The enduring magic of October“Soak it up, go into it softly and thoughtfully, with love and understanding, for another year must pass before you can come this way again.”— Gene Hill, Wingshooter’s Autumn
By: Bernie Kuntz, The Jamestown Sun
“Soak it up, go into it softly and thoughtfully, with love and understanding, for another year must pass before you can come this way again.”— Gene Hill, Wingshooter’s Autumn
We were hunting that year in the Lodge Grass country on the Crow Reservation, in what the natives call the “Greasy Grass.” John Thorp took me to the place several times, an idyllic setting called The Johnny Creek Ranch, and this was my second visit to the place in the mid-’80s.
It is a land of hills and draws, stepping stones to the bulk of the Big Horn Mountains to the south/southwest. And in October the land is ablaze with color — orange, gold, red and yellow leaves in their autumn splendor during the brief period between fall and winter.
This was during the only year or two in the last 40 that I didn’t have a dog, so John and I hunted dogless and picked our shots carefully. In those days the possession limit was 12 roosters, and in four partial days of hunting, John and I killed 23 roosters. (We could have easily taken the 24th but miscounted and noticed our error when we were done skinning and dressing the birds.) John used the old Model 870 in 12 gauge that his father had given him as a youngster; I carried my Browning Auto-5 in 16 gauge that I bought in 1971 in the Marine Corps PX.
John and I still talk about that place, and remember when son Ben shot his first rooster, his first mallard and his first sharptail — all on that same ranch. We talk about Jake, who hunted there, and me frying moose steaks in the hired hand’s quarters, and feeding pheasant innards to the untold number of semi-domestic cats on the ranch.
We haven’t been there since it was leased to an outfitter back in the early ‘90s. But neither of us will ever forget the place.
Like most memories of October, pheasants and Labradors are at the heart of it … fine times on the creeks that pour into the Cannonball river in southwestern North Dakota, the milo fields at Scranton filled with pheasants, the tree rows near Mott and Richardton where roosters boiled out by the hundreds.
However, I never think of pheasants that I don’t remember a twisting creek in southeastern Montana where Labradors Otis and Josie pushed the heavy cover and booted birds into the air. Later, Oscar and Lucy took over but by then my legs had slowed me down and I couldn’t do justice to the dogs’ work.
I also think of the Plentywood country in northeastern Montana and the sea of CRP fields, more than a man could walk in a season, and Labradors Bruno and Josie in their prime. Jake, Laurie and I would hunt the tall grass near the small town of Froid, and be back to the motel in Plentywood before dark with three roosters apiece.
I can still see Mom, washing out the tub in the motel room, then running a few inches of cold water into the tub where she’d wash the pheasants. She would wash and scrape and fuss over them until they were perfect. She’d put them on ice in the cooler and meticulously wash the tub one more time.
Emma was sick with cancer by that time, but she still would join us for the trip. On her last trip we sat on the tailgate of my old Suburban near the trees on landowner Pat Waters’ quarter section. The season had been a good one, it was a glorious October day, and we were enjoying one another’s company.
“Mom,” I said to her, “I just want to follow these Labradors in the grass for the rest of my life. I don’t want to go home, I don’t want to go back to work. I just want to follow these dogs and hunt pheasants.”
She smiled at that. Emma has been gone now these 17 years, and as it is with life, lots of things have changed. The magic of October is not one of them.
Bernie Kuntz, a Jamestown native, has been an Outdoors Columnist for the Sun since 1974