As a hunter who started on his own at the age of 22, I was non-traditional to say the least, and my trip up the learning curve was about 10 years behind those young people around me in my hunter’s education class that summer. In the process though, I was mentored by a number of people — close friends, members of my local wildlife club, and extended family — who took the time to take me into the field, and for their help I remain thankful. Their encouragement, insight and pointers on not just the shot and the retrieve but on all of the aspects leading up to it like watching the dog, targeting certain habitats and areas for more success, and just enjoying the time outdoors were key in helping me through my early years and developing a passion for upland hunting. That in turn developed in me a drive to pass it on so others need not wait until after their teens to experience the excitement.
A special weekend
Around 2006, my native North Dakota opened its first youth pheasant hunting weekend, held the Saturday and Sunday before the general pheasant opener. It is a new tradition which continues this weekend, where licensed hunters age 12 to 15 can enter the field a week early with an adult (who is not carrying a firearm) and get the first shot at pheasants. Designed to recruit and retain more hunters, the special hunt gives kids a crack at a flushing rooster without having to worry about anyone else blasting away, making each day their own.
Back then, my now retired 15-year old lab was a fresh and hard-charging 2-year-old and ready for another season. I recruited the two sons of a receptionist across the hall from where I worked for Saturday’s hunt, and then tapped a buddy to grab his younger cousin along with my godson for the Sunday morning outing. Birds were plentiful in that era, even just a few miles south of Valley City, and the expanse of CRP acres at the time seemed to connect every stretch of PLOTS and unposted land with those places we had permission for in what seemed for miles of contiguous hunting. It was an easy ten-minute haul to a few choice areas of grass, and the weather was perfect for both days. All four boys bagged birds, and we ended the weekend with nine roosters, but more importantly, those kids continued hunting well after that adventure.
The big event
Starting in 2012, I helped coordinate my local Pheasants Forever chapter’s mentor hunt in Lyon County Minnesota. Based out of the trap club where I also served as vice president, I coordinated the assembly of 1,000 acres of private land, in parcels immediately adjacent to a five-mile stretch of various Wildlife Management Areas that reached from U.S. Highway 59 south of town all the way to the back door of the clubhouse. Occurring the weekend after the state’s general opener, the event was a production but always worth the work and the sacrifice of a day of hunting from so many adults, as the shared reward was bringing 20 new hunters or so into the fold with our strong staff of volunteers who would turn out to put on the event.
It was a two-month lead to gather up new and regular mentors and volunteers from our chapter’s ranks and those from the Twin Cities who would bring a crop of novices from the east. We’d scout out the parcels and do drives along the gravel roads to check for birds ahead of the regular season’s start and converse with the generous landowners to find out what they were seeing. We did our very best to keep the ratio of hunters to mentors at two-to-one so that the experience and the advice could be personal. The morning hunts around the trap club culminated in what we called “the big walk” where those who were interested would go up and then come back through the 100 acres of private grass behind the clubhouse.
Needless to say, some young hunters were exhausted, having not experienced a real, wild-bird walking hunt before, and I’d often come back to the club to find some of them sprawled out on the green fabric couches in the meeting area, panting and sweating from their morning hike. I’d announce the next segment of the event, and some would barely move as I invited them along for the big walk, while promising a fantastic chance at birds that had been pushed into the area by the previous weekend’s hunters on the surrounding public land, and through their own morning activities.
With some prodding one year, I was able to get a pair of brothers off the couch and they reluctantly joined the line of 10 other hunters as we spaced the mentors and dogs between them. The birds in the stretch of grass were thick, and we flushed more than 20 roosters as we made our way up from and back to the club, with every kid in the line getting a shot, and bagging six birds in the short timeframe, including a rooster for one of the exhausted couch brothers.
“I sure am glad you convinced me to come on that walk,” I recall him saying, and I responded that I was happy he came along too, and the memory of that moment has stuck with me ever since and reminded me of the slight convincing my buddy needed to give me in order to get me to take hunter’s education as an older-than-average student and start my adventures in the field.
Whether it’s the upcoming weekend’s special youth pheasant weekend in North Dakota, or any number of mentor hunts throughout the upper Midwest in the coming month or two, be it for ruffed grouse, waterfowl, deer or other game, now is the time to start making mentoring memories of your own. With a small group of close friends and neighborhood kids, or as part of a bigger event, providing a mentored hunt and sharing what you know and have learned is perhaps the best way to thank all of those who invested in us and help carry on the hunting tradition with the next generation … in our outdoors.