Hunting Season

September 20, 2009

For most Canadian boys the great coming of age occurs with the driver’s permit, but for me it came a year early with my first hunting license. I remember George Curry, the licensing instructor, and his conversation with my father while he skinned three pounds of bullheads for him. “I’ll bet he’s been out around these hills with a gun ever since he could walk.” My dad nodded. “I guess he’ll be all right, then. I’ll write him a license without an exam. That’ll be $1.50 for the bullheads.”

And so I became an adult member of my clan, entitled to join Grandpa Charlie, cousin Jim, and my dad on duck hunts and legally provide meat for the table. That summer I worked at Genge’s Red and White and Drury set aside a large portion of my wages to pay for a brand new Remington 870 Wingmaster.

I don’t recall if I actually hit anything that first opening day, but over the years my success increased as I gained experience at the unique style of shooting beaver-pond hunting in Bedford Township required.

Trees hang over the ponds. The ducks drop over the trees from behind you and then glide away. Your only shot is a hurried stab at the bird before it disappears behind a dead soft maple a second or so later. You hear a little whistle of wings, and there it is! Pick it off or it’s gone!

Shooting from this position is anything but easy, but it can be done, and with practice, done well. All you need are lots of ducks, lots of shells, and a good retriever. I had Sam, a demented Chesapeake. When Sam found a duck he would retrieve it eagerly, but then he would keep going with his prize until he found an island where he could pluck it with great enjoyment.

I remember Frank Green telling Jack Dier about Sam: “The dog goes and gets the duck and then Rod has to go and get the dog.” Of course when I missed a duck, Sam would search anyway, and eventually come back to me with the look on his face of a man who had just lost his religion. If I put him on a leash he was even worse. Sam would suddenly get a chill and start to shiver. His teeth clacked when he shivered, and he could flare a flock of ducks a half mile away with his chills. Sam was a good deal worse than no dog at all, but he was my faithful hunting companion for my first nine years.

Then there was the sunny afternoon in the sugar bush of the old homestead when Bet volunteered to retrieve the ducks. A mallard soon flew by and I dumped it on the shore of the pond. Bet brought it back. A little miffed that I wasn’t paying as much attention to her as she expected, she consoled herself by petting the poor, dead duck. Then she started to scratch. I confess I had forgotten to tell her about the lice. I assured her they were harmless and would die within the hour, but I must admit it was a funny hour. That was it for Bet’s career as a retriever, but she had won my heart with her antics and we married a few years later.

Then came Jasper. Marge and Ken Bedore had given us his father, a black cocker spaniel named Smokey. Smokey wasn’t much of a hunter, largely because he had no sense of direction and kept getting lost in the woods. Jasper, on the other hand, was a natural. Once while shooting teal below Edmunds Lock, I downed two and went home with five. He had spotted two swimming cripples and brought them back, and finished the evening by tracking one I had winged into a twenty-acre corn field and bringing it back after a long search.

But Jasper was at his best flushing grouse. He was the only dog I had known who had enough sense to get on the other side of the bird and flush it back to the hunter. Mind you he only did this in the winter, after the season had ended, but it was fun to hunt with him. With Jasper I had my best season ever as a grouse hunter. I got eight. Mind you, four of those were road kills and two hit windows, but two I actually downed with birdshot. One was a hunting accident, though.

Behind Peter Myers’s shop there are some old apple trees and one afternoon Jasper put a pair of grouse up. I aimed at the one on the right, but the stock snagged in my vest and the gun went off, knocking the grouse on the left out of the air. So that left one legitimate hit for a year of grouse hunting, you ask? Yeah.

But you guys who have to realize how hard ruffed grouse are to hunt early in the season. They’re genetically programmed to avoid hawks, so a grouse never flushes except when it has a tree between itself and you. The leaves make them impossible to see. The one I actually shot somehow got confused and flew up above the canopy. I spotted it through a gap in the leaves and dumped it, the first clear shot I had had at a grouse that year.

My most memorable grouse? I was driving home from school in Carleton Place and the Honda ahead of me hit one with the tip of its antenna. The bird exploded into a cloud of feathers and dropped on the centre line of Highway 15. The driver behind him in a Mazda jammed on his brakes and started a u-turn, as did the Dodge mini-van next in line. My SUV had rear wheel drive and I could do a tighter u-turn than the other two, so I got there first, leaned out my door and picked up the bird. The other two waved and grinned, turned around again and went on their way. The grouse was delicious and I had won it with a neat bootlegger turn.

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