Here’s one they don’t tell you: Birds’ innards stink.

To holy hell.

It’s nice when you can breast out a bird neatly without breaking into the internal cavity; when you can fillet the meat off in two perfect little slabs. But when the shot mangles the meat or the freaking dog chews a bit too hard and the crushed organs behind the breast bone are exposed to air, the smell is almost toxic.

Worst bouquet ever: A small garage on the farm we stayed at in South Dakota where seven of us each cleaned our limit of roosters. It was like walking into a commercial poultry processing plant.

Even the lingering effects of quick stop breakfast burritos and draft beer caught in old neoprene waders can’t compare. Sunday morning frat house bathrooms smell better.

If you’re a dedicated crop-opener like I am, you have some insight on where the foul fowl scent comes from. Imagine what a diet of decaying apples, grasshoppers and aspen buds would do to you.

I know folks like to wax poetically about that magic moment when a dog’s olfactory system triggers the pooch to stop suddenly. Maybe, just maybe, our dogs are getting a whiff of the fetid internal stew inside the little birdies and they’re pulling up short.

Could you blame them?

– Matt Crawford

Death grip

How do you kill them?

Do you hope the dog takes care of them before he brings them back to hand or are you such a good shooter than you stone every one of them?

Or are you like me? Do you find a few of them, blinking and half alive? Do you stand there for a moment and think about what’s transpired in the last few seconds? You made a decision, a big boy decision, to pull the trigger. You hit your target. You brought the bird down. It flopped and flapped and absorbed more lead than you though avianly possible, but it’s not dead. Not yet. That last part is now up to you. And your hands.

Do you dispatch, terminate, put ’em down, finish ’em off, snuff ’em out, exterminate or harvest ’em?

I don’t. I kill them. Quickly. Swiftly. Without fanfare. Without much thought really, because too much thought and you’d stand there like a fool leaving everything open to contemplation.

So it’s a twist of the neck, maybe a head rapped against a nearby tree. Not pretty, but not overly dramatic, either. The hunter bringing the end near. Life running out of the hunted. You can feel it go. Almost like when you’re fishing and the hook dislodges. It’s just…gone.

Not so much remorse as just a pause. And then you move on.

– Crawford

Meat hunting

I’m two woodcock and a couple of spray-and-pray shots at ruffed grouse into the day when Henry’s little French Britt, Koda, goes on point. Or at least the beep-beep-beep of  his electronic collar tells me he’s on point.

I jam my way through the nasty tangle not yet suppressed by a real hard frost toward the dog. In this thick stuff you’ve got to be within 15 feet of the dog to see him, so I’m walking with the 20-gauge at the ready, unsure how close the bird might be. And then Koda moves, or least the tinga-ling of his bell tells me he’s moving.

And he’s back on point. Then barking. Then moving. And barking. And seemingly on point again. Weird.

“You see him Henry?” I yell.

“No,” Henry yells back. “He’s closer to you.”

Koda barks again, about the same time the beep goes off on the collar.

“What the hell is going on with him?” I yell to Henry.

And then I see it. At first I think it’s a fawn stuck in a muddy depression, but when my brain catches up with my eyes I realize Koda is standing – barking – a few feet from a mature whitetail doe with paralyzed hindquarters .

“Christ, Henry!” I yell. “It’s a deer!”

Henry emerges from his patch of thick alders just as I notice a quarter-sized hole on the doe’s spine. It’s a fresh wound, oozing blood, not a lot, and she thrashes around at our feet using only her front legs. I can see her backbone in the hole.

It’s archery season here, and I know the landowners have a couple of treestands hanging not far from where we are in the cover.

“We’ve got your deer!” I yell, thinking the archer would be within earshot if they were still in the woods.

Once it becomes clear there’s nobody but Henry, Koda and me in the woods with this deer we have to devise a plan. I run back to the truck to get my cell phone and a knife. I call  the landowner’s son – who’s still in high school – and ask him if he might have shot at a doe from his stand in the last 24 hours.  No, he hadn’t. Maybe his brother did? No, he hadn’t, either. A couple of phone calls later and it’s clear that whoever shot this doe is neither the landowner or still around. The game warden is called, and he’ll come around to tag it for us so we can get her out of the woods without violating any big game laws.

With little fanfare, I lay on the doe’s front legs, holding them tightly so she can’t swipe us. She doesn’t protest much, her bulging eyes the only real sign of panic. Henry takes the knife, tenderly caresses the doe on her neck just once, and plunges it into her jugular. She doesn’t die quickly, the blood gurgling in her throat as she bleats.

“They are tough bastards,” says Henry, as she flops and flutters. I notice he has blood stains on the knees of his pants. Finally, after a period of time longer than you’d think, the life drains out and her heaving chests stops moving.

The warden comes with the high schooler and his brother. We meet them on the edge of the woods and we drag her out. She’s legally tagged. They clean her and bring her to a butcher shop.

Henry and I finish our hunt – we found the deer in what’s really the sweet spot in the cover – and I manage to knock down one more woodcock.

The woodcock, too, is still alive when Koda finds it.

I just rap its head against a small tree. The bird does not bleed. It immediately goes limp.

– Matt Crawford

Land of the lost

Troy and Samantha are perfectly fine people. He works hard, fishes a bit and uses his small college baseball skills as a Little League coach. She also works (not as hard), looks a little more than good in a sundress and unloads a torrent of dirty jokes after a couple of cosmos.

But the sonsabitches destroyed a bird cover of mine. Sometimes I can’t get past that. Sometimes I want to pull into their yard on a Saturday morning, uncrate the dogs and let ’em shit on the lawn as I stand on their beautiful back deck and fire both barrels at their clothesline.

I won’t do that of course. I took at a verbal poke at them one buzzed night for being flatlanders – chiseling down the price of 20 acres from a nearly broke dairy farmer and then building a tidy $400,000 home in an overgrown apple orchard and taking away a sweet little spot I had to hunt just minutes from my house. It didn’t go over so well – maybe it was my delivery. Maybe it was a little too close to the truth.

It happens a lot around here. A lot, a lot. A new house goes up in the middle of a perfectly good bird cover – an overgrown assemblage of old apple trees, a few awkward aspens, a clumping or two of softwoods and maybe some dogwoods. I’ve stood in Troy and Samantha’s back yard, long before it was a backyard, of course, and killed a big mature grouse as it flushed directly over my head. Where I was standing – I folded the bird with the first barrel, by the way – is now the spot they keep their kayaks in the winter.

Troy told me it wasn’t his fault, you know, that we build new houses on old land. We’ve got plenty of trees and forests around here (which is true), so it’s not like he assembled a strip mall in the middle of a wildlife refuge.

He reminded me I’m not without sin, either. My house stands in an old farm field. It’s not like I live in a old house in the middle of town and walk to work. I should have come up with the money the farmer needed and bought the bird cover if it meant so goddamn much to me. He told me this as I sipped his Crown Royal. As a response I took a big, deep drink.

He’s right. He’s not entirely to blame. I’m not, either. While I’ve gained friends and damn fine neighbors and all that hunky dory stuff, I’ve lost a few bird covers over the years. All in the name of progress and growth, I guess.

I’m waiting for the day they tell me – they’ll be laughing of course – that those birds I always hunt, what are they? Partridge? Grouse? Are they the same thing? Yeah, well, anyway one of them flew into the sliding glass door on their back deck and must have broken its neck. They found the poor thing dead, “Tits up” she’ll say, right there on the Trex deck. She’ll tell me it kind of made her sad.

Yeah, kind of sad. That’s about right.

– Matt Crawford

He say “I know you, you know me”

It’s one thing to meet another bird hunter in October at a gas station, motel or greasy spoon diner. The frayed field pants, the whistle around the neck, the pick up with the Vari Kennel in the back, a blaze orange Purina hat – you don’t have to be The Amazing Friggin’ Kreskin to figure out you share a good deal of common ground.

But in the summer, whether it’s at the boat ramp, a wedding reception or just an evening stroll around the local rec fiHigh fiveeld, crossing paths with another heretofore unknown bird hunter sends little jolts of contentment deep into the remaining Sulci of your brain.

The first step in the conversation begins when the other dude somehow establishes he’s a hunter or that he, too, owns a springer/setter/shorthair/pointer. From there, the discussion unfolds along a fairly predictable, but altogether pleasant, path. You talk dogs, birds, guns, favorite writers, trainers, a wicked cool little blog called Mouthful of Feathers, even local covers if he happens to be local.

Almost always, when the conversation closes, there’s the sense that you made – if not a friend – at least a new ally. Somebody who thrives on that smell that emanates from a just-fired shotgun, who enjoys those long hikes back to the truck, who’s made hero shots and missed the gimmes.

Somebody a lot like you.

– Matt Crawford

The sounds

My eyes won’t stop watering. It’s the lack of sleep. Three a.m. wake-ups are by far the biggest drawback to turkey hunting.

To stop the spigot, I close my eyes. Surely I’ll hear a gobbler if he lets loose. To make sure, I take an auditory inventory. I start with the close sounds first – the buzz of the mosquitoes, the warblers and wrens, breeze through the trees. Now I expand – vehicle hum of a far-away road. Maybe a dog bark, way off? Maybe.

And then, seemingly from within my head, a “Bum. Bum, bum. Bumbumbumbumbumbum.” Sort of like a lawnmower starting. Then it’s gone.

It’s a male ruffed grouse, somewhere within a quarter mile of the pine tree I’m nestled up against. He’s drumming, which is his way of marking out his spring breeding territory.

I’ve been told drumming creates a mini sonic boom. It might. For me, it creates hope.

Agave recall

It’s a long way from dorm-room shots of Pepe Lopez, this Patron Reposada. I’ve mixed it with lime juice and a touch of Cointreau, even added just a little sugar. It’s one a hell of margarita.

But a smooth margarita on a cold New England winter night is a drink poured from the fountain of bittersweet. That little burn in the throat, almost medicinal in nature, always flashes me a few winters back to when I was a virtually unpaid editor of a small, quarterly bird-hunting magazine. In exchange for a laughable monthly salary, I had the chance to travel and hunt – with one of the most memorable trips being an exclusive bobwhite/dove/duck lodge in the Tamaulipas region of northern Mexico. There, the locally produced tequila was kept in an small oak cask, ours for the taking 24/7, if we were so inspired. That tequila was smooth and creamy and much like a brandy. We sipped it straight. No shots or lime or salt. It was infinitely better than the so-called good stuff I’m drinking now.

But, like good tequila does, it made my uvula spasm. So, whenever I feel that peculiar sensation at the root of my tongue I am reminded of my short stay at that lodge, of the brandy-like tequila, the Mexican guides, of the covey after covey of wild bobwhite quail exploding from the arid landscape. The 65-degree days and 35-degree nights.

We ate some sort of smoked chicken wrapped in tortillas and smothered with green salsa for lunch. I drank Coca Cola lite out of glass bottles. We hunted behind a pack of English pointers that were trial rejects from Texas and Mississippi. An older gentleman I spent a day with shot a rattlesnake he nearly stepped on. We hunted in orange groves. The guides unnervingly yelled “SHOOT, SHOOT, SHOOT!” when coveys erupted – like a parent screaming at a kid’s soccer game trying to will a goal through vocalization.

I missed, I don’t know, the first 10 birds I saw, unable to pick one bird out of covey rise and stay with it while others flushed. I finally connected. And connected and connected. So many points, so many shells, so many birds. Wild birds, all of them. My shoulder was sore. My hearing’s never fully recovered. I shot a double. Several times. We ate the birds at night, barbecued and spicy and washed down with that nameless mellow tequila.

I’ll probably never hunt wild bobwhite quail like that again. And tequila will never taste so good.

– Crawford

Joint custody

Greg was the first friend of mine I could remember having divorced parents. Since I didn’t have to deal with the emotional fallout of the mess, my role was often to simply pull up a seat on the over-compensation gravy train and enjoy all the cool shit Greg’s parents heaped on him in exchange for them abdicating their full parental responsibilities.

These days, I’m the one spoiling – only it’s not my kids, it’s a shotgun. More precisely, it’s a 20-gauge Fox Sterlingworth that my wife’s grandfather (which would be my mother-in-law’s father) left in his estate.

The gun was supposed to go to my wife’s brother, Larry. Trouble is, Larry’s wife grew up in beautiful Hartford, Conn., where guns are bad – mmmmkay? So She Who Must Be Obeyed handed down a “no-guns” decree in Larry’s house and it ended up in my hands. For safe keeping, because it’s still Larry’s gun. Technically.

But you can’t keep a good gun down – and even though it’s choked tight and tighter, I trot the Sterlingworth out a couple of times a year (usually later in the season) and try to kill a bird or two with it. The gun is spoiled all right, spoiled because I don’t have the go-ahead to add it into the full-time rotation. So it sits for much of the year in my gun safe. It must be lonely and depressed. Sort of like Greg was when he was shuttled between parents.

Ideally, I’d like to have the stock refinished, I’d like to open up the bores a few hundredths of an inch and I’d like to make sure it fits me well. But I can’t. It’s Larry’s gun, and while it sees the grouse woods a couple of times each year, for the most part is just sits around waiting.

Maybe I should file for sole custody.

Leave. Please.

Another lonely morning in the treestand. A gray, late-arriving November morning completely devoid of deer. Only the red squirrels scurrying in the leaves puncture the far-off soundtrack of commuters heading to work.

I unload the .308, climb down, stretch the back and ready myself for my re-entry into the gotta-get-to-work crowd. Thirty yards from the stand, in a mix of dogwood and aspen saplings, I almost step on a lone woodcock. The color of a potato or a good beer. About the same size, too. It startles me, but I recover in time to playfully bring the empty rifle up to the shoulder and swing.

“Bang,” I say.

The season closed more than three weeks ago on these birds – little long-billed, worm-eating, tight-sitting, upside-down-brained migratory things. This one, I’m guessing, hatched in eastern Quebec and is on its way to, I don’t know, Virginia, maybe. North Carolina? Whatever. It should be there by now. We’ve had hard frosts. Snow is in the forecast. I’m awaiting snow for tracking deer and for making turns in the mountains. Everybody’s lighting woodstoves and furnaces. These are not the days for woodcock to be hanging around, although the weather dudes say we’re in something like the fifth warmest November on record.

Empathy is my first reaction, but then I remember not to doubt the acumen of nature, the insight of evolution. If this woodcock is tardy in arriving to its winter destination, there must be a solid, reasoned explanation. Not that I’m going to get it, or frankly, do I deserve it. I’ve guessed wrong about things woodcock too often in the past to develop any kind of logical rubric.

Maybe that’s the allure: not knowing, not understanding. If we figured it all out, if the answers were too easy, then the whole thing would be a sham – us in the driver’s seat of nature.

We wouldn’t want that.


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