the Sanbornton (N.H.) Flood Control Area pheasant-hunting site, suffering minor injuries that did not require hospital attention. Nonetheless, state officials were alarmed enough to implement an emergency measure mandating closure of all pheasant-stocking sites from 7 a.m. to noon on Wednesday and today, the final two stocking days of the season.

The measure resulted from what New Hampshire Fish & Game Executive Director Glenn Normandeau called unsafe shooting taking place while state stocking crews were in the process of releasing pheasants.

“We are taking this emergency action to protect Fish & Game personnel and members of the public participating in the pheasant hunt,” said Normandeau. “It is unfortunate that the actions of a few unsportsmanlike and unsafe individuals have made this measure necessary. It does not reflect on the vast majority of safe and responsible hunters.”

The archery deer season opened Monday, presenting bowhunters with the daunting task of predicting deer feeding patterns on a landscape that’s full of natural feeds, such as nuts, fruits and berries, all of which are plentiful this year. Add to that agricultural foods such as corn, hayfields and winter squash, and it’s anyone’s guess where deer will choose to feed on any given day. Still, there appears to be no shortage of whitetails, so it just comes down to being in the right place at the right time. … Simultaneously, the fall turkey season is also underway, also opening on Monday. Despite the fact that gobblers and hens are fair game in the fall, this season never draws hunting pressure to rival the more popular spring hunt. The fall hunt is a different game, which most hunters seem to find less alluring than the spring, bearded-turkeys-only hunt during the mating season. Fall hunters either sit quiet in woods where they know there are big flocks of birds to bushwhack, or walk through the woods to break up a flock and draw a bird back to the gun with regrouping calls, including the kee-kee run, which is more useful and popular among hunters in the fall than spring.

Pheasant Fever

Cornfields have mellowed from green to tan, swamps are brightened by yellows and purples, acorns and apples are underfoot, a few still clicking and clacking through leaves and limbs, and those long, brown, white-pine needles are piling up fast to collect for blueberry-patch mulch — all unmistakable signs that pheasant season is upon us.

Yes, it’s true. Saturday is opening day of the annual six-week season that lures sportsmen and sportswomen into dense, thorny Bay State coverts seldom visited when game birds are not fair game. So, many birds have by now been stocked and your favorite fields are ripe for preseason flushing maneuvers, always a good way to scatter unsuspecting opening-day birds for the first waves of aggressive hunters.

Talk to the old-timers 80 or better and they’ll describe a Connecticut Valley scene we no longer recognize, with much more open cropland and bordering wetlands and fewer bottomland wood lots. Those were the days, they say, when it was common to see spring pheasant broods walking behind a hen or two through the backyard, or maybe picking through freshly harrowed cornfields for leftover fall kernels.

“You probably don’t remember the Amherst and Hadley I recall hunting as a UMass student around 1950,” long-ago retired, late state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife (DFW) biologist Bill Pollack was fond of saying way back when he was sharing his Westboro office with the likes of legendary late deer biologist Jim McDonough and a young, up-and-coming whippersnapper named Jim Cardoza. “The coverts on both sides of the Connecticut River between Hadley and Sunderland on one side and Deerfield and Hatfield on the other were immense, and they contained viable reproductive pheasant populations supplemented annually by stocking from our state game farms.”

That lament came over and over again during the early 1980s, when Pollack and McDonough were closing in on retirement after long and loyal DFW careers. Simultaneously, the vast riverside wetlands in the Hampshire/Franklin spillover areas Pollack spoke of were being reduced or outright obliterated by development and the cultural drift away from family farms.

Residents of the local towns mentioned by Pollack grew accustomed to seeing the aforementioned spring broods of small pheasant chicks in their travels, and hunters back then always had a chance of bagging big, mature, 2- and maybe even 3-year-old trophy cock pheasants buried in deep, dense coverts where hunter-wary birds were most likely to lurk. Of course, those were also the days when hens were protected and could not be shot, assuring that there were always enough breeding hens “out there” to support at least a pseudo-“wild” population propagated by surviving cocks mating with the surplus state-game-farm hens released at various times of the year.

That dynamic changed dramatically in the 1980s, when the state game farms started closing, pheasants were purchased from private vendors, and hens became fair game, eliminating a key component necessary for “wild” birds, which can still be found here and there if you’re lucky, but are few and far between. The deck is stacked against the young birds stocked each fall. With leg-hold trapping outlawed by referendum in 1996, there are now far too many predators like coyotes, fox, bobcats and fishers, all of which can easily catch freshly stocked, farm-raised pheasants that escape hunters. Another factor contributing to quick mortality are the protected birds of prey, which almost all members of state stocking crews have witnessed catching pheasants as soon as they hit the ground after release from crowded cases carried by trucks to stocking sites. Many more birds that escape hunters are taken by hawks in subsequent days, when still vulnerable to feathered and furred predators patrolling their new surroundings night and day.

Nonetheless, the state liberally stocks pheasants during the season, when many of the approximately 45,000 (including some 5,000 birds given to private clubs that raise and release them on private coverts) are left for area hunters, primarily on state Wildlife Management Areas (WMA), some of which are stocked daily. Other WMAs are stocked two and three times a week, funneling most hunting pressure from the private land of decades back to state-owned and maintained coverts with strict rules about wearing hunter-orange caps for visibility and safety.

Massachusetts pheasant-stocking began in 1906, when, according to MassWildlife figures, the state’s landscape was 80 percent open fields and pasture, 20 percent forest. Today, those percentages have flipped to 80 percent forest and 20 percent open land, the factor state biologists blame for the disappearance of at least a small self-sustaining wild-pheasant population. Thus hens became fair game in the early 1980s.

Prior to that, the state stocked even more birds for the hunting season, with an annual total of 54,000 cocks released mostly onto private. And that didn’t even tally all the surplus hens released in spring, summer and fall. Initially, to justify the move to an open season on hens raised on state game farms in Sandwhich, Ayer and Wilbraham, state officials claimed they had to annually hatch and raise twice the birds that could be hunted, claiming it was a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money. Eventually, the statewide stocking total dropped to approximately 45,000 before state game farms were closed in favor of buying a mix of cocks and hens from private vendors, some in-state, some out of state. That way, every bird purchased and released could be hunted.

So, today, we’re dealing with strictly put-and-take pheasant hunting, with the mother lode of pressure found on crowded, liberally stocked WMAs instead of scattered, more peaceful private farms and bordering swamps. And these days every bird that takes flight is legal.

The good news for Connecticut Valley District hunters is that their district allotment (10,000, plus club birds) is second only to the Central District, which gets 13,000. The Western District, which wanders into Ashfield and Hawley, receives 4,000 pheasants annually.

Remember, fellas, whenever a bird flushes, your first move is to plant your feet in the right direction. Then mount, swing, squeeze off a thunderous roar, and issue that friendly “fetch it up” command gun dogs love.
Crisp fall air is perfect for the activity.

Reports From The Northwoods

As our own archery deer season approaches (Oct. 19), hints of what to expect from a northern border state.

Bowhunters’ take thus far, after the first New Hampshire Fish & Game polling of checking stations, shows a 10 percent decline from last year. The explanation from Granite State deer biologists is that deer are tough to pattern during this, the early season due to an abundance of wild food in the woods, which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who patrols local wild lands. Fruits, berries and nuts, known in biologist jargon as soft- and hard-mast crops, are plentiful this fall after what people who follow such things identify as a great (that is, dry) spring for natural pollination. Thus, in places where oak and beech groves exist, there are many acorns and beechnuts underfoot and available to meandering, foraging deer. The same can be said of wild apples and berries of many varieties, all of them important deer foods when plentiful. Add to that the many cornfields and hayfields available not far away from wild foods and, yes indeed, a man or woman sitting patiently in a tree stand waiting for deer to appear could be faced with a long, tedious, at times seemingly pointless wait.

The recent early-season New Hampshire survey showed a total of 1,109 deer killed by bowhunters through Sept. 27, compared to 1,230 at the same point last year. Obviously, that could all change quickly once the rutting season begins and dominant bucks are more interested in breeding than feeding. That’s when they become more vulnerable to hunters than any other time of year. And hunters who are adept at antler rattling and setting out phony doe-in-estrus scent trails can dramatically increase their chances of felling a nice buck.

No word or preliminary bear-harvests from Massachusetts yet, but with the New Hampshire bear season underway since last month, the first numbers have been released and they too show a decrease from a year ago and from the five-year average at this incomplete point of the season.

Through Oct. 1, Granite State bear hunters had harvested 424 animals. The breakdown by sex shows that harvest comprised of 266 males and 158 females. Bait hunters have had the most success, taking 318 bears (201 males, 117 females), while still-hunters and stalkers have taken 99 (61 males, 38 females) and houndsmen have killed the remaining seven (four males, three females).

Some Massachusetts hunters have clamored for legalization of bait-hunting here as a way of increasing a harvest that needs help. But so far the requests have fallen on deaf ears, though baiting remains a viable alteration in a state that annually falls below the targeted stabilization harvest of approximately 12 to 14 percent of the statewide population.

This year’s New Hampshire harvest is lagging 15 percent below the five-year average of 502 kills by this point of the season. Also, this year’s incomplete number is 29 percent below last year’s pace. Officials figure this year’s total will be closer to the 2013 harvest of 570.

Again, a big reason for the decline is the rich hard- and soft-mast crops available, making patterning the hunters’ prey difficult. For bears, add to the hard-mast formula the big, hard-shelled nuts like hickory, walnuts and butternuts, which they can crunch up and devour.

Of course, the baiting segment, which can overcome the negative abundant natural-food factor to a point, is over, and even when it was fair game, not everyone likes to go that route. Not only that, but even those who do hunt over bait can run into problems when bears ignore their Dunkin-Donut smorgasbords for more desirable wild foods.

The annual fall Franklin County League of Sportsmen’s Clubs turkey shoots are fast approaching, running from 9 a.m. to noon on Sundays beginning Oct. 25 and continuing through Nov. 22.

No other local turkey shoot offers so many enticing options. The choices at the East Deerfield facility include: Turkey Shoot (15-shooter line, $2 per shot), Rabbit Shoot ($2 for three shots), 100-Yard Blackpowder Shoot ($1.50 per shot), and 100-Yard Slug Shoot ($1.50 per shot).

Shooters must bring their own shotguns for the Turkey Shoot, but appropriate firearms are on hand for the other three shoots. No outside ammo is allowed for any reason. All minors must be accompanied by an adult.

An interesting, cutting-edge read for gundog, and particularly retriever trainers — “Absolutely Positively Gundog Training: Positive Training For Your Retriever Gundog” — arrived in the mail last week from Robert Milner, a fellow member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America.

It’s never too late to learn new tricks in the world of gun-dog training, and this veteran of the game brings it to a new level by relying on none other than Harvard psychologist B. F. Skinner for new twists relevant to dog handling.

Milner gives tips on observing and selecting gundogs from a litter or kennel and shoots down trusted, overused methods of rule by force and intimidation. He says dogs have been bred for millennia to want to please. Thus there is no reason to be overbearing in the disciplinary arena. That’s where the word positive comes in. Milner is a believer that the trainer is only teaching a dog to do what it instinctually wants to do — please the handler, not run wild doing its own thing.

The author’s observations will either reinforce local handlers’ beliefs and practices or perhaps introduce something new and exciting that’ll show immediate improvements against old ways that have produced bad habits, if not embarrassing behaviors by sensitive dogs that do not react well to harsh punishment and loud, intimidating commands.

According to Milner, there’s no need for intimidation. The name of the game is gentle handling and hunting behind an animal consistently displaying joie d’ vivre while scouring dense coverts for wary game birds.

Milner’s book isn’t expensive and can be purchased from many online sources.

Squirrel Pie

It’s October and the surreal blood moon has passed, signaling fall’s hunts and harvests.

But first, fishing, a harvest of sorts, and specifically trout fishing, which should improve dramatically on selected local waters this week and next.

Why, you ask?

Oh, that’s easy. The annual fall-stocking program is underway. So, no, those state trucks you’ve spotted lugging splashy silver tanks with their small rear motors purring aren’t out on joyrides or returning from the garage or transporting trout from one hatchery to another. They’re freshening up selected lakes, streams and ponds with fresh, foot-or-longer rainbow and brown trout from MassWildlife’s hatcheries at Montague, Sunderland, Belchertown and Sandwich.

A total of 74,100 fish — 66,100 rainbows and 8,000 browns — have been allotted for this round of statewide stocking, during which each of the five wildlife districts will divvy them up equally. Computed, that means they’ll all receive a total of 14,820 fish, including 13,220 rainbows and 1,600 browns.

The stocking crews always await the September/October transition before embarking on road trips. Prior to that, the streams are typically too low and too warm to risk stocking a cold-water species like trout. Plus, trout can have fatal issues when carted around in mobile metal tanks during hot summer temperatures.

By this time of year, trout fishing has typically dwindled down to a trickle, with only the diehards, most of them skilled anglers, still out on the streams, fly rod in hand, or trolling in boats on deep lakes, where trout retreat to the deepest, darkest, coldest depths to ride out warm summer water temperatures. That doesn’t mean you can’t take lake and pond trout on the surface during the height of summer, because you can if you fish early and late, understand the hatches and know the location of spring holes supplying fresh sources of cold, clear water. Even deep-water trolling can produce consistent results, but not the continuous action of spring ice-out fishing, which takes place when famished winter trout are feeding voraciously within 3 feet of the surface. Come summertime, the same fish lie deep and anglers must be more patient and knowledgeable to produce consistent success.

The same can be said of summer stream fishing, unless working rainstorms that quickly raise the water level and color the stream a silty brown as food from the ground, tree branches and bushes is washed in, drawing even the biggest, most secretive trout out from their deep secluded lairs — fortresses often located on river bends, protected by overhanging roots, large stones or ledge, fallen trees, undercut banks and/or all of the above at a single site.

Local rivers ticketed for stocking this week or next include the Deerfield from Florida to Deerfield, the Millers from Athol to Montague, and the Green from Colrain to Greenfield. As for lakes and ponds, look for action at old standbys like Lake Wyola in Shutesbury, Cranberry Pond in Sunderland and Lake Mattawa in Orange. For some reason, isolated Warwick seems to get the best of it with no fewer than four impoundments stocked: Moore’s, Forestry Camp and Sheomet ponds and Laurel Lake. For those who enjoy fishing North Amherst’s Puffers Pond — hint-hint — you may want to take a trip there, too.

There’s nothing like the cool weather and colorful backdrop of fall to make trout fishing enjoyable. So don’t be afraid to take advantage of fall stocking, even is you are more of a spring and early-summer devotee.

Grey squirrel season opened last week, and the three-week September bear season is behind us, ending Saturday. Don’t hold your breath waiting for harvest numbers. The spring turkey harvest has yet to be announced by MassWildlife. Coming soon is open season on woodcock (Wednesday) and ducks and geese (Central, Oct. 13, Berkshire, Oct. 12). Another important date to remember is Oct. 17, when the season opens for pheasant, ruffed grouse, cottontail rabbit, snowshoe hare, and coyote. The wild-turkey and archery-deer seasons commence on Oct. 19. Farther down the road is the second, three-week segment of black-bear season, which runs from Nov. 2 through Nov. 21.

Speaking of squirrel hunting, it seems to be a lost art these days, but was quite popular in days past. The favorite weapon locally seemed to be the old Stevens .22-.410 over/under. The top barrel was chambered for .22 caliber long rifle, the bottom took .410 gauge, providing the hunter options of discharging a pattern at running, jumping, airborne squirrels or pinpoint, open-sight accuracy for a stationary target standing on its hind legs eating on a limb. The trick was to sit quiet against a large tree or stonewall, settle and blend in, and wait for the squirrels to start rummaging around above and at ground level. Then, with activity rampant, start picking away to fill the game bag.

Squirrel pie was a New England favorite, with many lard-crusted homemade recipes. But cut-up, butter-sauteed squirrel pieces in an iron skillet worked well, too, often prepared with onions, peppers and garlic, then a little dab of apple cider at the end, just before reducing the heat to a simmer and covering. The hind quarters, loins and shoulders were all tasty and tender and worked well on a bed of rice with fresh-picked wild mushrooms on the side.

The hunt was ideal for sharpening the shooter’s eye for approaching big-game hunts. Plus squirrels got hunters into the oaks and hickory groves in September for early deer and/or bear scouting. These days, with turkeys back in the picture, it would work for scouting fall flocks as well.

Spurred Down Memory Lane

The fall equinox has passed, oaks are raining acorns that nick and knock and bang through the branches even on still days, and the tall, dignified pignut hickory I pass daily is balding fast, its round, green-husked nuts spread liberally underneath.

Apparently there’s critter trouble in my old stomping grounds around South Deerfield’s Bloody Brook Monument. Well, at least according to an email that arrived quite unexpectedly last week, a blast from the past in my inbox.

What a surprise. The message came from Sissy Boro, whose father long ago owned a pig farm on the acreage behind the east side of North Main Street, running all the way back to the base of North Sugarloaf and up the hill. I remember her dad and a hired hand once a week picking up our garbage left in a galvanized pail out along Pleasant Street for collection in their soiled, reeking truck. I also recall many pigs in the Boro barnyard as a young boy, before her father, Alec Boro, died suddenly and the pigs disappeared.

It was back on Boro’s hill where I learned to ski with Mike Manson, Tommy Stehalek and others, carrying equipment hundreds of yards through deep snow to pack hillside trails by walking uphill sideways in tight steps time after time with our skis on, great exercise indeed for young boys. Now and then we even tobogganed or slid on flying saucers on that slope, but preferred Gorey’s Hill out in back of Bucky Kuzdeba’s and Sonny Boron’s houses, behind the Cross Street/Eastern Avenue V. That was back in the Sixties, before the Kelleher Drive and Captain Lathrop developments, when there was nothing but open farmland and a few barns between Hillside Road and Graves Street, separated by perhaps a half-mile.

Yes, those were the days in South Deerfield, about the time Interstate 91 was coming through, splitting off Mill River — Billy Rotkiewicz holding court at his downtown drug-store greasy spoon, three barber shops, five family-run meat markets, massive Redmen’s Hall standing tall and wide where Deerfield Spirit Shoppe now sits. My father played basketball there, in the same big upstairs hall where June Lankowski taught ballroom dancing in my day.

As kids, we used to horse around on the vast acreage bordering the base of North Sugarloaf between Yazwinski’s Farm on North Main Street and Graves Street, patrolling the mountain all the way to Eastern Avenue and the notch beyond. We’d follow farm roads and power lines and jump spring brooks, ditches and fence-lines to gain access to Indian trails leading to the top of the ridge. Once there, we savored unsupervised silence as we peered down on our quaint village feeling like we were perched atop the world with no one to even suggest an uninspiring chore.

I had long ago lost track of Sissy Boro, a couple years younger than me, whose given name was Valarie. She was the younger sister of Steve, children of Lolly Boro. The mom eventually married widower neighbor Charlie Smead, who moved a few doors north into the Boro farmhouse when I was a kid.

My oh my, how times have changed. Can you imagine a garbage-fed pig farm and stinky pig pen right off North Main Street in South Deerfield these days? If you recall, much more recently, out on the western Sawmill Plain outskirts of town, condo-dwellers raised a helluva stink about Romanowski’s pig farm on Stillwater Road, in my day wide open cropland and pheasant-hunting territory surrounding the dump. Although I admit being young and not remembering every minute detail, my parents and others I’ve spoken to from their generation say there was never so much as a peep from anyone when Boro’s pungent pigs lived right in the center of town. Go figure. Times change, I guess. Not always for the better. Maybe old-timers were more tolerant, huh?

Even though the acreage between Hillside Road and Graves Street has been chopped up over the past half-century, there’s still a lot of open land back there between Kelleher Drive and Graves Street, and apparently Ms. Boro, who’s recently returned home after decades living in the sunny South, is still walking those same old farm roads I myself toured as a boy, carrying maybe a BB-gun in hand and a jackknife in my pocket. Problem is, she’s concerned about a new creature that now calls backyard home, could be a threat to her small terrier, and lurks far too close at night, sometimes even just before dark. Yes, the tracks scream that coyotes are patrolling far too close to home. Not only that, but she’s also haunted by their eerie nighttime sounds.

Well, at least that’s one sentiment, because, according to her email, she also finds it: “fascinating, because as a kid and teenager we never had coyotes, and being here for only a year and a half after living in the South for most of my adult life, I had no idea they were here now. At night, I sometimes hear them as early as 9 and as late as midnight to 1 a.m., and I can never tell how many there are because of the strange noises they make. Their yapping and yipping reminds me of space aliens or some other freaky sound.”

Welcome back to the Pioneer Valley, Sissy, home of the Eastern coyote.

What’s interesting to me is that this unexpected note arrived just weeks after I reviewed Edward R. Ricciuti’s book “Bears in the Backyard,” which, given my own personal close encounters with bears and coyotes, I judged a bit too alarmist about potential conflict between humans and large carnivores invading suburban neighborhoods. Now this, right in my old dooryard, where my parents have also encountered bold, cat-hunting coyotes up close and personal in their yard across the street from Boro’s.

Ms. Boro says she’s taking special precautions these days during daily walks with her 13-pound pooch, carrying a sturdy walking stick just in case coyotes come out of the brush to attack her pet. I guess that’s not a bad idea, because most of the backyard attacks Ricciuti chronicles occur when pet owners intervene during such an attack.

Still, I feel confident she’ll be OK on daytime walks, with or without a walking stick. On the other hand, it might not be wise to tie the dog untended to a backyard run overnight. Sounds like that could be asking for trouble.

Feedback & Feed

A little of this, a little of that is what I have this week — starting with email Japanese-Knotweed feedback from local hill and dale, then traipsing off to the bountiful apple crop my dogs are capitalizing on.

For any who missed it last week, I addressed non-native, invasive knotweed plants lining many of my favorite streams, including the close-to-home Green River, which I monitor on my daily rambles with the dogs around what I call Sunken Meadow. There, a couple of weeks ago, I was attracted to these two riverbank bushes I split every day when exiting the river I wade through in the summer when conditions permit. I never paid much attention to the dense, ubiquitous bamboo-like plants on both sides of the river at that sharp left turn until drawn recently by a loud chorus of buzzing emanating from them in full bloom. Unaware of the plant’s name, I soon, quite by accident, became informed by an emailer from the wilds of Conway, where the invasive plant lines a couple of my favorite old-time trout streams he thought I’d like to know about. It’s easy to identify this time of year, he wrote, because of its white flowers. Cursory Google research confirmed my suspicion that he was describing the very plant that had piqued my curiosity. I love it when things like that happen.

Anyway, it gets better. After the column hit the street, I received three quick hits from readers with knotweed tales to share. First, a longtime friend said he had often over the years found the stuff growing around cellar holes buried deep in the forest, which made sense, I told him, having read that it was introduced to North America as a residential ornamental bush. Then an old hunting buddy and devoted gatherer of wild foods chimed in that knotweed is prevalent up and down the Green River, especially down low between Green River Park and its confluence with the Deerfield River, where it lines both Deerfield banks around Old Deerfield’s North Meadows. Having read that it was wild and edible, my friend had picked, cleaned, steamed and sampled the young, asparagus-like spring sprouts but wasn’t impressed. Too sour for his taste. He said he’d rather focus on fiddleheads, which he finds much more palatable.

The third discussion was impromptu, coming quite by accident from Ashfield on the day my column hit the street. It just so happened that I had called a man at noontime to talk about detailed maps he’s producing of the bed and ancient glacial Lake Hitchcock, which for about four millennia submerged our Connecticut Valley from northern Vermont to southern Connecticut, filling up some 17,500 years ago and draining some 4,000 years later, around 13,500 years ago. Though the retired map-maker was away on errands, his wife answered and was eager to talk about knotweed. I had written about finding an online Pennsylvania farmer marketing knotweed honey, which she said her neighbor had just the previous day told her she had been producing, describing it as a dark, delicious September treat. Well, maybe so, but I’m not impressed. Call me provincial if you insist, but give me “native” wildflower honey any day, or maybe that produced from spring apple blossoms or clover. Come to think of it, those latter two imports also came long ago with the first sailing ships transporting a new breed to these North American shores. But that’s just me. Maybe I don’t know what I’m missing. The bees take advantage of what they’re given.

Which offers a handy segue into our next subject, apples, which are falling in heaps under trees just about everywhere in the county this year. My front-yard tree is loaded with the most beautiful deep-red, conical apples in creation. They’re ready to start dropping any day now, while four trees along my daily riverside walk are similarly overburdened with sweet green fruit. I’ve tasted it. Imperfect but very good. The dogs pick up and eat random apples from the first three trees we pass, which, like the one in my yard, are still bearing most of their fruit. On the other hand, there’s the large riverside tree that’s loaded with green apples that are now falling in buckets and fading to yellow both on the tree and the ground, yet more so on the ground, where the fruit softens as the yellow mellows before going brown and rotting.

Those apples have been dropping for a month now, first sporadically but now steadily, often two or three fall as I stand watching my dogs select from dozens on the ground whatever ones they want to eat. I still haven’t figured out why they select the ones they do, but the primary sense employed is smell. Both of them will often pass up five or six beauties before picking one up and crunching it down, stems, seeds and all.

It’s comical to watch the two dogs’ eating idiosyncrasies. Old mom, Lily, 11, is more thorough. Once she selects an apple, she sits calmly, chomps it in half and drops a quarter on the ground as she eats what’s left in her mouth. Then she picks up the dropped quarter and eats it before dropping her nose to grab the other half, chomping it in half and repeating the process till done. Son Chubby, 4, goes about the chore wastefully. A bit of a glutton, he sniffs around, selects an apple, crunches it in half and devours it as if in competition, often neglecting to eat the half he’s dropped on the ground. He typically ignores that chunk and moves on to find another whole one, most often again leaving half on the ground. Sometimes those surplus halves will be eaten in the same session by Lily. Other times, either Lily or Chubby will clean them up the next day. Seems to be no rhyme nor reason to it, especially relative to Chub-Chub, still a kid in the big picture. When he eats an entire apple, he usually does so lying down on his belly, head high as he chews and swallows.

Then there’s the other peculiar eating habit Chubby has displayed in recent days. I noticed last week that his normal touring pattern on the upper terrace of our daily walk had suddenly changed by running ahead at a place where he usually lingered behind with Lily. Usually, I’d have to call both dogs as I passed through a thin stand of trees between upper fields because they like to sniff around in the parcel known as Hideaway, where wild animals seem to leave a lot of scent. Last week, thinking the dogs were behind me, I gave them a whistle, buzzed their collars and, to my surprise, noticed Lily responding from the field I was headed to. There was no sign of Chub-Chub till I turned a gentle bend in the treeline and discovered him lying down eating something along the cornfield. It’s been repeated every day since and will likely continue until the corn is cut and chopped. What he’s doing is running ahead to the cornfield, picking fresh young ears of corn, opening the husk at the silk, and lustily devouring the ear inside, cob and all.

I guess the dogs learned to enjoy corn by eating our summer garbage cobs. Figuring it won’t hurt them any, I have allowed the dogs to eat our leftover cobs. No fool, Chubby’s now picking his own and eating the kernels, too. It’s not his maiden voyage. I first noticed him eating cow corn last year during a pheasant hunt, when, hungry during a strenuous hunt, he ran to a tall cornfield and actually sprung up onto his hind legs to rip off an ear and run a short distance to lie down and eat it before returning to remove another ear.

In my mind, all this natural food can’t be bad for my pets. It must be good for them, or they wouldn’t eat it. Plus it’s free, they look great and have a noticeable bounce to their steps — even old hag Lily, a sprite 77 in human age.

It’s clear to me that they’ll be locked and loaded for the approaching pheasant season. Which reminds me … time to buy a license hunting online.

Off I go.

Buzzing Bushes

When you’re born into a place, stay and have deep roots there, then explore it for more than a half-century and write about it from many perspectives over nearly 40 years in the public sphere, you’re bound to gather an insightful local corps of loyal readers who understand your focus and chime in as spotters and sources from time to time with helpful tips.

Enter Bill Gokey of Conway by way of Leverett, which is where I met him 35 years ago when purchasing a Cracker-Jack black Labrador retriever gun dog named Sugarloaf Saro Jane, my dear Sara. As a versatile, all-around family pet and gun dog, she is probably my best, though I’ve owned many gun dogs of royal pedigree, tireless spirit and stamina that could match or top her in the field alone.

That, however, is neither here nor there for this narrative. What I’m here to discuss today is a problematic non-native invasive plant called Japanese Knotweed, which, go figure, has actually been dumped into my lap twice over the past two weeks — first by an old South Deerfield buddy who runs the South Deerfield Water Dept. and wanted the date of a Wendell knotweed lecture, then Gokey, who intermittently stays in touch with this and that from the pastoral surroundings of his Bear River Horse Farm.

More interesting than the subject itself, I suppose, is the way Gokey’s email dovetailed snugly into a timely personal inquiry I had already entangled myself in by the time it arrived in my inbox Sunday afternoon. Yup — Bingo! — it was right on the mark. Helpful, too. Because, you see, beginning Friday and continuing for a couple of days after that, I was puzzled by tall, dense flowering bushes on a stony, sweeping turn along the Green River bank. My interest had first been piqued by a loud chorus of buzzing emanating from two of these broadleaf bushes I split on my daily exit route from a refreshing, splashy, daily quarter-mile upriver walk with springer spaniels Lily and Chubby.

Initially, I was focused on identifying the bees. Were they Mason or bumble bees, wild pollinators I had written about weeks ago? Commercial honey bees? Wild honey bees? Or all of the above?

Well, after close, extended, two-day observation, I am satisfied they were all honey bees, every last one of them. Whether wild or domestic, well, your guess is as good as mine. Is there a way to tell? I know of none, but let me add that in the hot noontime sun Tuesday these same bees were in great numbers taking something from the sand on the river’s edge along the west bank. What they were after in damp, barren sand is beyond me. But they were all over the place, and not so much in the white blossoms that had gone by and were dropping seeds that attracted coveys of mourning doves my dogs had a blast flushing and briefly chasing.

On the other hand, I was confronted by the riddle of how in the world to identify these plants. Where to start? I was stumped until Gokey took care of the problem with his email that read like this:

“I know you love stream and river fishing, but the Japanese Knotweed will probably soon make access to the water next to impossible. It’s very easy to recognize the weed right now by its white flowers, and there’s lots of it following the South River along Shelburne Road in Conway. Along Route 116 toward Ashfield is the same.”

Hmmmm? Imagine that. Maybe that’s what I was encountering along the Green River. It definitely had the white flowers. I immediately went to my laptop, Googled Japanese Knotweed pictures and knew I had it pegged. Then the written material I scanned told me all I had to know, including the fact that a Pennsylvania farmer was marketing knotweed honey on his website. Apparently, judging from what I’ve seen with my own deteriorating brown eyes, someone near me is also selling such honey, whether that someone knows it or not. Then again, if the honey bees working those tiny white knotweed flower clusters are wild, maybe I could follow one back to a hollowed out tree or stonewall and find a good batch of salubrious wild honey. I guess it can be done, but you’re talking to the wrong guy because I have never seen such a wild honey hive, just read about them.

Anyway, the online info I uncovered says invasive Japanese Knotweed is native to Japan but now exists throughout North America and much of Europe. Once established, it’s very difficult to eradicate, thus, my friend the water department dude’s interest in the lecture he could not attend due to a Utah wedding. Apparently there are two varieties: Japanese and Giant Knotweed, and both have the same damaging effect in rivers and streams. The invasive plants multiply and eliminate other plant life while clogging small waterways and increasing bank erosion. Obviously, the plant can be spread by flooding rivers, not to mention birds like the mourning doves I saw that spread the seeds over a wide span. There have to be other seed-eaters that broadcast the seeds far and wide.

Tell me, where will it all stop? Last week I’m bemoaning the importation of pet jungle snakes that have taken residence in Southern swamps. Now Japanese Knotweed obscuring my daily rambles. Call me provincial, but I prefer native plants and animals any day of the week. And that goes for trout, too. You can have the imported browns and rainbows. For me, I’ll take squaretails any day of the week: that is Eastern Brook Trout, our indiginous trout, a proud member of the char family.

And while we’re at it, hold the knotweed honey. Make mine clover or wildflower, excluding the Far Eastern intruder.


Could there be a better example of the kind of weather bear hunters dread during the September season than what greeted them for the opening two days this week? The season opened on Tuesday in hot, muggy weather, which lingered through Wednesday. Who wants to hunt in 90-degree weather, and who wants to drag a burly bear out of the woods in sweltering heat to quickly prepare it for the freezer? Unless you have a walk-in cooler available, as few hunters do, there is no time to spare in butchering a kill, not with overnight temps in the high 60s. Then there’s the tick factor in the woods, where there promises to be no shortage on summer days. For bear hunters’ sake, I do hope the temperature drops to provide more favorable conditions, but it looks like there’s no relief in sight, with three straight muggy days in the mid-70s and nights in the upper 60s forecast.

Foreign vipers, wild foods

Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! But jungle snakes as well? Hmmm? We’ll see.

As the Sturgeon Moon wanes toward the fall equinox and the hard- and soft-mast crops mature, I’m still in my summer mode when the first quarter-mile of the last leg of my daily walk back to the truck brings me through the refreshing Green River, known to the Happy Valley’s first people as the Picomegan.

Wearing shorts and Keen sandals — my grandsons call theirs “water shoes” — which offer traction plus hard-rubber toe protection for my feet and theirs, plus polarized sunglasses that clear a window to the stream bed of free-flowing, stone-bed water, I can monitor minnows, crawfish and underwater gravel-cased caddis pupa as I walk my dogs. Before descending down into the water through a steep, narrow beaver trench, I allow the dogs to eat green-apple drops while I gather six or eight prime specimens to carry in my pocket and throw into deep water to initiate swimming retrieves and baths in one playful fell swoop. This fruit and the selected grasses and carrion they eat along the way supplement their dry dog food and provide added vitamins, nutrition and likely herbal medicine they seem to have a good handle on. Yes, and Chubby continues to eagerly run daily to the Rose of Sharon bush along my property’s western perimeter to eat as many reddish flowers as I allow, assuming they too have something good to offer or he wouldn’t eat them.

I must admit that a new disturbing thought crosses my mind lately during ankle- to knee-deep river rambles. I just can’t purge the image of 20-foot rock pythons I read about in Edward R. Ricciuti’s “Bears in the Backyard,” a book I reviewed last week about new potentially dangerous critters infiltrating suburban habitats. Ricciuti says the Florida swamps are now the home of these giants snakes from faraway jungles that are bought as pets and released into the wild when they get too big to feed and care for. Although such a snake could never survive our winters, thus no danger of them growing 10 additional feet after release as they do in Florida, someone could still release such a snake that’s at least 10 feet long into a local river to get rid of it, and I admit the thought enters my mind as we splash through the river. Ricciuti says that with the North American climate warming at an alarming rate, these huge snakes capable of killing Everglades alligators, panthers and deer, will eventually be capable of wintering over perhaps as far north as the mid-Atlantic states, and that has to be spooky indeed to outdoor enthusiasts as far north as Virginia.

So, tell me: Why does the government allow these huge constrictors into the country? They don’t belong in North America.

But let’s not digress. Back to the river rambles and a short revisit to assessment of fruits and berries and nuts along the way, all of which attract wildlife such as deer, bears, turkeys and many smaller critters that devour mast crops to nourish themselves for long, cold winters.

The appearance of that beech limb I wrote about falling to the ground for some reason last week has changed dramatically. A woman who sits next to me at work asked if I’d bring in some beechnuts for her to examine. So I picked a handful Sunday morning from that fallen branch. In a week, the leaves had gone from healthy green to dry, crinkly brown and the thorny husks had switched from olive to golden brown while spreading their wings to allow the two olive-colored shelled nuts, faded some and drier than a week ago, to fall free. I never investigated the meat inside until Monday afternoon in the office, and it had gone from wall-to-wall white to a narrow, shriveled-up tan sliver dwarfed inside the three-sided shell. The discovery explained why in my half-century travels the overwhelming number of beechnuts I’ve opened have been hollow. Clearly the edible white meat disappears fast by drying up once the nuts hit the ground. Apparently, enough fall in moist places where they can quickly take hold and germinate, because in beech groves I’ve visited for years there are few meaty nuts despite dense, immature, smooth-gray understory beech saplings. A forester told me last year or the year before that many of those upstart trees sprout not from nuts but off the roots of larger beeches.

It never ceases to amaze me how I can walk the same place daily for nearly two decades and continue to glean new information about plants and animals, woods and fields, swamps and rivers, the sky, and history deep and shallow from year to year. Not only that, but I’ve been studying this place I call home here in the upper Pioneer Valley for at least 55 years, and miraculously keep bumping into new, exciting discoveries weekly, if not daily or by the minute. I guess that’s what makes life worth living, especially if you’re curious and want to understand your place and that of your deep ancestry. Only fools believe they can ever know it all. Fact is, no one ever knows it all. Sadly, life isn’t long enough to get to that loftiest state of consciousness.

Responding to last week’s column assessing bottomland mast crops, after I had confessed I had not yet explored royal upland hardwood spines, an observant hilltown reader chimed in early this week with a detailed mast-crop report “from around 1,700 feet.”

“Up here, we have a limited acorn crop — much less than last year when there were so many that it was like walking on marbles through the oaks,” he wrote. “… While acorns are sparser, white ash trees are having a booming seed year. Just loaded.

“Although acorns are limited, there has been abundant food in the woods for bears, etc. this summer — starting with red elderberries, then lots of raspberries, chokecherries, apples, etc.” he continued. “It looks like there will be plenty of regular elderberries, too.

“Checking scat lets you see what bears (and fox and coyotes) are eating. One sample last week was loaded with apple chunks. … Some I saw this week had black-cherry pits in it.”

So there you have it — the state of natural feed from above and below — plus a little tease about big imported serpents capable of squeezing the life out of a full-grown man, not to mention many unprepared animals that cross their paths through the infiltrated wetlands.

Just the thought of it can be unnerving.