Christine Cunningham goes through the process of getting it right the first time with a youth duck hunter, and reveals about how learning goes both ways.
I got the call on a Friday night. A girlfriend’s son wanted to go duck hunting in the worst way. After 6 hours of the Outdoor Channel, she was begging me to take him. He had experience shooting a .22 and a BB gun, but he had never fired a shotgun before. This was earlier in my hunting career, and not being a mom or a guide, I spent the night worrying about snacks and alternate activities. My hunting partner assured me that, if this kid wanted to go as bad as his mom said he did, those things would not matter. I wasn’t so sure.
We met at the local gun range the next day to go over the 4 rules of firearms safety and general firearms handling. It forced me to recall my first experience with the rules. I had been asked to recite them verbatim, a feat which almost required flash cards. The enthusiasm of our young friend gave him superhuman powers, and he recited them without a blink. On to the next challenge, he seemed to say.
Even if someone has shot before, there’s nothing lost in a practice round. It’s an opportunity to assess experience level. We set up the clay thrower and explained how to shoot clay targets. Again, I thought back to how intimidating clay targets were at first –and, due to my lack of any natural talent, at second and third. I’d wondered if I would ever be successful in the field … especially since ducks aren’t blaze orange.
I watched as the boy, much smaller than I, practiced mounting my 20-gauge over/under. It looked large and bulky in his arms. I worried he would get tired. My partner cautioned him about getting a “blue whistler.”
“Why’s it called a blue whistler?” I asked.
I knew what it was. I had received plenty of bruises on my right bicep due to improper mounting of my gun.
“A blue whistler,” my partner said, “is when someone sees your arm and says”—he let out a long whistle – “’that’s a good one.’”
We put our ear protection on and watched as the first clay flew up. A shot fired and the clay shattered. The next clay sailed out of the thrower, and the boy nailed it. His mom ran to get her camera from the car as the next 3 clays shattered to smoke in the air. It was 9 clays later before he missed.
The next morning, our new hunter showed up in his clamming hip waders and layers of sweatshirts. Today, I would have made sure that he had the best of gear, but back then, I was as gear-poor as he was. He wore my waterfowl camo, just as I had worn someone else’s on my first hunt.
The sky was clear – a bad sign for duck hunting. I had read recommendations to choose easy access points, provide snacks and alternative activities, and, above all, to end the trip at the onset of a lack interest. My hunting partner assured me that enthusiasm was a great motivator, and this kid had it.
I still worried. The blind sat ready a mile away and, once there, we were sure to get cold. I remembered my reluctance and lack of patience as an adult beginner. My concerns didn’t last long. We made it to the blind in record time, at a pace set by someone one-third my age. His appreciation brought back my earliest memories of what it was really like to hunt the first time.
No Time to Settle
We set the decoys and settled into the blind. I wanted to manage expectations by pointing out our poor prospects. “Probably not going to see a bird today,” I said. No one listened to me. I barely listened to myself. “Probably should have gone clamming,” I thought.
My partner poured a lid of coffee, and I offered my friend’s son a cup of hot chocolate I’d brought just for him. He passed on the hot chocolate in favor of applying camo face paint. His fingers were covered in black and green paint when my partner said the only thing we wanted to hear: “Get ready, here they come.”
I looked up from my feet; I sometimes find myself looking at my feet at inopportune moments. There were 4 pintails in the air, coming in to the decoys 40 yards away. They flared as I reached for my gun in slow motion. My friend’s son had mounted his gun before I had even grabbed mine.
He fired, and the second pintail in the group dropped out of the air. My partner shot a double on the last two.
“Yes!” my friend’s son shouted. “Yes,” I thought. Some hunters are born, some are made. This kid didn’t need me; I needed this kid. He taught me something I will never forget about taking a new hunter afield: there is no template. He taught me to allow someone to rise to the occasion. This was something that had been done for me without my realizing it.
What’s for Dinner
His mother had one condition: Her son had to clean any birds he killed. Since he wanted to roast his duck, we showed him how to pluck one of my hunting partner’s birds. As we plucked, my partner explained that a wing must be left on if a bird is cleaned in the field for identification purposes due to bag limits and, in some places, limitations as to species and gender. My friend’s son listened with great interest as we explained that enforcement officers checked bags to determine that what was taken from the field was legal.
Later that night, I got a call from his mother.
“I need you to explain one thing to me,” she said.
“OK,” I said.
“He wanted to cook his duck for dinner, and he did a great job plucking the bird. But there’s something I don’t understand.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“He’s insisting that one wing has to be left on.”
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham