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Long Ago and Far Away

We were looking at old photos tonight when my lady-love asked about a hunting photo including a Walker hound sharing my corned-beef sandwich. A time long ago — fifty-nine years to be exact — and far away, on the other side of the continent from here. November weather always makes me restless, even these years I no longer am physically capable of going afield. Times like these, I am grateful I started early recording our outings, well before I formalized notes into series of “hunting logs.” The printed words take me back to simpler, happier times.

From a WriteRight spiral notebook, 49 cents.

October 27, 1962 — Earl and I went to St. Johns County where the state leased peanut fields for public dove hunting near two tiny towns named Spuds and Hastings. We saw a man driving a Nash Rambler wearing a suit, white shirt and tie. He folded the front seats flat into a bed, took off his coat and tie, and slept until afternoon. Then he slipped on a camouflage parka made of netting. His white shirt vanished. He sat beside a fence post as the doves began to fly. I got one and Earl got two. I’m pretty sure Rambler man got his limit.

November 17 — Opening Day for wild hogs. We saw no hogs except those shot by others. I killed three squirrels and two armadillos. Earl got two of each….

November 18 — Dawn to 2 p.m. No squirrels. Saw a helluva big tom turkey, but no can shoot — closed season on the Guano. He flew into the oak tree above my head and called his harem to him. Beautiful contrast of weather and terrain.

November 20 — Afternoon hunt, killed a big damn squirrel so full he could hardly walk and still eating off Old San Pablo Road…

November 24 — Up at 3 a.m. to go duck hunting…Ray Stafford, wirephoto operator, arrived; we got to Guano at 4:30, listened to Jim’s tales of the trials of a game warden in the little four-stool café at the boat rental place. Got eighteen of my own decoys now; we set decoys, waited for 7:02 shooting time. Flock of pintails went by early — a giant flock of bluebills. I shot three times, missed. Earl shot twice, missed. Ray didn’t shoot. Moved to a land blind after chasing decoys all over the lake. (Knots on every damn anchor string came undone!) Ducks flared when they saw our boat. Back to dock; a five-mile hunt up the savanna, across a shallow pond and — blowie! — a big buck with four points on one side, broken antler on the other. I heard him trotting on the dirt road and thought: horse. He vanished before we could react. We had buckshot in our guns after we spotted fresh deer tracks and Ray insisted… $3.50 boat and motor rental.

December 1, 1962 — while it’s still fresh in my mind: a damp, overcast, windless day at Lake Butler Game Management Area. Earl, Ray Stafford and I went there deer hunting; we found a lake and a picnic area and boosted Earl atop the women’s outhouse with the Winchester 16-gauge. Ray and I cut into the woods and spooked up five deer. All I could see was white flags. No chance to shoot. Heard Earl shoot, hotfooted back. He was shooting at quail, of all things. Two big deer sneaked behind him. In trees bordering the lake Ray shot a squirrel. Earl shot a squirrel with my Winchester. Deer sign all over — forms, steaming hot droppings, nibbled berry bushes, well-defined game trails; big and plentiful tracks. Heard a turkey gobble; never saw it. We saw two more deer, too far away to shoot. We saw where a dog came down the dirt road. At our car we found female Walker hound. Ate lunch; I shared my three corned-beef sandwiches 50–50 with dog, said, “I’ll swap you a sandwich for a ten-point buck.” Earl chipped in. Dog paid no attention to shooting, howling dogs, hunting horns in distance.

Photo by Ray Stafford

Earl went back to squirrel woods, the dog trailed Ray and me. I waved her ahead. She cast for scent, started barking like she was tied up. I yelled “Go get him!” and, brother, off she went! Opened up sporadically, really got into it when the chase got hot. Off they went to the limit of earshot — and back, Lady driving hard. The deer shifted, dodged — she hesitated between yodels — and Blam! Blam! But they were misses; she ran him this way now. Kerpow! A rifle; a miss. They came on, and on — swerved around us toward Earl. He’d been shooting in the squirrel woods. BamBamBam, like a machine gun. The dog stopped baying. The car horn sounded. Earl was sitting at the picnic table white as a ghost. “Where is he?” we asked. “Over there,” he said. Lady gave a mournful kill bark from the trees. “Sit still,” we said. “When we holler, bring a rope. Relax.”

But it was not to be. In the underbrush, in the failing afternoon light, we found where he came. Three spent 16-gauge sixes lined neatly in a row; the buck passed within ten feet of Earl. The first charge lodged like a solid slug in a tree trunk. We found no blood. Nor other charges wasted on oak.

“I just shot a big granddaddy squirrel,” ran the account. “I was trying to get it in my game bag when I heard a thumpety-thump. It’s that dog again, I think…” Here the story became garbled. “Gun lying beside me. Don’t remember grabbing it… (the deer) was so low to the ground! I thought it was the dog again…”

Only one thing to do. “Go get him!” And off Lady went, singing loud and true. That’s the last we saw of her. I honked my horn to call her back but she stuck to the trail, almost pushed him out once more, but he turned and led her out of earshot. Mist rose on the lake and darkness crept in, and it was over. Hope Lady got home. Wotta day! ($2.25 for gas.)

December 8 — Deer hunting in Osceola with Ray and Earl. Took my new 7mm Remington Magnum for the first time. Had four absolutely clear chances — all does. Cold as biddeybedam. Four sandwiches, soup, hot chocolate, coffee, apples, and cinnamon buns. (Ninety-five cents, gas.)

December 22, 1962 — Deer hunting in Lake Butler. I saw one, couldn’t see antlers. Earl saw a buck too fleetingly for a shot. A lot of deer sign. Came home through Starke; saw a woman in a green dress in a farmyard shoot a pistol twice at a man getting out of a pickup truck. (Gas: $1.80. Ray paid $1.50)

December 29, 1962 — Duck hunting on Guano. Bill Mabry’s camp. No blinds; you cut palm fronds to fit on the boat. We took a point, setting out dekes in good old horseshoe. Somebody spooked about a million coots and ducks mixed. I missed three straight times, then two more. Earl executed a snappy double on chicken-size coots so big he thought they had to be ducks. Then a duck joined the coots. I crippled it using 7 ½s, saw him swimming under water. Bloom! Up he popped: shock waves. About time to go, so we pick up. (Two dollars for gas in the car, seven dollars for boat and motor.)

December 30 — End of duck season. Mabry’s camp. I cut palm fronds for camouflage Saturday. No one around when we got to camp. Other hunters said we should help ourselves, Mabry probably got drunk and was sleeping it off. (They were right.) We got motor, fueled it, got a gas can, loaded boat and shoved off, back to point we used yesterday. Motor cut up until I opened air vent. We set out decoys in a loose horseshoe from the motor-driven boat.

A couple of ducks flared. We cut more fronds. THAT WIND IS COLD! First customer was a ruddy. Next, several coots. Lugging this boat off the mud is work! A while passes…we decide to eat…ruddy ducks swim in, we fire; two dead on water. The rest dive, one makes the mistake of coming up under Earl’s gun about thirty feet away. Three dead. The rest surface far away. We also bagged a hen mallard — one of my decoys…

Boats pole around, coot shooting. Coots fly back and forth, ducks start to swim to our decoys but a motorboat scares them away. Noon end of shooting time arrives. Found out the spare gas can belonged to another guy, but he made no squawk when he saw the size of us who took it. A good end to a miserable season. Earl: 3 ducks, 3 coots, 9 shots. Me: 2 ducks, 3 coots, 10 shots. For the whole dang season, Earl: 6 ducks, 5 coots, 25 shots. Me: 4 ducks, 5 coots, 42 shots. (Seven dollars for boat and motor.)

January 1, 1963 — Earl and I went back to the Mayport woods where we hunted of yore on the motor scooter. Good way to start New Year, doing what we love to do…

January 5, 1963 — Deer hunting. Osceola National Forest. I fired my new rifle at a whiskey bottle. Sounded like a bomb. Earl and I were in one car, Ray Stafford and Don Calfee, Times-Union City Editor in the other. A light spot was Ray down on his knees like he was praying, hoping I left the car keys on a tire like they do in Michigan. His lunch was in my locked car.

But it’s hard to feel humorous as I write this. Mama and Frances are downstairs complaining about all the hunting trips… think I’m running it into the ground. Ray and Don won’t be able to go tomorrow. Don found a beautiful hunting knife at a gut pile for a consolation prize. Rocco Morabito, Journal photographer, says he’ll go. Wonder how that’ll work out?

January 6, 1963 — Last day…Got to Rocco’s early, invited in for coffee while he got ready. Went his way to Osceola, ran low on gas. Depression has evaporated. Rocco is like a breath of fresh air. Hunting with Rocco is a ball, a rollicking experience. Rain, rain, rain. No deer. Saw one big old Russian boar that threatened to charge. No can shoot over here, but I would have fed him a 175-grain 7mm if he charged…Ate ruddy ducks for dinner at home; small but good. (Rocco paid for gas, $3.75.)

January squirrels — North of the Guano. Earl needs a squirrel for a biology project, sends me down a flooded road over protest. I tried calling. Presto! Boom, goes the Winchester; took an hour. Another day saw a pair of pintail drakes sitting in the swamp and two characters cutting palm fronds to sell. Watched wood ducks fly around and sit in the trees. One fox squirrel.

February squirrels — With Don Calfee to Yulee for squirrels. No luck. Don has a dandy Marlin lever-action .22. Day was warm (80 degrees — phew!). Don gave us venison steaks to take home.

Guano: Finally shot a squirrel with my .22. He pitched into the water, floating just beneath the surface when I got there. Hollowpoint expanded to dime-size coming out. I let the woods settle. Drilled a fox squirrel neatly behind the shoulder. Saw an all-black squirrel. Last gray treed. Earl cut down a small tree with his Bowie knife and waved it around like Paul Bunyan trying to get him moving, no luck. Tomorrow is last day of the squirrel season. We won’t be going. It’s over for us.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.