|Hard to believe it's the last day of July. That means there's just one month left of summer, (if you consider floods, unbearable heat and a few minor hurricanes as “summer”), and soon the signs of fall will become more noticeable each day. Already there are scattered bits of yellow and red in the woods, certainly not a lot of it, but enough to remind us that change is in the wind. Officially, our first frost date is September 1, and quite often we'll have a few half-hearted nips before serious cooling hits us. No one wants to admit or accept the inevitable, but that's why they call it “inevitable!”
Fortunately, Maine's sportsmen don't concern themselves with the vagaries of seasonal drift because change never means the end of anything - it's more like the beginning. I think hunters and fishermen spend more time looking forward and getting ready for the next important opening day than any other group. Sure, spring fishing is long gone; summer trolling is about over and before long only catch-and-release casting will be allowed on most lakes and ponds (especially for trout and salmon). But, the avid Maine outdoorsman has no qualms about laying his willowy trout wand aside for a stout, heavy trolling rod, and when the last of the fishing season wanes he's not going to sit there and cry about how long it's going to be before he can wet a line again. He just packs away the waders, vest and tackle box and digs out the rifles and shotguns because the end of fishing season melds almost immediately with the start of another hunting season.
Isn't this great? I have heard from several Maine hunters who are already planning for the 2006 bear season. They're considering bait sites, gathering sweet treats and putting up stands in just the right spots. All of the preparation, planning and effort really come down to about 30 seconds - when the bear appears and when the hunter decides to take the shot. Late summer is none too early to begin the process, however, and you can never start too early. This is the kind of stuff that gives hunters plenty to think about even now as the first part of the bear season looms on the horizon.
While all this is going on, it's not too soon to get the bird dogs out from under the sofa and into the woods in preparation for their (sadly) short hunting season. For all intents and purposes, bird hunting in Maine is pretty much the month of October, even though it's legal to pursue grouse, woodcock and pheasants until Dec. 31. Between the beginning of the firearms deer season in November, cold weather slipping in around Thanksgiving and the endless responsibilities that come with the fast-approaching holidays, gathering wood and such, few bird dogs are able to spend much time doing what they have been bred to do. Back in my Labrador retriever days I would put aside everything but bird and duck hunting, perhaps spending a few mornings in serious pursuit of deer, but it never seemed fair to me to head out for a day in the woods without the dogs. In fact, they wouldn't allow it anyway; they'd spend the entire day sitting on the top of their houses howling piteously till I returned.
Talk about anticipation! On cool August nights I'd take the Labs out for a stroll and pause at the edge of a swamp where, just at sunset, woodcock would twitter up and around us or ducks would whistle by on their way to the river. The dogs' ears would come up, their bodies would stiffen and they'd whine with eagerness - they knew what that sound meant and they wanted to get on with it! It's not easy to ignore that kind of energy, and I never felt right leaving the dogs home any time I went to the woods without them.
Perhaps the greatest example of “I can't wait for fall” is a bowhunter friend who, each year, cuts a tall, straight ash or yew, whittles his own bow and arrows, creates strings and backings from deer sinews, fashions his own fletching from the wings of wild turkeys he's killed, of course, and then goes out in September to find a deer. This guy looks forward to next deer season before this season even begins, selecting and cutting trees this fall that he will turn into bows and arrows before next October. Any time I see him he's in some stage of building, and not a weekend goes by that he isn't carving, sanding, boiling or fletching something.
I'm as bad as anyone when it comes to “getting ready.” For example, my real love has always been small game hunting, and I have already been digging around in my gear to make sure my calls are working, my .22 is on target and my tea stove is ready to go. In fact, I recently poked around in the freezer for the last of the frozen squirrel meat and whipped up a mighty batch of Brunswick stew that reminded me not only of why I go but why I need to go again!
There is certainly plenty of time between now and hunting season, but the signs are there and it's time to get ready. If you look closely you'll see a splash of red or yellow here and there in the woods by the swampy roadside, maybe you'll notice the whitetail bucks losing their velvet, perhaps you'll even hear the honking of restless geese in the distance. Enjoy the summer (or what's left of it) but remember that there is much to look forward to as fall looms on the near horizon.
If all you have on your autumn agenda is shopping, cooking and decorating, there's still time to change your ways. The last thing any certified sportsman wants to do is waste one of his precious fall days dubbing around in a mall or wasting away in a checkout line. Do that stuff at night (if you can't find a way to avoid it altogether). Look for a reason to spend some time outdoors as we head into the very best time of year in Maine.
And, if a bowl of squirrel stew sounds good, drop me a line and I'll send you the recipe!