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Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hunting

One of the things that I truly enjoy is hunting. It would be my absolute favorite outdoor activity except for the fact that I am remarkably inept at it. I mean, I grew up in Detroit for crying out loud. There wasn't a lot of hunting tradition in my life, since my father bailed shortly after I was born and none of my male relatives expressed the least interest in doing anything outdoors unless it involved landscaping their lawns. So hunting was something I've had to "learn while I burn" so to speak.

Don't get me wrong, there were some interesting experiences along the way, Like the first time I went coyote hunting...

“I’ve got to get into better shape!” was the thought that kept plaguing me as I ran through the woods. Note that I said better shape. I mean, round is a shape, it’s just not the best shape to be in when you’re chasing a bunch of hounds through the woods.


In front of me was a young man that was about half my age and weight, running effortlessly through the woods toward the sound of hounds baying. Suddenly, hearing a change in the tone of the hounds’ voices, the young speedster paused for a split second and then turned on full afterburners, leaving me in a cloud of snow. I was unable to determine where he went, since the spots dancing before my eyes kept me from focusing.

I stopped and stood there, gasping and wheezing, reflecting that all of the strangest events that ever occurred in my life always seemed to start with a phone call.

Allow me to explain; The East Side Detroit neighborhood where I grew up wasn’t exactly a hotbed of hunting tradition. In fact, after Dutch Elm Disease ravaged the state, just seeing a tree outside of a park was a pleasant surprise. My friends and I were living what social engineers refer to as ‘The Urban Experience’. Simply put, we lived in a dirty, crowded city, and thought ‘wildlife’ referred to the possums that for some reason loved the city.

At least one of my friends, a man named Ron, decided that he had had enough urban experience and moved to the faraway land known as “Up North”. “Up North” is difficult to define. Ask nearly anyone in Southern Michigan where they went for a weekend trip and invariably they respond “up north”. The inquisitor will nod knowingly; understanding that “up north” is a euphemism for, “anywhere but this dirty, stinky, crowded city.”

Ron moved “up north” and took to the lifestyle like a duck to water. In no time at all, he had become a hunting and fishing fanatic. Somehow, we managed to stay in touch through the years. Occasionally, when the pollution level in his blood got too low, he would drive down to Detroit for a visit, and I visited his place once or twice, just for something to do. “Up North” was pleasant, quiet and extremely slow paced. The two major topics of conversation were “Opening Day” and when the smelt were running.

It took several more years for me to become sufficiently fed up with my own urban experience. I can’t pinpoint the exact day; all I can say is that I suddenly realized that I no longer wanted to experience the urban environment. To this end, I began looking for avenues of escape.

Being one of three people in Michigan that neither owned a boat, nor did I know anyone that owned a boat, fishing was out. I guess I could have fished from the shore of the Detroit River, but no sane person ever actually ate anything that came out of that river. Plus, the fishing spots on the Detroit River were in the inner city and I figured that if I was going to have to carry a gun while in pursuit of wild animals, I might as well try hunting.

Enter the phone call from Ron. “Want to go coyote hunting?” He asked.

His timing couldn’t have been better. I had been reading about coyote hunting in several of the various hunting and shooting magazines that I subscribed to. Each article was bulging with information about coyotes, their habitat, and the equipment necessary to hunt them. The writers all went on to relate how farmers and ranchers would genuflect in your presence, and sing your praises to their neighbors out of gratitude to you for ridding them of the calf-killing, chicken-stealing, pet-maiming, deer-murdering, blight on their existence. Accompanying these articles were photographs of happy hunters, smiling in triumph, poised over the carcasses of several very dead coyotes. The captions invariably said something to the effect of, “Here’s Joe Hawkeye with three song dogs that he took within seconds of sitting near a bush.”

It was because of these articles that I told Ron, “Heck yeah I’ll go! I’ve got a varmint rifle already.”

“It would be better if you brought a shotgun. The woods are pretty thick, so the ranges are not too long.”

“Sure, I can get a shotgun. Anything else?”

“Just be ready to run. The guys I go with hunt ‘em with dogs. It’s pretty wild.”

“Running huh? I don’t know—“

“Don’t worry, the dogs do most of it, we just have to run to the spot where the dogs come out and get ready to shoot.”

“OK, I’m in. When?”

“Saturday. Bring a friend if you want.”

This was turning out to be a great time. Not only was I going to hunt the wiliest of varmints, but I could also bring a friend. I immediately thought of Mike. Mike is a shooter. By that, I mean that when he is not actually shooting, he is working tons of overtime to get enough money to buy something for shooting, be it guns, powder, bullets, primers, or brass. He too had recently decided that the charm had worn off of the city, and was looking for other pursuits. Hunting dovetailed nicely with his interest in shooting. At the mention of coyote hunting, he eagerly accepted the invitation (As it turned out, he read many of the same articles that I had).

We drove up north on Friday night, and on Saturday morning, we found ourselves up at 0-darkthirty, armed and ready for action. We arrived at the pre-arranged spot, eager for the chase. Mike and I were excited as we pulled up and met the group of guys that we were to hunt with. Ron had explained that these guys normally hunted bears, but they took up coyote hunting as a means to keep tuned up during the off season.

We got out of the truck, made the introductions while we sized each other up. They looked about the way I thought savvy hunters should look; unshaven, eyes squinting in the morning light, leaning against their trucks, and looking grimly determined. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that they looked that way because they had hangovers.

In Michigan, most of the farmland and a large portion of state land is laid out in a grid. That meant that the area was like a giant checkerboard, with one-square-mile grids bordered by dirt roads extending as far as the eye could see. The grid squares that we were hunting in were part of a state forest, which meant thick brush and hardwood trees all around. The plan was that the dogs would be released into the forest. When they spotted a coyote, they would give chase. One man would run with the dogs through the woods while the dog handler would determine which way that the dogs were headed. A task made simpler by means of a tracking device tuned into radio transmitters on the dogs’ collars. The runner and the handler stayed in touch by means of cellphones used as walkie-talkies. Once it was determined which way the dogs were chasing the coyotes, the rest of us would load into vehicles, race to the other side of the grid square, and wait on the road for the coyote to emerge. Once sighted, the coyote would be shot, and we would head on to the next area for another such hunt.

As I watched the dog handler, I began to suspect that maybe these guys weren’t quite as competent as I first thought. Whenever one of his dogs would bark, he would unleash a short stream of expletives that were supposed to scare the dogs into silence. The dogs, unaffected by the cussing, seemed to enjoy the game. They took turns barking at the handler who would cuss the appropriate dog out. Perhaps I read too much into it, but I swear that I saw a conspiratorial look pass between the dogs.

Before long, the dogs were set loose, and shortly thereafter they began their baying in earnest. “If you wanna see a coyote, follow him!” ordered one of the handlers while pointing at the designated runner. Like some kind of oafish lemming, I plodded off after him, hoping to catch my first glimpse of a coyote in the wild, which is how I came to be chasing after this Northern Michigan track star.

His disappearing act made me realize that I was way out of my league, so I headed back to the trucks. I arrived just in time to pile in with one of the drivers and race off to the other side of the grid. We arrived in a pack, jumped out and took up positions along the road, and waited… and waited... and waited.

The runner’s voice came over the cellphone; “They’re going the other way!” So we piled back into the trucks, raced back to where we started from, jumped out, took up positions along the road, and waited. The runner’s voice again, “He’s doubling back!” So, again, we got into the trucks, raced to the other side, jumped out, and waited.

For six hours this went on. The runner would warn us that the coyote was headed away from us, jump in, race away, jump out, wait. Warning, jump in, race, jump out, wait. I began to wonder if I really wanted to hunt coyotes. Actually, I began to wonder if I really was hunting coyotes. For all I knew, the dogs were lost and running in circles looking for home.

Then we heard a shot. Hot diggity! We had gotten one in only six hours! Within a few minutes, the dog runner came out and relayed what had happened and unknowingly supplied me with yet another clue that these guys weren’t the top-notch hunters that I had initially believed they were.

He had been running after the dogs when the coyote decided to double back. Upon doing so, it raced by within thirty yards of the runner who, armed with an old Marlin bolt-action shotgun, took a shot and hit the coyote in the hind leg. The coyote stopped long enough to react to the pain and then hobbled off.

“Why didn’t you shoot it again?” asked one of the crew.

“My shotgun jammed”

“What? What did you shoot him with?”

“Three inch magnums.”

“No wonder! You’re not supposed to use three inchers in that old gun! One of these days you’re gonna eat
that bolt!”

Mike and I looked at each other. We could almost read each other’s thoughts, “What the heck are we doing here?” Out of Christian charity, I slipped a few of the appropriate two and three-quarter inch shells to the runner. He mumbled his thanks and the chase began anew.

Once again, the runner took off into the woods and we began our bizarre routine. Despite being wounded, it took the dogs another two hours to chase the coyote down. When they finally did catch up to it, the coyote had squirmed under a bush, apparently so that the dogs couldn’t reach it en masse; rather, they had to approach the coyote one at a time. The coyote would then show an impressive set of fangs and keep the dogs at bay. Unfortunately, the coyote was too exhausted to put up much of a fight and the dogs were gaining ground. It was at this point that those of us on the road heard the dog runner say over the radio, “Someone with a gun come up here”.

The person closest to the action was Mike. He had (wisely) carried his Model 629 in a crossdraw holster that day. He walked up to where the coyote was and drew his pistol, intending to dispatch the animal quickly, when the dog handler yelled, “Let the dogs have it!” Disgusted, Mike replaced his pistol, and walked away. I don’t believe that the dogs killed the coyote. I think that the combination of exhaustion, blood loss and shock is what did the ‘yote in.

Most of the crew was acting as if they had killed a man-eating tiger. They dragged the carcass out of the woods and displayed it for all to see. It was a big male, about thirty pounds. They handed it back and forth, and let the dogs worry it a little, then one of them held it out to me,

“You want it?”

“Nah! I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

There wouldn’t be any photos of me smiling triumphantly either. Frankly, I didn’t want there to be any evidence of my having had a part in this…event. Mike and I looked at each other. We were again thinking the same thing, “What the heck are we doing here?” Even Ron looked a little subdued. He had wanted us to have a good time and instead we felt like we were party to a lynching. Needless to say, my esteem for these guys had plummeted. All of the driving, radioing, and running had netted us just one coyote in eight hours. I decided that these guys were what I refer to as “Bubbas”.

A “Bubba” is the kind of hunter that gives us all a bad name. You can always tell when a Bubba has been camping near you; the pile of beer cans he leaves behind is a dead giveaway. Another sure sign of a Bubba is his shooting skill. His rifle stays in the garage all year except when he pulls it out two days before Opening Day to practice. A skillful Bubba can place five shots into a road sign at fifty yards. To their credit, this bunch had at least kept after the coyote until it died, as opposed to shrugging their shoulders and leaving the wounded animal to its fate (another Bubba trait).

My respect for coyotes on the other hand, soared! This little dog had us running around for six hours before anyone saw enough of the coyote to get a shot. Even wounded, it took another two hours for anyone to catch up to it, and only then because it was too exhausted to continue.

I am firmly convinced that if this coyote had had even one opposable thumb, we would have found the dog runner and his dogs stripped naked and tied to trees, while the coyote sped off in a stolen truck to search for a veterinarian, all the while howling obscenities at us over the runner’s radio.

Having had enough of coyote hunting, Ron, Mike and I decided that we would spend the rest of the day rabbit hunting. We said our good-byes, stopped long enough to get Ron’s beagle, and managed to enjoy the rest of the day, the highlight of which was a beautiful running shot that Mike made on a cottontail. It was the only rabbit that we saw. Ron explained that small game was scarce because the coyote population was growing out of control.

It wasn’t hard to figure out why.

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