Fall's First Birds

The birds of September are on their way. Where will you be when the sun rises on the first of the month?

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Your eyes are accustomed to the gloom and you set decoys in a darkness that really isn't all that dark. Behind you in the standing corn that will soon serve as your blind, there's movement. One rustle, then another. You ready yourself for the masked bandit face, and are greeted instead by a gray muzzle and the enthusiastic panting known only to pre-hunt Labrador retrievers and their owners. To the east, the pink glow that heralds the Ohio sunrise changes first to red, then to orange.

Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you all? inquires a barred owl. Your brain, still tethered hopelessly to spring, awaits a gobble that doesn't come. It's not, however, the fault of the owls, each of the pair giving his all before night surrenders to the coming of day.

"Geese!" comes as a whispered warning from down the line. It means "Be ready and be quiet." You listen, ears straining to catch the faintest sound. And it comes, a rise and a fall. Both melodic and broken, the deeper resonant tones mingling with the high-pitched barks and yelps of the young. Wrists turn as watches are checked and checked again. White-toothed smiles, revealed by the Indiglo, signal that it's time.

The acrylic call feels cool against your lips. The initial notes have the effect of an explosion. The silhouettes veer, changing course, drawn into the cone of sound. Against your leg, the Lab shakes in anticipation. Unlike the birds of November, these geese perform no wide, tentative circles. Rather, they commit without hesitation to the dozen decoys arranged in the winter wheat not 25 yards from where you wait huddled in the stalks. "Take 'em!" are the only words spoken. Four guns rise together, their hollow booms echoing off the short timber at the edge of the field. The flattened grass beside you is now visible, the Lab already on her way to the first bird. The survivors are now a smoky smudge to the west, and the season is officially open. It's September 1.

[pagebreak] Public Bird Hot Spot
According to West Branch Wildlife Area manager Brett Beatty, a lot of the goose gunning at the northeastern Ohio public hunting grounds goes to those willing to hunt the many small backwaters and bays that dent the shoreline. "We have agricultural agreements with local farmers in the area, and if some of their grain is harvested prior to the opener, it can provide some opportunity," he said.

Later in the afternoon the scene has changed. Replacing the Canadas are scores of rocket-propelled, swept-wing saber shapes. Down the length of yet another cut winter wheat field, the guns boom and pound, each adding to the throbbing tempo that is the opening day of dove season. Some birds fall and some don't, amid smiles, dogs and the rekindling of gone-too-long friendships. The heat and the humidity, the mosquitoes and the painfully obvious no-see-ums are forgotten.

"We plant winter wheat, and if space and time permit, millet," says Beatty. "And then in April, weather permitting, we'll get in and plant sunflowers. Come August, we begin manipulating the fields, mowing recovery zones, seeding and doing a little disking so the birds have the bare ground that they like." Fields average 8 to 12 acres in size, and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. "We get a pretty good hunter turn-out," he says, "but we have some good bird numbers, too."

Night 'Eyes
That evening, as the sun drops behind the oaks rimming the shoreline of a Portage County impoundment known as West Branch Reservoir, you strike a match to the twin-mantle lamp and lightly hook some night crawlers on leadhead jigs. Your quarry?

Shallow-water, sand-flat walleyes, with the occasional channel cat and rogue white bass thrown in for good measure...as if things weren't interesting enough.

Later on, as the effects of a full day begin to take hold, it's off to a welcome cot in the Canvas Hiltton you pitched the night before in a quiet corner of the state park adjoining the lake. Sleep comes easy, aided by the same Who cooks for you? query that broke open the day. Deeper in the timber, a longbearded gobbler shifts on his roost before he, too, fades off.