The rising sun split through the ageless oaks, exposing the juvenile wood ducks softly setting their wings to the jade colored water below. The hunter slowly and quietly rose from his stool to take in the scene, firmly securing the bantam twenty-gauge to his shoulder. A fumbling for the location of the safety, a seemingly endless pause, and the young hen wood duck was sent skittering to a halt. The joy, the pure joy on his illuminated 11 year old face was beyond rewarding. I beckoned my squirming yellow lab for the retrieve, and we packed up to quickly get the young hunter to Saturday morning football practice.
It had been two years since I first approached my neighbor Max and his parents about taking him afield to pursue waterfowl. Coming from a non-hunting family, he had an unexpected interest in the array of decoys carefully stacked in my dusty garage, and traditional waterfowl prints pinned to the walls. “Can I try that?”- he inquisitively asked one sizzling summer day- “sure, but we need to do a lot of preparation first”, I replied. His eyes slowly lowered to the floor at the thought of dram, school-like homework. I informed him that one does not simply go duck hunting. “There’s firearm safety, clay shooting practice, and duck identification lessons that we need to accomplish before we can go.” His eyes dipped lower yet as he grabbed his left arm with his right hand, apparently less than ecstatic with the perceived toil that would go into such an endeavor. His eyes shot right up, and he gave me a sheepish smile when I said “but, we’re going to do those things so that you have the best time of your life.”
Over the next few months I tried everything I could to make his pre-hunting training more enjoyable. I had an older duck call that I hadn’t used in a few seasons, so I had a plan to give it to Max to practice with. I stood at his front door as his mom apprehensively accepted the proposal, and he promptly darted around his living room, echoing obtuse notes that I never imagined a duck call could produce. For the next five minutes, I tried to show him the correct technique, and instructed him to listen to duck sounds and quacks on YouTube. However, my first foolproof plan to engage Max in waterfowling came to an abrupt halt a day later when his mom walked over to my door, promptly handing me the duck call. “I just can’t take it anymore.” were the only words she uttered with an emotionally exhausted frown on her face.
I then entered Max into the First Hunt program by Delta Waterfowl, who in turn sent him a mentee packet with a shadow grass camouflage ball cap, a waterfowl patch, and enough stickers to plaster the walls of his room. His excitement was difficult to miss as I pulled into the driveway after work one day. He ran full tilt in my direction with camo ball cap on backwards, and fists full of stickers, shouting, “It came! My duck stuff came!” His enthusing elation caused me to reflect on how I must have looked after I received my first bluebill decoys in the mail, or harvested my first drake Goldeneye.
After we went through extensive firearms safety lessons, I made it a point to visit the clay range with zero pressure on Max to shoot. Reviewing the safety procedures and mechanics of the gun once again with him, he felt more comfortable attempting a shot. We worked on swinging, leading, and focusing down the barrel of the gun before the first clay was thrown. As the July sun beat down heavily on our brows, I handed him shell after shell without a direct hit. I could sense that his patience was wearing thin, as he humbly handed the shotgun back to me. “Let’s try one more,” I said optimistically. He begrudgingly took his position and made his safety checks. “Pull!” he shouted. The clay was sent whirling straight out, and magnificently shattered with the crack of the shot. We looked at each other with excitement in our eyes, and awe in our wide smiles. I roared, “Nice shot!” and we gave each other a barrage of high fives.
In the blink of an eye, I was standing next to Max and his dad at 5 a.m., quickly loading gear into my truck before youth waterfowl opener. As we made our way down the steep hillside to the lake, I noticed a nervous bounce in Max’s step. He settled down into the high grass lining the edge of the lake, taking in the scene with eyes straining through the pre-dawn darkness. We both were delighted watching the birds careen across the cotton-candy sunrise, cautiously awaiting their abrupt arrival. Suddenly, a hen green wing teal plopped down into the decoy spread, softly quacking greetings to her new friends. A shaky shotgun missed its target and the frightened fowl bolted to a new destination. Over the course of the morning there was plenty of patience and practice, and we were unsuccessful in bringing a bird to hand. I could tell that Max was a little disheartened by the missed opportunities, but he perked right up when I told him that he did really well for his first time afield. “Wait, we get to do that again?” was the jubilant question he practically shouted back. I smiled, patted him on the back and said “As many years as you want buddy.”
If you would have asked me three years ago if I thought of myself as mentor material, I would have chuckled and dismissed the idea all together. However, during the time that I’ve spent teaching and encouraging Max to pursue waterfowl, I’ve found that I’ve learned far more than I taught. As a mentor, you get to experience the troubles and triumphs of your youth in the outdoors again. This time however, you get to be a positive imprint on the next generation of outdoorsmen and women. If you’re considering being a mentor to a youth interested in the outdoors, I would encourage you to be actively engaged in their development and training. The relationship between mentor and mentee grows stronger, and it makes the victories afield so much sweeter.