1925 – the year this Lefever Nitro Special was manufactured in Ithaca, New York.
2019 – the year the old 12-gauge was still taking pheasants on the wing at 94 years of age.
Maybe the elderly double gun should have been retired from the field and hung on the wall as hunting lodge decoration a few decades ago, but it is still working. This January it is doing duty as my late-season pheasant gun and surprisingly outperforming some much younger guns. Call its nonagenarian entitlement to a few more days of bird hunting the “grandfather clause.”
Photo from allaboutbirds.org
Late season pheasant hunts can test the character of the hunter, his birddog, his resolve, his equipment – and his shotshells. When the temperature at midday refuses to rise above nine degrees, the wind picks up to 15 miles per hour, a mix of crystalline sleet and freezing rain scours a hunter’s face red-raw, and a four-inch accumulation of fresh icy snow clogs the cleats of his boots and packs ice balls between the toes of his dog – those are the times when shotgun actions jam, safeties freeze, triggers are stiff, and the shotshell loads that were “good enough” in the first weeks of the season prove to be not-so-good.
If you do not load your own shotshells for hunting, I offer this advice: buy the best quality factory loads for late season pheasant hunts. By “best quality” I mean shotshells with high-antimony lead shot that is copper or nickel-plated. I recommend standard loads (1 ¼ ounce 12 gauge, 1 1/8 ounce 16 gauge, and 1 ounce 20 gauge). Best quality loads are expensive, $15 to $20 per box. You get what you pay for. You want high performance, you pay for it.
A heavy-beamed, eight-point, big-bodied, thick-necked whitetail buck had been making frequent appearances on my trailcams for two months. Now, he appeared 30 yards away, an easy shot with the rifle.
Hunting stories almost always end with the writer describing the limit of birds in the bag, the size of the antlers on the buck hanging from the pole, the 20-inch smallmouth bass in the net, or the incredible shot that toppled a coyote at four hundred yards. Let me assure you, it ain’t always that way.
All too often we return to camp at day’s end with an empty bird vest, a recollection of the deer’s flagging white tail as it disappeared over the hill, the parted leader and splash of an escaping fish, or an agonizing memory of the easy shot that we somehow missed. A day of hunting or fishing does not have to end with game in our possession to be a rewarding time. Three hours of sitting in a tree stand and quietly observing the flora and fauna of a North Country hardwood forest can be a calming and energizing experience even on the days we do not see a deer. But those gameless days do not make for “riveting copy,” as a newspaper publisher admonished me in my days as a reporter and editor.
The bag limit of birds, the whitetail buck with trophy antlers, the record bass, the amazing rifle shot – those make for riveting copy. But in truth, the day of hunting or fishing that ends in phenomenal success is the exception, not the rule. Maybe that is why we record our stories of those remarkable days, buff and polish them like brightly glazed beer steins, and set them on the shelf where we can see them shine during our darker hours. Maybe that’s why we display those symbols of the hunt that ignite a flash of the joy from days gone by: the antlers hung on the cabin wall, the fish mounted in the den, the pheasant tailfeathers placed in the vase atop the gun safe, the rifle cartridge case suspended in an acrylic block paperweight on the coffee table.
Woodstoves and Decembers go hand-in-hand like peaches and cream, cigars and whiskey, walnut and boiled linseed oil, love and marriage – natural combinations of things that can be good on their own but are all the better for being paired together. Snowy December days can be beautiful in the North Country but many of them, especially the stormy ones, are most beautiful when viewed through a frosty window while seated near a woodstove’s roaring fire, watching the steam rise from wool mittens and leather boots that are ice-covered from a morning walk with the dogs.
Sound asleep beside you, the dogs are also steaming as the clumps of ice in their coats melt away. They may not have your level of appreciation for the aesthetic wonder of a winter storm, but they enjoy the heat of the wood stove every bit as much as you – maybe more. You all make the same spontaneous moans and groans and sighs of contentment as the frozen firewood snaps and pops in the flames, and you are all bathed in the same golden glow shimmering from the glass window of the firebox door. Drowsy happiness.
BLOODED. Not sure when or where I first heard that word applied to an item of hunting or fishing gear, but its meaning was clear. Blooded meant that the piece of gear in question — a rifle, shotgun, bow, knife, rod, hook, lure… — had been successfully used to take game.
You won’t find “blooded” defined that way in The Merriam-Webster Dictionary. But the language of Old Coots has its own peculiar entomology. Hundreds, if not thousands, of words and phrases that are at odds with formal dictionary definitions are woven into the history and traditions of the blood sports. For example: “iron sights” on rifles are not made of iron; “improved” shotgun barrel chokes are tighter, not better; “mending line” does not mean splicing your fly line; “wet flies” are not flies; “still hunting” means walking through the woods.
The Coot dialect, a subset of American English spoken by tribe members who gather in hunting and fishing camps, has its own vocabulary understood only by initiates in the Fraternal Order of the Bullet and Hook and is seldom used in communication with “outsiders.” It’s not “secret” exactly; it’s just comfortingly obscure. We distrust people who do not know that .35 Whelen is bigger than a .35 Remington or that a 16 gauge is smaller than a 12 gauge.
A BRACE of game birds: plural, two wild birds of the same type that have been killed for sport or food; from the Middle English or Old French word brace (brah-say), meaning “arms” hence a pair; a sporting term that dates back to about the year 1400.
A Brace of Woodcock
Walk out of the Nemadji State Forest with a brace of woodcock in your hunting vest and you have reason to feel a bit, well, “cocky.” Based on more than fifty years’ experience hunting nine different species of upland game birds, I proclaim the most difficult bird for the shotgunner to hit on the wing is the woodcock.
The American woodcock (scolopax minor) confusticates bird hunters like no other avian species can. The little brown-and-tan devil makes us rage at our ineptitude with a scattergun, curse at our dogs, throw empty shotshell hulls at the tops of laughing aspen trees. The woodcock erodes our confidence in our ability to hit anything smaller than a moose – a standing moose, not a running one. Our futility in hitting that nasty little bird in flight drives us to despair, makes us drink too much beer at the end of the hunt, and compels us to tell lies about the number of shells we expend to put a brace of birds in the bag.
If you knock down one woodcock for each three shots taken, you are doing better than The Over the Hill Gang on a typical day. If you count five or six empty hulls in your vest pocket for each bird in the bag, don’t feel bad: you’re doing as well as most woodcock hunters and better than many.
Remington Model 700 Mountain Rifle in .30-06 caliber, walnut stock, 3-9x Redfield scope, two-piece leather sling: an ‘old’ rifle from back in the day when coots and their rifles were newly off-the-rack.
Gunsmiths retire. Some of the best ones – master craftsmen who are a blend of artist, metallurgist, woodworker, scientist, ballistician, firearms historian, and avid shooter — labor on and on into their seventies and eighties, probably because we clients plead with them to keep the shop open and continue their excellent quality of workmanship on our guns.
Alas, the march of time is inexorable. The day comes when our gunsmith at last retires and we must bid good-bye to a trusted friend and begin the search for a new smith, enter a strange gun shop with stained felt hat in hand and battered leather case under arm, and make the leap of faith. For an old coot whose favorite rifle has taken more than twenty deer, this is a life transition of no small moment. Not easy to put into a stranger’s hands the steel-and-walnut key that opens the lock to decades of memories.
That is why, on this November’s deer hunt on the high plains of Nebraska, we all listened with empathy and sympathy as one of the Over the Hill Gang shared his “new gunsmith” experience. He needed his scope remounted in different rings (probably lower rings, since we stiff-necked coots develop ever-stiffer and less flexible necks in our sixties), and when he placed his rifle on the counter the new, young gunsmith said:
“My, that’s a nice old rifle!”