By Wade Bourne
Why would any sane person want to try waterfowl hunting? The hours are abominable. A duck hunter's day starts long before dawn and sometimes runs until sundown. Conditions are frequently bone chilling and soppy. A misstep while wading can lead to an unexpected bath. Wet dogs shake off on you. Mud gets under your fingernails. How miserable!
On the other hand, how could anyone not become captivated by waterfowl hunting? The sunrises are spectacular, and the scenery, wild and beautiful. A morning hunt shared with a family member or friend is quality time. Watching ducks and geese is spellbinding. The shooting is challenging. And, oh yes, wet dogs shake off on you, and mud gets under your fingernails. How exhilarating!
So, what is duck hunting: a dreadful undertaking or an incredible experience? A newcomer's perspective is usually determined by his or her initial encounter with the sport. If a first waterfowl hunt is wretched, chances are it will also be a newcomer's last. But if it is intriguing, comfortable, and fun, then a new waterfowler will likely be added to our ranks.
Why is this important? Two reasons. First, many veteran waterfowl hunters obviously wish to share their passion for the sport with their children, spouses, and friends. And second, recruiting new waterfowlers is critically important for passing on the conservation ethic and building the support base to protect the resource. Duck and goose hunters need new duck and goose hunters to keep their traditions alive and to ensure that bird populations and wetlands remain plentiful and healthy.
Here are some strategies for conducting first-time hunts for beginning waterfowlers, especially kids and women, two groups that comprise large pools of potential recruits. Above all else, veteran hunters should host newcomers with sensitivity to their needs and expectations. If they receive a proper introduction to the sport, first-timers will likely return for second and third hunts, and these initial experiences could lead to a lifetime of enthusiasm for waterfowl and their pursuit.
Introducing Kids to Duck Hunting
"The main things to remember when taking youngsters on their first waterfowl hunt are to make the experience as much fun and as pressure-free as you can," says Todd Russell, who runs Russell's Guide Service on Lake Eufaula in eastern Oklahoma. "You don't want them to feel like they failed if they don't shoot something. Instead, focus on the whole package: the enjoyment of being outdoors, the excitement of the hunt, being part of a group, and getting to see birds and other wildlife."
In Russell's 10 years as a waterfowl hunting guide, he has taken many youngsters on first hunts and has learned how to make the experience something they will want to continue doing. He offers the following advice.
Don't force kids to go hunting when they are too young. "I've seen parents push their kids into going hunting before they wanted to, and they felt pressured," Russell says. "Then hunting became a negative instead of a positive. There's no magic age for taking a youngster on a first duck or goose hunt. Some want to go earlier than others, but the important thing is that they should express a desire to go. They'll let you know when they're ready."
Outfit them with warm, weatherproof clothes. "Keeping kids warm and dry on their first hunt is huge," Russell says. "If they're miserable, they won't want to come back. Make sure they have a good parka, cap, gloves, insulated underwear, heavy socks and other clothes to keep them comfortable. If they'll be wading, make sure they have waders that fit and don't leak."
Provide them with a gun that fits. "Don't hand youngsters an adult-size 12 gauge and expect good results," Russell advises. "They probably won't be able to swing it, and the recoil will make them gun-shy. Instead, equip them with a youth model 20 gauge, and shorten the stock even more if necessary to get the fit right. Also, let them shoot some clays before going hunting. This reduces the intimidation factor of shooting live birds."
Get them involved in the hunt. "Make first-time hunters feel like they are contributing to the hunt," Russell says. "Give them a shaker call and let them chuckle when ducks are circling, or let them wave a flag at geese. If the water's shallow and the wading isn't treacherous, ask them to move a few decoys. Then the next time some ducks come in, tell them the new decoy arrangement helped bring in the birds.
"If you're using a spinning-wing or swimming decoy with a remote control, let them operate the remote. With older, more responsible kids, teach them how to operate the outboard, and let them drive the boat—obviously at slow speed and under close supervision. The point is, find things first-time hunters can do to make them feel like they have an active role in the hunt."
Keep them well fed and watered.
"Youngsters really go for a hot breakfast in a duck blind or goose pit," Russell says. "Just about every morning I cook bacon, eggs, and hash browns. It's fun to watch the kids dive in. Also, I take plenty of snack foods and drinks to keep them from getting hungry or thirsty. A full hunter is usually a contented hunter."
Take Lots of Pictures
"Carry a digital camera and take plenty of pictures," Russell advises. "And let them take some too. This reinforces the idea that hunting is fun and about more than just killing birds."
Let beginners shoot first, if they want to. "When ducks or geese come in, let a newcomer have the first shot," Russell says. "But if he or she is intimidated about shooting alone, that's okay too; let the newcomer shoot with everybody else. Again, don't put any pressure on youngsters to do something that makes them uneasy."
Don't stay too long. "If hunting is slow and a first-time hunter decides he or she has had enough, pick up the decoys and head in," Russell suggests. "You don't want youngsters to get bored and then feel trapped. Take them in when they are ready to go. Then they won't be threatened about coming back the next time."
Russell also suggests pointing out other wildlife like eagles, woodpeckers or beavers to young hunters; allowing them to take an electronic game (with sound turned off) to occupy their attention if the birds aren't flying; giving them a duck- or goose-calling lesson; and taking along a friend of the same age.
"This is all just common sense," Russell concludes. "Do whatever is required to keep first-time hunters comfortable, occupied, and feeling like they are contributing to the hunt. If you can make a hunt fun, they will come back again, and then you've got a lifelong waterfowl hunter in the making."
Introducing Women to Duck Hunting
My wife is the quintessential nonhunter. She was raised a city girl, and her idea of hunting is prowling the mall for bargains. Still, early in our marriage and at my urging, she sampled deer, dove and turkey hunting, none of which took. She hasn't been in the field in more than 20 years.
Imagine my surprise, then, when she responded "yes" to my recent query about whether she would join me in my duck blind. Granted, certain conditions must be met: She wants warm clothes, a heater, hot beverages, and a good seat with back support for times when the action is slow. She also wants to be able to answer the call of nature in privacy and comfort (she said a 5-gallon bucket with a toilet seat would suffice). She would prefer hunting in the afternoon so she wouldn't have to drag out of bed in the wee hours. And finally, she would not want to take her first duck-hunting trip among strangers, especially veteran hunters. "I'd rather go with family members or close friends so I wouldn't feel intimidated," she explained. "That way if I didn't hit anything, it wouldn't matter. I wouldn't feel any pressure."
All sensible requests. And they parallel suggestions provided by Dr. Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point. Dr. Thomas is also the founder of the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman program (BOW) that is now actively taught in more than 40 states.
"Becoming an Outdoors-Woman provides females an opportunity to learn outdoor skills in a setting where they're not being judged and where they don't have to impress the most important men in their lives—their husbands, fathers, sons and boyfriends," Dr. Thomas states. "Our program sets up participants for success. It builds their self-confidence and comfort level in hunting and fishing and other outdoor activities in a logical, nonthreatening environment."
Dr. Thomas says BOW does this through making initial challenges easy. "Say we're teaching archery," she explains. "We move the target in close, and we give a first-time shooter a bow with a light draw weight. She's going to hit the target. Then, as her confidence and skill level increase, we'll move the target back to raise her competency. But the important thing is getting over that first hurdle."
Thus, setting a woman up for success should be the goal when introducing her to waterfowl hunting. Dr. Thomas points out this should be done one component at a time, starting well before the hunt.
"One component would be shooting," she says. "Start a beginner out with a small-gauge shotgun that fits her, shooting light loads at targets that are easy to hit. This is how you prearrange for success and get her excited about shooting. Then when she gets to the blind, she won't be so anxious about trying to hit flying targets.
"Another component would be clothing," Dr. Thomas continues. "Outfit your first-time female hunter with clothes and boots that fit and are warm. You might include hand and foot warmers and a heater in the blind. Waterfowl hunting shouldn't be about suffering. It should be about utilizing available resources to assure there is no suffering. Again, the idea is to prearrange these things to guarantee a comfortable, enjoyable experience.
"The main thing is to communicate with your wife, daughter or girlfriend and find out what will make her first waterfowl-hunting experience enjoyable," she adds. "Remember, there should be no pressure to actually do anything. It should be her choice to shoot or to watch. She'll shoot when she's ready. And if she's not ready, it's no big deal."
Dr. Thomas makes one other important point specific to fathers introducing their preteen daughters to waterfowl hunting. "Fathers and their preteen daughters have a special relationship," she explains. "This is when daughters will do almost anything for Dad, including trying outdoor sports.
"This means dads have a special window of opportunity to spark their daughters' interest in hunting and other outdoor pursuits. This chance comes from late grade school through middle school. This was when my dad introduced me to hunting. He did a good job with me, and now hunting is my passion."
Dr. Thomas concludes that one premise should be the basis for a first-time hunt: "Whether a new hunter is male, female or a youngster, that first experience should be about them, not about you. It's only fun as long as they think it's fun. Set them up for success. Set them up for comfort, and don't try to push them into doing something they're uneasy about. If you do these things, then their first hunt should be positive, and chances are a lot higher they'll want to do this again."
Don't Overlook Older Hunters
An interesting statistic surfaced with the publication of the National Duck Hunter Survey 2005, conducted by the National Flyway Council and the Wildlife Management Institute. This survey discovered that 6 percent of duck hunters from age 45 through 64 had taken up duck hunting in the "relatively recent past (1997 to 2004)." In other words, these hunters had gotten into duck hunting well into adulthood.
The survey notes, "Current efforts to...recruit hunters tend to focus on women, youth, the physically challenged, and minorities—all very appropriate initiatives. (But) these data are a reminder that current hunters should not be overlooked as candidates for hunting activities in which they do not currently participate." In other words, the survey suggests there is an opportunity to draw new, active and perhaps inactive hunters into duck hunting. If they enjoy hunting other game, they might also take to waterfowling.
The same rules would apply when introducing these older prospects to the sport: keep them warm and comfortable, get them involved in the hunt, let them shoot first if they want to, and don't make their first waterfowling experience too rigorous. If their introductory duck hunt is exciting and fun, odds are high they will come back for more. But if it's uncomfortable drudgery, they won't return, and the opportunity to add another member to our ranks will be lost.