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Down the tubes

Give or take, it’s about 250 days until upland seasons open again. It’s really 253, but at this stage in the beginning of the long wait until that semi-warm, dew-covered morning in mid-September brings the first chuckling grouse flushing from some CRP along an alfalfa field, rounding down is the best thing to do for my psyche. The false hope and excitement generated in my lab by the toting of a cased shotgun into the house and down to the basement mirrors my own that these days will pass quickly and we’ll once again find ourselves on the front end of autumn walks and snap shots, instead of the white-shrouded back end of them.

Out of an abundance of caution, I close the door to my office and spread the cloth pad out on the floor along with a set of brushes and put the fabric gun case along side it at my feet. There’s no sense in a trace of cleaning oil getting on the dog and being carried throughout the house offsetting the remaining candy cane candle scent left over from the holiday season. With a thud against the closed door he takes up residence on the other side of the threshold as I set to work on the task that certifies my hunting has come to an end.

Both barrels of the little over-under are black with the residue of the season’s final rounds which chased and knocked down a couple handfuls of sharptailed grouse and rooster pheasants in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. A hallmark of the premium load, the heavy powder coats the inside of the shiny barrels from end to end and while it only takes a shell or two to make a once-clean tube look like funnel one of my boys poured yard dirt down, the mess has been more than worth it and a half-full box of the yellow three-inch shells join the stash of unopened ones in my ammo locker as I sort through my hunting bag and grab the bottle of solvent.

With a squirt from the flip-open nozzle and a spin of the barrel to get complete coverage, I let the liquid run down the tube as much as it can as I grab a bore snake and drop the copper-tipped end of the pull string down the pipe with a tink-tink-tink. Wrapping the black nylon around my hand a couple of times, I tug with some strain and send the cloth-and-metal scrubber through the barrel once, getting most of the residue out. A second trip through takes care of the rest of the gunk and I repeat the process on the lower barrel with a couple more pulls. By the time both are clean, the back and palm of my hand bear the slight red depressions of the pull cord and the room smells like petroleum derivative.

The barrels are cleaned as quickly as it seems the season went from sweaty walks under the September sun to the snow-covered Christmastime hikes through the last undrifted habitat. With a few quick swipes of a small brush and the wipe down of the wooden stock, the gun looks like new — or at least the way it did when it came out of the safe in August for a few practice rounds on the trap range before the season began. Leaned gently against the side of the safe for a day or two to dry off the last of the oil, with the gun sock it’ll be stored in providing a buffer between the two metals, the shadow of the closet darkens the last of the sheen on the barrel as I close and lock the door. While I’ll check back on the little scattergun shortly before it’s stored securely in the safe, the act of wiping away the grit and gunpowder of the season provides a feeling of finality. Opening the door of my office, my field dog jumps to attention, anticipating the shotgun case to be in hand, but he knowingly settles down and wanders upstairs ahead of me, shooting a couple of disappointed confirming looks back at me as we reach the top of the stairwell. While the season might be over and the residue of each shot wiped away, I’m contented by the time we spent in golden fields and swampy sloughs, grassy hilltops and brushy ravines, and all the spaces near and far and the indelible memories the birds within them provided this season…in our outdoors.

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