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Hunting with Youngsters
written by Keith Sutton

"Leave your gun in the truck," my friend said when we arrived at our hunting spot. "This is kids-only hunting. Adults can only supervise."
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 "When can we go again, Dad?" they asked.

It was a perfect day for rabbit hunting. The weather was cool but not too cool. The sun was shining.  The sky was blue.  A gentle breeze rippled fields of golden grass edging the Cache River. It was an ideal day for hunting with kids.

That's why we were there. A friend and I agreed to set aside a day to hunt with our kids. He brought his 11-year-old daughter and two hunting buddies -- both experienced rabbit hunters in their 30s. I brought three sons -- 13, 12 and 11. It was the youngsters' first rabbit hunt.

The rabbits and beagles couldn't have been more cooperative. As soon as the dogs were turned out, a chase began. We split up, the kids going with me. I reemphasized the importance of safety, then positioned each youngster where he or she might cut short the rabbit's escape.  We listened to the hullabaloo as the beagles headed our way.

The other three men followed the dogs into the thicket. One of them shot the rabbit.

Almost immediately, another chase ensued. I positioned the kids once again to intercept the rabbit. Again, one of the adult hunters bagged the rabbit before it made a full circle.

The rest of the morning unfolded in much the same manner. The dogs chased rabbits; the men shot them. The kids watched and waited, patiently at first, but soon with a measure of disappointment etched across their young faces.

I suggested to the other men that, having shot five rabbits already, they might let one complete its circle in hopes the youngsters would be afforded a shot. And to their credit, when the next rabbit bolted from its form, the men held off and one of the boys shot at it. He missed, as one might expect of a 12-year-old shooting at his first rabbit with afterburners on. But the shooting alone was enough to reinvigorate the four kids, all of whom got excited at the tidbit of action thrown their way.

That shot was the only one fired by the children that day. For some reason that still confounds me, the men could not resist the impulse to shoot every rabbit passing their way. I suggested to my friend, rather sternly this time, that he and his buddies refrain from shooting and give the children a chance to participate. He said it wasn't that simple. The rabbits tended to hole up.  If they weren't shot as soon as possible, they could escape. The men had to shoot the rabbits if they came by, otherwise the rabbits wouldn't get shot at all.

I watched as my friend walked away, his little daughter trying her best to keep up with him as he pushed into the thicket. Seconds later, a gunshot sounded. "I got him!" he shouted.

Five hours later, with no break for lunch, we trudged back to the truck, kids in tow. Score: Adults 11, kids 0.  Shots fired: Adults 23, kids 1.

***

When hunting with kids, it's important to be a hunter, not a killer, at least on those early hunts with children who are still in that "I-hope-I-get-
to-shoot" stage.

It was a perfect day for squirrel hunting. The weather was cool but not too cool.  The sun was shining. The sky was blue.  A gentle breeze rippled the trees on Crowley's Ridge. It was an ideal day for hunting with kids.

That's why we were there.  A friend invited me to bring my four young sons for a squirrel hunt with his dogs. It was the first time the boys hunted squirrels with trained dogs.

"Leave your gun in the truck," my friend said when we arrived at our hunting spot. "This is kids-only hunting. Adults can only supervise."

The squirrels and squirrel dog couldn't have been more cooperative. In two minutes, the dog treed. One of the boys pointed out the squirrel, and when told it was safe to shoot, he fired and, unfortunately, missed. "Get him, boys!" my friend shouted. "Don't let him get away!"

three older boys took a shot, and eventually the squirrel was bagged.

Zachary, my six-year-old, got his chance when the dog next treed. The squirrel ran atop a short snag. With a little help, Zach aimed and fired. The squirrel fell. The dog retrieved it. Zachary beamed.

There was lots of shooting that morning, and a few squirrels taken home for the frying pan. As we returned to the truck, the kids were smiling and talking excitedly about the hunt. "When can we go again, Dad?" they asked.

It was, for them, a memorable day.

***

There are killers, and there are hunters. Usually, over the course of a hunting career, we evolve from one into the other.

Most of us start hunting at a stage where all that matters is shooting at lots of game and having fun. Small game such as rabbits and squirrels fits the bill.

Later, we pass through a stage in which the number of animals killed is the key to fulfillment. Hunting doesn't have much meaning unless we bag a limit of mallards or squirrels or rabbits or whatever. If we kill a big whitetail buck we can brag about, so much the better.

But, finally, thank goodness, most of us come to realize that hunting can be an end unto itself.  It clears the mind and soothes the soul. Killing game may still be part of the objective, but it's no longer the ultimate object of our trips afield. We don't have to kill limits to enjoy a day out. We don't have to kill any game at all. We're out to have fun, to relax, to take in the outdoors. And once again, the simpler pleasures are enough to satisfy.

It's important to build enthusiasm in children, and when you're hunting, that means getting them in on the action.

Unfortunately, some people never evolve beyond the killing stage. For them, a hunting trip can't be successful unless they shed the blood of the game they seek. Aesthetics don't count. Letting kids enjoy the excitement of the hunt doesn't matter much either.

I was fortunate. The men who taught me -- uncles and cousins, schoolteachers and neighbors -- were hunters, not killers, every one. The rabbits ran full circle, sometimes two or three circles, and while I was still in that killing phase, I was allowed to satisfy my youthful bloodlust. Hunting was exciting then, and it grew into a lifelong love.

When hunting with kids, it's important to be a hunter, not a killer, at least on those early hunts with children who are still in that "I-hope-I-get-to-shoot" stage. For a few hours, suppress your killing instinct. Leave your gun at home. Help the kids. Teach them safety. Teach them ethics. Teach them woodsmanship. And let them do the shooting, even if it means losing some game. Do your best to make those early experiences exciting and fun. That's the best way to ensure that children evolve into true hunters who value every second of every minute of every day spent outdoors, even when no game is taken. It's the best way to ensure the tradition of hunting is carried on.

When my sons grow up, I hope they are hunters.

 

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