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First Generation Heirlooms

This article appears in the July-August 2001 issue of Quail Unlimited Magazine

Green thumb. It's an endearing term for a special talent and chances are that you know someone to whom it applies. Chances are about the same that you're aware of its distinctive quality: you either have one or you don't.

Hunting traditions, at least for me, hold the same distinction. There are those among us who carry shotguns that belonged to their father's father while others gather at the same lodge on the same day every year, just as they have since their memory gained purchase. Such customs in my family are limited to the opening day of dove season when I get together with my grandfather, one or both of his sons, and a cousin. It's a wonderful occasion and I regret that I didn't start hunting at an earlier age so that I'd have a few more memories filed away. But the hunting tradition in my immediate family is a rather shallow pool, due not to objection or disdain but rather a lack of interest. In fact, green thumbs are more common than crack wingshots. No reason for despair, however. With a certain degree of effort, a diligent individual can cultivate the ability to at least keep a plant alive. Flourish? Well, maybe not. But cultivation and tradition are primarily about surviving from one generation to the next. And with a little forethought, I may yet end up with a handful of tokens to pass on to Generation Z.

Customs, traditions, and keepsakes all have a beginning. The double gun with the tarnished metal and ticked stock, the hunting knife painted with the blood of many birds, and the felt hat made soft by hand and hair were all brand spanking new at some point in time. Or almost brand spanking new. My Remington 870 Wingmaster, an old standby for nearly every type of feathered game, came from a pawnshop and was probably left there when some Billy Bob figured out it was made for left-handed shooters. Judging from the wear on the carrier, it hadn't been fired more than a couple of times when I stumbled into it. I bargained the storeowner down to $310 and walked away with my first shotgun. Since that day, I've put a few character scratches on the stock and chiseled a few stories into my memory. First gobbler, first duck, first double on a covey rise, first bird shot over my first bird dog. With a touch of good fortune, someone will add a few more firsts at the next turn in the road.

Some things don't weather the hands of time with the same fortitude as wood and metal. Take my favorite game belt, an extra-fancy $13 model I picked up at Wal-Mart. Made of some unspecified fabric blend, the side pouches became so picked from briars after a couple of seasons that I had to reverse them. The nylon webbing belt that originally held these pockets collapsed under the weight of a box of shells and a few birds, so I replaced it with a nice Filson leather model, giving the apparatus as a whole quite a contrast in workmanship. With a little saddle soap, the leather belt may survive until I am gone, but the pouches and the game bag will likely have holes worn clean through, eliminating their functionality. From an appearance standpoint, they are already a chore to look at.

Although it doesn't fall under the specific category of hunting equipment, I'm fortunate enough to have this column and various appearances in other sporting publications for future Colemans to read. Even if the managing editors hadn't been so kind, I'd have written this down and stored it in a notebook or, caving to modern convenience, on a floppy disk. You needn't write with the eloquence of William Shakespeare or the volume of Stephen King to preserve the important things so that they speak after your voice is silent. A journal is a great beginning. When you're a kid, it's called a diary and when you're old, it's referred to as your memoirs, but by any name they are words strung together to tell a story of another time and place. Descriptions of dogs and the odd things they do, stories about good friends who shared a day or two in the field. Candid talk about the issues of today that may impact the hunters of tomorrow. Tales like these fill the anthologies of Archibald Rutledge and Havilah Babcock and provide hours of fireside entertainment for hunters year after year. Imagine the added merit if these tales were written by someone of your own blood.

When I read Rutledge and others of his time, I can't help but notice differences in hunting seasons and bag limits. They regularly took deer months after our season ends and shot hen turkeys. Of course, Rutledge also wrote that it was illegal in some places to call turkeys. But times were different, and I have no doubt that those men stayed well within the bounds of game laws and accepted ethics. Times have changed, and they will change again. Your great-great grandchildren may delight in reading about the copious limits of dove and duck that we enjoy. They may yearn for the four-month deer season and the opportunity to hunt quail on Thanksgiving Day. On the other side of that coin, if we are diligent in our stewardship of land and game they may find our limits paltry and our seasons brief.

"Kodak Moment" is a popular phrase these days and it applies to crusty old hunters as much as it does to proud new parents. Recently, I saw an aged black and white photograph of the well-known wingshooting author George Bird Evans. He stood in knee-high laced boots, side-by-side broken over his left arm, proudly holding a brace of partridge. But beyond the boots and gun, and more than the hat cocked mischievously to one side and the shirt collar buttoned unusually high on his neck, it was George Evans' face that caught my eye. All of the pictures I'd ever seen of him showed a man clearly in the winter of his life, wisened but weathered by the years. Here he was, barely out of his teens. Who knew what lay ahead? Judging from his sly grin, maybe he did.

I don't carry a camera on every hunt, mainly because when I do I feel obligated to make use of it at the expense of shooting time, but several times a year I make it a point to snap a few shots of my dog and my hunting companions. It takes a dose of discipline for me, but writing the names and dates on the back will be much appreciated by those who look at them when the paper is creased and the color has faded. Photos from the past tend to turn up in odd places, often far from any identification. Ease the curiosity of the person who uncovers one by leaving a detail or two.

A few years back, the Orvis Company manufactured a cotton canvas hunting jacket that I believe they called the Sidelock. I should be more certain of the name, but those catalogs are long gone and there is no designation on the collar tag. When they discontinued the line, I picked one up in a clearance sale in what ranks as one of my all-time best bargains. The coat is comfortable, functional, and durable; it's everything but waterproof, which is a moot feature for a quail hunter. When my Brittany was younger, he took a liking to the pocket flaps, and they remain frayed to this day. More character. I've heard of hunters who bury their bird dogs wrapped in jackets such as this one. When that day comes, I will have a one tough decision.

Gun cases, hunting vests, waxed cotton hats, folding field knives, shell casings from a first kill. All of these will hold appeal, so be a pack rat. Stuff an old trunk full of your worn out gear and turn it into a treasure chest for a young man or woman. Someone will value that dusty duck call or supersoft pair of shooting gloves. If you can't resist the urge to discard, throw away the boxes and the wrappers. But hang on to the receipts.

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