Something we hunters have in common is a deep fondness for hunting tradition and all its trappings. How many of us do you know who wax nostalgic about the good old days and carry their father’s gun or knife or other hunting heirloom passed down from a recent ancestor that not only anchors the original owner to the present day, but its current caretaker to the past?
Perhaps tradition is an action you partake in “religiously” after every hunt, cleaning granddad’s old shotgun, preserving it for future generations. Maybe you pour a shot of the old man’s favorite drink to toast him and the good times while you travel into the future to create more of that intoxicating nostalgia.
Perhaps tradition is all of these things and a place: an old farm still holding out when everywhere nearby has been subdivided and developed; a special location by anyone’s standards but made more so with help of a long-gone birddog who worked her magic on that untilled corner one October and made for one of the best days you can recall. You try to return there once a season to honor the dog to see if you can spark memories that photos fail to conjure.
It’s a common theme in hunting, one I suspect that goes deeper than our immediate family and as far as our DNA. I have no hunting background, no family members who hunt, no mentors to show me the right and wrong way to do things, yet since the age of 14 I knew hunting was something I had to do. I really had no choice in the matter. A fish needs to swim, and I had to hunt. What a powerful revelation that was; it provided a compass point that I have followed loyally ever since. Old guns, old books, and old magazines held my attention when I wasn’t following a dog through the thickets. I used to think it was the lack of hunting tradition in my family that made me so hungry for these relics of bygone days. Friends who were gifted their father’s guns always made me slightly jealous. In response, I began searching for special guns with a history all unto their own as if I could vicariously share in that timeline.
Old American-made treasures that were well constructed yet beaten and worn past any collector’s value. Parkers with evidence of abuse and buggered screws when some well-meaning person botched a restoration project. Beautifully plain Fox Sterlingworths passed down to a youngster who required a shorter length of pull, the last few inches of the buttstock amputated so this kid could get a good start in his sporting life.
I found all the disfigurements and blemishes profound, each mark claiming some story that I would never know. But after 25 years of chasing dogs and birds I am starting to notice my own history and traditions taking form. Guns that came unblemished from the factory, once completely boring and uninteresting, now carry memories from my stories in the field. That plain as mud Silver Pigeon has a few scrapes and scuffs from a prairie hunt in Montana when my long-gone Gordon setter, Guff, busted the first covey of sharptails I had ever seen. I can hear their clucking laughter every time I wax the barbwire gouges on the Italian gun’s otherwise plain stock.
When I see the dings in my Benelli’s action I always cringe at the memory of sliding down the side of an icy mountain while trying to move closer to a covey of sooty grouse that were feeding on grasshoppers laying stunned and sluggish on top of freshly fallen September high country snow. The list goes on and on, perhaps the greatest totem of tradition I have is my old kangaroo leather lanyard and buffalo horn whistle whose tone has called every birddog I have ever owned on every hunt I have ever partaken in. It carries two leg bands on it, one from a game farm pheasant that was my first kill as a 14-year-old beginner. The other from a snow goose that mysteriously flew directly to me while I hunted on my 30th birthday.
I could spend pages describing cherished pieces of equipment that I have hunted with over the years. I bet you could too. Maybe that’s why tough, well-built gear is so important, assembled with thought and strength to last long enough to inspire nostalgia in our hearts and anchor us both in the past and the future when the next caretaker studies the stories chronicled in the patina.
Mr. Thompson is a writer, artist and knife maker who lives in the Cascade Foothills with his English Setter, Gordon Setter and two Labs. Visit his website at https://www.uplandart.com/ or his Instagram page @upland_ish.
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