My feet are getting dumber, no doubt about it. For the past year or so, they’ve spent far too much time shuffling about on city sidewalks, carpeted floors and smooth lawns. Any major ascents they’ve made have been on elevators and escalators. Under such conditions feet become soft, smug and complacent, and they soon lose any sense of self-reliance. They dumb down.

If you hunt and fish, you need smart feet. You need feet that can look out for themselves … and you, too. You can’t constantly be worrying about what they’re up to. You’re out to bag fish or game, not to babysit a couple of spoiled feet.

Let’s say you’re rushing up the side of a mountain in hopes of getting a shot at an elk before it disappears over a ridge. You can’t be telling your feet, “Watch out for that loose rock, Lefty! Sharp stick ahead, Righty! Hole! Deep hole!”

After all, your feet are a lot closer to the terrain than you are. They should be able to exercise some initiative and make judgments on their own. Nobody wants a dumb bird dog that has to be told every move to make. The same goes for feet.

It makes me a little sad that my feet have started to dumb down. There was a time when I’d put the IQ of my feet up against just about anybody ‘s. They could walk logs, ford streams, leap from rock to rock, follow a game trail, do all the usual stuff without any great supervision from me. But soft living has dumbed them down.

Feet can get dumb before you know it. I have a friend who’s a great hunter and fisherman, but for a while he spent far too much time in New York City. He came out to hunt chukar with me one fall, after his feet had been penned up all year in wing tips. We had no more than started hunting when one of his feet, the left’, not knowing any better, stepped on a rock about the size and shape of a basketball. The rock was right at the top of a slope that slanted sharply down into a creek bottom far below. It started to roll. When the right foot saw that its partner was up on the round rock, it started hopping along after it, trying to get up on the rock, too, so as not to be left behind, and finally did so.

As the rock picked up momentum, neither of those feet had the slightest idea what to do, and my friend had to take charge of them. What he did was to make those feet move really fast so that he might stay upright on the rock and not, fall off and break a whole lot of bones, which was the only other option.

From watching him, one might easily have supposed that he had spent a lifetime practicing the art of rock-rolling, or maybe had even performed in a circus, but he admitted later that this was his first effort, and he hoped his last, and that his success at it was not so much a product of talent as incentive. Mere incentive, however, wasn’t enough. The crash was spectacular. He suffered several compound fractures of his body, injuries so serious in fact that he was scarcely able to hunt another 10 days before going in for repairs. That, of course, is an extreme example of dumb feet, but it, gives you some idea of the mischief of which they are capable.

Perhaps the best intelligence test for feet is skittering, a concept with which all stream fishermen are familiar. For the enlightenment of all others, however, here is how skittering works:

You are fishing a stream. You are wearing hip waders. You have glimpsed signs of serious fish rising on the far side of the stream, just a few feet beyond your casting range. You ease farther out into the current but still can’t quite reach the rising fish. You ease out farther. At this point, the force of the current and the buoyancy of the water combine to cause your feet to start skittering along on the slick boulders of the stream bed. You cannot lift either foot without being swept away. Your cast is still short of the rising fish. At this point smart feet go into a controlled skitter. They skitter you out the necessary distance for you to drop your fly on top of the fish, one of which instantly sucks it in and begins doing aerial acrobatics. Your full attention is now locked on the fish and its antics, and your feet are left to their own devices. They now have to make rapid and complex calculations as to how much freeboard is left in your waders, the force of the current, the increasing buoyancy of the water, the distance to the rapids that will suck you into oblivion, your anxiety level, heart rate, blood pressure, the tension on your line and the appropriate route of retreat. They make subtle adjustments to compensate for all of these factors and slowly begin skittering you back toward shallower water, where you can then net your fish. Skittering demands smart feet.

Although all stream fishermen are familiar with skittering, their spouses may not be, and perhaps it is best to keep them ignorant of that subject. When I first explained the concept of skittering to my wife, she instantly went out and bought me an inflatable fishing vest. She said she had no faith in a person whose feet are smarter than he is. Spouses are an odd lot.

At the moment, I would not trust my feet to skitter properly–they are just too dumb. But they were not always so.

I started educating my feet as soon as I was old enough to run wild over the countryside around our little farm. In those days, it seemed as if the whole earth were carpeted with rusty nails, and stepping on nails and running them into bare feet was a common occurrence among my associates and me. I could have built a small house with all the nails I ran into my feet, which at that early stage of my life were still dumb as the stones they stubbed their toes on.

A rusty nail bites into your foot with a sharp pain, which then fades into a dull, throbbing ache, followed by blood poisoning and possible death. My mother found this degree of torment suffered by her young son to be insufficient. As soon as she detected that I’d run a rusty nail into my foot, she would haul me into the house and add to the torture. She kept a bottle of concentrated liquid fire in the medicine cabinet. I do not recall all the details, but I suppose she first donned an asbestos suit and gloves and then, grasping the bottle of liquid fire with tongs, doused the wound thoroughly. I would then be allowed to ricochet freely about the house and awaken any person who happened to be napping within three miles of our farm. A few such treatments taught my feet to detect a rusty nail at 300 yards. Their education had begun.

Slivers were another important element in the education of my feet. When I was about eight, I ran a huge slab of a sliver into my left foot. From then on, my only mode, of locomotion was the “right-sided hop.” The sliver festered away there for a week or more. My mother came at me repeatedly with a needle, tweezers and her bottle of liquid fire, but she was less strong and less fleet by then, and I could escape-her grasp by means of high-speed hopping.

One Sunday, we went to a loggers picnic. Mom mentioned to one of the loggers that I had a huge sliver in My foot and that I refused to let her operate on it. The logger took out his jack-knife, held a lighted match to the blade and announced to the assembled Picnickers, “I can take out that sliver in nothing flat.”

“Nothing flat” wasn’t quick enough. My first hop toward escape covered a good 10 yards, but it was executed from a dead stop and is hardly worth mentioning, compared with what I accomplished in the next few moments. Observing my flight, a kangaroo would have been embarrassed by its own feeble efforts at hopping. Eventually, some loutish offspring of the loggers ran me down and gleefully hauled me back to the operating table, which by then had been cleared of picnic residue. A crowd soon gathered around the table to observe the operation, there being little entertainment in people’s lives back then. As I recall, the removal of the splinter was relatively painless, obviously a great disappointment to the audience. But then Mom appeared in her asbestos suit with the bottle of liquid fire. She took a couple of bows. The audience broke into applause.

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