Buy Photo


With the beautiful Cummings Valley in the background, Steve and Candy Merlo show off their take of 'High River Preserve' pheasants and chukars. Their hunting poodle, Beau, flushed the birds into range for them.

Growing up in Buttonwillow, my best friend Larry Johnson and I literally ruled the nearby desert. Hunting game, fishing in the nearby canals or seeking Native American artifacts, the two of us were generally inseparable.

Back then, jackrabbit populations were literally off the Richter scale, and it wasn't unusual to see hundreds of the long-eared hares in a single day. Every afternoon and most Saturdays saw us bicycle to fields surrounded by sagebrush to shoot these agricultural pests. If we could, we'd take our Cushman scooter or Honda 90 to the nearby Elk Hills, even though the numbers of rabbits wasn't quite as large as on the valley floor.

Shooting at these hill vermin became a favorite activity because of the long range shooting we would encounter with our open-sight .22-rimfire rifles. With most shots over 100 yards, luck became a major player in the ballistics of our little hollow-point bullets and overall probability one would hit home.

Because of all that practice, by the time we reached our mid-teens, hitting rabbits, running or not, became second nature and most of the town folks knew it. Once in a while a farmer would invite us out to control his pests and actually pay us or provide shells for helping him out. A box of 50 shells cost about 40 cents and the two of us were usually poor, so we were extremely careful to aim before firing and not waste ammo needlessly. The jacks went down in droves, yes, but so did our shells.

We needed more money to buy more ammo.

Getting some from our parents worked occasionally, but Larry and I wanted lots more than the odd box of shells tossed our way. We wanted "bricks," the 500-bullets-to-the-case type, so we wouldn't have to beg our parents for extra dough. And, asking for money usually meant trading time earning it around the house, and neither one of us liked the idea of the worst four-letter word of them all: work .

Our minds finally melded together on one of our hill trips.

Had we been paying attention a lot sooner, we would have owned a virtual armory and been buried in all the shells we would ever need. Only when we stopped one day to investigate a dead rattlesnake did we open the long-locked door to our ammo problems. There they were, right there on the side of the road: eight empty coke bottles--the big ones--worth a 10-cent deposit apiece. That was nearly two-boxes of bullets, and they were free!

Our brains started working overtime, believe me. When we discussed the amount of paved roads around town and the unrecovered treasure lying there, we nearly went nuts thinking of the possibilities. Little coke bottles were two or five cents each, as I recall, and 16-ounce ones were a dime. The really big ones were either 15 or 20 cents each; we made hay as fast as we could, gathering up the evil fruit of idiotic litterbugs from up to 10 or more years past.

All good things must come to an end, or so the saying goes. After six months or so of picking up pop bottles from the roadsides around town, the local merchants got wise to our little operation and made us buy store product rather than give us hard cash. That was fine, as long as they sold shells, but before long, only two stores in town sold ammo, and the old Kemps' Emporium didn't accept bottles. Besides, we had pretty well cleaned up the roads for miles around and seldom would we earn more than a buck or two in a day.

Our last paying jaunt came in 1967 on a fishing trip to the still-closed San Antonio Lake dam area. Larry had been given the family sedan, a 1956 Chevy, and we slowly meandered all the way to Paso Robles on Highway 466 (now 46) picking up 100 miles worth of free gas and food money that paid for our entire adventure. The fishing netted spectacular results and we had enough cash left over to buy some high power rounds for our new scoped deer rifles, which changed the way we hunted jackrabbits forever. But that's another story for another time.

36th Central Valley Show

The 36th annual "Central Valley Sportsmen's Boat, RV and Outdoor Show" is returning to the fairgrounds April 5, 6 and 7, featuring something for everyone. Look for the "West Coast Nationals Bako Sand Drags," a "Super Cruise Car Show" and, back by popular demand, the "Mobile Bass Bin."

Also returning will be the Berkley Kids Trout Pond, the Sportsman's Theater and world fly fishing moguls.

Archery, trophy deer, dog training, great food and spirits will only add to the fun. All in all, this year's show will be the finest ever produced.