The middle of January is tough on New Hampshire bird hunters. The waterfowl and upland seasons are over, there is a foot or more of snow on the ground, and the temperature is cold. Very cold. It is hard to look forward to spring white geese and turkey hunts when they are still months away. In New England, January, February, and March are the months to clean and repair the gear, to shoot some clay pigeons. And they are the months to hunt memories.
Guns are taken out of the safe or locked closet, cleaned, inspected, thrown up to the shoulder, dry fired, and perhaps sent off to a gunsmith for professional cleaning and repair. We sort shells and store them away in lock boxes. Now is the time for a smith to put the extra inch on the butt of your upland gun; the inch you’ve always been promising yourself; the inch of wood that is going to make you a smoother, better, more instinctive shot; the extra inch that will mean so much in the grouse and woodcock covers.
Waterfowl hunters inspect, clean, repair, and paint decoys. Some birds cannot be saved and are discarded. The decoy makers among us make replacements; most of us place orders for another dozen geese or a six-pack of mallards. We inspect lines and weights; we re-rig as needed. Decoy repair takes over garages and basement workshops.
Waders are repaired. That pinhole that has been producing a cold trickle of water is finally found and patched—we hope. We order new neoprene waders for the late season. All waterfowlers know that there is no such thing as too many waders. Our wives all know it, too—finally.
We involve our women in our repairs. Mothers, wives, and daughters take off the improvised duct-tape repairs and put patches on torn hunting shirts and pants ripped by barbed wire. Shirts, socks, and pants go in the washing machine for the first time in weeks (or months). We buy replacements for the clothing that cannot be saved. We search catalogs and discuss budgets.
And as each decoy is inspected, each gun cleaned, each wader repaired, each jacket, shirt, pants, coverall washed and sewn, we remember. A wife asks about a rip and a story of barbed wire and woodcock gets told. A daughter sorts shells and learns the difference between duck, goose, grouse, and woodcock loads, hears about a duck’s whistling wings along the river or the surprising uproar of a grouse flushing in the barberry thickets. Sons help clean guns and repair decoys; daughters help paint the birds; wives smile at the sight of their families working and talking together.
“These six wooden birds are black ducks. Your grandfather carved them. We don’t use them much anymore because we don’t see many blacks. But your grandfather, your uncle, and I used to put them out in the tidal marsh near the farm twenty, no, thirty years ago, and the blacks would just drop into the small rig. Good shooting and good eating.”
“That Model 12 was my father’s waterfowl gun. It has three-inch chambers and thirty-inch barrels. My dad was fast. I saw him have two geese dead in the air often, and one time three. He made that pump sing! It’s mine now. He shot lead threes for waterfowl with a full choke. Now that lead shot is illegal, I’ve had the choke opened up to modified. With steel, that gives me a full-choke pattern. I hunt with it a couple of times a year. I know that’d please your grandpa.”
“This Sweet Sixteen is your uncle’s gun; we’re taking care of it while he’s in Afghanistan. Remember that pa’tridge hunt we all went on two years ago in the Whites, when he got the first bird and then missed the second? He retires in a couple of years and says he wants us to take him out there again.”
“Joan, remember not to paint over the tooth marks on that goose decoy. Tank put them there when she got tangled up bringing back a goose in Round Pond. Had to let the goose go to untangle herself. And then she retrieved it again. Greg, you remember that bird? It was alive and swimming off. That was a real race! One of her last retrieves.”
“Dad, how many decoys are we repairing this year?”
“Honey, pass your brother the can of turpentine. He needs it badly.”
“How come we shoot lead at grouse and steel at ducks?”
“Can I go with you to Ontario?”
“Did Grandpa make these silhouettes? Did you help?”
We clean the guns and repair the decoys, the stories rolling as we pass on the memories.
Photo: Thomas Brill/iStock