IN CASE YOU haven’t noticed, the days are shortening and the first little signs of the best season of the year are starting to show up. That would be autumn, fall, if you will, and in case you haven’t noticed, fall is far and away my favorite season.

I know some people will say any leaves turning color now are simply the result of a diseased or injured tree, but I know better. There are a few certain places for me that bear close watch each year come the latter part of August and when I meandered through one of them last weekend, there were bright crimson leaves on a handful of maples that are always among the first to turn.

Maples are probably the most-favored trees in autumn because of the way their blazing red coats stand out among the slightly more drab, rust-colored oaks, and yellow-leaved birch and popple trees.

One large maple draped entirely in bright red is enough to make the day of any self-respecting leaf peeper. There are individual maple trees I have become acquainted with on a first-name basis and always they are among those first ones to show off what will soon be a complete wardrobe of red.

Trees ready to explode in color aren’t the only harbingers of fall. As I paddled my kayak around a favorite duck hunting lake last week, I watched families of wood ducks and mallards dabbling in shallow water.

Though not yet wearing the beautiful coats they will sport as adults, especially during breeding season, they are looking like real ducks now and not like the little balls of fluff they were just a couple of months ago.

I wish I could say the wild rice crop was abundant on the lake I paddled, but like four others I have visited this summer the crop is practically nonexistent. Whether it is a matter of water levels being too high as some would claim, too much rain or not enough rain as others would say or even global warming as still others would name as the culprit, from what I’ve seen, many of our north Wisconsin rice beds will be a total bust this year.

For me that is a real shame, because few things speak of autumn more than a shallow, silt-bottomed lake covered with a mass of golden stalks bending and waving in a late September or early October breeze.

Earlier than usual, most of my perennial plants that were awash in summer color a few weeks ago are now used up, with only a few sagging, faded remnant blossoms still clinging to their stems. Maybe it’s because of the unusually hot summer we’ve had, prolonged periods of little rain or maybe because I didn’t tend them as diligently as I should have, but my flower beds are not what they should be this far short of actual autumn.

It warms my heart to see more fawns this summer than I have seen in any recent year and in yet another sign that fall will soon be upon us I have spotted, no pun intended, a few of them that are already losing their spots. A bit early, but maybe these were simply healthy young deer that were born on the early side and have prospered on lush foliage for browse all summer.

After a harsh breeding and chick-rearing season last summer, from what I’ve seen, Mother Nature has been kinder this year when it comes to turkey poults and ruffed grouse chicks. There is no doubt in my mind there will be fewer grouse to chase around this season, at least from what I’ve seen or, more accurately, not seen of chicks, but observing a couple broods with young of the year that are flying on strong wings, and gaining size and strength on a daily basis, I have to believe they are close to being ready for fall.

Same with turkeys. Lately, I have been seeing more and more of them, the poults nearly as big as the hens. They, too, seem to have profited from lush plant growth and lots of insects to eat as they have grown and become ready for the stiffer demands of autumn and winter.

All these little things taken together tell me that fall is leaning in on us more every day and for me, that is a wonderful thing. Summer fishing is fun, as is watching spring bring new life to the woods and even winter brings warmth to my life with cold, clear nights when the moon and stars create fields of sparkling diamonds out of open valleys covered with 2 feet of snow.

But it is fall, always fall, that gladdens my heart the most. It is a time for me to look to my favorite shotguns, time to bring them out of their glassed-in case where they have been waiting forlornly, albeit patiently, for lo these many months. Now, they will be hefted by practiced hands and be given a thorough cleaning. 

They will be handled as carefully and lovingly as a newborn baby, patted on well-worn stocks like a favorite retriever, and swung this way and that at imaginary birds that will have to wait until September before becoming real.

And speaking of retrievers, another sure sign of fall is that certain look in their eyes, the extra spring in their steps and their excited prancing gait as they head for the woods for practice games, much as football teams get ready for the real schedule with preseason contests.

The dogs know, oh, do they know, that the woods have a different smell to them as fall closes in. They go about their business with a new urgency, with a new tilt to their head. No one needs to tell them what lies ahead; they know.

It is no different with we humans. Whether hunters, gatherers or just simply lookers, we know that the season is about to change. We know that soon, the forest will be dressed in its finery, the water will chill and a nip in the air will be only a foretaste of what is to come.

We live through three other seasons. We really live when fall arrives. The juices have already started to flow. Soon, very soon, we will really live.