Outdoor Adventure: An early chill makes for good hunting
Early cold bites deep and quick like a puppy’s teeth; needle-sharp but not full enough to do damage. Enough, though, to wake you up to it all.
No cold is quite the same as when it comes early and you can tell yourself all day that in 60 days this will feel like spring warmth and that may be true but for now it hurts. For now it bites.
You can know that a week ago it was 60 degrees, near 70 and you felt that it would last forever, the October warmth. It did not last; it never does. It fades as daylight drifts like smoke to shadow earlier each afternoon. It goes as backyard birds go, here one day, gone the next, gone til who knows when but gone for certain. You know in your mind and your memory that autumn warmth will not linger past its time but you still hope it will.
It does not; you cannot wish the weather to go one way or the another. The weather goes where it will but in October it will go to chill no matter what you wish.
Last week November came early, drifting on a northerly wind like a migrant from northern reaches, riding as if on wings as arctic-born swans or ducks. Evenings lulled you at sundown when some warmth still held; mornings brought reality in the finely etched lacework of frost, the calligraphy that writes the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. Last week felt as November with a chill that did not fade with rise of sun.
We hunted most days last week, the dogs and I, seeking out thickets of small trees grown tight together, walking along pewter gray rivers and darkish creeks, hunting lowlands and then following thin pathways to higher ground. To the dogs the chill did not matter; they bounded through creek water, broke skim ice on puddles, rested in the cool waters of the Wisconsin River. They ran more than they walked and in the days of unexpected chill seemed to shrug off the years they wear in their gray muzzles and achy muscles at hunts end.
We sought out the grail of upland hunters of the north, grouse and woodcock. We found some, not a lot, but enough, as they say, to keep it interesting. Most leaf is down now and birds on wing are longer exposed to the hunter.
I shoot better in the cold though I never shoot well. I carry a shotgun that I am fond of but it is a shade too short in the stock for me and when I shoulder it over a single layer of shirt it never lines up quite right and I shoot over the bird. Or so I tell myself for in fact I miss in any manner of ways. I carry the gun because I like it; missing a bird or two (or more, truth be known) is not too large a price to pay.
But in the chill of November come early I build bulk; a long underwear top, a wool layer over that, a canvas shirt on top of it and a game vest over that, and by building up the thickness of my clothing the too-short stock is not an issue; I raise the shotgun and it lines up where it should. My accuracy improves.
On a chilled, gray day of mid-week, Thor and I hunt in heavy brush and upland open stands both and I kill three grouse on shots that I would more often miss. Now, on a cold day, the shotgun fits me better and the birds fall to shot and I feel a measure of satisfaction that comes from that.
The next day Riika joins us; I do not hunt her as hard now out of respect for the age she carries. On this day I watch as Thor works an area of balsam and popple and fern; back and forth as if he has lost something when in fact he is finding something; the sweet scent of bird that drifts like a thread in the wind.
Riika sees him, comes over, reacts to the scent and the two of them work, heads close to the ground, back and forth. Then a woodcock rises and banks hard to the right and I raise the shotgun that fits me now and fire as the bird flies behind a spruce tree and I think I see if fall.
The bird has gone down, if it has fallen at all, shielded by the spruce and I walk around the tree and into an area of thigh high marsh grass, brown and faded and bent over as if tired and if the bird has fallen into this I will never find it.
I work back and forth, call the dogs; they seem uninterested. I keep on. And on the very tip of a blade of grass I see the buff colored feather, a bit of down, ever so small, of a woodcock and I know from that that I have hit the bird.
I cannot see boot top as I stand; the grass is too thick. I call the dogs again; Thor ignores me but Riika comes closer. The high, thick grass is difficult for her and she works hard simply to push her way through it. She drifts back to firmer ground; I call her back.
I never see the bird until I take it from Riika. She finds it in the thickness of grass the color of woodcock feather, finds it by scent only and mouths it and I watch her as she does this and take the bird from her. I tell her she is a good dog and I mean it. She meets my eye then turns and begins to hunt again and I follow her. For her a bird downed is of little matter; it is the next bird, the bird yet to come to her nose that interests her.
I follow my dogs into the early cold of a day in October that feels like a day in November and serves notice that the days have changed no matter what the calendar may say and no matter what we may wish for ourselves. Weather change is a constant, like gravity; a force that we cannot ignore.
The dogs hunt hard; it is in their blood. At home I give them pills to ease their aches, let them sleep wherever they wish (Thor prefers the bed; snug against me at night). We watch the Packers one night, the World Series on others; I pull burrs and ticks from them as they lie, tuckered out. Fenway, the pup, runs nonstop, a wild dog, then runs out of energy and collapses in a heap even as we watch the ballgame at the ballpark, Fenway, that gave us his name.
Outside the temperature drops again; frost for certain; November weather come in October. In the morning we will hunt, Thor for six days straight; Riika with a day off but out for five out of six. We work the woods that are familiar to us now; the dogs know where to go, run off, wait for me to catch up. I put the extra layers on to stay warm; the gun fits better because of that and each day we come home with a bird or two.
But the trees are bare; fall color is gone save for a bit of yellow birch leave and the gold of tamarack. Trees stand stark and bare; trunks of popple and birch bone colored in the wan light of a cold morning. We hunt with the certainty of change, on days of chill under gray skies, skies the color the gray hair on the dogs faces this season.
I feed the dogs extra portions; they deserve it; they need it. I hang the birds in the garage to let them age for few days; the cooler weather works for that. The dogs sleep, the sleep of the very tired, bone tired, achy of muscle, bruised from brush and thorn.
The next morning we will hunt again in the cold hours after dawn, on days that feel like November for the chill that rides the north wind and reminds us that the days of autumn have passed once again.
An assortment of outdoor products is available at Mel’s Trading Post in downtown Rhinelander. Call (715) 362-5800.