The Kids Are Alright

624d9e20-bc3a-4acf-b00a-f130c4bb034d By Ted Gartner

If you’ve spent any amount of time around your local Quail Forever chapter (or any other conservation organization for that matter), you’ve heard the mantra: take a kid hunting. And without question, it’s true that children are the future of our sport. But how exactly do you introduce a kid to upland hunting - and more importantly, how do you make sure that a young hunter’s time afield is enjoyable?

I certainly don’t have all the answers, but as the father of two now-college-aged kids, I’ve learned a thing or two over the years about exposing kids to hunting and the outdoors.

No "One-Size-Fits-All" 

First and foremost, every kid is different. Our daughter, Kathleen, was (and still is) an inquisitive nurturer. Afield, she had a million questions about her surroundings. And she shared my absolute love of watching our pointers cover ground, in search of prairie birds. Carrying a gun took a back seat to enjoying nature.

Our son, Jack, was about three years younger than his sister. Jack was (and still is) incredibly observant, and when he found a topic he was interested in, he studied it with sharp focus. He certainly appreciated good dog work, but he was also intent on performing the act of actually taking game.

The reason I’m discussing my kids (other than being a proud papa) is to make a point. The hunting experience that you present to them should cater to their individual interests and personalities. There’s no cookie cutter approach to taking kids hunting. The only universal advice is to always make it fun for them - even if it means making some sacrifices that you’d rather not.

“Some of my favorite hunting trips were the ones where we spent the nights camping instead of staying in a motel,” Jack reflects. “Dad hated sleeping on the ground, but him making the effort to take a couple trips like that for me really made an impression.”

There’s a lot you can do before you ever get off the blacktop to ensure your young hunter will have an enjoyable trip. One key consideration is the age and physical ability of the child. Make sure they are able to handle the walk (thick CRP or cattails probably aren’t an ideal first trip). In this regard, kids are a lot like young bird dogs. Some develop quicker than others - pay attention to them and always strive to make it a positive experience.

Build anticipation, too. A successful hunt often begins at home. Involve them in the planning and packing. Show them pictures or videos from similar hunts so they’ll become invested. Explain to them what to expect and how the dogs will perform. Also, make sure they have the proper gear - comfortable boots and warm clothes, if necessary. These items aren’t cheap, and kids grow so quickly. But many times you can ask around your local QF or PF chapter and find some hand-me-downs or borrow some gear.

Splurge a Little

Before we left on any trip, we made a stop at the local convenience store to stock up on the kids’ favorite junk food (something that was normally quite regulated in our household). I quickly found that Kathleen and Jack associated these highly enjoyable splurges with hunting, which made it easier for them to savor the experience. If it’s an overnight hunt, make sure the evening is fun. Take them out for a special dinner, or the local Dairy Queen for dessert.

“Hunting trips were always a blast because we were allowed to eat whatever we wanted,” Kathleen reminisces. “It also felt like such a treat to spend the night in a motel and watch movies in bed and go out to eat. We had our weekend ritual, and I always felt so special to be a part of it.”

Is your kid tied to their smartphone? It’s tempting to “ban” electronic devices on hunting trips, but that can unintentionally build resentment towards hunting trips. Consider phone-free times. Better yet, make phones work in your favor. Suggest a photography contest for them, that you all can review at the end of the day.

Take Them Along Before the Hunt

Teaching proper gun safety and etiquette is paramount, but I believe that most kids should have experience afield before any firearms are introduced. After a season or two of simply tagging along, Jack handled an uncocked Daisy Red Ryder (the same one that I carried, and the same one his grandfather toted). He graduated to an unloaded 20 gauge that was only chambered for a covey rise. Enroll your young mentee in a hunter safety course, and don’t forget to discuss and reinforce that textbook knowledge with real-world safe gun handling scenarios.

Shooting at flushing birds can be dangerous if not done right. Explain to your youngster ahead of time on how to discern proper shooting lanes, how to locate other hunters before moving in, and other safety considerations like the “blue sky rule” (passing on any birds that don’t have the horizon underneath them). Keep the hunting parties small - no more than two kids - and one adult non-shooter for each of them.

Consider starting out at a game preserve. Let’s face it - seeing game is more of a sure thing at a preserve, flushes are (sometimes) easier to orchestrate, and the grounds are usually manicured for easier walking. We give our young dogs a lot of bird contacts and opportunities, so why not our kids? And remember, most PF and QF chapters host kid-focused, low-cost hunts.

Don’t necessarily limit their exposure to upland bird hunting, either. Consider involving your kid in different types of hunting, as well as fishing, camping, or target shooting in groups like the Scholastic Clay Target Program.

The Total Experience

Beyond gun safety, there are many other lessons of responsibility in hunting, so introduce those, too. When appropriate, involve them in the care of dogs and maintenance of guns and other equipment. Let them help you carry a bird or two, or watch you clean your bounty. Kathleen used to love to carry my freshly-shot rooster pheasants, which she named “Colors.” She even enjoyed watching me clean them, analyzing their crops and marveling at hearts, gizzards, and livers. Interestingly enough, her career plans now have her studying to be a veterinarian. I’d like to think those dissections might have had something to do with it.

Most importantly, know when to say when. Watch your young hunter constantly. Plan short walks in easy-to-navigate cover. Go heavy on the praise and light on the correction. Learn to read when they’re losing interest, getting fatigued, or when they’re cold or hot. The trick is to stop the hunt before they become uncomfortable. And if your new hunter shows signs of regret after taking game, don’t ignore it - embrace it. It’s a great opportunity to discuss a life lesson that most non-hunters may never even consider.

“Hunting really helped me understand the gift of life and the sacrifice that goes into eating a meal,” Kathleen explains. “I feel like hunting has made me a more conscientious consumer and instilled a deep respect for animals.”

Interestingly, kids themselves can be some of the best ambassadors for getting their peers involved in hunting. In grade school, Jack had a friend from a non-hunting family who tagged along with us to Pheasant Fest one year. I’m not sure it ever made him a lifelong hunter, but the smile on his face told me that he had a better respect for and appreciation of hunting at the end of the day - and hopefully one that he could articulate to others, as well.

Don’t have a daughter or son to take hunting? No problem. Your local Quail Forever chapter is an ideal place to find an eager young hunter just waiting for a mentor.

It's About the Kids

Remember, when you hunt with kids, it isn’t about you, and it isn’t about shooting your limit. Whatever the outcome, it is incumbent on you to define it as a success. Recount the beautiful scenery, good dog work, funny jokes, and unique experiences that they’ll remember for years to come.

“A really cool part of hunting are the things you don’t expect that end up making a really unique memory,” Jack told me recently. “Things like getting stuck in a blizzard in the middle of nowhere, learning how to drive on a dirt road, or getting invited to a stranger’s Thanksgiving dinner are the kind of unanticipated occurrences that I remember much clearer than how many birds I shot on a particular day.”

This story originally appeared in the spring 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal