Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Great Woodcock Hike

Dear Don:

You asked me to let you know how the woodcock hunt went the other day. I guess this time of year, the deer and duck stories start falling all over one another, and a good bird hunting story, with dogs, on public land—well, it’s enough to get any editor’s heart a-tripping, right?

There’s a lot of walking with this kind of hunting. I can tell you a lot about walking. Hell, I could make a whole magazine article about walking that day. Did I tell you Jim Mayer, the guy with the dog who set all this up, is a runner?

No? You should make a hunt, in dry-as-toast weather, with a guy who gets up every morning and runs three miles before breakfast. We walked ten miles that day—well—maybe eight. But it was a REAL eight!

But Mayer had the dog, and it seemed like a nice day—I mean, I tried this bird hunting a few years ago with a friend who had a pair of Brittanies, and it seemed like such a—I don’t know—such a gentlemanly way of hunting.

So different from my normal sort of red-neckedness deer hunting, you know. Time to start broadening my horizons. Raising my consciousness. Appreciating some of the finer aspects of this hobby we call hunting, rather than just tuning rifles to pin-point accuracy, going out on wooden stands and trying to blow holes in defenseless deer.

You know what I mean. The whole idea just reeked of social skills and higher taste with which I was patently unfamiliar.

Besides, the idea of walking behind a couple of well-trained dogs appealed greatly. Just a leisurely walk in the woods for a couple of hours, kill a few birds, and back to the house for a bit of a nap before the wife came in and started supper, right?

I mean, you get up at such a reasonable hour! We had to be at Mayer’s house at 8:00 AM. Naturally, one guy was a little late, but he had the other dog, so no one really minded.

Ahhh, the small pleasure of getting up to go hunting, and not watching the sun rise. This could easily become a habit.

Let’s see—included in the adventurous souls were Camp Maten, a retired engineer, David Fakouri, a mortgage broker, Will O’Halloran, who owns a glossy society magazine, Mayer, and yours truly.

I knew the day was not going to go my way when they started unpacking the shotguns. I had asked Mayer what to bring, and his comment was, “Oh, bring the 1100. Lots of briars. Don’t want to mess up the nice shotgun in all the briars.”

Did I mention I tend to forget every trip with Mayer has unusual experiences, and becomes less an excursion and more an adventure?

So I grabbed the 1100, rather than the Citori. Yes, I actually have a fairly nice over-and-under. Not that I can shoot it very well, mind you. That lacking is a direct result of all those misspent days on deer stands hunting with rifles.

Naturally, Mayer brings out some antique Ithaca pump, worth as much as a small 4-wheel drive truck.

“Saw it the other day in an estate sale. Always wanted one—20 gauge. Feel how light!”

Maten and O’Halloran pull over-and-unders, each inscribed with a plethora of inscribing, engraving, and polished metal. Embarrassing enough, but the mortgage broker pulls out some fancy European gun with a name like Franky, or something, and it—well, it looked like it belonged in a museum, or an art gallery.

“Oh this?” He waved deprecatingly. “This is just my brush gun. Wouldn’t want to bring one of the nice ones out in the stuff we’re going in. By the way, what’s that strange looking crack on the forearm of your Remington?”

We got to Sherburne WMA, and started hunting in Chinese Tallow thickets. Have you ever hunted in Tallow thickets? We moved into one, and once you lose sight of the road, it’s like being on the ocean—point of reference? Ha!

And the sky was overcast. Of course, once you move in a ways, you can’t even SEE your partner on line with you, except for the occasional glimpse of orange. Three of us came out on the parallel road. Two ended up getting turned around and walking with the road. A few rounds of shots brought them out, finally—only a mile or so from where we all went in.

Walking back, within sight of the trucks, a brown blur flies in a streak across the road from the oak flat to the Tallow thicket on our left.

“Uh, fellows?” I say. “It’s been a few years since I saw one, but I think that was a woodcock,”

Really! A real bird! Everyone got very excited and got on line and walked into the Tallow thicket. Well, not everyone. The two who had gotten turned around decided to stay on the road—guess they didn’t trust their sense of direction any more.

One of the guys shot on my left. Of course, he was 30 yards away, and might as well have been 300 for as much as I could see in the God-awful thicket. “Did you get him?” I called out.

“Don’t know,” he hollered. “Might have shot a tree.”

No kidding.

Fortunately, one of those amazing Brittanies snuffed up the dead bird, and brought it to him.

Game! We went bird-hunting, and we have a woodcock, or timberdoodle, or becasse’ (as the indigenous French folk call them down here) or whatever. At least one game bag is heavier.

Count: Three miles, four shots to bring out misplaced hunters. 1 shot, one bird.

Time to break for lunch. We go to a diner attached to a service station in Krotz Springs. I’d call it a greasy spoon, except they serve you on paper plates with plastic utensils. Food is good—I get Chef Salad, and it comes on a plate large enough to feed a small platoon of infantrymen. One guy orders a hamburger poboy, and eats the small loaf of French Bread it is built upon.

After lunch (which should be called Dinner, since lunch is supposed to be light), it is decided we will hunt that side of the river, on a Corps of Engineers management area known as Indian Creek. We park in the gravel parking lot, get out, loose dogs, get the guns, cross the levee, begin walk down borrow slough which runs length of levee. I’m still logy from lunch.

Approximately ½ mile down, we come to a culvert bridge crossing the slough. I don’t ask why we didn’t just park on the side of the gravel road, next to the trail leading over the levee to the crossing—I guess we needed the exercise. I’m not logy from lunch anymore.

We cross culvert bridge, enter woods between levee and Atchafalaya. At last! Real woods. This actually looks like woods I used to hunt that had timberdoodles, or becasse’, or whatever you call those damn things.

A short ways into the woods, Camp Maten kicks up a swamp rabbit, which streaks away from him, and cuts across in front of me, maybe forty feet. With lightning fast reflexes, and exceptional shooting skills (Read: Hugely Lucky Shot) I snap-shoot in reaction to game movement.

That morning, in regular, unplanned haste to get on the road, I stuffed high-brass #7 ½’s in my shooting vest. After all, it takes a real cloud of shot to bring down those tough, two-ounce timberdoodles, or becasse’ or whatever you call them, right?

And they get up so far away from you in the Tallow thickets, you really need all that power to reach out and bring them down, right?

My cloud of shot centered that swamp bunny—in fact, there was so much fur on the ground, it looked like a predator had a feast. I picked up the rabbit, quite limp, incidentally, and there was this gross grating feeling—either the result of a million broken bones, or an entire charge of 7 ½’s rubbing together.

Note to self: next time, let game get further away before shooting.

Mayer hollers to take the rabbit back to where we entered the woods, and hang him up. This sounds like a good idea. Let game hang for a while. Age it a bit. I find a crotch of a tree next to the road, and hang rabbit, hurrying to get back to the hunt. Game! At least we won’t be skunked this afternoon.

The dogs are working their little tails off. No scents, apparently. Mayer and O’Halloran say this is where they found birds before. We have now walked back down through the woods past where we parked the vehicles. Getting a little tired here. At last, we angle towards the river. No birds yet.

There is a dirt road running alongside the river willows. We break through briar patch to get to road. Remember the river runs more or less North to South? This means the edge of the road catches morning and most of the daylight sun. HUGE briar thicket alongside road. We finally force our way through it onto road. Thank God, Mayer turns downstream, the direction we have to go to get back to trucks.

We get back to road we walked in on—we are actually walking back towards the levee! My step freshens like a horse headed to the barn. I have been waiting for three weeks for the arrival of a new rifle I ordered. The range called while we were hunting that morning to tell me it was in—I might actually get away in time to make it back before they close and get to see my new purchase!

The guys start making low-class bets and snide remarks about my woodsy skills and abilities and whether I would be able to find the tree in which the rabbit was hung. I’ll show them…

Six forays into the woods later to look at familiar-looking trees, I find rabbit. Actually, I could have found the rabbit simply walking along the road, and utilizing my non-phenomenal sense of smell. Rabbit was a bit ripe in afternoon heat. The dogs, who had followed me into the woods, turned back when they caught a whiff.

One good thing, you don’t have that disgusting grating feeling when you lift the rabbit this time. He was a little hard to get in the game pouch however, stiffened up like he was in that weird U-shape.

We continue walking out, and come to a split. Mayer tells me to hang game bag on post at split, and turns left, back towards river. So much for getting out in time to get rifle.

A mile later, we come to another road, running alongside river bottom. Corps personnel have plowed a LONG food plot. At least 1200 yards to next crossroad. I can tell this because this is a pipeline, and yellow pipes are sticking up every 100 yards or so. I count 13 before pipeline makes bend with river. Mayer starts walking road alongside food plot. Apparently we are going to walk all the way to curve. Need I mention this is over ½ mile away? Dogs are working the woods to our right.

Suddenly, half-way down--finally! One dog goes on point, other dog honors point. Mayer gets excited, moves in to flush. Nothing flushes. We keep going. My feet hurt.

We reach cross road at curve, and stop. It’s getting a little long in the shadows in the woods. A doe runs across the cross road. Mayer opines that maybe some timberdoodles, or becasse’, or Sand Hill Cranes, or Whooping Birds, or some damn thing will fly out of woods and begin scratching in long, plowed food plot. Owl flies out of woods, crosses food plot. No other birds. Shadows getting longer.

We begin walk back. Pick up hunting vest with rabbit.
Note to self: throw hunting vest on ground and shoot with water hose at home. Don’t bring in house.

Other hunters seem to be walking faster than me, making me rush to keep up. Tired now. Maybe it’s just my imagination they are trying to stay away from me--the rabbit hardly smells.

Finally, we break out of woods onto levee. Only ½ mile to go. I’m looking forward to this, because we’re going to get a shot at a bird as we approach the trucks, right?

Tough making it up the levee, but there, shimmering in the distance, like Mecca to the faithful, are the beloved trucks. Even the dogs are dragging. Mayer is cheerful as all get out. He could go another ten miles or so.

We get to trucks. Another owl flies across the road. We begin putting stuff up. I need to gut rabbit. Slit belly, grab by head, pop to sling out guts. Rabbit tears in half. Mayer says you only eat the hindquarters anyway. Viscera is a dirty, unappetizing brown. I stuff in plastic bag and put in ice chest.

Guns are up, Maten breaks out a bottle of some high end scotch. Says he’s a member of a Single Malt Society, whatever that is. They all take small taste to toast the hunt. I take slight sip, and am reminded why I don’t drink scotch.

I admit to lower class, admittedly plebian tastes (rifleman=redneck, right?) but all scotch tastes like cough syrup to me. Of course, it would be uncouth to ask if anyone has any bourbon.

We get in trucks, head for home. I have written off seeing my new rifle until the next day. But I got a lot of education in the upper-crust end of social hunting. Gosh, I love this bird hunting. So much easier than all that work involved in deer hunting. It certainly beats riding a four-wheeler within 200 yards of a stand, walking to stand, climbing in box stand with nice novel and dozing for a few hours. I bet I lost six pounds.

Mayer has invited me back next week. Says there’s a cold front and rain coming through, and the birds will definitely be in then. I’ll get a report from him, and pass it on to you.

I’m going deer hunting. I need the rest.


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