A Life Afield
186 pages
English

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186 pages
English

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In A Life Afield, A. Hunter Smith welcomes readers to sit by his fireside as he recounts twelve evocative tales from his extensive experience as a hunter and hunting guide. Though Smith could draw from some 350 years of ancestral sportsman stories, he instead describes his own successes and mishaps with an intimacy that captivates audiences.

Through his narratives Smith shares his philosophy on hunting and rambling in the outdoors and questions what it means to be a true sportsman in today's Deep South. As his stories make clear, the South's outdoor heritage has changed drastically within the last twenty-five years or more. The beauty and majesty of the natural world, as well as the principles of honor, integrity, and humanity found within circles of sportsmen, are seemingly no longer reward enough for the sporting world of today. Many of the age-old and time-proven wisdoms of woodsmanship are in danger of being forgotten or dismissed by a new era of "immediate reward" for minimal effort.

A Life Afield reminds readers what it means to be a woodsman: to hold the woods and waters deep within one's heart. Taken as a whole, the collection chronicles the author's quest to adulthood, influenced by his outdoor adventures and friendships, while also subtly providing solid lessons in sporting ethics, gun safety, and general woodsmanship.

A Life Afield includes a foreword by Ellison D. Smith IV, an environmental attorney, author of The Day the Pelican Spoke and Free as a Fish, and brother of the author.


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Publié par
Date de parution 01 décembre 2014
Nombre de lectures 0
EAN13 9781611174182
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,1750€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.

Exrait

A Life Afield
A Life Afield
A. Hunter Smith
Foreword by
ELLISON D. SMITH IV
2015 University of South Carolina
Published by the University of South Carolina Press Columbia, South Carolina 29208
www.sc.edu/uscpress
24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17 16 15 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Smith, A. Hunter. A life afield / A. Hunter Smith ; foreword by Ellison D. Smith IV. pages cm ISBN 978-1-61117-417-5 (hardbound : alk. paper) - ISBN 978-1-61117-418-2 (ebook) 1. Fowling-South Carolina-Charleston County. 2. Hunting-South Carolina- Charleston County. I. Smith, Ellison D., 1943- II. Title. SK313.S53 2014 799.2 40975791-dc23
2014023110
COVER ILLUSTRATION : Mallards by Lynn Bogue Hunt (1878-1960); oil on board, 14.5 10.5 inches; photograph courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions, Boston, Massachusetts
This book is for my wife, Josephine, a woman of rare patience and support, who allowed me my own heart and time, free of guilt, to write it. It is also for my brother Ellison, who has always encouraged and supported me. It is for Mark Frye and Venable Vermont, two wonderful friends in this world, without whom I d have lost my mind in the academics of it all. It is for all those people whom I ve come to know and love out there, and for the wild and beautiful world that provided us the opportunity to find one another.
Contents
Foreword
Introduction
Of Sea Islands and Single Birds
On Fragile Wings
Nothing Yet of the Past
All Things Being Equal Between Mr. Scaup and Sam Colt
The Witch
Where Once Migrated Angels
The Last Hunt
A Question of Safety
The Little Things
The Retributions of April
Foreword
My brother Hunter was appropriately named, although I doubt that my parents had even an inkling of that at the time.
Hunter and I are direct descendants of two families that chose to relocate themselves in the mid-1700s to what became South Carolina. Our father s family, the Smiths, settled on king s grant property near the Lynches River, while our mother s family, the Mannings, carved out their king s grant in a small settlement known as Manchester, close to the Wateree River.
Succeeding generations prospered by hard work, learning when and what to plant and, as important, where. While both families raised some domestic animals, such as cows, pigs, and chickens, for food, they heavily depended on wild game and fish to sustain themselves. This dependence on the outdoors lasted for generations. Accordingly how to hunt and fish was passed down to each new generation, because it was fundamentally important. Subsequently and just as important, a reverence and respect for all wild creatures and the places they live in were instilled in us as well.
We were taught to pay attention to detail when we were afield and were taught the proper etiquette of hunting and fishing with others.
We learned the old school ways of training and caring for dogs, and how to properly handle guns and fishing equipment. We were also taught not to be greedy with game and fish. These lessons were at times harsh, but ultimately we learned the importance of conservation. We, I like to think, became true sportsmen. If you shot something, you cleaned it and ate it. It was that simple. If you caught fish, you cleaned them and ate them. It was that simple.
Twenty years separates Hunter and me, so I had the distinct good fortune to begin outdoor activities with him from the time he could first walk. Over the last forty-five years, we have hunted and fished all over South Carolina, and he is an excellent companion and the most accomplished woodsman I have ever known. I think that I can safely say that in our entire time together outdoors, we have spent a considerable portion of it laughing at ourselves and each other, because we have never felt the need to compete with each other while afield.
The stories you are about to read are the product of more than 350 years of inherited observation, knowledge, and training.
When you finish this book, I suspect you will see the woods and waters of South Carolina in a different light and perhaps will have learned some things that you did not know.
E LLISON D. S MITH IV
Introduction
When we are children, we take our lives for granted, for not having seen enough life to know the difference. When I was a boy and young man, I was so afflicted and though I did not live a sheltered life, I realize now that my young existence was a cloistered one and it was such as a product of my own choosing as much as anything else. Though as a child I was as imaginative as any, I never once imagined that I would ever live any other life than the one I was born in to and I never wanted any other. I am a product of a different era, a time when South Carolina, like much of the south in those days, had long lain in a state of antiquation, a time when change was slow to come and crept in like a thief in the night, to whittle away at the foundations of what so many had once known and loved, and leaving little evidence of its crimes, as if it had never been there at all.
But all too soon what lay so long in bucolic repose would suddenly awaken to a quick pulse of modernization, and that slow and irregular beat of life that had evolved over centuries would be out paced in the span of a single generation. I am speaking of times before our streets and avenues were lined, as so many are now, with rank upon rank of gated communities and shopping centers, roads that are dissected in regular intervals, by multipronged lighted intersections and traffic circles. I am speaking of times when in these very same locales, fields were harvested and livestock kept within town limits, where tractor tires and wagon wheels churned dust on sand lanes, and rarely did the flow of traffic come to a complete standstill, unless out of respect for some solemn funeral procession, slowly passing by.
Hard to believe I know, that such a pastoral nineteenth century image could be painted by a child born to the advancement of the twentieth. But such was the South Carolina that I grew to love, and for better or worse, I miss it dearly. I am not speaking of human derelictions or politics, of advancements, or the lack thereof, but of a physical beauty and of a unique character, both naturally contrived and created by the hand of men. A character in the landscape and lifestyles lived by all the races that peopled it that has all but faded from sight, and will never show on this earth again.
IN MY YOUTH I LIVED a life of dreams for an outdoorsman, for a wing shot who lived and breathed for the sound of wild covey rises and the sharp crack and roar of gun fire echoed out across the quiet stands of long leaf and golden swales of broom straw. My mornings were woke to high and windswept flights of waterfowl, passing over the swing and sway of leafless winter timber, and my days passed with the chatter of greenheads, and the acrobatic beauty of pintails filtering down undisturbed, into some wild and frost glistened December marsh. My afternoons faded away on the horizon with long and wavering V s of widgeon, carried beyond eyeshot across sun bled and frigid January skies. I was born to a world of seemingly endless corn stubble fields, hedgerows laced with Bobwhite and cottontail and the constancy of late afternoon dove roosts that appeared to be forever swept in thin gray lines of fowl. I was born to love the liquid beauty of a finely feathered setter, as it coursed its way to widely scattered single birds and to stand with pride and awe, as I watched the gun dogs I had raised up from puppies, make their mark on this world in stands of flooded timber and across wind chopped open waters. My hands were once calloused by lead lines, my neck chafed with a whistle s chord and my shoulder permanently sore from the constant thump of a shotgun. These are the things I was born to know and love and most were no further out of my reach than the back door of my house or any harder to find anywhere else in this state, other than simply loading up the car and choosing the direction you wanted to travel.
But times change and we are all burdened to change with them or be left behind in a permanent state of regret. That is not the fate meant for outdoorsmen, for those woodsmen among us whose hearts are created and filled with a love for the wilder places on this earth and a love for those creatures that populate it. Our destiny is to seek those places out until the end of days, for what other choice do we have?
The work that follows is a documentation of one sportsman s journey in his continuous search for that place. It is a tale of that man s maturing and a story of those people and places that guided him on that quest. And though it is a story of one man and one life, it is a mirroring of many others. A reflection of the lives of all those sportsmen who have been gifted with long years put behind them and who have been fortunate enough to have lived in times and places worth the remembering, and who have had experiences worth committing to memory and those memories, hopefully worth sharing with those who would listen.
I have lived a full and fruitful life as an outdoorsman and as a South Carolinian, and lived during a time when those two labels were synonymous with each other, when the one could not be found without the other and when no one would have ever dreamed to separate the two. It is my wish, my fervent hope, that such a life can and always will be found by those generations of Carolina sportsmen yet to come, because though there are many other ways of living, and I have lived them, I have known no other, more fulfilling than a life afield.
Of Sea Islands and Single Birds
When I first set foot on Johns Island, South Carolina, it was still a pastoral and bucolic agricultural zone out in the hinterlands of Charleston County. Corn and bean, tomatoes and melons, wagons and tractors. It had a single fully functional traffic light, and the other was set to blinking, just to remind a few absent-minded residents that a crossroads was still there. More diesel fuel was used on a daily basis than gasoline, and just about any fall or winter day or night, a man could drive the entire island, big as it is, and pass maybe five cars and know everyone behind the wheel. It was a good bit more populated in the spring and summer months, but that s planting and harvest time for truck-crop farmers, so it was expected to be time come, and equally expected not to be, time gone. It had a single, aged grocery store, which would gladly deliver goods to the infirm or ill-equipped. The few service stations around served more as meeting places for overalled old men than as fuel stops, and far more hot dogs and pickled pigs feet were sold on a daily basis than motor oil. The one hardware store stocked everything from shotgun shells to plumbing supplies; nothing in between was of much value, but it had nearly everything you needed.
It was a typical southern farming community, sparsely peopled and happily standing on the sidelines of the progression of time. Charleston County is now one of the fastest-growing and most highly populated regions on the entire East Coast, nothing at all like it used to be, and today that wonderfully quaint and slow-paced island is a mass of vehicular and human congestion year round. Shopping centers and gated communities, restaurants and realtors, and near unrecognizable to the islanders who d once loved and worked it. Oh well-that was then and this is now.
It was during the then times that I first met Mr. Mumbles. After a September deer hunt with my cousin, he had taken me down to the far end of the island to see his friend s doings, where he was in the process of turning his family s old plantation grounds into a pay-to-hunt club. It was a busy time for all, and our initial meeting was a brief and not very enlightening one for either one of us inasmuch as being able to size up any likes or dislikes between us. He had just waded out of a drained duck pond, completely covered in pluff mud, sweat, and grease from a tractor he d bogged past its axles, and I had just dragged, skinned, and gutted a deer and was more than slightly gory from it all, and there seemed to be some hint of recognition in his eyes and in mine when we reached to shake hands. Not too long after, we became friends. Over time it became far more than that, a familial bond, he much like an older brother or eccentric uncle and I the young counterpart to that. This relationship was built over countless hours and days that turned slowly to years, working side by side, from dark to dusk, maintaining that labor-intensive and grueling pace that is the backbone of all successful hunting operations. The bond made even stronger over countless more hours and days pursuing the sports we both loved, our separate lives having been very similar and the love of shotgunning held deep in both our breasts.
Our first tentative outings in the field together began at the end of an era, the last remaining days of a grand old sport that had defined people s notions of classic southern wing shooting, long before the first rebellious cannons thought to grumble with discontent. Though there had been a fluctuating rate of decline and remission in regions around and about South Carolina for some decades before and during the 1970s, by the time the 80s began to loom into view, the wild bird population, that of the much honored and revered bobwhite quail began suddenly to plummet, seemingly almost overnight. This species decline was an event of near epidemic proportion that has never stabilized nor recovered, except in very isolated numbers in well-managed and protected regions. Those wonderful little birds-which had symbolized cultures and epitomized sportsmanship, endured and maintained family legacies, justified and verified countless breeds of dogs and men, and literally defined their fates and their destinies on this earth for more than a century-would nearly vanish from our sight in less than two decades.
Had anyone told me at the height of my bird hunting career that the day would come when I would consider myself lucky just to see a wild bird, I would have laughed them off the field. I would have shaken my head at such a preposterous statement and thought the prophesier a fool. Even my father, whose heart and soul was wed to bobwhites with an innate and intimate understanding of them that spanned the course of seventy years, had long preached the folly of certain practices and long forewarned of a certain decline but had no notion whatsoever in his mind that such a decline would eventually become near genocidal. As he realized the extent of the damage done before his own demise, I saw his face flushed with emotion many times because of it. As for me, I have my own regrets and notions about the whats and the whys of it all, which are points I ll not argue now. But not having been able to spend our last days together, in the pine and the straw, in the good company of dogs and men we d known and loved all our lives, as I thought we surely would, is still one of the greatest regrets of my life.
With those birds went my father and my finest and happiest memories of the man. Those two losses, come so closely together, created a fracture in my heart that will always remain fragile and easily reopened.
But such things, unbeknownst to me or Mr. Mumbles, still lay off in some unimaginable future, too distant still for us to leave dogs and birds and sun-gilded fall afternoons to fond and fading memory.
Though it was a relatively brief period of time in the bigger scheme of our lives, it was on such fall days that our friendship was sealed and we came to understand one another. The bird woods being one of the finest arenas I know to learn the hearts and souls of men, to see those times, deep in the primal places, where compassion and honor and charity took root or had never been seeded at all. In the depths of each other, I believe-or rather I know-we saw some likeness to ourselves.
I was a young man then and new to those people and that place, and when I talked to older guns acquainted with Mr. Mumbles about certain aspects of that sport and other experiences I d had in the field, every one of them, with the exception of cousin or brother, who knew the facts, had a hard time believing that I had anything under my belt but my pants. What they didn t know is that I d had a shotgun in my hands not long after they d snatched the rattles from me out of the crib, and I was taught to use it by men and women of long experience, in target-rich environs. I shot near every day of my life, from seasons start to end. Dove, duck, partridge, rabbit, deer, or squirrel, if it flew, ran, or climbed, I d swung a shotgun at it. From the time I could reason a sentence, I was constantly lectured in gun safety, sportsmanship, dog handling, loads, leads, chokes, and every conceivable way to use them, on every conceivable thing that could be called game in the state of South Carolina. Shotgunning and especially bobwhite hunting was not simply a sport in my family, it was heritage, a way of life, and any child that showed the slightest interest, male or female, was quickly and gladly inducted. It was a family affair, full of passion, that consumed both sides of my genetic line, mother and father, for literally hundreds of years. This may have been a unique thing outside of my immediate surroundings, but I sure didn t know it. I accepted it as a natural course of action in the progression of life, much like breathing or eating. As a result, by the time I was ten years old, with less than five seasons behind me, I had seen down the tubes of my shotgun at more covey rises and single birds than most average weekend sportsmen twice my age had in their entire lives, and I could well hold my own with most any man by my midteens. By the time I reached my twenties, I would have slapped cash down on the back of any wagon had I been challenged to do so.
With as much time as I had spent in the bird woods, if I couldn t have by then, I might as well have turned to chess or checkers. It s a simple as that. I was not divinely endowed with some union between hand and eye. I was just allowed and encouraged to put as many spent shell casings on the ground as I possibly could, until they upped and married off on their own. That s what makes a bird shot and nothing more, sending as much lead into the air at the real thing as absolutely possible: live targets, with minds and wills, places and things of their own to go and do. In my personal opinion, no clay course, no matter how realistically conceived and challenging they make it, will ever change that fact. After years of working on a variety of preserve lands, I can tell you for certain that no matter how well flight conditioned and no matter how well thought out the release program may be, no pen-raised bird that ever rose up from under the nose of a dog can or ever will hold a candle to his wild and wily ancestor. A wild bird was in a class by himself in the game of upland gunning, and his absence from the landscape is a grievous thing to bear for anyone who is fortunate enough to remember those crisp and crystalline days amid the straw and the pine. When I first came to that island, such days were as fresh to my mind as the scent of cordite in drizzly weather, and the memories of seasons past were still imperiled by the expectations of those to come.
Out of that perpetual evolution of souls that came and went from his place those first days I spent there, it was Mr. Mumbles himself who seemed to grasp the fact that my words didn t stray too far outside the realms of reality, and one day he called me down there to put his suspicions to the test. When I met him outside the little clubhouse, his old banged-up truck was already running and two anxious-looking dogs were peering out of the box in the back. When we loaded up, he looked me over and then looked over my gun, an old Sauer double-barrel with double triggers that had been my grandfather s and had been passed to me some forty years after he d first handled it. When my grandfather first laid hands on it, it was a used gun, but a finely tuned German weapon of cold hard steel, while most everyone else in the states were still swinging Damascus.
What that gun had seen and done between the two of us is hard to conceive, and it looked it. It was a well-kept but well-handled weapon, gray around its temples. This caught Mumbles s attention right off, because by then most everyone shouldered pump guns or automatics, and those who shot doubles preferred over and unders with single or single selective triggers (which personally I ve never cared for), either on a side by side or an up and down.
I was wearing some old briar-tattered pair of blue jeans and a weather-faded dux back hunting coat my father had worn on the Chesapeake Bay in the late 1930s and 40s. and it looked its part as well. You can tell a lot about who you are dealing with in the sporting world by close but casual observation of their attire and weaponry, and I think Mumbles found some satisfaction on his own inspection. As for me, I knew without really knowing the man that he was the real deal. Any idiot could have seen that.
Bird hunting-especially the real thing, hunting wild birds in uncontrolled settings, unlike that of preserves with guides and guidelines and well-rehearsed stratagems on well-worn courses-is one of the most beautiful and exciting shooting sports in the world, and one of the most dangerous. A wild bird is nobody s fool; he has his wits about him at all times and plays his cards close to his chest. Unless you have hunted the same coveys long enough to know their particular habits, you re playing a game of catch-up as soon as your feet hit the ground. A bird knows his territory thoroughly, every angle of escape, from every corner of every field, and he makes the choice in the blink of an eye.
You can always make an educated guess as to what an unfamiliar covey is likely to do if you understand them, but it s still only a guess until you watch them whir away. What you can t do is force them to go where they don t want to; they will always go exactly where they choose.
Such considerations might seem irrelevant to the question of safety, but in truth it s absolutely the opposite. When you walk up to a covey of wild birds, it s a fool s errand to place yourself anywhere near the business end of a gun if you don t know who s behind it. Because when the action starts, it s fast and furious, all over in a fraction of a second, with no takebacks once the triggers are pulled. Properly placing yourself in relation to your partner is all-important for the purpose of knowing and maintaining where your own barriers should start and where the other guns should end. When it comes to safe shooting zones in the business of wild bird hunting, those choices are the only things that stand between life and death. It s close-quarters work between guns, with zero room for error.
Walking up side by side with another gun to a dog on point, toward a blur of birds about to explode all around you, is as close to putting your life in someone else s hands as you can possibly get. Two old guns who ve calmly and faithfully made that walk together season in and out are bound by a commitment of trust that few people outside that deadly little circle can truly understand. I was always taught that when you went to a dog on point for the first time with someone you d never shot with, the wise and gentlemanly thing to do, if you are hosting, was to offer them lead. That way you re behind the danger and can observe the actions that will reflect on the potential of a future hunting partner and tell you if this invitation was regrettable and decidedly final. The other thing that such an observation can tell you right quick is whether the gun and gunner are an old married couple or on an awkward first date. It doesn t take but a second watching someone on a wild covey rise to tell whether they ve swung their guns a time or two.
On the first point, I noticed that Mumbles had done just that. He d hung back to the left of me, which was the wise choice, since I am a left-handed shot and my best swing is to the right. He nodded that I should walk up alone. The birds had run out of the corner of a stubble corn field into a fallow ground full of briar and broom straw and stub pines about two years old. It was plenty open enough to shoot but thick enough to hide both dog and man from your peripheral view. The dogs had trailed them beautifully and had locked down and backed around a mass of catbrier and pine stumps. Looking past it all, I saw a thick wall of wax myrtle about forty yards out and to my right, where they were likely headed.
I passed the dogs briskly, and a covey of twenty-five or so blew out of that tangle like they were shot from a rocket launcher and swung right of me, as I d predicted. I caught and puffed a stray outside the main pack. When I did, the rest banked suddenly hard left of me, went pouring over the top of a short stand of palmetto, and dropped from view. I let them go and concentrated on three still holding their original course. All three were headed for a tiny hole in the brush in front of me, but at the last second one decided to tower over it. The other two crossed themselves just as they passed through the gate, and a load of number eights was already waiting for them when they got there. They both fell stone dead, and I breeched my gun, caught the hulls, and loaded up again. It wasn t a lucky shot: I d meant to shoot the crossers, and I heard Mumbles back there mumble something appreciative sounding. All of this transpired in mere seconds, but that s wild bird hunting for you. They leave no time for deliberation. It s snap shooting at its frantic best.
The dogs found and fetched the birds quickly, and when I took them and turned to walk back to my host, a straggler burst from the tangle and flew directly at him. The gun never moved out of the crook of my arm. Mumbles waited for the bird to pass out of any danger to me, then swung around on him and puffed him right fast like on a going away.
Four birds, three shots-not a bad start at all. We chased a few singles, and as was the honorable thing to do, I let my host have at them alone. They didn t make it far. All this took maybe twenty minutes from the time we dropped the dogs on the ground, but it was plenty time enough for us both to realize we weren t dealing with a novice. I myself learned two important things about Mr. Mumbles on that first encounter: that his judgment wasn t clouded by bloodlust, and that even though he wore glasses, there wasn t a damn thing wrong with his eyes. He would prove to be one of the finest all-around wing shots I have ever seen, and I ve seen plenty. He was a fluid piece of work.
THE FIRST TIME I LAID a sporting eye on that island, I immediately saw its potential in the way of whitetails and waterfowl. I had visions of snipe bogs and the occasional marsh hen, but a bobwhite was the furthest thing from my mind. It didn t seem proper habitat to me. I d come from rangy country, long swales of pine and straw, hedgerows laced throughout stubble fields of corn and bean that went out of eyeshot, the kind of rangy ground that needed a rangy dog to cover it. The type of dog, as an old field trial man once said to me, could smell a bird in Kentucky and point him in Ohio. The kind of dog and country better suited for the pace and elevation of horseback.
This was cramped country, shy on space for anything more than what was planted in it. Being limited for high ground as sea islands are, they wasted none, and what you ended up with quite often were fingers and tongues, field systems licked out into the salt marsh proper. The fields inland, or as inland as could be had, were mostly surrounded by thick stands of maritime forest. Palmetto and oak, catbrier and myrtle, was far removed from the pine timber habitat you think of when you think of bird hunting, and there was little if any of the ground cover that is associated with pineland habitat.
If the field systems in and around the tide lines were burned regularly, they looked much like Texas plains, wide open and rolling in broom straw and brush, past which you could see the vast expanses of spartina and needle grass grown in and along the marshlands and estuaries. It was great country to shoot birds in, no doubt, but you rarely came across that. Fire took a backseat to cultivation more often than not, and you took what you got. Little did I know, but was soon to find out, that there was plenty there for the taking, at least back then. What I began to realize later on, however, is that even though such habitat by no means fit the classic mold for good-looking bird hunting country, in many ways it was perfectly suited for Mr. Pottige. A bobwhite is nothing if not a staunch family man; he is the ruler of the roost and king of his castle. He doesn t mind having neighbors and is more than willing to host a dinner party now and then, but they better have an invitation when he meets them at the door. Territorial as he is, he found such country as that, mostly comprising peninsulas and islands and such, right up his alley. He could take the family out to a meet and greet any time he pleased and then retire to his private retreat and lock the doors whenever he so chose.
Mumbles had a pair of Brittany spaniels whose parentage had literally come from overseas on a French passport. They were the first of that type of dog I d ever seen at work, and I have to confess that I cut a long and snooty eye at them a couple of times while they were still in the box, when Mumbles wasn t looking, of course. Well, it took all of about ten minutes after their feet hit the dirt to change my mind about them. They were close-working dogs, but well suited for that close country. A cast net couldn t have covered that ground any better, and they did it with hardly a word or a whistle. They winded, trailed, pointed, held, backed, and retrieved as well as anything I d ever seen come from across the English Channel-long nosed, long gaited, and Cockney accented or not.
I came to love those two dogs like my own and loved them both until their deaths. And Brittanys are long lived and loving things, but that s another story.
After those two French-speaking hedgehogs had rooted out and retrieved the downed singles, Mumbles turned for the truck. I distinctly remember thinking that it was the shortest bird hunt I d ever been on and that it was probably because that was the one covey of birds on the entire place. That wasn t the case, not by a long shot. Mumbles just had his own way about doing things, and rather than muck across some oyster-shelled mess of pluff mud and marsh wrack, much to the betterment of dogs pads and boot soles, we just loaded up and took a roundabout sand road to another place. When we got out, I realized I was looking across the marsh to where we had just been. It was less than a hundred yards away, though it seemed as if we had driven at least a mile. We had been on sort of a reverse pocket the first time out, a bluff line rounded out into the marsh. Now we were on a peninsula proper, about 250 yards long and maybe 100 wide. It had been planted and harvested in corn and had hardly a tree on it but for a couple of small groups of live oaks sprouted in its center like giant mushrooms and some salt cedar on the marsh edge. One side was bordered by a duck pond with a run of saw grass down it, but except for the weeds grown up in and around the field itself, that was the only ground cover there was.
Dogs cut loose, Mumbles came back around and reached in the truck. He grabbed a sack of chewing tobacco and loaded his cheek with a golf ball-sized wad, then went and leaned up against the hood. Out of sheer habit, I was about to climb up in the truck bed to keep an eye on the hedgehogs, but he called me down with a confident If they find a bird they ll let us know. Of course he mumbled this around that giant wad of soggy leaves, which is how I came to call him Mumbles in the first place. He was an educated man, well read and spoken, yet these facts were near indiscernible, because they were forced to pass by half of South Carolina s yearly tobacco harvest to get at your ears.
I was wondering to myself about just how the hedgehogs planned to notify us of a find and had decided that maybe one of them had a penchant to bark after a while when no one showed up to a point, which I have seen some dogs do. But as I considered that, Mumbles leaned around the hood of the truck and said, Let s go.
One of the hedgehogs had suddenly shown up out of the weeds and was standing there looking at us expectantly and eagerly wagging its stub around.
When we got down there, we found the other hedgehog locked down solid on the edge of about an acre of stunted corn that had been left standing after a spring tide had ruined it, salt water and corn not being a good mix. As soon as we got there, our stub-tailed guide went right over and backed his stubby partner like he d picked a good spot before he left. There s not much more to say about all that than what should be perfectly obvious, so I ll leave it at that.
The hedgehogs had interrupted one of those aforementioned dinner parties Mr. Pottige sometimes likes to attend, though in actuality it was more a brunch. There were at least two and more likely three coveys of birds squatted down in that standing corn. Since the salt had staunched it, it was only about waist high, which was bad for them, since Mumbles and I walked in there together this time. It was one of those long and drawn-out flushes, often dreamed of and less often experienced. They came rolling out of there like a lazy string of blackbirds lifting off, the last in line waiting for the first to pass over their heads.
After the smoke had cleared and everything had been sorted out, we decided against chasing the singles, just on principle of the carnage that had been wreaked, but the hedgehogs had other ideas about that and had already singled a few out. You hate to reward such diligence with disappointment, so we accepted the offer and followed them out there.
Those birds had gone out to a hummock in some hard marsh like you would find a clapper rail on come high water. It was without a doubt the most unusual thing I had seen to date in the bird woods, which in and of itself is nowhere near an apt description of what we were hunting. I was crunching dead and bleached out oyster shells underfoot going out there and driving a herd of frantic fiddler crabs ahead of me. It was surreal. Status quo for Mumbles, though.
The hummock wasn t very big, but it was grassed over heavy, and it took some powerful kicking to get the birds out of there, educated as they had just been about our intentions. When they did blow out of there, they were serious about it! There were five birds, and they all passed to my swing on a crossing shot as they headed back inland and left a couple behind. The hedgehogs wanted more of that, but it was a little too much like shooting fish in a barrel for either one of us, so we dragged them off their next point and carried them in our arms back to the truck.
That whole experience had obviously rattled my nerves some, because on the next covey rise, I missed clean with both barrels and then shot the bark off an oak tree where I thought a single bird had been. I did manage to fold a high bird that was trying to tower up over some trees along a ditch bank not long afterward, so I felt somewhat vindicated. On the way back to the truck for lunch, Mumbles made humorous mention of my having assaulted his oak tree. He said not to worry about it because he d planned to thin that timber anyway. I told him that I had been known to ring an entire stand of long leafs before, so if he gave me a couple of more days in there he wouldn t need a logger.
He lived a fairly Spartan lifestyle, so lunch consisted of tomato sandwiches made with some white bread and a jar of mayonnaise he d been carrying around in his game pouch all morning, which we folded around thick red slices of fruit we d cut from a fall field. We washed them down with some lukewarm Pepsis, chased by some salted peanuts that had been rattling around in a jar on the floorboards of his truck for God knows how long. But it suited us and the hedgehogs, who sat on either side of us on the tailgate like bookends, drooling on our kneecaps, just fine.
When we started out again, we drove over a series of dikes separating a collection of duck ponds and ended up on an island that was a good three hundred acres or better. It didn t take long before we were right back in the birds. Both coveys fanned out in the same area, and it was deadly ground for shooting single birds, hardly a bush or a tree in the way of a full pattern of shot. We downsized them right quick, which is something you had to be very careful with if you were concerned about the long haul. Though they were both nice groups of birds, there is no way you can tell which come from which group, and how many you have taken from each, when more than one covey singles out together.
You can easily shoot down a covey of birds passed its ability to regrow itself the next season. If you do, you may well have filled a bag limit, but most likely you ve succeeded in destroying an entire covey in the process. The remainders will eventually fold themselves into other coveys of birds, but they are so territorial that a plot of ground that has held the same family of birds for decades may never be inhabited again. It was one of the characteristics of bobwhites that distinguished them from other upland birds and was why old-fashioned and conscientious bird hunters, who were completely dependent on wild stock to sustain their sport, were so vehement about not overshooting them. Though the covey rises are no doubt the most exciting aspect of it all, where you really did your meat work was on the single birds, and many a covey has been shot out of existence in one pass by a pair of heavy hands.
As the guest that day, I of course followed Mumbles s lead, and all that morning and into that afternoon, he led me right down the same path that any conservative-minded bird hunter who treasured that resource would have taken. Without a single word spoken about it, I learned all I needed to know about his mindset on such things. Such careful and loving attention eventually proved to be a moot point, but even if they had known the heartrending truth of what lay in the future, I highly doubt that any bird hunter who truly loved and cherished that sport and the little fowl that provided it would have willingly done things any other way.
There was a sense of reverence and affection, a compassionate protectiveness that formed a lasting bond between bobwhites and those who hunted them, which did not exist between any other hunter and game, at least no other that I was ever witness to. I have yet to witness it again.
The only other group of upland sportsman I know of now that exhibits a comparable sense of stewardship and boundless affection for their prey are turkey hunters, and I include myself among them. But if you really think on it, the bobwhite and wild turkey are very similar in many respects: few other birds in the Americas are so homebound and set in their ways as to allow you to build a legacy and history around them that can be passed for generations across the same plot of ground.
Just as I had once hunted the very same coveys of birds that my great-grandfathers had flushed before me, those of my family who follow my footsteps into the bottom lands will undoubtedly know and love the same flocks of turkey that bring me so much pleasure today. That is, as long as they remain cherished and protected. So far, where we have failed with the bobwhite, we have succeeded gloriously with the wild turkey, and this fact alone gives me hope still.
Though I know that my days of wild bird hunting are likely behind me, the thought that some future generation may be able to know the abiding joy, the beautiful memories and camaraderie those magnificent little birds once provided, is a truly wonderful dream to rest my head upon. God, how I wish it would be so.
When we left those birds, they were only just slightly more worse for wear than when we greeted them, already starting to whistle each other up as we made for the truck, and down the way several hundred yards, they were answered by some birds we had missed on a tentative pass in that direction. We turned that way, and in short order the hedgehogs had them locked down tight. These birds were holed up in the weedy remnants of a mixed brown top and sunflower field Mumbles had planted for the throngs of doves still lounging around. Right next to it was a twisted finger of brackish water, pushed inland from a bigger waterfowl impoundment. Across from it was another impoundment, with its dikes blown out, all grown up in cattail and wax myrtle. When the birds flushed, they made a beeline for it, straight out over the water. Twenty or so left out and three stayed behind, feet up and floating. In the blink of an eye, the hedgehogs morphed into otters, and as fine a water retrieve as anyone could have hoped for ensued. Well launched and strong stroked, otter number one, the female of the pair, came back with a double. As stated earlier, there s nothing else really to be said about all that, other than after that I was thoroughly convinced that at least on that account, the French had every right to be arrogant. That brace of dogs were as good all-around gundogs as I have ever seen. What they had going for them, other than blood, determination, and a fine handler at the start, was the same thing all truly gifted gundogs share, untold hours under the gun.
While I was standing there wringing out my wet bird, Mumbles elbowed me and said, Look here coming. I looked and saw a light mist wafting our way, which soon turned into a double fistful of blue-winged teal. Mumbles was not a linear-thinking gunner by any means-something else we both shared-and twas the season after all. They passed over low and casual, until the shot started whizzing by their heads. The hedgehogs grew webs on their feet again, and we had four fat teal to show for it in the end.
Blue-wings and bobwhites, what a wonderfully strange mixed bag. We made a pass by a bog on the way out and added ten or twelve snipe to that concoction as well. It was, as they say, quickly turning into a true red-letter day, the type of day that would take a full-blown case of amnesia to forget, if that were even possible. To say that I was somewhat astounded by it all is putting it mildly. I don t know what I had really expected, but I do know that I had never expected all that.
My family had always lived a charmed and enviable sporting life, come from and raised in the traditions that defined the plantation culture. Long gone were the days of duck blinds and rice fields, live decoys, turkeys and big river swamps, reciprocal invitations between landowners to dove shoots and bird hunts, where wing shooting was central to all other activities and lasted at times for weeks on end. But most of the doors to such a world as that had closed by the time I arrived.
My elders had often spoken of such places, and though I was not completely foreign to these things, I had mostly listened intently to the stories, pouting over the misfortune of having a few mere decades separate me from what was and what could have been. Yet there I was. In all honesty the grass there probably wasn t all that much greener than where I came from; still, if I d have been a cow at that particular time, I have no doubt it would have surely tasted like it.
Since we were hopscotching from one area to the next and providing the hedgehogs with transportation, they were near as fresh in midafternoon as they had been midmorning. The next place we stopped was obviously familiar ground to them, because they proceeded to make a cast reminiscent of some of the long-legged pointers I had known. They knew better than anyone what needed doing, and shortly afterward they had done it. There was an old house site stood in shambles and grown up in chinaberry trees and dog fennel out in the middle of a soybean field that covered the better part of twenty acres, by far the largest field we d set foot in so far. Such things were typical sights in the Southland just past the days of cotton fields and tenant houses, and some remained inhabited many years afterward. Most sea island relics of that era served as migrant houses. This one was long gone to the elements and inhabitation, and like all old tenant ruins, it looked gamy. There were three overgrown ditch banks spurred from it like wobbly spokes on a wheel, and the hedgehogs had quickly worked down one until they winded something good and crossed over to another and carefully trailed up it to the old house site. We figured they had something going, because presently the male came out to the edge of the ruins and watched our approach impatiently, only going back in after he was well satisfied we were making appropriate time.
A covey of birds, especially the educated ones, given a chance, will often run ahead of a dog like pheasants will, and though it seems a foolish choice to isolate themselves that way, more often than not it is part of a well-planned escape. Only dogs who really know their business would suspect that it could all be a ruse, that the birds could well have circled around behind them and gone down another ditch bank or run right out into the field on the other side and hotfooted it to the far tree line. And that is just what they had done. They d circled, but the dogs hadn t fallen for it. When we got up there, we found the male hedgehog waiting for us at the head of one of the ditches. We followed him till we caught up to his partner, who was keeping a quick but careful pace behind the birds, who were chattering away nervously as they beat feet down the same ditch we d just walked up on. We d passed right by them, or more to the point, they d passed right by us.
Mumbles was a fair bit ahead of me; he looked back knowingly and pointed up the ditch line, and I got the hint. He went wide out in the field and jogged out as far ahead as he thought it would take to cut them off at the pass, and I went, gun breeched, into the ditch itself, briars and brambles and all, bearing down on those marathoners as fast as I could. I heard them go not long after and then three well-spaced reports right after that. When I broke out of the tangles, Mumbles was already bent to take a bird from a dog s mouth and was bent twice more shortly afterward. It worked beautifully, which is by no means always the case. Such actions are hit and miss at best, and you certainly don t do such things when you are nervous about what your partner is up to. It s a one-gun salute, meant for stander alone. If the driver doesn t keep his gun shouldered in a situation like that, you d best keep a sharp eye on him from then on. It said a lot about how Mumbles viewed me, especially this being our first armed outing together.
There were so many nuances to that sport. Those of guns and dogs, of habitat and horses, preferred methods of hunting and differing thoughts on rules of engagement and sportsmanship, individual views on etiquette and principle. There were varying ideas and degrees of understanding reflected in the individual habits of nearly every group of bird hunters, but by far it was the birds themselves that dictated the usefulness of all these things in the end, because each and every covey was individual, too. A basic similarity in their actions prevailed over all of them as a species, but in family groups they were all unique. Each covey of birds was so in tune with their home ground that they all had their own particular and at times peculiar way about doing things when the chips were down. A bird hunter who truly understood them was a contortionist and was never firmly set in his ways. Those hunters who truly knew their lands and birds were learned in the individual habits of each covey and acted accordingly, as did their dogs. The trio I met up with when I crawled out of that ditch apparently had this covey of birds down pat.
Our last covey came as the late afternoon sun was reddening over a winter-browned and wind-ruffled expanse of salt marsh. The tide was rising, and the creeks were jeweled in a sparkling liquid fire. Marsh hens were laughing over the events of the day as they began to settle in for nightfall, and high above us long strings of pelicans were borne for home on the last of the evening thermals. Across the sunbaked marshlands, the oyster and the crab voiced their relief at the turning of the tides. It is a curious and beautiful language the tidelands speak.
The dogs, still quick paced and eager, were dissecting a narrow bean field planted on a point of land thrust out into a salt creek. They both suddenly slowed near a stand of salt cedar on the marsh edge, and noses to the wind, they crept forward and slowed, crept and slowed, then suddenly locked up side by side, both with head down and turned to stone, like opposing statues. When the birds went, they swept out over the marsh in formation, like a well-trained squadron, and then suddenly banked hard right and strung out in a line, making for a thick run of ground along the edge of an oak hummock. We were well placed, both guns having room enough to work unencumbered, and when the reports washed away, we were close enough to a double limit for anyone to be satisfied enough to call it a day. Like any compassionate bird hunter, Mumbles was concerned to chase the singles so that they d have time enough to call up for roost before it got late, and I gladly concurred. A bird alone in this world come nightfall faces many perils.
We stood on the edge of the field then, praising the dogs and making the count, as the now ruby red orb sank behind the black walls of timber rising up from the islands opposite us. There was barely a light there, or beyond, except for the constellations beginning to emerge from the blackness of space above. This would all soon change, all too soon. The headlights of cars would soon orbit condominiums and country clubs, vacation houses lined in row upon row and lit like runways to the end of worlds. But that skyline of neon and phosphorous was still foreign to our thoughts and dreams at the time, and it still is. Those things were of little concern to us that afternoon. They were nightmares of some dreaded future, but we had been about creating our own future that day. That of birds and dogs and friendship shared on chill fall days. It had been an incredible day. Such days as that will stand out in memory till the very end of things, and it is such days that make hunting companions, if they are to be made at all. The two of us, who had first stepped from that truck as independents, now walked back to it as partners. With our backs turned to the failing light, we wearily and happily headed for home, the dogs now at our heels plodding along, heads down, stopping to look back over their shoulders occasionally, as if they were concerned that we had had forgotten something that should not be left behind.
On Fragile Wings
When I was nine or ten years old, having noticed for some time that I had a fierce tendency toward lone independence and fearing she had spawned some sort of antisocial misanthrope who far preferred the company of the untamed and unruly things of the wilds, my mother decided that I needed some human conditioning before I went completely native on her and disappeared into some dank bottom lands, never to return again-or worse yet, to be found barefoot in rags and stitches, squatted on his haunches in the porch light, snarling and gnawing on some rank and moldy bone he d wrestled away from the dogs like a feral thing raised by foxes and bobcats. Fearing all these things and more and probably not being too awfully far off the mark, she enrolled me in a rough and rural southern version of a boy s club that some farm folk with regressive children of their own had loosely modeled after the Boy Scouts, in the hope that I might remember and retain some of my former humanity before it was completely lost to river swamps and oak flats.
She did this, of course, without telling me, seeing as how I had a propensity for leaping from windows and dashing out of unbarred doors and sprinting for the cover of broom straw and briar patches whenever I sensed they were going to hem me up and try to herd me somewhere I didn t want to go. When she dropped me off, it was much like someone abandoning some poor stray out on a dim and lonesome byway before it got wise to why everyone was suddenly being so nice to him. Just a nice country drive was all it seemed to me, all smiles and lighthearted trivialities; then without warning she went whipping into the sandy driveway of some ramshackle old farmhouse I d never seen before, the wheels of the car never coming to a complete stop, and sort of shoved me out the door in front of the broganned feet of some burly old man in vaguely military attire. She then sped away before I gained enough footing to chase after her, screaming in the dust trail she d left me in. Of course this is all slightly exaggerated, but only slightly. If truth be told, I was hard headed and hard to handle, and I hold no grudges against her for what she did. We all do what we can with what we ve got to work with.
My club mates were a rough-shod group of farm boys who were just itching for a new victim, and seeing me, as well another disheartened-looking child whose parents apparently figured he could benefit from some hazing himself, these country ruffians immediately smelled blood. They began circling like a pack of rabid weasels looking for a weakness. A week or so later, an announcement was sent out to the guardians of the less-than-graceful that a camping trip was being organized with the intent of canoeing down the Black River for an overnight stay on some sandbar somewhere. The whole crowd would be picked up at a distant boat landing downriver late the next afternoon. The purpose of the expedition was to teach us feral children the values of teamwork and cooperation and to bring the clan closer together.
It wasn t a day or so after that before the older members of this rude fraternity came sidling up to us, me and the other disenchanted boy, and said that the club master was going to take us all on a snipe hunt once we set up camp, all of them grinning sadistically. My fellow captive could surely have been mistaken for a weakling, but he was no dummy, and he saw through that ruse right off. But they all, him included, figured that they surely had a live one on their hands when they saw how excited I was over the prospect.
A snipe hunt? I said, all gleeful and eager. Boy, I can t wait for that!
I commenced to dancing a little jig, I was so happy about it, while they snickered and grinned and poked each other in the ribcage, knowing without a doubt that they d just discovered the weak one out of the herd. My fellow target of deviance, realizing that he was no longer a target, immediately joined right in with them, and they all stalked off, slapping each other on the backs and casting malevolent glances over their shoulders as they went.
They told me that to participate in this snipe hunt I would need a croaker sack, a stick, and probably a flashlight, and it all made perfect sense to me. A flashlight to see where I was going in the dark early morning, a stick to keep upright as I sloshed through the mud and the muck of the bog, and a croaker sack to shove all the dead snipe in. The croaker sack was the thing that had really gotten my attention. It would take a passel of dead snipe and then some, if they were using sacks for game bags! I didn t know where this snipe hunt was to take place; all I knew was there must have been so many of them, you could walk across em. And that s all I needed to hear.
The worst part of this is that the club master, though a stranger to me, was not a stranger to my parents. The troop master was a routine hunting partner of my father, who trusted him and trusted he d keep me safe. When I told my parents that he had planned to take us on a snipe hunt, they didn t see anything amiss about it either. They were more than happy for me and fussed around helping me to collect my camping gear. At the appointed time, my mother dropped me off at the appointed meeting place, which was at the boat landing, and the leader of the country ruffians and the rest of the miscreants met me in the parking lot, along with a couple of the older guides for this expedition. The rough-shod boys were all seething with malicious glee at seeing me step out with my bedroll and clothing, along with a croaker sack and a stick, all just overjoyed about the coming torture they were going to subject me to-until, that is, I reached into the backseat of the car and produced a double-barreled shotgun and a double fistful of number nine shot, along with two or three extra boxes of shells just in case, since I knew I would surely need the extra ammunition if there were enough snipe in that bog to fill up croaker sacks. Needless to say, the snipe hunt was promptly called off!
I realized much later in my years that I must have lived a truly one-track-minded and insular life, to be sure, and that my mother s concerns over my social ineptitudes as a boy were surely well warranted, seeing as how I apparently was the only child in the entire county that didn t know there was any kind of snipe hunting out there other than the one that required you to shoot them dead before you shoved them into your sack. Of course, to be fair to myself, neither one of my parents were guiltless in that regard, since everything I had learned about hunting snipe was taught to me by them, and they had failed to mention anything about sacks and sticks and squatting shivering in some frozen ditch somewhere, hoping you wouldn t die of hypothermia before your friends came and collected you. So I m placing the blame squarely on their shoulders for that episode.
The truth of the matter is that any wing shot who has ever been invited on a snipe hunt (the kind that didn t lead to abandonment and therapy afterward), would have been as excited as I was, if they indeed figured it was an honest invitation. Because those who have had the good fortune in their lives to participate in the real deal will no doubt tell you that any true lover of shotgunning will surely become obsessive about a snipe, if they ever walk into the right bog. They are extraordinary game birds: small, tough, lightning fast, and as acrobatic as a seasoned combat pilot, more so in point of fact. They are without a doubt one of the most challenging game birds that ever took wing, and they will humble the best of shots on more occasions than one if they don t have their eyes just right at all times. Their initial flight on takeoff is something akin to a corkscrew shot out of a cannon, nearly that small a target and not much less velocity, and there is no such thing as straight line in a snipe s vocabulary. Yet they are forgiving souls and actually seem to take pity on you sometimes, because more often than not, they will give you more than one chance at them. Quite often a gunner could expend an entire box of shells on just three or four birds, if he was having a bad day. They will flush and take off screeching out across the bog low to the ground, barely waist high, and go ducking, dodging, and diving out of there, like a dove with a blue darter on its tail, while lead is whizzing by them from all directions, and then once out of harm s way suddenly draw brakes and light right back down again. They will often do that as many times as you like, until you both just get sick of it, or one of the other of you is dead-the snipe from getting shot, or you from shooting yourself, having gone into a deep depression over your lack of wing-shooting skills.
But those who really know them don t despair, eyes right or not, because if for some reason they just aren t in the mood for obstacle courses that day, they will often flush and, shot at or not, will fly out of sight, gain some altitude, and then swing right back around and come right back to the place they first flushed from. Many seasoned snipe hunters that I have known just wait for that rather than turning their shoulders black and blue jump shooting them, because once they get up there and turn around to come back, they have shut off the afterburners and come sailing over in a fairly calm and direct flight path, with not nearly the amount of deviation as on takeoff. This confuses less-experienced guns, however; because they are so small framed, snipe that are only twenty-five or thirty yards over your head actually appear to be in the stratosphere, and a lot of times people won t shoot at them, figuring they are well out of range. It s often a matter of changing your perspective when it comes to shooting snipe, but if you do that successfully now and then, you end up with an absolutely beautiful little bird, muted in graceful fall colors, delicate and light as feathers in your hands and arguably one of the finest game birds that ever hit the plate. Their taste is delicate and sweet, a mild and fragrant mixture of the seasons themselves, a savory hint of fall, the light sweet essence of spring, and those milder concoctions of summer and winter, all wrapped up in body and soul that you can consume in nearly one bite. It takes a lot of snipe to make a meal, even for one, but that meal is well worth the effort to obtain, and rarely will anyone forget the gathering or the eating of it. Of all the game birds to be had in the Southeast, they are usually an afterthought to the prime objectives of turkeys and ducks, partridges and woodcock and doves, but in my opinion, a snipe could hold sway over them all. If I were given the choice to hunt them or any of the others, I d have to think on that one long and hard. They are just wonderful little birds and hard to match as an adversary for any gun or game out there.
The first snipe I ever shot at was during a late season dove hunt on Tanglewood Plantation, my father s ancestral home and where I was raised. I was no more than seven or eight years old at the time, and though my father, mother, and both my older brothers were giving souls when it came to tutoring me in matters of the field, they actually had done their jobs exceedingly well. All of them were patient enough and loving enough to spend countless hours with me instructing me in gun safety and use and countless more hours standing at my side while, fanatical child as I was over such things, I blazed away at whatever game was at hand. They would lay their own guns aside to instruct me, no matter how promising the day was bagwise. No greater love could any of them have had in that respect, and much of who I am as a woodsman today I owe directly to them. But God bless them all, sometimes a man wants to spend some powder and shot for himself, and I was so obsessive over the learning that they would have never gotten a shot in edgewise if they didn t just take that time whenever they could.
When they took time off from the schooling, I became the charge of a young man of Gullah heritage from Murrells Inlet, South Carolina, the youngest son of a one-armed oysterman that my mother and father had the good fortune of getting to know in the mid-1950s before I was born. They had first hired him as a guide, to teach them the channels and inlets around Murrells Inlet and the surrounding waterways of Pawleys and Debordieu Islands, Litchfield, Myrtle Beach, and Georgetown, all of which he knew inside and out. He had spent his entire life on them, and that life was long. He remains to this day one of the finest, most knowledgeable waterman I have ever known, and I ve known more than a few. His son Fred was not far behind in that knowledge, and when his father, who worked daylight to dark in those tides and mudflats every day to the betterment of his family (a wife and twelve children in all, and all their grands as well), was busy, Fred would take over the guiding.
It didn t take long, however, until it wasn t about guiding and fishing anymore, but more about just spending time with Fred and his father, because they were absolutely wonderful souls, full of love and levity and laughter. As soon as my family pulled into Murrells Inlet, one or the other of my parents or older brothers or sisters went to find them.
My mother and father loved Fred as much as they loved us, understandably so-we all loved him as much as each other, so much so that we were loath to leave him behind when we d pack up at the end of the summer. And one day, we didn t. With the blessings of his parents and a suitcase in his hands, Fred came to live with us, and there he stayed, until I was fifteen years old. By that time his father was well on in his years, and most of his older brothers were gone off to live their own lives, so Fred, now the man of the house, returned to Murrells Inlet to take over the family business. Needless to say, this was not a joyous occasion, and I especially was heartbroken over it. When Fred first came to the house, I was still wrapped in swaddling clothes and much enamored of my thumbs, and the very first face, aside from my mother s, that I remember in my life is his. My mother didn t trust my brothers or sisters with me; they were a devilish lot, so the only one she d allow besides herself and my father to pick me up out of the crib was Fred. Even though I was linked by blood to two older brothers, I grew up with three; as a toddler and well into my adolescence, I favored Fred above all.
That afternoon my father had come out of his corner of the dove field and found us where Fred and I had found some warmth, under the sunbaked tin roof of a tobacco barn. I was doodling with the doodlebugs while Fred took a nap. He told us that he had been down by the fish pond and had seen some snipe in the low end of the sandy old field, and it looked to him to be a fair wad of them. By this time I was a passable dove shot and a more than passable bird shot, and I guess my father figured that it was time for me to square off with something a little more advanced in evasive flight maneuvers than both of them combined.
I suppose some could view this as a tad sadistic on my father s part, but in truth everything he did in those regards was calculated in some way or another to further my field studies. If there was anybody in this world who knew what to do in the matter of gun sports, it was him. In my long and continuous history as an outdoorsman, independently and as a guide, I have met many a soul who was well versed and well experienced in those fields, but to this day I ve met but a scant few who were as well versed as he. Like me, he began his career as an outdoorsman nearly as soon as he could crawl out of the crib and keep his legs under him, and he never missed a free day out there if he could help it. By the time I was born, he was fifty years old.
I was shooting a little twenty-gauge double barrel of Italian design that the owner of a European textile plant had given to my father for having won some extremely crucial labor law case, and he immediately gave it to me, after he had taken it to a gunsmith and had it rebored. It had been born a modified and full choke for shooting at driven pheasants; but when it was handed to me, it was cylinder bore and improved cylinder. It was light as a feather and perfectly dropped, came to the eye quick, and when you touched off with it, it threw a wall of shot out there a gnat would have had a hard time flying through. Unbeknownst to me at the time, but as I was soon to find out, it made for a perfect snipe gun, since your two best friends in this world when it comes to shooting at a snipe are plenty of shot and an open bore. After my father notified us as to the snipes whereabouts, he then told us to go up to the house, root around in the shells, and see if we couldn t find a box or two of low brass number nines-if not, then some number eights, but no bigger-and go see what we could do with them.
The fish pond was not a pond at all but the head of a tupelo bottom with an artesian spring in the middle of it that had never been capped off and left to flow free. It held water all the time, even on the driest years, and when the Lynches River would run out of its banks and push the freshet waters into the drainages, the fish would follow. Many of them stayed even after the waters receded. It was a unique habitat, isolated in rich environs, and as a result it was brimming with fish and then some-and thus the name. When it would run out of its own banks, the water would spread out into the low ends of the fields surrounding it, and oftentimes you would find them to be stacked full of ducks and the thicker timbered edges bristling with woodcock. Though it was a much rarer occasion, after those waters drained off and left soupy ground behind them, you would go there to shoot a woodcock or two and find that their much smaller and more elusive cousins had taken up residence. You didn t find snipe in there regularly, but when you did, there was no shortage of them.
This was the case that afternoon. The edges of the fields were soggy and spongy, and one low end of one of the larger clearings was still holding water. It was pocked with little islets, and there were at least eight or ten castaways on each one. The snipe were all huddled up on them and probing the soft ground with their long bills for what worms and such had washed up there. The islets were grassed in places, and when Fred and I walked up there, the snipe all snatched their heads up, looked at us, and ran and hid in the weeds. Eager as I was to shoot at things, I figured in my childish mind that before long, there would be dead and dying snipe everywhere we looked, and I think Fred did too (since they were all huddled up there not more than twenty-five yards away and didn t seem to be particularly worried about either one of us). In fact they weren t worried about us at all, but not, of course, for the reasons we had figured.
Fred, who had been carrying the two full boxes of low brass number nines we d rooted up at the house, reached in his jacket, and pulled out a double fistful. He handed them to me, and as I loaded up he winked at me and said, Give em hell, Dontch!
Fred had called me Dontch from the time I was a baby. I had been an irascible child, but my tongue hadn t caught up with my burly baby nature, and when Fred would tickle me and poke at me, I would shove his hands away and scream, Dontch! which was a baby bastardization of Don t touch me!
With Fred s encouragement, I waded in there among them with malice aforethought, and the snipe all raised their heads up out of the weeds and turned their eyes on me. They looked at each other, then crouched down and started to take a fast trot in the opposite direction. As soon as they had gone out into the open ground, they took off out of there like a cloud of confused and angry bees, all screeching in that high-pitched alarm call they make. I raised up my trusty fowling piece with true deliberation and sent them a double dose of number nines, which is usually bad medicine for Mr. Snipe, but I failed to inoculate any of them. With snipe buzzing all around our heads, I quickly loaded up again, just as a fair few came blistering past. When I touched off, bimyow, bamyow , the shot from both barrels went one way and the snipe went the other, and so it went, until one entire box of shells was spent and I was well into the second.
Fred, who was far out of harm s way, was laughing a gut-busting laugh and hollering, Get em, Dontch. Get em! Don t let em do you dat way!
Near the middle of the second box, a lone specimen came sailing right over my head on the way to light down behind me, and I managed to rake him with a few pieces of shot. As soon as he hit the ground, Fred ran after him and grabbed him up, to make damn sure he at least wasn t going to get away before we completely ran out of munitions. Somewhere into the dregs of that second and final box, I hit one pretty solid on a going away, but I think the reason for that was the fact that by then, Fred and I had been chasing snipe all up and down that bog for a solid twenty minutes. The bird was just too worn out to do any more twisting and turning. It didn t take but a barrel or two more after that to finish that box off as well, and it was all over but the laughing. Fred was near out of breath and gone to his knees, howling from chasing after me around and around that field and watching me shoot, then cuss, then cuss and shoot yet again. By the time all the shooting, missing, and cussing was done, words had come out of my mouth that no self-respecting eight-year-old should have ever known about.
When we finally limped back to the house, my father met us halfway down the drive to get an immediate report, and seeing me holding up the lone two snipe I d managed to slow down out of the probably one hundred or so that had been peacefully drilling for worms in that field before we showed up, he broke out laughing, too. Soundly beaten though I had been, I was still holding them up proudly by their thin little bills for his inspection, both birds looking much worse for wear, sopping wet, muddy, and disheveled. A wet snipe is about the most wretched thing you have ever laid eyes on, about as large and as displeasing looking as a soggy field mouse. But they were solid trophies to me, and I had worked damn hard to get them!
After all the explanations as to why there weren t any more, Fred looked at my father and asked, What dat dey saying when dey takes out cross de field?
They say Scape! Scape! my father said.
Fred just shook his head. Dat make good sense to me, cause dey bout scape every piece of shot Dontch sling at em! He do manage to catch dese few here, but de other rest scape two whole boxes.
I was not amused.
Of course I had a grudge against them then and was determined to go back there and seek justice as soon as possible, but two nights later we had a good freeze and several more after that. When we went back out there to even the score, the snipe were gone. They are a winter and early spring fowl, but being the delicate creatures they are, they have a hard time probing in frozen ground, and they had sought food and refuge elsewhere.
IN THE YEARS TO COME , I did manage to get some revenge now and then, and by the time I was old enough to go on such ventures by myself, I had a pretty good record of snipe behind me. I had learned a thing or two about their natures and how to get a load of shot close enough to one to do some good; but if any wing shot ever tells you that they are a good snipe shot, you best keep a close eye on them from then on, because something just isn t quite right. Like all shotgunning, you have good days and bad days in a snipe bog; you are on the mark sometimes and sometimes not. In my personal opinion, though, based on years of practical application and personal observation, there is no such thing as an expert snipe shot. There are those who are more regular about it than most, being good wing shots in general, but a snipe just does not lend itself to the term expertise .
When I was in my early twenties, I worked as guide and general assistant to a man outside of St. Stephen, South Carolina, who had built himself a fine business and reputation as the owner of a shooting preserve. He really was an excellent woodsman, a good bird dog trainer and bird woods manager in general, and he and I got along exceedingly well, since like most all folks in that business at a time, we came from similar backgrounds and had similar tastes. As a result he and I had many a good day afield together as hunting partners. His place was in upper Berkeley County, very near to Lake Moultrie, the low lake in the Santee lake system, and occasionally when the water level was down some and we had nothing better to do, we d go to a particular place and walk the soggy flats there and jump shoot snipe.
There were always a few around at certain times of the year, but sometimes, especially right ahead of a front line or hard freeze further northward, there would be scads of them, flocking up almost like blackbirds. One weekend, after a group of hunters had come and gone, one of them, who had some business in Charleston the week following, stayed behind to hunt with us solo. Since he was by himself and didn t really warrant all the pomp and circumstance and general fussing around that went along with entertaining a whole crowd, we just treated him like one of our own and took him with us on the various shooting whims we had, which were often and many. This fellow was a damn fine bird shot and had proven that to us on several occasions, when we took him outside the preserve line and put him among the wild birds that we kept around for ourselves on another property.
There is really no comparison between a released bird and his wild cousin in the way of the sporting qualities. A wild bird will prove to you all of a gunner s failings in short order, on the very first covey rise and a subsequent single bird or two, but this fellow proved to have very few. We were impressed, which unfortunately didn t really happen all that often. He also had showed us that he was more than a fair hand in a duck blind and a dove field, so we figured he d not be too awfully bad as a partner in the snipe bog, either, and he allowed for himself that he wasn t.
He came from outside Baltimore somewhere and had spent a great deal of time along the eastern shores of Maryland and Virginia, and apparently there are a fair few snipe up that way at times, because he claimed to be well acquainted with them. He actually claimed to be an above-average hand at shooting them. Boss looked to me and I looked to Boss, and we both looked asunder on hearing that. Our partner in all things related to the workings of that business was an old fellow named Joshua, who had worked for Boss for untold years and for Boss s father untold more before that, and he had seen a thing or two out in the field himself. When he heard that one, he sort of squinched up his face and hung his head and said under his breath, Uuuum ummmph, which was not an acknowledgment of belief but more an indication of pity. He looked at us too and sort of smiled a thin, wry smile, and with that we all loaded up and went to the bog.
It was around twelve o clock by the time we got out there, and as happens sometimes once the sun rises toward midday or so, the wind had come up with it. It wasn t howling, but it was blowing a solid twenty-five knots on a good gust and a steady fifteen, gust or not. A front had come through two or three days earlier, and when we walked out there, we saw that a passel of snipe and then some had come with it. Scattered over that hundred or so acres of ground were at least several hundred snipe and likely much more than that, and they were in a flocking mood that day. Being that it was a little windy and broad daylight, the snipe were exposed out there in fairly sparse cover. They were thus a little nervous about things in general and were in no mood to hold their ground and let you walk up to them within short gun range. They were flushing wild and all frantic and unhappy about our being out there, and the air was seething with the sounds of wing beats and filled with those urgent alarm calls, Scape, Scape, Scape!
When they flushed, fifteen or twenty birds would pass over fifteen or twenty more and flush them, too, and the whole crowd would swing over another anxious crowd that would go with them. By the time all the flushing was done, you were faced with a seething ball of snipe all in a panic and screeching out their complaints. Once in the air, they d gather into independent flocks and let the wind take them almost out of eyeshot, then ball up in the far corners, turn, and come back around again, stretching out on the straightaways and rushing past you on a downwind run, looking like a bunch of irate hornets going by, and then wadding up on the turns for a split second before banking away and putting the juice to the straightaways again. It was like watching some kind of avian race for the gold.
No matter how upset they were, they refused to leave that place, and in five or ten minutes after we got out there, all the snipe in the entire area were airborne and going around and around in a frantic circle in the same direction, truly looking like some sort of snipe whirlpool. Every now and then, a wad of birds would break out of formation and come blistering in, trying to light again, rocking and rolling and twisting in like a bunch of wind-whipped ducks, trying to decoy in a hurry. As soon as they were shot at, they would tower out of there and join up with the whirlpool again, more frenzied than ever before.
Notice I said shot at, not shot. There was some mighty powerful banging going on, no doubt, but far less hitting than shooting, especially since the nerves of everyone, the four of us and the snipes, were more than a little jangled over all that commotion.
Within a few minutes of that insanity, Boss and I both noticed that in one corner of that snipe track, there was a good stand of cypress timber, all mature trees, wide trunked and tall, and when the herd would swing by them, it seemed that for a second or two, they were slowing down some for being in the lee of the wind. In that bedlam it was every man for himself, so Boss and I left Joshua with the Baltimore man, who had taken to going after the birds that were peeling out of that whipped-up brew and lighting down in some spattered cover in another corner. When Boss and I got to the slow corner we d spotted, we found that they indeed were losing some velocity, and on making the turn, they were balling up, like blackbirds do sometimes, closing up, stringing out, and then closing up again, and we found a good place to be. Not a second or two later, here they came again.
About forty or fifty birds came wheeling in, and when they made the swing around, they all closed up on each other. Boss and I let them have a couple of barrels, and when we did, two light holes opened up in that mass of birds and snipe came raining down everywhere. We weren t intentionally flock-shooting them, but no matter which bird you picked out, there were six or seven right beside him and none of them much beyond thirty yards or so, which is right at nearly optimum pattern range. Even though the limit on snipe back then was far more liberal than it is now, it didn t take but a few more good passes for Boss and I to do all we could.
While we were out there collecting our fallen, we could hear the Baltimore man over there giving them hell. Bim, bam, boom! And hell he gave them, for another thirty or forty minutes, until he and Joshua had gone way out of sight around a bend, chasing after the flushed birds that weren t in the mood for all that manic circling.
Boss and I had, for lack of better terms, a sack full of snipe and were back at the truck lounging on the tailgate long before the Baltimore man and Joshua finally came into view, rounding a corner way down on the far inshore edge of the bog. Watching their postures as they came slogging toward us, slump shouldered and weary looking-a defeated gait-and Joshua s head hanging sort of low, it wasn t looking good for them at all. Boss looked to me and said, They look a little light, don t they?
I agreed that their shell bags and game pouches appeared to be flat as pancakes. Joshua was in the lead, and we could see from the pained expression on his face that he wasn t awful happy about their situation. He was a conscientious objector more or less when it came to hunting. I never saw a gun in his hand, unless he was handing one out or putting one up, and he had been acting as guide and game bearer for the Baltimore man, but even so, though he had not been party directly to the poor performance, as the guide he was still pretty insulted by it all. He was looking a little downtrodden, and Joshua s facial expressions were like reports of a day s events.
Joshua was a tiny man, barely passing five feet, and he was ancient by the standards of a field guide. When I knew him, he was eighty-five years old, kept a slow but steady pace everywhere he went, and always carried a tobacco stake as a walking staff and bird flusher to beat around in the bushes when the birds held too tight in the cover. He always had an unfiltered Pall Mall cigarette fuming out of the corner of his mouth and a pint flask in his back pocket, full of some dark brown concoction that served a medicinal purpose, for all his rite-tuses and site-tuses, as he called his various aches and pains. He almost always wore a bright and beaming smile on his dark face that could light up a dim room on a rainy night, but if that smile was not there, that s all you needed to know.
The Baltimore man was looking a little sullen himself, so Boss and I didn t say much to either one of them, figuring they would come to it all on their own if and when they were ready to talk about it. They both came to the back of the truck and, without saying much, began emptying their pockets of birds and spent shell casings. When all the emptying was done, there were far more spent casings than birds. There were maybe four or five bedraggled little snipe and about five boxes worth of spent casings, which equated to around a bird a box. Since a gentleman never rubs his successes in the face of his hunting partner s failings, especially one who is apt to pay him some money now and then, Boss and I didn t say a thing about our final tally, and nobody asked us, either.
THERE ARE SOME OUTDOORSMEN in this world, more than a few, in point of fact, that just don t have any sense of humor about themselves. They are more than willing to accept whatever praise and accolades you are willing to heap upon them, but they just cannot abide any mention of their failings, whether they or someone else does the mentioning. This has been true in every outdoor pursuit I have ever been involved in, whether it was as simple as catching a bream in a pond or was stalking after a massive whitetail buck in a river bottom. Bird or bass, turkey or trout, they measure their worth in other people s eyes, and in their own, by success alone. I have often wondered why anybody who takes themselves so seriously would ever immerse themselves in a set of sports wherein defeat is as routine as any victory you will ever enjoy out there.
If you really think on it, when it comes to the outdoor pursuits, those that pit you against the natural world and those creatures living in it-hyperaware and sentient beings with minds and wills and desires of their own, as in tune with their surroundings as we are with our own backyards-it is failure alone that teaches you their natures in the end. You rarely learn anything from success in the field, simply because it never demands that you strive to better your understanding of it. You advance that understanding by making mistakes and learning from them. It is often hard for sportsmen to turn their mistakes into triumphs rather than constantly repeating them, though some are more able to do so than others. Those outdoorsmen I have known who were able to do so all had one thing in common: they kept a sense of humor about themselves and life in general. They saw comedy in error and opportunity in failure and, being more or less devoid the type of ego that stands in the way of humility, were willing and able to apply what they had learned from those failures rather than attempting to hide the fact that they had ever tasted defeat at all.
None of us had seen Baltimore man in any other light than that of routine success, and though there were times of minor tension between him and his friends, when they would tease each other on hunts as old friends do, his reactions to those things were always guarded by that complex dynamic of friendship, where it is often hard to tell whether a reaction between them is dependent solely on the situation at hand or includes a whole host of prior interactions over the course of their long lives together.
Not much was said on the way back to the clubhouse and not much more over the lunch table, and when the driver came up from Charleston to collect him and we all fussed around stowing his gear and trappings in the trunk, not much was said again, beyond the perfunctory handshakes and Enjoyed it s and Thank you s that come with such partings, and with that we watched him leave through the dust of the driveway, not to see him again for another year. After that Boss and I went and sat in the rocking chairs on the porch of the clubhouse, and shortly Joshua came and joined us. He burrowed his tiny frame in the seat between us, which was his place, and hunched down wearily into the folds of his old hunting coat. We all sat there awhile in silence, enjoying the sounds coming out of the little bottom down the lawn from us, the fall warblers and woodpeckers, and the gurgling of the creek that flowed through it. Then Boss looked over and said in a be-mused sort of way, He was awful quiet, wudden he?
Since it was the end of the day, Joshua took a well-deserved tug from his flask, wiped the drippings off of his old grizzled chin with the back of his hand, and corked it, saying, It was he own damn fault! He do it to he self soon as he go to braggin like dat. I see it comin !
Then he went on to tell us about what had gone on out there. You could see dem snipes was nervy! Dey come peeling in dere, an soon as dey hit de ground, dey heads pop right up an dey got dey eyes dead on us! I tell im, we oughts to let em res up a minute, sit down an smoke a cigarette, an let em catch dey breaf. But, oh no. He say, Don t you worry bout it. We here, an dey dere, an we gone for em!
Joshua shook his head then and said, As soon as we start dat way, you could see dem snipes fidget round and look at one another, and bout de time we close up on em, dere dey go! Dey takes out cross dat bog, like a cat what had he azz paint wid turpentime!
Joshua used his hands to show how the snipe were flying. Zig, zoog, zig out cross de flat dey go, crooked as a snake. An dat man going, bim, bam, boomyow! He ain t touch none of em, and de snipes light right back down in de grass over dere a hunnahd yards a so, an off he go after em, like he gonna run em down, stead a shoot em, sluug, sluug, sluug , through de mud fas as he can.
He gets up at em agin an zig, zoog, zig an bimyow, bamyow, boomyow! Joshua laughed. All I do is follow behin im, pickin up de hulls cause dere weren t no snipes to worry bout. Dat man finally look back, an say What you doing back dere? an I say I cleanin up de brass, an he say, Don t you worry bout dat, help me up here!
I say, You shots a snipe you can t fin ?
When he told us that, Joshua smiled a sadistic little smile. De man jig round when I ask dat, sorta mad like, an say Hell no! I jes needs you to help me watch where dey goin !
I thinkin to myself, Watch where dey going? Where ain t dey going?
Joshua laughed at himself then and said, Finally, after bout thirty shells, he scratch one, an de snipes go way up in de air, like dey do when dey head shoot, an he dancing all round cause he ain t got no mo shells in de gun to slow em up, an sayin Watch em! Watch em! all excited like, an de old snipes finally give up an come spiralin down, and he running for em for he hit de ground good an snatch im up all proud like, an shove im in he vest.
Now he done get cocky. He tell me he meants to do dat, cause he don t like to be bitin on de shots when he eat. An I thinkin to myself, I don t see as dat s too much a problem wid you!
We gone out dere wid five whole boxes of shells, he carryin two an me three, an it weren t long at all, fore he lookin back an sayin , I needs some more shells! So I han im some, an off he go after em agin. Sluug, sluug, sluug and bim, bamyow, boomyow an fore long he coming back wid he hand out.
Joshua shook his head in disgust. Every time he come back, he madder den when he lef . Like de snipes done sumptin to im on purpose. An it seem to me, he actin like me an de snipes in on it together. He mad at me, mad at de snipes, mad at everybody, but I ain t say nuttin cause I know he really mad at he self.
Joshua sighed then and took another pull from the flask, and then he said something that has stayed with me the rest of my life, and is the most brilliant assessment of snipe hunting, and hunting in general, that I have ever heard.
Dat man get so upset chasin after dem snipes, dat he pantin an sweatin and I scared he gonna fall out on me out dere, so I say, Hol up a minute and let s take a little res .
De man didn t really wanna, but he see I found a stump and he come over and fine one he self and we sit dere a minute. I could see im fussin over it, so I tell him What I knows bout dem snipes, is you gots to hunt em calm an shoot em casual.
He turn an look round at me sorta queer den, an fiddle in he coat pocket, and seeing dere weren t much more shell in dere anyway, he say, Let s jes go to de truck.
An I tell you, Joshua said. I was glad for it! Cause he bout to make me shittin !
He shook his head then and lit a Pall Mall and went quiet, because there really wasn t much else he wanted to say on the subject.
Hunt em calm and shoot em casual.
If we all applied that logic in the field, the sporting world and all those in it, woodsmen or waterman, would be far more peaceful and rested at the end of those days afield, and I doubt there would be any dissatisfaction among even the most rabid of us. What I have learned out there, and consider to be true-though many others find it to be a mystical concept at best-is that the wild creatures of this world can sense the tension in us, can feel the ill will and ill intent in the air, and that it is those sportsmen who can go afield with a calm over them and with purpose, yet shed of the frustrations

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