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Childhood hunting experiences create lasting memories (September 19, 2008)
By Tom Conroy, MN DNR information officer

They seemed to be everywhere. Ducks on the wing.Some appeared as but specks, high above. Others were trading back and forth, low on the water. In between, more ducks. I was a young boy on his first duck hunt as I witnessed this spectacle many years ago. On that day, something in me changed forever.

It was mid-morning on a late 1950s waterfowl opener in Le Sueur County, the first time I was allowed to join Dad and his cronies on a duck hunt. That I was not yet allowed to carry a gun didn't much matter. I was thrilled just to be there.

The small lake we would hunt was less than 30 minutes from home. After exiting a gravel road, Dad and I traveled slowly down a field road, passed through a fence gate, and then bounced across a pasture toward a shaded hillside. Dad's hunting buddies, including one of his brothers, were already parked at the top of the hill when we arrived.

As the men unloaded gear, ate sandwiches, and talked and laughed about who knows what, I walked partway down the hillside toward the lake. I stood, mesmerized, beneath the oak and maple trees and stared at the spectacle before me. Ducks, everywhere, it seemed.

At the appointed time, two of the men headed across the lake in an oar boat. Dad and I walked into the cattails together while two others found their places farther down the shore. When the shooting began, a phantasmagorical new world burst open around me. The sights and sounds, the acrid, intoxicating smell of spent paper shotgun shells, the pungent scent of marsh muck - all strangely new and wonderful. And addictive.

Pleasant youthful memories resist the dust of time. Even in old age they continue to gleam, allowing us to see ourselves once again as young boys and girls - gorging on watermelon on a hot summer day, wading a lakeshore looking for shells, frolicking on the grass with that lovable mutt we thought would, like us, never grow old.

For so many of us, fond memories of our youth are inextricably linked to outdoor experiences. Hunting, hiking, camping and fishing with moms and dads, aunts, uncles and grandparents are among our fondest recollections. Though we grow older and begin to pursue our outdoor passions with others our own age, we never forget those who first introduced us to the amazing discoveries to be found in nature. And if we're lucky, we'll find a way to repay the favor.

As an adult, I was fortunate to be able to do that with Dad. Although he was restricted in what he could do due to a bullet to the knee during WWII, we managed to enjoy a number of deer and pheasant hunts and fishing trips together. But then, at the relatively young age of 66, he unexpectedly died. The future suddenly seemed less certain and the memories he had given me took on a new significance.

Not long after Dad's passing, I happened to move to the town where the uncle who had been along on my inaugural duck hunt lived. After years of only happenstance encounters at weddings, funerals and occasional family gatherings, we began to connect on a more regular basis. It was then that I learned that in his younger days he had shared a hunting shack with a few buddies on the same lake where several friends and I now had a cabin.

It had been years, he said, since he had hunted ducks from a boat. He no longer felt as steady on his feet as he once did, he explained, and so he reluctantly decided he should give it up. I thought otherwise. My boat, I argued, was sufficiently wide and stable enough to meet his needs. I eventually talked him into joining me for a duck hunt.

And so, on an overcast but mild afternoon, the two of us set off on the lake where both he and I had shared so many grand times - decades apart - with hunting friends. As we sat in the boat and my uncle reminisced about the past, I became once again the small boy standing in the cattails behind my Dad. Just down the shoreline I could see another young man, my uncle.

Although we never shot a duck that day, our afternoon in the boat together remains a special memory. And I think my uncle would have been pleased to know that I talked about it during the eulogy I gave at his funeral that took place much too soon after that special hunt.

Earlier this year, the father of one of my DNR co-workers passed away. In the Guest Book, a nephew wrote about the time this man, his uncle, took him on an early morning fishing trip. The man dearly wanted his 11-year old nephew to catch a big bass and, to improve the odds, he lent the boy his favorite lure - a wooden frog.

In no time, the boy tied into a "big lunker." The fish, however, broke the line and the wooden frog was lost. "Uncle G was so good natured about the loss of both the fish and his lure," the nephew wrote. "While he teased me about losing the fish, there was never a mention about the lure. He was truly a kind man and a true sportsman. I will miss him greatly."

Minnesota's fall fishing season is just beginning. And the major hunting seasons are right around the corner. Time to make memories. With someone young, perhaps. Or someone older. Both would be even better.
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