When I was in my twenties and first began to hunt around here, the old timers that hung around at Graham & McGuire Sporting Goods, (whose proprietors were known affectionately as Grumpy and Grouchy), did all they could to douse my ardor for the shooting sports. Bob Steffen, who used to hunt quail and pheasants all over Winona County, assured me that the birds were all gone, victims of modern farming practices that eliminated their cover in favor of “a few more stinking bushels of corn.” The quail season had actually closed back in the fifties. And his neighbor down the street, Rip Streater, who had hunted for years across the river in the Delta Fish and Fur Farm, told me the duck hunting was just about played out, not worth getting up in the morning for these days.
I acquired a black lab and a shotgun anyhow, and discovered plenty of pheasant cover out in the Lewiston, Utica, and Altura area, and hunted ducks more or less successfully in the same Delta that Rip had written off. But you had to work for the birds with an energy and faith that surely does tend to play out as the years go by.
Nowadays, I’m with those old guys. I didn’t even buy a duck stamp these last two years and haven’t killed a grouse in at least ten. My boat sits in a garage out in the country, the styrofoam flotation chewed up and scattered on the floor by generations of mice. I suspect those guys I see driving around towing camo painted boats are just going from one end of town to the other, trying to get some use out of them, probably not yet paid for. I hunt deer listlessly, not really wanting the big one I can’t use, and feeling sorry for the cute little ones that are stupid enough to wander by.
But I still chase pheasants with the enthusiasm of youth, if not the nimble foot, and one of the highlights of my autumn is the trip north to LeBlanc’s Rice Creek Hunting Preserve in Little Falls, just north of St. Cloud. My friend Butch Beier and his son Timmy (who own and operate the Ground Round Restaurant) have been making this trip for going on twenty years and the tradition is mellow enough now that I even enjoy the three and a half hour drive north. (We long ago dispensed with the practice of caravanning over disagreements about how long the trip should take. I maintain that a map of Butch’s trip would resemble the diagram of a corn maze, what with the various side trips, pit stops, and shopping detours. He once admitted a tendency to “monkey doodle.” I prefer to set out and push on smartly until the journey is completed.)
We arrived Wednesday noon to be rudely surprised by the weatherman, who had promised sun and a high in the thirties. What we got was twenties, overcast, and a high wind spitting a little snow. That kind of wind and cold makes it hard to stay warm, and worse, difficult to shoot since the hands and the trigger finger, especially, tend to get numb.
A hunting party split between two generations can present difficulties. Butch’s back is bad, and I have a gimpy hip. We favor a very deliberate pace over the rough terrain, asserting that the dogs must work thoroughly or we’ll walk by birds. After being repeatedly urged to hold up, Timmy finally complained, “I can’t stay warm going that slow!”
In any case, it’s hard to keep four dogs moving at a measured pace, as the youngest tends to want to run ahead, which encourages the older ones to hunt faster than ordinarily allowed, (except for Butch’s old dog Maggie, who is going from halt to lame.) Our hunts can always be heard a long way off for the volume of whistling and yelling. It was worse before they invented the magical electric collars.
We all hunt with fairly long 12 gauge shotguns, which will reach out a good distance, and have to caution each other not to get competitive and try to be the first to shoot. One rooster flushed right in front of the three guns, flying steeply up towards getaway range, only to be caught in an accurate three way crossfire at what should have been an optimal range of about thirty-five yards. He came down more feathers than not. I suggested we send it to Butch’s dad, Mel, who always insisted on cleaning his own birds at LeBlanc’s, afraid his might get mixed up with the those of another party guilty of just such gunning practices.
The next morning we awoke to temperatures that had bottomed close to ten degrees and not rebounded much. The windows of the vehicles, plastic dog crates within, were frozen white on the outside with rime, and on the inside from dog breath. (Labradors do have a strong odor.) At least the sun was shining brightly, and the wind had died, and by the time we finished at noon, the weather was about ideal for a November pheasant hunt, a crisp temp in the high twenties with little breeze, just warm enough to allow you to go without a glove on the shooting hand.
In late summer and autumn the sky turns to a shade of blue much warmer than the deeper one of summer and the hot months. That and a brilliant sunlight in November make up for the lack of any bright color in the landscape. Fran thinks I’m nuts, but this is my favorite time of the year.