Morning Frost, Woodsmoke, and Small Game
- by Dustin Petrey
I once saw an ice scraper for sale that was enshrouded by a woolen mitt that you slipped
your hand into. Evidently it was designed to keep the scraped ice from settling onto your
warm skin. That’s for wimps.

Frosty mornings hold a special place in my life. Whenever I leave for work in the morning
and there’s frost, I always imagine I’m going hunting rather than to work. Images of
grown over fields, brushy two-tracks, icy dead leaves on the floor of the forest. Naturally
these thoughts dissipate briefly while I scrape my windshield-never with an ice scraper, I
don’t even own one of those. I’d much rather use a debit card, or CD cover, my
fingernails, anything but an ice scraper. I once saw an ice scraper for sale that was
enshrouded by a woolen mitt that you slipped your hand into. Evidently it was designed to
keep the scraped ice from settling onto your warm skin. That’s for wimps.

As I drive to work on these frosty mornings I am impressed by the number of houses I
see which have woodsmoke ascending to the heavens-like burnt offerings with benefits,
namely, warmth.

I really, really like the smell of woodsmoke on a fall morning. Couple that with the general
frosting of the milkweed and goldenrod and I’m downright transcendent. I get kind of
carried away while driving thinking about rabbit hunting, squirrels, grouse, etc. Sure I
think of deer hunting, but deer hunting is so, what’s the word, grown up? Lackluster?
No…maybe commercialized. There it is-commercialized.

No one deer hunts in wool and canvas anymore. It’s all Gore-tex, microfiber, and a new
one I heard about the other day called “Optifade.” Evidently, animals see in certain kinds of
dimensions, gray scales, and parallel, parallax, and who knows what else. Anyway, the idea
behind Optifade, as I understand it, is to make you look less like a tree, unlike regular
camouflage, and more like the sky, or matter, or maybe it was broken matter. I can’t
remember.

So I think about small game hunting. Living in the mountains of North Carolina, we have
the occasional Ruffed Grouse, red phase. Of the two color phases, it seems to me that the
reds are a little larger than their northern gray phase cousins. Better looking too.  I’ve
shot two grouse in my life. I’ve hunted them specifically, in total throughout my life, about
thirty seven days. Believe me, in southern grouse hunting circles, that’s a pretty stout
ratio. Oh, I’ve flushed a few more than two, they’re just that hard to hit.

Squirrels, like any other boy introduced to hunting, except for these days it seems, were
what I first pursued, gun in hand. Dad taught my brother and me how to position a
squirrel for a shot. One of us would assume a post where we had a clear view of the tree
trunk while the other, slipping quietly, would circle around the side of the trunk where the
little fella was masquerading as a branch. See, we essentially had him pinned this way. A
tree trunk, being round, has no corners to hide behind, so it was only a matter of waiting
him out.

The smell of the woods, I think, most affected me as a young boy. There was a feeling, (it
still eludes me to this day,) that drew me to the logging roads and ridge tops. All the
seasons were great to me back then but oh the fall. Golden, orange, earthy with the smell
of dropping leaves, and cold creek water, and dogwood berries red and heavy, and the
deer tracks in the dirt road holding ice that melts with the first ray of the sun.

Nothing is finer than the sound of hounds amidst the aforementioned backdrop. A pack of
rabbit hounds, beagles rather, is pure bliss when the air is crisp and the robins and
starlings circle overhead, working their way southward.

We had a kennel of beagles growing up. Some of my fondest memories are of Sandy, the
jumpinest jump dog, and Bart, her littermate, and Tess, Tamer, Percy, Rock, Ann, Annie,
and all the rest whose names escape me know.

My brother and I were always afraid of the cows in the fields where we hunted rabbits. I
recall a sense of dread in my stomach when the time came for us to exit the cab of dad’s
truck to let out the dogs. The cows, assuming that they were about to be fed would
amble close to us, breathing on us, mooing, stomping. Quite an imposing site for a five-
year-old.

But we’d quickly lose them as we gained ground up the two-track, following the hounds,
stepping on the spikes of ice heaved upward through the frozen road banks, like
stalagmites in miniature in a frozen cave. Hoar frost I think it’s called.

The beagles would work in little circles, drinking in the scent of everything that passed that
way during the night. Deer, raccoons, possums, skunks, coyotes, and then, there, that
snuffle right there, aha…rabbit! And Sandy would let loose with a high pitched whine,
piercing the stillness, rising through the pine boughs and the cold laurel hells, reaching our
ears and those of her hunting partners. They, of course would respond with immediate
obedience to her request, and join her in timely fashion to pursue the task at hand.

Rabbits, when pursued, usually run in circles. Some range far and wide, trying to lose their
pursuers with sheer speed and distance. Others rely on trickery and fancy darts and
jumps. Maybe they’ll run up a little creek, trying to throw off the dogs. Maybe they’ll run
out a fallen log, trying to disperse their scent. Years of living in fear of owls, hawks, and
foxes have taught them that they must never stop moving and when under stress, to find
the shortest distance back to their holes, or warrens, if you prefer. If you’re a rabbit,
there’s safety in going to ground.

So the idea, if your a hunter, is once the dogs strike, to try and position yourself where
you best think the rabbit will be going, and kind of post-up for a shot. Naturally, you don’t
want to shoot until you clearly see the rabbit, and you want to make sure that he’s clear
of the hounds. Oh, and don’t shoot the minute the dogs jump him. The dogs are there
for a job, let them do it please.

A pack of five beagles at full cry is a sound like no other. An organized cacophony of bawls
and whines, each voice known distinctly by their master, said master interpreting the
baying for clues as to positioning of the pack, the whereabouts of the rabbit, and where
the whole shebang is headed. Presently, after maneuvering through the swampy creek
bottom, and over the cut-over lay-downs, and through the Christmas tree field in our
case, the beagles will bring the rabbit ever closer.

I remember such a chase where I was working my way out the hill. Tender-footed, I
hacked my way over some rocks and grapevines as the dogs drew closer. I carried daddy’s
20 gauge, he carried his 12 gauge Valmet. I remember the dogs being above me, up on
the hill, now cresting, the rabbit darting back and forth about twenty yards in front of me,
bounding down the slope, flattening out in the bottom into a dead run. The little
Remington came up to my shoulder, swung to catch up with the rabbit. I snapped the
trigger, BOOM!

Evidently, I didn’t have quite enough purchase on the steep hillside when I fired, for my
backside, as quickly as I had pulled the trigger, was transported through the morning air,
in the opposite direction as my pattern of number 7s, and landed with a thud! On a tree
root, oh, about the diameter of a Louisville Slugger.

Amazingly, the rabbit lay still in the bottom of the holler, for, said number 7s, had found
their mark. The dogs were trailing up to the scene right as I reached down to grab him by
his back legs. Success was shown to the hounds and then slipped gently into the pouch
of my game vest…blaze orange.

Now, there is certainly nothing wrong with deer hunting. Nothing wrong with kids deer
hunting. But, are we not robbing our kids of something special if we bypass the small
game and move from bb guns right bears? Why are not more hunters taking to the
woods each fall in pursuit of tails, both bushy and cotton? Is it that they are too
concerned with antlers, 130 inches or greater? Are they too anxious to try out their new
synthetic stocked superwonder? Maybe their new grunt tube slash rattling box slash snort
wheeze, sneeze, cough, natural esophagus-like tube with three-in-one doe and fawn
bleat? Oh yeah, it’s got an estrous bleat too!

I don’t know. It seems to me that the little boy, heck, even the grown man, who is denied
the pleasure of the small game hunt, in deference to bigger and supposedly better things
is indeed missing out on a lot of joy and connection with the Creator. See, a father or
mother can teach important things about life while walking with their little hunter after a
squirrel. They don’t have to worry about being insanely quiet and still. You just cannot do
that in a deer stand. Also on the upside, most fall mornings around here come in at about
thirty degrees. The great thing about small game hunting is you can walk. You stay
warmer. Think about it.
    
October is the month when we usually receive the first frost
of the year. Of course, frost starts quietly, like all seasons,
and gradually builds from there. In fact, for the past few
nights, the frosts have gotten progressively harder and
more widespread. One can usually tell whether it’s going to
frost in the morning by considering the conditions of the
atmosphere the night before. Clear sky, no wind, cold
temperature, equals frost in the morning.

Frosty mornings hold a special place in my life. Whenever I
leave for work in the morning and there’s frost, I always
imagine I’m going hunting rather than to work. Images of
grown over fields, brushy two-tracks, icy dead leaves on the
floor of the forest. Naturally these thoughts dissipate briefly
while I scrape my windshield-never with an ice scraper, I don’
t even own one of those. I’d much rather use a debit card,
or CD cover, my fingernails, anything but an ice scraper.