Opening day is the one of the days we await all year long. Its the time when we gather family, friends, dogs, favorite shotguns, and trade in our everyday lives for the woods. If we’re lucky the day falls on a weekend and, we don’t need to make special arrangements; but if it’s during the week, many of us succumb to unforeseen illnesses. The country’s gross national product might drop a bit, but it’ll rebound. If we miss the opener, though, there is a good chance that our spirits won’t.
Belling the dogs and walking through our coverts is the start of something special. Bird hunting ain’t all that it’s cracked up to be; it’s much, much more.
As school kids count down the days until summer vacation, bird hunters count down the days until our seasons begin. Reloading shells is a great way to kill a few long winter days. We’ll make sure that we’ve got enough l ounce #9’s in 20-gauge to get us through even the worst string of misses that we’ve ever encountered. Then we’ll load a few more to pass around to our friends who haven’t yet tried them.
If we don’t have time to reload, then we’ll order a couple of flats of our favorite shells from an ammunition company. The nice thing about making a call like that is we usually engage in conversation with a fellow bird hunter. If you don’t know what I mean, then try having a meaningful conversation with someone at the end of the phone line when you order some kitchen glasses or a new pair of pants.
Dog work is a year-round endeavor. Like us, bird hunting runs in their blood. After the season ends we’ll give our dogs a well-earned break. But when mud season draws to a close we’ll start conditioning programs. Whether it’s running through coverts, field trialing, or roading them behind a 4-wheeler – we’re looking to help shake off their extra winter weight. Training seminars are great for dogs that have picked up bad habits that seem impossible to break. We pour through dog supply company catalogs and magazines for replacement gear, for new products, and for tips and tricks.
On a hot summer day we’ll place our waxed cotton jackets, vests, and chaps in the direct sun and let them heat up to perfection. While we’re waiting we’ll boil a can of reproofing in a pot of water. When the wax is soft and fluid we’ll buff the fabric to a nice finish. Well-worn areas get extra attention, and while we’re at it, it’s also a great time to waterproof our boots.
Some time around the middle of August we’ll see a new development in our own routines, and it’s oftentimes a reduction of food. To our family’s surprise we pass on the extra helping of dry-rub ribs and limit the number of scoops of ice cream at a backyard barbecue. Add, or increase, exercise programs and by the time opening day rolls around hopefully we’ll more closely resemble a running back than the Pillsbury Dough Boy. Dropping a few pounds and getting strong means only one thing: we can hunt longer without fatigue.
Fine-tuning our reflexes comes by popping caps at the skeet, trap, and sporting clays courses. Except for the first few rounds where we miss a bunch of gimmes, breaking clay is far more fun than pull-ups. After a round or two our reflexes come back. Shooting is like riding a bicycle, and in no time flat we’re back on track. When backyard songbirds flush from the bird bath in a left-to-right flight pattern we sometimes swing our empty hands to our cheeks. My family used to chuckle when they hear me say, “bang” but they understand. They’re even starting to do it, too.
My first day in the woods is always in Canada in mid-September, and on that day time stands still. I don’t sleep much the night before, and I awake without an alarm clock. A day without bird hunting is a gloomy day indeed, but on opening day the sky is the limit. I wonder how the dogs will work, if there are birds in my favorite coverts, if the new coverts are as good as they look. Dogs always seem to know that difference between opening day and general field work. They know it’s their turn to shine, and they willingly rise to the challenge.
It’s been a long time since I missed an opening day. Indian summer rules the roost on most opening days, and the best part is during the morning or later in the afternoon. Midday temperatures are often hot, and when combined with high humidity even the fittest hunters bog down. Dogs that normally shy away from water flop down in any stream, seep, pond, or mud hole. Just before I complain about the heat, I think about my quail hunting friends down south and my pheasant hunting compadres out west. They know what heat is all about more than me, but that doesn’t stop them from getting in a few licks. Tropical storms or hurricanes sometimes drop tremendous amounts of water, downed trees, or silt in the coverts. I’ve never seen a first frost before opening day, and the woods are chockablock with foliage. I’ll only get a glimpse of a flushing grouse as my friends and I break up a brood from the spring. Young of the year are not as wily as the elder statesmen, but the leaves and the branches keep us from getting off many quality shots. Woodcock are a bit more predictable, and if we move our shotgun through the tree tops after the bird has disappeared we’ll drop enough birds to make the dogs happy. I’ve never come close to filling a bag limit on opening day. Come to think of it, I’ve never much cared.
Opening day is about something quite different. It’s about the tremendous feeling of possibility. It’s the start of a magical season, one full of hope, opportunity, and certainly redemption. We trade in work clothes for brush pants and boots. There are no offices where we go, just coverts and fields. Meetings with colleagues are replaced by a day spent with family and friends. The lunch room is no longer on the second floor; it’s by the river or on the tailgate of a muddy truck loaded with dog boxes. Folks might be late for meetings, but they’re never late for opening day. And it’s coming up. Like you, I can hardly wait.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Ruffed Grouse Society.