A New Year

Though there is a starkness to winter landscapes, the outdoorsman relishes the beauty of all seasons.

I greeted the new year in the company of friends. JA and Donna had already taken a two mile walk with Finley, but the Lab was still quivering with excitement as we loaded the guns and began our morning in the Catskill uplands. JA said she had flushed two grouse on their morning walk.

Our quarry were pheasants and chukar partridge, though always with an eye toward King Ruff should we find a few on this warm, damp winters’ day. Mostly we came to celebrate another year in these mountains and the friendship we enjoyed.

JA is a fine wingshooter, having enjoyed a lifetime of bird dogs and the waterfowl and upland birds that allow those dogs to shine. A bird hunter’s dogs are the most important figures in the painting of their lives in the wild. I have always appreciated this alchemy from afar, the special bond between hunters and their dogs, myself seemingly destined to remain a dogless hunter. This New Year’s Day I would be particularly fortunate, not simply to be invited into this world, but to enjoy the role of featured guest. You see, JA and Finley were committed to finding birds for me. I prayed my shooting would prove equal to the honor of their toil.

Though I have read the great books and walked miles through these mountains with a fine over and under across my arm these three seasons, I still cannot call myself a wingshooter. As a boy in Southern Maryland, I thrilled to the occasional September outing in search of the fleet winged mourning doves. There were quail there too all those seasons ago and walking up to the heart racing detonation of a covey flush is a memory that has stayed with me for more than half a century. These moments were uncommon, and as such few birds ever fell to my gun. It takes time, perseverance and practice to master the fluid swing right through a speeding blur of feathers, to become a skilled wing shot, and even as an elder gunner I am still learning.

We worked the cover with my heart rate climbing, both from the Lab’s enthusiasm and the terrain, but when that cock pheasant exploded from the brush just feet from Finn’s nose I shouldered the 101 smoothly, swung short and true, and felled the bird. She and her master were as jubilant as I!

A New Year’s Reward (Photo courtesy JA)

The early snow having melted, and with rain still frequent in the Catskills, we found a lot of springy ground, covering three miles uphill and down behind Finn’s marvelous nose. On one wooded flat, she rousted a chukar from the edge of a deadfall, but the bird stayed low, too close to her to risk a shot. JA marked the bird, but despite two thorough passes through the area it eluded us, perhaps flying onward low and out of sight, rather than landing where we thought he did. There would be another partridge to test my swing.

Drawing quick, deep breaths of the cold, damp mountain air, my heart rate jumped again when Finn put that bird up, angling away. I shouldered and swung but his timely turn let my charge pass harmlessly by. I stayed on that bird though, swinging through a wide arc as the distance between increased with each wingbeat. When my barrels covered him and began to pass his flight line, I let loose the second barrel’s charge. The bird hitched suddenly and set his wings for a final glide.

God bless the Labrador Retriever, particularly the lovely blond girl that followed that broken winged bird as he ran and brought him back to my feet.

The Old Man and the Blond Girl (Photo courtesy JA)

Walking back to the cabin, Finn had her bath in the brook, emerging rinsed and content, oblivious to the chill of the air. Resting our tired legs, we reminisced and dressed the birds, before retiring to the warmth beside the wood stove for steaming cups of coffee.

Roasted pheasant proved to be as fine a New Year’s dinner as I can recall; and now there are feathers drying here to be crafted into flies to tempt the trout lying deep in the rivers fed by these mountains. There is a magic in that too, as there is in friendship and the bond between a bird hunter and his dog. May that magic continue to bless us all in the coming year!

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