by Tom Keer Photography by Tim Flanigan
The rain poured down for three straight days, and it wasn’t a mist or a pitter-patter on the tin roof. It was consistent, like the rinse cycle at a carwash, and the noise from a fire hose-worth of water on the metal echoed throughout the cabin. A faucet drip can be irritating, but the drone was maddening. Mercury hovered in the high 30s, and that was the only saving grace. But the winds were shifting, and that meant the temperatures would drop soon. When they went below freezing, there would be snow in the coverts.
A roaring fire in the hearth kept the cabin warm. With every wind gust, wood smoke belched into the room. The cabin’s chimney never drew worth a damn anyway, and even an off-season sweep wouldn’t make much of a difference. To make things right, I should have climbed on the roof with a bucket of mixed concrete. I regretted not sealing the gaps on a hot summer’s day, for instead I scouted new coverts, conditioned dogs, and did just about anything else. Things would be different if the room smelled like cigars, pipes, or a steak sizzling on an iron cross hung off a fireplace crane, but it did not. It was good that the dogs didn’t give a lick. They worked as hard today as they did every day this season and were curled up in their boxes sound asleep.
When would the snow fly, I wondered? Would it be tonight, next week, or later in the season? Not even the weatherman knows, and that made me think about the surprise snow a few years past. That was the time when we were walloped by a three-foot powder dropped overnight.
The day before the storm is one that I will remember until I hunt no more. It was primetime, mid-October during peak woodcock flights. Vibrantly colored maple and aspen leaves hung in prominent display from just about every branch in the woods. The 40-something degree morning wind blew from the northwest, and scenting conditions were perfect. Woodcock were everywhere! They were in every covert, in their usual haunts deep in the cover, they were on the field edges, along seeps, and on hillsides. Each of the four setters knew joy, for they had point-after-point all day long. They found grouse on the hillsides and along the ridges, and by the end of the day, I found so many birds that I simply could not wait until tomorrow. I resisted an extra bourbon pour with ease and hit the rack early. Mine was a restless night’s sleep, for I was too excited to do it all over again.
I turned off my alarm clock hours before it rang and poured a cup of coffee. One look out the window revealed fresh powder up to the top of the truck tires. A dang Canadian clipper rumbled in while I tossed and turned, but by now it was creating havoc somewhere else. Shoveling went on until mid day, and by the afternoon, the temperatures climbed to the high 60s. They stayed warm, even at night, and within a few days all of the snow was gone. So were the birds, and for the three weeks remaining in the woodcock season, I found no more than a handful of birds. Evidently, they got Mother Nature’s memo and migrated ahead of the storm. Theirs was one, giant push followed by nothing else.
Then there was the year when snow fell shortly after Halloween. It came as a whiteout, a mixture of snow and sleet and lots of it. The clouds that filled the valley were pushed around by the wind that constantly changed direction. When the wind blew from behind us, my wife Angela and I could easily see the road ahead. A quick change in direction pushed the cold, wet mess onto the windshield. We drove slowly and squinted our way to the Kid’s Cover.
The Kid’s Cover is every bit of a three-hour hunt. We’d be so cold and soaked by the end of the hunt that I wondered if we should go.
“You want to sit this one out?” I asked. “It’s gonna be messy.”
“Nope,” Angela said. “The grouse were in here last week, but we won’t see them. They’re smarter than us and will probably stay in the pines.”
We cut loose her dog and passed the raging river that was steel gray in color. Further on we stared at the 10 or so acres of dried knotweed knocked to the ground by the heaviness of the snow. We continued through a white birch run, down the road to the alders, and around back through the pines. Every push through the evergreens dropped a bough of snow down our necks. The dogs stopped now and again, mostly to shake off some of the wetness, and I wished we could do the same. By the time we returned to the truck we had to wring the water out of our leather shooting gloves. Angela was right, for the grouse stayed in the trees. Staying in the truck during hunting season is seldom an option. That said, we did not have a single point, and wouldn’t have missed a thing if we poured a cup of coffee and listened to the radio.
When I was younger I occasionally donned snowshoes to tromp around the snowy woods. A pre-hunt ritual required the coating of the inside of the bells with Pam spray. It’d work for a while, for the spray kept the white powder from accumulating. I’d coat the dogs’ paws with Musher’s Secret to keep snowballs from gathering. Applying this to an excited bird dog’s paws is best done after a few cups of coffee. It requires as much attention as that given by a high-school proctor during prom. Neither Pam nor Musher’s Secret is a cure, for when it comes to bird hunting in the snow, most everything is a stop gap. Both wear off, and clappers are rendered silent. Pads fill up with snow.
Hairy dogs wind up with chests full of snowballs. Sometimes they carry enough munitions to supply an army of kids with ammo for a snowball fight. The dogs run and stop, pick at their chests, and then run some more. Deep snow makes for difficult running, but I recall one time when I was thankful that I ran setters. I saw birds budding in the trees, but I couldn’t find Jack. I saw where he had been, and I followed his snowplow for as long as I could. And there, right beyond the last push of snow, was his tail. No birds had plunge-dived into the powder to stay warm. No, Jack was pointing trash in grand fashion, for sticking out of the snow drift was about six inches of his tail. I laughed, picked him up and we went home. That was the last deep snowshoe hunt we went on. Winter is tough on grouse, and all animals, too. These days I prefer to leave ’em alone.
When the snow flies we all know what is implied. Our favorite season is winding down. We know the end is near, just as we know it’ll be a long wait until Opening Day. But God willing, we’ll be ready. So will our families, friends, and dogs. We’ll enjoy the snow and the sleet just as we savor autumn’s perfection. We’re bird hunters, and that means we’ll go hard for as long as we can.