Let me tell you about a childhood event that shaped the course of my life. In 1951, I was 10, and my dad had an old Stevens bolt-action .410. After feeding livestock at our Missouri farm, he’d give me four or five shells and sent me to our woodlots to hunt fox squirrels.
Occasionally, I would actually get one. Mom told me whatever I shot, she would cook up for the family. As I got more proficient, we ate lots of squirrels, doves, pigeons, cottontail rabbits and waterfowl.
Dad took me over to the Missouri River across from Brownville, Nebraska, for my first duck hunt on an overcast day. A small flock came right over and I fired but nothing fell. I just knew it was that lousy, pip-squeak 410. It couldn’t be that I missed! Never have liked .410 shotguns since.
My uncle heard this sad tale and let me borrow his 20-gauge, with a shortened stock, that his son, Billy Rupe, had hunted with in the ‘40s. It was a Remington Model 17 pump with a short barrel and a Poly-Choke.
In 1953, Dr. Ralph Curfman, the town dentist, and town merchant Max McElhiney invited me on a duck hunt with their sons Greg and Johnny Mac to the Nishnabotna River near Langdon, Missouri. I shot a green-winged teal. That duck was so beautiful and I was so excited. From that point on, my whole self was absorbed in ducks, decoys, blinds, duck calls, shotguns, reloading shells, duck boats and whatever else went with duck hunting. Later I would even write a book, “Is Life Worth Living Without Labs?”
That little Remington started a fire that would steer my entire career. In 1959, I was off to South Dakota State University for a degree in Wildlife Management (1963), followed by a master’s at University of Maine. After a brief stint as a game warden, we moved to Nashville, where I was a senior waterfowl biologist with the state, running three management areas on the Cumberland River, also working with a private gamebird collector on his estate with three pairs of huge Canada geese to see if we could establish a home flock.
They flourished with nesting tubs, and 125 geese were raised from the initial six. Their progeny were transplanted across the state, and since the mid-1980s, the goose population had grown large enough to support hunting.
We moved to St. Louis where I was a federal biologist and got to write some of the first Corps’ wildlife management plans for reservoir projects in southern Illinois. In 1978, we moved to Boise, Idaho, where I led federal projects working on recovery of bald eagles, peregrine falcons, hot springs snails, Idaho ground squirrels, gray wolves and grizzlies. I helped reintroduce gray wolves in Idaho, later working on the spotted owl recovery and President Clinton’s Northwest Old Growth Forest Plan. Then it was on to the Forest Service in Missoula, Montana, as the National Grizzly Bear Habitat Coordinator.
I retired in 2001, and my heart was always with waterfowl. AMAZING what that little Remington Model 17 20-gauge did, along with that one little green-winged teal—a whole career of conservation. Since retirement I worked for the National Wildlife Federation in Montana as coordinator for 90 volunteers in the sage grouse Adopt-A-Lek conservation program. I have also served on conservation issue boards of directors and advisory councils for many projects.
Of course my first love is waterfowl; I just love those ducks. I have banded thousands in Tennessee, the Dakotas, and Montana. My Labs Francesca and Jazz enjoy long seasons chasing ducks in the northwest. A new pup, Cameron, joined the family in 2015.
Now about that Model 17.
Billy Rupe married Betty Miller in the ‘50’s and moved to Phoenix, inheriting the shotgun from his dad. He and Betty had two sons and one daughter who grew up learning to shoot with that gun. Then their children as well. My uncle bought it in the ‘30s. It has a short barrel because a hunting partner shot the end of the barrel off and my uncle sawed it and installed the Poly-Choke.
Like many of us, I have too many guns and avoid looking at them in stores. Since 1999, I have only used 20 gauges, the 12s collect dust. A day or two after my 65th birthday, I went to a sporting goods store to get my 2007 licenses. Something drew me to the gun rack, and I spotted a pump that appeared to be a 20. It was a Model 17, AND it had a Poly-Choke! My mind swirled with memories. Wow! How could this be? These guns are old and rare; a John Browning design patented in 1915. Remington Arms Company bought the patent and the Model 17 in 20-gauge was manufactured from 1921 to 1933. About 73,000 were made.
I resisted the purchase…for a couple weeks. Then I thought let’s drop by the gun store and see if that Model 17 was still there. OH NO! It is! Now, what do I do? The price was $200. I know, I’ll just offer $180. They will never take that. Arrrrr, but they did, so now the family has two Remington Model 17 20 gauges. An inquiry to Remington revealed the gun was manufactured in 1925. What childhood event greatly influenced your life? Bring back that memory…maybe even write a story about it.