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Hunters remember a wilder, bloodier San Diego

Duckville memories

"When I was a kid, every Saturday, Sunday morning I'd go across the street, 'cross Main Street, where it's now Tenth Street Terminal. It was all wetlands in there before they filled it in. San Diego Lumber Company had their yards in there, and there were doves in there till hell wouldn't have 'em. I'd go in there and kill 15, 20 doves. Shooting them on the ground."

Sam Navarro's raspy voice still carries the faintest trace of an unidentifiable accent, and his stories are punctuated with sweeping gestures, delighted chuckles, and booming laughs that are too exuberant to be quite "American"; yet he is one of those rare creatures, a true native San Diegan.

"Dad came over from the old country, Italy, in 1910. He came and got settled and he sent for my mother in 1012. They got a house on Newton Street out in Logan Heights. It's a Mexican district now, but then it looked like the town was going to move that way. Somehow it shifted, went up toward Hillcrest, North Park. By the time I was born, 1922, Logan Heights was still mostly vacant land, dirt streets."

We sat on the couch of the Navarros' pleasant home on the west slope of Mission Hills. It was late fall, and Mrs. Navarro's collection of wooden nutcracker dolls filled the coffee table in front of us. Mrs. Navarro said, "Sam thinks they're silly, and some of them are quite expensive, but I love them."

I'd come to talk with Sam about hunting. Noel Allen, a gun safety instructor for the state, had given me his name and the names of a few other men who had hunted in the San Diego area 50 or 60 years ago, telling me, "You'll have fun with these guys, they've got some great stories."

Sam is 72, a small, powerful man with the bandy legs, hard little pot, and broad shoulders gained only through a lifetime of physical work. He spent 34 years as a commercial fisherman, starting out with a quarter-share on his brother-in-law's boat and retiring as the full owner of a 180-foot purse seiner. He's a natural storyteller, and for the next hour or so I said hardly a word while he talked about his boyhood and growing up in San Diego, about his dad. The stories rolled out in no particular order, one memory triggering another, all tied together by hunting.

"My dad, he always did a lot of hunting in Italy, lot of hunting, loved to hunt, and when he came here the desire to hunt was still there.He bought his first shotgun here, a double-barreled Parker 12-gauge. It cost $75, I believe, a lot of money then. I've still got that gun, still shoot it too.

"He used to work in a fish cannery, used to work in the lumber, longshoreman, stuff like that. To save money he loaded his own shells, even made his own lead shot. He had a piece of flat iron, little holes drilled in it like a strainer. Had it suspended five or six feet over a tub of water. He'd melt the lead and pour it over the iron, it'd drip into the tub and that'd be the shot. It was all different sizes, fours, sixes, sevens, and a halves, but it beat hell out of buying it. A lot cheaper. Then he'd take the shell cases, knock the old primer out, put a new primer in. He had a little cup to measure the powder, he'd pour that in, put the felt wads in, he had a little hand press to push those down, then pour in the shot, then he'd stick it in this little device, go all around the top, and seal it up.

"I was just six or seven when he broke me in, gave me my first gun, a single shot .410."(Shotguns are usually sized by gauges; 12-, 16-, and 20-gauge are the most popular. The larger the bore, the smaller the gauge. The .410, a more recently introduced cartridge, is designated by it's actual bore diameter, 410 thousands of an inch, slightly smaller than a .45 caliber pistol and about 30-gauge by the old system.)

"Did he have you shoot tin cans or targets to start with?" I asked.

"No, Dad was pretty conservative; you shot, you shot for meat. He wouldn't teach me to shoot rabbits on the run, but, you know, rabbit sitting on the side of the road, he'd drive up fairly close to it, `Go ahead, shoot him.' Pop! Go out there and get him, throw him in the car.

"As I grew up, most of our hunting was in Mission Valley, where Fashion Valley is, May Company, the stadium; there was some of the best damn duck shootin' you ever heard of. Along that river bottom there were a lot of potholes, just full of ducks. Walk up, sneak up on 'em, jump shoot. Shoot 'em on the water, stuff like that, no sportsman stuff. Doves in that valley too, and quail, on the sides of the hills where the hotels are. My dad, he didn't go much for duck hunting; he used to go more for rabbits, he was a big rabbit man. That's what they used to shoot in Italy. They're good sized and they're eatable. He'd shoot doves and quail 'cause he loved to hunt, but ducks, he never liked 'em much. Maybe my mother didn't know how to cook 'em. In the valley there you'd get mallards and sprig and teal, but they'd go out in the bay, maybe taste a little fish. This was in the late 20s, early '30s. There was nothing built in there, just a dirt road, a couple of ruts, ran through it.

"We had an early-'20s Dodge convertible, nothing on the sides. When it rained you really got wet. It had regular fenders, not like the cars today. My sister, she was the oldest, she'd drive. We'd go right down Sixth Avenue, get to where Mercy Hospital is now, stop the car, load our guns, I'd get on one fender, my brother'd get on the other fender, and we'd go right down that dirt road to the bottom of the valley. In the bottom there was a dirt track that ran along the river, but we'd cross it, cross the river on a real crude wooden bridge and go up to where Sharp's Hospital is now. By then we'd have all the rabbits we needed. We'd turn around, maybe pick up a few more on the way back. We'd come home with anywhere from 20 to 50 rabbits. Not really hunting, just shoot them from off the fenders, stop and pick 'em up. We'd come home and be skinning rabbits until hell wouldn't have it! Rabbits, that was all the meat we had in the house. There was no season, no limit, we ate rabbit all year long."

Sam paused, thought about rabbits. I could see him mentally tasting them again. ""My brother and I, you know what our favorite part of the rabbit was? The heads! We used to fight for who'd get the head! I think maybe my sister has a picture from back then, a whole bowl of rabbit heads that my mother was going to cook. The heads, that's always the best part of the meat. Italian fishermen, they make cioppino, you know what cioppino is? It's like a fish soup, a stew, and what you do is fillet out the fish, sell the fillets, take the tail, fins, the backbone, and the head, that makes the best cioppino there is."

He paused again, chuckled at himself and said, almost ruefully, ""You know, I don't think I could eat a rabbit head anymore.""

Mrs. Navarro said, ""He used to bring home rabbits and put them in the sink. One day I got to looking at one of them, it looked just like a skinned cat."

Sam laughed, ""Yeah, and that was the last rabbit she cooked, too!"

"They say rabbit tastes like chicken,"" she volunteered.

I agreed, yes, they do say that, but Sam was off on another roll. "We were married then, so it must have been the late '40s. This guy named Abe Campbell, he had a farm out past El Cajon. Now it's Rancho San Diego Golf Course; he owned that whole damned valley. He used to build our boats; he had an interest in the boat; he wouldn't build one unless he could have an interest in it. I used to hunt ducks with him out at Lake Morena, and one day he came up to me, 'Hey, Sam! Want to talk to you, you young buck! You like to hunt, I want you to come out and shoot my rabbits!'"

Mr. Campbell was an irascible old man, at least as Sam portrayed him, loud and a bit overbearing, as people who own whole valleys and a piece of your fishing boat can perhaps be. ""He was an elderly man, gettin' too old to hunt, and the rabbits were eating up his alfalfa. You get enough rabbits, they'll eat that alfalfa until there's not enough to bale. `You come out to my place, shoot 'em at night! We'll get those rabbits out of there!'

"'That's illegal,' I said.

"'Legal, hell! Those game wardens try and come on my land, they'll find out legal!'

"'But they could sure arrest me as soon as I step off it. No, you get the permission and I'll come hunt your rabbits.'

"So, he got the permission and we went out there. My wife was driving and the kids were in the back seat. I was riding on the fender. She'd drive along, spot a rabbit in the headlights, stop the car, and I'd shoot it. I'd go, pick it up, throw it in the trunk, climb back on the fender, go for the next one. He came driving up in his car, yelled at me, 'That ain't no way to shoot rabbits! Get over here! Get up on the roof of my car! Put your feet on the hood! Don't worry about the car, I'm going' to get a new one anyway!' So I climbed up there and he yelled out the window, `Now I'll drive and you shoot, and we ain't stoppin for no rabbits!' He started off down the road, driving slow, you know, and there's rabbits everywhere. I had an automatic and I couldn't stuff shells in it fast enough. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! And him yelling, 'Never mind picking 'em up, we'll come back afterwords!'"

Sam laughed, shook his head in wonderment at the old man and his own, younger and more bloodthirsty self. "He'd come by, 'Come over again tonight! Come over again tonight! There's still lots of them damn rabbits!' He'd buy the shells and I'd shoot rabbits until hell wouldn't have it, leave 'em by the side of the road, and his Mexican help would come out and pick them up, take 'em home and eat them.

"Another thing about rabbits,"" Sam expostulated, "you shoot one, put it in the back of the car, shoot another, throw it back there, take 'em home, you've got a nice mess of meat. But your car! It's full of fleas!"

"How come?"" I asked.

"Those rabbits cool down and the fleas jump off!"

"Rats from a sinking ship?"" I ventured.

"Yeah, and how the hell you going to get rid of those fleas? I'm out there with this spray thing for fleas and all that, but still, you get in the car to go to work and there's fleas all over you!" He looks itchy just thinking about it.

So I quit bringing rabbits home. Even now I've got guys that want to go hunting, bring a rabbit home. I say, `Fine, you want to bring back that rabbit, you skin him out right here. Don't put him in my car with the skin on.'"" He gives a little shudder and scratches his arm reflexively, "I guess we never noticed the fleas when I was a kid because we always had dogs in that car. All those fleas must have left on the dogs."

"Were you still shooting that little .410 by the time you were shooting rabbits with your brother?" I asked.

"No, by then I had a 12-gauge, a single shot. My brother had a Belgian Browning automatic 16-gauge, one of those old ones with the hump on the back of the receiver." He ruminated for a couple of seconds. ""That reminds me of a story, my first run-in with the warden."" He caught my eye and grinned at what he was about to tell me. I could feel him pose, like a diver of the tip of the high board, then he plunged into the tale.

"Quail season opened. My brother was working, going to school, something, so I took that 16 automatic, went out with my dad, out on Mira Mesa. This game warden comes up, looks at the gun, says, `You got a plug in there?'"

Multiple-shot single-barreled usually hold five shots, one in the chamber, the place where the shell is actually fired, and four in the magazine, a tube under the barrel that holds the extra shells. But federal law limits the number of shots that a shotgun can shoot without reloading to only three. To be legal, a shotgun must have a ""plug"" in the magazine, limiting it's capacity to two shells. The plug is usually just a stick the length of two shells that takes up the space that more ammunition could occupy.

"I didn't know anything about plugs, I don't think I'd ever heard of them before, so I said, 'Whadda you mean, plug?'

"'Lemme see that gun!' So he disassembles it. Looks at it. No plug. 'Going to jail! Take the gun away from you, shooting without a plug.'

"My dad comes walking over. He's been a distance away while all this was going on. 'What'sa the matta?'" Sam's voice metamorphoses into a rich organ-grinder Italian accent. "My dad, he couldn't speak English too well, but he could make himself understood.

"The guy says, `I'm taking the kid in, and I'm taking his gun away!'

"'Why, what dida he do?'

'Shooting without a plug."

"My dad had this double-barreled Parker."" Sam crooks his arm. I can see the gun resting in the bend of his father's elbow; he swings the crooked arm gently in my direction. ""He says, `Wait a minute, wait a minute. Ifa the kid doa someathing wrong, I go to the judge ana we pay the fine. You no takea the kid to jail!'

The guy's got this damn Belgian 16-gauge all disassembled, and at that time I didn't know if they had sidearms or not. He says 'Whadda you mean there?'

"'I'ma tellinga you, you no takea my kid to jail. I don't thinka the kid doa nothing awrong, but we go seea the judge. You get in your car. We get in my car. We follow. We go seea the judge. The judge he say the kid do someathing bad, I paya the fine. But you no takea my kid to jail, and you no takea that gun away!'

"Well, the guy can see the handwriting on the wall and he says,"" Sam's voice drops to that of a thwarted teenager, ""`He's still supposed to have a plug.'

"My dad says, `Okay, we put a plug, but you no takea my kid to jail!'"

Sam chuckled and I asked, ""That was the end of it?"

"He got in his car and drove off!

"And ducks! We used to shoot ducks down by McCormack's Lumber Yard. They were mostly sea ducks, those scooters?"

I'm not quite sure how we've gotten here, but I nod and say, "Uh-haw." In actuality I'm not at all sure what a scooter might be, but I've learned that any interruption is likely to cause a switch to an entirely different story, and I'm interested to see how this one turns out.

"Every Saturday I'd go down there, shoot ducks till hell wouldn't have it! And then I'd have to go dig clams. My parents liked the clams, and every time I'd go out my mother's give me a sack, say, `You go hunting, but you gotta bring back a sack of clams.' The South Bay, it was just full of clams , just sloughs then, and you could dig clams all over. Hell, there's still clams there! Everybody's afraid to eat them, all the pollution and all. That's all you read about, pollution, pollution, pollution ... But the ducks, my parent's weren't too fond of them, so I used to take them in a little wagon down to where all the blacks lived, sell 'em for 15 or 20 cents apiece. They's buy 'em! Give me a buck, I'd give them a dozen! That's how I paid for my ammunition. No limits on ducks then. We used to shoot them by the sackful, bluebills, teal, widgeon, canvasbacks. Canvasbacks are big ducks, bigger than mallards, and there used to be a lot of them in the South Bay. I'd get 50 cents for a canvasback; buy a lot of shells back then for 50 cents.""

I wanted to know about hunting now. Obviously Mission Valley is out. Is there any place where Sam's grandchildren can hunt?

"I've got a deal with a farmer out in Santa Ysabel, permission to shoot squirrels, and coyotes. The farmer, he wants to get rid of the ground squirrels. Poor farmer goes out and builds a dam, stores water for his cattle, and the squirrels, they dig holes in it, dam starts to leak, pretty soon it washes the dam out. Cow comes walking along, steps in a squirrel hole, breaks it leg. You don't put a cast on a cow. Farmer's not in love with the squirrels. I take all my grandchildren out there in the spring, shoot ground squirrels. Three years ago I took my grandson out there, he was 13, 14. I called the guy up, told him I was bringing the kid out, told him, `You get to talking to us, don't make a liar out of me, say""Watch out for the cougar, watch out for the wild boar...""

"That poor kid, he really thought he was in the Belgian Congo. I told him, 'You walk under a tree, look up, make sure there is no cougar!'

"I've got a single-action Ruger revolver. I strapped that on him, hung a big hunting knife off his other hip. He says, `What's all this for?'

"'Cougar comes at you too close for a chance with the rifle, pull that gun out, stick it in his gut!'

"You could see the poor kid was saying, `Jesus, what'd I get into here?' but it made it interesting." Sam's sense of humor closely resembles my father's; terrorizing the kid has likely been good sport since cavemen took their son's to club mastodons.

"I told him, `Keep that strap off so you can draw it out real fast!'" He laughed and slapped his leg.

"I dropped him off on one side of a hill, told him to hunt across it and that I'd pick him up on the other side. He goes pussyfooting up there, you could see his eyes were as big as rock cod, looking up in the trees. Drove off, yelled, 'Watch out for the wild boar!'

"I drove around that hill, waited, then, Bang! 'Course no cougar in that country for 50 years. Never been any wild boar. But pretty soon he comes over that hill yelling and waving his arms at me. By God, he'd shot himself a little forked-horn buck. So we went up there, I said, 'Well come on now, you killed it, you got to gut it.' He pulls the knife out, he was going to start gutting it from the wrong end, the way you would a duck. I showed him. 'You've got to start from the top, put your hand on the stomach, put the edge of the blade up so you don't cut into the stomach' He got it all cut open, and I said `Now comes the worst part, you've got to reach in and pull out all those guts.' Oh, he was just covered in blood, but he got it done. He bragged about that deer for years. They saved the head, mounted it, I guess I had it mounted for him.

"I've been doin it all my life, hunting. I'm still doing it, but now it's mostly skeet, a few doves and quail, shoot those varmits. I don't do any more big game, it gets kinda old, you know, like an elk. One shot, you shoot your elk, then the damn work starts, there's just a lot of work involved. I get my Mexican license every year because there's still a lot of game down there, but now this year, Mexico got all screwed up on the permits and so forth. I got mine, though, and that's where I hunt dove, quail. Duck shooting in Mexico is not what it used to be. The Colorado River, it's all blocked up, and I like to eat what I shoot, still don't much like ducks.

The day after talking with Sam, I was out before sunrise to meet Wilbur Kelley in La Jolla. We had breakfast at Denny's; at 7:30 the place was filled with Mexican yard workers who would shortly be out grooming the town's immaculate grass and gardens.

Wilbur is 78, a lifelong San Diegan, and, despite an artificial hip and knee, still a trim and athletic figure. His father and then Wilbur himself owned and operated Kelley Laundry, a linen supply company. While Sam was sent out at age six or seven to bring home meat for the Navarro table. Wilbur had to wait considerably longer before being allowed to hunt, ""My dad gave me my first gun when I was 14. It was an automatic, a Remington, I lost it overboard at Lake Morena that first year.""

"My God! How did that happen?" I asked.

"We were shooting out of a boat. I was sitting there, watching this duck go around, it was about ready to come in. I took the safety off the gun and swung around. The butt of the gun hit the gunwale of the boat, my finger slipped on the trigger, the gun went off, and the recoil just knocked it overboard. It was scary. It taught me a lesson, how much of a thing could happen with a gun, how fast things could go wrong. You think you're safe, all of a sudden that gun goes off and passes by you, it's frightening."

Most all of the hunters I've talked to at length have a story like that; I have one myself. I was about the same age as Wilbur was, 13 or 14. My dad and I were hunting ducks from a blind,a three-foot-high enclosure of chicken wire camouflaged with cattails and tumbleweeds. The blind was at the water's edge of a two-acre pond a couple of miles from our house. Before dawn, I'd waded into the pond, my hip boots breaking through the scum ice along the edge, setting out a couple of dozen decoys. It was a perfect duck morning, a low overcast spitting a mixture of snow and sleet; the birds would be flying low and looking for a friendly place to paddle around and gabble with some strangers. Ducks feed at night, ghostly shapes scrabbling for fallen grain in the harvested corn and wheat fields. At dawn the birds rise from the fields scattered across our valley and fly in bands of from two to several hundred, seeking a pond where they spend the day. On clear, calm days, ducks like to sit in the middle of the biggest water they can find, usually quite inaccessible to hunters, but in wind and storm they prefer more intimate quarters, particularly if there seem to be fellow ducks enjoying the surroundings.

There's a real skill involved insetting out a string of decoys and building a blind. Unless the fog's right down to the ground, ducks will usually give a pond a high pass, barely out of shotgun range, and just one unnatural decoy or the slightest flash of a gun barrel or white of face will cause them to flare off. Even more skill is required in the use of the duck call. In the off-season my father would spend hours at a friend's private pond, talking with the tame ducks. Duck, mallards especially, keep up an almost continuous low quacking, a murmur of quiet conversation. When they spy other ducks overhead, however, they give them the ""Hey, get down here!" cry, called the "high-ball" by duck hunters. It's the "QUAAACK, QUAAACK, QUAck, Quack, quack," that we always associate with ducks. Dad could call in ducks that were just specks on the horizon, coaxing them down with alternating urgent high-balls and the gentle mutter of contented ducks. I was capable of just the opposite result, turning back groups that were still miles away.

As the gray sky to the east lightened with the dawn that 40-years-ago morning, we spotted a couple of ducks flying toward the pond. Dad gave them a quick high-ball and we hid below the blind, heard the rustle of their wings as they passed overhead. He chuckled softly into the duck call as they flew off, and we peeked over the side of the blind to see them turning and dropping, preparing to set down among the decoys. We pulled our heads down and he whispered to me, "You take the back one."

We held our positions for a long moment, waiting for the birds to make the turn and lock their wings into landing position, clicked off our safeties, and leapt to our feet, our guns coming to our shoulders. I brought my 16-gauge up in a smooth arc, swinging from behind the trailing duck and squeezing the trigger just as the sights swept past his bright yellow beak. Maybe I closed my eyes just as I fired, or maybe it just happened too quickly to see, but somehow the ducks had crossed in flight and my shot had gone right into Dad's gun, blowing off the last foot of the barrel just inches from where his hand gripped the gun's forearm. Nausea rose in my throat, and momentarily I saw a bloody pulp where his trembling fingers held the truncated weapon.

Fortunately, the only injury was to his brand new Model 12, and my obviously shaken condition was deemed punishment enough for my carelessness. The image is still vivid, and as I told Wilbur the story I shuddered again at how close I'd come to shooting my father. I asked him to tell me a happier hunting story.

"Morena was my dad's favorite place to hunt when I first started hunting. He had a Willys then, and we'd start off from town in the middle of the night to get to the lake before dawn. Lake Morena was quite wild, really out in the country, at the end of a dirt road and nothing there but a boathouse and a little cafe. I must have been 11 or 12 the first year I got to go, say it was 1927. My job those first few years, especially before I got a gun, was to row the boat and pick up the downed birds."

"Were you shooting out of boats?" I asked.

"No, we had blinds, but I'd row to get us there, and after they'd shot a bird I'd jump in the boat and row out to go get it. I was the retriever. No Labs in those days. I got a lot of exercise.

"We'd get out there way before dawn. Everybody'd get in their boats and get lined up by the boathouse, some people had their own boats, but most of us rented them. Then the guy in charge would say it was time, we could go. We had a race! The best blinds went to those who rowed the hardest. It's a pretty big lake; by the time we'd get to where we wanted to hunt, I'd be pooped out. We always raced against Max Heimberg; he was a big, husky German fellow and a great friend of my father's. Those were always good races, all the way across the lake, both of us trying for the same blind. Then he got a kayak."

"Cheated?" I suggested.

Wilbur chuckled. He's not a man who easily speaks ill of his fellows, especially not his father's friends. "Well, he certainly got out there ahead of us after that. He was a wonderful old man. He was old to me; he must have been in his 30s.

"We carried lots of decoys, and that was my job too, put out those decoys and pick them up after the shooting. It was exciting and it was fun. Those things, they just don't happen anymore. There isn't any areas where you can have that kind of a deal now.""

Our breakfast arrived. Wilbur had orange juice and poached eggs; I, fried eggs and hash browns. I felt obscurely guilty, thinking about my grease intake and wondering if in 25 years I'd be in nearly the good shape Wilbur was. Between bites of food and sips of coffee, he continued talking about Lake Morena.

"After the war {World War II}, it all changed. More hunters moved in, and people were shooting that shouldn't have been behind a gun. That was before you had to take lessons and learn to handle a gun. There were too many people out there who were just poor sportsmen. We decided not to hunt the public lakes anymore, it was just too dangerous. I'm glad to see that now they're making people know something about their guns before they can get a license, make them get some instruction.

So where did they hunt, once they'd decided Morena was out?

"My dad had a place at Rancho Corte Madera. It's about an hour's drive east of here in the Pine Valley area. There's a private lake, Lake Corte Madera, with homes around it. It's been a shooting club since way back. There even used to be a lodge, but it burned before I started hunting. Dad bought his house from Ewart Goodwin, our insurance man and also a good friend, in the middle '30s. My son owns the place now and hunts there occasionally, but his kids don't have much interest in hunting."

Wilbur picked up one of the handsomely framed pictures he'd brought to our meeting. They normally hang in the hunting house at the lake, but he'd told me about them and I'd asked to see them.

"This had to have been taken about 1940, just soon before the war, at Corte Madera Lake. There's my father, myself, and Ewart Goodwin. I counted about 120 ducks laid out there. There was a limit then, 10, 12 ducks; everybody must have killed close to that. The bigger ducks are canvasbacks, the rest are redheads, widgeon, mallards, a few spoonies in there, mostly they're good big birds.

"I started hunting at Corte Madera around 1935. In 1940 I would have been home on vacation from school in Illinois; laundry school, I was a laundry man. I'd planned to be a coach, but it was the Depression and there were no jobs available, so I went to work for my father in the laundry, just temporarily. I stayed there 30 years.

"The hunting at Corte Madera is controlled, it's all private. There's usually about ten hunters, and they get together at 4:00, 4:30 in the morning at one of the houses and draw for the blinds. All the blinds are numbered, and you draw the numbers out of a hat. Whoever's in blind number six is the captain of the hunt, and once everyone's in his blind and it's time to shoot, he whistles once. After the first round of shooting, when the birds have been shot or scared off, if he thinks some may come back, he'll whistle twice, and everybody will hold their fire until they've come back and settled down, then he'll whistle once again, and you can start shooting again."

"What happened after you got out of school, did you join the military then?" I asked.

"Yes, I was in the Navy. I had patrol duty up and down the coast from San Diego for about a year and a half. There's some lagoons out behind Torrey Pines, they were almost in my back yard, and I'd go out in the morning and sneak ducks there. My captain liked to eat duck, so if I brought a few back, I could be a little late for duty. My hunting buddy at the time, Chris Allen, his parents owned a dairy in Mission Valley, the Allen Dairy, and Mission Valley was one of the greatest places for doves and quail. Anytime we could get some time off the base, we'd go out there, right about where Hazard Center is now. It was just a few minutes from the base, and we could run up there in the afternoon and get a couple of limits of dives."

Wilbur spent the next few years fighting for his life in the Pacific, but soon after he returned home he was back into hunting.

"Ewart Goodwin called me up shortly after I returned from the Navy and said, `We're putting together a bunch of guys to buy the San Elijo Lagoon Duck Club.'

"I'd never heard of the place, but I asked, `How much are you talking about here?

"'Oh it's only a thousand dollars a piece.'

"'Only a thousand dollars!' I'd been in the Navy, had been gone the past three years, a thousand dollars was a lot of money and I didn't have it.

"He said, 'Find some way to borrow it, we're going to have a great bunch of guys and you'll regret it if you don't. It's going to cost $20,000, and I want you to be one of those 20 guys. It could turn out to be a good real-estate deal too.'

"So I raised the money and we bought the place. It was about 450, 470 acres, but most of it was lagoon. There were only about 75 acres of tillable land. There was a fellow and his family that lived in the house on the property and grew beans, raised a few chickens. We let them stay rent-free, and he patrolled the place, kept other hunters out. It was such a convenient place, only 20 minutes from town, you could go hunting in the morning before work. We used to meet in a restaurant in Pacific Beach, have breakfast, and decide who would shoot what blind, go out and have a great shoot, and still be in the office by nine o'clock.

"We kept at it for 20 years, finally sold it in the '60s for $880,000. A guy named Swartz, Herman Swartz, bought it. He was developing land all over the state, but he got caught on that one. The state came in and built a freeway right across the middle of it, he got some money for that, but the rest of it he had to just basically donate to the state. Now it's all a state game preserve, and the houses come right down to the edge of it,"" Wilbur sorted through the pictures spread on the table between us and picked up one of a dirt road curving beneath overhanging trees, "but as you can see here, back then it was wild and just beautiful. Over the years I put $2200 into that place, taxes and assessments, plus the thousand to start, and I got $44,000 when we sold. It was the best investment I ever made."

After Sam's talk the day before of coastal ducks not being fit to eat, I was curious what Wilbur, obviously a man who'd eaten his share of them, thought of their taste.

The coastal ducks will usually taste just as good as any ducks, except for the spoonbills, they'll be salty. Sometimes a mallard will cheat, eat fish or something and taste bad, but a sprig, a pintail, he'll always taste good. We shoot brandt, sea geese, down in Mexico. They live on eel grass, and they never taste bad at all, they're sweet."

What about rabbits, Sam's family's preferred meat?

"The only time I would shoot a rabbit was when we'd go dove shooting at this old lady's place in the Imperial Valley. Her husband had died, and she was running the farm and raising three kids by herself. They were real poor people, and we always tried to get her a rabbit or two."

Another picture, this one of a younger Wilbur, his wife, and two Labrador retrievers standing beside an old Ford station wagon, brings up another story. "My wife had never hunted as a kid, never even went camping until we were married, but she turned out to be an excellent hunter, good shot. We each had our own dog, black Labs. She did all the training. She used to work with a guy that trained field trial dogs, and those Labs were wonderful retrievers."

My family also hunted with Labs, and we reminisced about how the dogs loved to hunt. If hunting is good for nothing else, it provides an opportunity for men to interact with another species on such a close level that it sometimes feels that telepathy is involved. The joy a hunting dog feels and expresses, frequently wagging its tail so furiously that the vibrations shake its entire body, that first fall morning when the guns come out of the closet and are stowed in the back of the car is something only a hunter witnesses. Rarely does a dog owner get to see just how smart and skilled an animal they live with is, and many of the domestic breeds, kept for generations as companions and decorative pets, have lost much of their primordial skills, and much of their brains, too, I suspect. Hunting dogs, however, are still bred for smarts. Wilbur told me a story of one of his favorite dogs, Rip.

"Everybody has a story of a great retrieve. One that sticks in my mind was a day down in Mexico shooting brandt. I had three novice hunters with me. I put them in blinds down by the water, and I climbed up the hill above them so I could see the geese coming and tell the hunters what to do and when. Three birds were flying up the coast towards our decoys, and I started telling these guys 'Hold your fire, hold your fire.' When the birds got right in front of the blind and set their wings to come in, I yelled, `Let 'em have it!' Nobody fired, they hadn't even seen the geese. I'd scared the birds by jumping up. They were flaring off and I wasn't about to let them get away, so I let go one shot. The bird in the middle dropped dead, the other two came down wounded, one with a broken wing, the other crippled. A three-in-one shot, absolutely amazing!

"Old Rip went right into the water, he didn't pay any attention to the dead bird, gave just a quick turn of his head to the one that was flopping around, and took off after the one with the broken wing that was swimming away. He chased it clear out of sight and must have had a fight with it, because he brought it back dead, but there wasn't a tooth mark on the bird. Then he dove right back in and brought back the crippled bird and then the dead bird.

Wilbur picked up the picture again, looked at it fondly and a little sadly. "you can have more fun hunting with a dog than any other way. It just makes it so much better. I've had a number of dogs; always had a dog until 1974, then I started traveling and had to leave them home. My last dog died, and the fellow that was keeping him had an autopsy done. All the vet could figure was he'd died of a broken heart."

The restaurant suddenly seemed very quiet; the clatter of dishes and steady background murmur of Spanish that had underscored and at times nearly obliterated our conversation were gone. We gathered up the pictures and walked out to our cars together. Wilbur had a slight limp, his artificial hip is wearing out, he hopes the replacement won't be too difficult. I hoped it wouldn't be and wished him many more years of hunting.

A couple of days later I went out to San Elijo Lagoon. It seemed likely the only place left where I could stand where Wilbur had 45 years ago and still see somewhat the same vista. I couldn't find where the dirt road had run beneath graceful trees: nothing bigger than scrub grows around the lagoon now, and the road must be buried beneath Manchester Avenue, a high-speed two-lane that runs along the north side of the lagoon. I-5 crosses, as Wilbur said, "right across the middle, "on two high bridges; the hum of traffic is constant.

Just before Manchester tees into S21, the coastal road, there's a turnoff and small parking area between the road and the water. I pulled in, hung my binoculars around my neck, and followed the trail that led through the brush into the lagoon. A couple in their 30s had brought heir young daughters birdwatching. The father had a 20-power spotting scope on a tripod aimed at a cormorant preening itself on a piling, he lifted the smaller girl to the eyepiece so she could look at the bird. She didn't appear much interested.

There were birds scattered all across the lagoon; I peered through my binoculars at them. I could identify widgeon, pintails, and a couple of varieties of teal, but the largest and most common ducks were new to me. Just then, the mother birdwatcher walked by , and I asked her what they were. "Northern shovelers" was the answer, a bird I'd never heard of. They're not native to my part of the country. I'd been hoping they were Sam's mysterious scooters.

She pointed out a black-crowned night heron partially concealed in the reeds, said they'd identified more than 30 species in the lagoon that day, the best they'd ever done there. They were leading a group of neophytes on the annual Audubon New Year's Bird Count in a couple of weeks and were getting a preliminary look at what they might be seeing. I asked her about canvasbacks, ducks that figure prominently in my hunters stories but that I had never seen. She'd seen them, but not around San Diego.

The lagoon is still a beautiful place, but it's not the place Wilbur used to hunt. Gone are the trees. the bean fields, the blinds and the walkways the hunters had built to get to them. In every direction the vistas open only to man-made artifacts. Maybe a foggy early morning, the fog hiding the roads and houses and muffling the traffic noise, the place would feel somewhat the same, but that sunny afternoon the changes were all too apparent.

A few days later, I had lunch with Nolan Wright at the Hotel Meridian on Coronado. We met in the hotel's lobby; I recognized him by the red sweater he said he'd wear, and once again I was pleasantly surprised. When I'd started this project and wanted to talk to men who'd hunted 60 years or more ago, I'd imagined visits to nursing homes, drooling old crocks who kept forgetting their own names, and stories dragged out between bedpan changings and gruel feedings. Instead, I kept meeting these men whose vigor and interest in life would put many 40-year-olds to shame. Nolan is 78, but his handshake is firm and his face unlined, and as soon as we were seated in the dining room, he started telling me about his life and the part hunting had played in it.

"We moved to San Diego when I was three [1919], my older sisters and brother, my mom and me. My dad was estranged from the family most of the time I was growing up, but I remember when I was just a little kid, up in the San Joaquin Valley, some fellow came over and picked him up and Dad took his shotgun and came back with a goose. That's the only thing I remember about Dad hunting, but it really excited me, and I think that was the thing that turned me on to hunting. It was the most exciting thing I'd ever heard of, go out hunting and bring back a goose, big white snow goose.

"When I was ten years old, a neighbor, he was a sailor, a chief or something, invited me to go hunting with him. He liked to hunt, but didn't have anyone to go with. We went over to the little hardware store in Hillcrest, and he helped me pick out a shotgun. I got a Bay State single-shot, about the cheapest gun you could get at the time, I think they cost something like 7.95. They had all the gauges, 12, 20, 16. Naturally, I wanted a little .410, but no way would he have it. He said, 'You've got to have the 12-gauge, don't undergun yourself.' So I got the 12-gauge; we cut the stock off so it would fit me. It was quite a challenge to shoot that thing. These things kick like hell for a kid. Later on, when my arms got a little longer I put a piece of sponge rubber on it. He was right in one way, he said 'Gol dang, you can't hit anything with that dinky .410!' but I took a lot of punishment from that gun.

"We used to go out on the other side, the east side, of Lakeside, big broad valley there, it goes all the way to El Capitan Dam. Of course, that was before the dam was built. The country was alive with game, quail and doves and rabbits. We'd go up there and hunt anything we could find, shoot anything. There was no season on rabbit; there was a limit on doves and quail, 15 doves and 10 quail. Those were the limits for ages and ages, that limit never did change for many, many years.

"Lakeside was already a pretty good little community, but beyond there, there were just very scattered houses, and they weren't down in the floor of the valley, more up on the sides of the hills. In '26 or '27 there was a big flood that came down through there, all through Mission Valley, filled the Valley right up. I was delivering papers up in Mission Hills and I remember standing right down along the rim of the valley. It was raining like the devil, huge rain, the river was just full of debris floating by, structures, sheds and all. The water was up over where Hotel Circle and all those businesses are now. The lifeguards had brought boats up the river to rescue animals. It was quite a mess.

"Without a father at home, us kids had to do whatever we could to bring in money, so I got a paper route the summer between the fifth and sixth grades. It was up in Mission Hills, an afternoon route, the Tribune. I had 135 customers and it was a heavier paper than the Union, and I'll tell you, if my bike fell over, I had a hell of a time getting it back up!

I got my papers at Goldfinch and Washington, went over as far as Falcon or Dove on the east, and way out to Stevens and Palmetto Way before it stopped. It was mostly up on top of the mesa. The only steep hill was at the end of Hawk Street, it went way down there, but by that time it was almost the end of the route and there weren't many papers left. That was the old part of town, even then, in the early '20s, those houses had been there quite a number of years. There were big homes, big mansions, especially down Hawk Street, it was where the upper, upper echelon lived.

"I was a very tidy little paperboy, so, while the cost of the paper to my customers was 65 cents a month, most of them gave me 70 or 75. One of the rich fellows down on Hawk always gave me a dollar."

I gave a low whistle, remembering my paperboy days and how hard it was just to get the bastards to pay, much less come up with any extras. Nolan grinned at the memory of his first money making job, "That was after he paid for the paper, a whole dollar tip!

"I'd get through with the paper route and ride out to the edge of the cliffs over the valley, Mission Cliffs, leave the bike out there, and walk down into the valley. I'd shoot whatever was in season, come home with four or five birds every time. On the weekends, I'd break down that old shotgun, wrap it in newspaper, and take the number seven streetcar line. It went all the way out University to Euclid. That was the end of the line. Then I'd walk down to what's now Home Avenue, walk down those canyons. There weren't any houses out there at all, and it was full of quail, an occasional dove would fly over, and there were always rabbits. My mother had given me a little game bag, and I'd field dress whatever I'd shot, put it in that bag, wrap up the shotgun again, and go back home on the streetcar. My mom would cook anything I brought home, but she'd have me dress it.

"About that same time, when I was 12 to 14 or so, I had a buddy who wanted to be a trapper, William Ward was his name. He was a devotee of 'trapping technique.' He'd read every damn thing he could get his hands on about how to set traps, how to fool the animals. He was good at it too! We got ourselves a dozen traps and set up a trap line that went down into Mission Valley from about where University Hospital is, out across the valley, then up through the cut where 163 runs now, and up onto Camp Kearny Mesa. There were a lot of animals in that valley. It was a very lush and verdant place and just is full of skunks. We were very good at catching skunks and opossums!"

Nolan laughed, and I felt a twinge of envy. I'd read all those mountain men books as a kid too, had fantasized myself dressed in deerskin, paddling my birch bark loaded with beaver pelts down to the yearly trapper rendezvous. But, despite living 2000 miles north, in a place where trappers can still make a living, it was never more than a fantasy. But then also, I tried to imagine my mother seeing me off at the door when I was 12 years old, traps dangling from one shoulder, a rifle in my hand; or putting me on the streetcar with a bulky package of 12-gauge and a game bag. Impossible.

Nolan certainly is an advertisement for lassiez-faire parenting, at least in those days when a kid, left to his own devices, ran a trap line instead of joining a street gang. His life has been a series of joyfully pursued obsessions, all of them successful. In his later teens, he became a car nut, drove a supercharged Ford and founded and was president of San Diego's first hot-rod club. Too poor to afford college, he worked as a mechanic, eventually bought the shop, expanded and grew. It was a multinational corporation with 60 employees when he sold it a few years back.

Nolan continued with his story, "We sold the skins to a taxidermist. He preserved the skins, but I don't know what the hell he did with them. What are you going to do with an opossum, for Christ's sake?"

"A 'possum coat?" I volunteered.

"I guess," he agreed. "He'd give us a dollar, two dollars for them, it was a good deal, a lot of fun, too.

"Every once in a while we would get a fox. That's what we were really trying for, but the skunks, they're scavengers, you know, they'd go for the fox bait. We always wanted to catch a coyote, but those damn things are clever, they'd spring our traps or get out. We tried all kinds of tricks.

"We would walk that trap line religiously every two days, sometimes everyday, during the summer when we were out of school. Down where Mission Valley Shopping Center is now, some Japanese people had a cabbage patch, five or six acres of cabbages; we'd cut ourselves some chunks of cabbage to chew on while we hiked up to the mesa. Up on the mesa, that was where we tried for the coyotes, and we finally got one. Boy he must have been a dumber! It was our crowning glory, but then, that was kind of the end of our trapping, and we'd done it, so we quit."

I asked Nolan if he had hunted for deer.

"Oh yes. I got a high powered rifle when I was 14 or 15, and my buddy Ward and I went deer hunting. His mother had a cabin up in the Descanso area and we would range out from there, up through Japatul Valley, we'd sneak onto the Cuyamaca land. That was all private then, before the state took it over. Once the state came in, that was just before I graduated from high school, we started hunting on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. My buddy's dad was the lobbyist for the Indians, so they let us hunt for free.

"The summer before our senior year, 1933, we went up there. It's about 55 or 60 miles from here. You take the road to Warner's Hot Springs, and just before you get to the hot springs, you take a road to the right and you're on Indian land. We were kind of acquaintances with one of the Indians, so he loaned us a couple of horses. We rode into the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River, we were coming down a steep incline when we saw the first buck. He was drinking from a spring down below us and he started running out. My friend Ward made a fantastic running shot on him, killed him. We took care of that deer, cleaned him, and hung him in a tree and went further on, over on to another hillside, jumped a great big buck. Ward shot first and hit it in the hind hams, here." Nolan points to his hip and winces. A shot to the hindquarters is worse than a miss; it ruins the best meat on the animal without cleanly killing it, frequently allowing it to escape to a lingering death. "But I ran ahead and finished it off. It was a four-point, dressed out to be 178 pounds. I had the head mounted, had it around for many years until the hair finally started turning yellow and falling out.

"But now came the tricky part, how to put those deer on the horses." Nolan shakes his head and smiles ruefully. "Have you ever put a deer on a horse?"

"Nope, I never have." I said.

He laughed, "Well, for kids who hardly know what they're doing, hardly know how to handle a horse, let alone put a deer on one, it's something. That turned out to be a fiasco. We're little guys, you know. He was more muscular than I, but still not big. And those horses, they did not care for that deer at all! We'd read books about it; `Cover their heads with a jacket, take the blood and wipe it on their snout.' We did all that, I don't know if it helped or not. We tried everything, and the more we tried, the more cantankerous the horse got, bucking and snorting around. That deer had a big rack, and those horns are hard, sharp. The horse didn't like getting poked with them. Finally, we tied the deer's front legs together, I made a loop in the rope and threw it over the saddle, had it hanging down as high up as I could get my foot into it. I stood on that loop, got my weight going down on it, Ward got on the other side and pushed up while I pulled on the horns, and finally, after about ten tries, got that deer on the horse. We went back over an picked up the first deer. We were experts by then, and it only took us about a half hour of wranglerin' around to get that one on."

"How far back in were you when all this happened?" I asked.

Nolan laughed again, "Oh, we were way back there, a long, long way; it was the middle of the night by the time we managed to lead the horses out of those mountains! God, it was really quite an ordeal!

"We were sort of heroes at school that year, killing those two big deer. Of course, it was a pretty small group to be heroes to. There were only four or five other guys that I knew that hunted. There were others, I suppose, but you know, back then there were vacant lots where we could play mumblety-peg or kick-the-ball or whatever. Now where can the kids go? It's the same thing with hunting. Back then I could take my bicycle, take the streetcar, hunting wasn't far away. Now, you have to know somebody or join a club, have transportation. No way a kid could go out and hunt like I did. I can see the end of hunting coming, at least on public lands. What's left is getting to be very expensive. So now, the urbanites who don't have any kind of exposure to this don't have any idea of the thrill and enjoyment of hunting, and one of these days they're going to pass laws that'll wipe out hunting as we know it today."

Nolan talked of his life memberships in Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a couple of hunters' organizations that have done more to preserve waterfowl habitat and elk range than any government programs. He's also a life member of the NRA, though he thinks the organization has lost credibility with it's fanatic opposition to the Brady Bill. "We've got a 15-day waiting period in California, three times as long; it's never stopped me from buying a gun."

We refused a last refill of coffee and walked into the afternoon sunshine. I thought of my many arguments with my father about the National Rifle Association. I hate the outfit, think they've been almost as bad for hunters as they have for the terrified citizens of our gun-infested cities, skewing the argument, which should be about sporting arms only, into an insane confrontation over Teflon-coated cop-killer bullets, semi-auto assault rifles, short barreled riot shotguns, and all other manner of weaponry designed only to harm other humans. Many people think hunters are gun crazy nuts anyway; all we need is this loud-mouthed group shouting their paranoid fantasies to confirm the general suspicion.

But I didn't press the argument, liking Nolan too much to want to part on a disagreeable note.


Wilbur Kelley had given me the name of my last old hunter, Ferdinand "Ferd" Fletcher, a man he had hunted with for decades and whom he still occasionally had a nostalgic meal with. I casually mentioned the name to an acquaintance; she was impressed. "Fletcher, there's a San Diego name to reckon with. Founding fathers and original real estate magnates; I think Ferdinand was a lawyer."

He was, and still is. At 82 he's slowed down somewhat, but he still goes into his office a couple of days a week and on one of those days agreed to meet me for lunch at his club.

The "club" is the University Club, and it takes up the entire top floor of Symphony Towers. I arrived a few minutes early and waited in a small lounge area near the reception desk. The woman there had given me a suspicions look when I'd entered, my beard and thrift-shop Harris tweed not being up to the club's usual standards. But at the mention of "Fletcher," she was all solicitude. I was glad I 'd managed the coat and a borrowed tie; a visiting congressman was allowed entrance until he'd also been loaned a tie kept behind the desk for such emergencies. Mr. Fletcher (I was never able to think of him, much less address him, as "Ferd") appeared precisely on time. He is a tall, thin man, patrician in looks and bearing. The receptionist, so unimpressed with the congressman, fawned on him. The head waiter, also obviously fond of Mr. Fletcher, showed us to his usual table next to the cling-high windows that afforded a view stretching from Coronado to Hillcrest. As we sat down, a jet on final approach flew by beneath us.

We ordered, wine and the salmon and artichoke heart salads for each of us, a cup of leek soup also for Mr. Fletcher, and got down to the business at hand. Mr. Fletcher started with a brief family history. "My father came to San Diego in 1884. He started the hard way. His brother-in-law , he was married to my father's older sister, had come down here somewhat before that and had started a wholesale fruit and vegetable business. My father went to work for him as a buyer. During the off-season, he had a horse and wagon and he'd make a big loop, it would take about a week, picking up the vegetables and bringing them into San Diego. He'd unload and start right over again. Given the kinds of roads they had then, and a horse and wagon, he was lucky to do 25 miles a day. That was how he became acquainted with the county, and he was always more interested in the county than the city. By 1900 he became very active in the real-estate business. He didn't have too much money, so he brought the people with the money and sold them on the ideas he had. He was very active in real estate all his life.

"One of the things we acquired very early was the Cuyamaca Water System. That system included Cuyamaca Lake and the flume system that serviced La Mesa Lemon Grove, and Spring Valley. Right as you leave La Mesa and go over the crest and look down on El Cajon, to the left was what we called the diverting dam, where the water was diverted off in various directions. Up in Fletcher Hills the old Murray Lake had been built, so we had access to that, we had access to the lake behind the diverting dam, to Cuyamaca Lake itself. The diverting dam area was surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and the ducks loved to come there.

"On Sunday morning, after Sunday School, my father and us boys, I was the youngest, we'd surround that lake, jump up, and get the ducks up. You'd only get that one chance at them, but there were lots of them and they were all big ducks, and if we were shooting well, we'd end up with 18 or 20 ducks. The youngest was detailed to do the cleaning and picking of the feathers, but, oh, I'd usually get some help. We evolved different ways of doing it; dipping them in hot wax, letting it cool, and then peeling off the wax and feathers together worked pretty well. Sunday evening we'd have a big duck dinner.

"The family had a rule, you had to prove you knew how to handle a gun, knew how dangerous it was and how to use it safely before you could go hunting. Usually us boys were about 12 when we got to have our own guns, and you'd better be darned careful, too. So it must have been about 1922 when I started hunting. My first gun was a double-barrel; there were just a few pump guns and no automatics around at that time. We were still using black powder, and boy, you could get a good headache if you were at it for a long time. The fumes would do it to you."

The waiter brought our food, and Mr. Fletcher paused in his story and we looked out the windows at the magnificent view. He pointed out where the Fletcher family had lived when he was a boy, where Fourth Avenue makes it's dogleg at Walnut, a corner now occupied by doctor's offices, the San Diego Blood Bank, and Planned Parenthood. Sailboats skimmed across the surface of Mission Bay. "Mission Bay was called False Bay then because it was very shallow and full of mud flats. It had a lot of fresh water coming in, so it was brackish. So many ducks came in there that they called it 'Duckville' out in those mud flats. That was before my time, but my eldest brother, Ed Jr., had some wonderful shooting out there. By the time I was old enough to shoot, the city had taken it over and closed it to hunting. When I was a kid, though, right by the railroad tracks on the eastern shore there was a little spring. This friend and I had observed there were a lot of doves coming in there to feed. We knew it wasn't appropriate to do it, but one day we did go out and had half an hour of terrific dove shooting. That was the only time I hunted Mission Bay."

Thinking of Sam and Nolan's adventures in Mission Valley, I asked, "Did you ever hunt Mission Valley as a kid?"

"No, I never did hunt out in Mission Valley, but at that time, when I was 10, 11, 12, I was a member of the Gene Stratton Porter Boys Bird Club. There were about ten of us, and every Saturday we would go down into Mission Valley and try to identify birds and get their songs and so forth. I did that for about five or six years until I started really hunting." he laughed. "I got kidded a lot by my brothers, but I enjoyed it. It wasn't quite consistent with hunting thought, so I finally quit."

The salmon was excellent, and once we'd finished it off and received our coffees, Mr. Fletcher resumed the story of his childhood hunts. "We'd open the season at Cuyamaca Lake. We had a couple of cabins up there so we'd have 10 or 12 men and us kids would take six or eight rowboats, no outboard motors then. The old boat dock was just about where it is now, and all the ducks would be down in the other end of the lake, towards Laguna. We had some blinds down there. Some of them were better than others, so we always had a race to get them. The boats would line up, and somebody would sound a horn, and we'd all row for our favorite places. They'd all spread out then. Some people would do pass-shooting at birds flying overhead, shooting from the boats, but a lot of us would get in blinds and put out decoys and call the ducks in.

"The lake would freeze sometimes, all but about 50 feet in the center. We could carefully walk out on the ice and set up a blind near the open water. The ducks would come in to land, they'd hit on the ice and scurry on their bellies until they got into the water. We'd try to kill them before they made it. We didn't have any dogs to retrieve the dead ducks, so we'd very carefully slide on our stomachs across the ice to get them. Nobody ever broke through, but another time, we weren't hunting, our Sunday School class was up there on an outing and one of the kids fell through the ice. He tried to climb back out, but the ice kept breaking. Finally we made a chain out of about six boys laying on the ice and got to him and pulled him out. It was nip and tuck. We were sure scared."

The waiter brought us our last cups of coffee. Mr. Fletcher referred to a list he'd made of some of the local places he'd hunted. "The San Elijo Lagoon, I went out there one morning, alone, set out my decoys. It happened to be a great day. The birds would go out into the ocean to sit and then come back to the lagoon and feed. I got them coming and going. At that time, the limit was 25, and I killed 25 ducks. All by myself. Hodges could be good when the water was high. I didn't hunt Lake Henshaw a lot, but I had an unhappy experience there. I'd only been married three months and I took my wife out hunting for the first time. I had a boat with an outboard motor on it, and we ran on the motor up to the entrance of a bay we wanted to scout, then I tipped it up and started rowing. My wife looked up and said, "What's that coming?" "I said, 'By God, that's a duck. Shoot him!' I'll be damned if she didn't shoot him and kill him! "About that time, somebody comes out from behind a log and starts walking out to us beside the water. Turns out to be a game warden. 'You're shooting out of a motorboat!' he yelled.

"'I was rowing,' I shouted back. "He said, 'You've got to take the motor off the back and put it down in the boat.' He was going to give my wife a ticket, but I explained that we'd only been married for three months and that I'd told her to shoot. So he gave me the ticket." He chuckled. "That ruined my chance to be on the Fish and Game Commission!

"My other ticket, we were hunting at Lake Corte Madera. I was with two friends. We'd driven out in the car of the older one. He was a prominent businessman, very proper older man. It had been a good day; we'd shot quite a few ducks and had also picked up some that had drifted down the lake from the blinds upwind. That was the custom out there, you'd pick up the other fellow's ducks and then sort them out when you got together after the shoot. The limit was 10, and we'd all counted them, we had 30 ducks. We were driving back, and that same game warden stopped us. Greenwald was his name. He counted the ducks, we had 31. He said to my friend, "You're driving, you have possession. I'm going to give you a ticket." I was watching my friend, and oh, his face just blanched.

"I turned to the other fellow and said. 'One of us has to take this ticket.'

"He said, 'Ferd, I can't do it. I just got pinched yesterday for bringing illegal lobsters across the border!

"So I said, 'Okay, Mr. Game Warden, I'll take the ticket, but let me tell you, I've run into you twice. I didn't think you used what was reasonable discretion the first time, and you aren't now. I don't think you're much of a warden.'

"I had the ticket transferred down to San Diego, and it came up before a municipal court judge. He said to me, 'Ferd, what do you think I ought to do to you?'

"I said, 'The same thing they did to you when you started shooting doves before the season opened!'

"'Twenty-five dollars. Suspended!'"


The last day I was in San Diego, I took a bike ride up through Mission Valley. I parked the car off Sea World Drive and peddled upstream along the barren mud flats and shallow meanders of the San Diego River estuary. I was looking for someplace that was still left, a remnant of the world my old hunters had walked 60 years before.

A couple of days earlier, I'd ridden Nolan Wright's paper route, all along the edge of Mission Hills and finally down to Hawk Street. From the street ends and between houses, I peered into the alley. It was hard to imagine Nolan trapping skunks there or Sam shooting rabbits from the fender of the touring car. It might as well have been another geologic age instead of just a generation separating their valley from the present. I hoped by getting closer and going slower, I could perhaps find a fossil or two.

Sea World Drive turns into Friars Road as it crosses under I-5; the muddy estuary narrows into a brush choked stream. A chain-link fence separates the bile path from the brush, but that was okay with me. It looked a more likely place for muggers than game. Friars Road climbs a gentle hill alongside a golf course, a sign on the fence reads "The Handlery Hotel and Country Club Golf Course is irrigated with nonpotable well water." I wasn't certain if I was being warned or reassured.

By the afternoon's end I'd ridden twenty miles, staying as close as possible to the river, sometimes on a paved path I shared with joggers from the condos along the river, sometimes on the edge of heavily trafficked streets, occasionally on muddy tracks at the water's edge. Man's hand has not rested lightly here; even where the river is bordered by the jogging path there has been little attempt to retain any remnants of a natural river. No trees line the banks, and the stream is artificiality slowed and broadened into a series of shallow lakes by concrete weirs.

Finally, below the parking lot of the Mission Valley Center, I found a hundred yards of stream that still looks like a stream. A wooden footbridge crosses what is now only a creek, and a gauging station stands prepared to chart it's rise to a level 5 of 6 feet above it's present trickle, some 20 or 30 feet below where it was that day in 1927 when Nolan watched it rush through the valley burdened with trees, sheds, and bellowing cattle.

I wandered upstream and sat on the weedy bank next to an old tree. I wondered if it was a survivor of that last great flood, if, as a supple sapling, it had bent beneath the pressure of the water and had lived, a relic from the valley where the boys and hunted and trapped. The tree's smooth bark was repeatedly scarred with the initials "TMK," the largest set with a dash and the further information, "GRAFFITI VANDAL CREW." In the Nordstrom parking lot behind me, someone disturbed a sensitive car and it began to hoot and wail in electronic distress. The brief spell was broken. The valley I was looking for existed now only in the memories of my old hunters.

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"When I was a kid, every Saturday, Sunday morning I'd go across the street, 'cross Main Street, where it's now Tenth Street Terminal. It was all wetlands in there before they filled it in. San Diego Lumber Company had their yards in there, and there were doves in there till hell wouldn't have 'em. I'd go in there and kill 15, 20 doves. Shooting them on the ground."

Sam Navarro's raspy voice still carries the faintest trace of an unidentifiable accent, and his stories are punctuated with sweeping gestures, delighted chuckles, and booming laughs that are too exuberant to be quite "American"; yet he is one of those rare creatures, a true native San Diegan.

"Dad came over from the old country, Italy, in 1910. He came and got settled and he sent for my mother in 1012. They got a house on Newton Street out in Logan Heights. It's a Mexican district now, but then it looked like the town was going to move that way. Somehow it shifted, went up toward Hillcrest, North Park. By the time I was born, 1922, Logan Heights was still mostly vacant land, dirt streets."

We sat on the couch of the Navarros' pleasant home on the west slope of Mission Hills. It was late fall, and Mrs. Navarro's collection of wooden nutcracker dolls filled the coffee table in front of us. Mrs. Navarro said, "Sam thinks they're silly, and some of them are quite expensive, but I love them."

I'd come to talk with Sam about hunting. Noel Allen, a gun safety instructor for the state, had given me his name and the names of a few other men who had hunted in the San Diego area 50 or 60 years ago, telling me, "You'll have fun with these guys, they've got some great stories."

Sam is 72, a small, powerful man with the bandy legs, hard little pot, and broad shoulders gained only through a lifetime of physical work. He spent 34 years as a commercial fisherman, starting out with a quarter-share on his brother-in-law's boat and retiring as the full owner of a 180-foot purse seiner. He's a natural storyteller, and for the next hour or so I said hardly a word while he talked about his boyhood and growing up in San Diego, about his dad. The stories rolled out in no particular order, one memory triggering another, all tied together by hunting.

"My dad, he always did a lot of hunting in Italy, lot of hunting, loved to hunt, and when he came here the desire to hunt was still there.He bought his first shotgun here, a double-barreled Parker 12-gauge. It cost $75, I believe, a lot of money then. I've still got that gun, still shoot it too.

"He used to work in a fish cannery, used to work in the lumber, longshoreman, stuff like that. To save money he loaded his own shells, even made his own lead shot. He had a piece of flat iron, little holes drilled in it like a strainer. Had it suspended five or six feet over a tub of water. He'd melt the lead and pour it over the iron, it'd drip into the tub and that'd be the shot. It was all different sizes, fours, sixes, sevens, and a halves, but it beat hell out of buying it. A lot cheaper. Then he'd take the shell cases, knock the old primer out, put a new primer in. He had a little cup to measure the powder, he'd pour that in, put the felt wads in, he had a little hand press to push those down, then pour in the shot, then he'd stick it in this little device, go all around the top, and seal it up.

"I was just six or seven when he broke me in, gave me my first gun, a single shot .410."(Shotguns are usually sized by gauges; 12-, 16-, and 20-gauge are the most popular. The larger the bore, the smaller the gauge. The .410, a more recently introduced cartridge, is designated by it's actual bore diameter, 410 thousands of an inch, slightly smaller than a .45 caliber pistol and about 30-gauge by the old system.)

"Did he have you shoot tin cans or targets to start with?" I asked.

"No, Dad was pretty conservative; you shot, you shot for meat. He wouldn't teach me to shoot rabbits on the run, but, you know, rabbit sitting on the side of the road, he'd drive up fairly close to it, `Go ahead, shoot him.' Pop! Go out there and get him, throw him in the car.

"As I grew up, most of our hunting was in Mission Valley, where Fashion Valley is, May Company, the stadium; there was some of the best damn duck shootin' you ever heard of. Along that river bottom there were a lot of potholes, just full of ducks. Walk up, sneak up on 'em, jump shoot. Shoot 'em on the water, stuff like that, no sportsman stuff. Doves in that valley too, and quail, on the sides of the hills where the hotels are. My dad, he didn't go much for duck hunting; he used to go more for rabbits, he was a big rabbit man. That's what they used to shoot in Italy. They're good sized and they're eatable. He'd shoot doves and quail 'cause he loved to hunt, but ducks, he never liked 'em much. Maybe my mother didn't know how to cook 'em. In the valley there you'd get mallards and sprig and teal, but they'd go out in the bay, maybe taste a little fish. This was in the late 20s, early '30s. There was nothing built in there, just a dirt road, a couple of ruts, ran through it.

"We had an early-'20s Dodge convertible, nothing on the sides. When it rained you really got wet. It had regular fenders, not like the cars today. My sister, she was the oldest, she'd drive. We'd go right down Sixth Avenue, get to where Mercy Hospital is now, stop the car, load our guns, I'd get on one fender, my brother'd get on the other fender, and we'd go right down that dirt road to the bottom of the valley. In the bottom there was a dirt track that ran along the river, but we'd cross it, cross the river on a real crude wooden bridge and go up to where Sharp's Hospital is now. By then we'd have all the rabbits we needed. We'd turn around, maybe pick up a few more on the way back. We'd come home with anywhere from 20 to 50 rabbits. Not really hunting, just shoot them from off the fenders, stop and pick 'em up. We'd come home and be skinning rabbits until hell wouldn't have it! Rabbits, that was all the meat we had in the house. There was no season, no limit, we ate rabbit all year long."

Sam paused, thought about rabbits. I could see him mentally tasting them again. ""My brother and I, you know what our favorite part of the rabbit was? The heads! We used to fight for who'd get the head! I think maybe my sister has a picture from back then, a whole bowl of rabbit heads that my mother was going to cook. The heads, that's always the best part of the meat. Italian fishermen, they make cioppino, you know what cioppino is? It's like a fish soup, a stew, and what you do is fillet out the fish, sell the fillets, take the tail, fins, the backbone, and the head, that makes the best cioppino there is."

He paused again, chuckled at himself and said, almost ruefully, ""You know, I don't think I could eat a rabbit head anymore.""

Mrs. Navarro said, ""He used to bring home rabbits and put them in the sink. One day I got to looking at one of them, it looked just like a skinned cat."

Sam laughed, ""Yeah, and that was the last rabbit she cooked, too!"

"They say rabbit tastes like chicken,"" she volunteered.

I agreed, yes, they do say that, but Sam was off on another roll. "We were married then, so it must have been the late '40s. This guy named Abe Campbell, he had a farm out past El Cajon. Now it's Rancho San Diego Golf Course; he owned that whole damned valley. He used to build our boats; he had an interest in the boat; he wouldn't build one unless he could have an interest in it. I used to hunt ducks with him out at Lake Morena, and one day he came up to me, 'Hey, Sam! Want to talk to you, you young buck! You like to hunt, I want you to come out and shoot my rabbits!'"

Mr. Campbell was an irascible old man, at least as Sam portrayed him, loud and a bit overbearing, as people who own whole valleys and a piece of your fishing boat can perhaps be. ""He was an elderly man, gettin' too old to hunt, and the rabbits were eating up his alfalfa. You get enough rabbits, they'll eat that alfalfa until there's not enough to bale. `You come out to my place, shoot 'em at night! We'll get those rabbits out of there!'

"'That's illegal,' I said.

"'Legal, hell! Those game wardens try and come on my land, they'll find out legal!'

"'But they could sure arrest me as soon as I step off it. No, you get the permission and I'll come hunt your rabbits.'

"So, he got the permission and we went out there. My wife was driving and the kids were in the back seat. I was riding on the fender. She'd drive along, spot a rabbit in the headlights, stop the car, and I'd shoot it. I'd go, pick it up, throw it in the trunk, climb back on the fender, go for the next one. He came driving up in his car, yelled at me, 'That ain't no way to shoot rabbits! Get over here! Get up on the roof of my car! Put your feet on the hood! Don't worry about the car, I'm going' to get a new one anyway!' So I climbed up there and he yelled out the window, `Now I'll drive and you shoot, and we ain't stoppin for no rabbits!' He started off down the road, driving slow, you know, and there's rabbits everywhere. I had an automatic and I couldn't stuff shells in it fast enough. Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! And him yelling, 'Never mind picking 'em up, we'll come back afterwords!'"

Sam laughed, shook his head in wonderment at the old man and his own, younger and more bloodthirsty self. "He'd come by, 'Come over again tonight! Come over again tonight! There's still lots of them damn rabbits!' He'd buy the shells and I'd shoot rabbits until hell wouldn't have it, leave 'em by the side of the road, and his Mexican help would come out and pick them up, take 'em home and eat them.

"Another thing about rabbits,"" Sam expostulated, "you shoot one, put it in the back of the car, shoot another, throw it back there, take 'em home, you've got a nice mess of meat. But your car! It's full of fleas!"

"How come?"" I asked.

"Those rabbits cool down and the fleas jump off!"

"Rats from a sinking ship?"" I ventured.

"Yeah, and how the hell you going to get rid of those fleas? I'm out there with this spray thing for fleas and all that, but still, you get in the car to go to work and there's fleas all over you!" He looks itchy just thinking about it.

So I quit bringing rabbits home. Even now I've got guys that want to go hunting, bring a rabbit home. I say, `Fine, you want to bring back that rabbit, you skin him out right here. Don't put him in my car with the skin on.'"" He gives a little shudder and scratches his arm reflexively, "I guess we never noticed the fleas when I was a kid because we always had dogs in that car. All those fleas must have left on the dogs."

"Were you still shooting that little .410 by the time you were shooting rabbits with your brother?" I asked.

"No, by then I had a 12-gauge, a single shot. My brother had a Belgian Browning automatic 16-gauge, one of those old ones with the hump on the back of the receiver." He ruminated for a couple of seconds. ""That reminds me of a story, my first run-in with the warden."" He caught my eye and grinned at what he was about to tell me. I could feel him pose, like a diver of the tip of the high board, then he plunged into the tale.

"Quail season opened. My brother was working, going to school, something, so I took that 16 automatic, went out with my dad, out on Mira Mesa. This game warden comes up, looks at the gun, says, `You got a plug in there?'"

Multiple-shot single-barreled usually hold five shots, one in the chamber, the place where the shell is actually fired, and four in the magazine, a tube under the barrel that holds the extra shells. But federal law limits the number of shots that a shotgun can shoot without reloading to only three. To be legal, a shotgun must have a ""plug"" in the magazine, limiting it's capacity to two shells. The plug is usually just a stick the length of two shells that takes up the space that more ammunition could occupy.

"I didn't know anything about plugs, I don't think I'd ever heard of them before, so I said, 'Whadda you mean, plug?'

"'Lemme see that gun!' So he disassembles it. Looks at it. No plug. 'Going to jail! Take the gun away from you, shooting without a plug.'

"My dad comes walking over. He's been a distance away while all this was going on. 'What'sa the matta?'" Sam's voice metamorphoses into a rich organ-grinder Italian accent. "My dad, he couldn't speak English too well, but he could make himself understood.

"The guy says, `I'm taking the kid in, and I'm taking his gun away!'

"'Why, what dida he do?'

'Shooting without a plug."

"My dad had this double-barreled Parker."" Sam crooks his arm. I can see the gun resting in the bend of his father's elbow; he swings the crooked arm gently in my direction. ""He says, `Wait a minute, wait a minute. Ifa the kid doa someathing wrong, I go to the judge ana we pay the fine. You no takea the kid to jail!'

The guy's got this damn Belgian 16-gauge all disassembled, and at that time I didn't know if they had sidearms or not. He says 'Whadda you mean there?'

"'I'ma tellinga you, you no takea my kid to jail. I don't thinka the kid doa nothing awrong, but we go seea the judge. You get in your car. We get in my car. We follow. We go seea the judge. The judge he say the kid do someathing bad, I paya the fine. But you no takea my kid to jail, and you no takea that gun away!'

"Well, the guy can see the handwriting on the wall and he says,"" Sam's voice drops to that of a thwarted teenager, ""`He's still supposed to have a plug.'

"My dad says, `Okay, we put a plug, but you no takea my kid to jail!'"

Sam chuckled and I asked, ""That was the end of it?"

"He got in his car and drove off!

"And ducks! We used to shoot ducks down by McCormack's Lumber Yard. They were mostly sea ducks, those scooters?"

I'm not quite sure how we've gotten here, but I nod and say, "Uh-haw." In actuality I'm not at all sure what a scooter might be, but I've learned that any interruption is likely to cause a switch to an entirely different story, and I'm interested to see how this one turns out.

"Every Saturday I'd go down there, shoot ducks till hell wouldn't have it! And then I'd have to go dig clams. My parents liked the clams, and every time I'd go out my mother's give me a sack, say, `You go hunting, but you gotta bring back a sack of clams.' The South Bay, it was just full of clams , just sloughs then, and you could dig clams all over. Hell, there's still clams there! Everybody's afraid to eat them, all the pollution and all. That's all you read about, pollution, pollution, pollution ... But the ducks, my parent's weren't too fond of them, so I used to take them in a little wagon down to where all the blacks lived, sell 'em for 15 or 20 cents apiece. They's buy 'em! Give me a buck, I'd give them a dozen! That's how I paid for my ammunition. No limits on ducks then. We used to shoot them by the sackful, bluebills, teal, widgeon, canvasbacks. Canvasbacks are big ducks, bigger than mallards, and there used to be a lot of them in the South Bay. I'd get 50 cents for a canvasback; buy a lot of shells back then for 50 cents.""

I wanted to know about hunting now. Obviously Mission Valley is out. Is there any place where Sam's grandchildren can hunt?

"I've got a deal with a farmer out in Santa Ysabel, permission to shoot squirrels, and coyotes. The farmer, he wants to get rid of the ground squirrels. Poor farmer goes out and builds a dam, stores water for his cattle, and the squirrels, they dig holes in it, dam starts to leak, pretty soon it washes the dam out. Cow comes walking along, steps in a squirrel hole, breaks it leg. You don't put a cast on a cow. Farmer's not in love with the squirrels. I take all my grandchildren out there in the spring, shoot ground squirrels. Three years ago I took my grandson out there, he was 13, 14. I called the guy up, told him I was bringing the kid out, told him, `You get to talking to us, don't make a liar out of me, say""Watch out for the cougar, watch out for the wild boar...""

"That poor kid, he really thought he was in the Belgian Congo. I told him, 'You walk under a tree, look up, make sure there is no cougar!'

"I've got a single-action Ruger revolver. I strapped that on him, hung a big hunting knife off his other hip. He says, `What's all this for?'

"'Cougar comes at you too close for a chance with the rifle, pull that gun out, stick it in his gut!'

"You could see the poor kid was saying, `Jesus, what'd I get into here?' but it made it interesting." Sam's sense of humor closely resembles my father's; terrorizing the kid has likely been good sport since cavemen took their son's to club mastodons.

"I told him, `Keep that strap off so you can draw it out real fast!'" He laughed and slapped his leg.

"I dropped him off on one side of a hill, told him to hunt across it and that I'd pick him up on the other side. He goes pussyfooting up there, you could see his eyes were as big as rock cod, looking up in the trees. Drove off, yelled, 'Watch out for the wild boar!'

"I drove around that hill, waited, then, Bang! 'Course no cougar in that country for 50 years. Never been any wild boar. But pretty soon he comes over that hill yelling and waving his arms at me. By God, he'd shot himself a little forked-horn buck. So we went up there, I said, 'Well come on now, you killed it, you got to gut it.' He pulls the knife out, he was going to start gutting it from the wrong end, the way you would a duck. I showed him. 'You've got to start from the top, put your hand on the stomach, put the edge of the blade up so you don't cut into the stomach' He got it all cut open, and I said `Now comes the worst part, you've got to reach in and pull out all those guts.' Oh, he was just covered in blood, but he got it done. He bragged about that deer for years. They saved the head, mounted it, I guess I had it mounted for him.

"I've been doin it all my life, hunting. I'm still doing it, but now it's mostly skeet, a few doves and quail, shoot those varmits. I don't do any more big game, it gets kinda old, you know, like an elk. One shot, you shoot your elk, then the damn work starts, there's just a lot of work involved. I get my Mexican license every year because there's still a lot of game down there, but now this year, Mexico got all screwed up on the permits and so forth. I got mine, though, and that's where I hunt dove, quail. Duck shooting in Mexico is not what it used to be. The Colorado River, it's all blocked up, and I like to eat what I shoot, still don't much like ducks.

The day after talking with Sam, I was out before sunrise to meet Wilbur Kelley in La Jolla. We had breakfast at Denny's; at 7:30 the place was filled with Mexican yard workers who would shortly be out grooming the town's immaculate grass and gardens.

Wilbur is 78, a lifelong San Diegan, and, despite an artificial hip and knee, still a trim and athletic figure. His father and then Wilbur himself owned and operated Kelley Laundry, a linen supply company. While Sam was sent out at age six or seven to bring home meat for the Navarro table. Wilbur had to wait considerably longer before being allowed to hunt, ""My dad gave me my first gun when I was 14. It was an automatic, a Remington, I lost it overboard at Lake Morena that first year.""

"My God! How did that happen?" I asked.

"We were shooting out of a boat. I was sitting there, watching this duck go around, it was about ready to come in. I took the safety off the gun and swung around. The butt of the gun hit the gunwale of the boat, my finger slipped on the trigger, the gun went off, and the recoil just knocked it overboard. It was scary. It taught me a lesson, how much of a thing could happen with a gun, how fast things could go wrong. You think you're safe, all of a sudden that gun goes off and passes by you, it's frightening."

Most all of the hunters I've talked to at length have a story like that; I have one myself. I was about the same age as Wilbur was, 13 or 14. My dad and I were hunting ducks from a blind,a three-foot-high enclosure of chicken wire camouflaged with cattails and tumbleweeds. The blind was at the water's edge of a two-acre pond a couple of miles from our house. Before dawn, I'd waded into the pond, my hip boots breaking through the scum ice along the edge, setting out a couple of dozen decoys. It was a perfect duck morning, a low overcast spitting a mixture of snow and sleet; the birds would be flying low and looking for a friendly place to paddle around and gabble with some strangers. Ducks feed at night, ghostly shapes scrabbling for fallen grain in the harvested corn and wheat fields. At dawn the birds rise from the fields scattered across our valley and fly in bands of from two to several hundred, seeking a pond where they spend the day. On clear, calm days, ducks like to sit in the middle of the biggest water they can find, usually quite inaccessible to hunters, but in wind and storm they prefer more intimate quarters, particularly if there seem to be fellow ducks enjoying the surroundings.

There's a real skill involved insetting out a string of decoys and building a blind. Unless the fog's right down to the ground, ducks will usually give a pond a high pass, barely out of shotgun range, and just one unnatural decoy or the slightest flash of a gun barrel or white of face will cause them to flare off. Even more skill is required in the use of the duck call. In the off-season my father would spend hours at a friend's private pond, talking with the tame ducks. Duck, mallards especially, keep up an almost continuous low quacking, a murmur of quiet conversation. When they spy other ducks overhead, however, they give them the ""Hey, get down here!" cry, called the "high-ball" by duck hunters. It's the "QUAAACK, QUAAACK, QUAck, Quack, quack," that we always associate with ducks. Dad could call in ducks that were just specks on the horizon, coaxing them down with alternating urgent high-balls and the gentle mutter of contented ducks. I was capable of just the opposite result, turning back groups that were still miles away.

As the gray sky to the east lightened with the dawn that 40-years-ago morning, we spotted a couple of ducks flying toward the pond. Dad gave them a quick high-ball and we hid below the blind, heard the rustle of their wings as they passed overhead. He chuckled softly into the duck call as they flew off, and we peeked over the side of the blind to see them turning and dropping, preparing to set down among the decoys. We pulled our heads down and he whispered to me, "You take the back one."

We held our positions for a long moment, waiting for the birds to make the turn and lock their wings into landing position, clicked off our safeties, and leapt to our feet, our guns coming to our shoulders. I brought my 16-gauge up in a smooth arc, swinging from behind the trailing duck and squeezing the trigger just as the sights swept past his bright yellow beak. Maybe I closed my eyes just as I fired, or maybe it just happened too quickly to see, but somehow the ducks had crossed in flight and my shot had gone right into Dad's gun, blowing off the last foot of the barrel just inches from where his hand gripped the gun's forearm. Nausea rose in my throat, and momentarily I saw a bloody pulp where his trembling fingers held the truncated weapon.

Fortunately, the only injury was to his brand new Model 12, and my obviously shaken condition was deemed punishment enough for my carelessness. The image is still vivid, and as I told Wilbur the story I shuddered again at how close I'd come to shooting my father. I asked him to tell me a happier hunting story.

"Morena was my dad's favorite place to hunt when I first started hunting. He had a Willys then, and we'd start off from town in the middle of the night to get to the lake before dawn. Lake Morena was quite wild, really out in the country, at the end of a dirt road and nothing there but a boathouse and a little cafe. I must have been 11 or 12 the first year I got to go, say it was 1927. My job those first few years, especially before I got a gun, was to row the boat and pick up the downed birds."

"Were you shooting out of boats?" I asked.

"No, we had blinds, but I'd row to get us there, and after they'd shot a bird I'd jump in the boat and row out to go get it. I was the retriever. No Labs in those days. I got a lot of exercise.

"We'd get out there way before dawn. Everybody'd get in their boats and get lined up by the boathouse, some people had their own boats, but most of us rented them. Then the guy in charge would say it was time, we could go. We had a race! The best blinds went to those who rowed the hardest. It's a pretty big lake; by the time we'd get to where we wanted to hunt, I'd be pooped out. We always raced against Max Heimberg; he was a big, husky German fellow and a great friend of my father's. Those were always good races, all the way across the lake, both of us trying for the same blind. Then he got a kayak."

"Cheated?" I suggested.

Wilbur chuckled. He's not a man who easily speaks ill of his fellows, especially not his father's friends. "Well, he certainly got out there ahead of us after that. He was a wonderful old man. He was old to me; he must have been in his 30s.

"We carried lots of decoys, and that was my job too, put out those decoys and pick them up after the shooting. It was exciting and it was fun. Those things, they just don't happen anymore. There isn't any areas where you can have that kind of a deal now.""

Our breakfast arrived. Wilbur had orange juice and poached eggs; I, fried eggs and hash browns. I felt obscurely guilty, thinking about my grease intake and wondering if in 25 years I'd be in nearly the good shape Wilbur was. Between bites of food and sips of coffee, he continued talking about Lake Morena.

"After the war {World War II}, it all changed. More hunters moved in, and people were shooting that shouldn't have been behind a gun. That was before you had to take lessons and learn to handle a gun. There were too many people out there who were just poor sportsmen. We decided not to hunt the public lakes anymore, it was just too dangerous. I'm glad to see that now they're making people know something about their guns before they can get a license, make them get some instruction.

So where did they hunt, once they'd decided Morena was out?

"My dad had a place at Rancho Corte Madera. It's about an hour's drive east of here in the Pine Valley area. There's a private lake, Lake Corte Madera, with homes around it. It's been a shooting club since way back. There even used to be a lodge, but it burned before I started hunting. Dad bought his house from Ewart Goodwin, our insurance man and also a good friend, in the middle '30s. My son owns the place now and hunts there occasionally, but his kids don't have much interest in hunting."

Wilbur picked up one of the handsomely framed pictures he'd brought to our meeting. They normally hang in the hunting house at the lake, but he'd told me about them and I'd asked to see them.

"This had to have been taken about 1940, just soon before the war, at Corte Madera Lake. There's my father, myself, and Ewart Goodwin. I counted about 120 ducks laid out there. There was a limit then, 10, 12 ducks; everybody must have killed close to that. The bigger ducks are canvasbacks, the rest are redheads, widgeon, mallards, a few spoonies in there, mostly they're good big birds.

"I started hunting at Corte Madera around 1935. In 1940 I would have been home on vacation from school in Illinois; laundry school, I was a laundry man. I'd planned to be a coach, but it was the Depression and there were no jobs available, so I went to work for my father in the laundry, just temporarily. I stayed there 30 years.

"The hunting at Corte Madera is controlled, it's all private. There's usually about ten hunters, and they get together at 4:00, 4:30 in the morning at one of the houses and draw for the blinds. All the blinds are numbered, and you draw the numbers out of a hat. Whoever's in blind number six is the captain of the hunt, and once everyone's in his blind and it's time to shoot, he whistles once. After the first round of shooting, when the birds have been shot or scared off, if he thinks some may come back, he'll whistle twice, and everybody will hold their fire until they've come back and settled down, then he'll whistle once again, and you can start shooting again."

"What happened after you got out of school, did you join the military then?" I asked.

"Yes, I was in the Navy. I had patrol duty up and down the coast from San Diego for about a year and a half. There's some lagoons out behind Torrey Pines, they were almost in my back yard, and I'd go out in the morning and sneak ducks there. My captain liked to eat duck, so if I brought a few back, I could be a little late for duty. My hunting buddy at the time, Chris Allen, his parents owned a dairy in Mission Valley, the Allen Dairy, and Mission Valley was one of the greatest places for doves and quail. Anytime we could get some time off the base, we'd go out there, right about where Hazard Center is now. It was just a few minutes from the base, and we could run up there in the afternoon and get a couple of limits of dives."

Wilbur spent the next few years fighting for his life in the Pacific, but soon after he returned home he was back into hunting.

"Ewart Goodwin called me up shortly after I returned from the Navy and said, `We're putting together a bunch of guys to buy the San Elijo Lagoon Duck Club.'

"I'd never heard of the place, but I asked, `How much are you talking about here?

"'Oh it's only a thousand dollars a piece.'

"'Only a thousand dollars!' I'd been in the Navy, had been gone the past three years, a thousand dollars was a lot of money and I didn't have it.

"He said, 'Find some way to borrow it, we're going to have a great bunch of guys and you'll regret it if you don't. It's going to cost $20,000, and I want you to be one of those 20 guys. It could turn out to be a good real-estate deal too.'

"So I raised the money and we bought the place. It was about 450, 470 acres, but most of it was lagoon. There were only about 75 acres of tillable land. There was a fellow and his family that lived in the house on the property and grew beans, raised a few chickens. We let them stay rent-free, and he patrolled the place, kept other hunters out. It was such a convenient place, only 20 minutes from town, you could go hunting in the morning before work. We used to meet in a restaurant in Pacific Beach, have breakfast, and decide who would shoot what blind, go out and have a great shoot, and still be in the office by nine o'clock.

"We kept at it for 20 years, finally sold it in the '60s for $880,000. A guy named Swartz, Herman Swartz, bought it. He was developing land all over the state, but he got caught on that one. The state came in and built a freeway right across the middle of it, he got some money for that, but the rest of it he had to just basically donate to the state. Now it's all a state game preserve, and the houses come right down to the edge of it,"" Wilbur sorted through the pictures spread on the table between us and picked up one of a dirt road curving beneath overhanging trees, "but as you can see here, back then it was wild and just beautiful. Over the years I put $2200 into that place, taxes and assessments, plus the thousand to start, and I got $44,000 when we sold. It was the best investment I ever made."

After Sam's talk the day before of coastal ducks not being fit to eat, I was curious what Wilbur, obviously a man who'd eaten his share of them, thought of their taste.

The coastal ducks will usually taste just as good as any ducks, except for the spoonbills, they'll be salty. Sometimes a mallard will cheat, eat fish or something and taste bad, but a sprig, a pintail, he'll always taste good. We shoot brandt, sea geese, down in Mexico. They live on eel grass, and they never taste bad at all, they're sweet."

What about rabbits, Sam's family's preferred meat?

"The only time I would shoot a rabbit was when we'd go dove shooting at this old lady's place in the Imperial Valley. Her husband had died, and she was running the farm and raising three kids by herself. They were real poor people, and we always tried to get her a rabbit or two."

Another picture, this one of a younger Wilbur, his wife, and two Labrador retrievers standing beside an old Ford station wagon, brings up another story. "My wife had never hunted as a kid, never even went camping until we were married, but she turned out to be an excellent hunter, good shot. We each had our own dog, black Labs. She did all the training. She used to work with a guy that trained field trial dogs, and those Labs were wonderful retrievers."

My family also hunted with Labs, and we reminisced about how the dogs loved to hunt. If hunting is good for nothing else, it provides an opportunity for men to interact with another species on such a close level that it sometimes feels that telepathy is involved. The joy a hunting dog feels and expresses, frequently wagging its tail so furiously that the vibrations shake its entire body, that first fall morning when the guns come out of the closet and are stowed in the back of the car is something only a hunter witnesses. Rarely does a dog owner get to see just how smart and skilled an animal they live with is, and many of the domestic breeds, kept for generations as companions and decorative pets, have lost much of their primordial skills, and much of their brains, too, I suspect. Hunting dogs, however, are still bred for smarts. Wilbur told me a story of one of his favorite dogs, Rip.

"Everybody has a story of a great retrieve. One that sticks in my mind was a day down in Mexico shooting brandt. I had three novice hunters with me. I put them in blinds down by the water, and I climbed up the hill above them so I could see the geese coming and tell the hunters what to do and when. Three birds were flying up the coast towards our decoys, and I started telling these guys 'Hold your fire, hold your fire.' When the birds got right in front of the blind and set their wings to come in, I yelled, `Let 'em have it!' Nobody fired, they hadn't even seen the geese. I'd scared the birds by jumping up. They were flaring off and I wasn't about to let them get away, so I let go one shot. The bird in the middle dropped dead, the other two came down wounded, one with a broken wing, the other crippled. A three-in-one shot, absolutely amazing!

"Old Rip went right into the water, he didn't pay any attention to the dead bird, gave just a quick turn of his head to the one that was flopping around, and took off after the one with the broken wing that was swimming away. He chased it clear out of sight and must have had a fight with it, because he brought it back dead, but there wasn't a tooth mark on the bird. Then he dove right back in and brought back the crippled bird and then the dead bird.

Wilbur picked up the picture again, looked at it fondly and a little sadly. "you can have more fun hunting with a dog than any other way. It just makes it so much better. I've had a number of dogs; always had a dog until 1974, then I started traveling and had to leave them home. My last dog died, and the fellow that was keeping him had an autopsy done. All the vet could figure was he'd died of a broken heart."

The restaurant suddenly seemed very quiet; the clatter of dishes and steady background murmur of Spanish that had underscored and at times nearly obliterated our conversation were gone. We gathered up the pictures and walked out to our cars together. Wilbur had a slight limp, his artificial hip is wearing out, he hopes the replacement won't be too difficult. I hoped it wouldn't be and wished him many more years of hunting.

A couple of days later I went out to San Elijo Lagoon. It seemed likely the only place left where I could stand where Wilbur had 45 years ago and still see somewhat the same vista. I couldn't find where the dirt road had run beneath graceful trees: nothing bigger than scrub grows around the lagoon now, and the road must be buried beneath Manchester Avenue, a high-speed two-lane that runs along the north side of the lagoon. I-5 crosses, as Wilbur said, "right across the middle, "on two high bridges; the hum of traffic is constant.

Just before Manchester tees into S21, the coastal road, there's a turnoff and small parking area between the road and the water. I pulled in, hung my binoculars around my neck, and followed the trail that led through the brush into the lagoon. A couple in their 30s had brought heir young daughters birdwatching. The father had a 20-power spotting scope on a tripod aimed at a cormorant preening itself on a piling, he lifted the smaller girl to the eyepiece so she could look at the bird. She didn't appear much interested.

There were birds scattered all across the lagoon; I peered through my binoculars at them. I could identify widgeon, pintails, and a couple of varieties of teal, but the largest and most common ducks were new to me. Just then, the mother birdwatcher walked by , and I asked her what they were. "Northern shovelers" was the answer, a bird I'd never heard of. They're not native to my part of the country. I'd been hoping they were Sam's mysterious scooters.

She pointed out a black-crowned night heron partially concealed in the reeds, said they'd identified more than 30 species in the lagoon that day, the best they'd ever done there. They were leading a group of neophytes on the annual Audubon New Year's Bird Count in a couple of weeks and were getting a preliminary look at what they might be seeing. I asked her about canvasbacks, ducks that figure prominently in my hunters stories but that I had never seen. She'd seen them, but not around San Diego.

The lagoon is still a beautiful place, but it's not the place Wilbur used to hunt. Gone are the trees. the bean fields, the blinds and the walkways the hunters had built to get to them. In every direction the vistas open only to man-made artifacts. Maybe a foggy early morning, the fog hiding the roads and houses and muffling the traffic noise, the place would feel somewhat the same, but that sunny afternoon the changes were all too apparent.

A few days later, I had lunch with Nolan Wright at the Hotel Meridian on Coronado. We met in the hotel's lobby; I recognized him by the red sweater he said he'd wear, and once again I was pleasantly surprised. When I'd started this project and wanted to talk to men who'd hunted 60 years or more ago, I'd imagined visits to nursing homes, drooling old crocks who kept forgetting their own names, and stories dragged out between bedpan changings and gruel feedings. Instead, I kept meeting these men whose vigor and interest in life would put many 40-year-olds to shame. Nolan is 78, but his handshake is firm and his face unlined, and as soon as we were seated in the dining room, he started telling me about his life and the part hunting had played in it.

"We moved to San Diego when I was three [1919], my older sisters and brother, my mom and me. My dad was estranged from the family most of the time I was growing up, but I remember when I was just a little kid, up in the San Joaquin Valley, some fellow came over and picked him up and Dad took his shotgun and came back with a goose. That's the only thing I remember about Dad hunting, but it really excited me, and I think that was the thing that turned me on to hunting. It was the most exciting thing I'd ever heard of, go out hunting and bring back a goose, big white snow goose.

"When I was ten years old, a neighbor, he was a sailor, a chief or something, invited me to go hunting with him. He liked to hunt, but didn't have anyone to go with. We went over to the little hardware store in Hillcrest, and he helped me pick out a shotgun. I got a Bay State single-shot, about the cheapest gun you could get at the time, I think they cost something like 7.95. They had all the gauges, 12, 20, 16. Naturally, I wanted a little .410, but no way would he have it. He said, 'You've got to have the 12-gauge, don't undergun yourself.' So I got the 12-gauge; we cut the stock off so it would fit me. It was quite a challenge to shoot that thing. These things kick like hell for a kid. Later on, when my arms got a little longer I put a piece of sponge rubber on it. He was right in one way, he said 'Gol dang, you can't hit anything with that dinky .410!' but I took a lot of punishment from that gun.

"We used to go out on the other side, the east side, of Lakeside, big broad valley there, it goes all the way to El Capitan Dam. Of course, that was before the dam was built. The country was alive with game, quail and doves and rabbits. We'd go up there and hunt anything we could find, shoot anything. There was no season on rabbit; there was a limit on doves and quail, 15 doves and 10 quail. Those were the limits for ages and ages, that limit never did change for many, many years.

"Lakeside was already a pretty good little community, but beyond there, there were just very scattered houses, and they weren't down in the floor of the valley, more up on the sides of the hills. In '26 or '27 there was a big flood that came down through there, all through Mission Valley, filled the Valley right up. I was delivering papers up in Mission Hills and I remember standing right down along the rim of the valley. It was raining like the devil, huge rain, the river was just full of debris floating by, structures, sheds and all. The water was up over where Hotel Circle and all those businesses are now. The lifeguards had brought boats up the river to rescue animals. It was quite a mess.

"Without a father at home, us kids had to do whatever we could to bring in money, so I got a paper route the summer between the fifth and sixth grades. It was up in Mission Hills, an afternoon route, the Tribune. I had 135 customers and it was a heavier paper than the Union, and I'll tell you, if my bike fell over, I had a hell of a time getting it back up!

I got my papers at Goldfinch and Washington, went over as far as Falcon or Dove on the east, and way out to Stevens and Palmetto Way before it stopped. It was mostly up on top of the mesa. The only steep hill was at the end of Hawk Street, it went way down there, but by that time it was almost the end of the route and there weren't many papers left. That was the old part of town, even then, in the early '20s, those houses had been there quite a number of years. There were big homes, big mansions, especially down Hawk Street, it was where the upper, upper echelon lived.

"I was a very tidy little paperboy, so, while the cost of the paper to my customers was 65 cents a month, most of them gave me 70 or 75. One of the rich fellows down on Hawk always gave me a dollar."

I gave a low whistle, remembering my paperboy days and how hard it was just to get the bastards to pay, much less come up with any extras. Nolan grinned at the memory of his first money making job, "That was after he paid for the paper, a whole dollar tip!

"I'd get through with the paper route and ride out to the edge of the cliffs over the valley, Mission Cliffs, leave the bike out there, and walk down into the valley. I'd shoot whatever was in season, come home with four or five birds every time. On the weekends, I'd break down that old shotgun, wrap it in newspaper, and take the number seven streetcar line. It went all the way out University to Euclid. That was the end of the line. Then I'd walk down to what's now Home Avenue, walk down those canyons. There weren't any houses out there at all, and it was full of quail, an occasional dove would fly over, and there were always rabbits. My mother had given me a little game bag, and I'd field dress whatever I'd shot, put it in that bag, wrap up the shotgun again, and go back home on the streetcar. My mom would cook anything I brought home, but she'd have me dress it.

"About that same time, when I was 12 to 14 or so, I had a buddy who wanted to be a trapper, William Ward was his name. He was a devotee of 'trapping technique.' He'd read every damn thing he could get his hands on about how to set traps, how to fool the animals. He was good at it too! We got ourselves a dozen traps and set up a trap line that went down into Mission Valley from about where University Hospital is, out across the valley, then up through the cut where 163 runs now, and up onto Camp Kearny Mesa. There were a lot of animals in that valley. It was a very lush and verdant place and just is full of skunks. We were very good at catching skunks and opossums!"

Nolan laughed, and I felt a twinge of envy. I'd read all those mountain men books as a kid too, had fantasized myself dressed in deerskin, paddling my birch bark loaded with beaver pelts down to the yearly trapper rendezvous. But, despite living 2000 miles north, in a place where trappers can still make a living, it was never more than a fantasy. But then also, I tried to imagine my mother seeing me off at the door when I was 12 years old, traps dangling from one shoulder, a rifle in my hand; or putting me on the streetcar with a bulky package of 12-gauge and a game bag. Impossible.

Nolan certainly is an advertisement for lassiez-faire parenting, at least in those days when a kid, left to his own devices, ran a trap line instead of joining a street gang. His life has been a series of joyfully pursued obsessions, all of them successful. In his later teens, he became a car nut, drove a supercharged Ford and founded and was president of San Diego's first hot-rod club. Too poor to afford college, he worked as a mechanic, eventually bought the shop, expanded and grew. It was a multinational corporation with 60 employees when he sold it a few years back.

Nolan continued with his story, "We sold the skins to a taxidermist. He preserved the skins, but I don't know what the hell he did with them. What are you going to do with an opossum, for Christ's sake?"

"A 'possum coat?" I volunteered.

"I guess," he agreed. "He'd give us a dollar, two dollars for them, it was a good deal, a lot of fun, too.

"Every once in a while we would get a fox. That's what we were really trying for, but the skunks, they're scavengers, you know, they'd go for the fox bait. We always wanted to catch a coyote, but those damn things are clever, they'd spring our traps or get out. We tried all kinds of tricks.

"We would walk that trap line religiously every two days, sometimes everyday, during the summer when we were out of school. Down where Mission Valley Shopping Center is now, some Japanese people had a cabbage patch, five or six acres of cabbages; we'd cut ourselves some chunks of cabbage to chew on while we hiked up to the mesa. Up on the mesa, that was where we tried for the coyotes, and we finally got one. Boy he must have been a dumber! It was our crowning glory, but then, that was kind of the end of our trapping, and we'd done it, so we quit."

I asked Nolan if he had hunted for deer.

"Oh yes. I got a high powered rifle when I was 14 or 15, and my buddy Ward and I went deer hunting. His mother had a cabin up in the Descanso area and we would range out from there, up through Japatul Valley, we'd sneak onto the Cuyamaca land. That was all private then, before the state took it over. Once the state came in, that was just before I graduated from high school, we started hunting on the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation. My buddy's dad was the lobbyist for the Indians, so they let us hunt for free.

"The summer before our senior year, 1933, we went up there. It's about 55 or 60 miles from here. You take the road to Warner's Hot Springs, and just before you get to the hot springs, you take a road to the right and you're on Indian land. We were kind of acquaintances with one of the Indians, so he loaned us a couple of horses. We rode into the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River, we were coming down a steep incline when we saw the first buck. He was drinking from a spring down below us and he started running out. My friend Ward made a fantastic running shot on him, killed him. We took care of that deer, cleaned him, and hung him in a tree and went further on, over on to another hillside, jumped a great big buck. Ward shot first and hit it in the hind hams, here." Nolan points to his hip and winces. A shot to the hindquarters is worse than a miss; it ruins the best meat on the animal without cleanly killing it, frequently allowing it to escape to a lingering death. "But I ran ahead and finished it off. It was a four-point, dressed out to be 178 pounds. I had the head mounted, had it around for many years until the hair finally started turning yellow and falling out.

"But now came the tricky part, how to put those deer on the horses." Nolan shakes his head and smiles ruefully. "Have you ever put a deer on a horse?"

"Nope, I never have." I said.

He laughed, "Well, for kids who hardly know what they're doing, hardly know how to handle a horse, let alone put a deer on one, it's something. That turned out to be a fiasco. We're little guys, you know. He was more muscular than I, but still not big. And those horses, they did not care for that deer at all! We'd read books about it; `Cover their heads with a jacket, take the blood and wipe it on their snout.' We did all that, I don't know if it helped or not. We tried everything, and the more we tried, the more cantankerous the horse got, bucking and snorting around. That deer had a big rack, and those horns are hard, sharp. The horse didn't like getting poked with them. Finally, we tied the deer's front legs together, I made a loop in the rope and threw it over the saddle, had it hanging down as high up as I could get my foot into it. I stood on that loop, got my weight going down on it, Ward got on the other side and pushed up while I pulled on the horns, and finally, after about ten tries, got that deer on the horse. We went back over an picked up the first deer. We were experts by then, and it only took us about a half hour of wranglerin' around to get that one on."

"How far back in were you when all this happened?" I asked.

Nolan laughed again, "Oh, we were way back there, a long, long way; it was the middle of the night by the time we managed to lead the horses out of those mountains! God, it was really quite an ordeal!

"We were sort of heroes at school that year, killing those two big deer. Of course, it was a pretty small group to be heroes to. There were only four or five other guys that I knew that hunted. There were others, I suppose, but you know, back then there were vacant lots where we could play mumblety-peg or kick-the-ball or whatever. Now where can the kids go? It's the same thing with hunting. Back then I could take my bicycle, take the streetcar, hunting wasn't far away. Now, you have to know somebody or join a club, have transportation. No way a kid could go out and hunt like I did. I can see the end of hunting coming, at least on public lands. What's left is getting to be very expensive. So now, the urbanites who don't have any kind of exposure to this don't have any idea of the thrill and enjoyment of hunting, and one of these days they're going to pass laws that'll wipe out hunting as we know it today."

Nolan talked of his life memberships in Ducks Unlimited and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, a couple of hunters' organizations that have done more to preserve waterfowl habitat and elk range than any government programs. He's also a life member of the NRA, though he thinks the organization has lost credibility with it's fanatic opposition to the Brady Bill. "We've got a 15-day waiting period in California, three times as long; it's never stopped me from buying a gun."

We refused a last refill of coffee and walked into the afternoon sunshine. I thought of my many arguments with my father about the National Rifle Association. I hate the outfit, think they've been almost as bad for hunters as they have for the terrified citizens of our gun-infested cities, skewing the argument, which should be about sporting arms only, into an insane confrontation over Teflon-coated cop-killer bullets, semi-auto assault rifles, short barreled riot shotguns, and all other manner of weaponry designed only to harm other humans. Many people think hunters are gun crazy nuts anyway; all we need is this loud-mouthed group shouting their paranoid fantasies to confirm the general suspicion.

But I didn't press the argument, liking Nolan too much to want to part on a disagreeable note.


Wilbur Kelley had given me the name of my last old hunter, Ferdinand "Ferd" Fletcher, a man he had hunted with for decades and whom he still occasionally had a nostalgic meal with. I casually mentioned the name to an acquaintance; she was impressed. "Fletcher, there's a San Diego name to reckon with. Founding fathers and original real estate magnates; I think Ferdinand was a lawyer."

He was, and still is. At 82 he's slowed down somewhat, but he still goes into his office a couple of days a week and on one of those days agreed to meet me for lunch at his club.

The "club" is the University Club, and it takes up the entire top floor of Symphony Towers. I arrived a few minutes early and waited in a small lounge area near the reception desk. The woman there had given me a suspicions look when I'd entered, my beard and thrift-shop Harris tweed not being up to the club's usual standards. But at the mention of "Fletcher," she was all solicitude. I was glad I 'd managed the coat and a borrowed tie; a visiting congressman was allowed entrance until he'd also been loaned a tie kept behind the desk for such emergencies. Mr. Fletcher (I was never able to think of him, much less address him, as "Ferd") appeared precisely on time. He is a tall, thin man, patrician in looks and bearing. The receptionist, so unimpressed with the congressman, fawned on him. The head waiter, also obviously fond of Mr. Fletcher, showed us to his usual table next to the cling-high windows that afforded a view stretching from Coronado to Hillcrest. As we sat down, a jet on final approach flew by beneath us.

We ordered, wine and the salmon and artichoke heart salads for each of us, a cup of leek soup also for Mr. Fletcher, and got down to the business at hand. Mr. Fletcher started with a brief family history. "My father came to San Diego in 1884. He started the hard way. His brother-in-law , he was married to my father's older sister, had come down here somewhat before that and had started a wholesale fruit and vegetable business. My father went to work for him as a buyer. During the off-season, he had a horse and wagon and he'd make a big loop, it would take about a week, picking up the vegetables and bringing them into San Diego. He'd unload and start right over again. Given the kinds of roads they had then, and a horse and wagon, he was lucky to do 25 miles a day. That was how he became acquainted with the county, and he was always more interested in the county than the city. By 1900 he became very active in the real-estate business. He didn't have too much money, so he brought the people with the money and sold them on the ideas he had. He was very active in real estate all his life.

"One of the things we acquired very early was the Cuyamaca Water System. That system included Cuyamaca Lake and the flume system that serviced La Mesa Lemon Grove, and Spring Valley. Right as you leave La Mesa and go over the crest and look down on El Cajon, to the left was what we called the diverting dam, where the water was diverted off in various directions. Up in Fletcher Hills the old Murray Lake had been built, so we had access to that, we had access to the lake behind the diverting dam, to Cuyamaca Lake itself. The diverting dam area was surrounded by eucalyptus trees, and the ducks loved to come there.

"On Sunday morning, after Sunday School, my father and us boys, I was the youngest, we'd surround that lake, jump up, and get the ducks up. You'd only get that one chance at them, but there were lots of them and they were all big ducks, and if we were shooting well, we'd end up with 18 or 20 ducks. The youngest was detailed to do the cleaning and picking of the feathers, but, oh, I'd usually get some help. We evolved different ways of doing it; dipping them in hot wax, letting it cool, and then peeling off the wax and feathers together worked pretty well. Sunday evening we'd have a big duck dinner.

"The family had a rule, you had to prove you knew how to handle a gun, knew how dangerous it was and how to use it safely before you could go hunting. Usually us boys were about 12 when we got to have our own guns, and you'd better be darned careful, too. So it must have been about 1922 when I started hunting. My first gun was a double-barrel; there were just a few pump guns and no automatics around at that time. We were still using black powder, and boy, you could get a good headache if you were at it for a long time. The fumes would do it to you."

The waiter brought our food, and Mr. Fletcher paused in his story and we looked out the windows at the magnificent view. He pointed out where the Fletcher family had lived when he was a boy, where Fourth Avenue makes it's dogleg at Walnut, a corner now occupied by doctor's offices, the San Diego Blood Bank, and Planned Parenthood. Sailboats skimmed across the surface of Mission Bay. "Mission Bay was called False Bay then because it was very shallow and full of mud flats. It had a lot of fresh water coming in, so it was brackish. So many ducks came in there that they called it 'Duckville' out in those mud flats. That was before my time, but my eldest brother, Ed Jr., had some wonderful shooting out there. By the time I was old enough to shoot, the city had taken it over and closed it to hunting. When I was a kid, though, right by the railroad tracks on the eastern shore there was a little spring. This friend and I had observed there were a lot of doves coming in there to feed. We knew it wasn't appropriate to do it, but one day we did go out and had half an hour of terrific dove shooting. That was the only time I hunted Mission Bay."

Thinking of Sam and Nolan's adventures in Mission Valley, I asked, "Did you ever hunt Mission Valley as a kid?"

"No, I never did hunt out in Mission Valley, but at that time, when I was 10, 11, 12, I was a member of the Gene Stratton Porter Boys Bird Club. There were about ten of us, and every Saturday we would go down into Mission Valley and try to identify birds and get their songs and so forth. I did that for about five or six years until I started really hunting." he laughed. "I got kidded a lot by my brothers, but I enjoyed it. It wasn't quite consistent with hunting thought, so I finally quit."

The salmon was excellent, and once we'd finished it off and received our coffees, Mr. Fletcher resumed the story of his childhood hunts. "We'd open the season at Cuyamaca Lake. We had a couple of cabins up there so we'd have 10 or 12 men and us kids would take six or eight rowboats, no outboard motors then. The old boat dock was just about where it is now, and all the ducks would be down in the other end of the lake, towards Laguna. We had some blinds down there. Some of them were better than others, so we always had a race to get them. The boats would line up, and somebody would sound a horn, and we'd all row for our favorite places. They'd all spread out then. Some people would do pass-shooting at birds flying overhead, shooting from the boats, but a lot of us would get in blinds and put out decoys and call the ducks in.

"The lake would freeze sometimes, all but about 50 feet in the center. We could carefully walk out on the ice and set up a blind near the open water. The ducks would come in to land, they'd hit on the ice and scurry on their bellies until they got into the water. We'd try to kill them before they made it. We didn't have any dogs to retrieve the dead ducks, so we'd very carefully slide on our stomachs across the ice to get them. Nobody ever broke through, but another time, we weren't hunting, our Sunday School class was up there on an outing and one of the kids fell through the ice. He tried to climb back out, but the ice kept breaking. Finally we made a chain out of about six boys laying on the ice and got to him and pulled him out. It was nip and tuck. We were sure scared."

The waiter brought us our last cups of coffee. Mr. Fletcher referred to a list he'd made of some of the local places he'd hunted. "The San Elijo Lagoon, I went out there one morning, alone, set out my decoys. It happened to be a great day. The birds would go out into the ocean to sit and then come back to the lagoon and feed. I got them coming and going. At that time, the limit was 25, and I killed 25 ducks. All by myself. Hodges could be good when the water was high. I didn't hunt Lake Henshaw a lot, but I had an unhappy experience there. I'd only been married three months and I took my wife out hunting for the first time. I had a boat with an outboard motor on it, and we ran on the motor up to the entrance of a bay we wanted to scout, then I tipped it up and started rowing. My wife looked up and said, "What's that coming?" "I said, 'By God, that's a duck. Shoot him!' I'll be damned if she didn't shoot him and kill him! "About that time, somebody comes out from behind a log and starts walking out to us beside the water. Turns out to be a game warden. 'You're shooting out of a motorboat!' he yelled.

"'I was rowing,' I shouted back. "He said, 'You've got to take the motor off the back and put it down in the boat.' He was going to give my wife a ticket, but I explained that we'd only been married for three months and that I'd told her to shoot. So he gave me the ticket." He chuckled. "That ruined my chance to be on the Fish and Game Commission!

"My other ticket, we were hunting at Lake Corte Madera. I was with two friends. We'd driven out in the car of the older one. He was a prominent businessman, very proper older man. It had been a good day; we'd shot quite a few ducks and had also picked up some that had drifted down the lake from the blinds upwind. That was the custom out there, you'd pick up the other fellow's ducks and then sort them out when you got together after the shoot. The limit was 10, and we'd all counted them, we had 30 ducks. We were driving back, and that same game warden stopped us. Greenwald was his name. He counted the ducks, we had 31. He said to my friend, "You're driving, you have possession. I'm going to give you a ticket." I was watching my friend, and oh, his face just blanched.

"I turned to the other fellow and said. 'One of us has to take this ticket.'

"He said, 'Ferd, I can't do it. I just got pinched yesterday for bringing illegal lobsters across the border!

"So I said, 'Okay, Mr. Game Warden, I'll take the ticket, but let me tell you, I've run into you twice. I didn't think you used what was reasonable discretion the first time, and you aren't now. I don't think you're much of a warden.'

"I had the ticket transferred down to San Diego, and it came up before a municipal court judge. He said to me, 'Ferd, what do you think I ought to do to you?'

"I said, 'The same thing they did to you when you started shooting doves before the season opened!'

"'Twenty-five dollars. Suspended!'"


The last day I was in San Diego, I took a bike ride up through Mission Valley. I parked the car off Sea World Drive and peddled upstream along the barren mud flats and shallow meanders of the San Diego River estuary. I was looking for someplace that was still left, a remnant of the world my old hunters had walked 60 years before.

A couple of days earlier, I'd ridden Nolan Wright's paper route, all along the edge of Mission Hills and finally down to Hawk Street. From the street ends and between houses, I peered into the alley. It was hard to imagine Nolan trapping skunks there or Sam shooting rabbits from the fender of the touring car. It might as well have been another geologic age instead of just a generation separating their valley from the present. I hoped by getting closer and going slower, I could perhaps find a fossil or two.

Sea World Drive turns into Friars Road as it crosses under I-5; the muddy estuary narrows into a brush choked stream. A chain-link fence separates the bile path from the brush, but that was okay with me. It looked a more likely place for muggers than game. Friars Road climbs a gentle hill alongside a golf course, a sign on the fence reads "The Handlery Hotel and Country Club Golf Course is irrigated with nonpotable well water." I wasn't certain if I was being warned or reassured.

By the afternoon's end I'd ridden twenty miles, staying as close as possible to the river, sometimes on a paved path I shared with joggers from the condos along the river, sometimes on the edge of heavily trafficked streets, occasionally on muddy tracks at the water's edge. Man's hand has not rested lightly here; even where the river is bordered by the jogging path there has been little attempt to retain any remnants of a natural river. No trees line the banks, and the stream is artificiality slowed and broadened into a series of shallow lakes by concrete weirs.

Finally, below the parking lot of the Mission Valley Center, I found a hundred yards of stream that still looks like a stream. A wooden footbridge crosses what is now only a creek, and a gauging station stands prepared to chart it's rise to a level 5 of 6 feet above it's present trickle, some 20 or 30 feet below where it was that day in 1927 when Nolan watched it rush through the valley burdened with trees, sheds, and bellowing cattle.

I wandered upstream and sat on the weedy bank next to an old tree. I wondered if it was a survivor of that last great flood, if, as a supple sapling, it had bent beneath the pressure of the water and had lived, a relic from the valley where the boys and hunted and trapped. The tree's smooth bark was repeatedly scarred with the initials "TMK," the largest set with a dash and the further information, "GRAFFITI VANDAL CREW." In the Nordstrom parking lot behind me, someone disturbed a sensitive car and it began to hoot and wail in electronic distress. The brief spell was broken. The valley I was looking for existed now only in the memories of my old hunters.

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