The air seemed to change when it was time to get ready for partridge season. The air was always crisper, full of the smell of apples baking. It was the in-between time, between summer and winter.  Bird hunting was always special for me. I think I always wanted to hunt partridge. Call them ruffed grouse if you want to, they will always be partridge to me.

Getting ready for bird hunting always had to do with the shotguns. When I was six or seven and was only allowed to go on an occasional walk in the woods with my father and grandfather, I marveled at those guns. My father and grandfather both carried twelve-gauge shotguns. Those guns made an incredible noise to a six- or seven-year-old.

When they shot a bird and it fell to the ground and they were finished shooting I would run as fast as my stubbly little legs would carry me and I would try to find the bird before they did. Sometimes I did and when I found the bird, I was so very proud. In those days I always asked my dad when I was going to be old enough to shoot a shot gun.

As I got older, I was more insistent, I would beg my dad to let me shoot. My dad used to smile, and my grandfather would laugh. When I was about twelve my dad and grandfather were doing their fall ritual to get ready for bird hunting. They would go and shoot their guns. They always went to the same place. A place called Moore, just east of the County Line. We had family ties to the land and the name. They would set up cans and shoot at the cans with their guns. I’ll never forget the late September day when my dad asked if I wanted to go along to watch he and grandpa shoot. I jumped at the chance.

They shot a few times and then my dad looked at me and said, “Do you want to try it?” The words wouldn’t come out of mouth. I just looked at him. My heart pounded. I wanted to jump up and down and say yes. But suddenly part of me was afraid of that moment. That big gun. That loud noise. I had wanted to for so long. I had hounded my dad for so long. Now it was here. That moment. I was going to shoot the twelve-gauge shotgun.

My dad went over the features of the gun and then handed it to me. It was a double-barreled shotgun, a side by side. The stock was covered with a piece of leather from an old pair of boots and there was a small pad affixed to the heal of the stock. I took the gun from my father. It felt heavy in my hand. I pulled it up to my shoulder and sighted. Then I lowered the gun. Looked at my father. My grandfather had walked over to set up a can or two for me to shoot at. My dad stepped back and lit a cigarette. My grandfather lit his pipe. The two watched me. My hands began to sweat. I raised the gun again and aimed at one of the cans that my grandfather had set up. I pulled the trigger. The roar of the gun was incredible. The kick, like nothing I had ever experienced before. The barrel of the gun flew up; for a moment I was looking up the barrel into the blue autumn sky. The next thing I knew I was on my back. Still holding on to the gun for dear life. My father and grandfather now stood over me. Both were chuckling. Both grinning from ear to ear.

My dad helped me to my feet. My grandfather dusted off my back and my butt.

My dad, still smiling, said, “We’ll try it again next year.”

That was the year that my dad bought me a 410. That was the year I shot my first partridge. From that year on bird hunting was a both a ritual and time with my father that was almost sacred in nature. We hunted partridge every chance we got. We hunted along the County Line mostly. We hunted on land that he knew, land that belonged to Carl Messerly and Oscar Markala. We hunted where my father had hunted when he was a child. Occasionally we would make the big trek to Twenty-Three Falls. Packing our lunch, we would leave right after my dad got off work on Saturday and walk the old logging road. The birds would fly up with that incredible noise, thdthdthdthdthd. Our guns would fly to our shoulders, and we would shoot. The birds would drop. We would hunt for them in the long autumn grasses. My dad always had a bird pouch on the back of his hunting jacket, and it was always full when we got home.

Then we would clean the birds and my mother would plan to have a partridge dinner sometime in the next couple of days. I think I loved eating them almost as much as I did hunting them.

Sometime in the early years of my partridge hunting my grandfather died. I missed his part in the autumn ritual. I missed his stories and I missed his telling me, one day when he and I were hunting alone, that I was a damn waste of ammunition, after I missed my second straight shot. There was a twinkle in his eye when he said it but I knew in my heart that he lived through a time when there was never a lot of money to buy shells and that hitting the target meant food on the table.

When I left northwestern Wisconsin and moved to states like Connecticut and Maine, Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, every fall when the air changed, I would remember. I would remember the ritual of getting ready for bird hunting. I would remember my grandfather and my father and those twelve-gauge shotguns. I would remember the hunting trips and the taste of partridge and when I remembered those precious moments would come back to life.

I have hunted pheasants and quail in Missouri and Kansas. I have worked with hunting dogs who helped us see, who pointed so we could shoot a cock pheasant or a quail. I have carried my father’s shotgun and killed lots of birds. But none of those hunts, none of those game meals that came from those other states, could ever compare with what happened every fall when I was a young boy, when it was bird- hunting time in northern Wisconsin.

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