AS I STRUGGLED to choose between grouse and deer hunting with a crossbow late Saturday afternoon, wondering how to fill a fall turkey tag, trap a fisher and shoot some pheasants in the days ahead, the reality of time and its limits hit home.

That glorious month of October is almost gone — stolen again in what seems like the blink of an eye.

The leaves have barely come off the trees, holding longer than most any year I can remember, and we are just one week away from the end of October. 

Like a glimpse of a majestic buck in heavy cover, we hardly get into the hunting routine in autumn’s best month and there it is, gone. As time goes on, every year seems to pass just a little quicker than the last.

People ask how the walleyes or muskies are biting and I’d like to be able to tell them firsthand, but the truth is, the boat is winterized and locked in storage. When you can fish the year around but hunt for only three months, there have to be priorities.

Nothing in autumn beats the hunting conditions of October. It starts with a duck opener, eye-popping leaf color, falling leaves, grouse dispersal and some of the nicest no-snow days of fall. It ends with the best days of the pre-rut period for deer, the pheasant opener, some trapping before freeze-up and frosty mornings in the grouse woods.

Adding to my fall confusion have been a couple of great invitations to go duck hunting now that the divers are down. And the woodcock migration is in full swing, so they are sharing a lot of young aspen and tag alder habitat with the grouse.

The scribbler and a black Lab named Gracie have enjoyed many grouse hunts that were energizing walks at the peak of color, but certainly no peak year from a bird-flushing perspective.

Grouse numbers are still close to the bottom of the cycle, because a 48% increase in spring drumming doesn’t mean much when you are coming off a 13-year low.

The leaves are finally coming down and the visibility is getting better for chasing grouse, which is about three weeks later than a normal year. Then again, what’s normal with today’s bizarre weather patterns?

I’m no expert but it makes sense that a very wet summer/fall period and a lack of cold or frost into mid-October had something to do with that, though length of day is supposed to be the biggest factor for fall color and dropping leaves.

Bird hunting is my favorite fall pastime, both for watching Gracie work scent and the exercise it gives me after months of sitting at a desk or in a boat. This is my season to drop some pounds and get the legs back in shape.

One of the most enjoyable evenings of October came last Tuesday as I sat in a tree waiting for deer, surrounded by maple trees that still held most of their golden leaves. The sights and smells of autumn are exhilarating. 

If you haven’t experienced it, just the smell of freshly fallen leaves in the hardwoods on a crisp autumn morning is like a breath of fresh air. It’s a scent you can’t duplicate any other time of the year.

What tears at me in October are reports of 50-walleye mornings and big crappies hitting in deep water, just as the lakes turn over. The smallmouth bass are schooled and on a feeding frenzy. And then I see a photo of a gorgeous 25-pound tiger muskie that hit a sucker, and imagine how much fun that experience would be.

It won’t be long and we’ll be walking the fields of the Heritage Hunt Club in Laona, chasing pheasants. And I’ve been talking with Gary Ridderbusch about a reunion trip to southern Wisconsin to shoot some pheasants, something we used to do every year about the time the World Series rolled around.

We can travel to Minnesota or South Dakota to shoot three wild roosters a day, or we can get out of town on a trip to southern Wisconsin and still shoot two monster roosters daily that were raised in the Poynette Game Farm and released on expansive state-owned or state-leased lands.

It’s a pretty good option if you are tight on time and money. And it was always a challenging hunt.

Too much to do: too little time to do it all. No sympathy is expected, of course, considering the relative insignificance of these little challenges in the wake of “real problems” like the health care crisis, drug abuse and the deterioration of the traditional American family.

I only mention it because those of us who fish and hunt know that October is the prime month for so many activities that we couldn’t possibly get to them all, let alone do them justice. But it sure is fun trying.

It will be quite a shuffle of time and priorities to get everything in before the fall hunts peak with the nine-day gun deer season, which starts Saturday, Nov. 23.

Get out now, because the glory days of autumn are quickly slipping away.