The beginning of fall 1964 was a really spectacular time in Montana. We as a nation were still morning the loss of President John Kennedy. LBJ was about to rout Senator Barry Goldwater in the Presidential election, and the Vietnam War had begun to quickly escalate. My little league career ended in early August and the time between my last game and Labor Day seemed like an eternity. You see, I was finally old enough to take the Montana Hunter’s Safety Course, and believe me, this 12 year old was really ready.
The course was taught by some of our local citizens including my scout master. These volunteers, like today’s hunter safety instructors, were really dedicated to helping anxious enthusiastic youth become safe and responsible hunters. The class was held in the courtroom of the Broadwater County Courthouse. It was really interesting to be in the halls of justice learning about guns and firearm safety. To this day I am grateful to those men who helped me on my road to manhood. Then there were no girls in my class, but fortunately that has changed. My own sweet 16 year old niece Liza is a junior hunter safety instructor and also one of the best elk hunters in the state. Her record of bagging an elk in every season she has hunted proves it.
As a reward for passing the course and also a somewhat early Christmas present, Mom and Dad gave me a Stevens single-shot 20 gauge. For me, this little break-action gun was the finest smoothbore in the world. In those days one’s hunter safety certificate came from Fish and Game headquarters in Helena. For weeks I hurried to my Dad’s business after school and waited for the afternoon mail to be put in our mailbox at about 5 PM. Disappointment was the rule for many, many afternoons. Finally, on a Tuesday, my ticket to the hunting world arrived.
My first license cost $5.00. An elk tag and two deer tags cost a dollar each; I don’t remember what the other 2 bucks were for, but probably a bird license and maybe a duck stamp. In any case, I was now a licensed hunter, and damn proud of it.
On a very sunny Wednesday afternoon in late September, my Dad and Mom were waiting for me, and my younger sister and brother when school was over. I knew something was up when both my parents came to get us. As I climbed into the back seat, I saw my new shotgun and my excitement at the possibility of going hunting nearly caused me to explode.
We were off to a farmer friend’s wheat stubble field. There, over the years, my family had hunted sharptail and sage grouse, as well as Huns and the occasional pheasant. While driving around the edge of the field, we spotted some “sharpies.” Dad stopped the car and told me to get out and load my gun. He then sent me after the grouse. I was on my own as he stayed in the car; if we were to have a fresh bird for dinner, I would have to perform, a lot of pressure for a 12 year old. I flushed one of the birds, mounted my gun and fired. My first bird fell to the ground, feathers gently floating above it. I was so proud and happy to finally be a successful hunter. And the sharptail grouse will forever be my favorite game bird; I love them.
I recently refinished the stock on that old shotgun, it looks better than ever. And now, in this, my 50th hunting season, I’ve been carrying that lovely little twenty around the mountains with me. With that gun and a new knee, I feel quite a lot like that 12 year old bird slayer of so long ago.
Be safe and good shooting.