There was nothing more anticipated than the phone call from downstate…and the invitation to hunt on my first opening day with Uncle Mel.
Ed. Note: Tom Cappell is a veteran shooter, hunter and writer from Missouri whose views on the outdoors and the outdoors industry are thought-provoking and always responsible. His columns have previously appeared on Press Pros, sponsored by Olde English Outfitters, in Tipp City.
By Tom Cappell
My story starts back around June, 1964, during my annual month-long trip to my Uncle Mel’s farm for the summer.
Mowing the hayfield one morning, he flushed a hen pheasant from her nest. Taking the time to stop the tractor and investigate, he found 18 eggs in the clutch.
“We’ll skip a few yards here and she’ll come back and set,” he assured. “That’s probably her second nest this year and they’re better about not leaving them this late. Game birds have an instinct to reproduce that’s pretty strong.
“Besides,” he continued. “That’s the third nest we’ve found in this field. Ought to be good hunting this fall.”
I had just turned fourteen and my mind raced, thinking about whether this would be the year when I could actually carry a shotgun and hunt with Mel on opening day when he invited friends to join him for what he called the “Chinese chicken chase”. Ringneck pheasants were said to have originally descended from China.
“You think I’m old enough to hunt with you on opening day this year?” I blurted out later in the day, after we’d finished the field and pulled the tractor into the shed.
“Maybe?,” he said. “Depends on what your mom says…and how you do in school, of course. Can’t afford the time off if your grades are down.”
“They won’t be,” I promised. “And I’m big enough now to carry a gun in the field all day. And I know how to be safe.”
Since my dad had passed away six years earlier, Uncle Mel, my mom’s oldest brother, had become like a surrogate father to me. A hundred miles away from our home in Columbia, Missouri, he lived in the southwest corner of the state, worked as a machinist, farmed a little on his 200 acres, and come fall those acres were some of the state’s best upland hunting ground, rich with rabbits and gamebirds – pheasants and quail.
On his regular trips to our house to check on Mom and my two siblings, brother Michael and sister Jen, he made it a point to share and broaden my adolescent experience with the outdoors. Since he and my dad had hunted and fished together for many years, Uncle Mel took it upon himself to make sure I got to share in that legacy of enjoying the outdoors.
Later in the week my Mom made the drive west from Columbia to Amlin to pick me up and I overheard her talking with Uncle Mel about the very topic…of my being invited to hunt opening day. Pretending to get a pair of sneakers that I said I had forgotten inside the house, I hung by the door to eavesdrop and hear every word.
“He really wants to come down for opening day,” said Uncle Mel. “I think he’ll do fine. He’s big enough not to get tired, and old enough to be safe with a gun. I’ve been with him in the squirrel woods plenty. He knows how to be responsible. Don’t worry, Sis. Tommy will be fine.”
I didn’t see Uncle Mel for the remainder of the summer, September, and the early days of October. I was busy in school, of course, and when he would call to check on us I would overhear Mom’s conversation and learned that he was working lots of overtime hours. In addition, there were crops waiting to be harvested, seventy acres of standing corn to be picked to feed the small hog operation he had. But never any word about hunting. There’s wasn’t time for hunting!
Finally, on week prior to opening day on November 12, the phone rang with Uncle Mel on the line, and this time he asked for me specifically.
“Just ran the picker for the first pass through those seventy acres of corn,” he said excitedly. “And boy, the weedy parts were full of rabbits…and we must have seen a dozen roosters running ahead of the tractor. You’d better get packed for the weekend. I’m coming to the city on Wednesday to get parts. I’ll pick you up on the way home.”
My mind was spinning. What to pack, what to wear, and above all else…would I actually be able to hit a running cottontail or a streaking ringneck?
The hours dragged that week, and finally Wednesday and the last day of school arrived before a two-day break for teacher conferences. I sat on the porch all afternoon looking down the street for Uncle Mel’s red Chevy pickup. It was almost dark by the time he arrived, rushing into the kitchen to interrupt supper and assure Mom that all would be well.
“You’d better get your stuff out to the truck,” he challenged. “We still have to feed when we get home, gotta’ get people called for tomorrow, and oh yeah…we gotta’ get your gun out and ready to go.”
The trip down the four-lane highway was interminable. We talked about tomorrow, about hunting with two neighbors, Dickie and John Stringfellow, and about how to lead on a running target.
We finally pulled of the highway and took route 77 across the county line, turned south on 452 and finally into the long drive that led to Uncle Mel’s and Aunt Floy’s modest two-story house. Hogs had to be fed and watered and I couldn’t wait to get to the house and hear the phone calls to Dickie and John, who’d been picking corn all day to get the word on how many rabbits, pheasants and quail they’d seen.
After he finished eating a bowl of Aunt Floy’s beef stew, Uncle Mel went to the closet and got out the guns – his beautiful Model 12 pump and an old single-barrel 20 gauge Model 37, both Winchesters.
“This will do you fine,” he assured. “Killed a many a running rabbit with a single shot. Just hold it a foot in front and squeeze. You’ll get the hang of it fast.”
We turned in well before midnight, but I couldn’t sleep. All I could think of was running rabbits and cackling roosters – of hanging the day’s kill on the barbed-wire fence by the pasture field for the pictures after the hunt. I had seen those pictures for years and wondered if I would actually have something to add to tomorrow’s total.
We were up at six, had eaten by seven, but I wasn’t very hungry. I just wanted to get going. Dickie and John were there by eight with a pair of beagles, Johnny and Honey.
“We’ll start out on the back patch of weeds down by the creek,” Uncle Mel said. “That strip of 10 acres along the corn field oughta’ be full of stuff this morning. Let’s go.”
He carefully showed me where to walk on the upper side of a slight embankment, so as to have the best view for a potential shot. “Rabbits will almost always run that way to get to the standing corn we left. They’ll figure they’re safe if they can get there. You be ready to shoot…but don’t shoot the dogs.”
He walked beside me, twenty yards separating, as Dickie and John took the dogs and started into the thick cover of sedge and golden rod below. It wasn’t a minute until Honey began to whine.
“She’s nosey on a bird of some kind,” Mel cautioned. “Be ready. That’s the sound she makes when she’s on to something.” And before his words were out a gleaming rooster pheasant rocketed airborne and began a crossing escape in front of him.
I was envious as he walked and carefully picked it, admiring not only the beauty of the bird but the confident manner in which he killed it. Uncle Mel, it seemed, knew how to do everything.
“Let’s keep going,” he hastened. “Lot’s more in here. You’ll get some shooting…just be ready.”
We crossed the creek and minutes later the dogs let out a wail indicating that a rabbit was on the run. It crossed back over the creek and made for the open area between the cornfield and the weeds, heading towards me and the standing corn. I had the best opportunity for a shot, even though Dickie or John, one or the other, had already shot and missed.
I saw it out of the corner of my eye, cocked the hammer on the single-barrel and mounted the Winchester to my shoulder. Remembering to put the gun a foot ahead of the target I tracked and let fire. Boom…the little 20 roared and the impact of the recoil surprised and distracted my vision of the streaking cottontail which, when my faculties returned, had disappeared.
“Hey, I think you might have hit that rabbit,” Uncle Mel roared, calling the dogs as he ran towards me, as excited as I was over that very prospect. Honey got there first, sniffing around a cluster of briars. And sure enough, when we arrived she was standing over it , a large white tail visible from within the thicket.
Uncle Mel pulled it out by the hind legs and handed it to me, and trust it…never had a 14-year-old boy felt more excited. Never had a 54-year-old man felt prouder.
“Big ol’ buck rabbit. I saw it all,” he assured. “You did it perfect, just like I told you to. Held a foot in front and let him have it. He cart-wheeled. Means you got a good head shot. You’re gonna’ be a shooter, Tommy.”
Subsequently that day, I missed several others. It wasn’t as easy as beginner’s luck had led me to hope, while Mel and the others shot their limits.
By early afternoon we’d made the circle across Stringfellow’s farm and back toward our barnyard where we emptied our coats and hung the day’s take on the barbed-wire for pictures. My rabbit and a very happy boy were front and center in that photo.
I still have it, thirty six years later…framed! My first opening day with Uncle Mel.
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