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Late Season

by R. Michael DiLullo

Whether it is in frozen corn stubble chasing pheasants, snow covered conifers in search of grouse or some small hole of open water in a frozen landscape awaiting the last waterfowl of the season; late season hunting can be very productive if you are prepared to brave the elements.

"You know, we haven’t been out in a while and I would really like to run the dogs this weekend," I explained to my hunting partner Jimmy Caltabellatta. It didn’t take a lot of coaxing on my part as other responsibilities and commitments had dramatically cut down our bird hunting outings in the last few years. We have also lost a number of our prime upland areas to suburban expansion and changes in land ownership. In New York State, most of our upland hunting is now restricted to club properties, crowded state owned land, and a few small pieces of privately owned property where owners still grant permission to hunt.

We arrived at the old dairy farm early the next morning and visited with the farmer and his son. We found them in the barn finishing up their morning milking chores. They informed us they had been seeing lots of birds and that no one had been up in a few weeks. Jimmy and I looked at each other and smiled, we had nearly 350 acres of prime upland cover to ourselves. The only draw back was the weather, a cold front was moving in and the weatherman was calling for snow, but we were prepared!

The hunt ended with a tired dog and two hunters, both reaching their limit of pheasants, plus a bonus bunny added to the bag! I had a few extra bruises from a slip on an ice-covered slope. But that day was one of those great ones, it will be recalled for many years to come. Not because of how productive it was, but, due to the entirety of the experience. Two good friends sharing a common experience; watching a dog do what it was born to do, practicing skills that have evolved since the dawn of mankind and braving the elements to partake in one of nature’s most basic scenarios; hunter versus prey.

The Author, his female springer "Bess" and the results of a successful late season hunt on an upstate New York farm.
Photo by: Jimmy Caltabellatta
It seems that a lot of hunters, especially in the northeast, miss out on one of the season’s most productive periods. Many "fair-weather" hunters pack their gear away after deer season and lose out on some of the best upland and small game hunting there is. The real secret to late season hunting is being prepared and having the proper clothing to keep you warm and dry in extreme weather. Many years ago, I came to the realization that quality really does matter in outdoor clothing and equipment. And that cold hands and numb toes are usually the price one pays for skimping.

Properly outfitted, late season hunts can be very productive as game usually receives little pressure after the first few weeks of the season. After the crowds have dispersed, game animals will tend to go back to its normal routines. However, in heavily hunted areas, birds and rabbits can remain very elusive. During the latter part of the season, game animals become more dependent on protective cover especially in times of heavy snowfalls. With less vegetative cover, they are more exposed to predators and the elements. Working old fence-lines, hedgerows, windbreaks, briar thickets, cutover timberland and along the thick edges of overgrown fields can be very productive. Also, blow-downs or deadfalls on field edges are great places to find game. But, one of the best places to find late season birds and rabbits can be in a mature stand of conifer trees like spruces or cedars. But, besides knowing where to find late season game, you have to know when to "come in from the cold..."

The fresh snow crunched and squeaked beneath my feet. The cold air was crisp and fresh; with each inhalation it nearly took my breath away. The afternoon sky began to clear and the sun filtered throughout the snow-covered branches, creating alternating patterns of light and shadows through the blanketed forest. The entire sensation and atmosphere was of an indescribable clean and fresh world, one that can only be found among cedars after a new snowfall. My English springer spaniel "Bess" and I had ventured into a large stand of New Hampshire cedars in search of some late season grouse. As expected, the birds were roosting in the protective cover of the thick cedars and were holding tight.

After three hours of walking in six inches of powder, however, we were cold, wet and tired. We had flushed more than half a dozen "partridge" and I had two in my game bag. But my hands, inside my now soaked gloves, were becoming numb and I felt myself beginning to shiver as the afternoon temperature began to drop. My feet were still warm and toasty inside my Gore-Tex lined boots, but the bottom half of my brush pants were wet from the snow, also. "Bess" was looking a little worn out and was developing icicles along her feathers (the long, feathery hairs on the back of the dog’s legs). However, her new neoprene and cordura booties had served their purpose well; they kept her feet warm and dry and eliminated the build-up of snow and ice from between her toes. She had accepted them fairly quickly, treating them as only a minor annoyance and most importantly, she still had all four on her feet! We were both happy, but getting cold and it was time to head for the warmth of the truck.
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