Saturday, December 30, 2006

Grouse Tracks in the Sand

Yup, southern Maine. Late December. Nope, no snow. These fresh grouse tracks in the sand along a brook told us one was nearby, and Radar found it near the remnants of an old mill. The big bird had been through this sort of thing before: approaching hunter, shotgun ready, and an English setter with a plume tail and rigid body pointing it out. The ruff must have warily watched us the whole time before blasting out of there only five feet away, and putting cover between it and our intentions as the grouse escaped.

Steve Hickoff photo

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Week to Go . . .

Putting the last week of the year to bed is always an interesting proposition. It's raining hard as I post this holiday weekend, and a person would swear it's April, what with the mild temperatures, and extended view of green grass in northern New England. Were it colder, we'd be hammered with that white stuff that just buried Denver.

Time, time, time. A little over a decade ago, I would have been making a road trip to my native northcentral Pennsylvania to hunt second-season, post-Christmas cottontails, ruffed grouse, and pheasants, but after 25 some years in the "beagle business" as my dad calls it, his last dog (Pokey II) remains just that. The last one . . .

I've hunted with three English setters since then, and they surround me in this home office as I hammer the keyboard--two older girls and my boy setter who's in his prime. Just yesterday Radar, 4, found three grouse in two different southern Maine spots, which is one reason some of us cultivate such a human-canine relationship. It's also just plain better with a dog for reasons only we understand . . .

We always assess what we've done for the past year, and what we should have done, though regret is a stupid emotion, and action is always better, especially if a plan is involved. I was fortunate enough to hunt Texas turkeys with a bunch of good industry friends in April, and Wyoming with bud John Hafner. I turned down yet other travel options due to scheduling challenges, but that's always a good problem to have.

Extended road trips, or local one-hour outings (with or without a shotgun) put me in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and central New York state, where Marc Brown and I each took a fall wild turkey with the help of my setter Midge. Dogging flocks is a legal strategy in N.Y., and this--her tenth season--was indeed a blessing. As Dr. B. said during the hunt, "You've had a good run." The crisp autumn breeze had little to do with the mist in my eyes . . .

So, all in all, it's been a good year. The next one--following my birthday next week when I continue to remain "fortysomething"--should be promising. January through March will involve the outdoor show circuit, and hammering deadlines at this computer before the spring turkey seasons commence around the country . . . I'll get to Texas first. A state with 600,000 turkeys is always a good place to begin your season, and the landscape, flora, fauna, and people are always memorable--once you get multiple flights and layovers out of the way. It's the price to pay, and I'll grant it every time.

I'll likely road trip my way through northern New England as usual in May, plus N.Y. Trout and striped bass will always provide a pleasant diversion: first in April out of habit, then later in June (Maine's turkey season runs until 6/2--the longest in the United States). As my daughter said to me recently: "You know how I love to fish, daddy."

Here's to everything that's been, and what's to come.

Steve Hickoff photo

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Midge Morning

In the end it's all about the relationship you have with your bird dog: the fields and woods you move through, with or without a shotgun, the gamebirds you both want to find, the drive to that place and back, the one-sided conversations you hold with that animal--partly commands, partly sorting things out for yourself--and the days that wheel by always so fast, leaving memories.

Steve Hickoff photo

Saturday, December 9, 2006

Happy Holidays

Especially to all you wild turkey hunters . . .

Got Books?

If you’re like me, you haven’t shopped yet. While hunting down bargains is a sport for some, I don’t qualify. I’m pretty tough to buy for too. Let’s just say I don’t want or need much these days outside of my health, my free time, writing assignments to keep me financially stable, my family’s love, and my always-at-my-side bird dogs.

Okay, and maybe a few good books in an unread stack (note: this blog won't permit italicizing the following text titles) . . .


I read a lot, and get review copies at this address: everything from nonfiction books on hunting dogs and angling to a range of magazines, and this newspaper. Even a well-placed cereal box might get my attention. Here are some titles I’ve read this year (some have been out awhile, while some are new), and others I can recommend. Books, after all, contain frozen moments in time, and we can return there at will if the material sustains our interest.

On the Run: An Angler’s Journey Down the Striper Coast by David DiBenedetto (Perennial Currents, 238 pp., $12.95 pbk.). You Seacoast anglers will recognize some of the places and people here, as the author follows the fall’s striper run from Maine to North Carolina. I read the book straight through, it’s that good. Check out his website at:

The Compleat Crabber by Christopher R. Reaske (Burford Books, 128 pp., $12.95 pbk.). This slim, energetic work beams with enthusiasm, natural history, offbeat crabbing trivia, and how-to methods for securing these tasty treats. While the book concentrates on blue crabs (more of a southern New England/Cape Cod fare than our north Atlantic red-crab waters), it’s an interesting, unique read.

Black’s 2007 Wing & Clay Waterfowl (Grand View Media Group, Inc., 496 pp., $17.95). Written for the shotgunner, this super annual jams so much information on equipment, instructional text, and destinations between the pages you’ll spend the next year just leafing through it before the ’08 edition arrives.

Mammals of North America by Fiona A. Reid (Houghton Mifflin, 579 pp., $20.00 pbk.). A new fourth edition in the Peterson Field Guide Series, this title covers all mammals found in North America (north of Mexico). Reid is both the author and illustrator of the handy text. It can provide a nice companion to Mammal Tracks & Sign by Mark Elbroch (Stackpole Books, 778 pp., $44.95 pbk.). Elbroch’s masterpiece is visually gorgeous, with color photos and detailed text descriptions throughout (plus plenty of tracking enthusiasm shared along the way).


Some are out-of-print, but available online and at antiquarian bookstores. Others remain on store bookshelves. Longtime favorites include:

Jenny Willow (Mike Gaddis), America's Greatest Gamebird: Archibald Rutledge's Turkey-Hunting Tales (Jim Casada Editor), Gun Dogs & Bird Guns (Charles Waterman), The Shape of the Journey (Jim Harrison), Querencia (Stephen Bodio) Illumination in the Flatwoods (Joe Hutto), Making Game (Guy de la Valdene), Bird Dog (Ben O. Williams), and A Rough-Shooting Dog (Charles Fergus). Want flyfishing? Try John Gierach's complete work, and James R. Babb’s three books.

Lawrence Sargent Hall's "The Ledge" (a sea-ducking tragedy that encompasses the range of human emotions) is the greatest work of short fiction in the English language. Read it if you haven't.


I asked my buddy Doug Howlett, the Outdoor Life magazine editor, what he’s been reading lately at 35,000 ft. (he just hunted Mississippi whitetails), and he weighed in with a couple interesting titles:

Deep Enough for Ivorybills by James Kilgo (University of Georgia Press. 193 pp., copies available from online sellers). This classic includes hunting in the Southern rivers swamps and woods.

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy (Knopf, 320 pp., online/bookseller prices vary). Publishers Weekly called this book “a mesmerizing modern-day western.” According to Doug, and the brief plot account I read, the novel involves Llewelyn Moss, an antelope hunter who finds several dead men near the Rio Grande in southwest Texas (it’s set in 1980), along with a pile of heroin and millions in cash. Not your typical hunting tale, eh. Such a premise begs the question: “What would you do?”

You can check out Doug’s writing at his “The Strut Zone” blog ( ), and in the pages of the print magazine.


In my faraway childhood, kids in my rural town yearned for a BB gun under the Christmas tree, and I remember that holiday as a defining moment. Some big boys (and girls) carry that interest into adulthood—likely you, if you’re reading this.

Recent statistics reveal firearm and hunting gear sales topped $3.3 billion in 2005. Only golf and exercise equipment performed better [yawn], with sales of $3.4 and $5.2 billion, according National Sporting Goods Association data.

Shotgun sales increased by 10.5 percent for a total of $667.9 million, handgun sales rose 8.5 percent to $630.7 million, and rifle sales were up 2.7 percent to $849.2 million.

Footwear rules too. In this retail category, hunting footwear sales saw a 7 percent increase and sales of hunting-related apparel saw a 4 percent gain.

--Steve Hickoff

Saturday, December 2, 2006

Front Porch December

Time to reflect . . .

Ten fall turkey seasons. Countless road miles to Vermont and New York state. Birds we fooled and many we didn't.

It's all good.

Steve Hickoff photo