by Gretchen Steele
Chances are if you are reading this you already understand the importance of “passing it on” and taking youngsters afield and waterfowl hunting. There are multiple reasons to pass on the tradition of waterfowl hunting. In this era of electronic and technological bombardment, it becomes even more important to help connect children to the land and help build a good conservation ethic. Teaching the young ones about waterfowl hunting also makes for increased family bonding time, develops life skills such as responsibility, good sportsmanship, self – discipline, respect, and contributes positively to both physical and mental health.
However, taking the wee ones to the duck blind or goose pit does require a little planning on your part as an adult in order to ensure a successful time in the field. If that time in the field is not fun, or worse yet if it’s miserable, it’s hard to retain those young folks as future conservationists and hunters.
Here are some ways to help insure that your youngster has an enjoyable and productive time in the field this waterfowl season.
SAFETY IS PARAMOUNT
It goes without saying, but safety should be the number one concern anytime you head outdoors with child. These first experiences will lay the ground work for their safety actions later in life. If they are taught both via instruction and by example from the get go good hunting and outdoor safety practices, it will become ingrained and instinctive them as they grow into adulthood.
Look for youth wingshooting clinics, insure their attendance at a hunter safety course, repeat over and over basic gun, boat, water, and weather safety. Explain the why of safety rules, the reason we need to wear hearing protection and life jackets. Set an example by always displaying the best safety practices when afield.
YOUTH ONLY HUNTS
Since most states and public land waterfowl areas have a designated youth season, as well as special youth hunts, take advantage of those opportunities. Conservation organizations such as Delta Waterfowl also have specially designated “First Hunt” waterfowl hunts that can take much of the work out of the hunting trip for you and are geared especially towards a young audience with additional activities that turn a hunting trip into an event.
EDUCATION AND INVOLVEMENT IS KEY
Education should start well before your youngster ever steps into the duck blind. Take your youngster scouting with you, and use this as an opportunity to teach waterfowl identification skills. Invite your youngster to sit down with you when preparing or ordering any permits, licenses, windshield cards etc. It’s important for young ones to learn the entire process, from buying your duck stamp and shells to having that delicious duck breast for supper. This goes for all aspects of the hunt, everything from ethics and safety, to the waterfowl, to the habitat. Don’t be rigid in your instruction, but rather let the youngsters innate curiosity lead to the areas they want to learn. Encourage them to be curious, and ask all the questions they want. Help them research youth friendly facts by visiting websites directed towards young folks and waterfowl and hunting in general. This will help build their anticipation level for the actual trip afield.
WARM AND DRY
Young hunters don’t need to be outfitted in the best high tech hunting attire that money can buy, but they DO have to be comfortable, warm and dry. Be sure that their outdoor gear fits appropriately and isn’t too big, too floppy, and causing issues with walking or shooting. Just like with adults, it’s hard to stay motivated and enjoy the time afield when your hands and feet hurt from the cold. Keeping the young ones warm and dry will keep them from being miserable and not wanting to join you the next trip to the duck blind. Pack extra hand and foot warmers or a small heater. Ask them frequently how they are doing. If you just assume that they are fine, and wait until you hear “I’m cold…I want to go home” you are already in trouble, since likely it will take a little time to pack up decoys, gear, and hike back to the vehicle – rendering them past cold and flat out miserable by the time they are getting warm in the clubhouse or truck.
Youngsters in a duck blind can easily eat their weight in snacks. They are ALWAYS hungry. First, think about what kinds of snacks to take. For example, if they eat half a dozen candy bars and guzzle three bottles Mountain Dew you are will have a wired for sound can’t sit still wiggling nightmare on your hands. Instead opt for smarter snacks like peanut butter and crackers, pretzels, jerky, or dried fruit and some juice boxes. Second, think about the packaging. The snapping and crackling of little fingers ripping through individually packaged snacks can sound like a jet airplane when trying to be still in the blind. Not to mention all those wrappers that have to be gathered up and hauled out. Consider packing in zipper top plastic bags for a little more ease in opening with gloved hands and for a little quieter snacking experience.
QUACK QUACK BANG!
There is no magical age for when a youth should take their first birds. Certainly, practice, experience, training, and adequate supervision are all very important aspects of a first harvest; but just being properly educated in the use of firearms and firearms safety, and demonstrating the ability to reliably use a firearm is only one aspect. The youngster must be mentally ready also. If a young hunter is pushed too hard before they are really ready it can ruin the experience, and may turn them away from hunting all together. Assure the young person in blind that there are no expectations, and when they feel ready to take the shot and down the bird – you will do all you can to help them be successful. ON THEIR TERMS. There is a highly likely chance that if a child is forced to shoot before they truly feel ready the likelihood of a bad shot and crippled game is high. An event like that can completely turn them away from hunting. Praise them for what they do shoot. Even if it is a lowly coot – for that young hunter it is prize and treat it as such. Make every success they have an opportunity for positive feedback and praise.
ALLOW FEELING SAD ABOUT THE KILL
It’s perfectly normal for children to feel sad and possibly even cry after a harvest. Children aren’t always as comfortable with death and dying animals as we assume they might be. Allow them to feel a little sad, allow them to have a few tears if need be. Negating their feelings, belittling them, telling them to “man up” etc. may make them feel they are unworthy to hunt. Instead, use this opportunity to talk about putting food on the table, humane killing, why we respect what we kill, explain the importance of keeping populations in check. Acknowledge and accept their feelings and demonstrate the positive parts of hunting.
PATIENCE, PATIENCE, PATIENCE
It’s hard to tolerate a bored, wiggly, whiny, child when you are waiting for birds, but have realistic expectations and keep the experience positive. Use this time to talk about the other wildlife and birds in the habitat around you, pack some age appropriate field guides and books about wildlife, nature and hunting. Use your smartphone and some the great apps for hunting, bird id, bird sounds, tracking etc. to spice things up a little. A deck of cards can also come in handy as well! Small digital cameras are an inexpensive way to also keep the young ones entertained. Appoint them “official photographer “status and encourage them to capture moments that can later be used on a snow day to make a scrapbook about their hunting trips.
Most of all, stay positive and remember that the time in the blind a young child is able to tolerate can be relatively short. Be prepared to call the hunt earlier than normal. Play up all of the positive aspects, all of the things in addition to killing birds that make waterfowl hunting such an enjoyable experience, and you will go far in building a lifetime love of waterfowl hunting and conservation in your young companion.