I wanted to yell “Shoot!” but I didn’t want to rush him and add to the excitement and pressure as the pheasant cackled up in a noisy flurry of flight from the tall grass just in front of us, but the pheasant is quickly angling sharply away and will soon be out of range of the 20-gauge and inside I’m thinking. “Shoot, shoot, shoot!”
Finally, with the bird gliding away on out swept wings, the “boom” comes, late and behind.
“Good try,” I say, as Hunter, our oldest son, breaks open the single-shot and with his 12-year-old hands plucks the smoking spent yellow shell and plunks in a fresh one.
“I just couldn’t get on him,” he explained sadly.
“That’s OK,” I said. “There’s more than one rooster in here.” We called Gabe, our yellow Lab, and started off again into the grassy fringe of a freshly harvested cornfield.
“Shoot, shoot, shoot!” I’m thinking again a short time later, deeper into the grassy stretch. But another rooster cackled away, wings beating, a load of 20-gauge No. 4 following behind--way behind.
I knew Hunter could shoot because, starting at about age 10, a couple years before he was allowed to carry a loaded shotgun in the field, he had broken many clays at many angles. He had started hunting, like many kids, first with no gun, then carrying a toy shotgun--an orange-tipped double-barrel--tagging along at my heels.
By the third missed shot, I was kicking myself. Instead of watching the rooster, I had watched Hunter as he struggled to pull back the hammer as he raised the six-pound shotgun to get on the rapidly retreating bird. The hammer, the hammer, I thought. The hammer is slowing him down. I’ve handicapped him on his first pheasant hunt by expecting him to thumb back that stubborn hammer and get a lead on a rapidly receding pheasant while still in range.
Of course he had shot well on clays because he had cocked the hammer and stood ready at the call of “pull.” I hadn’t thought it through, that for safety’s sake he wouldn’t be walking through fields with a fully cocked shotgun.
It was back to the drawing board. It didn’t take much research to land on a youth model 20-gauge Remington 870 Express. It was a game-changer, and game-getter. Now caught up on the learning curve, I bought two. Hunter’s brothers, Jack and Sam, still practiced with the single-shot, but hunted with a pump. Hunter graduated to a 12-gauge by the time Sam was ready for the well-used Remington.
There’s a lot for young hunters to learn when they take up pheasant hunting, most covered in hunter-education classes, but there’s no better learning than by doing on the day they first step into the field with a fully stoked shotgun. And, as I found out, there is a lot for a parent (or hunting mentor) to learn, too.
So I got to thinking about what else I had taught--and learned--teaching three boys to be pheasant hunters.
Safety being the first consideration, I made the first hunt (actually the first several hunts) a one-on-one situation--just Hunter and me with Gabe, the dog. No one else was in the field to create distractions or hazards. Everything was pressure free, stress free. No one else was on hand adding to the pressure of a miss or a flub. There was no competition. It’s about making the experience enjoyable, not getting a limit. With just us two, the kid set his own pace and could concentrate on hunting while I could concentrate on the him--and dog handling, finding birds and safety, safety, safety. It’s much easier and more effective without a shotgun in your hands. Bagging birds is secondary to what you’re teaching and learning.
I teach no shooting until the command, “rooster!” They’ll get the hang of discerning roosters from hens, but your say-so takes the pressure off them making the identification and they can concentrate on putting their shotgun into action that much quicker.
When it came time to hunt with others, the emphasis on safety ratcheted up to super high. Young hunters have a lot going through their minds, plus the excitement of the hunt, plus the surprise of a flushing bird, so you can’t over-emphasize the importance of shooting in their shooting lane, not shooting across someone else’s lane and under no circumstances should they swing on a bird that breaks through the line and wings behind. Let him go. No bird is worth a shotgun swinging over, around and through other hunters.
We wear blaze orange always. No matter the legal requirements in the state (or private hunting preserve), dress them in an orange vest, preferably orange vest and cap, and you and anyone else accompanying should orange-up, too. It may sound fundamental, but I’ve seen people in the field dressed in earth tones while hunting with novices. Make sure everyone is as visible as possible so they stand out even in the vision of an excited kid swinging on a pheasant. It’s a lesson that will serve them well throughout their lives.
Practicing on clay targets helped immensely, giving the boys confidence when it came to hunting. Nothing is more discouraging than working through a field of tough cover or covering miles of grassy cornfield edges and then enduring miss after miss after miss. A few boxes of clay targets and cases of trap loads were a good investment. Their first shots from a shotgun were at stationary targets, old cans or buckets, past-its-prime watermelon, paper targets--the types of targets that show the power and devastating effect of shotshells. An exploding watermelon is a graphic representation of what a shotgun can do.
Wild pheasants are tough targets for beginners. I thought about going to a hunting preserve to let the boys cut their teeth in a more controlled, more predictable atmosphere, but since they grew up tagging along as I hunted our family farm--and that is how and where I learned--it seemed more in keeping with tradition and heritage to learn on homegrown wild birds.
DOGS AND OTHER CONSIDERATIONS
Getting back to the subject of dogs, we’ve always been partial to yellow Labs for their friendly, eager-to-please demeanor and we raised dogs right along with your kids. Our kids grew up with Gabe and learned the proper commands and how to encourage him to perform as trained and, just as importantly, what not to expect him to do. But a dog in the field requires extra attention. Instruct, remind and reinforce to novice hunters not to shoot downward at a low-flushing pheasant. Only straight out or when aiming up, preferably aiming up. The dog may be standing at the bird’s flush point or, depending on the dog, chasing after the bird or leaping to grab its tail. Remind them not to shoot down, not into a weedy patch where a dog may be sniffing its way through. An accidental shooting of a family pet, or your buddy’s extensively trained pointer, can be traumatic, likely to have a lingering effect on a young hunter’s psyche.
When in turn the boys graduated to 12-gauges, I, as provider of ammunition, provided 2¾-inch loads, usually No. 4s or 5s and sometimes trying No. 6s. Skip the 3-inch or 3½-inch shoulder-pounders. For the 20-gauges, I started them with 2 3/4-inch shells, too, but worked them up to 3-inchers as they grew and if hunting conditions warranted. I didn’t want the boys to feel the shotgun was punishing them and, since I was teaching good hunting practices, such as taking shots within decent ranges where 2 3/4-inch shotshells do just fine.
I didn’t do great on getting them to clean their own guns, taking on the chore myself as the boys were usually worn out after a day in the field or on to something else such as school sports. I should have set them down and gone over, step by step, the breaking down and cleaning of a shotgun, instilling in them the respect for firearms that comes with caring for them. Frankly, I enjoy the process, the ritual, of shotgun cleaning, so maybe I was being a bit selfish. Plus, nothing says they can’t learn later, when perhaps they’ll appreciate the ritual themselves.
Hunter, Jack and Sam were always quick to get to their downed birds, with me usually shouting to put your shotgun on safe, don’t run with a loaded gun, watch so you don’t trip, let Gabe (now Quigley) do his thing and whatever other warnings I could yell in the split second between the shot fired and excited kid accelerating. They always carried their own birds in the game bag of their blaze orange vests and it didn’t take long for them to learn to breast out pheasants and skin and remove legs. Fried pheasant strips are the favorite.
Plentiful snacks and drinks I found were important to keep up the boys’ spirits, as were comfortable boots, and clothing layered to account for weather changes, for that matter. No one wants to go far when they’re hungry, thirsty or have sore feet.
We went through most of this prior to the wide availability of cell phones, but now things have changed. When we hunt, we always take time to snap photos of our successes, which the kids usually have posted on social media before we get back to the pickup. That’s fine. Sharing the experience strengthens the memory.
I also tried to involve them in the entire process, from planning to game cleaning. That included packing their own gear, dog care and walking up to the front door when we stopped at a farmhouse to ask permission. The hunter-landowner relationship is an important factor to instill, as is wildlife and habitat conservation.
And don’t forget the other wildlife you’ll encounter. The hunting field is a continuation of classroom learning. Now, we are quick to point out tracks to each other, perhaps pausing to discuss what the tracks mean and what animal is going where.
Encourage them to see and listen. Walk slowly, and let the dog work or, if you don’t have a dog, frequent pauses may prompt a rooster crouching in cover to get nervous and take flight rather than waiting for you to pass by. Give kids a chance to rest and to wander a bit. Don’t wear them out. Let them march to the beat of their own drum.
I recommend attending hunter-education classes with your kids, unless they don’t want to be seen hanging out with their parent. Your presence reinforces the importance of the classes and shows them you are willing to invest yourself even more into their hunter education. And, a refresher course won’t do you any harm, either. The lessons will be fresh in your mind so you can emphasize them in the field.
Don’t be overly critical, walk directly behind, giving constructive advice only when needed. Keep it fun and keep it light-hearted. Don’t talk about or worry about the bag limit and don’t wear them out. You might be able to go all day, but a couple of hours may be enough for those first excursions afield. Success isn’t measured in the weight of their game bag, but in the planting of the seed and, when it all comes together, and it will, the high fives and hugs after that first bird is held aloft by a first-time hunter will be ample reward.
Bear in mind that when they’ve graduated to hunting side-by-side with you, you still will be teaching by example, just as you’ve always done. They started by following in your footsteps, watching and learning as you hunted; then you followed in their footsteps, teaching, advising and keeping them safe. Now, with the hunting tradition firmly instilled, you can take pride in the fact they will always follow in your footsteps, whether you are there or not.--Joe Arterburn