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A hunter's mentor
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Some of us called him "The Boss" because we had worked for him many years ago in his restaurant. Others called him Jim or Jimmy or Mr. Zucco.

I hunted with him at his North Country hunting club for 35 years. The Boss was a stout, strong, rather short man with a Friar Tuck bald head, prominent nose, square jaw and a permanent twinkle in his pale blue eyes.

His hunting attire was the traditional red and black plaid wool jacket and green wool pants with a matching wool cap. He carried a 30-06 bolt-action rifle with a 2.3X-7X scope that he bought sometime around 1956.

If there was ever a true friend and hunting buddy, it was the Boss. He was a gentleman, a sportsman, a kind and generous man who grew up the hard way and worked hard his whole life.

He also worked hard at hunting and fishing, taking great pains to make sure his guests were entertained, well fed and accommodated.

He survived the Great Depression and told us many times that his staple diet in those days was boiled wild milkweed and fresh groundhog—when his family had enough money to buy the bullets to shoot one.

His origins from a poor family in a utilitarian generation shaped his life as a hunter and fisherman who enjoyed the chase, but still meant to bring home the bacon.

For many years, he and his wife, Mildred, hosted an annual game dinner at his restaurant that was attended by a hundred people or more who shared in his harvest of elk, deer, wild hog and other game.

His signature dish as the chef at his own restaurant was elk burgundy, which always drew raves from the guests.

I first hunted with the Boss in 1966, when I was a junior in high school.

I got lucky and shot a wild hog only 30 minutes into my first hunt and was hooked for life.

I never got a chance to do these things with my dad, who did not hunt or fish, so the Boss was filling a void for me.

In the early years, my role was clear—to help him get meat for the annual game dinner.

For the most part, with some patient instruction from the Boss, I did pretty well in that role, dragging hogs, deer and an occasional elk out of the woods on a regular basis.

At the hunt camp, we would swap stories and take turns telling what we had seen during the day.

The Boss then reminded us to stalk hunt very slowly through the woods, taking only one or two steps at a time then stopping for a minute or more, so we could glimpse the game before they spotted us.

He had taken his share of trophy bull elk in the early years, but had enough of the back-breaking work that went into getting a big bull out of the woods by hand for the return of a marginal (and sometimes unfit) piece of meat.

The Boss had no use for the antlers but the connection between hunting and meat was very clear to him.

The calf elk was his ultimate trophy (a tender, tasty piece of meat fit for a king or a health food expert…his wife).

Hunt camp was a particularly great place to be when the Boss got his own trophy elk. We were hunting one evening when I heard the Boss shoot nearby.

I trudged through the snow toward the shot. Soon, I saw him, walking slowly and staring at the snow.

He said he thought he had made a good shot but the calf elk had run off. There were tracks in the snow, but no blood. Then he found a little blood, just a few drops, but it was getting dark.

The Boss didn’t want to quit even though the 300-yard blood trail quickly became more like a half mile. Suddenly, he pointed and said, "Shoot him!"

As the wounded animal got up and lunged forward in an effort to get away, I put a bullet in its neck. The Boss said, "Great job!" just like I had done all the work.

By the time we had field-dressed the elk, it was pitch dark and we had no flashlight. I was worried and had no idea which way to walk, never mind drag that elk.

The Boss said, "Don’t worry. This elk made almost a complete circle after it was wounded. We’re not far from where I shot it. The truck is that way."

I didn’t believe him, but I didn’t want to say anything, either.

He insisted on dragging the kill, even though he was close to 70 years old at the time.

Side by side, we pulled 20 or 30 yards at a time, then rested.

There was no moon, all we could see was snow and stars.

After what seemed like an eternity, we broke out into a clearing and I could see the truck parked on the far side of the field.

I was overwhelmed with relief. The Boss knew exactly where we were the whole time.

The Boss did his last hunting, on the second weekend of elk season, last November.

Even though he couldn’t get far from the truck, he saw some game and had a great time.

For us, it was a fitting end for the century and the beginning of a legend.

Having survived two heart valve replacement surgeries at the ages of 70 and 80, the Boss passed away in his sleep in February at the age of 87.

While our remaining hunters carry on the tradition, even with all our fond memories, there is an emptiness in our hearts that will never be filled.

The Boss etched a permanent mark on my soul.

More than a Boss, he was my mentor, a perfect model to pattern a life after.

It hurts to think that I’ll never hunt with him again or hear another of his stories.

I’d like to tell him what his friendship and teachings have meant to me. Perhaps I haven’t fully learned it yet.

I’ve been honored to meet a lot of wonderful people in my life, but few have had the impact of the Boss.

He gave me a pastime that became a career and a passion for the outdoors that will last the rest of my life.

Each time I go to the woods, whether it’s on the old hunting club property or somewhere near my Clermont home, I think about the Boss and those times.

I know that when I put my gun away for the last time, thoughts of the Boss and the hunting camp will still be close by, reminding me of why I am a hunter and of what the outdoors has given me.

This is my trophy of a lifetime.

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