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At least one avid All Outdoors reader took (feigned) offense at a recent column because I suggested that summer was nearly over. It’s true that there is plenty of warm weather yet to come, but just as fishermen can’t wait for spring and skiers can’t wait for winter snows, the majority of Maine sportsmen can’t wait for fall to begin. The least little clue (a cool evening breeze, a leaf turned prematurely red, a flock of geese in the distance allegedly heading south) is all it takes for the “normal” hunter to start digging out his wool socks and hand warmers.
I’ll have to admit that I probably have “fall fever” more than the average person, but I’m not the only one. Just this week, a sudden, near-record drop in temperature gave the August woods a decidedly October feel, and I thought it might be a good chance to get the two beagles outdoors for a practice run. The dogs are normally content to flop around the pen and let the world go by, but they leaped into the truck like seasoned veterans even though they hadn’t seen the inside of the dog box since last season ended.
I have a penchant for recording minor details (as any writer does), and one of the more important matters of trivia to any dog man is how long it takes the hounds to get on a track. Well, I don’t have to lie because I have witnesses, but I turned the dogs loose at 8 a.m. and, in all honesty, at 8:05 they had a rabbit on the run! Remember, these are dogs that haven’t been out of the pen except to run around the yard in over four months! They picked up a track and stayed on it for close to an hour before the rabbit ducked into a hole, and they spent little more than 15 minutes finding another. In all, they ran rabbits hard and fast for over two hours! When the sun got high and warm enough I called it a day (there’s no rush – we have nearly two months before serious running begins).
Even more remarkable, the same two tired beagles went out the next morning (still cool and dry) and ran one rabbit for three hours! The dogs were actually wobbling in their tracks when I got between them and the rabbit and put the leash on them. As any hound hunter knows, you want a dog that will run till he drops, not quit just because he’s tired or hungry or has a thorn in his foot. These little dogs had barely taken a breath since dawn and, by 11 a.m., were practically walking the track. It’s not easy to overtake a brace of beagles that’s hot on the trail, but I managed to get ahead of them and cut them off before the rabbit led them out of the country.
All this is to say that it’s not just human hunters who are anxious to see fall arrive. In fact, while I was standing there listening to my dogs work the rabbit track, a pair of hunters showed up to work with their Labrador retriever on the fine art of fetching ducks. These guys were textbook perfect in their approach (“Sit, stay, hold – now fetch!”), but the dog was young and enthusiastic, and I could see from 300 yards away that you couldn’t wind that spring any tighter! The dog was anxious to run, jump, swim and fetch, and all that management and control was just holding it back.
I used to raise and train Labs for duck and bird hunting and soon realized that their hunting instincts are inbred and strong. Labs want to work (they make it look like play), and can keep on fetching long after the last weary arm has tossed its last dummy into the bushes. The nuances of “training” are more in tune with the whims of the trainer – the average hunting-line Lab will understand, master and eventually yawn at the most demanding training regimen.
I had only to jiggle the little brass bell on the dog’s collar to create a state of bedlam in the house, and when the great day came that I put on my hunting clothes and opened the door of the gun cabinet was more than my dogs could stand. I’d have to play “fetch” for an hour just to get the edge off the dog, and many times we’d have to go through a thicket two or three times to be sure the hard-charging, enthusiastic dog hadn’t flown right over an unsuspecting grouse or woodcock on the way by.
One of the oddest things I recall about “pre-season enthusiasm” was when my Labs would sit on the porch at night and whine at the twitter of passing woodcock as they migrated from the northern swamps into the local wetland valleys overnight. Most folks don’t realize that these and other migratory birds fly primarily at night, and on a crisp autumn evening you can hear woodcock, ducks, geese and other birds winging past in the dark. I’d have to remind my dogs that we had to wait another week or two before we could go into the woods and find some birds. I don’t know if they understood, but they surely didn’t like it!
This month is a time of anticipation for most hunters, both the two-legged and four-legged variety. There’s something about the temperature, the humidity or the ambience, but on these cool August evenings I’m moved to get my archery gear tuned up, or I feel the need to find and gather my hunting gear, and the dogs can tell. In fact, I ordered my Filson briar-proof pants last week and my L. L. Bean orange hat (I wear one out every season), and the dogs were literally in my lap as I wrote as if to be sure I ordered enough of the right stuff in time for opening day.
I wouldn’t say summer is over, but there is something in the air that tells us of the sporting ilk that it won’t be long and it’s time to get ready. After all, beagles and Labs never lie!
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