By Nick Simonson
To the east and the rising sun, the two-wheel tracks were etched in the hardened dirt of the minimum maintenance road, which just the week before were sloppy moldings of opening day misadventures of other hunters along the muddy trail. My discretion then told me the trek wasn’t worth the hassle of not getting home in time for dinner, but I knew, wet or dry, the public access area at their terminus was worth the effort on any other day. This morning, and the dry stretch leading up to it, provided me with the opportunity to reach the spot on the map that intrigued me since mid-Summer.
A secret spot is rarely a “secret.” An astute hunter-slash-cartophile can pick a productive public duck slough out of a cornfield on an aerial map, see a deer-funneling ridge by the way a near-running river cuts through the landscape on a topographic rendering, and confirm their above-average productivity on just a visit or two. Odds are, someone else with the same shared passions has pinpointed the same spot.
My hunting buddy Ron has such a place, which he, and ultimately our close cadre of upland hunters, jokingly dubbed “Ronswia.” It wasn’t a choice piece of private land, it wasn’t an unlisted and unmapped spot, in fact it was quite the opposite. It was a small 40-acre parcel of Walk-In Access grass located just off a major highway, that anyone could locate with the annual public lands map issued by the state, then drive to and hunt. For Ron though, it was his secret spot that always produced birds. In all honesty, I’m sure he took me and anyone else who hunts with him to it over the past few seasons, but maybe never told us that what we were hunting was, in fact, Ronswia. Even though it was open to everyone, it was as much, or even more so, Ron’s special tract of hunting land.
At one point in my journey along the twisting and turning road that wound its way down into the river valley, the sun was so bright, staring at the edge grass of the trail was all I could do to keep the tires in the curves. Coming out of the oak-lined hollow, the road snuck along the edge of the river, where the bank had been cut away leaving just the two tire tracks and a little edge before a 20-foot drop to the clear waters below. Out of that same abundance of caution, I parked before the path narrowed and decided to head in on foot. I popped the tailgate and my lab, Ole, joined me on the trail, and I whistled him close, should a flushing bird draw him out near the edge.
The morning sun lit up of half of the valley in golden light and the shadows of old trees reached like dark fingers across the river trying in vain to hold on to the claim as they receded. Up the rising hills, deer trails snaked and crossed through the brome grasses in between the clusters of buckbrush and trees in each draw. From a hundred yards away, the white gleam of a large rub on a substantial sapling could be seen. It was like looking at a piece of hunter’s heaven that had been opened to public access through the kind landowner who enrolled it in the state program.
Awestruck, I set foot into the grasses around the low-growing sorghum food plot – a rarity for this part of the region, or anywhere for that matter – and watched my dog try to determine scentlines in the light and variable winds of the morning. Sparrows flitted from cover as we made our way to the far end of the field, but the only sign of pheasants was the distant call of a rooster behind us, halfway up the draw and into the hills.
As we made the turn and explored the far end of the valley, a slight northerly breeze caught my dog’s nose and he turned into the grasses of the near side of the plot and began to show interest in the trails the wind brought with it. Into a stand of dry sweet clover, he puffed, switchbacking in a manner which suggested nearby birds. As the stalks crackled and the grass bent in a V to his pursuit, a rooster launched from the cover, cackling as he climbed into the air before my first barrel knocked him down. As he fell and I marked the spot, four more of the brightly colored birds took flight one at a time, like opponents in a bad martial arts movie. I picked the one that cut away from the other three and dropped him to my right. Ole was on the retrieve as I picked the first bird up, and in a matter of seconds, I weighed disturbing any more of the property versus being happy with what was provided by the secret space I had found back in the hills along the winding river after months of waiting and a few weeks of delay. I chose the latter and let my dog lead the way back to the truck, content with a perfect two-for-two outing that wrapped in just under 45 minutes.
I know that the next wet stretch will once again lock the bottom away from me and all others who choose to take the time to find it, wind down to it and hunt it. Any early winter snows will certainly seal it away until spring. Perhaps that’s what keeps this space, like Ronswia and every other “secret” hunting space, known to those who have looked for, found and enjoyed them as their own.
Featured Photo: The Road Goes Ever On.. A long two-wheel track provides the only access to a small space tucked in among the breaks along the river. Simonson Photo.