I was one lucky kid
My dad’s friends were almost all hunters and fishermen. My dad had acquired coon hounds just before I was born and began hunting those hounds in the woodlots of his various employers. He also had beagle hounds for rabbits and pheasants. I never knew a home without 3-5 hounds with kennels outside. I have joked in recent years if there are more coonhounds kenneled outside your house than there are people living inside, you could be a red neck. I inherited care responsibilities for these dogs at a very early age, somewhere before six years of age. I learned one never left an animal without food, water, and, in the colder months, bedding. In the summer, during the hot hours, you had to move the dogs temporarily to shaded locations. This responsibility for these creatures and the daily affection I exchanged with them started me on my course of life-long relationships with animals.
Most of the men that were friends of my father joined him in his outdoor pursuits. Late at night they would return and dump the beautiful golden-yellow brown trout or green, black, and white bass into my mother’s sink. I would get a stool in my earliest years and look over the rim of the sink to see and feel and smell those fish-creatures and drink in their beauty. The really neat thing about the bass was you could plug the sink drain and fill it with water. A lot of them were alive enough that they revived and swam around in the sink. Sometimes they would regurgitate their stomach contents and, if crayfish were present, the crayfish sometimes would be alive! We would eat the fish but I always ran the crayfish down to the stream in our yard and released them.
Night hunts would result in raccoons and possums hanging from our porch in the morning and it was my job to skin them and stretch the hides for drying. I would gut the skinned carcasses and hang them in the cool winter air. Work crews that worked on the rail line that passed our house at about 100 yards to the south would watch for the carcasses, stop and leave a quarter for a possum and 50 cents for a raccoon. These men were from the South, where such fare was eaten and they took the carcasses back to the city for food. Payment was on the honor system and I don’t remember payment ever not being left for us. I was given these jobs when I was 10 years old, before I was old enough to accompany the night hunts. My grandfather lived with us and he taught me skinning and hide prep.
My handiwork on display-1953-I was ten years old
I must add that in the late winter all the families of those who went into the night woods to chase raccoons plus relatives and non-hunting friends gathered at our old house for what we called “The Coon Supper.” A highly anticipated affair by all. Turkeys and hams and, yes, a couple of young, tender raccoons were roasted and served for all to choose. Not everyone partook of the coon but most had a taste. I rather liked it. All dark meat somewhat like sweet young lamb.
Ham (lower right, turkey (center right) and “coon” (upper left.) -1956
If one went back two or three generations from those older people in the room, many would have eaten any critters they could catch. We are just deaf and dumb to that history for many of us.
Practical Joker Bill Tritt, me, and my Dad (only 40 years old) after an evening hunt. Our house and that fireplace were built in 1760. General Howe’s Officers stayed in this house on their last night before entering Philadelphia for the 1777-1778 winters. They stood on these very hearthstones I sat on to warm my feet, the hearthstones in this photo. Howe’s army camped in our field that night. Washington wintered in Valley Forge, three miles this house.
Rabbits and pheasants were also brought home for our dinners. I helped with the skinning of rabbits and squirrels and the picking of the pheasants (feather removal.) The “cleaning” or gutting was my job as well so I received a wonderful first-hand education regarding animals’ internal anatomy and the not-so-delightful smells associated with these activities. One learned that squeamishness was not a choice when encountering not-so-nice odors. Get over it and get it done.
These animals, the fish, birds, and mammals, were all gathered either for food, fur, or as predator control for our chicken and duck flock we also used for food. There were precious few creatures killed by us except for a reason, all within the game laws of the state. My father was meticulous about abiding by the game laws. One might as well rob a bank as break the laws that protected the lives of protected animals. Dad and all of his friends never wavered from this by-the-book approach to game laws and anyone who might not follow that approach wouldn’t be hunting with them. Kids learn a lot from watching and listening and this was lesson we learned early. We learned a lot of lessons early.
Seeing wild creatures in their normal activities of living was always a fascination. To see their always-alert demeanor one could sense they never turned off their alertness for more than a few seconds at a time. Alertness was manifested in their body posture, constant visual scanning, their instant visual focus on the source of any out-of-place sound, the “freezing” of their body into a motionless statue. A kid learns so much alone on the land with eyes and ears open to observation of the creatures that surround us.
In my travels I would stalk up on pools in the streams and peer at the small fish fining in the current. The suckers with their orange fins, rounded ram-shaped heads, and their vacuum shaped downward facing mouths. The black dace, maybe only four inches long, packed in a bottom-hugging school. Their sharply defined black back stripe and below it, in the middle of a white body, another dark strip at mid-body. And below? Striking orange fins. From among that school of fish there would be silver flashes as the fish turned and twisted.
And sometimes, a trout!
We had a stream running through our front yard and meadow. In that stream, only a mile from its source spring, were brook trout. If I was very careful, I learned I could step onto the footbridge in our yard, lie down, and very slowly move my head over the edge of the bridge walkway and peer down into the little pool below. If I controlled my footfalls to silence and all movements to very slow motion and if I chose the timing to cloudy days or when the sun did not cast my shadow into the pool, I could see brook trout below me within three feet. I began to learn these things as a child of four or five. When I approach a stream today, with fly rod in hand, I feel the same excitement as that little kid back 65 years in my yard on that footbridge. How many old men can say they have something that continuously replays the thrills of their childhood?
The water was saran-clear and all the beautiful colors of the fall male brook trout’s spawning condition were on display. The wriggling worm-like patterns of black and green of the back, the orange sides fading to a white under belly. The bright orange fins fronted with a white stripe. The eye rolling down and forward and up, watching for food or predator. If I moved a bit too quickly, the fish burst into action and left the scene so suddenly, direction and destination were impossible to observe. It just disappeared as if by magic. Its going was marked by some bottom detritus and maybe a bit of sand swirling in the water column where a second before a fish had resided.
The stream also provided encounters with water snakes which would bite if you grabbed them but were harmless. We also encountered salamanders and crayfish, one end of a crayfish claw peeking out from under the rock, betraying its hiding place. The stream was a constant site of exploration and creature watching. As I got older I pursued the fish with rod and reel.
The fields and woodlands were of equal beauty and populated with birds and mammals which also consumed hours of enthrall for a kid. And the hedgerows and railroad and highway edges provided habitat for the various wild berries at the right time of July and August. My brothers, sister, and I went on berry safaris. Each explorer absconded with a cooking pot from Mother’s pantry and went afield stalking the best patches of these wonderful berries. Those that were not eaten made it home and into jams and preserves or were frozen for use on cold cereal in the winter months.
Streams were also used for summer dam building. Rocks were carried from afar along the stream bed and placed in position to stem the current. Pieces of sod sealed the leaks. Sometimes a pool of two or three feet deep could be created. Hot, humid days were transformed into the cool comfort of a mountain resort. At least what our imaginations thought a mountain resort might feel like. We often just sat down in the water, fully clothed and up to our necks. The shock of that 55°F water would send us bursting up and out but well cooled from the 95°F air with that 95% humidity. We had never laid eyes on any type of a resort but this is how they must feel. The fish loved these little lakes of slower water rather than the swift currents they had to deal with most days. Schools of minnows gathered in this “easy” water and we loved to stealthfully approach to observe them.
Winter and snow provided sledding which we did with enthusiasm. In some winters, when money was tight, my dad would cut dead trees from the hedgerows of our fields, drag them to the house, and cut and split the wood. It fell to us kids to toss the wood down into the empty coal bin for use in heating our house.
The snow produced tracks of fox and deer and pheasants and muskrats. We would try to envision these creatures we saw so infrequently. Their tracks fired our imaginations as small children.
The fresh snow gave up evidence of the seldom seen night creatures. The owls, raccoons, muskrats, foxes, possums (opossums), rabbits, and deer. As a young child there were almost no deer in southeastern Pennsylvania. Now, they are a plague, like rats with hooves, but then they were a thrilling and unusual sight then.
It felt like a secret trophy of the mind’s eye to see fresh tracks in the morning snow after a storm that had raged during the previous night. The landscape was a blank canvas upon which the night creatures painted the portrait of their lives. One had the feeling of being in on a secret that only they and you knew. Stream edges always gave up many secrets.
The raccoons crossing and recrossing the stream. Sometimes their tracks entered the stream and did not exit the stream for thirty or fifty yards because the owner of the tracks had been foraging in the shallow water for any creatures it could find hiding under rocks or in tangled little bundles of brush and debris. Raccoons could be found anywhere, pasture or woodlot, wherever the stream wandered.
Muskrats inhabited the stream where it flowed through meadows or swamps of cattails. Their presence was disclosed by wide flat impressions in snow or frost where their bellies plowed along, their front legs too short to keep their bellies very far above the ground. Their back legs also did not support an upright walking stature because they were extended rearward so that the great webbed feet were maximized for swimming speed. In the snow, muskrats leave flat highways or even tunnels under deeper snow. On frosty mornings, a meandering web of wet, wriggling paths could be seen where their bellies, wet from leaving the stream, melted the frost as the muskrats grazed on the grass. One could also see where the “rats”, as we called them, had been digging out white roots in the swamp. Most of the muskrats we encountered lived in tunnels dug into the dirt banks of the stream. In large swamps muskrats will build mound shaped “houses” like miniature beaver houses.
My friend and trapping partner Bob, my Dad, and me with our 1957 muskrat take. Each hide averaged about $1.25. Minimum wage was $0.75/hour. Bob only lived to be 51 years old. He had to leave early and he is missed to this day.
Foxes were traveling men, picking out a manmade tractor road or trail to move along while on the alert for prey: rabbits or muskrats, birds roosting on the ground, mice moving about under the snow. These trails allowed the fox to move silently and cover a lot of territory, his body carrying the very sensitive sensors of hearing, smell, and sight to discover its prey before the stalk was commenced. The single track line of a hunting fox in the snow could be seen as similar to a line of periods on the typed page, meandering a bit more than a typewriter lays down the “dots.” I never followed a fox track on a snowy morning to a kill site but I am sure one could.
Rabbits are busy during the night as well. Their red-orange urine patches and brown droppings dribbled along their trail. Once I came to the end of such a trail. There was a disturbance in the snow where the rabbit tracks entered but did not exit. Surrounding the disturbance were the apostrophes of feather marks in the snow and a couple of blood droplets. A Great Horned Owl had ended that rabbit’s night and life in that tableau on the snow. Once caught, the rabbit was lifted skyward to a limb where it was torn asunder with claws and beak. If it was February, the rabbit became food for owl nestlings. Later in life, I was to come into very close proximity to those Great Horned Owl weapons and even experience their ability to penetrate flesh, my flesh!
I remember an evening in the early spring. It was the first “warm” night where the windows were open for the first time. Out in the swamp across the road from our house the most god-awful screaming began and lasted for about 30 seconds. Likely a fox had caught and was killing a rabbit whose dying wails sent shivers down my spine. I was too young to know what exactly was happening but it was the first time in my life the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Whether we are Stone Age man or a kid in the 50’s safe within the confines of his house, that atavistic, involuntary reaction of neck hair standing vertical, a bodily reaction out of our conscious control, defines terror in our species. You have missed something of living if the natural world has never caused the hair on your neck to stand up. If you have, you have shared a feeling experienced down through the millennia of man’s history. Your heart pounds for a while. Your palms sweat. The adrenalin surge lasts for several minutes. The druggies and the boozers talk about “buzz.” THAT is a buzz baby! It is a buzz put there by evolution that prepares you for fight or flight and gives you physical strength you never knew you had.
Being out among these creatures and beginning to discover the earliest experiences with them, drives a kid to discover more. As one gains more experience it seems that stepping out into the fields and woods brought a constant stream of sights and sounds, as if nature’s radio was playing in the background. All you had to do was look and listen to find the voices of the natural world around you, some old familiar ones and some bright and new. It is as if listening to a rock and roll station in the late 50’s. As soon as you heard the first notes of a song on the radio you knew, it was obvious, which song it was. Those first notes of the melody opened up all the lyrics in your memory and you could sing along with entire song. But there were the times a new song appeared and you increased your attention to discover its lyric and melody. Nature’s radio comes at you in a similar manner only with visuals as well as sounds. It was TV before you had seen TV. If you were watching and listening, the show was the best there ever was.
Hunters and fishermen are watchers and move with stealth attempting to overcome the superior senses of the natural world around them. Hunters in particular often sit or stand silently and motionless hoping the wind does not flow their scent to an animal for which they are watching. Birds and most cats can’t detect scent. All animals detect motion first and foremost. To a lesser degree they can see color, birds better than mammals. They all can sense a stationary form that is out of place or represents a danger.
Hunters can use a blind, within which they are undetectable by birds and animals if the hunter does everything just right. It is amazing what you can witness from a blind. If all is just right, the birds and mammals about you act naturally. Some of my most exciting and wonderful experiences have come when hidden and watching. Just because you are there to ambush a big buck deer doesn’t mean some of the best times have been had watching small bucks or does or a moose or birds or whatever happens to come by. Just because you go home empty doesn’t mean you went empty. Your pack frame may not have a heavy load of meat in it but you take home a mind full of wonderful memories.
Blind sitting is a challenging experience. I have sat in a blind for 12-14 hours for five consecutive days. Even I know that is psychotic or borderline psychotic. One must be committed and BELIEVE this effort will deliver the required results. But what amazing experiences I have had let alone the meat I have harvested. Every time I have done serious blind-sitting, I have had great experiences. Most times no animal was killed. But what was seen was a wonder. As a child or an old man, the thrill is the same.
Once in Idaho I had a big pine martin pass my ground blind made of limbs and greenery. I made some mouse squeaks with my mouth. The martin stopped and turned toward me listening. I squeaked again. The martin started climbing up along a limb that started at ground level and rose up close to my face. When he came within 2 feet of me I spoke up and asked, “What are you doing Mr. Martin?” he froze, looked into my eyes showing above the camo face mask, and growled a very nasty growl. Then he took a couple of more steps toward me. Ok. That was close enough. I stood up. He froze For a few seconds and decided to leave. I wasn’t sure if he was going to leave!
I spent 12 hours a day for five straight days in a tree stand in the far north Maine woods three years ago. Way north, near the Saint John River on the Canadian border. A bit chilly, not really cold. Generally the highs were from 20°F to 45°F. It snowed, blew sleet, and was clear and sunny at times. 12 hours each day. My Maine Guide, a lifelong citizen of the Allagash and the St. John, looked skeptical when I said I could do it. Sit a stand 12 hours, five consecutive days. He said he always wanted to see what would be seen in such an endeavor. I said I knew I could do it because I had done it several times in our elk woods back in Idaho. Their deer numbers were way down due to hard killing winters and the coyote invasion.
Only SLOW movement of the head turn or sitting stone still. I saw a rabbit in a hurry to get somewhere. A hare actually, snowshoe hare before he turned white. I had a young bull moose walking silently as if on goose down come and smell the ladder to my blind before he stole away. I saw two groups of deer, alas does and last spring’s fawns. No buck deer. The wind was good but they didn’t stay long. They were nervous. Must have sensed something. In the end, I shot no deer but had a wonderful experience.
A nervous doe came by with two “button buck” fawns of the year. Big strapping buck fawns with dark faces. Hopefully they would survive the winter. They have to survive the cold, little food, the ever-encroaching and increasing coyotes who surround the yarded deer on their winter range and slaughtered them during extreme cold and deep snow years. Coyotes have expanded their range to Maine for the first time in history sometime during the past 10 years and are damaging the deer herds at previously unheard of levels.
Two scenes and views from the Maine tree stand where I was visited by winter birds, deer, one rabbit, and a bull moose. The snow fell during the second day. I hunkered down during the storm and sat it out.
I started out as a kid doing this. I often did it poorly or had poor patience. One can only look in a fairly narrow span of the 360° circle that surrounds your position. Aside from errant breezes blowing your scent about in the wrong direction at the worst possible moment, movement is the one controllable aspect of blind sitting that often goes uncontrolled at the wrong time. You cannot scan about you without moving. The key is SLOW movement. Camouflage, full camouflage, helps reduce your visual detectability but motion will attract attention to you regardless. Once attracted, animals have all the time in the world to study you and wait until they are sure you are “OK.” I will relate some of these experiences, my own and others, later.
I started to learn this stuff on my own around the time I was about six years old and it has been ongoing for the past 64 years. Mothers didn’t have to worry then about a kid going out into the fields or woods for three or six or 10 hours. No one would bother you. Such innocent safety and freedom seems to be gone. Sometimes for real reasons. But much I believe is a communal paranoia that afflicts so many. My young years had no such fears. Now kids have no such freedoms. They should have more. They NEED more. Frenetically racing from one ball field to the next is sadly denying our children any contact with nature. It is NOT play. It is regimented hysteria. It is done FOR the parents’ guilty conscience and TO the children.
I was one lucky kid and still am.