University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
Link to University of Wisconsin Digital Collections
The State of Wisconsin Collection

Page View

Batt, James R. (ed.) / Wisconsin Academy review
Volume 20, Number 4 (Fall 1974)

Ellis, Mel
Metamorphosis of a hunter,   pp. 9-12

Page 10

   And didn't I have my own guns, even if they were
only sticks? And didn't I crouch in a blind back of
the outhouse, and when the sparrows came down to
the crumbs I had spread, didn't I make believe they
were ducks, and didn't I, with my toy gun, shoot
   So gradually from such a beginning as makes all
children creatures of innocence with a natural
affection for puppies, small birds, and all such
helpless things as stir the bedrock emotion of
compassion, I gradually changed and became the
   Now there is no shame in being the hunter. It is
a most natural pursuit inherited from countless
generations of forebears who would not have
survived had they not been good hunters.
   And I wanted to be a good hunter, because of
all my heroes in those days, I admired most the man
who could kill two ducks with one shot because he
was not only a remarkable marksman, but a frugal
provider of excellent fare at a minimum of cost.
  Many is the time over a delicious stew of coots,
I would hear my father say, "Five cents. That's all
this meat cost. Five cents. I waited until the mudhens
(he never called them coots) were in one big raft, and
my first shot put eighteen down on the water."
  And it was a marvelous thing, an almost heroic
thing to get all that good meat and for only five cents
-the cost of a single shotgun shell in those long,
long ago times.
  We were poor then. Success hadn't yet been
visited upon my father. Many of our meals were a
batter of flour, water and eggs fried and then
sweetened with homemade jell or jam. So to suddenly
have carcasses of ducks, prairie chickens, rabbits,
and coots hanging on the back porch was like
coming suddenly into money-real money!
  So I begged my father to take me hunting, and
sometimes he did. Then I would take along my toy
wooden guns and, crouching with him in the marsh
before sunrise, thrill to the sounds of mallards
quacking, shiver at the sound of wings whipping
overhead, be astounded at the size of the blue herons
silhouetted against a grey sky.
  Then when we came home and there were eight or
fourteen ducks to hang on the back porch, I swelled
with pride, and my dreams that night would have
me the mighty hunter come to marsh and to forest
and the high hill to kill meat so I could feed the
family waiting and depending upon me.
  Of course I couldn't wait until I was the legal age
of twelve to begin my hunting. I had to hunt right
away, but what to do about a gun? Well, in the
attic stood an old Spanish-AmericanWar rifle, a
monstrous and cumbersome weapon with a
tremendous rabbit-eared cocking hammer; and
my brother, who was a year younger, helped me
haul it bumping and bouncing down the stairs and
outside where we hid it behind the woodshed.
   It was too big for one boy. So first he would
 carry the muzzle and I the stock, and then we would
 change about. The boy carrying the stock always
 got to aim the gun and pull the trigger. Of course,
 not having any ammunition, we had to be satisfied
 with making believe, dry firing, and imagining that
 the bird we shot at fell in flight, the cottontail
 somersaulted in death.
   Then a boy from the other side of town who was
five years older looked at the gun, and said: "I
wonder. Maybe." Next day he was back with a .410-
gauge shotgun shell; and miracle of miracles, it
chambered, fit perfectly into the old Spanish War
   So we scrounged and borrowed and begged and
saved pennies until we had sixty-five cents for a box
of .410-gauge shells. Then we were in business.
So with one boy holding the muzzle, and the other
holding the stock and aiming and pulling the
trigger, we went hunting and by the time we were
halfway through our box of shells we killed a sitting
rabbit. Of course, we should have known better than
to take the carcass home, but that was the big thrill
to walk triumphantly through the door, the great
hunter with meat for the table.
   Mother was horrified. She hadn't, of course,
realized that we had come by some ammunition.
My father, however, betrayed himself with just a wisp
of a smile; but nevertheless he returned the gun to the
attic with a warning of dire consequences if we
touched it again.
  Yet to ease our sorrow, he brought home a BB
gun. At twelve years of age, since father's garage
business had begun to prosper, we got .410-gauge
shotguns. It wasn't long before we graduated to the
standard 12-gauge guns, weapon of most of the
waterfowlers of the day.
  We became hunters-good hunters-not in the
sportsmanlike concept of only taking wing shots and
never shooting anything which was at rest, but in the
sense that we usually killed what we aimed at-never
wasted a shell.
  But we were just a little late. The time of the great
duck flocks had passed. By then the prairie chickens
had long fled that part of Wisconsin in which we
lived and it was necessary to travel an incredible
hundred miles to get such shooting. The bag limit,
which had been twenty-five ducks when we were
sprouts, had been reduced to fifteen. We heard rumors
of such duck shortages as might eventually make
some species extinct. And it was a fact that in the
twenties we often came to our favorite marsh and
returned home time and again without having seen
a single duck or fired a single shot.
  Even raccoons, which are so plentiful around my
Wisconsin home today, were then in short supply.
Beavers were being trapped to extinction. The
prairie chicken was barely hanging on. Egrets
thrilled us no more, since unbeknown to us, the

Go up to Top of Page