Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Opening day forecast: Hot with a chance of miserable

There's a downside to opening the dove season on Labor Day Weekend.  I'm sure it's beautiful in certain parts of the country this time of year but it's (still) downright hot in the south.  The less appealing alternative is to hold off the opener until it's consistently comfortable outside, usually sometime in early October, but that would initiate another form of suffering.

So we sit, tasting salt as it rolls across our lips, swatting the bugs intent on finding a way into one of our eyes, rhythmically wiping our faces on one shoulder or the other. Looking back I can recall only two years when it wasn't hot on the first hunt of the season.

For a long time I drove to eastern North Carolina to spend opening day with my grandfather.  He'd been a member of the same dove club since the late sixties and for as long as I hunted with him he was the oldest member.  Most clubs are members-only for the first few shoots but the Southern Pines Shooting Club had a Henry Ford-esque policy: bring anyone you want as long as they're male and over fifteen.  They'd have upwards of sixty hunters gather for the pre-game breakfast around ten (can't shoot before noon 'til after Labor Day) -  eggs, bacon, grits, homemade biscuits, sausage, gravy, orange juice and coffee all prepared on a trailer cooker.  On a hot day with a full belly it was mighty tempting to just lean the car seat back and enjoy the A/C for a while.

Nobody did, of course, and after a convoy to the field we'd all pile out, stake our spots and wait for the birds to start flying.  One year we piled out into the remnants of a hurricane.  In late August of 1999, Hurricane Dennis flirted with the North Carolina coast, lost a bit of steam, then looped back around and came ashore over the holiday weekend.  I've never hunted in sustained 35mph winds before or since and while it made the temperatures quite tolerable, trying to hit a bird in those conditions took me back to square one.

Anatomy of a windy opener, courtesy Wikipedia 

By mid-afternoon I figured out that although a crossing bird flying into the wind looks like it's barely moving, you need to put the muzzle a good eight feet in front of it and then double that distance.  The very same wind that's slowing the birds to a crawl is also flinging your shot pattern sideways.  In a hurry.  Pilots know it as the difference between groundspeed and airspeed, dove hunters know it as a good way to blow through four boxes of shells in no time.   

In all the years I've hunted dove I've only seen rain once on opening day.  When the storm blew in everyone thought it was just passing through and we'd be in for a sunny, albeit muddy, hunt once the clouds cleared.  After about an hour my grandfather and several of the other elders decided the rain had "set in" and headed for the cars.  I'd driven almost three hours to be there, was already mostly wet, and since the birds were still flying I stayed put. Somehow it was better than cooking under an apocalyptic sun.

Most openers I've spent just soaked in sweat.  You tend to get a little wiser as you age, though, even if only in the most practical of matters.  I'm talking specifically about personal comfort.  Lately I've been picking my stand not based on the flight path of the birds but the path of the sun and any object that can intervene.  Personal comfort gains value with each passing year.  Tempted by a sale flier in the Sunday paper, I broke down a few seasons ago and purchased a camo t-shirt made of some technical wicking fabric.  Worth every penny and now I'm on the lookout for a pair of matching boxers.  Heat be damned.

Enjoy that opener fellas...

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eager anticipation or desperation?

Pointing squirrels...

He just took to this in the last week or so, having been oblivious to the yard full of tree rats all summer.  I don't have the heart to tell him that his debut is still three months away.  If it's cold up north and the woodcock get here early his sniffer may get a workout before then, sans gun of course. 

The bird hunting blogs have been rather dormant since the start of summer, save the occasional fishing or vacation post.  Signs of life in the the last few weeks augur a spreading fever.  Here's hoping for an epidemic.

Friday, August 12, 2011


Before we get started I need to make it clear that I'm no art connoisseur.  I'm not even an aficionado in the broadest sense, an appreciation for fine art having eluded me over the years along with fluency in foreign languages, a taste for caviar and any proficiency at golf.  But I do know when something pleases my eye and stirs emotion, so I can at least claim recognition of the purpose of art.

A number of years ago I picked up a book solely for the subject matter only to be struck with a sense of allure by the cover.  The illustration was so subtle, so quiet in a whisperlike way that it begged me to lean in and look closely.  It took some time but eventually I did some digging and reading and then studying and by degrees began an appreciation for one of America's great landscape artists.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art

The book is Making Game: An Essay on Woodcock and the cover artist is Russell Chatham. A native of northern California and an artist since somewhere around age 6, Mr. Chatham has produced oils, acrylics, lithographs and etchings mostly depicting parcels of life in the west.  His talents extend beyond the art world as well; he's an outdoorsman who at one time held a line class record for striper, he's a respected author (if you can find a copy of Dark Waters, read it) - early issues of Gray's Sporting Journal are peppered with his work, and he's owned a publishing company.  A fascinating, multi-dimensional life that many of us would envy.

In 1972, Chatham moved from California to Livingston, MT.  I'm not sure if this was prompted by something other than the spectacular scenery and the civilized isolation, as if a person would need another reason, but here he settled, spread roots, and eventually opened a gallery.  On our trip last month a stop at his gallery was on my short list, and while I timed the fishing wrong, I timed the gallery visit just right.

Gala exhibits and openings might be the thing for the more educated of the art world, but I much prefer a quiet, uncrowded opportunity to view an artist's work, a chance to focus without distractions tugging at the senses.  Fortunately two of my most accomplished distractions, ages 6 and 3, were sound asleep in the back seat when we arrived in Livingston.  Opportunities are only as much as you make of them, the sweet spot between apathy and overindulgence ceding the fullest reward.  I settled in.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art

Mr. Chatham's work captures the openness of the west along with the relationship between seasons and weather and the beings that call it home.  Better than any I've ever seen his work bears the odd irony of the warmth of a cold winter day.  A single piece might tell a complete story or spark a solitary memory, or just as easily spur the imagination to wander.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art
Certain pieces like the one to the left remind me vividly of hunting my home coverts.  To a student of art it may come as no surprise that the image of a single bird could trigger hundreds of images of leafless trees, pale cane breaks, muddy dogs, worn boots and such.  To me it's astounding and beyond my ability to explain.  These seemingly simple works ripple all of the pleasant thoughts and savory hours with a dog and a gun and a late winter sun in the woods.  Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, sometimes more when words just can't do the scene justice.  This, to me, is art.

Sadly, August 13th is the last day for the gallery.  Mr. Chatham is 71 years old and plans to scale back a bit, continuing to paint but most likely discontinuing the time-consuming lithography process, and I can't say I blame him.  When I'm his age, I hope I'll have the good sense to pare my activities to only those that I enjoy most.

image courtesy of Chatham Fine Art