Wednesday, 30 September 2009 16:00

Old Canvas Gunning Coat

Today is a rainy day and I can’t quite decide on what to do. Like you, I’ve hunted ducks and geese, fished for stripers and blues, and dug quahogs and clams all in the rain. And just once, all three in the same day!

But today is different. I’m thinking of excuses for not going. It’s cozy here by the fire. I can clean and oil the guns, wax the rods, or take an old toothbrush to some of the green gunk on my reels. Or I could start a new book, or finish an old one I’ve read a hundred times…  It’s a rainy day, a great day, and anything is possible.

When I was a young boy, I had very little in the way of foul weather gear. But I did have an old, heavy, canvas gunning coat left behind by a wealthy Duxbury gunner. It was much too big for me to wear when I got it, but dad had quietly given it to me just the same, in his simple, New England Yankee way. My father was the gardener of a man’s estate, and when the owner passed on, the wife had given the gunning coat to dad because she knew he enjoyed hunting, too. The old, canvas gunning coat had long been bleached the color of butternut from years of hard use. But it was in excellent condition, comfortably broken in, rugged and tough like the men that wore them.

I use to stare at that hunting coat hanging on a nail in the cellar, and dream of the old gunner that must have owned it. He was a “well-to-do” as my father was fond of saying, and had a gunning stand way up in the marshes of the Back River of Duxbury, Massachusetts. The “blind” was an elaborate affair, complete with fieldstone fireplace, bunk rooms, a decoy room, a Great Room in the middle, with table and chairs for meals and playing cards – especially the night before opening day! There was a piano and a couple of old, leather chairs with plenty of character, sitting around the fire. A small kitchen and a wet bar gave the final touches. Apple wood smoke and steaming wet dogs filled the air with that sweet smell of autumn that all hunters love…

Outside, surrounding the camp, were the shallow “ponds,” large and small tidal pools that had been dug into the marsh to hold a bunch of hand-carved decoys – and lots of ducks. On one side of the ponds were the breastworks -  long, chest-high fences of boards and brush behind which the gunners would wait for the morning and evening flights of ducks.

As the hunters waited in their heavy, bleached, canvas gunning coats, sipping coffee in the cold dawn, dogs at their sides, they spoke in quiet tones and talked of the beauty and wonder of it all. The sandpipers and great blue herons, the hawks and endless lines of starlings migrating South; the golden glow of marsh grass waving in the breeze, the clams squirting up little, spouts of water. The false-dawn of the eastern sky that looked finer than any Monet… and more than once, the ghostly glimpse of a mighty buck sneaking along the marshs edge. Then… the whistling of wings and the last seconds of silence… as the birds cupped their wings and turned into the decoys…

When the men sat around the fire that night after opening day, enjoying steamed clams, roasted black duck, perhaps a refreshment or two, they thought much and spoke little of how they felt - humbled, bittersweet, and young again… The years had passed quickly as the “old men” always said they would. The children had all grown and moved away and life was pretty simple again. One of them was thinking back to a little boy he remembered very well. A little boy staring up at an old canvas gunning coat, dreaming of the day when he would be old enough to go along, too.

Capt. David Bitters is a writer/photographer and a striped bass/sea duck hunting guide from Massachusetts. His photos and essays have appeared in over one-hundred magazines. Capt. Bitters is currently finishing his first book, A Sportsman's Fireside Reader - Tales of Hunting, Fishing, and Other Outdoor Pleasures. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or (781) 934-2838. You can also write him at P.O. Box 366 Duxbury, MA 0233.

Published in Captain David Bitters
Monday, 16 March 2009 07:43

March

As I sit here at my desk, a heavy blanket of snow is falling outside my window. It is the month of March and the first day of spring is not far behind...

March is a kind of "down time" of year for me, a time of putting things away. The hunting season is long over and the fishing season is still a ways off. The decoys - it is so hard to put them away for another year... But reluctantly, I take them one by one to their resting places in the basement. The plastic ones, anyway. The woods and the corks stay up in my office where I can keep an eye on them. The best decoy of the bunch gets to ride around in my car to keep me company for another year. I like to keep a decoy on the dash to look at and my kids get to play with it when they ride along. Decoys are both toys and art. They hold the keys to some of life's greatest lessons.

The guns have been cleaned and oiled and put back in the rack. A few weeks pass, and I take them out again - for the third time - to check and make sure they are all cleaned and oiled, even though I know they all are. It feels good to throw one to the shoulder and swing through on an imaginary grouse or woodcock or duck. As I sit by the evening fire, it's a hard thing to be content looking at them through the glass. But it's time...

The gunning coats and vests are hung up in the "gunning closet", their pockets not quite sure if they're ready to be empty for another season. A few shells here, a couple duck calls there. A rusty pocket knife or two. A pair of old gloves and a favorite hat. Way far too many candy bar wrappers... The gunning coats still smell of autumn, as they always do, and as I put them away I am reminded of dogs past, gone but not forgotten. I stand at the closet entrance one last time and close my eyes, letting the smells of October and November and December fill my senses. A hundred thoughts flash through my mind like so many flickers of crimson and gold and burnt orange. Maybe its time for a new dog... How can my children grow up so fast... How does one balance the passions of job, family, and a life outdoors... No answers come as I close the door and turn the key. It's finally over for another season and a tough time I have.

Capt. David Bitters is a writer/photographer and a striped bass/sea duck hunting guide from Massachusetts. His photos and essays have appeared in over one-hundred magazines. Capt. Bitters is currently finishing his first book, A Sportsman's Fireside Reader - Tales of Hunting, Fishing, and Other Outdoor Pleasures. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at (781) 934-2838. You can also write him at P.O. Box 366 Duxbury, MA 02331. Please visit his web site at http://www.baymenoutfitters.com

Published in Captain David Bitters