17 Below? Grab a 60-year-old Shotgun

17 Below? Grab a 60-year-old Shotgun

New Year’s Day was the closing day of the pheasant season in Minnesota. Five friends and I decided to celebrate the turn of the calendar with one last hunting hurrah to see if we couldn’t “surround” a few long-tailed, sharp-spurred roosters. In the last few weeks, trying to hunt the birds solo resulted in little success. The wary birds would flush hundreds of yards ahead of us in open terrain and on the opposite sides of small patches of dense cover.

I always prefer to hunt with just a single partner and our dogs, but I thought maybe with a bigger group we’d be able to sneak some posters into positions where those smart birds would naturally escape while the rest of us pushed them out of the bush. At least that’s how it was supposed to work in the plan—the best laid plan—and you know what usually happens to them.

Our rendezvous was about a two-hour drive to the west central part of the state, so I woke up early to make coffee, load the truck and air the dogs. Trudging to the kitchen in the dark, I took note of the thermometer on my way. “Hmmm … 17° below zero … pretty nippy out there.”

When I let Old Huck out, I stepped onto the porch with him and found at least it wasn’t windy. A stiff breeze at those temps might have ended or at least altered our plans, but the night was still.

Back in the house at the coffeemaker I started thinking about the gun I’d cased up for the hunt last night. I had planned to take my faithful Winchester 101 which is my go to “pheasant gun,” but the only time it’s not so faithful is in frigid temperatures. That gun has frozen up on me in below zero temps before, leaving me waving at the birds.

I went down to the gun safe, put the 101 back in its place and surveyed other options. Way in the back corner I spied the Remington 870 pump handed down from my dad. Early in my “away from home” hunting career, it was my one go-to, do-it-all shotgun. Its 30-inch full choke barrel was perfect for waterfowling (in the days of lead shot) and trapshooting; not so much for ruffed grouse hunting, but we did it all together all over North America.

Besides reliability, what led me to pick the 870 was the recollection my dad’s arms were quite a bit shorter than mine, so the stock on that 870 is pretty short—perfect for dealing with all the clothes I’d be wearing when it was my turn to post in the cold. The long barrel and tight chokes would help, too, if the birds were out there as far as I expected they might be. And, most of all, that old gun doesn’t care how cold things get; at worst you just shuck it a little harder.

My tradition is to take this shotgun to the blind on opening of waterfowl hunting and shoot the first duck or two of the year with it then put it away until next year. However, that didn’t work out this season. That made it even more attractive to select the old 870 for the last hurrah of the fall.

By the time we started hunting in midmorning, the temperatures had risen to almost zero, but it gave me a warm feeling to be uncasing the pump gun and think about Pa joining us on that hunt. He would have loved it.

The “plan” didn’t work out quite like we thought it would. The birds in the first area weren’t where I’d found them a couple weeks back. They probably moved to better, more accessible food sources as the snow depth increased. However, we found birds at a second location adjacent to some standing corn food plots, and patient trudging finally put up a rooster within reasonable range. Like an old, reliable friend the 870 sprang to my shoulder and knocked the rooster into the snow. Callie scooped it up and brought it to me.

A little while later, one of the other hunters chased a coyote out of the cane grass. It bounded over the hummocks in front of another hunter and me. We both got shots at it, but it was the old 870, that finished the job delivering a dense, 2-ounce swarm of #5s at 30 yards to that running ‘yote.

No fuss. No muss. Pure reliability. I’ll wipe the old 870 down and put it back in the gun safe. It will be there waiting for the next hunt at 17° below zero.

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