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Opening Day

Fall Colors, the flush of a bird, being afield again
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When I was eleven years old, there were two nights of the year when I was too excited to sleep. Christmas Eve and the night before opening day of pheasant season, October 20.

My uncle and his two hunting dogs would arrive early in the morning before the season officially started. He bred and raised the dogs for field trials and my dad owned a couple because he thought they would make good bird dogs. The difference being that field trial dogs worked entire fields before a judges stand, earning points for the number of pen raised pheasants or quail the dogs could locate and point within a set period of time. This kind of find’em fast hunting didn’t work on our farm, as the birds would not often hold tight, but run.

The crunch of gravel as he pulled his station wagon into our driveway triggered a standard series of events in our yard.  First, our family dogs would surround his car and bark like mad at his caged Brittany spaniels. Second, dad’s Brittanys would launch themselves up the wire fence of their pen and leap about hysterically at the sound of the two yapping in the car.

When my uncle would loose his two dogs they would immediately attack ours, snarling and fighting until he could wade into the boiling pack and boot the dogs apart. The orange and white Brittanys then would make a beeline to their penned cousins.  This would cause the captive canines to escalate their greeting to near hydrophobic madness. Creating a cacophony of noise that I’m sure wasn’t wasted on the skittish ringnecks that  often fed in our garden.

Dad would wedge his way past my uncle’s dogs and open the pen gate. The four dogs would explode across our yard, race into the garden and into the heavy swamp grass near the creek that bordered our property. Birds, deer, rabbits and other game would vault ahead of the hysterical dogs. The only time they slowed down was when they fought each other in a pitched gangland style encounter of growling and yelping that caused my brothers and I to think they were killing each other.

“The dogs are just getting the kinks out,” our watching uncle would declare over an unfiltered cigarette.

Viewing the roiling mayhem, my dad and uncle would whistle and call in vain, then elevate their enticing to a degree of foul mouthed threats and finally, they would blame each other for the dogs disobedience.  Then it would be their turn to engage in loud and fierce exchanges.

The men obviously had years of practice at this and would save the most personal and threatening anatomical epithets for the final two or three minutes.  My brothers and I would stand near the barnyard, fearful of being caught in the vocal crossfire, looking over the pasture and marking where the escaping birds took refuge.

Their words were accentuated by one or more shotgun blasts into the morning sky in a final attempt to attract the bolting Brittanys back to the yard.

The season opened, as it does now, at 10 am, giving the birds a chance to move from their nighttime cover to water or into standing fields of corn. With an hour to go before legal shooting, we retired to the farm house for a breakfast of eggs, grits, bacon and coffee, even though the stimulant wasn’t needed as by this time we were all charged on adrenaline from the initial “greetings.”

I would collect the spent shells and sniff the intoxicating smell of burnt gunpowder, wearing them on my fingers at the table while listening to the retelling of last years hunting successes and the achievements of my uncle’s field trials.

The dogs, now muddy and loaded with burdocks, were brought inside to allow the 80 acres of the farm they had just stampeded through to cool down a bit. The wild-eyed dogs investigated the house and would join together in cornering our placid housecat, terrified and looking down from the top of our bookcase in the parlor.  Mom would raise a concerned eyebrow as the mixture of man’s best friend and house cat deposited swampdirt and various body temperature material onto our oriental rug.  She had to control herself not to make the first kill of the season right there in the house.

The old Seth Thomas wall clock would chime and the two men would push away from the table, hook their thumbs under their  wide, red suspenders and declare it time to hunt some birds, the moment I had been waiting for.

At my age, I wasn’t old enough to hunt with a shotgun, so I was issued an old bolt action Army training rifle without the bolt. The rifle was as long as I was tall and weighed as much as one of the dogs, but I didn’t complain, because when we entered the field, I felt I was part of the brotherhood of hunters.

As the most junior, it was left to me to push through the tangled raspberry canes along the fencerows or flank the men as they hunted the corn field edges. I would walk the corn fields, feeling the tug and gash of the rough edged corn stalk leaves, trying to keep up with the jingle and tink of the Brittany’s collar bells.

The men would talk in low, gruff voices, “He’s gettin’ birdy,” “Work’em over here,” “Git in here, dammit,” were common refrains.

My two older brothers hunted with us, but often wandered into other fields when things were slow, hoping to bump up a rabbit. My uncle didn’t like that, he claimed it could cause his high falutin’ dogs to become nothing more than “bunny runners.“

When the dog bells went silent, everyone stopped and located the one on point. Most of the time another dog would check up short and also freeze. “Look at Max honoring Snag’s point,” my uncle would boast as Dad and he would close in.

The two men would get within a few feet of the dogs and stop, their pump action 12 gauges at the ready. After hearing us trudging nearby, this silence was powerful pressure on wild game. In only seconds, a bird would erupt straight up for a few feet, then level off and gain airspeed with every wing beat. Everyone would snap their guns to their shoulders. “Hen!” someone would shout and the bird would continue to fly away for a quarter mile before setting her wings and angling into heavy cover.

I felt the rush of excitement spike and then wane within a few seconds, my face feeling cooler. The dogs  would bury their noses in the birds hiding spot and their stubby tails would wiggle. Their earlier misbehavior would be forgiven and praise lavished on them.

It would take two days of morning and afternoon hunting to cover the sweet spots on our farm and by then the dogs had settled down and were working close, retrieving the occasional ringneck pheasant.

The old men and their dogs are all long gone now, and the dog pen and graves of dad’s Brittanys are overgrown with scrub brush and weeds. But a connection still remains. I no longer carry that old rifle, but use a field worn double barrel my dad hunted with for forty years. The farm is still in the family and on opening day the fall colors, the smell of heather and a flushing bird from a familiar fence line still elicit that gloriously alive feeling.

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