In the morning we’ll hunt
“In the morning, we’ll hunt,” I tell the dogs. As if they can understand. They look at me, attentive, for I am talking to them and them alone. They do not understand, not the word “hunt,” not the concept of “tomorrow.” Still, I carry on the charade.
“There’s gotta be some woodcock, down along that little creek where we got on them last year.” They look at me, heads cocked. “In the morning,” I tell them, “we’ll hunt.”
The next morning we hunt. We hunt along a small creek; you can step across it if you have a long stride. It flows from a marshy area, winds through thick tag alders and clumps of brown grass. Off the creek are broken woodlands of mixed birch and popple, oak and spruce and balsam; Wisconsin woods.
There is fog along the edges of the morning, soft and gauzy. The fog fades the detail of the horizon and draws things closer. All that is in sharp focus is close at hand, and that is right, for on a hunt for upland birds, grouse and woodcock, all that matters is what is close. This is not duck hunting, where you scan the horizon for movement; this is upland hunting where all is more intimate.
The plan is a sound one: We will hunt along the edge on the east side of the creek, the dogs working in the heavy stuff as I skirt the fringes. After a quarter mile or so, we will move off the creek to more open woods, where skinny cutover popple are thick and balsam, interspersed, give cover. The woodcock will be in the damp and dark areas near water; grouse will be in the woody copses. There will be woodcock, early migrants, and they will be in good numbers, and we, the dogs and I, will have fast and lively shooting.
Such is the plan. And as is often the case when a well-crafted plan meets the harsh reality of the dawn, things do not unfold as expected. There are no birds in the thick brush along the creek. That is apparent in the first 10 minutes of the hunt. Had there been woodcock, we would have flushed them. It is a puzzle, but then hunting is mostly a puzzle.
So, now what? It is time to shift to Plan B, a shift complicated by the fact that Plan B does not exist. There was no need, as Plan A was a good one. Plan B comes together as we move up and away from the creek and the marsh to a high ridge that parallels a larger river. We’d seen birds there a year ago; time to see if they were there today.
We push thick brush as the land swells upward like a wave. On the crest of the ridge we stop; below, the Wisconsin River runs slow and wide, the water gray as the sky is gray. On the far side the white birch stand stark against dark background. A week ago, the birch bore a crown of gold and yellow; fall leaf color gone from summer green to autumn brilliance. Today the leaves are mostly gone; the high fine branches reach against the sky, bare.
There is no season that has the finality of autumn. Winter may linger; late snow comes in March, April and you think, “winter’s hanging on.” Summer stretches into September, October; 80 degrees a week ago, summer heat come late. There is no proper end to those seasons; there is simply a day when you realize that it’s over, and has been over for a while.
Not so with autumn. Autumn’s story is written in the brilliant colors, the reds and oranges and yellows, bright under the late sun, gaudy against the blue sky. You see that, and you know that fall is here. It is a time to rejoice, exhault, surround yourself in the glory of it all.
Then the leaves begin to fall, slowly, then faster, then, at the end, slowly again as the last hold on stubbornly. Then gone.
The leaves fall as if tears, and when they are done falling, the season has swung. You can expect a late snowstorm to mark winter; you can feel the summers heat in October. But once the last leaf has fallen, it has fallen forever, and that season has changed, and you will not see that for another span of 12 months. In the fall of leaf is the finality of autumn. A leaf on the ground will never rise again. Gone the color and the brilliance of those too short days of wonder and beauty of fall.
The dogs and I stand and look over the broad sweep of river and woods. There are still some yellow popple leaves, some russet brown of oak, the deep green of spruce and pine. But the glory of fall is gone, and it will not come back, no matter what the weather does.
There is a sadness in that realization; it seems such a short season, and there is a melancholy feel when it has gone. The dogs look at me, waiting. I wave my arm, and they are off into the brush.
We hunt that high ridge in thick cover, and put up two grouse, but they are gone in a flash, and I see only a blink of feather on the one, only hear the rush of wing on the other. The dogs work hard in the thick brush. I rarely see the dogs, only a glimpse of moving shadow or the mark of their passing as trees sway as they brush against them.
We push over the high ground and then down toward the creek bed where we had started. It is mild and humid, and I roll my sleeves up and deal with blackberry bramble and short, sharp sticks of saplings. When we get to the creek, the dogs wade in and lie down, panting and needing the cool water. I stand and wait and listen to the rush of the water; the dogs watch me. Then we hunt.
We hunt for another hour, and I never lift the gun. The twosome put up a handful of birds, but never a shot. We come to the broad span of the Wisconsin and rest. In the distance, mallards, eight, maybe 10, fly at treetop level, then set their wings and drop with certainty to a distant bend in the river.I say to myself, “That’s good to know” and promise to come back later with boat and decoys. But another day. On this morning we’ve had enough; the dogs are tired and I, for all the good plans, have not gotten into birds.
I call the dogs to the truck, and we drive home, there to pull stick and burr from their coats and small ticks from their head and ears. The dogs are tired and their fur is damp and matted. They lie on their beds with no energy to spare.
I look outside at a yard full of leaves, fallen ashes from the blaze of color a week ago. Gone now, gone the leaves, gone the season of leaf and color. I tell the dogs, “In the morning we’ll hunt.” But they do not lift their heads; they are too tired to care.
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