First of Two Parts.
Saturday August 18, Opening Day:
Somehow here I am again stepping through dim woods. I find it harder to get moving in the mornings but I have done it again on another Opening Day.
There’s an old fencerow up ahead, almost invisible in the dim woods and weedy thicket. Then fence will guide me to where I need to go but it is a tripping hazard if I don’t spot it in time to avoid snagging a foot. Most everything is a tripping hazard in the woods, mores so when the ground is so wet from rain. The fence has long degrade into a non-barrier and I come to it at a total break. Walking along its old trace to my left will bring me downhill to a spot where the earth suddenly rises to fill the little holler-drain.
I find the crossing and I am into the hickory zone along a bench and continuation of the old fencerow. Immediately turkeys begin to yelp from various roost trees around me. This is not good; their disturbance will keep squirrels unusually wary. I sit to begin listening for the variety of sounds squirrels make when cutting and watching for giveaway rustlings in the high canopy. I see and hear the season’s first squirrel in a tall hickory downslope—or more accurately, I spot the motion of the first squirrel. The woods are so dark and the cloud cover steals more visibility. My eyesight has slipped in the year since I opened last season in this same place. The squirrel disappears from the tree before I really see it.
A light rain begins to fall. It will not drive me from the woods yet. I spot squirrel motion back toward the little holler and I move on it. A gray begins barking. I spy its dim outline—all of it but the head. I make a guess at where the head is in the leaves, hold on the spot and fire. There is no rewarding kugelschlagen—sound of the bullet striking—and the target flits away into the thicket. Impatience has caused me to flub the most important shot of the season.
I see additional motion high over the small drain. I move closer. A gray poses high overhead. I see its head unobstructed but it seems so small and dim in the dark foliage. This will be no easy shot but I take it. There is no audible bullet strike but the squirrel somersaults from its perch into the shadowy understory. I move forward to verify the kill. Spot-on to the head, the shot has blooded me for the new season!
The rain has started and stopped and never been hard. There is much dripping but there is a more solid plop in the cadence of water drops. High above I see another gray move and perch to cut, only a dim outline. Its head is obscure behind some twigs, angled away from me, and seems to be partially behind the limb. But the crosshair is solid on it and I take the shot. Attribute another miss to poor shot selection and impatience. Rain and bad light can do this to a hunter.
I must check the Big Twins before I end this hunt. It is hard to use a rife to shoot squirrels from these huge deep thicket shagbarks that grow so close together a man can barely pass between their trunks. The litter beneath them show that cutting has been well underway days before the opening. There is a squirrel working somewhere high in the canopies and another comes in from above. The turkeys have continued to cluck, purr, yelp, and even gobble all the while. Two fly from roost trees in alarm. I sit above the Twins for a while but do not see either squirrel. But twice turkeys walk up from below the big hickories. I recall the season of ’12 when this woods and the Big Twins were hotspots of hickory-nut cutting during this August phase of the season. Squirrels in the Twins had beaten me then also until the morning they arrived at it a bit later and I was in a position to see them on their route in and had really worked them over. Every season is different and every hunt is different.
I return to the little drain where I had the kill and the two misses. I sit to watch for a bit and a grouse glides from my right and perches in a tree across the drain. The woods are so dark I see no color or markings on the bird, not even by glassing it with the scope. Seeing the grouse is notable. I am in what was once prime grouse territory but this is the first one I have seen in too many years to count. So rare is it to see grouse that I question whether or not this a small young turkey. I do not get a view of its tail shape. But when the bird flies on without ever making any sort of voice sound, it satisfies me that it is a grouse.
This has not been an auspicious opening day. I have missed twice through impatience and taking shots I should not have tried, but I have first blood with a fine difficult shot. Last season in this same place on Opening Day I went four-for-four. Has a year caused so much slippage? It’s way too early to say that. There is a tough week coming full of challenges, and I will play it out Shooting squirrels with a rifle is difficult game in which a plethora of circumstances must work for the hunter when most of the advantage goes to the quarry when aging ears and eyes must cope with immutable adversaries.
I fully understand why old men prefer to fish.
To be concluded next week.