The air was gray, leaves piled in massive, narrow mounds, front yard and back, as the rain let up and a strong, blustery, north wind rattled the dining-room window like a ghost begging for coffee. I took it as a call from the wild, 9:05 a.m. on old Eli Terry, pride of Plymouth, Conn., circa 1824. It looked like a great day to hunt, run the dogs and get some exercise. Off to a covert saturated with free ancestral spirits, happy ghosts that lift me during every visit, help me understand the habitat and how game birds utilize it.
With my mind fixed on hunting, I promptly went to the carriage shed to retrieve my hunting clothes and warm them on chairs in front of the woodstove before gathering three armloads of cordwood to fill the iron cradle next to it. When done, I opened the stove, heaped the red-hot embers over the grate, went back into the woodshed and selected two hefty pieces of black locust to burn during my absence, dampered down for a slow, soothing burn. I next sat on a wing chair and put on my athletic shorts, tube socks and sleeve that overlaps them both to cover my knee under a brace. That done, I was ready to strap on my brace and put on my T-shirt, cotton shooting shirt, whistle lanyard and Filson Tincloth bibs, fastening a belt tightly at the waist before lacing up my boots, grabbing the side-by-side leaning against the door jamb and heading out for my shooting vest, orange hat and dogs. The stormy nor’easter wind promised to make the hunt challenging, scattering scent and giving any pheasants that flushed a strong, quick tailwind to safety.
I arrived at the covert before 10 and was pleased to see a neighboring hunter’s vehicle parked in his yard. He hunts the field plenty but objects to other hunting there, thinks he owns the place despite holding title to not a square inch. He had probably already hunted there earlier, but that didn’t concern me. I’ve been getting mine behind him for 30 years, seems to always be enough for everyone. Apparently he doesn’t think so, believes they’re all his. After passing a decaying barnyard and making a sharp left turn, I could see from afar that the covert was vacant. Perfect. Even if people had already been through, I felt confident Lily and Buddy would make things happen. They didn’t disappoint.
The first flush, a hen about five minutes into my walk, caught me totally by surprise as I jumped a ditch swollen with water from the heavy overnight rain. I found a narrow crossing, looked down, pushed off with my bad left leg and, before I landed, Lily had the bird flying with the wind. By the time I mounted my weapon and found the flying bird, it was too late, out of range, never even squeezed off a shot. The bird totally left the cover, flying all of a quarter mile into the other side of a dense alder swamp. No problem. Things were looking up. But Lily wasn’t pleased. She prefers her flushes to be followed by a deafening roar and a retrieve. Not this time. My god, the disgusted looks I get from that dog and others over the years when a bird escapes. It’s priceless. Truly priceless.
Anyway, I continued along an old fence row dense with high, thorny cover and, judging from Lily’s energy, suspected another bird was about to flush, which didn’t happen immediately. No, I followed that fence row all the way to the end, dropped into a depression and back up the other side before following a tree line and ditch back in the direction from which I had come, crosswind perfect, blowing right to left. Lily lit up and sprinted down a manmade path into some seven-foot cover. There, she stopped on a dime and headed directly into the wind for the ditch, a hidden pheasant runway. I positioned myself for a clear shot and soon heard a cackle, caught a flash on the other side of two or three tall white pines, then saw a ringed-neck rooster pop into the open 45 yards away, angling quickly away from me with the wind at its back. I dropped my forefinger onto the back trigger and reluctantly fired to no avail. Birds 2, me 0. Oh well. It wasn’t over yet.
With my interest piqued, there was still lots of acreage to hunt, albeit under difficult conditions, wind whipping the goldenrod and other high, brown weeds in all directions, making it difficult to hear and follow the dogs’ movement. I don’t use a bell on my dogs because I believe the noise sets a smart bird fleeing; in fact, am convinced of it. But that’s just me. Many prefer a bell. To each his own.
I followed the hedgerow west to another water-filled ditch and thin row of alders running south toward a large house on a knoll overlooking the covert. Lily soon picked up scent on the other side of the ditch and started running fast, bouncing, nose high, dark brown ears flopping above the underbrush in the wind. I knew there was a bird nearby, was careful to point my feet in the right direction for a flush. Lily followed the scent trail into a thick hillside alder stand 25 to 30 yards to my right and I quickly heard a hen pheasant whistle into flight, then caught her headed right toward the house. I had a good shot but it would have been right at the house so I didn’t fire, not worth angering abutters to a good covert, even if you are 500 feet away. The bird soon changed direction, swinging left and riding the wind for the deep, dense, overgrown alder swamp, finally presenting a safe, difficult, 40- to 50-yard shot I attempted with my back trigger and missed. Birds 3, me 0. One of those days, conditions in the birds’ favor. Not a problem. Fun.
I continued south along the gnarly ditch, sun in my face but high enough to be a non-factor, and arrived at a familiar stand of cattails backed up by alders and marsh from which I have flushed many birds over the years. Lily and Buddy aggressively searched for scent on my side of the water-filled ditch first, then swam maybe 10 feet to the other side, searching furiously for pheasant scent. Buddy stayed close and I told Lily to “go back,” which she happily did, determined to kick something up. As she splashed through alders and cattails, a faraway rooster cackled and caught my attention. When I looked in the direction of the sound, I caught a wild flush 150 yards out, flying out of the covert and into the dense alder swamp, out of reach. Then, when I refocused on Lily, maybe 40 yards out and animated, up came a whistling hen at angled away from me quickly with the help of a wind gust. It wasn’t much of a shot but I’ve seen similar ones connect, so I squeezed off another back-trigger prayer and didn’t alter the bird’s flight a bit. Oh well, four flushes, three back-trigger heybangers and not so much as a feather on the ground. One of those days, I guess, but good column fodder. I decided to go home and record the events, put another column in the rear-view to clear up precious hunting-season time.
I hunted back to my truck, flushed nothing, boxed up the dogs, unloaded my gun, put in snap-caps and pulled the triggers to relieve the spring tension before closing old Jean Breuil back in his hard plastic case. As I pulled out of my spot listening to WEEI know-it-alls Dale and Holley evaluating the Patriots’ lopsided loss to Cleveland, I saw a pheasant-stocking truck approaching from a half-mile up the road. We eventually passed each other on my way out and I stopped along the side of the road to watch MassWildlife’s finest fly 12 birds into the covert I had just left. Nice! I wasn’t interested in going back; hate hunting a freshly stocked field; too chaotic, birds disoriented and easy. Plus, I had another agenda: this column.
I figured I’d give other fellas the rest of the day to kill birds and shack others around before I returned the next morning, not particularly early. There always seems to be enough birds to go around if you’re not selfish; if you don’t think you own the place, have exclusive rights to it. I have no time or respect for such people; hypocrites, pigs. I’ve had many fine days hunting behind them, and it drives them crazy. They’ve probably had success behind me, too. Don’t know or care.
To be honest, it never bothers me one bit when I have a day like I had Monday in a November nor’easter. I got my exercise, the dogs had fun and a powerful north wind scattered pheasants into an impenetrable bog. They’ll be back, and so will I, whether my buddy likes it or not.
Four flushes, including a wild one, three back-trigger heybangers and a stocking truck on the way out to freshen the place up for another day. A good day in my book, even though my game bag was empty.