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Partridge hunter enjoys a tradition of success

Doug Nelson of Virginia walks a trail while hunting "partridge" -- ruffed grouse -- near Virginia on Oct. 10. Sam Cook/Duluth News Tribune

Here he comes, up the forest trail, toting the old Winchester double-barrel. He appears to be marching right out of a 1940s sporting catalog.

Look at those high-water canvas pants, purposely cut short so they don't get so wet. His 12-inch L.L. Bean boots rise to meet the sawed-off leggings. And check out the old wool shirt, buffalo-plaid in green and black. But the crowning touch is the hat -- floppy brimmed wool felt, looking frumpy and soft and lived in.

Doug Nelson of Virginia is out looking for partridge, and he makes no apology for his get-up. He uses that throwback gear because it works. And because, frankly, he tends to value the old ways.

"I got caught in a time warp somewhere," says Nelson, 51.

He moves along at a steady pace, looking ahead, looking high, looking low. He does not ride a four-wheeler, as many partridge hunters do. He does not own a dog, as many other partridge hunters do. He walks. And listens.

And shoots a lot of partridge.

Hunting partners

For years, he hunted mostly with his dad, the late Bob Nelson of Virginia.

"Our best year was 1989," Doug says, striding along on this October morning. "Dad and I hunted five to seven days a week. It got to be like a job. We shot 202 that year."

They shot them in the air and on the ground, the same way Nelson will shoot them on this overcast morning. If you doubt that 1989 total, just look it up. It's in the neatly lettered logs that Nelson has kept since 1967. Every hunt. Every flush. Every bird.

He shot his first bird that year -- 1967 -- when he was 10. In the intervening 40 years, he has averaged at least 40 partridge a season.

Yes. He knows. The proper name for them is ruffed grouse. But they were partridge to his grandfather and to his father, and so they are partridge to Nelson, a man who values tradition.

Despite shooting a lot of birds, Doug Nelson and his dad stayed within the limit of the law.

"We never stockpiled birds or kept more than our possession limit," Nelson said. "We'd keep enough for ourselves for two meals a year. The rest we'd give away to old people who used to hunt and can't get out anymore."

He had hoped to continue the tradition of hunting with his father. Nelson retired at age 50 as a public works employee for the city of Virginia.

"I always had in mind to retire and go hunting and fishing with my dad. He was doing great until he was diagnosed with a brain tumor," Nelson says.

Bob Nelson died in the summer of 2007. Doug sometimes hunts with friends from Virginia. But even when Nelson hunts by himself, he's not alone. His dad is often along.

"I see him everywhere," Nelson says, "because we were at all these places together. A lot of people would think that's sad, but I'm happy because I have so many memories at all these places."

Fateful clucking

Nelson stops now, and listens. He peers under the balsam firs on this low-ceiling day. He fires the Winchester.

"I heard him clucking," Nelson says.

He walks into the woods to pick up his bird, a big, brown-phase partridge. He slips it into his Filson vest and gets back on the trail again. He'll always take a shot on the ground.

"It's not sporting, but if you like to eat partridge, you do what you gotta do," he says.

He would prefer to be shooting with his old 16-gauge Parker side-by-side, but its stock is being reworked and he didn't want to get it wet in the rain that is forecast. He reloads all his own shells, of course. For the 16-gauge, he uses solid brass shells that few hunters have ever seen.

He hunts sharp-tailed grouse, woodcock and Wilson's snipe, too. But partridge remain his favorite.

"I love the country they're in. And I love the way my heart jumps up in my throat when they take off," he says.

And there is the matter of tradition. Old shotguns. The smell of old canvas pants. The look of old, familiar trails.

Tradition? He still has the shell with which he shot his first partridge. He still has the shell his dad used to shoot his first partridge. In the back of his pickup, he always brings along an old bushel basket to put his birds in. It's the same basket his dad and grandfather used for their birds.

On the wing

Rain begins to fall steadily, but Nelson marches on. He carries his Winchester at port arms, always ready. When a grouse thunders away to his left, he swings and fires almost instantly.

"Got him," Nelson says.

A bit farther along, he sees another bird under the balsams on his right, along the shore of a beaver pond. He levels the Winchester. At the shot, several ducks on the pond burst into flight, quacking madly.

"Mallards," Nelson says. "And one dead partridge."

He retrieves the bird and slips it into his game pouch. Now it is there with the others from the morning. Soon, it will take its place with those from last week and last year and 1989 and 1967.

They will be there in his journal pages, recorded for posterity. But first, these birds have to spend some time in the old bushel basket.

And before that, Nelson will have to finish walking these trails, with his dad, in the October rain.