Editor's Note: As a deer hunter, I recognize that most hunter's first trip afield is to pursue the white-tailed deer. And while I respect the many parents out there trying to introduce their children to deer hunting, I urge them to start with a squirrel hunt. This allows kids to develop as hunters and marksman and to understand what hunting truly. And instead of jumping straight to big game, they learn the most intergral of lessons of hunting before embarking on the challenge a deer hunt poses. T. Edward Nickens agrees. And the following is the tale of his son's first hunt.
Five minutes into the hunt and Jack is antsy already. He hardly slept last night but still bolted from the bed at 5 a.m. “I’m ready to go huntin’!” he exclaimed, dropping the letter “g” that I hope he’ll pick back up soon.
He is 5, a carbon copy of his dad — like you spit him out of your mouth, as the old folks say around here — and it’s his first trip to the woods during which the primary intent and purpose, or so he thinks, is to shoot an animal, clean it, bring it home, and put it on the dinner table.
Now we’re hunkered down at the base of a soaring swamp chestnut, and as the morning’s first birds begin to stir, he’s starting to squirm. At first, it’s not particularly disruptive. He sticks his tongue out as far as possible and tries to look at the tip. I nudge him with an elbow. “Easy. Stay still.” He gives me a double thumbs up. Twenty seconds later he runs his finger around the Red Ryder logo on his BB gun. A full minute passes and now comes a lion-sized yawn. He rubs he eyes and leans against me, making little clucking sounds that tell me the hunt is very close to being over.
“Hey, Dad,” he whispers. “Yes, sir.” “When are we going to start squirrel huntin’?” “We are, Jack,” I grin. “Right now. Be still.”
He glances out over the oak flat. Despite my honest descriptions of what to expect, I can only imagine what he anticipated. Hordes of squirrels trouping through the treetops, no doubt. Branches heavily laden with furry targets. With luck, perhaps a few crazed rodents might even attack with such vigor to require fending off with the Red Ryder and the Star Wars light sword alike. Many things, but not this.
“But this isn’t squirrel huntin’, Dad,” he whines. “This is…,” he searches for the phrase. “This is just ol’ boring squirrel lookin’!”
I laugh to myself and tell him to keep his eyes peeled, but I can tell he’s ready to stretch his legs, scratch his back, do something other than sit stone-still. And that’s perfectly fine. He is 5, and the point, although he does not know it, is not to kill a squirrel today. The point is to make him want it — want the woods and the gun and the dawn colors, want the thrill that comes when an animal approaches close and closer still. The point is to make him want all of that at least as badly, and deeply, as he will soon want to play baseball and chase girls and drive family vehicles at speeds in which they are not designed.
But more than anything else, the point is to help him understand that pulling the trigger is a small part of the hunt. A lust for blood and burned powder are phases to nurture and celebrate, but ultimately to pass through. The trick is the transition — or evolution — to the point in a young hunter’s life where what matters at least as much is the chance to take the hunter’s place in the natural world.
So we’re up and stretching and just as we do a pair of squirrels do what squirrels do best — materialize from nowhere. They make a break for a knothole not 40 feet away as Jack scrambles for the Red Ryder.
“Oh, man!” he grimaces. “Why’dja have to scare ‘em off like that, Dad?”
From what I can tell, getting kids to want to shoot guns is the easy part. In an age of instant gratification, few things respond so instantly as primer, powder and firing pin. But bringing together a love of hunting and a reverence for the lives of wild animals — both the utter wonder of the intricate worlds beyond the sidewalk and the utter reality of predator and prey — now we’ve got a hard row to hoe.
And it’s getting harder and harder to break that ground. There is little point in miring down in the standard excuses of the postmodern hunter — that there are fewer and fewer places to hunt. That there’s too much competition from soccer and skateboarding. That hunting is increasingly out of synch with mainstream society, and it’s just not worth the trouble explaining to other parents, teachers, whomever. That is all true, and the world that we live in, and the challenge that we face, is a lofty task, but worth every ounce of energy and understanding available.
My two children — Jack’s sister, Markie, is 8 — spend the vast majority of their time in the city, in activities far removed from the natural world. Swim team and school, homework and basketball. It’s not easy making sure that there’s an equal measure of campfires and campouts, nature hikes and wading waist-deep in swamp muck. Exposing them to hunting is more difficult, still.
For their first few years it was simply a matter of exposure. They’d look for me to return home from morning hunts with unbridled enthusiasm. “What’d you get, Daddy? Ducks? A turkey? Can I see? Can I see?” I’d toss them each a mallard or two, or let them help me drag the deer to the backyard. I’d point out the difference between primary and secondary wing feathers. Explain how antlers grow. I’ve always figured that for young kids, particularly, hunting needs to be viewed as an integral and customary part of life — not something Dad or Mom do “out there,” in a world apart from their Legos-and-American Girl frame of reference.
But soon enough they were no longer content with a passive role in Dad’s seemingly all-encompassing pastime.
“Daddy, when can I go hunting?”
So I’ve begun to take them — too soon, some might say, and I struggle with that. But I want them to begin to grasp — to come to know, slowly, on their own — an understanding of hunting as an expression of faith. Faith in a system of scientific wildlife management that does its best to discern the natural surpluses of our woods and waters. Faith in a natural order free from the emotional bondage of Bambi and Pixar Studios. Faith in traditions that have bound humans and wildlife together for ages. What that faith looks like in the field is personal dogma — eat what you kill, hunt only prey species, still hunt or dog hunt, bait or no bait — and yours is yours and mine is mine and as long as we’ve each given it thought and consideration that should be good enough for each of us.
To emerge from childhood to adulthood with a hunter’s heart, Markie will have to navigate a culture in which there are few female hunters to serve as role models, although that is changing somewhat. I suspect she’ll have to deal with peer pressure that will hardly embrace the notion of a girl and a gun. Already she shows a definite affinity for serious wildlife science — her collections of raccoon bones, shark’s teeth and skulls are as dear to her heart as horse books and hair accessories. But it’s early in the game. Middle school looms, and raising a girl hunter will pale in importance to raising a teenaged daughter I still recognize.
Brother Jack will face slightly shorter odds, thanks to his gender. But still the siren calls of ball sports, video games and the growing un-hipness of hanging out with Dad will be there, taunting from the sidelines. Finding pals to play ball with will always be easy. He’ll have a tougher time finding peers to share an interest in hunting.
It may be too much to hope for. But hunters have hope in spades.
We’ve folded up the camouflage netting now. We could try to still-hunt for squirrels, but I suspect Jack’s patience for taking five steps every 60 seconds would only rival his appreciation for sitting stump-like in the dawn woods. My worst move would be to force him to do what I want to do. I remind myself: This truly is all about him.
“So,” I ask. “What do you want to do?” “I don’t know. Maybe there are some frogs or something around here.”
I feel the agitation stir. I’ve burned up a weekend morning carefully crafting his first hunting experience, and he wants to go catch frogs. Easy, Dad, I think. This is where the wheels come off.
“Little man,” I say. “It’s a little late in the year for frogs, but I think I know a spot where we might get lucky.”
“Sweet!” he says. “Can I shoot one?”
I say, “No,” of course, and firmly. And then, not as firmly: “And why would you want to shoot a frog?”
But in my hunter’s heart I know. And I know that I have some work to do. The best kind of work there is.