Tuesday, February 17, 2009

An Affair with Woodcock

Toss the word woodcock into a conversation with a group of people and most will give you a empty stare. Perhaps someone will know that it is a small brown bird with a long bill that frequents swampy areas, but if by chance there is a woodcock hunter in that group of people you can bet that his eyes will light up, his pulse will quicken, and his attention will be solely upon you with the hope that you will perhaps reveal the location of a woodcock sighting, for a woodcock hunter is always on the alert for a possible lead to any new covert that he can find for it is the nature of the bird to be a mystery, with it's migratory behavior a woodcock covert can be overflowing with birds one day and void of birds the next.

To find a person who will admit to being a woodcock hunter in the Allegheny Mountains is a rare find indeed. Huge racked bucks and long bearded tom turkeys are much more impressive than a small long billed misplaced shore bird. Even grouse hunters who take a shot at a woodcock when the opportunity arises will admit that it is the thunderking of bird the ruffed grouse that they mainly seek. But I will step out of the shadows and admit that I am a woodcock hunter. When the season is open you will find my truck nosed off the road along a damp stream bottom, a swampy looking lake edge, or a wet lying abandoned meadow where my setter and I will be questing for the thin flights of birds that are typical of these Allegheny Mountains

With its penchant to hold tight for a pointing dog as opposed to a skitterish grouse the woodcock is a great bird to train a young dog on or enjoy the rock solid points of an older dog, although I have had days when the little buggers have run like rabbits out from under a point. Thought by some to be an "easy" bird to bag I've found myself turned, twisted, and generally befuddled by the evasive, contorted flight of the woodcock and some days my shooting average is embarrassing low. But the reasons I pursue woodcock are not to fill a game bag. One is to enjoy the solitude of the dense low lying coverts that the birds seek out. Level walking for sure, but not easy walking as you fight your way through tangles of alders. thorny crabapple thickets, and other nasty flora, but the key reason I pursue woodcock is the dog work. To hear your dogs bell go silent or it's beeper go on point mode, to" quietly" fight your way through nearly impenetrable cover, to find your dog camouflaged in mud frozen in a crouching point, to experience the anticipation of the abrupt flush through impervious branches, to sense the recoil of the gun against your shoulder, to see the bird drop or fly away.......these are the reasons I hunt woodcock.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

An Improbable Partnership

To have my nephew Jim-Bob become my regular hunting partner was something I could not have imagined just a few short years ago. A hunter for sure, but of deer and turkey, he was never a "dogman". His one attempt at dog ownership involved a beagle of questionable parentage that was brought home one evening and because of his incessant barking only lasted into the early morning hours at which time he was promptly dumped off at my parents farm to live out his life as a barn dog. Some years later his then 11 year old son Caleb wanted a dog "like Ricks" Ryman-type setters. I suppose there was some heavy conversations between Jim-Bob and his wife Tracy, who had been bitten by a dog as a young girl and was at the least "uncomfortable" around dogs. I believe my Hattie, with her calm loving disposition had a big part in persuading them into getting young Caleb a setter pup. A call to Andy Sorg, a long-time Ryman breeder, confirmed that he did indeed have a litter on the way and one warm May day we headed north to pick up a cute orange belton male was was christened Zeke. Soon Zeke had won the hearts of all of the family and was taken everywhere they went. His bond with Tracy is still talked about with awe by her friends who knew her as a "dog shy" person and to this day Zeke worships the ground she walks on.

As the first fall rolled around Jim-Bob and Zeke started to make excursions into the woods along with my setters,first for woodcock and then grouse. As with any young dog Zeke had alot to learn about wild birds and patience was never one of Jim-Bob's strong points. He would fuss and fume whenever Zeke bumped a bird or hunted out too far but whenever Zeke was able to "put it all together" I would see the pride in Jim-Bob's eyes. Now as Zeke approaches his 3rd birthday he has indeed matured into a handsome setter and his abilities as a birddog are steadily improving to the point that on our last two hunts of the season Zeke was the dog who found and pointed the only grouse we found. It has been a real pleasure watching Jim-Bob and Zeke mature into a birdhunting team.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Southern Somerset Co. Cemetery

Lying on the spine of a desolate ridgetop in southern Somerset County is a small cemetery. Known only to the State Gameland workers who have kept the brush and briers at bay, and to a few passing hunters who happen to stop and wonder about its history. Some of the tombstones are weathered beyond reading, some graves are marked with a simple piece of slate and some are just impressions in the ground, their occupants forever a mystery.

In one grave rests a Civil War veteran. Jno. Kennel with no birth or death date just an ancient bronze star with the inscription Veteran 61-65. He rests forever on that quiet ridgetop far from the horrors of that bloody conflict he was a part of.

The most poignant part of this cemetery are the graves of Mrs. Halle and her two sons, George and Luther. Anna France Halle born 1884 died 1925 lived what must have been a rough life on a hardscrabble farm with its steep and rocky fields. She lived only 41 years on this earth but witnessed the death of her son Luther born 1918 died 1921. Her son George born 1906 lived and toiled on these rocky slopes 22 years before dying in 1928. There is no marker for Anna's husband. Did he finally give up after the death of George? Left alone or perhaps with other children to raise on his own did he leave this forlorn piece of land in search of some other place to start anew far away from the memories of this lonely windswept ridge farm? These are the unanswered mysteries of old cemeteries