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Tolling bells for the Maine timberdoodle

Woodcock may not be as numerous as they once were in the rugged country around Calais, Maine, but there was still plenty of action when the dogs' bells stopped clanking and Acey Sprague stopped talking

Silence is the rarest stimulus in sports. Be quiet for a moment and think about it. The high points of competition are generally punctuated with thuds, cheers, groans, whacks, screeches and boos. Now and then, during the lung-tied instant before a crucial field goal or a critical pitch, silence heightens the tension, but those situations are remarkable largely because of their rarity—and for what usually follows. Yet there is an area of sport where silence is the key, the prime turn-on to an excitement that requires reflexes as quick as a linebacker's or as subtle as an NBA guard's. That silence begins with the first frost. It heightens as the leaves begin to brighten and fall. It is punctuated with the barking of geese as they wedge their way across the wild reaches of the continent—the remote hassle reaching the ears of the listener only many silent moments after the flight has passed overhead. The keenest moment is the sudden stillness of a bell that has ceased to toll. Last week in Maine, the bell failed to toll a hundred times. Each silence was immortal.

"Well, boys, we'll just get out and take a stroll up along that rim of alders and we ought to find a few birds in there, why, goodness gracious, I recollect when we first started working dogs on woodcock back about 38 years ago, maybe 35, we might point a dozen birds in as many minutes up here, you'd just kill one and go to pick it up and with your next step why you'd put up another and kill it too, and then another until if you didn't have that old dog with you, oh dear, oh dear, well you'd never pick all of 'em up—get on around heah, you Duke, around HERE! Yes, good boy, in there is where they ought to be, jeez!—but as I was saying, boys, that was long ago and while most guides today will tell you that you should ought of been here last week, well, boys, I'll tell you you should ought of been here 20 years ago, goodness gracious, and it's waxing worse, boys, yes it is, it's waxing worse," said Asa Sprague. Then there was quiet, for a moment. "Duke's making game," said Asa. "Get on in there."

Hunting woodcock with Asa Sprague and his ancient pointer Duke is a study in silence. Contrary to the stereotype of the taciturn New Englander, "Acey," as he is known Down East, talks incessantly, while the cowbell on Duke's collar clanks an erratic accompaniment to his master's voice. Lulled by words and bells, stoned on the scent of rotting apples, caught up in the rhythm of a daylong march through the bright autumn woods, the hunter traverses miles of rolling country as if in a dream. Then, instantly, silence as dense as the inside of a cathedral. The dog's bell has stopped; Acey has stopped; time....

Walking in ahead of the point, one feels the tension build. The woodcock is in there, his mottled body pressed flat to the mottled leaves, only his big, black eyes, each of which can cover 180°, shining wet in the underbrush as a modest giveaway. When he erupts with a whistle of wing feathers and zigzags through the upper reaches of the alders, there will be only about three seconds in which to swing and slap the trigger. The flat bang of the gun ends the silence and the monologue resumes. The "real" world is intact once again.

Like most woodcock addicts, Asa Sprague seeks more than meat for the pot when he pursues his avocation. The woodcock, like the men who hunt it, is a bit of a loner, preferring the tangled depths of an alder thicket or a copse of gray birch to the easy, open fields where more gregarious men hunt quail or pheasants. Back in the early 19th century, breeding populations of woodcock existed throughout the Eastern United States. Intense hunting pressure, particularly from market hunters, wiped out most of the local birds before the Civil War. Frank Forester, one of the early American outdoor writers, reported killing upward of 150 birds in a day's shooting on the Jersey Meadows back in the 1830s and argued (vainly) for closed seasons on the timberdoodle long before governments recognized the need. Finally, with the local birds shot off, the only large populations of woodcock remaining were found in the far northeast corner of Maine and in the Canadian Maritime Provinces. The woodcock is a migratory bird, moving south with the cold weather to Louisiana and flying anywhere from 10 to 100 miles a night, slurping up several times its weight daily in earthworms. Thus the woodcock is one of the few predators among game birds. Its long bill, jointed near the tip, is especially adapted for nabbing worms, and one imagines that the timberdoodle could handle a bowl of spaghetti in no time at all.

As a target for the wing shot, the woodcock demands a sharp eye, a sharper ear and quick reflexes. "You'll usually hear him before you see him," says Sprague, "and you better be up on him before he clears the alders. He'll pause at the top of his ride and then cut out through the upper branches like a fried ferret." A dog that will work close is a requisite for the hunter who wants to fill his daily limit of five birds. Generally, an older, slower dog is preferable to a young, rangy one, and Acey's pointer Duke filled the bill. Joe, a setter who also hunted with us that day, was younger than Duke but filled the bill pretty well himself. He belonged to the legendary Lloyd Clark, Acey's good friend and possibly the best woodcock man in the Northeast.

Duke is 11 human years old, which would make him about 77 in dog years. Since Acey himself admits to being "in the 69th year of my age," but is probably more like 72, the combined wisdom of this hunting team totaled nearly a century and a half of woods lore. For all their gray hairs, neither man nor dog flagged perceptibly during three days of hot, heavy hunting. Duke's chest and belly were ripped raw by the briers, and unseasonably warm temperatures (80° was the high one afternoon) sent him searching for water—"Adam's ale"—in every bottom. Refueled, he charged off again into the thickets, bell clanking and tail wagging.

Because of the heat and a month without rain, the highlands were too hard for good worm digging, so the birds were widely scattered through the moist, lowland coverts. These were local birds, the migration not yet having begun, and there were still too many leaves on the alders for clear shooting. Still, Asa remained as spry as his dog. On three separate occasions, when a bird flushed wild with Asa between it and the gunner, the old man flung himself to the ground and bellowed, "Shoot!" His rolling, bowlegged gait, almost identical with that of his dog, carried him through the thickest tangles at a pace that left younger men breathing hard. "Well, boys," he would bellow in his Titus Moody accent, "you can't hit 'em if you can't raise 'em, and you can't raise 'em by standing still"

But it is the country, not the killing of birds, that dominates the hunt, both physically and psychologically. It is not for lack of erudition that the folks around Asa's home town of Calais, Maine pronounce it "Callus." The worn-down granite mountains that flank the Bay of Fundy are as hard and horny as Huck Finn's foot. Throughout the region, the failure of the 19th century American homestead is writ poignantly on the land. Weathered barns lean drunkenly away from the northeast wind, while iron stoves, red with rust, flake off their half-lives in the stone cellars of collapsed farmhouses. Spotted like oases through the tilted hills, abandoned orchards bring forth their fruit for nature's consumption. Ruffed grouse, deer and black bear feed on the bright apples, while city folks pay for fruit that tastes like old newspapers. Resting on a hillside one morning, Acey pointed to the gray ruin of a farmhouse and recalled its past.

"This was Nell Berry's place," he said. "She was an old widder woman who used to raise state charges here—orphans. A fine and gentle woman, old Nell, full of love. Those apples back there on the hill were the finest in this corner of the country. I used to come up here and talk to her, with one eye on the apples so's to nail me a partridge when they flew up to feed. Over there is Breakneck Mountain—I used to pound over it many a night after jacking deer—and down there"—he pointed to a blue flash of water through the golden blur of poplars—"is Meddybemps Lake, where two of my buddies drowned. They were running deer with dogs, killing up to 100 a year for the market. In those days, you couldn't earn a living wage around here, you had to hunt for it. Well, it was a day just like this one—no wind, bright, hot and dusty. The dogs ran the buck into the lake, and they went out in their canoe to shoot it. Clayton, he had a withered arm, and I reckon that when he rose up to shoot, the canoe capsized. The two of them came up through the ice the following spring. You could spot them from the black bulges in the ice. They were deteriorated some."

Silence. Down the slope about 200 yards a dog was on point. Even at that range, the tension began to build until the climactic wing whistle and shot reopened the conversation. The downhill hunters were a brace of Ohio woodcock enthusiasts. John J. Adams, 55, is a labor lawyer from Cleveland who learned the book on upland game birds by walking them up as a kid. "I bought my first gun with the money I earned on my paper route," he likes to recall. "It was a 16-gauge Winchester Model 12, the classic slide action." His partner, Jack Klages, 49, is the president of an auto-parts company in Columbus, Ohio. As they hike up the hill, birdless, neither seems dismayed. "Some tasty apples down there," says Jack, munching one.

As the morning wears on, more birds are pointed and nearly as many missed. From time to time Jack and John launch into historical monologues—as spiky with learning as the wild roses are with thorns. They comment on the "blueberry hay" that farmers have laid down on their fields, hay that will lie rotting and composting for a year before it is ignited to return its nutrients to the earth. "We burn off our fallow material too fast in the rest of America," says John. "This blueberry hay could stand as a metaphor." He is a man of careful words, judicial insights. By contrast, Jack is an enthusiast, an avowed "covered-bridge freak," and he fills a 10-minute uphill hike with a detailed, delicate account of a visit he made with his wife to the world's longest covered bridge (1,282 feet) in nearby Hartland, New Brunswick, Canada. Neither man is dying to kill, and the low-key nature of their hunting proves as refreshing as the windfall apples picked up along the way.

By the day's end, no one has killed his limit. But as Acey emphasizes, that is hardly important. "Well, boys, it doesn't bother me much that we haven't wiped them all out," he says, his wild, white roostertail of hair defying the northeast wind. "I've killed my share in these woods. I've lugged big hunks of moose and bear over these ridges, and if I had a song for every bird I've rubbed out, you'd call me John Len-non. If I never kill another bird, I won't cry about it. Glory, but it's a nice way to spend a day...." No one contradicted him. Silence prevailed.


ACEY SPRAGUE halted his dialogue when Joe went on point but took up where he had left off after the dog retrieved the woodcock.