Reflections from the field

Spring may be the most welcome season, but fall is my favorite time of the year. Fall never fails. For me, and I know for many others who enjoy the outdoors, fall is the season when many lasting memories are made.

What hunter can’t recall their first bird, their dog’s first retrieve or the warmth of the afternoon sun on a landscape punctuated by the splashy hues of autumn? Such events are repeated over and over again, witnessed by an audience of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters all across our state.

The sounds of autumn are often as memorable as the sights. From the whistling of duck wings, the thunderous rise of thousands of geese from a stubble field to the chuckling of sharptailed grouse and the unmistakable cackling of a rooster pheasant. Autumn has it all.

For me the memories are many. They are for other people, too. Times change. The landscape changes, but the wonderful memories of autumns past provide energy and incentive and the inner desire to experience it all over again.

I remember my grandfather trekking over uneven prairie with shotgun in hand. We were hunting sharptailed grouse. I was young, he was old and I was concerned about him straining too much or, worse yet, stumbling and falling and injuring himself. When the latter happened I was there to witness it. His reflexes were too slow to break the fall and he struck the ground with a thud I can still hear today.

As I went over to help him up, in reality to check for broken bones, he raised up on one knee. Then, using his shotgun as a crutch, rose to his feet. I handed him his old crumpled hunting hat which he slapped against his leg and then planted back on his gray hair. He wasn’t hurt. He was embarrassed.

Without so much as a reference to his hard fall, he looked at me and said, “They are in the bushes. Gotta be in the bushes.”

I set out on a path in a nearly direct line back to the vehicle, hoping to shorten the distance for my grandfather to walk over reasonably smooth ground. Having spent many years in the field, originally for prairie chickens and in latter years for sharptails, he veered from my chosen path. He set his compass toward a distance cluster of Russian olive bushes. I stopped to watch.

Sure enough, just as he said they would be, a covey of sharptails jumped from beneath the shade of the bushes. I watched him raise his old pump shotgun in what seemed to be slow motion. Two shots and two grouse. He ambled over to where the grouse had fallen, picked them up and then walked slowly over to me.

I congratulated him on his fine marksmanship. Without saying anything, he handed me the pair of grouse which I slipped into my hunting vest for the walk back to the vehicle. We had one barbed-wire fence to cross. I quickly slid under. My grandfather handed me his shotgun and, despite my help, fell hard while trying to step over the fence.

Again I thought something had to be broken. He groaned slightly while rolling over to get up, reached to take his shotgun out of my hand and said, “If they’re not in the grass, they’re in the trees.”

That was the last time grandpa ever fired his shotgun. It is an autumn memory that I will never forget.