The Cutthroat and the Sweet Sixteen with Louis Cahill
Louis Cahill is an advertising photographer with over thirty years experience, and about as many holding a fly rod. Louis has spent his life looking through the lens. He’s not interested in what everyone else sees. Find more of Louis’ photography and writing at Gink and Gasoline.
My friend Gary Lacey did me a disservice while shooting clays one day. I fell one shell short for the round and he handed me his beautiful Beretta SO3 EELL to finish the round. I wish I had never touched that gun.
What a beautiful sensation it was when that elegant little side lock fell into place against my shoulder and the bright orange disk disappeared in a puff of black powder. How could I not covet this gun that I would never be able to afford? As pleasant to look at as to shoot the Beretta, with its lavish engraving and gold inlaid pheasant and duck, was a far cry from my clunky old Browning automatic.
Square jawed and utilitarian, it’s a poor gun for the job.
“The Browning A-5 Sweet Sixteen was never made for shooting clays, not that it matters, I’m not very good at it. Still, I enjoy shooting my Sweet Sixteen. Of all the guns I own, it is the most dear to me.”
The gun belonged to my maternal Grandfather. He wasn’t, I suppose, what you would call a sportsmen. He fished and hunted but when he did it was for food, not for sport. He taught me to shoot squirrels and catch sunfish. He taught me to work hard and tell the truth. He taught me how to be a man and to be proud. He was, without question, the single most important person in my life.I grew up in a little house on a road that I still remember being dirt. My Grandparents lived across the street. Both my parents worked, which was rare in those days. My Grandfather was a self-employed traveling salesman and it left much of his time free to look after me. The time it did not leave free, he spent looking after me anyway.I remember seeing him with the Sweet Sixteen folded in his arm but I don’t remember him ever killing anything with it. When we hunted squirrels I carried his Iver Johnson 410 gauge which I also own now. He didn’t seem interested in the hunting so much as the teaching me. He was patient and thorough and trusted me when I held the gun, even though I was young, maybe six.
He taught me to trap too. Trapping was more his style. You could catch many rabbits with a single trap. Only one per shotgun shell and shells cost money. We made rabbit traps from hollow logs. He would put heavy metal fencing on the back side so the rabbit could see through and would feel safe going in, then he made a door for the front that would fall into place when the rabbit pushed a trigger stick to reach the sweet potato he placed in the back of the trap.
The traps were remarkably effective. We would find the faint trails at the edge of a thicket where the rabbits came and went and place them near by. When we returned the next day there was almost always a rabbit. He showed me how to dump the rabbit out of the trap into a sack, but mostly we just dumped them right out into the yard.
It was pure bliss. The little brown rabbits were beautiful. Sleek and athletic, they hit the ground in a full run, their lean bodies stretching out into graceful leaps, all four paws in the air at once. I would be hot on their heels, my bare feet sailing through the dewy, wet grass in the cool of the evening. I laughed and shrieked as the fleet little rabbits pulled away and disappeared into the dark of the woods. I never grew tired of this catch and release rabbit trapping.
As a child I never stopped to question the purpose of trapping rabbits and turning them loose. The reward of watching a velvety little rabbit run for its life was enough. As a man I understand what my Grandfather was thinking. Any fool could live when there were jobs to be had and a loving family to look after them, but he knew that good times don’t last. He knew that sometimes getting by meant knowing how to shoot a squirrel or trap a rabbit. He had seen plenty of bad times.
“My life has been easy compared to my Grandfather’s. I’ve never needed to shoot a squirrel or catch a rabbit for my supper or a fish for that matter. Still there have been times that were very hard.”
The choices I have made have given me a rich life but they have left me far from rich in worldly goods. There have been plenty of times when I have had little. Plenty of times that the power and water have been shut off. Plenty of times I’ve walked because I couldn’t afford the bus.
Those times are long gone now, fortunately, but at any point the couple of hundred dollars I could have gotten for that old Browning could have made a real difference. Could have put food in the pantry or heat in the water or payed the rent. The gun would be easy to replace. I could buy an A-5 any time I wanted. I could, and have, bought a better gun, but it would never be my Grandfathers gun.
It would have never been warmed by the touch of his hands or folded in his arms. It would have never put food on his table. It would not make me feel him when I press my cheek against it. Neither does the Beretta and that’s why the sweet sixteen is so dear to me. That’s why I would give up my life before I let it go. Because it was his, because he left it to me, because he loved me and, most of all, because when I hold it I feel him standing next to me.
This all came back to me the other day while I was fishing Red Creek in Wyoming’s Little Mountain Area . As I held a little cutthroat trout in my hand. As it slid free into the water and darted away into the darkness of an undercut bank. This little native fish is in trouble. He is between the energy company and something they want.
Fish, even native fish don’t count for much in dollars or oil or natural gas. Just a few miles away there are big brown trout, stocked by the department of game and fish, that draw tourists and their dollars from around the country, but they don’t belong here. The little cutthroat does.
He is our legacy. He was left here for us by a loving Father, if you believe in that sort of thing, and once he is gone we will never be able to replace him. We can put fish in the stream, but it will not be the same. They will hold none of the warmth of a father’s love. They may be beautiful or big but they will never be what was left to us.
That’s why what we do and the choices we make matter. We can choose to have the lights on and have hot water and put a few dollars in our pockets or we can choose to do the right thing and honor our heritage and the gifts that we have been given. In the end it may cost us a little more, a few extra dollars, but when we release that native fish, we will be proud.