FERRYVILLE, WI - Did I ever tell you about the time The Old-Timer gave my youngest son a shotgun?
It was the opening day of the 1999 duck season. The Old-Timer, 9-year-old son, Evan, and I were hunting "the tubes" as we used to call them, down in Vernon County. We parked at the wayside on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River between the Lansing Bridge and Ferryville, WI.
Years ago, before the highway was re-done, we used to park alongside the road, walk through tall culverts that we called "the tubes," down to the river.
In all honesty, we used to fill our opening day bag with wood ducks, sometimes within a half hour. But as years mounted, ducks became fewer and fewer.
On this day, Evan and I hunted together while The Old-Timer sneaked down the slough hoping to jump ducks.
When the noon siren at the Lansing Fire Department blared, volley after volley of shots echoed back and forth between the Wisconsin and Minnesota bluffs.
Unfortunately, our hunting spot was quiet, very quiet.
"Where are all the ducks?" asked Evan, who spent an hour building a blind before the noon opener.
"Don't know son," I replied. "We just have to be patient."
A half hour or so passed before a woodie flew down the slough in front of me.
I shot. The colorful male dipped its wings, then dropped into the water 40 yards from shore on the opposite side of the slough. It began swimming for land, but I couldn't get a good killing shot.
It eventually disappeared into thick grass. Another hunter saw it, too, and retrieved it.
"Is he going to bring it to you?" Evan asked, holding his "pretend" shotgun, a stick he found earlier in the day.
"Maybe. Maybe not," I replied. "He's going to need a boat to get over here because the water is really deep halfway across. One thing for sure, the duck won't go to waste."
The guy never brought the duck over to me. Actually, he never said a word when he picked it up, wrung its neck and put it in his hunting coat.
An hour or so later, The Old-Timer appeared through the thick cattails and underbrush.
"Any luck?" Evan yelled.
"Nope. Never fired a shot," said The Old-Timer, 83 years old at the time.
We stood and talked a few minutes, discussing how poor the duck hunting opener was.
Then, out of the blue, The Old-Timer said, "Evan, you're too young for this now, but here, take this and put it in your dad's gun case until your old enough. My duck hunting days are over. I quit."
Evan smiled as he cradled the 12-gauge shotgun in his small hands and arms.
Thank you. Thank you," he said.
"That's pretty dang nice of you to do that," I told The Old-Timer. "Are you sure you are quitting duck hunting?"
"Yup. You know when I say I'm doing something, I do it," he replied. "I'll still deer hunt with you, but I don't know how much longer I'll do that either."
The Old-Timer carried his gun one last time as he and Evan walked along the railroad tracks, up the steep sidehill and onto the pavement at the wayside. The Old-Timer opened his gun case, placed the unloaded shotgun in the case, zipped it up and handed it to Evan.
"There. It's all yours. But you have to promise me you won't use it until you pass the DNR's gun safety course," he said.
"I promise," Evan said.
There were no ducks to clean that day, but there were plenty of memories.
Evan, now 27, has shot lots of ducks and pheasants with that old shotgun, thanks to the Old-Timer, who died in 2005.
To this day, Evan and I still talk about that sunny October day in 1999, when The Old-Timer put a big smile on a young boys' face. Come to think of it, on his dad's face, too.