Hunter mentoring: Coaching a successful series of failures
For many years I’ve written about introducing kids to the outdoors. At first I wrote from the perspective of the experts I’d interview and tell the stories of friends who had children older than my own. I wrote from personal experience as well from bringing my students afield with a parent who wasn’t a hunter or angler but wanted their child to become one.
In recent years, I’ve written from the perspective of being a father myself and all the wonderful experiences that have come introducing my kids to hunting and fishing.
But this one is about something that doesn’t get a lot of ink: the art of coaching a miss.
A lot has been written about working with a novice hunter and their first kill. The mixed emotions of that experience is certainly deserving of attention. Those of us who have done a lot of hunting know that should you lose perspective on the taking of life, it’s probably time to hang up the shotgun, rifle or bow. We can whoop and high-five, but every animal deserves to be thanked at the site of the kill, properly field dressed and turned into a meal.
Making a kill is the result of all the conditions coming together just right. Every game species has its advantages in the field. The grouse likes to live in woods so thick a clear shot is nearly impossible. Whitetails have such superior senses getting one to wander into your shooting lane is a victory onto itself. Waterfowl fly high and fast and have feathers thick enough to repel all but the best placed shots.
A successful shot is great but misses happen more frequently. They can also sting even more depending on how we react to them.
The saying, “Every failure is a step to success,” is too simple for this situation. If an archer is lobbing tons of arrows without hitting the mark, visit the range before hunting again. The same should be said for a firearms hunter who misses the mark with a rifle or shotgun.
Wing-shooting is an entirely different game. Oh sure, the more clay targets one shoots at the better the odds are in the field. It’s also true that no winged creature acts with the same consistency as a clay pigeon – whether trapshooting, skeet or sporting clays.
I took my 11-year-old son out for the youth waterfowl hunt last month, and it was his first time actually waterfowling. We hit the sporting clays range ahead of time and he made some great shots. He was comfortable with the gun, he attended MDHA’s Forkhorn Camp this summer so he passed firearms safety, and he has had a lot of hunting experience for his age.
We canoed out onto a local lake full of waterfowl for his first hunt and I was eager to see if he’d take to it as much as I have. We set up a dozen decoys and then took cover in a bed of wild rice, the canoe perfectly placed for his left-handed swing. Since it was the youth hunt I had no shotgun and therefore could only coach him.
A group of five wood ducks approached us, swung by the decoys, liked what they saw and circled back. I told my son to remember what we’d practiced when we first got out there. Lift the shotgun, click off the safety when it’s clear of the boat, pick up the ducks, swing to the lead, and squeeze the trigger along the way.
The ducks committed, they cupped their wings and dropped at us. “Go for it,” I whispered just as one of those shots I dream about presented itself to my son. He squeezed the trigger and “CLICK” was all I heard as the wood ducks suddenly realized the error in their ways and flared off.
“I forgot to click off the safety, Dad,” he said.
Still picturing the shot of shots he had before him and knowing how I’d have felt being in his shoes, I took a deep breath and calmly assured him that I’ve been there myself many times.
“I’d rather you pull the trigger with the safety on for a million good shots than have the safety off and accidentally shoot just once,” I told him. “It’s OK. Let’s practice lifting the shotgun, clicking off the safety when it’s above the boat, and making your swing.”
He did that a few more times to regain his confidence and we waited for the next group of birds. Only a few minutes passed before a shot at redemption presented itself once again.
Let’s just say that same scenario repeated itself two more times. With each forgetful click of the safety I found myself stifling my own crazed emotions to present a stoic father who repeated the steps above. “It’s OK. We all do it. Let’s practice that again. OK. Now we wait.”
Thankfully, there were a lot of ducks flying around that first morning. A group of mallards presented themselves to my son and this time he improved. The lift of the gun, the click of the safety, the smooth swing on the shoulder, the gentle squeeze of the trigger and the satisfying thump in the shoulder as a shell splashes down in the water.
Only problem is that all four ducks that came in flew away without a single sign of being hit. “Dad I missed them,” he said.
I’m very hard on myself when I miss. Unfairly so to be honest. I play the shot through my mind and worry that I might have crippled a bird and made it go to waste. It felt different though watching him miss. For one thing, none of those birds even flinched. I knew that my reaction would set the tone for the day.
I drew in a deep breath. Smiled and replayed what I’d just seen in my mind before speaking. “That’s OK. That happens even more than not clicking off the safety,” I said. “Do you know what you did wrong?”
“I think I stopped swinging the gun when I pulled the trigger,” he said and I confirmed that’s what I saw, too.
Honestly, I might be even prouder of the fact that he correctly assessed the problem than if he’d actually made the shot.
We never did put a duck in the water that day, but he got four more shots off with similar results and learned a lot about how many mini-steps go into putting together the perfect shot. We talked about how shooting clay pigeons at the range is good practice and made plans to return to the range, now with real world experience as an extra teacher.
I worried if he was down on himself after a great morning on the water paddling back to the dock without any birds in the boat. But then I heard the words that every hunting mentor loves to hear. The words of sweet success.
“Can we do this again tomorrow?”
At least we hit one target for the day.