"Hope, charlatan though she may be, lures us along a pretty road to the end," wrote the 17th century dreamer La Rochefoucauld. What are we with rod and gun that rise before dawn but dreamers? Long before the alarm clock sounds we are awake like children waiting to open the presents of birthdays past. Knocking a shower of objects off a night table we turn on a light, and like the vainest dandy dressing for a ball we put on long johns, and coarse woolen socks, a hole in the toe.
Next we don a pair of the ugliest drab pants, the ones with several torn belt loops and a faded camo shirt (the new one still feels stiff after repeated washings.) A favorite sweater, souvenir from a decades old Irish adventure and escapee from many attempts by thrift shop determined wives. Now a search begins: there is only one hunting glove. Soon there are 3 mismatched pairs: a heavy black arctic glove, large and right handed; a shrunken olive lefty with a hole in the index finger; a right deerskin glove; a white spandex golf glove bought on a trip the last time the gloves went missing; an expensive pair of Orvis shooting gloves, birthday present for your wife and never worn (they are too small one of the new camo shooting gloves ordered just weeks ago on line; its mate at last turns up, stuck to the inside of your camo brush chaps. The new boots, expensive and Gortex lined, feel as stiff this year as they did the last and the supple, scuffed ones win out once again.
Several hats are considered: baseball caps in camo and orange with the legends of past trips to preserves in Georgia, Maryland, Michigan and Maine; lined Elmer Fudd hats with ear flaps; hats with criminal face masks for deer and turkey hunts; a never worn Panama straw hat supposedly sun-proof; a broad brimmed suede hat sometimes used for fishing; a green tweed cap made in London to go with the Saville Row driven shooting duds. The orange baseball cap bearing the patch of a Georgia quail plantation is selected again and the others remain in a pile on the floor next to the bed. The ritual begins with vests: an orange safety vest, still covered with burrs, bought on Ebay for $2; a Filson "tin cloth" game vest, one of the straps held together with safety pins; a heavy wool vest that had looked good in a catalogue; a tweed waist coat that came with the shooting suit; a khaki vest, too large and somehow "wrong" that was an un-returnable Christmas present from the kids. The tin cloth vest is again the winner.
It is still just 3:30 AM. The dropping and banging has awakened your wife several times. The dog, like a coiled spring, is quivering by the door. Still, a bird gun must be chosen. We are going after grouse, woodcock and fall turkeys. The 12 gauges are too heavy, the .410's too light. The OU's are too heavy to carry. That leaves side-by-sides and semi autos. A 3rd shot can be nice, but encourages sloppy shooting. The double guns have elegant wood with engraving that calls out like the song of Sirens. There is the new .28 gauge, smuggled into the house in a battered case.
"What gun is that,¡± your wife had asked when you first brought it home?"
"The old one," the safe refrain you give like a response in church.
It comes up to your face like silk. It feels like a wand in the hand. It has deeply chiseled, acanthus engraving that extends an inch onto the barrels. It cost the price of a small car but was an ¡°investment.¡± What if you trip over a root, clumsy oaf that you are, and it gets damaged? Well, it's insured. A 20 gauge would give you more reach ¨C remember the long shot at a woodcock you missed last year? Was it you or the gun? Yes, but the 28 will do less damage to a grouse or woodcock. But, what if we run into a flock of turkeys? The guide can carry the 12 gauge semi auto with #4 turkey loads. To hell with it, the 28 it will be, though a 20 OU and a 16 gauge SxS are taken down as well and 4 gun cases end up by the door. Then the training whistle on a leather lanyard, holding a lifetime of duck bands, a dummy shock collar to keep the dog religious, a real one you won't use (it isn't charged anyway) and a blaze orange dog vest fresh from the same catalogue as the new gloves.
By 4 AM our SUV is loaded. We are meeting the guide at 6 but there is a long drive. Oops, forgot the wallet. Back inside. Back again for the 16 gauge shells just in case. Now we are ready. It is Sunday. Sunday hunting is banned in New Jersey and in neighboring Pennsylvania. Why fish may be taken but animals must be left to Sabbath rituals in these states I have never understood. Thankfully New York is enlightened and we head north to the Catskills where the fish & game department has assured me there are the highest flush rates in the state. 1.8 an hour? I try to visualize a .8 grouse. Minus the fan? We arrive at the Bun & Cone in Margaretville and wait for the guide. We are early and I sip the large coffee I have already spilled twice, once on my shirt and pants and once all over the shift console (those fffing lids!)
Charles "Sonny" Somelofski, late of the Tremperskill General Store in Andes and past president of the NYS Guides Association hoves to in his new Dodge Dakota half ton Hemi pickup, lowers his immense bulk to the ground and shambles over. I had not hunted with him since the start of our 3-day hunt on Friday when I learned he had not really guided since 9/11.
"I put on a little weight since I got married." I think about 50 pounds a year. They must have shares in Crispy Kreme.
"Hello there boy," he says AGAIN to my female Lab Dandy for the 3rd day in a row. He has forgotten the answer to his question yesterday about her pink collar, a birthday gift from my daughter Alice. Why does it irritate me so much when people want to call her a boy? I load my gear into his truck and Dandy leaps nimbly into the back seat of the crew cab.
"We are hunting the ______forrest today on the other side of the reservoir."
"Yeah but no one ever hunts it in small game season but me. Don't go there in firearm deer season, it's a war zone."
The ride isn't bad and there are few cars on the road. I am regaled with stories about his mother-in-law, his wife's bad ankle and his troublesome nephew by the time we get to the game lands, a 600 acre parcel tucked between some dairy farms.
"You can cut down through the woods and I will walk up this trail and down the logging road. "
"No, you can have the woods, I will take the road. Who"s the client here?"
"OK, take the road about 300 yards. Then you will get to a fork. You take the left fork and then..."
"Why don;t we just meet at the fork," I suggest.
Like a derailed steam engine Sonny sets off through the woods. Dandy bounces around the sides of our trail; she pees; she drinks some water; she eats some kind of wild grass and manages to roll in some gut wrenching dung.
I whistle when she gets out too far and she races back. I stop her with a single blast.
She easily clears a stone wall, the fruit of 18th century labors. Then she circles around, seems to get a little birdy, crosses the trail to the other side and rouses a chipmunk. This continues for 100 yards. I see a gleam through the trees. We get closer and there is an SUV. Nobody hunts here? I turn onto the logging road and there is a muddy Jeep parked in the weeds. Hmmm.
Dandy continues her peregrinations, bouncing through ferns, dancing past log piles, pushing through brush. It has been logged recently and often but well, not the disgusting mess you sometimes see on private land that has been raped, all the hardwood ripped out like vital organs, in a wake of scrap, rubbish, ruined equipment and stumps. A few forest birds the size of wrens, relocate as we pass. After half an hour, a black squirrel. We stop to look at a wood turtle, temporarily stalled in a rivulet. Dandy sniffs its harmless beak and it tries to pull inside its shell. Unlike box turtles, this is impossible; I guess they all have the instinct. I sit on a stump, put the gun down and pick it up to admire it. I look it up on my PDA and find this:
"Wood Turtle (Clemmys insculpta) State Threatened Species
Identification: 5 1/2" to 8". The shell of the wood turtle is very rough and looks sculpted in appearance. Each scute (?) of the carapace is in the form of an irregular pyramid rising upward in a series of concentric grooves and ridges. Parts of the neck and limbs of the wood turtle have reddish-orange coloration.
Where to find them: This turtle is a riparian species that uses a mosaic of wetland and upland habitats in the
vicinity of its stream habitat. The wood turtle requires clean streams running through meadows, woods, and farmlands. While wood turtles are typically found in or near their home waters, they frequently wander far afield. They will rest in the shade of vegetation, fallen logs, or debris.
When to find them: Active late March or early April through October. Active mostly in morning and late afternoon/evening, but may also be out during midday.
Range: All of the Northern Region, except the urbanized regions of the eastern counties. Sparse records in the
Threatened? Who would hurt such a creature? Eat them? It seems like a violation of the sacred code of the woods. I put him (her? Probably her, since the tail is quite long) back in the shallow water. It doesn¡¯t move off and eyeballs me. I study her face, wise child of 75 million years. Probably a great grandmother, they have great longevity, their ancestors walked with dinosaurs, survived the ice age. Rocky the raccoon and friends ate their eggs, the Indians turned generations of her family into bowls. What could be passing through her field of hazy day dreams?
There is a small blue flower, like a corn flower only paler that appears occasionally by the path. I wonder what kind it is but don't feel botanical enough to start browsing the web again. Dandy catches a squirrel off guard, no doubt a juvenile of the year, and there is a moment of excitement. I am forbidden to shoot squirrels by my daughter Alice and no one in the family is willing to eat they. They are the devil incarnate to clean. If you don't skin them immediately you need industrial equipment to get the hide off. Rabbits just come out of their pajamas with minimul effort. You also need three to make a decent squirrel stew so the squirrel is allowed to escape up a tree and worn his pals.
At last we attain the fork in the logging road. At least I think we have. It is a bit overgrown where it shears off to the left and the grade is steep. There is a good sitting rock handy so I put down the gun and get Dandy to stop. She pants for a bit and then tries to start hunting again. I call her back more firmly and she half sits, quivering. A shape looms in the distance, coming from the wrong direction. Did Sonny get lost again like on Friday? No it is two hunters, members of the Nobody- Here club. They are cap-a- pie in camouflage, no blaze orange, obviously fearless of the bow hunters, shotguns over their shoulders. They have the gaunt frames and leathery red faces of serious drinkers. Each is smoking. At least the woods are still damp from days of recent rain.
"Any luck. We;re hunting turkeys. Saw a flock at dawn, couldn¡¯t call 'em in. No grouse, only a few tweeties. No, I'm waiting for my friend, he's down there somewhere. (Shots are heard in the hollow.) Take it easy."
I call Sonny's name a few times. No answer. Dandy finally gives up trying to go into business for her self and lies down. A few more shots resound through the almost leafless trees. The wind picks up, promised to hit 15 mph today. That will kill it for the turkeys. They rely on eyesight for their salvation and hunker down when they can't tell waving fen from a foe. At last the "guide" puffs into view, slowly picking his way up the trail behind me.
Any luck? No, no flushes, no woodcock. Did you see those turkey hunters? Yeah they are friends of mine. The tall one works at¡.and my sister knows...." We turn back and Dandy resumes her woodland waltz, ignorant of its futility.
"I flushed two partridge down there."
He points to the middle distance. I wonder what it accomplishes for the guide to flush birds so far away.
"Well, there is this other spot I'd like to try near the reservoir, by that cemetery we passed. I haven't hunted it in five years, but I took out these two guys from...." He suggests.
"Know what the difference is between a partridge and a grouse," he asks?
"Aren't they the same?"
"A partridge is when you want meat and shoot them out of a tree. Grouse is when rich guys with nice guns go after them with dogs in fair chase. The best way to kill one is to run it over."
"Won¡¯t that destroy the meat?"
"No, you pass over it with the bird in the middle and it jumps up and breaks its neck. Once we were having a game dinner and I needed 20 partridge. Me and my buddy went out and killed 20 that way in an hour, they are smart in the woods but completely stupid on a road. They just stand and stare at you. We ran over 3 and shot the rest just before dark, when they were roosting, right out of the trees. You can see them from the road.
"What about fair chase?"
He shrugged. We drove back to my B&B from hell, the Margaretville Mountain Inn, and had lunch on the front porch. Sonny, to maintain his fabulous bulk, had brought himself two complete lunches, as well as two for me. Dandy ate two apples, my extra sandwich, 3 packs of peanut butter crackers and a Lorna Doone and then I went upstairs for a nap.