It's early October in north Alabama. While temperatures are not yet what folks around here call “cool”, they have mellowed from the stifling heat and humidity of late August and early September. And everyone in the area knows that “cool” is just a few days away. With the cooling temperatures, the expectation and anticipation of changing colors, and shortening days that come with this time of year, thoughts turn to the season known in these parts as fall.
Fall for us is a time of hunting, harvesting, outdoor gatherings, and fellowship. It is truly the most giving season for those that enjoy being outdoors.
North Alabama’s dove season opener gave most hunters their first taste of the new season at the beginning of September. Our waterfowlers were able to start a week earlier with the early goose season followed by the early teal season. Personally, if I start sweating when I walk outside, it is just too warm to hunt waterfowl, but there are always the die-hards that wait all year for the September waterfowl openers. I prefer the more traditional cold-weather waterfowl hunting that comes along later in the season.
Deer hunters have been prepping food plots, green fields and stands for several weeks in anticipation of the early bow and muzzleloader seasons, followed closely by the holy grail of deer hunting in Alabama, the opening day of gun season. If Alabama were famous for one type of outdoor activity, it would be a close call between bass fishing and deer hunting. I will not hazard a guess as to which would be more popular as it would probably be akin to asking whose grandmother makes the best peach cobbler – debatable until just after the end of time.
While it is considered a dying art, there are still plenty of “coon” hunters left in north Alabama that are getting tuned up to chase the stripe-tailed bandit with packs of English, Walker, Bluetick, Redbone or Black and Tan coonhounds that are bred to the task. Just make sure that you watch out for deer, opossums and slick trees, which were all common failings of the dogs that I hunted with in my youth. While for us, it was more a time for socializing and storytelling, the night-time hunting of raccoons with dogs offers the sweet music of hounds on the trail or tree and a time for reflection and fellowship in the cool, still dark of the autumn night.
Rabbits and squirrels round out the more sought after game available to the north Alabama hunter and are common enough to be available just about everywhere it is legal to fire a gun. These species offer a great opportunity to start youngsters or first time hunters out on a quarry that are plentiful and, more often than not, cooperative. Many a marksman was created and perfected in the squirrel woods with an old .22 rifle.
It is with a heavy heart and holding back a tear that I omit from this list the grand and storied tradition of the partridge, or “pah-tridge” hunt in north Alabama. Having grown up hunting the wild bob-white quail with my father and uncle on our family farm, I cannot express in words the loss I feel at not being able to share that experience in its purest form with my son. I am blessed beyond measure to have experienced first-hand the pursuit of North America’s most genteel gamebird in its natural state and habitat. I wish I could take you just once to that place where a heavy frost has settled on the broom sedge and made the brown and dormant Bermuda grass white and crunchy underfoot. Exhaled breath hangs for seconds in the still, cold air. Smoke from the chimney of the small white farmhouse we just left rises straight and unfettered in the solemn stillness. Impenetrable forests of summer kudzu now lay a barren and tangled mat of vines trod over without a thought. Excited pointer dogs leap and dart with anticipation before settling down to the business of the hunt. That familiar smell of old brass and gunpowder emanates from well-worn hunting vests and the well-known “chink” of the action being closed on dad’s old Fox double gun and the “chunk” of the bolt on a love-worn Browning A5 “20” indicate that the pursuit has begun. The only thing left is the detailed posture of “Rock” and “Lady” on point – the lifted foreleg, every muscle tensed and rigid; the quivering tails, bloody at the tip, are the only indication that they are not statues. One tentative step and - covey rise! A flurry of sound, fury, and feathers – an explosion of adrenaline - a tornado of sound and energy traverse the quiet air. Gunshots… then: racing heartbeats, shaking hands, widened eyes, a deep, quavering breath because none has been taken for the last few seconds – and all that from veterans of the game. “Daddy, did we get any”? “Yes, son, we got ‘em”.
Alas, I fear that these days are gone forever from our part of the world, but if you still have memories of these hunts, keep them and cherish them. Take them down as often as possible, dust them off and enjoy them, for they may never be known again here.
Regardless of the game you pursue and the method of chase you prefer, north Alabama offers tremendous opportunity, rich tradition, and an always beautiful setting in which to partake of your favorite flavor.
By now, if it is not already up, farmers are picking late corn, cotton, and soybeans from the frequent and fertile fields of north Alabama. Garden plots are slowly winding down yields are starting to diminish. Okra, tomatoes and certain beans and peppers may still be producing, and the late season greens like turnip, mustard, rape and kale are just starting to mature, but most of the garden vegetables are now summer memories.
However, it is not this harvest that truly interests the outdoor enthusiast. While these are tasty treats and anxiously awaited every year, the real fall treats are found in the woods and fencerows of our part of the state. This is the time of year when wild grapes known as muscadines and scuppernongs can be picked in the wilds and woods. While plenty of domesticated vines exist in our area, there is definitely something special about finding a heavy-laden vine of wild grapes growing unencumbered in the forest. In addition to the grapes, wild nuts are also becoming ripe and ready for harvest. Black and English walnuts, pecans, hickory nuts and my personal favorite – chestnuts are all ripening and falling to earth to be gathered by industrious outdoorsmen and women who know where to look. Other fall favorites include crab-apples and persimmons. Crab apples can be slightly bitter when eaten raw, but if you have enough, they make fantastic homemade jelly. Persimmons are definitely on the bitter side when eaten green and the local wisdom is that you have to wait until after a frost to eat them. While that may be true, the peak of ripeness and the first frost do not always coincide. So, if you are a true persimmon fan, pick a bunch of ripe ones, pack loosely in a plastic bag, and put them in the freezer for a few hours. Don’t freeze all the way through, but just enough to have the effect of a decent frost. Place in the refrigerator to let them come back up a little in temperature, and then enjoy raw or in persimmon pie or cobbler.
One last item that falls in this category is pumpkins. For heaven’s sake, please do not buy your pumpkin for pies or jack-o-lanterns in a store. I mean no offense to our local retailers who provide a valuable service in making store-bought pumpkins available, but please keep in mind that there are numerous farms in our area that specialize in growing pumpkins and usually have other activities that make going there a family-fun event. Use it as an excuse to get your spouse and kids or friends out of the house and under an October-blue Alabama sky.
Family and fellowship
It’s the colors. A vibrant explosion of red, yellow, orange, gold and silver foliage and the blue of the October sky in Alabama. Say what you want, but I swear it seems a different color everywhere else than Alabama the Beautiful. Probably the most remarkable thing about our fall is the color. It is everywhere and the eye is drawn to it continually.
It is a time for being outside with friends and family. Outdoor cooking, Friday night lights, Saturday afternoon rivalries, church gatherings, or just to be social – all great reasons (or excuses) to get together. Temperatures and scenery are both conducive to being outside. A nice fire after the sun goes down, blankets and sweaters, holding a loved-one close, love, laughter, open windows, open doors, open hearts, Halloween, Fall festivals, apple cider, Thanksgiving, families coming together… what’s not to love about an Alabama Fall?