Clayton: Nothing quite like the winter woods

Luke Clayton
Luke Clayton, center, writes about a great winter outing with good friends Jeff Rice, right, and Larry Weishuhn.
Luke Clayton

For one who spends time outdoors through all the seasons in pursuit of fish and game and the simple elation of being "out there," I must admit I love the dead of winter best of all. I know there are those that favor autumn when the leaves are aglow or spring when the woods are coming alive but it’s a cold, crisp winter's day spent hunting with great friends that I will probably remember most when one of these days I am relegated to a rocking chair, dreaming of past adventures.

The poet Robert Frost felt the passion, I’m sure, when he penned his poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I was thinking of this poem last week while hunting with a couple of great friends, setting in a little blind tucked away in a tangle of brush to help conceal its whereabouts from the wild hog I was hoping would be attracted to the corn feeder setting about 50 yards away.

Rather than go into great detail pertaining to the hunt itself, I will attempt to relate to you the pure, soul-satisfying joy I receive from being away from computers, telephones ( I leave my cell phone in the truck when hunting) and the "news," which I find to be downright depressing these days.

Setting in the cold winter woods with ear and eye continually scanning the surroundings, the sights and sounds of nature is my idea of perfect entertainment. It’s a good time to reflect upon past such experiences and look forward to the next adventure, but not to the extent that each moment of the present can’t be enjoyed to the fullest. How many years have I watched that first cardinal show up while hunting during the winter? I have come to look at these "red birds" as friends from long ago. Their brilliant color always contrasts the gray woods. I watch the birds that are currently picking at kernels of corn around the feeder and wonder how many "bird generations" back I was watching their predecessors do exactly the same thing!

At one point during this set in the woods, a total of nine cardinals were flitting from branch to ground in front of me. Then all of a sudden the entire flock took wing and headed toward a thicket nearby. I knew something had spooked the birds; hoping is was a sounder of hogs heading toward the feeder. 

Soon, the tranquil setting was disrupted by the shrill scream of a hunting Cooper’s hawk. The cardinals had probably seen the hawk overhead or its shadow as it passed by. Wild critters inherently notice subtle little things; their very lives depend upon it. I watched the hawk make a couple of low orbs around the tree tops in search of an early dinner but his prey had departed, probably well concealed and motionless in that tangle of greenbriar and rattan vines.

Mr. hawk remained perched in a nearby tree for about five minutes, occasionally emitting his blood-curdling scream in hopes of flushing one of the cardinals out of the brush. But through the years, their kind had survived by learning to remain motionless in time of danger and only trying to "out fly" the raptors when absolutely necessary. They somehow knew who would be the winner in an aerial acrobatics battle through the treetops.

Then, just as shooting light was about to fade and I was contemplating the walk back to camp, an owl that had been setting in a tree a few feet behind me opened up with his evening chorus or "who, who, who whoooo." The hawk had been long gone and now it was time for the nigh hunting owl to rule the domain of the night woods. That first sounding of an owl, usually during the waning minutes of daylight, usually signals every owl within earshot to sound off. I often wonder what they are communicating to each other. Are they letting each other know their presence in order to protect their hunting areas or just saying hello, much as we would send an evening text to a love one wishing them a peaceful evening? The more I learn about the natural world, the more questions that I find unanswered!

As much as I love my solitary hours spent in the winter woods, I always eagerly await getting back to a warm camp house with good food and great friends. This particular evening, we dined on a big cast iron full of goulash and corn bread, washed down with plenty of steaming hot black coffee. One of my buddies hollered from the porch of the cabin for us to come out and take a look. A nearly full moon was overhead, shining brilliantly through the branches of an ancient oak on the edge of the clearing. We three stood there in the cold for a good five minutes, not uttering a word, admiring the sight and listening to distant owls way back in the woods. I’m sure we were all thinking how fortunate we were to be able to spend time in such a setting together.

The remainder of the evening, we spend talking about past outings together and made plans for the next adventure, a combo squirrel hunt/creek white bass fishing trip. May this lifestyle go on forever.

• WINTER REN DE VOUS IN GREENVILLE: Make plans to join myself and a large gathering of folks on March 6 on four wooded acres a few blocks north of downtown Greenville. Live music, antique car show, a campfire to set around and fishing and hunting talk will be the order of the day. For more information, contact Randy Koon at (903) 456-3048.

Contact outdoors writer Luke Clayton at