Firelight Dreamboat Annie on an early season woodcock
By Randy Lawrence
It felt more like a jailbreak than leaving for a hunting trip. I would pull into the Honda plant parking lot just before 11, Lyle's dogs and mine already settled in their crates. It was always easy to spot my friend among the second trick autoworkers. Lyle was the one sprinting down the sidewalk.
In my memory, we laid rubber out of that late-night car park like something out of The Blues Brothers, but of course we didn't. We just " made haste slowly" to be certain to beat the after-work exit jam. Once on the highway, Lyle cranked Hank, Jr. on the cassette deck, rapped the bottom of a fresh can of Copenhagen, and I turned the nose of that battered white Blazer north toward Opening Weekend, Michigan Grouse.
The trip was almost eight hours. The first few years, we drove straight to our first hunting spot, aired the dogs, then slept upright in the truck seats for an hour or so. The best times were when we made friends with an elderly widow who was desperately trying to keep a ramshackle backwoods motel open. She learned to trust us and for several years would leave a room unlocked (I remember at least one that didn't even have a doorknob),so we could crash for a bit, then get our over-caffeinated carcasses and unruly mix of pointers and setters into the woods.
The hunting was always good. The finding? Not so much.
The dog work was generally spotty. The shooting was execrable. Green, tangled, buggy, rank cover meant that we heard far more birds lift than ever we saw or shot, and for two guys burning precious leave time from our jobs, it surely wasn't the best bet for stylish dog work or birds in the bag.
But we'd waited nearly seven months since the end of Ohio's grouse season and couldn't bear to wait any longer. We had worked dogs all summer. We'd pored over maps, made plans, scheduled coverage at work. If somebody somewhere was going to be hunting ruffed grouse, we wanted to be in the middle of that.
And we loved the Michigan woods. They smelled different from our Appalachian strip mine coverts. They were on wondrously flat terrain. We actually bought an arborist's manual the first year so we'd know what aspen and alder brakes looked like. After that, they were imprinted on our hunters' hearts.
We hunted in t-shirts and light jeans since the woods were not filled with cane briars. And if they weren't exactly filled with game birds either, that was ok. After all, we could still count on moving more birds in an afternoon than we would back home in coverts ravaged by grievous habitat loss and added pressures of late season hunting on vulnerable remnants of our grouse populations.
Today, I'm almost sad to report our Opening Day Fever has broken, at least for now. We say we can wait, struggling to extricate ourselves from a maddeningly more encumbered life. We work our dogs on local woodcock as soon as the law allows and try not to get all green-eyed over texted photos of our friends' dogs locked down on point in an upland version of Where's Waldo? The frosts will come, we remind ourselves, and we will arrange things at the two farms so we can be gone for a bit where the woods smell different, the aspen and tamarack glow golden, and maybe the grouse will lie for a precocious Firelight derby.
But I miss late night vigils at the Honda plant, obsessively checking my watch against the walk in/walk out worker traffic. I miss the pushing through lack of sleep and the first-time-down dog fright shows. I miss the bell going silent in those days when we still hated beepers and two friends who worked to flush the way only folks who've bonded over every training mistake in the book can beat toward a flush, too often only finding the stand after a bird had battered up somewhere close and the dog had broke, the bell's frenzied clangor like a school fire alarm.
I miss scarred pool tables in faux log cabin bars, gas stations that double as sporting goods stores, tailgate breaks of homemade venison jerky, Gatorade bottles dripping wet from the cooler, with Snickers bars and Twinkies for dessert. I miss young dogs that burst out of dank, sodden, morning cover, their tongues lolling, their faces saying, "I have no idea what we're doing, but this is really a good time."
I miss Nancy Johnson's brother's sediment 'n' suds home brew, rising out of dark bottles like a science fair project gone horribly wrong. I miss linebacker-shaped waitresses with big hair sporting Chris Spielman jerseys who would tell us about the night Ted Nugent bought the house a round or Bob Seeger sat in with the house band. Not to be outdone, I would compliment their attire by bragging that Lyle made All-Ohio one of the same years that Spielman did.
I miss motel rooms with missing doorknobs, sputtering AC and heating units, coat hanger TV antennae, and thin walls with ardent lodgers on the other side. I miss listening to the end of the baseball season and the beginning of the football year on the static-ridden AM radio that went in and out between coverts.
Nancy Johnson, Randy, Lyle
But most of all, I miss the fire in the belly that refused to let us stay in Ohio when there were dogs that needed blooded, Opening Weekend, Michigan Grouse.