Opening Day
 
   By Tom Word
 
 
Opening Day—two words to bring unbridled joy to a boy, and to make a man, no matter how old, a boy again for a day.  Opening Day—a phrase like a firecracker, a Roman candle, a Silver Salute for the soul.
I first felt the thrill of Opening Day at age twelve when I woke September 1 to the first day of squirrel season.  For a year I’d saved my pay from sweeping my father’s law office to buy a 20-guage Iver Johnson single shot ($12.95).  Before dawn I was under a nut-laden hickory tree waiting for the quarry to arrive leaping limb to limb through the oak tops of our small farm’s woodlot.  By nine I had two squirrels and a hundred chigger bites, my dues for admission to the squirrel hunting fraternity.  (I paid those dues every squirrel season opener thereafter.)
To wake before dawn on Opening Day sent a surge of excitement through me that only a country boy knows, but that every country boy knows.  On Opening Day the possibility for adventure seems limitless.
Fast-forward through high school, college (as a day student at Virginia Tech while I operated the farm—my father had died in a car crash when I was fifteen), and law school. Opening Day now was for rabbit and quail, celebrated at Danville, Virginia, with friends Bill Anderson  ( an assistant prosecutor and today a judge) and Fred Leggett (manager of the Danville Belk-Leggett store).  In the mornings we followed Bill’s beagle pack behind Hackberry Church at Sutherland; in the afternoons we hunted quail on Fred’s farm in a long bend of the Dan River.  Bill and Fred were setter men, and Fred gave me a pup out of Jamie Burgess’ Hillsite line.  That was almost fifty years ago, and I have not been without a setter since.
Fred’s farm was laden with lespedeza (thanks to President Eisenhower’s Federal Land Bank), and the quail love it.  Bill was already enamored of field trials, and Fred’s farm was the grounds for the Carolina-Virginia Field Trial Club whose spring stake was patronized by the major circuit all-age handlers on their way home to the Deep South from the English Setter Club’s trial.   Clarence Edwards of The Haberdasher fame was the club’s president. Today the farm hosts the Virginia Amateur and many other field trial clubs, thanks to Fred’s generocity.
I was starting practice in Richmond as the eighth lawyer with McGuire, Eggleston, Bocock & Woods (now McGuireWoods with 900 lawyers).  Among my fellow lawyers were Rosewell Page III and Sam Kerr.  We three celebrated several Opening Days in Sam’s native Appomattox where the State Forest held many five-acre game openings, each holding a covey or two.  For two years in a row, we found twenty-four coveys on Opening Day and again on the season’s second day.  Rosie had Bob, the bark-on-point setter he’d trained while in law school in Charlottesville, Sam had two setters, and I had Duke, son of my first setter Pat (named for my bride) that Fred Leggett had given me.  They were a lethal crew in a halcyon time when Virginia seemed smothered in quail, the mid and late 1960s.
A second and earlier Opening Day had found its way onto my calendar—grouse opening day.  We celebrated it in Highland County on Virginia’s border with West Virginia.  Then Rosie and I discovered West Virginia’s even earlier grouse opener and invaded Pocahontas and Greenbrier Counties in October.  The Alleghenies were ablaze and the grouse were abundant.  Every roadside hollow in the Monongahela National Forest, eight hundred thousand welcoming acres, beckoned us and our car-trunk hauled setters.  As a bonus we often met migrating woodcock on their way west and then south to their Louisiana winter quarters.  
In 1973 I met Joe Prince and Denny Poole of Sussex County, Virginia.  Thereafter, my quail opener was celebrated at Stony Creek.  Joe, a major grain and peanut farmer, was a six-day-a-week quail hunter, and Denny, his sidekick, served as building inspector for the county.  It was really just cover for his true profession, covey scout for what became known at the PP&W Hunt Club.  Two days a week for twenty-five years, Joe, Denny, and I tramped behind pointers and setters after quail, beginning each November on Opening Day.  And on each of those Opening Days, I was a boy again, as filled with wonder as I’d been at age twelve beneath the hickory tree, waiting for the squirrels to arrive for their breakfast of hickory nuts.
Opening Days held so much promise, the promise of another season behind bird dogs in search of coveys roosting in the same old neighborhoods as their ancestors  over centuries.  But quail numbers began to shrink, and the shrinkage accelerated.  Denny kept a notebook in his shirt pocket in which he recorded every bird harvested by the PP&W Club over three decades.  It tells the sad story in precise detail, from dozen-covey days in the 70s to two-covey days in the 90s.  Joe and Denny are dead now, and while my sons and I still keep setters, we do not hunt Virginia’s remnant wild quail, except with a camera.  But Opening Day for grouse is still magic, though their numbers are down too, thanks to the senseless no cutting policy in the National Forests.
May you celebrate Opening Day in good health, and be again for a day a boy.