Advertisements
Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘hunting’ Category

black and tan pair

Gus Morrison was a bow hunter. Every Sunday morning in October and early November, he worshiped at the Holy Altar of the Great Fred Bear. Every year, he bagged a monster buck from his tree strand, and every year, he filled his antlerless tags, which put even more nice meat for the freezer.

Sure, he’d go out when the rifle when that season rolled around during Thanksgiving week. He’d hang out with gunners at their cabins, sip back a few cold ones, and tell a few stories about the big ones he’d seen.

But the rifle hunt wasn’t for him. He would usually use the opportunity to fill an antlerless tag than to go out after a big buck. The big ones knew where to when the guns started cracking anyway, and they had already had the peak of their rutting madness sated. So this was his time to meat hunt, be cold, and realize that he had mastered a more primal way of hunting than most of the people around him.

So that great October weekend rolled around, and Gus rose before the sun crested in the eastern sky. He showered down in de-scenting soap, and then moseyed out with only a towel around his waist to the shed where his carbon camouflage suit was stored in an airtight bag full of oak leaves. He slipped on the clothes that would mask his scent, and then he painted on the camouflage face paint that would hide his visage from any deer that bothered to look up into the treetops.

He sprayed down his boots with de-scenting spray and did the same with his old compound bow, as well as the quiver and all the arrows. He would not rid his entire being of his stinky monkey human scent, but he would come as close to it as he could.

He dug out the de-scented blanket from the bottom of the airtight bag. He sprayed down  the driver’s seat of his truck and placed the blanket over it. Then, he turned the ignition and set out into the early morning darkness for his lease.

He cut off the little two-lane country road that meandered through the hills onto the gravel road meandered over more rolling hills and deep woods. Then he turned left onto the mud track logging road that cut up a steep hill which rose and rose until he came to the top, which was a flattened out Allegheny Plateau “bench,” which was an ancient pasture for sheep. It was now kept open with tractors and mowing machines that came by twice a year.

He parked the truck at the gate, rose from his seat, and carefully closed the truck door . He sprayed himself down with more de-scenting spray, then tested the wind with a bottle of talcum powder.  He direction of the wind would tell him in which way he’d approach his tree stand.

He put it up a few days before. It was nothing more than a ladder welded onto a steel platform that was propped up against a big red oak and the festooned tightly against the tree with several strands of thick cable wire. He attached a safety harness to the back of the platform, which had a bench on which he could sit and watch the deer move along the game trails.

With flashlight in hand, he softly maneuvered his way to the tree stand in the oak woods beyond the meadow. He made sure the wind was in his face. He then sprayed de-scenting spray all around the ladder and on his boots once again. Then he climbed up the ladder, put on his safety harness, and then sprayed all around the platform with that spray.  He pulled out his bow. Sun began to filter its way in from the east.

The orange and crimson leaves were soon exposed in the coming light. They were not quite at peak, but they were beautiful nonetheless.

And now the shooting time had arrived. Gus sat there as still as an oyster.  Gray squirrels fitted among the hickories and white oaks.  Chipmunks made little popping sounds through the undergrowth. Blue jays screeched through the trees, and a pair of pileated woodpeckers squawked about and drummed on a fallen log.

A trio of deer suddenly materialized from the woods to Gus’s left. It was a doe with her two fawns, both of which had just recently lost their spots. One was a little button buck, and the other a little doe. The former weighed 45 pounds. The latter about 40.

The approached with the wind in their faces. Their bedding area was just a little bit deeper in the woods, and they had no real reason to worry about the wind as the stopped to munch a bit of acorns before lying down for sunnier parts of the day.

Gus sat so still, but his blue eyes focused hard on the doe and her two fawns. Let them be at peace, and maybe a buck or two will follow them. He’d always followed that formula. It’s how he’d nailed that big twelve-pointer on the opening day two years ago, and he believed the odds were in his favor once again.

As doe and her fawns wandered around the oaks smacking their lips on acorns, Gus heard another noise fill the autumn woods. At first he didn’t recognize it, but as the minutes progressed it grew louder and louder.

It was the sound of hounds on the track. Every few seconds, one of the hounds would let loose a baying cry,  and as soon as Gus knew the sound, he began to worry. The hounds were not far off, and they sounded like they were coming down the same trail that the doe and fawns had used to enter the oak lot.

He hoped the hounds were not on the deer trail, for if they were, they were sure to ruin the whole hunt.

The deer stopped their munching of acorns. The big doe stood erect and sharp on her legs. Her big ears were up, and she looked down the game trail with wild eyes. Then she stomped her black left hoof, blew out a warning wheeze, and the whole band bounded down the game trail, white tails flashing wildly toward the sky as they disappeared from view.

Not a minute later, the baying hounds appeared upon the scene. Two black-and-tan coonhounds.  They were fat hounds with shiny black coats and deep rust red markings.

And they were not broken off deer at all. They were hot on the trail of the doe and her two fawns, and their wild baying surely scared off all the deer that day.

Gus let loose a few expletives, and the hounds looked up at man in the tree stand. They wagged their stupid hound dog tails and grinned up at the man in the tree stand with faces all goofy.

Gus thought he should collect those hounds and take them home, but he decided against it.  Just them run the deer, and let their master sort it all out.

But for now, the hunt was over. He climbed down the ladder of his tree stand and walked back.  He went home and went to sleep and repeated the whole ritual on Sunday morning.

This time, no deer came wandering down the trail, but both hounds came with their trail singing cries. And Gus cursed them and crawled down from tree stand.

He decided to try again that evening, but this time nothing came. Only the squirrels and chipmunks beat out any cadence of life. The hounds had run all the deer off.

He hoped that this had been just a one-weekend deal. Some half-baked coonhunter had turned his dogs loose in the woods in hopes of breaking them on deer, and he figured that if he went out on the next Thursday evening, things would have a chance to quiet down.

Twenty minutes after he was seated in his tree stand, the hound baying began to sound, and he watched with horror as a big buck– at least a ten pointer– came racing down the game trail with both hounds in hot pursuit.

And so Gus was now angry.  He decided to take a personal day at work and slide by Eustace Sims barber shop. Eustace knew all the comings and goings in the county, and Gus needed a haircut– and a few answers.

When Gus arrived at Eustace’s place, all the regulars were hoping for the tale of a the big buck Gus just bagged, but when he told of his hound predicament, Eustace knew the full story.

“Well, sorry about your luck, Gus, my man, but I meant to tell you a few weeks ago when I saw you at the diner that Travis Baker, Old Maxwell’s son, has moved back to the family homestead. They say he’s got many head of hogs loose on that rocky land, and I heard he bought him some coonhounds from a hot shot breeder in Kentucky.  I don’t think they were well-trained yet, and I figured they’d give you some trouble.”

“Well, I think I’m gonna have to make a visit to Travis Baker this evening,” said Gus as he slid down into the barber chair for one of Eustace’s  infamous hatchet jobs.

By that evening, Gus had a bad haircut and a bad attitude. He drove his pickup out along the road that took him to his hunting lease, but this time he turned down a little creek road that emptied down into a hollow.  As the truck sped along into the hollow, he came into a land of boulders and closely cropped grass, and then he came to a gait with thick woven wire fence all around. He opened the gate, drove through, and shut it. And as he drove, the came into the presence of so many swine of all shapes, sizes, colors.

These were the hogs that Eustace had told him about. And then he came to the farm house, a chipped paint old ranch house that Maxwell Baker had made for himself in the big woods.  Maxwell had since moved away, but Travis had returned to make a go of it as a big farmer.

The house was on the other side of a fence, and when Gus got out of his car to open the gate, he had to kick away a few smart pigs who thought that a gate opening was the perfect chance for a jail break.

As he walked up to the farmhouse door. He spotted the two hounds tied in the backyard to steel drums filled with straw.

They weren’t loose all the time, Gus thought to himself, and that explains why they were so fat.

He marched up the front porch and knocked on the front door. Travis Baker opened the door, and the two men exchanged their pleasantries. Gus thought he’d be angry and shouting by now, but something told him to hold back.

“Well, my name is Gus Morrison. I am bowhunter who has access to the old Russell McDonald place, and well, every time I go up there…. I…I…see your dogs.”

“My dogs?”

“Yeah, the two black-and-tans. They run a lot of deer, and well, I pay a lot of money to lease that place….and the hunting, well, sucks.”

“I guess I wouldn’t like hounds running off my deer either, but the thing is I don’t know how to train them not to. Dad used to beat his beagles if they ran deer, but I don’t want to beat these dogs. They’re too good to be beaten like that.”

“Well, I don’t think a coonhound would be much use if you never ran ’em, but if you could try to run yours at night and point ’em away from the McDonalds’ place, I bet you could stay out of my hair.’

“I reckon I could.”

“It might work. Also, I know a guy who runs Walkers by the name of Steve Wells.”

“I heard of him. I thought of calling him up to help me train my dogs.”

“I know him really well. He’s got some good dogs, and his don’t run deer. Maybe I should tell him to give you call.”

“That would be awesome!”

“I’ll give him call tonight. What’s your number?”

And so Gus drove back out of the hollow. He called Steve Wells up and gave him Travis’s number.

He waited until the next Sunday evening to go bowhunting again, and as he drove down that logging road he met another truck coming out.

It was Steve Wells, and Gus recognized him instantly, The two men pulled their trucks to the side to make for easier passage, but because they knew each other, both men rolled down their windows and began a good conversation.

“Well, look what the dogs drug in!” Wells shouted out the window.

“Not as much manure as you’re haulin’.  Lemme guess, you’ve been up to Bakers breaking them hellhounds.”

“Yessir, and they are pretty well broke off of deer now. Thanks to my little secret.”

“What’s that?”

“Shock collars.”

“Isn’t that what they all do now?”

“Pretty much.”

“How is that a secret?”

“Well, ten years ago it was!”

“You sure do beat all.”

“Well, I don’t beat ’em all, but I do try.”

“So you’ve had his dogs out?”

“Yes, I’ve been running them with Belle and Ol’ Sam, and they know their trade pretty well now. I don’t think they’ll be running any deer, because they both got nice neck e-mails every time they launched on a deer track last night.”

“Really?”

“Yeah, that Travis is a good man. He’s raisin’ hogs and working at the lumber mill down the road. He’s gonna be a great houndsman.  This winter, I’m gonna have a new huntin’ buddy. I’m pretty sure.”

“Well, that’s good news. I’m gonna get set up and see if I can get me a buck before the sun sets. It’s was nice talking to you.”

That night Gus set up in the tree stand. He thought he had done wonders by being nice and respectful and not being a raging fool with the young man and his hounds.

He had been surprised at how nicely it worked, and as he thought about what had happened, a ten-point buck wandered out into the oak woods. Gus drew and drilled his arrow into the deer’s heart. He waited twenty minutes, and then he began his blood track.

He came upon the deer in a thicket of autumn olive. He dressed out the nice buck and began the process of dragging it toward the logging road.

As he began that long process, he could hear hounds baying the distance. Travis was turning out the dogs for a good coonhunt.

This time, though, the baying of hounds went down the hollow and away from the oak woods. The dogs were working the creek, where the raccoons lurked about.

As the darkness fell upon that October night, Gus felt lighter and more alive than he had in a long time.  Simple human decency had prevailed, and the old rites of Appalachian sportsmen were recognized once again. Each hunter recognized the other’s methods and quarry and did not do the foolish thing and alienate another.

One day, he hoped that Travis would find the ways of the bowhunter every bit as appealing as the baying of hounds. After all, it was his long childhood days of running beagles in the briers that had made Gus love hunting so much now.

But he’d outgrown hounds, or so he thought.

And now the weird thought crossed his mind that maybe he should get a brace of coonhounds to go running on cold winter nights.

But right now, he was lost in the reverie of succeeding in the hunt and succeeding at human relations.

Who could want anything more?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

Sow Feral Pig walking

The sun rose over those umbrella-shaped pine that grow for miles and miles throughout the Southland. Their proper names are lobollies and short-leafs, replacements of the stately long-leaf pine, which, because it lives in symbiosis with fire. Fire might kill the living trees, but it also kills the loblollies and short-leafs. And the long-leaf’s terminal buds are quite immune to fire. So fire wipes out the competitor pines and makes way for the long-leaf pine forest in all its glory.

The other enemy of the long-leaf pine is the feral hog, which yearly swarms more and more across the pine woods. Unlike a white-tailed deer, which will drop–at most– a pair of fawns once year, the sows drop many little piglets maybe three or four times a year.  A bear might swipe the odd pig as it matures into a full-sized rooter, and a coyote or a bobcat might take a little pig if it somehow decided to dare its very existence against the sows slashing cutters.  But in the main, the hogs live without significant predators, and they tear through the countryside. They eat pine seeds and buds and run riot through bobwhite and wild turkey nests.

And in much of the South, there is still a time-honored tradition of feeding the deer up through the summer so that the bucks’ antlers will grow their largest and most most majestic for the fall hunts. But the hogs raid the deer feeders, knock them over, and then foul the expensive feed. And swine aren’t above lifting little fawns from their hiding places, and though the fawns will bleat and bleat, their mothers will not be able to fight the plug-nosed monsters.

And the hogs tear up cropland. Peanut fields and corn and soy bean acreages get rooted over and over.

With all these problems associated with feral pigs in the pine woods of the South, a deep resentment against their depredations seethes throughout the land. But a rugged bunch don’t have quite have that hatred of them. They are the hog-hunters, the ones who keep big packs of bay and catch dogs in their kennels, who dream of hogs and hog hunts and who might even make a few dollars on the side selling hogs to abattoirs and hunting preserves.

And so the sun rose over the pines. The mist of mid-spring hung in their green needs, and the land looked mystical and looming. The Spanish moss hung hard on the live oaks, and the mockingbirds and blue jays flitting around the pine bows. And the air filled with birdsong, each species lifting high its calls into the air, as the sun cast down through the mist.

A red Dodge pickup came hurling down a sandy road. It was dragging a trailer with a utility vehicle resembling a four-wheel drive golf cart, and in the back of that cart was a dog box full of bay dogs. Three were merle curs that one would have called Catahoulas if one were trying to peg them to a specific breed. They were both bitches and rangey with wall eyes and a grim expression.  The other two curs were One was fawn with a black mask, what are registered as a black-mouth curs these days, and the other was a cross between a cur and an English setter, dappled back and white and smooth-coated but with the soft-eyes and keen air-scenting nose of the setter.

The truck’s dog box contained the rest of the hunting pack. In one box was a solid liver Drahthaar, a cull from a versatile gun dog breeding program, and in the adjacent box was a black roan bitch of the same breed. She was doe-eyed and silly and young, and she pointed and retrieved well. She had a future as a duck and quail dog, but her owner wanted to try her out on hogs.

And the other two boxes were the catch dogs, a pair of pit bulls. They were a dog and a bitch, both deep red with flesh-colored noses and lips and amber eyes. They were of a color type sold as an “old country red nose,”  but in truth were just general hog catch dogs that were common throughout this part of the South.

This was a contingent of hog hunters and their dogs. Four men rode in the extended cab. They were all clean-shaven with closely cropped hair. All were employees of the pulp mill in town, where the loblollies and short-leafs were ground down into that stuff that someday would be called paper.

They were hog hunting fanatics, and just the night before, the call had gone out that the big sounder of hogs had wandered into this farmer’s peanut field. They’d ruined a couple of acres of crop, and he’d made a call to the head hog-dogger, who assembled his crew of dogmen to prepare for a good Saturday in the field.

The trailer was unloaded of its vehicle and dogs, and it began coursing along the sand roads of that cut along the big peanut field. The Dodge followed behind the the utility vehicle, stopping when it stopped, as the three men in the cab chatted about the day and the dogs and what could happen or what might happen. The windows were rolled down, and cigarette plumes floated out of the cab and toward the sky.

But the man in the utility vehicle was all business. His eyes were cast on the road ahead. They were trained hard to spy the slightest sight of hog sign, and so he would stop and look and gauge the sign for its freshness.

Soon, the vehicles were out of the vicinity of the peanut field and were following the sand road as it cut through a vast stand of pine.

At one point the tracking man stopped to examine some hog sign in the road, and he knew fully well that the sign was fresh. A smile graced his face and he trotted back to his compatriots in the Dodge to tell them the good news. Fresh sign upon the ground, and hogs not far off.

The tracking man went back to his truck, and opened up the gait to his little dog box. He grabbed the setter cross cur, and pulled her excited, bouncing form to the sand. She sniff the ground intently, then began her setter cast into the wind.  If there were hogs about, she would soon be on scent as it floated through the air, and if there were no hogs nearby, she would be back in about five minutes.

Five minutes passed, and the tracking man let the other curs loose, and they set about tracking the setter cur.

And the tracking man had his buddies turn loose both Drahthaars, for their noses were dead solid and the grittiness of the old liver was beyond reproach.

And so six dogs now ran the pine woods, slipping around in stands of little sweet gums and palmettos, but not barking as the baying coonhounds do when on the track. Instead, they were tracking down on the hogs.

The little setter cur ran hard on the track. The wind was blowing the scent of a big sounder into her nose, and she was half excited and half timorous about the prospects of running into them alone. But the sound of other dogs running behind her increased her courage, and soon all six dogs were running the woods like wolves. Their GPS tracking collars gave their coordinates to the tracking man’s hand-held receiver.

And the four men stood on the road, smoking cigarettes, and telling stories and listening intently for the first wild barking that would show that the dogs had a hog cornered. The pit bulls rested in their boxes. The excitement was about to come.

About a mile away, the curs and Drahthaars came charging in on the big sounder. Half the hogs were black, a quarter were deep chestnut red, and the remainder were were red with circular black spots that gave them a sort of domesticated veneer.

But they were 20 hogs strong and dog wary and dog smart, and as soon as soon as they heard the dog paws rusting in the pine litter, the whole sounder shot off in all directions.  One young black sow, though, was caught a bit unawares of the approaching predators, and before she could run the dogs were on her. She ran with the pack yapping all around her.  She would try to run, but they would swarm her, and if she stood to fight, the big liver Drahthaar stood ready to pounce on her every time she tried to bust. He would bite her, and she would squeal in terror. But he had good sense to know that his job was not to bite and hold.

And so after three attempts of escape, she was backed up in a thicket of palmettos, with yapping dogs all around her. She popped her jaws at them and tried the odd mock charge, but she was stopped from her escape.

The yapping filled the misty air, and the tracking man checked his GPS receiver. The dogs were bayed up.

The excitement of what was about to come filled the cigarette-smoking men. They had quarry penned down, and now was the time for the dispatch. One man grabbed a heavy steel chain lead and attached it to the male pit bull, and another man did the same with the female pit bull. The big-muscled beasts bounced with excitement. Their amber eyes flashed with wildness, and the men struggled to get get the dogs kitted out in their Kevlar catching vests. The first dogs hunted down the hog and made it stand, but these were the dogs that were going to rush in and hold it with their teeth.

And the whole party ran through the pines.  Bows flew back slapped men in the face. Thorns scratched pit bull hides. But they were so single-mined and urgent in their approach that they could not stop and worry.

Adrenalin filled their forms, and they were now in the form of predators about to come upon their prey.

Soon, they were just 30 yards from the yapping cacophony of bay dogs, which occasionally was joint by the jaw popping and squealing of the sow. And at that moment, each man leading a pit bull turned it loose. Not a word was spoken. They did it in concert, as they were one mind, and the red catches shot out towards the palmetto thicket.

The bay dogs moved aside as they heard the catch dog’s approach. None wanted to get in the way of those holding jaws.

The female pit bull was the first to hit the hog. She grabbed it by the ear. The sow screamed in abject terror, and the female pit bull instantly adjusted her stance so that she was holding the sow’s ear and standing behind the quarry. That way, the hog could not bit her or try to cut her with her tusks.

Not even 15 seconds passed and the male pit bull grabbed the other ear, also adjusting his stance so that he was standing behind the screaming hog while he held her ear fast in his fell jaws.

The squealing of the sow reached that insane octave, where all was shut out that horrible sound, and that din only increased the urgency of the men’s approach.  They were in full on human hunter mode.

Each man grabbed a cur or a Drahthaar and attached a lead to it and tied it to a nearby tree. The hog blood was gushing all over the pit bulls now, and then two men came behind the sow and grabbed her hind legs and complete orchestration they flipped her on her side.  Another man came and knelt upon her exposed shoulder and then pulled out a massive dagger of a knife and drove it down into to the hog just above her armpit.

The blood gushed out of that stabbing hole and the squealing began to cease. The sow was dead. A peanut rooter was off the land, and the whole sounder had been driven from the peanut fields for a while.

The men slapped each other on the back. There was pride in the hunt, a camaraderie of sorts that our species has largely lost when the vast majority of us gave upon hunting.

The dogs were celebrated for their skills. The bragging filled the air along with the smoke from the newly lit cigarettes.

Blood was on the ground. The dogs were hot and panting.

And thus ended a scene that could have been transplanted from the Stone Age where men hunted the wild and fell beasts with their newly tamed dogs. No guns were fired at the hogs.

This kill had come from the skill of dogs and the sharpness of knives. The GPS collars, the gasoline-fueled vehicles, and the specialized breeding of hog dogs are certainly modern advances.

But in the main it was still Stone Age and savage and wondrous, as best could be expected for the twenty-first century.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

img_2012

Every hare, every day, evades predators. Hares have evolved in different directions than humans– one of the most pernicious fallacies of animal rights is that animals feel and in some ways think that they are just deformed humans….Hares are splendid at being hares, and likely don’t dwell for a moment on the horrors of the chase. If a human were chased every day, he would become neurotic, fearful, crazy. Hares, if chased every day, still enjoy life. How could they not, and still be around, be hares?

–Stephen Bodio, The Hounds of Heaven: Living and Hunting with an Ancient Breed.

Night fell upon the newly mowed hay field.  It was the last cutting of the year and final tall stalks of grass were now lying out flat upon the ground. The dry September sun would dry out the stalks for a few days. Then the baling machines would arrive, and the grass would be bound as stored forage for the hoofed stock on the coming days little sunlight and hard freezes and driving snow squalls.

On hot summer evenings, cottontail rabbits like to see along the tram roads that lead in and out of the hay field. The roads make for easy running and the clover grows thick in the tracks, and clover is the best thing for the lactating rabbit does to munch down. The tall grass obscures their body forms from the piercing eyes of hawks and owls, and so the tram roads become their little restaurants, where the clover nourishes their bodies but the killers from the sky cannot spy them.

But the mowing has changed this dynamic. The tall grass is down, and the refuge it provided was gone.  The hawks and the owls would surely see the rabbits on the road now, but the rabbits are creatures of habit and territory. So they came to the tram road to graze uneasily among the clover.

The predator that came did not come from the sky that evening. The mowing machine cuts up quite a few mice and voles and bog lemmings as tears through the grass, and their blood and offal and decaying forms cast scents into the air. The local turkey vultures spent much of the late afternoon sifting through the downed grass stalks for a bit of sweet, juicy carnage. A pair of ravens joined them in their sifting, for ravens don’t have the keen sense of smell of the turkey vulture. But they have keener brains and can easily figure out that where the turkey vultures are congregating, there will be carrion to scavenge.

But now that night was falling, the birds of the day had taken to the roost. The sifting for rodent bodies would have to wait until the sun rose again, so the hay field was empty of all beings but rabbits and stridulating katydids and crickets.

The scent of dead rodents brought in the meat-eaters of the night, and the first to arrive was a big male gray fox. He lived out his entire life in the brier thickets in the hollow below the hay field. No one knew of his existence or really seemed to care, for he lived a life of a sort of cat dog in the brush, stalking songbirds in the forest and occasionally raiding a cottontail’s nest the early spring grass. He also plucked fresh raspberries from their bushes, but he was skilled at his hiding from humans of his very presence. He was a poacher in the night who slipped in and slipped out, and no one was the wiser.

But now he sensed a chance to get a little easy food among the fallen grass stalks, and he began a slinking approach into the hay field. The wind was in his face so that he could smell if any hunters or nasty dogs were about, and the wind kept telling him that carrion was around for him to pick through and devour at his foxy leisure.

It was as eased upon the tram road that another scent caught his nose. It was a big cottontail doe, in fine fettle and all spry for a good run. His years working this tram road after mowing days told him that he probably shouldn’t waste any energy running such a big healthy doe, but the cool September night air had given him a bit of a sporty itch.

And so the big gray fox crouched into stalking position and eased his way closer to the big doe. She grazed the clover, and he stalked in a little closer. She would hear the faint sound of fox steps upon the grass, and she would rise up and hold still. The fox would hold his stalk, and no sound would cross her ears. And she would eat at the clover again.

And so the stalk went on for about five minutes, and by that time, the fox was 15 feet from the rabbit. At that point, though, the fox’s impetuous side got to him. The scent of rabbit was that close to him. His black nostrils just quivered each inhaling breath. Rabbit scent, so sweet, and so close.

And when the rabbit sat still with her ears up again, the fox charged, and the chase began. Cottontail rabbits run in great, wide circles, and in those circles,there are several brush piles, groundhog holes, hidden culverts, and misplaced pipe. The rabbits know that when they run they can run out long and hard in those circles, and if they are healthy, they can hit one of those hiding places before the predator is upon them. And if the predator still comes, they will have more than few minutes to catch their breaths and let their heart rates return to normal in case they would have to run again.

So the big cottontail doe fled the charging fox. Early in the chase the fox’s flying gallop, a mixture of a sighthound’s run and the feline’s bound, gave him some edge. For thirty yards, the fox’s jaws were within near striking distance of the fleeing rabbit.

But her leporid running anatomy is built for a good flight, and very soon, she was well ahead of the gray fox when she saw her chance to dive into a bit of cast-off gas-line pipe that had been stored at the edge of the hayfield for so long that the multiflora rose grew thick and thorny all around it.

The fox saw her dive into the pipe, and he sailed upon the pipe’s entrance. It was too small to afford him even the hope of entry, and for five minutes he pawed at the pipe and stuck his nose down the entrance, trying in vain to see the rabbit had foolishly languished near enough to the opening for him to grab her.

But then, his fox-like caution set in. He cast his nose into the wind and twitched his ears around to catch the sign of any fox killer, and when he found that none was about, he slipped along the edge of the hayfield, casting his way around to where he could approach the tram road again with the wind in his face.

He would have a good night’s repast of vole, mouse, and bog lemming meat and offal, but in the cooling September night, he’d had a bit of fun, a bit of sport, and now he could get back to the real business of survival.

The big doe rabbit emerged from the pipe about an hour after the fox left. She stayed in the multifora rose thicket a for a little while. The rose had some nice little hips for her to browse upon, and then, as the morning sun began to cast red into the sky, she eased her way out of the thicket and wandered into a grove of newly apple trees that had just been planted the March before. She gnawed on the apple trees a bit, until a car passed the apple grove and made her take flight into a distant brush pile.

And so the rabbit was not traumatized in the least from having a good course by a fox. She would have to run every day of her fleeting of life, just as all her ancestors have had to since the beginning of the rabbit and hare clade some 40 million years ago.

We can think of the rabbit as the terrorized victim of vicious foxes, or we can consider them as they actually are. They are prey. They evolved as prey. Their brains and their bodies are all evolved perfectly as prey species. Their essence to be vary and make good run and a hard dive from predator’s jaws.

They live lives in terrific bliss. Many things want to eat them, but they simply live as long as they can without obliging this desire.

Their psyches do not become traumatized as they live with such terror every day. Their psyches, such that they are, are perfectly wired for this existence. This is their existence and not ours.

And if we truly love animals, we must respect their different existence and avoid simplistic appeals to anthropomorphism that only makes sense in a society devoid any real contact with nature.

But these simplistic appeals are harder and harder to avoid, and so the fox might not be deemed the enemy in this story, but the beagler or rabbit courser certainly would be.

And this is the reality that true animal lovers, who see animals in all their naturalistic animalness, must work hard to combat.

And hope to all powers that be that we will not lose. But the odds just aren’t in our favor.

Ignorant anthropomorphism is the scourge of carefully considered human-animal relations, and the danger is that it is an ignorance that revels in its own self-righteousness.

So the fox chases the rabbit on a September night, and the rabbit lives on in that terrific bliss of having evolved as quarry.

And we can only hope that we humans respect that bliss. For only then can we understand what a rabbit truly is and appreciate its essential majesty.

 

Read Full Post »

Rabbit Road

rabbit

The road was mostly overgrown now, but you could feel the gravel moving under your feet when stepped along it. And the rabbit hunters often did when they went out for a spot of pot shooting for cottontails.

These hunters were not the noble coursing men or poachers of England, but simple Appalachian hill farmers and farm boys who knew where to go to bring in a few rabbits for the pot. Those with sense often brought along a few not particularly well-bred beagles to bound about the brier patches and drive the most recalcitrant and retiring Lagomorpha shotgun.

But the land of brier patches was once a good little hill pasture. The family dairy cattle once grazed all around these little escarpments and benches, and many days the summer sun would shine upon bare-chested farm boys leaping about the grass as they tried to catch grasshoppers as bait for the bluegill holes.

However, now the land was covered in briers of multiflora rose and sand brier, and the rabbits lived as kings. They had cover to hid them from the swooping red-tails that often flew over the briers in search of the few dumb bunnies that stood around when the winged death’s shadow covered menaced the ground.

And the gray foxes all knew that they had to beat the brush hard to make a good rabbit chase, but by mid-November, enough happy fur hunters had taken shots at them to ward them off the overgrown road until the next spring, when the baby rabbits would fill the road again. This was the time when the gray foxes tried their skill at hunting blue jays and songbirds in the autumn olives and rhododendron, leaving their rabbit hunts to better days when the quarry was more naive and stupid and the guns were not cracking for their heads.

And so the men wandered along the old road, eyes casting all around for the brown leporid forms that would make for fine frying and roasting on a chill November night.  Part of their goal was to shoot the rabbits. The other was to check out the deer sign, and maybe figure out where those big bucks were traveling now.  Such early forays would give some insight into the ways of the local deer that might give a hunter a bit of an advantage once the great Thanksgiving week deer cull began.

But the truth of the matter is that it was a good time to be out walking with a gun in one’s hands.  This was the time of year when it the air was so strongly crisp but the sun still had enough power to balm the skin as one entered into the world of forests and fields and went questing after wild meat.

The men would talk about the weather, especially the forecast for the coming snows, and they would tell tales of great deer hunts of the past, of that time when they jumped a wandering sow bear and her two cubs and how all three ran off in absolute terror as the men’s boots scratched upon the gravel.

They would marvel at the old moonshine drum that stood half-hidden in a stand of ancient white pine. The would wonder how the old farmers of that alcohol banning time hid their drinks and spirits, even though the law was always slinking about busting down their operations. They would wonder how man as religious as the great grandfather who owned this land had led a double life, preaching hard against all the sins that lead to eternal damnation and then parceling out the sauce to the local ne’er-do-wells.

The drum was hidden nicely. It was covered with soil except for the opening lid, which lay just exposed enough on the ground that if one were looking very carefully, it would become instantly obvious. It held 50 gallons, and when it was in use, it hid that valuable drink so well that no lawman ever set eyes upon.

It was only known because of the simple perambulations of the rabbit shooters, who just happened to notice it when a wounded cottontail passed into the pine grove and fell into its death in front of the drum’s lid.

So the rabbit shooters knew about the other side of this rabbit road.  They knew they were walking on a land of survival but a land in which not all was at appeared.

But the rabbit meat was good for the roasting and the frying on those coming cold nights, and the waking the woods and simply chatting was good enough for the spirit.

And so they came every weekend in first few weeks of November. They dropped a few rabbits, and some ran their beagles. And the brier patches were full of rabbits. And the comradeship of a nice walking hunt made the world make sense for a while.

The rabbit road was a pathway into something simpler yet more complete. And so these men and boys came with their shotguns and game bags

And the frying pans and roasting pots were filled with meat, meat that had come from a land left to go into briers and brush, where the rabbits had their great paradise.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Death of the Old Doe

 

dead deer

Blood and nasty green stomach matter gushed from her side. The Old Doe had been hit. The arrow flew from the old oak tree, just off from that feed plot where all the deer had been feeding all through the late summer and early autumn. It was aimed at her heart, and the doe was hit a bit far back.

And now she was running wounded. Death was coming, but it wasn’t fast enough.  The agony of the deer was now replaced by the terror and panic that she must run from the predator, the danger that that revealed its with that swishing arrow sound and the thud into deer flesh.

She would not be long for this world, but it was not soon enough to remove her from the before the torture of this sort of death would set in.

For seven years, the Old Doe had run these hills. Her mother was a wise old girl, who had dropped the Old Doe and a buck fawn in her fifth spring, and she taught her young ones the ways of survival in summer swelter and through the hard snows of winter. She taught them many to walk into the wind, so they could always catch the scent of what lay ahead, and she taught them to be most wary of man. For man is the only animal that can kill you if he has you in his clear view of sight, and if man can see you, you’d better run like hell.

A pickup truck took her mother on a late March evening, when the doe took her young out to lap some vestiges of the road salt that had been dumped all through the winter. It was an ignoble death for such a wise creature, but it is a death that happens thousands of times on the highways every year.

And the Old Doe became an orphan, but she had her mother’s wisdom, and she had her mother’s band to hook up with. White-tailed deer live in little societies in which the mature bucks live in their own bands and the does and their growing offspring live in their own as well. The old does become really woods-wise, and they pass this knowledge onto their daughters, granddaughters, and nieces.

The buck bands split up when the autumn makes their hormones surge into a state of insanity, aggression, and just plain libido. They run the country looking for estrus does on their own, and this is roughly the same time that men with rifles and shotguns show up and drop them dead as the course the sweet sensual scents of the rut.

But the does stay together through most of this insanity. A buck might run a doe on her own for a little while, but she invariably returns to her sisterhood.

The Old Doe learned from her mother’s older sister, who died at the age of ten, when her teeth were all ground down to the nubs, and there was no way that she could masticate an acorn or beechnut to feed her gaunt form. She starved to death on a late February day, and when she passed, the doe band’s leadership was passed to the Old Doe.

And she ran the hills for four good years. Every hunter and homesteader in that part of the country knew her well. She was a big, stout doe, and she always dropped her twins in the sweet days of late May.  They would follow her out into the pastures on midsummer evenings when the fireflies seemed to rise with the humid vapors of dusk.

Two daughters made it through the gauntlet of slinging arrows and firing guns and speeding cars. They were her lieutenants, and by their second years, they were both dropping twins along with their mother. Coyotes and mowing machines got some. A bobcat got at least one.

The hunters looking for tender meat always took the little fawns as soon as the hunting season started.

The Old Doe lived a life in which death stalked everywhere, and it was always just a matter of time before someone was shot or impaled or lifted from a sleeping form.

But she lived all through that horror, and her band thrived as well as deer could.

In the end, the Old Doe could only avoid a fatal error so long, and on that early October day, she led her band to her favorite food plot, and for whatever odd reason, she chose to slide in with the wind blowing behind her as she passed the big oak.

The steeping sun occluded the hunter’s form as he drew back and let the arrow fly. He was a young man, fifteen years old and learning to be a proper huntsman. He had spent hours practicing in the range. He thought he had that arrow flinging down, and I suppose he did. Even the best of them sometimes shoot a little too far back.

After the arrow thudded into her side and out the other, the Old Doe ran with her band for the coverts. But the loss of blood and the spurting green stomach matter slowed her advance.

And in panic she ran as hard as she could. She didn’t know the direction. She just ran and ran. The thorns from the multiflora rose pierced her legs. She just ran and hoped that all the terror and pain would cease.

And then she fell and fell hard. Her neck twisted the side. She flailed for about five minutes and bleated as if she were a lonely fawn calling out for her mother.  And as she bleated, the strength sapped from her existence.

Her sides rose and fell and legs flailed a bit longer.

But she was gone.

And all that knowledge of being a deer in these hills was wiped away.  Minutes ago she was animate fur and flesh, and now she was a pile meat, hide, bone, and organs.

The night began to drawn in around her body.  A trio of roaming farm dogs caught her scent and trailed down to her final resting place.  They tore at her hide, but not being experts at dissecting carcasses, they made a mess of the whole thing. Indeed, most of what they did was tear into her flank a little as they torn into each other as they fought over this bounty that they had suddenly discovered in this part of the dark woods.

And so the Old Doe died, and her carcass was discovered that morning when the young hunter and his father managed to pick up her trail in the early morning sun. The meat was not whole, and the stomach contents had fouled most of the meat as she decomposed in the early autumn warmth.

At least she wasn’t alive anymore to suffer, but her body would be left to rot and stink and feed the vultures, foxes, and opossums. They would live well off her body, for in death there can be promise for more sustenance, more life. And if nature’s rules are adhered to, all flesh goes to the carrion beetles and the decomposing bacteria.

And so we can think of the Old Doe’s death as a tragedy, a wasteful death that ended a lifetime of horror.

But the white-tail evolved to live lives of horror. They don’t have complexes about it. They simply live while they know of constant terror, and pass on what they know to their young. And they have done so for millions of years on this continents, millions of years before the first Siberian hunters came down from Beringia and took that first white-tail for a bit of meat.

Their bodies have fed countless numbers of humans, and they’ve fed such teeming multitudes of predators that it would be foolish to count them all. And in the hills where they once grazed among the Mastodons and fleeted away from American cheetahs, they now live in the oak woods, where the rifles crack and arrows fly.

They live their fleeting lives of constant terror. But they live them well and so nobly that few humans can ever approach their dignity, even when they fall in such folly as the Old Doe did.

But it is the way of these creatures. Their evolution as prey made them be this way, and we must accept that their deaths must come, if not by the hunter then by the speeding car or horrific starvation.

So it should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

To the water

ian casting

Bluegill aren’t the prized fish of any big-time angler. They are pretty easy to catch, and in some not particularly pressured bodies of water they will happily nail unbaited hooks.

But they have a special place in my heart. I’m fairly certain that the first fish I ever landed was a bluegill, and if I’m feeling that I can’t catch anything, I’ll always try to for the bluegill. I’ve never gone bluegill fishing and failed to land at least one, and if you’re just looking to cast out and drown some worms, they provide a bit of relaxation and hint of Zen-like meditation.

And they are beautiful fish. The males in spawning color have the most spectacular turquoise marking around the heads and gill-plates. Were they not the banal fish of every little fishing hole, they would probably be prized as a sort of temperate cichlid and cost at least $25 a pair.

The current project around the house is setting up a native fish tank. It’s a birthday gift to my partner, and what’s more, my partner’s son is spending a few weeks with us.

And I get to share that childhood joy of landing that first bluegill, which he did this week. I wanted to make sure he got the fundamentals of fishing before we went out “for real,” when we were going out deep in the quest for our new tank specimens.

I taught to cast using a Zebco reel. The Zebco was the reel I first learned to use, and in a about a half hour’s worth of casting practice, he was doing the job well.

So we went to the lake at a little state park not far from here. We threw some night-crawlers and mealworms in the blackness of a summer lake. The bright orange bobbers floated like alien craft on the surface of the water, and every once in a while, the bobbers would tense up and shift, sure sign that a creature was nibbling at our bait. And then the bobber would go below the surface, and I’d say jerk and reel, and we’d miss.

But then we didn’t. The little bluegill fought his hardest against the line being spooled back towards the shore. He was so small that I was certain he’d gotten unhooked, and the boy reeled in his line, expecting to be left with a bare hook. Instead, he pulled in the little blue.

And his eyes beamed with pride at having landed that fish. It was prize every bit as a great as that record-breaking muskie or that giant flat-head reeled on a hot summer night’s fishing foray.

To the water we have gone.  And we have gone in search of beasts. We cast our lines into the murky universe that we can never fully enter. We hope that our baits are good, that our hooks are sharp, that our knots are steady, and that we reel just right.  Our big brains and dexterous thumbs have made us masters of the land, but when it comes to the life aquatic, we are mere amateurs. It matters little if we’re casting into little farm ponds or into the deep swelling sea. The fish have the answers. We can only hope that we ask the right questions and hope that luck swims in our way.

I hope I have passed on some of this mystery to Little Ian. I know that I have given him a chance to have some fun and think about the world that is not ensnared in steel and concrete. To consider the organic world from which we all descend is a gift I wish every child could receive.

So now we’re ready to collect our first specimens. I hope we get some bluegills or, even better, some of their related sunfish kin. These are the beauty fish of North America, but they are so common that we never consider their beauty fully. They are bycatch for bass and crappie anglers or bait for the flat-head hunters.

But they are still marvelous. And yes, they are tasty.

ian catches fish.jpg

 

Read Full Post »

Evening catch

I caught these trout at Cooper’s Rock this evening.

The one on the bottom is a nice fat brook trout.

brook trout

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: