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Bernie Kuntz: Sharptails of long ago

I knew from the beginning that those early autumn days hunting sharp-tailed grouse in southwestern North Dakota were special. And now, after more than five decades, I realize they were some of the very best days of my life.

It is difficult for me to convey the indescribable excitement those weekends held for me. I'd load my shell vest, usually No. 6s in 1-1/8 oz. 16 gauge. This was at the time when plastic shells were coming into being, and it was getting difficult to find paper shells.

I had only one shotgun in those days--a Remington Model 870 Wingmaster. Reblued, restocked and choke opened to modified, I still own that old gun that Jake bought for me when I was thirteen.

Imagine surviving the endless Friday at school, then enduring the equally endless drive to Mandan in the car with Mom, Dad and brother Jim. We'd stay at one of Dad's brother's place--my Uncle Bill's--and in the dark of early Saturday morning we'd be up, putting on bird hunting pants and hunting boots. We would link up with more of Jake's brothers--Alphonse, Joe, and August before making our way south in the dark to the country where my great-grandparents homesteaded in 1901. I still can remember the wild excitement in my belly when I think what it was like to be fifteen years old.

I realize now that I didn't have to worry about a thing. Dad and my uncles took care of everything. Dad had bought me my gun and boots, furnished my shells, someone else paid gas, the women packed our lunches.

Access wasn't a second thought because Jake and my uncles knew just about everybody in Morton County, and almost no one posted their land in that part of North Dakota in those days.

Time in the vehicles was a constant conversation of where to hunt, where to go next. I halfway listened to landowners' names being batted about, but I didn't pay a lot of attention. I just want to hunt.

"Watch the guns," someone would say. "And watch where you are shooting."

That was enough to keep everyone safe.

I'd load the 16 gauge and we'd step it out, walking through the golden, dying grass of early autumn with high expectations. There would be a flush and some gunfire, a shout and another flush and more flat reports from the shotguns. Some years there would be hundreds of grouse; other years, they were relatively scarce.

By the time I was 15 or 16 I was a pretty good wingshot. In fact, Uncle Alphonse, who died in 2011 within 12 hours of his brother, Jake, (my Dad) told me before he died that he never liked to walk next to Jim and me because we were too quick on the flush.

I remember sweaty palms, the warm sun and the smell of corn, alfalfa, dust and curing grass. And long pleasant walks in that unspoiled country with my shotgun in hand.

Opening day passed as quickly as an afternoon nap, and Sunday scooted by even quicker. Before you knew it we were eating our last meal on Sunday. Talk among the adults was about getting back to Mandan and Jamestown, and about work. Thoughts of school nagged at me. I was not ready to return home or to school but of course I always did.

It never occurred to me while walking those grassy hills more than a half century ago, peering into the brush-choked draws of buffaloberry, bullberry, and chokecherry, that there would be few times in my life as carefree. In the near future would be Marine Corps service, college and a long procession of jobs and responsibilities.

And I never gave it a second thought that in retirement, I would have a bad back, a drop foot so that I would be denied the simple pleasure of walking through autumn's grass with shotgun in hand. Nor would I imagine Jake and most of my uncles being dead or disabled in some way.

I think about those realities now as I watch the passing of another autumn day.