Remembering and passing on the outdoor life at Christmas
By JIM MATTHEWS
The first Christmas cards are already trickling in. I am of that generation that still sends cards via the U.S. Postal Service. We read them knowing that most of our friends and family choose the cards carefully for the message they convey. Many have Christmas letters, like the ones we send out, that give friends in distant places a summary of our year; and many have photos of family growing up or old.
I have friends who send photos of the big buck they shot this fall or of themselves holding another upland bird they have checked off their life list: “Spruce Grouse! Check. We drove 900 miles up the Al-Can highway to bag this one bird,” wrote one on the back of a photo I received last year. He was beaming in the photo.
The outdoor life is not inherited; it is passed down by family and friends who become mentors to the next generation. I think about my mentors a lot at Christmas, even though they are all gone, because the gifts they gave me have enriched my life far beyond the first fly-rod or single-shot .410. It was the gift of the outdoors that was given with those presents.
My father would have been 95 years old Monday this past week. He was my fishing and life mentor, and he was my best man when Becky and I married. Our last fishing trip together was the year before he died when we spent a week in Colorado with old friends from Arkansas who’d driven West to meet us. I flew home from Denver, but they caravanned together back to the South, and from there my Dad went on to visit friends and family flung across the county. He knew he was dying and wanted to see and laugh with people he loved one last time, while he was in temporary remission.
We fished the Lake Fork of the Gunnison River four days. Dad waded wet in tennis shoes like he always did. He collected stonefly nymphs and cased caddis larvae from the stream rocks and used them for bait, drifting them through the pools and current seams. I can honestly say I’ve never met any stream trout angler who was as proficient as my father. He tried to pass on those skills.
On the last evening, I had rock-hopped and waded – practically swimming -- into a boulder- and log-filled spot, like I’d see him do for years to get to the good spots and fish them correctly. We’d all been trying to reach to sweet spot with long casts the previous days, always snagging or having the current drag our offerings out of the holding pocket because we couldn’t get to the right spot to make a cast. The spot was right across the river from where we had camped. After the effort to get to the correct casting spot, I hooked a big brown trout on my first short flip and managed to land the fish. The whole time, my Dad sat in a lawn chair with our friends Carl and Margaret Angel watching the whole adventure unfold.
That was the only time in my life I’ve had a standing ovation. Sure, it was just from three people, but at that point in my life, it was the pinnacle of my outdoor career, for reasons far beyond that 18-inch brown trout. Healthier, my Dad would have fished that spot the first evening and probably caught several big trout from the deep chute of water. It took me three days to figure the spot out and decide where I needed to be to fish it correctly. But Dad applauded. I was figuring it all out. I still find myself pondering how and where do would fish a difficult spot or look for the missed pockets he would pick.
My Uncle Miles “Spike” Harris was my hunting mentor. He was the one who called my bald father “Curly.” It was funny, but most people didn’t know that my Dad had fallen in love with my mother when they were kids growing up together. Spike was the kid brother who remembered Dad with a full head of curly hair and had given him that nickname before it was as funny.
Spike took me on my first deer, dove, and quail hunts. He gave me my first decent shotgun – a Remington 870 20-gauge pump I still use each year—and I inherited his favorite .30-06, a gun he called Old Betsy. My Aunt Lennie made sure that gun went to me when Spike died.
On my first deer hunt at 16, I was allowed to drive myself to Spike’s house in an old Volkeswagen beetle. So excited to be going along for the first time, I forgot my new .243 at home (a present the previous Christmas). My penance was carrying the heaviest rifle Spike had in his gun cabinet, a monstrous .30-06 bolt action that weighed at least 12 pounds and wore peep sights.
That was the beginning of my love of big game hunting. We scouted out some spots the evening before opening day, Spike showing me deer tracks on a dusty trail near a spring. In the dark the next morning we walked that trail and I sat up on a hillside above the spring, given the choice spot while Spike moved around the sidehill to another location to sit through the dawn.
Three hours later Spike crept back up to me and sat down. He asked if I saw the three does and spike buck on the trial below me. I hadn’t. He was sure they were going to the spring I was sitting above, supposedly watching. I was sure nothing had passed. We walked down to the spring, and Spike pointed out the deer tracks in my own footprints from earlier that morning.
Over the years, he taught me how to spot game and notice sign. Today it is second nature, and I feel him at my shoulder when in game country. Spike was also the first who tried to help me with my shotgunning skills in the field, a task many have attempted and failed. A California hunter his whole life, he taught me that small success (or lucky shots) were the icing on a cake that frequently was baked without a shot fired. Hunting was a process and part of life. Game on the barbecue was a bonus.
Ray S. Morgan was my shooting, reloading, and gun-nut mentor. He was an furniture upholsterer like my father, and the two worked together during my early teen years. I’m sure there was a conference between my Dad, Spike, and Ray about that .243, and I’ve always suspected they all pitched in to get it for me that Christmas.
It was Ray who taught me a love of firearms that shot well, and the nuances in reloading and tinkering with stocks and triggers to make them shoot better. In the five or six years, I shot and reloaded with Ray, he had a batch of different rifles. There was always a Model 70 .270, and then another rifle of a different caliber.
Ray usually bought that second rifle cheap because “it wouldn’t shoot” for the current owner, and then he would find a sweet-spot load or two that would shoot sub-one-inch groups. Sometimes the effort didn’t require much more than proper benchrest shooting technique or one of the “accuracy” loads out of the Lyman reloading handbook. He would then sell it to someone else at the range after they saw how well it shot, occasionally, it was the original owner buying it back for more money than they sold it to Ray.
My favorite was the .458 Winchester Magnum he bought from a fellow who shot it once and realized the recoil was brutal. The scope cut above his eye took six stitches and left a nice scar. Ray got it for a song. Cast bullets were another of Ray’s shooting hobbies, and he promptly made a batch of lead slugs and starting shooting the gun with reduced loads that kicked less than his .270. That was my first introduction to the idea of loading three types of ammunition for your hunting rifles – light, plinking and practice loads, accuracy loads to wring out the best accuracy could (and could use on varmints), and then a hunting load using premium bullets for deer and other big game.
The .458 was one of the most accurate big game rifles I’d ever seen at the range. It would shoot groups that consisted of one big cloverleaf, with all of the bullets going through one hole that only enlarged slightly with each shot. And it did that with just about everything we fed it, from the light cast bullet loads to the shoulder-tenderizing, full-power loads. Knowing he would never hunt elephants or cape buffalo, Ray called those high-power loads “appliance loads that could stop a charging refrigerator in its tracks.” He hunted running jackrabbits for a couple of seasons with the cast bullet loads, laughing at the clouds of dust they would kick up, sometimes a succession of dust puffs as the big wads of lead skipped and whined across the desert.
For a kid, there was something manly about shooting a .458 and learning to deal with its rocking recoil. I dreamed of hunting in desert of Northern Kenya while I carried that rifle in the Mojave Desert of California. Ray stoked those dreams, and my passion for sporting rifles has never ebbed. In my mind, I can see Ray’s face light if he were able to poke through my gun safe, rubbing his hands on the Model 54 that was Spike’s, and smiling at the itty-bitty groups one of my .250 Savage’s shoots. There’s a lot of him in that safe.
Nolan Ingram, my father-in-law, became my “dad” when my own father passed away 30 years ago. He became my cribbage-playing opponent during our once or twice a week games, and an alternative voice in my outdoor adventures. He taught me perhaps my most important lesson about fishing, maybe all outdoor activities.
We were at the Colorado River on a family camping trip, and there was a bluegill-filled backwater were we were camped. They would eat a bobber-suspended worm quickly if you pitched it close to the flooded brush clustered here and there. I had snagged and lost a couple of rigs while we fished, but I was catching fish after fish. Finally, I pointed out to Nolan that he should cast closer to the brush instead of out in the middle of the open water.
He called me “son” when he was going to make a point.
“Son, if I cast over there, I might get snagged and lose my bait or my bobber. I also might catch a fish and have to clean it. If I cast out there.” He pointed to the open water and paused. “I don’t have to worry about any of that.”
There are more and more days like that for me, too. I understand now.
So as the Christmas rolls closer, I think of the gifts I’ve been given and those we give that continue and grow our ancestral heritage, the ones that help us reconnect to the earth and all wildlife here.
A few seasons ago, I was taken by how much my oldest son Bo reminded me of his grandfather, my Dad, in looks and demeanor as he stood heron-like fishing for a big trout he’d glimpsed in a deep undercut bank. Now, that is a gift.