Charles Frederick Holder.

Life in the open; sport with rod, gun, horse, and hound in southern California online

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pearing to come again ; flashing, scintillating against
the blue of the heavens. Up it rises ; then a single
goose, almost reaching the empyrean, turns, followed by
the flock, which lengthens out into a long angle and
sails, slides down-hill along the face of the Sierras a
token by which you know that ducks, geese, and cranes
are going south and that winter and the shooting season
has arrived. No more beautiful sight than this can be
seen in Southern California when these vast flocks pass
up and down, silhouetted against the chaparral of the
mountain slopes.

If you live in the mountains this call comes every few
hours. Near my camp, on a spur of the Sierras, in

Water Fowl 53

October I could hear geese and cranes many times a
day ; sometimes so near that they were killed by rifle-
shots ; again half a mile in air, coming down the aerial
toboggan slide of Southern California, their habit being
when they reach a point too low for safety to stop and,
with vociferous cries, whirl about, climbing the air as
described, and then, on reaching a high altitude, soar-
ing, not flying, away to the south along the mountains,
in this way covering four or five, possibly ten miles,
when another break occurs and they climb again.

In this way the geese and cranes migrate to Southern
California. At this time the oranges are turning to
gold ; the land that was brown and grey is green ; the
Heteromeles flashes scarlet on the slopes of the canon
down which you pass, and the lowlands, where the wild
rose garlands some little runaway through the hills,
are rich in sweet odours. Then, from high in the air,
comes the honk, honk, honk of the wild goose, and you
are away to some little laguna you know well, far down
by the sea.

There I found myself one morning before daylight
sitting in the barrel blind on the edge of the laguna,
with decoys all about, and the air filled with the gutter-
als of swamp birds and the cries of myriads of black-
birds. The high fog was going out to sea, and away to
the north was seen the long line of the Sierras, the tall
peaks, as San Antonio, standing out like sentinels, while
to the west rose a wall of green weed, its tall spikes re-
flected in the water in lines of vivid colour, bending here

54 Life in the Open

and there under scores of blackbirds. It may be my
imagination, but if there is not organisation of some
kind among these birds, the imitation is perfect. I
had my decoys well placed, and was out of sight before
a bird left the weeds where they spent the night, but
the first glimpse of the sun started them, and a roar of
sounds filled the vibrant air. They thronged the bend-
ing reeds and, suddenly silenced, a flock of four or five
hundred rose, as though by concert, and flew away ;
then bedlam broke loose again -ping zeee ee ping zeeee,
and countless sounds, followed by silence, when a new
army would rise. For an hour I watched these delega-
tions leaving, each going in some different direction^
thus dividing up the great blackbird army ; some flying
to one ranch, some to another. This lot perhaps se-
lected Balsa Chica, the next the San Joaquin, another
the Aliso, and so on until quiet settled down over the
laguna, and the coots and rails had the field to

If one does not bag his ducks or geese there are the
charms of the swamp, the variety of animal life, the
strange sounds to listen to all compensations. But
what is this, far to the south where the laguna reaches
away to the sand dunes and sea ? Several black spots
appear, standing out with vivid distinctness. On they
come, now resolving into birds ducks coming in from
the sea perhaps, to feed on wild celery, grain, alfileria,
and the choice grasses that carpet the soft adobe down
to the edge of the water. They are coming directly



Water Fowl 55

in. I can almost hear the hiss of their wings ; then
they turn and I watch their graceful movement and
am wondering what deflected them, when around they
whirl ; they see the decoys, turn, and literally drop out
of the sky in that splendid curve that I break, and take
what fortune and the morning wind has brought ; one
to the right, dropping it directly into the decoys, while
the flock, pounding the air, turns violently. I fire my
left directly over my head and see the duck coming
down on me.

Probably every old duck hunter has had this experi-
ence, but it has occurred to me but once. I dodged,
and the heavy " sprig " came tumbling down, like a
meteorite dropping out of the sky, struck the edge
of the barrel, and rolled in at my feet. The flock has
swung around, passing over another blind on its way to
the sea again, and so is depleted as the white puffs
of smoke rise over the green.

The sprig is the early bird in Southern California,
the first to come ; a fine big fellow, robed in black,
brown, and white, with scintillations of violet, gold, and
green. In the old days, or twenty years ago, before
California was invested, I have seen the waters of the
lagoons covered with them, while the adjacent lands
and mounds would be white with cranes and geese.
In those days the lagoons were no man's land ; duck
clubs were unknown, and there was good shooting in a
little lake south of Raymond Hill, Pasadena, in the foot-
hills after a rain, not to speak of the reservoirs. Then

5 6 Life in the Open

the irrigation ditches were alive with game, and it was a
question on some ranches in the San Joaquin how to
drive the geese off, so regardless were they of the
rights of man.

This has all changed : almost every foot of good
duck shooting in Los Angeles County, and from Santa
Monica to Laguna, is taken by private clubs ; were this
not so, every duck and goose on the coast would be killed
off by the pot-hunter, the running mate of the man who
dynamites trout streams. As it is, the birds are pro-
tected, and it is not difficult for gentlemen to obtain
access to the shooting privileges of some of the clubs
along shore. Sport is not alone the object ; the birds
are conserved, protected, and fed, and intelligent laws
devised for the conduct of the sport.

While we are digressing, white spots are coming
up the channel of the slough, and you see the king of
all ducks the canvas-back. The first one I ever shot
from a blind in the Chesapeake Bay gave me the duck
fever ; it was not the bird, but the fact that a flock of
canvas-backs and others covering acres, so it seemed,
came swimming around a turn, out into the bay, so
that when I sprang to my feet that I might not commit
murder on the high seas, the air was filled with climb-
ing forms.

On they come straight for the decoys, and as the
white puff drifts away, I see the canvas-back lying
among them, while the rest of the flock are whirling
away seaward.

Water Fowl 57

The sportsman will find nearly all the ducks of the
East along shore in Southern California : the mallard,
gadwall, baldpate, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal,
cinnamon teal, spoonbill, sprig, wood duck, red-head,
canvas-back, wing widgeon, burfle-head, American
scooter, white-winged scooter, surf-scooter, and ruddy
duck, some of which, as we might say of crow, are
more pleasing to the eye than the stomach. Of geese
there are the lesser snow goose, greater snow goose,
American white-fronted goose, Canada goose, Hutch-
in's goose, black brant, and trumpeter swan.

There is a constant coming in, on this splendid
shooting ground. Here is the cinnamon teal with beau-
tiful colouring ; its gray wings striking the air like
whips, its bars of celestial blue, its velvet beak blazing
like a jewel, the humming-bird of the duck tribe. It
is one of the commonest of Southern California ducks,
found along shore all summer, spring, and fall, going
farther south in midwinter. In May, its nest and
eggs may be found in many of the protected lagoons.
How far this fine bird goes to the south is not known,
but it is seen in Central America in February, and is
one of the most attractive of its kind. To see it pad-
dling in some snug harbour, shut in by tules, its tints
blazing in the sunlight, is a picture too beautiful to
always interrupt when there is other game to be had.

The mallard is a favourite duck of the people, and
one of the cleverest. It comes up the little channel, ap-
proaches the decoy, then has a presentiment (surely it

5 g Life in the Open

sees nothing), and then literally shoots up through the air
in a climb into the empyrean. I shall never forget my
first experience with this manoeuvre. I sat and looked
in sheer wonderment, and when my old darkey com-
panion, who lived in Hampton, on the creek, asked me
why I didn't fire, why, I gave it up. In the old days
these birds could be seen in large numbers in all the
lagoons along shore, becoming rarer and wilder as the
country became settled, and towns and fantastic cities
rose in a night in the lagunas and swamps that once
knew them well.

The commonest bag along shore is the green-
winged teal. No one can watch its flight, its dash and
swiftness, without becoming enamoured with it as a
game bird. I have seen a flock whizzing along, have
fired and missed, recovering from my surprise only to be
thrown into deeper chagrin and confusion as the same
flock that had dodged my ammunition came whirling
back at me, so near that I threw up my hands, figura-
tively, and let them go. I was not out for murder or
sudden death without an excuse or justification.

The mornings out on the edge of the lagoon are
often cool, but soon the fog creeps away, the sun comes
out, and all the life of the tule appears. Coots make the
acquaintance of your distant decoys. Wilson's snipe
come whirring in and alight near you in the mud, and
the solitary sandpiper flies down from the pasture lands
where it has been feeding to leave its footprints in the
soft mud.

Water Fowl 59

If you are in good luck, while waiting you may see
the least sandpiper, the avocet, and that living colour-
scheme the gallinule creeping in and out among the tall
reeds. In Florida I have often kept this bird as a pet,
it being very amenable to domestication. Few birds
have a more beautiful or more expressive eye than this
gentle creature.

If the sportsman finds some section of the country
not a preserve and unfrequented, he will see many old
friends of the East. A few years ago I could count
scores of herons in the country back of Playa del Rey,
splashes of white against the green ; and once I hunted
a flock of the snowy herons for hours in this lagoon. I
crept over the dunes, edging my way along, and watched
them feeding around a little island in the swamp, with
sentinels posted. But the finest bird is the sand-hill
crane that may be seen in the Centinela hills, and I
have seen it in the Puente hills south of Pasadena.
This is the bird that makes the best displays spring
and fall along the Sierra Madre. Wandering along
the low region that receives the seepage of the hills
you may see the spotted sandpiper, the black-bellied
plover, and in the wet meadows, where the lush alfalfa
stands, hear the flute-like cry of the killdeer with its
ventriloquistic quality coming down the wind. The
mountain and snowy plover are not strangers ; and on
the highlands or mesas, a few miles from the sea, the
long-billed curlew is not uncommon. I located a large
flock of these birds on the mesa a mile back from the

6o Life in the Open

sea and north of Santa Monica some years ago, and
watched them for weeks. By keeping behind my horse
and working him on the flock in a circle, I approached
so near that I could see their every move. They were
feeding on grasshoppers.

While the geese are not so common as in the old
times, the grain fields of Centinela and others in ex-
posed positions are still raided at night by the lesser
snow goose. You may walk along the shore in the
afternoon and see the white platoons far out on the
water, surrounded by ducks ; and if you have patience,
and the moon is bright, may see them coming in to de-
vastate your alfalfa patch, or to spend the night in a
revelry in your barley fields. Then there is the white-
fronted goose. I found a little laguna made by the
rains near the Mission hills some years ago, frequented
by the Canada goose. The country near by was open
and planted to barley, and when the birds had surfeited
themselves, they would rise and come wheeling along,
dropping down near the blind where I lay concealed. I
found at first they paid little attention to my horse,
which I left under a tree, and I tried to work up to them
mounted, but they saw the trick at once.

I reached the lake one winter morning when the fog
was thick and heavy. The hills were green as emeralds,
and the drenching rains had brought out the alfileria
and burr clover with a host of flowers that grew down to
the very edge of the little laguna. I rode up to a low
hill and looked over from the saddle ; the soft verdure


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Water Fowl 61

that was ordinarily a floral coat of many colours was
white with these fine birds. I crept around to a little
canon or wash, and, giving my clever horse the word, he
charged them at a pace that brought me into the very
heart of the flock. If the little lake had been blown up
the effect could not have been more electrical, as the
geese seemed to rise directly into the air with splendid
reaches, while others, as though demoralised, swept
around me like an aureola as I sat in the saddle finger-
ing the trigger and resisting the temptation that every
pot-hunter embraces. Then I took my horse some dis-
tance off and hid in a brush heap from which I watched
others come in graceful alignment a splendid specta-
cle. Suddenly seeing the little silver-faced lagoon,
perhaps a thousand feet below them, nestled in the
green, they went to pieces literally, and tumbling down
out of the heavens, to alight with grace and dignity

Here, too, is Hutchin's goose, a clever bird. All
these birds present an interesting spectacle in their
great migrations along the Sierras, where they are often
picked off with the rifle, which, to my mind, not being
in the goose business, is one of the really sportsmanlike
and legitimate methods for its taking off. Game itself
is but one feature of this sport ; the perfect days, the
grand vistas of mountains and mesa, the hills, the sand
dunes, and the roar of the distant sea as it piles on the
sand beyond the lagoon, all tend to add to the charm of
life along the winding lagoons of Southern California.


Chapter V

Fox-Hunting in California

WHEN the scarlet berries of the Heteromeles
begin to fill and glisten in the sun, when
the long-pointed aromatic leaves of the
eucalyptus hang listless in the drowsy air, you may know
that summer in Southern California is on the wane. Up
to August, in the valleys the days have been clear and
warm ; in the afternoon a constant breeze blowing from
the sea ; the nights refreshing and cool. There has
been no summer humidity, no enervating days that hold
'on the Eastern coast. Nearly all June and July a night
fog has bathed the verdure and left glistening drops in
the morning sun, and imparted to the air a resonance
and tang that is delightful.

The greens of winter have melted into brown ; the
lower hills are rich in tones of russet and umber, or
where the barley has grown a golden gray. The fox-
tail grass that has rippled in the sun in rivers of green
has turned to red or blue in its evolution to gleaming
gold. Down the valleys great patches of vivid green


66 Life in the Open

are seen, the vineyards staggering under their burdens
of grape, the orange groves, filled with half-grown fruit,
have taken on a deeper tint, and the blaze of poppies of
the highlands has been swept away. The chorizanthe,
with its tender lavender hues, and numbers of summer
flowers appear in wash and meadow. The sides of the
little cafions pale in the blooming of wild buckwheat,
and the bloom of the white sage welcomes the bees and
countless insects along the range. On the sides of the
arroyos the deep orange trumpet of the mimulus makes
a flash of colour, and here and there a green sumach
is overgrown by the deep red panicles of the wild

In the cafions clumps of wild roses have taken on a
new and tender green, and the single petalled flowers
that in spring filled the air with sweetness have gone.
Climbing up to and over the cottonwoods, willows, and
sycamores the wild grape has formed a dense maze that
reaches from tree to tree, the highway of the wood-rat,
whose ponderous nest of leaves and brush encompasses
the trunks of live oaks on the ground.

The summer wind has died down, the days are warm,
the nights cool. Smoke rises high in air, vagrant dust
spouts hang undecided in the valleys, and menacing,
white domelike clouds rise thousands of feet above the
wall of the Sierras, telling of the desert. The face
of the land changes as the days drag along ; the hills
become grayer, the fiery yellow of the dodder melts into
brown, and the spiked seed-pods of chilocothe hang on

Fox-Hunting in California 67

the cactus, half covering the brilliant, pinkish yellow
flowers, and in the washes down by Sunny Slope, and in
the open, yellow gourds lie ripening in the sun.

It is late in September ; a yellow diaphanous haze
fills the drowsy air, and the colours of canon and
mountain are intensified. The front range is a light,
hazy blue. Over the divide the second range takes on
a deeper tone, while the tip of some back and distant
peak is purple ; the entire range a maze of delicate
tints, as though a great tourmalin lay glistening in
the sun.

The cork oaks and pines pipe fairy music in the
drowsy air and the canon streams run low, here and
there dry or just moist enough to show the track of
some dainty footprint, quail, wood-rat, or snail.

It is at this time, the period of dolce far niente in
Southern California, that the thoughts of hunters turn
to game. There has been no rain since May, per-
chance, but suddenly at night comes a gentle fall.
The great, white cloud mountains from the desert have
been blown over into the valleys of delight, and the
first rain has fallen. It is out of season, not normal,
and has no significance. Hardly a seed responds, and
it is just sufficient to lay the dust, to soften the sand in
the arroyos and canons, just enough to hold the scent of
the little gray and red fox as he steals along the washes
in search of quail or rabbit.

This explains your presence in the arroyo early
in the morning, while the sun is climbing over the

68 Life in the Open

distant mountains, sending shafts of fiery red into the
deep blue and purple canons. The washes of the canon
are almost dry ; only stepping-stones of rock tel
story of a winter stream ; but that the water is flowing
along beneath the surface, the cottonwoods, willows,
great brakes, and tall grasses suggest.

The hounds, followed by the hunt, have wound
down a little trail into the gulch, where they spread out
and cover the stream and its branches. O-o-o-o ! rises
the deep silvery sound floating through the trees;
O-(HH> ! then faster, and the hounds stop a moment
before several plastic impressions in the sands, and
break into a volley of resonant bays Oou, Oou, (9-0-0 that
are carried far into the brush ; now along the sandy
reaches, up over mimic sand dunes, down into small
pools where windrows of shining mica lie like gold, up
the bare side of the cafton, into great masses of brakes
and ferns, startling a bevy of quail, old and young, that
rush away with loud whir, whir, whir of wings. Louder
the deep tones rise, culminating in the ecstasy of melo-
dious sounds, and the horses are rushed through the
underbrush to find the pack leaping about an old oak
up whose sides trail a mass of green the wild grape of
the arroyo. The dogs are looking upward ; some at
the foot of the tree, vainly trying to leap into it, others
farther off eying the branches with eagerness, occa-
sionally letting out a long, plaintive note that is borne
far away through the drowsy air.

I had followed the fox in Southern California before,

Fox-Hunting in California 69

so kept my eye on the wild grape where it fell over and
covered the limb of a sycamore. As I looked, out from
among the long broad leaves I saw a small, black-gray
face, a pointed muzzle, and big ears. It was Reynard,
and in defiance of any Eastern or English code of fox
ethics, he was in the tree-top very much at home,
embowered with the grape, and under a canopy of
light-green mistletoe. The dogs had not discovered
him ; they were still playing on the accuracy of their
scent. Then some one lifted an old hound into the
tree and the dog began to pick his way upward. Any
one who has never seen a tree-climbing hound will
hardly believe how high a clever and eager dog will go
in a slanting oak or sycamore. This hound felt his
way up and literally bayed the fox from its arboreal
cover. Out it sprang, in full sight of the hounds that
went baying mad ; it ran along the grape highway, as
nimbly as a wood-rat, leaped into the sycamore, out
upon a long branch to plunge down the vines, and as
quick as a beam of light, dropped into the chaparral
and disappeared with the hounds in full cry.

It was my good luck to fall into line directly behind
the hounds and I saw the fox take an oak. It did not
spring, but deliberately shinned up the small trunk,
reaching a limb upon which it swung, then leaped into
the thick branches and ran from tree to tree with a
speed with which I could not keep up, owing to the
thickness of the trees, reached the opposite side of the
arroyo, and from a small sycamore sprang into the

;o Life in the Open

underbrush. Directed by me the hounds soon took the
trail and followed the fox for half a mile along the edge
of the bluff ; now under scrub oaks, out by great clumps
of Heteromeles, whose berries were swelling in the sun,
then passing down a little side cafion it made for the
main branch, and went up and over the ridge, to be fol-
lowed by the baying of the hounds.

The hunt was forced to go around, and after a long
ride through the chaparral came upon the pack. They
had run the fox up into the thick branches of a "holly,"
where, not five feet out of reach, this diminutive Rey-
nard sat snarling and growling at them, to make a
brave jump and carry the hunt a hundred yards, where
on the edge of the cliff it was caught, carrying one of
the dogs over into the green abyss, rolling down, fol-
lowed by the baying, yelping pack and the hunters,
who, dismounting, slid down into the green to secure
the brush, which was presented to the lady of the hunt
whose plucky riding had commended itself.

The game was hardly half as large as the ordinary
fox of the East, and known as the coast fox ; found all
along the Californian shores and on all the islands ;
ranging from Costa Rica to the north-west, varying in
appearance in seasons and in localities. The tail is about
the length of the body in the average animal. I have
seen a specimen in the mountains of Santa Catalina
where it was a splendid ornament. The tail has a black
stripe above, and the fur of the body is dark, even
almost black above and reddish below, with variations




Fox-Hunting in California 7 i

in colour. The sides of the muzzle and the chin are
black, which gives the fox the appearance of a raccoon
and withal a very pleasant face. It has a large head,
quite as large in some instances as that of the gray fox,
but in habit the California fox is entirely different. The
gray and the red fox are runners, while Reynard of Cali-
fornia rarely makes a very long run, and always takes to
trees when hard pressed, leaping into them when it can,
" shinning " up when it cannot. I have watched these
foxes at night by the light of the moon, when they
thought they were chased by a coyote. They went
up the straight trunk of an orange tree by this process,
" hitching along," embracing the tree like a cat, and
once on a limb reaching the others and the top of the
tree in a marvellously short space of time.

I once kept two foxes as pets. A paisano brought
them to me and said that they were tame, but I learned
later that one bit him eight or ten times on the way
down from the mountain. I fastened them to a tree as
I would dogs, and invariably found them in the tree-top
in the morning. In the arroyo the fox lives in the
thick masses of vine during the day, makes his den in

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Online LibraryCharles Frederick HolderLife in the open; sport with rod, gun, horse, and hound in southern California → online text (page 4 of 21)