The cutthroat and the sweet sixteen

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Photo by Louis Cahill

Photo by Louis Cahill

“He is our legacy. He was left here for us by a loving Father, if you believe in that sort of thing, and once he is gone we will never be able to replace him.”

My friend Gary Lacey did me a disservice while shooting clays one day. I fell one shell short for the round and he handed me his beautiful Beretta SO3 EELL to finish the round. I wish I had never touched that gun.

What a beautiful sensation it was when that elegant little side lock fell into place against my shoulder and the bright orange disk disappeared in a puff of black powder. How could I not covet this gun that I would never be able to afford? As pleasant to look at as to shoot the Beretta, with its lavish engraving and gold inlayed pheasant and duck, was a far cry from my clunky old Browning automatic.

Square jawed and utilitarian, it’s a poor gun for the job. The Browning A-5 Sweet Sixteen was never made for shooting clays, not that it matters, I’m not very good at it. Still, I enjoy shooting my Sweet Sixteen. Of all the guns I own, it is the most dear to me.

The gun belonged to my maternal Grandfather. He wasn’t, I suppose, what you would call a sportsman. He fished and hunted but when he did it was for food, not for sport. He taught me to shoot squirrels and catch sunfish. He taught me to work hard and tell the truth. He taught me how to be a man and to be proud. He was, without question, the single most important person in my life.

I grew up in a little house on a road that I still remember being dirt. My Grandparents lived across the street. Both my parents worked, which was rare in those days. My Grandfather was a self-employed traveling salesman and it left much of his time free to look after me. The time it did not leave free, he spent looking after me anyway.

I remember seeing him with the Sweet Sixteen folded in his arm but I don’t remember him ever killing anything with it. When we hunted squirrels I carried his Iver Johnson 410 gauge which I also own now. He didn’t seem interested in the hunting so much as the teaching me. He was patient and thorough and trusted me when I held the gun, even though I was young, maybe six.

He taught me to trap, too. Trapping was more his style. You could catch many rabbits with a single trap. Only one per shotgun shell and shells cost money. We made rabbit traps from hollow logs. He would put heavy metal fencing on the back side so the rabbit could see through and would feel safe going in, then he made a door for the front that would fall into place when the rabbit pushed a trigger stick to reach the sweet potato he placed in the back of the trap.

The traps were remarkably effective. We would find the faint trails at the edge of a thicket where the rabbits came and went and place them near by. When we returned the next day there was almost always a rabbit. He showed me how to dump the rabbit out of the trap into a sack, but mostly we just dumped them right out into the yard.

It was pure bliss. The little brown rabbits were beautiful. Sleek and athletic, they hit the ground in a full run, their lean bodies stretching out into graceful leaps, all four paws in the air at once. I would be hot on their heels, my bare feet sailing through the dewy, wet grass in the cool of the evening. I laughed and shrieked as the fleet little rabbits pulled away and disappeared into the dark of the woods. I never grew tired of this catch and release rabbit trapping.

As a child I never stopped to question the purpose of trapping rabbits and turning them loose. The reward of watching a velvety little rabbit run for its life was enough. As a man I understand what my Grandfather was thinking. Any fool could live when there were jobs to be had and a loving family to look after them, but he knew that good times don’t last. He knew that sometimes getting by meant knowing how to shoot a squirrel or trap a rabbit. He had seen plenty of bad times.

My life has been easy compared to my Grandfather’s. I’ve never needed to shoot a squirrel or catch a rabbit for my supper or a fish for that matter. Still there have been times that were very hard. The choices I have made have given me a rich life but they have left me far from rich in worldly goods. There have been plenty of times when I have had little. Plenty of times that the power and water have been shut off. Plenty of times I’ve walked because I couldn’t afford the bus.

Those times are long gone now, fortunately, but at any point the couple of hundred dollars I could have gotten for that old Browning could have made a real difference. Could have put food in the pantry or heat in the water or paid the rent. The gun would be easy to replace. I could buy an A-5 anytime I wanted. I could, and have, bought a better gun, but it would never be my Grandfather’s gun.

It would have never been warmed by the touch of his hands or folded in his arms. It would have never put food on his table. It would not make me feel him when I press my cheek against it. Neither does the Beretta and that’s why the sweet sixteen is so dear to me. That’s why I would give up my life before I let it go. Because it was his, because he left it to me, because he loved me and, most of all, because when I hold it I feel him standing next to me.

DSC_2287This all came back to me the other day while I was fishing Red Creek in Wyoming’s Little Mountain Area . As I held a little cutthroat trout in my hand. As it slid free into the water and darted away into the darkness of an undercut bank. This little native fish is in trouble. He is between the energy company and something they want.

Fish, even native fish, don’t count for much in dollars or oil or natural gas. Just a few miles away there are big brown trout, stocked by the department of game and fish, that draw tourists and their dollars from around the country, but they don’t belong here. The little cutthroat does.

He is our legacy. He was left here for us by a loving Father, if you believe in that sort of thing, and once he is gone we will never be able to replace him. We can put fish in the stream, but it will not be the same. They will hold none of the warmth of a father’s love. They may be beautiful or big but they will never be what was left to us.

That’s why what we do and the choices we make matter. We can choose to have the lights on and have hot water and put a few dollars in our pockets or we can choose to do the right thing and honor our heritage and the gifts that we have been given. In the end it may cost us a little more, a few extra dollars, but when we release that native fish, we will be proud.



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Write the Wyoming BLM and ask them to help protect the native trout in Little Mountain.

Don Simpson, Wyoming BLM State Director
5353 Yellowstone Road, Cheyenne WY 82009
PO Box 1828, Cheyenne, Wyoming 82003-1828

Come fish with us in the Bahamas!

Louis Cahill
Gink & Gasoline
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12 thoughts on “The cutthroat and the sweet sixteen

  1. I just want to say, even though the story was told to convince people to support the creek, the story about the shot gun is worth an article by itself, no plugs added. I feed similar to my grandfather’s fly rods as you do to his guns.

  2. Elegant story about sporting life and love and what we all stand to lose if we do not pay attention to the little things… one stream at a time.

  3. Great story about Sweet Sixteen. Reminds me of many special memories growing up. I have a A5 12 gauge from that era that is almost as special to me. Rarely used but never to be sold. Keep up the good work!!!

  4. My father grew up in the Great Depression era when ‘things’ could not be bought by the average person. He worked two jobs most of the time and somehow managed to build a ranch house for our 11 member extended family to live in. The house was never completed but it was a home none the less.

    I remember when I was about 5 or 6, seeing piles of brush maybe ten feet round and about four feet high speckled all around the outer parts of the ten acres he and my uncle owned. He walked me around the property kicking the piles every so often sending a cottontail or two bounding toward the next pile. I asked him what they were for and he said when I was old enough he would show me.

    Those piles intrigued me and I noticed that every time he cut up a tree for fire wood he either started another pile or added to an existing one; then when I was about nine one fall day he grabbed his double barrel shotgun and told me to come along. Standing behind him I watched intently as he walked up to a pile, with his shotgun in hand and gave it a kick. Sometimes it seemed like rabbits were running everywhere going from that pile to another as fast as they could run.

    I remember carrying four rabbits back to the house and on the way he said that one of the main reasons he bought this piece of land was because of the abundance of cottontails, squirrels and ruffed grouse that called that land home. And since he cleared a good section to put the house on he needed to compensate and keep the rest game friendly.

    I also remember one huge red raspberry and one huge black raspberry patch and started noticing that in the spring he would take the ends of the bushes and bury them in the ground extending the size of the patch a little each year.

    I didnt realize it then but he was creating habitat for those animals and there was never a shortage of game for as long as I remember. I shot rabbits, squirrels and grouse from 1958 until 1968 when they sold the house, and I have many fond memories of catching many box turtles in the berry patches during the summer.

    In the early 90’s I took my wife there to show her where I grew up (she heard many of my stories of what great a place it was for a kid to grow up) and all of that was gone…the berry patches, the rabbit piles, the great old oak trees at the end of our property were all gone. It was sterile…I stopped and talked to the current owners, telling them who I was and while I was doing so my eyes scanned for a hint of a rabbit or a squirrel.

    I left a little disappointed but it made me admire all the more who my father was…he worked very hard, planned for the future and still had a reverence for the land and its occupants.

    I wish you well with your cause, we have become a throw away society with esoteric intentions that is giving up the physical wonders of the natural world for the mind numbing over stimulation of the electronic age. In the electronic world there is little need for clean running trout streams or habitat rich tracts of land when you can plug an app in your smart phone and simulate fishing and hunting.

  5. I just loved this storey and like the previous reader, the shot gun storey touched my heart and left a few tears, my grandfather was a crack shot with a shot gun, a good trapper and taught us these skills, as my brother and I trailed after him. So many other life skills of the natural world were taught along these walks. The shotgun belonged to his father and now it is mine as my brother was killed, clays are mainly the game now and the odd
    game birds breed to be hunt.

  6. The Cutthroat of the West occupies less than 80% of their legacy, native range today. Many conservation efforts are underway to restore the Bonneville, Westslope, Snake River, Yellowstone, Greenback, Gila, Apache, etc. to their native waters — but it seems a daunting task.

    The Cutthroat is my all-time favorite trout, and I chase them every spring into the summer and well beyond into the fall. I can’t get enough of their exquisite coloration, markings, and spots!

    A trout without the ‘slash’ is just another trout, as far as I’m concerned. I like Browns, too, and the occasional ‘Bow — but there’s definitely something special about the Cutt!

    Thanks for the great story, Louis. I feel that same way about my late son’s Sage 5-weight Discover rod as you do about your grandfather’s Browning A-5 Sweet Sixteen shotgun — it’s irreplaceable, and casting with it makes me feel closer to him, too.

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