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Because of Dad

By Scott Winston

Dear SITFFR readers. This story is about my dad, Walter Winston, who passed recently. I am sharing it with you as a tribute to him. I was there for his last breath when he was beamed up to heaven. One of the heavenly assignments I gave him in his last cognizant days was to gather up all our past spaniels and scout out upland hunting grounds beyond our wildest dreams… of course so he could take me there when I meet him again someday. In the end, he came out of the depths of his Alzheimer’s disease to offer both my mom and I a tender moment, rubbing our backs and kissing our heads. A true gift from heaven. He was a pure sportsman, an educational leader, an athlete, a tenor, a husband and he was my dad. Enjoy…

I had returned to the Wisconsin woods where I grew up grouse and woodcock hunting with my dad. We hadn’t been bird hunting together on our land near Black River Falls in ages. This is where my good old days were born. Hunting the uplands as a youngster with dad left me with a multitude of fond memories, but these memorable adventures were not only filled with birds in the bag.

Thirty harvest moons had passed since that one bight-blue, color-packed October day when dad and I were gifted with a combination double on a woodcock and a ruffed grouse. The woodcock blasted straight up like a missile through a blazing orange maple while the ruff exploded straight away at the shot and down an old logging road. Since the woodcock was almost caught by hand like a fly ball, our spaniel retrieved the grouse. Just a lad then, I vividly recall starting a tradition with my father which we then practiced for years – aptly titled: “Dancing with Doubles“. Although rare, whenever either one of us or in combination took a double, we literally jumped up and down and danced in circles with our arms wrapped around each other.

While grouse hunting along the creek behind our hunting cabin, a pair of wood ducks flushed back toward the gun when the dog surprised them at the water’s edge. The overhead drake cartwheeled into a nose-dive splash-down, while a second trigger sent the hen crashing through the top of a golden birch and raining leaves on her way through. I believe now that the dancing is what preserved this memory.

Another recollection of this tradition takes dad and I back to the tip of an oak island fronted on both sides with a swamp near our cabin. Misty, our English springer spaniel, flushed a brace of handsome red-phase ruffs, crossing right and left. The shots as I remember now, so many years later, were both wide open over the swamp. I can still see both birds summer-salting into the reeds, both an equal distance from the gun. Jumping up and down, hugging dad in celebration of our success, stands out among my fondest memories of adolescence. Interestingly, in my recollections of our “Dancing with Doubles”, I don’t recall, nor does it matter, who pulled the trigger.

As soon as the hardwoods turn on their autumn colors, my thoughts wonder to my youth and those good old days – a glorious time when game was plentiful in the uplands. My memories are packed with days afield spent with dad. Even in his seventies, he hunted our woods – a hundred acre refuge from the outside world. For years I’d been yearning to return and hunt with my him again. In spirit, I was there with him each fall when he called to share his adventures. Listening to him would jog my memory and we would inevitably reminisce.

Dad and I would leave the big city behind and drive four hours to our hunting cabin in pursuit of woodland game birds with our spaniels. He was the disciplinarian on the weekdays, getting after me for a haircut or to be home on time. However, on those fall weekends he became my best hunting buddy. I can remember being able to talk to him about anything from girls to peer pressure. He would open up and share his experiences as a teenager, mixing in just the right amount of advice for me.

While hunting, I always seemed to do just a little better than dad, even though the odds were stacked against me as a youngster. I know now that he secretly planned it that way – always giving me the best shooting position, the birdiest cover or the first shot. These experiences somehow enabled me to listen and actually hear the wisdom he had to offer – in spite of the fact that he was my father and I was a teenager.

Often our success was a result of planning together. I vividly recall planning the perfect approach with a blocker on a ruffed grouse that had gotten away too many times prior. Just up a small ridge from the creek near our cabin there was a circle of white pines. In the center was a man-eating entanglement of overgrown raspberry vines. The wise ol’ ruff that lived there would run like the wind through the sharp thorns and up the ridge while we followed the dog and the scent straight into a blood-letting morass – which of course slowed our progress. After hearing a familiar, but distant flush and maybe even a chuckle, the best we could manage of this ongoing frustration was to stop and eat any last of the season’s berries. Dad and I joked and nick-named this bird “Ruff Sugar” figuring that he would be one sweet bird in the pot. When we finally got the idea to set up a blocker, a repeat performance sent “Ruff Sugar” straight into the path of an oncoming load of #7s. Sliding across frost covered oak leaves, he came to rest just twenty yards shy of the gun. This bird was one of the tastiest I remember, but I’m not sure if it was due to the raspberry enhanced flavor or the effort that went into this hard earned dinner.

In planning my return trip to the Wisconsin woods from my Colorado prairie home, I found myself as excited to hunt with my dad again as I was to hunt the woodland game birds I had missed all these years. We spent hours on the phone planning our adventure. I read everything on ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting that I could get my hands on, even dusting off Spiller’s Grouse Feathers – a gift from dad.

I was also anxious to get my prairie grouse and pheasant dog into the ruffed grouse and woodcock woods. Mac would be two with quite a bit of training and love invested in him by the time the hardwoods started turning red and orange. Plucking him from an arid climate and sticking his nose into the moist Midwestern hardwoods would give him a snoot full of diversity. Dad hadn’t hunted over a spaniel in years and was looking forward to watching Mac work.

I chose to take my grandmother’s old side by side 20 bore – a Stevens. It had been used by her to shoot ruffed grouse up north in Manitowish Waters. She had given it to dad with explicit instructions for me to have it. My grandmother’s nick-name back in the day was “North Woods Annie Oakley”. At ninety-four, she still enjoyed listening to my hunting stories, especially those where I’d used her old shotgun. Shooting it in the grouse coverts where I grew up hunting would offer a special sentiment and hopefully another story to share with her.

The long drive to the cabin with dad erased the years in between as we became immersed in youthful anticipation of our hunt. We quickly found ourselves in a familiar openness of dialog. The setting couldn’t have been more breathtaking. Most of the leaves were still holding on, with the maples turning first. The vibrant color and fall aromas were intoxicating and fostered a flood of memories. Oh, how I used to relish the beauty of those transitional days before the forest goes into its deep slumber. I couldn’t wait to rediscover our hundred acre woods, now dressed in autumn’s splendor.

As we approached our hunting grounds under a dusking sky, I could no longer contain my excitement. Even before reaching the cabin, I made dad stop at the little creek that pushed through our land. There was just enough time for a quick hunt. I threw on my vest, grabbed a few shells, uncased the little Stevens and called to Mac “Hunt um up”. Dad could only laugh. Even though so many years had passed, I was amazed with the remaining sense of familiarity about the place. Even though Mac had never nosed up a ruffed grouse before, his excited tail told me that he knew exactly what he was looking for. Within minutes we heard our first flush. Dad wanted to block and missed a long passing shot. Wearing a grin, I commiserated, “I’d forgotten how tough it is bushwhacking through the thicket only to find a grouse, but unable to see it, let alone get a shot off”.

Many miles and scratches later without the volume of shooting I recall from my youth and I pondered the notion of my good old days. I questioned whether my recollections had embellished over time or if I was just getting slower. Dad and I did take a few shots, only to be duped by the aerial acrobatics of these little red and brown woods rockets. We even walked enough miles to stumble into a grouse on an open logging road… and we missed! With each miss, trees or thick cover provided a semi-believable excuse. At one point I even prayed for just one bagged bird to prevent a skunking. I finally confessed to dad, “These ruffed grouse are kickin’ my ass”! My only comfort was knowing that I still had several trips planned to hunt the Rosebud Indian Reservation in SD, at Prairie Grouse Haven, where I have been blessed these last years with plenty of prairie chickens.

Woodcock on the other hand presented the opportunity to save face for this hunt. My timing was right as I had planned to be there during the woodcock migration. When I finally found birds, the cover seemed denser and sharper then I remembered. Dad decided to stay back and fix lunch. Somewhere not too far from the cabin, thorns tore an expensive e-collar transmitter from my body – never to be found again. Luckily, Mac transitioned well to the whistle. Bloodied hands did not stop me from pursuing woodcock in a boggy section of earthworm infested woods. I managed to miss a few and even blew a sapling in two before my moment arrived.

Finally, bagging a single woodcock turned out to be a blessing in disguise – reminding me that my good old days were not just about birds in the bag. We pushed through new growth aspen to an edge lined with ancient white pines. The ground felt spongy under foot and the aroma of aging leaves permeated the air. Mac got birdie just about the time my shirt began to stick to my shoulder blades with sweat. Floating almost head-high, up and over a blow down, that dog pounced onto a spread of freshly fallen red maple leaves. Suddenly, the largest woodcock I’d ever seen flushed up from underneath his nose and cut sharply behind us, presenting a shot through the thickness of the young forest. The little Stevens instinctively mounted and swung in a fluid motion that would make my grandmother proud. As the long beaked timber-doodle tumbled onto the soft earth, I was already breathing a sigh of relief at finally putting something in the bag. His faith restored in me, my pup eagerly delivered the bird to hand. We sat there for a long, quiet moment on a carpet of colorful autumn foliage admiring it’s plumage. “Let’s go show grandpa” I enticed.

Bursting through the cabin door, I held out the huge woodcock for the viewing. The look of pure pride that shown so brightly on my father’s face was the same one that I grew up with and one I’ll never forget. As it turns out, the good old days for me is also about the richness of the relationship I had with my father, nurtured through adolescence in the great outdoors. I realized then, that it is “because of dad”, that I hunt and my children consider themselves hunters. So standing in the doorway of our cabin, I smiled and stole a moment to thank God for my dad and all the adults who take kids hunting or introduce someone to the sporting life. There are still plenty of good old days to be had. Out there in the uplands, where the future is full of promise, there is also potential for shaping lives.