Rifle Shooter's Favorite Fall Moment
August 16, 2013
As a kid I watched hard for the mailman in midsummer, hoping every day he'd show up with the Cabela's hunting catalog, the signal that fall was coming. In those days — not being old enough to drive or hold down a job — what little money I had came from my winter trapline and, in the summer, selling seeds door to door and collecting scrap newspapers. Since I'd long since spent my trapping money, I wasn't very well set up to buy much from the catalog (I was and am lousy at sales), but dreaming was and is more fun than actual buying.
These days, my dreams about fall involve what I'm going to do and where I'm going to go. In that spirit, I've come up with a fall hunting schedule so jam-packed I couldn't possibly do it in terms of time or money. But that's what dreams are for.
August is not fall by the calendar, but if you go far north enough it might as well be. My first hunt of the year would be caribou, hiking across a carpet of tundra that's turning redder by the day and enjoying the tart ripeness of subarctic blueberries while glassing for the majestic deer of the North.
On Labor Day, I'd be sitting in the cornrows of South Carolina, sweating and swearing as doves swoop in and fly away unscathed despite rapid-fire blasts from the shotgun. Three or four boxes of shells might be enough to cook up a few dove kebabs at the evening barbecue.
A week or so later and it's on to the plains of Wyoming, where the antelope play catch me if you can and it's great fun to stoop, crawl, run — whatever it takes to get close to them. Now it's feeling like autumn under wide blue skies; while the temps may be high midday, mornings and evenings carry a chill.
It isn't far from there into higher country, where the aspens are beginning to yellow and the elk are beginning to rut. If there's a sound that encapsulates fall, it's the keening sound of a rutting bull. The hunting's hard, and just being in that country and hearing that sound are reward enough — although a cooler full of elk meat is a welcome bonus.
I wasn't a big waterfowler growing up, but I wanted to be. And one of the most amazing hunts I got to do in my later years was a trip to Alberta in mid-October. We lay in the fields under oversize decoys and watched through the slits as hundreds of geese swirling above us, stacked in holding patterns like jets at O'Hare as they tried to get a look at our decoy spread — dekes we'd set up in the dark as the northern lights danced tantalizingly above our heads.
About this time I'd head back to my home state of Pennsylvania and take a seat against a big ol' shagbark hickory, watching the limbs and trunks above my head for the flicker of a bushy gray tail. Or maybe open the door of the car and thrill to the sight of beagles bouncing out of the car as we start searching for the first cottontail of the day, the frost coating our boots as we cross the fields.
I was once asked what hunt would I do if it were my last one. Without hesitation I described what it was like to cruise the Allegheny Mountains in western Virginia, looking for fall turkeys — the scent of leaves and wood smoke from the few isolated houses in the hollows below tingeing the air as the chill early morning haze give way to a crisp blue sky. The excitement of finding fresh scratching's, the strategy of moving into position to break up a flock (or, more challenging, enticing an old gobbler to walk into shotgun range), the calls of birds reassembling...it's just the ultimate hunt to me.
It's still technically fall when Pennsylvania's buck season opens right after Thanksgiving, but it might as well be winter most years in the far northern part of the state. Back in the old days I would park myself against a tree and watch a deer trail crossing from first light to last, not moving. It was almost always cold, and those vigils were a test of will and taught me how to tough it out if I wanted to be successful. I wouldn't do it that way today; such a deer hunt would be more about getting together with family and friends to enjoy a tradition than about filling the freezer.
So that's my dream fall. What's yours?