John Harrigan: It's October, bird season, so what am I waiting for?
To some people who've moved from non-hunting environs into New Hampshire's small towns and countryside, the sudden outbreak of gunfire is cause for alarm. Several times over the years, even way up near the top of the state in Lancaster and Colebrook, I've had tremulous and querulous calls from new neighbors wondering what was up, worrying that it was maybe the opening skirmishes of World War III.
“Nope, it's only the start of bird season,” I try to say in my most reassuring tone. And then sometimes I find myself explaining bird season. “Why would anyone want to shoot birds?” comes the incredulous question. Not dicky-birds and tit-willows, the birds you see at bird-feeders, I hasten to explain, but partridges, sometimes called ruffed grouse, and woodcock, sometimes called timberdoodles, and then, too, rabbits, sometimes called snowshoe hare. There are all these time-honored variations in the common vernacular, terms so often misunderstood as ignorance — the terms ridiculed as those of backward (and backwoods) louts — that I've taken, for example, to writing it as “fisher (cat)” to honor the traditionalists (that would be me) and waylay the finger-waggers.
The newcomers seem to be okay with this definition of bird-hunting, but then I wonder what the reaction will be when they spy Elmer Fudd out there, all clad in orange like a popsicle, bearing (gasp) a gun. Call 911? This is why I often hunt in green woolens during bird season, hiding my betraying soft-as-felt hunger-orange vest in my fanny-pack until, or unless, I get into a place where I might need it, thus avoiding arousing the citizenry.
Sometimes on opening day, when I'm spotted on the sidewalk or in the grocery store or at the coffee counter, someone will say, “Hey, I thought you'd be out in the woods,” meaning out there gunning for birds.
Actually, I eschew October 1st in favor of finishing up touches for winter around the farm, even as the gunshots echo from swamps and ridges. My reasoning, such as it is, is this:
-- Scads of hunters from down below the notches are up here in full cry, often with bird dogs, which are not in full cry, except for beagle hounds in search of rabbits, but are doing their breed's best to let their hunters know where the birds are, and even better, finding a bird after it's downed. There's nothing a hunter hates more than a wounded or killed creature that cannot be found and retrieved, and this is where, to me, a good bird-dog really shines. And so I yield the field to the legions of good hunters who have put so much into their passion and pursuit, caring for and training and loving their dogs all year long, year in and year out, in anticipation of this brief time of brilliant foliage, the crispness of the air and the rite of passage from one season to another.
-- Also, the leaves are still on the trees and in a territory where the old fields and pastures — “openings,” the old-timers called them — are growing in fast with shrubbery and trees, it's even harder than before to see what's going on, as in a bird flushing wildly only to disappear in foliage from almost the moment it takes wing. This brings on a love-hate relationship with a hunter who loves the landscape and the beauty of fall foliage, but wants the leaves gone, today, right this moment, in order to see and shoot.
But to really fess up here, I wait to hunt, beginning on just the right day, at just the right date and time, for grandly selfish reasons.
This would be Oct. 15, the end of fly-fishing season and, for me, the beginning of bird season. The early influx of hunters and dogs has passed, with only the die-hard and longtime hunters from afar sticking to it and staying on in camps and lodges that they and in some cases several generations have long visited and cherished. They are well-known and welcomed by locals who have long considered them just about locals too.
By mid-month, the leaves have fallen, ravaged to the ground by wind and rain. Up on the ridge where the camp sits on a hardwood knoll, trout rise for insects that have survived the hard frosts, and partridges peck away with a watchful eye out for predators, which in this case would be me.
And so I get to sally forth, a backpack carrying supper and other necessaries for camp, a hike I make with fly rod in one hand, shotgun in the other, feeling like nobility up there in a wild place with nobody around, riding the cusp of the seasons.
John Harrigan's column appears weekly in the New Hampshire Sunday News. His address is Box 39, Colebrook 03576. Email him at email@example.com.
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