by Dave Mull
Waterfowl hunters are a passionate bunch. That passion can be instilled early for young hunters, but only with care for details and safety.
Some folks who know how much Kevin Essenburg likes hunting waterfowl are slightly surprised to learn that he has never owned a four-legged retriever.
When hunting over water, he usually jumps in his well-concealed 14-foot fishing boat or canoe and gets the duck, but when field hunting, his retriever has been of a two-legged variety. His towheaded daughter Andrea, now 12, started running out and picking up downed birds at age 5. This duty continued up until last year when she started toting her own shotgun. So now, some of the field-retrieving duties go to 9-year-old Lauren, the younger daughter of Kevin and wife Sarah.
Kevin, who lives in Holland, Michigan, has fostered a true passion for the outdoors in Andrea, and it appears that the same fire is starting to build in Lauren, who he said, began asking him about taking her hunting back in the summer months. The two girls also troll for salmon on Lake Michigan with their dad, and Kevin says a big key to kids enjoying hunting and fishing and wanting go back for more is to make sure they are a participant, not just an observer.
“Andrea has not just retrieved ducks and geese, but also has been involved in scouting, setting up and taking down decoys, the whole nine yards,” Kevin states.
I joined Kevin and Andrea in a marsh off Michigan’s Kalamazoo River on Andrea’s first ever day as a real hunter during the state’s Youth Waterfowl Hunt in September last year. Along with me was my own retriever, a gray-faced golden dog named Gabe, who rode stoically on the back of my Hobie kayak.
“We’ve had some opportunities but no downed ducks so far,” Kevin reported when I found the duo on a small island with scrubby trees that made a terrific natural blind.
More than a dozen decoys bobbed in the slow-moving marsh water in front, the sun already well above the horizon. Kevin and Andrea had paddled their canoe to the spot and set up in the predawn darkness after scouting the location together earlier in the week.
Kevin had introduced Andrea to a 12-gauge Beretta semi-auto early on in the summer, and it had proven a tad too heavy for Andrea to wield comfortably, so Kevin brought along shooting sticks to support the shotgun.
“The plan is to land them in the decoys this first time,” he said. “Andrea is a good shot—just not quite ready to shoot ducks on the wing. Landing ducks is not standard operating procedure, but I’d rather she harvested her first duck cleanly instead of possibly crippling it by trying to shoot it flying.”
To further the safety of the hunt, Andrea had just a single shotshell in the semi-auto, which Kevin loaded—and eventually unloaded—for her.
“She’s good shooting 3-inch shells, but you never know what can happen with the kick of a shotgun,” Kevin said. “Last thing we want is the kick to throw her off balance with another live round in the chamber and the safety off.”
Despite near bluebird conditions with a high, clear sky and bright sun, other hunting parties scattered through the marsh seemed to be having steady shooting, while our four sets of eyes scanned the sky. Finally a pair of mallards zipped by and circled when Kevin started calling. Tantalizing close to following the game plan and settling into the decoys, they ultimately headed off without offering a shot.
Soon, he and Andrea were in the canoe and collecting the decoys, ready to paddle back toward the ramp. But it was just the beginning of a waterfowl season in which father and daughter logged nearly 4,000 miles on the family Jeep, scouting and hunting throughout the state’s seven waterfowl management areas and other public hunting land. Andrea had her shotgun for every hunt and eventually did shoot a duck—a cripple in the decoys.
“The duck was right in front of her while my hunting partner’s dog was retrieving another duck,” Kevin recalled. “She looked around and made sure she knew where the dog was before shooting—I watched her do everything right, and I knew she was good to go as a duck hunter.”
Kevin is an engineer who designs exhaust systems for a number of different U.S.-made autos and has been an avid waterfowler since he was in high school, largely teaching himself while hunting with teenage friends. His immediate family had no avid hunters, and now he enjoys bringing his two older girls into the hunting lifestyle. Two-year-old Isabella will soon get her turn.
“Andrea started coming along when she was really young while we were scouting and just enjoyed tagging along. From there we got her her own layout blind, and she’s just become part of the whole program.”
Lauren is on course to have her own layout blind before long, too.
Kevin noted Andrea wanted to take Michigan’s Hunter Safety Certification course when she was 10, passing in flying colors with mother Sarah.
“Basic firearm handling and safety has never been an issue with her,” Kevin said.
The 2015 season was a bit more than week away from starting as this article was being written, with another September youth hunt scheduled.
Father and daughters were ready for another excellent season of togetherness in the great outdoors.
Keys to Teach Kids Hunting
Kevin Essenburg offered some advice for parents:
- Get them involved as participants, not just observers, letting them help set up and gather decoys and retrieve downed birds.
- Going on a big trip can be cool, but it’s probably better to keep things short—and warm—for beginners. He notes hunting in a layout blind can be especially good with kids—bundled up they can stay warm and nap during lulls in the action.
- Firearms safety and shooting should start long before the hunt. “Parents should spend all summer going over safety and gun handling with their kids.”
- Finally, Kevin said, “If they’re not enjoying it because of mosquitoes or cold rain, quit and go get a burger. You don’t want to turn them off to hunting right as they’re starting their career.”
Youth Waterfowl Days
Imagine hunting even the best duck holes with little to no pressure from other hunters. Imagine being able to hunt before the regular waterfowl season, or in the southern states hunting after the regular season ends and more birds have migrated down. Special youth-only waterfowl seasons are added incentive to take a kid waterfowl hunting.
Most states offer a two-day youth-only waterfowl hunt, typically on a weekend before or after the regular season.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which regulates the hunting of migratory birds, first implemented youth-only waterfowl hunts in 1996. The idea was to provide young hunters with an opportunity to get out either before or after the regular season, offering a chance to hunt without all the competition for good hunting spots. The USFWS provides a flexible framework for these special hunts, so states can set their own youth dates as long as it is on a holiday, weekend or other day when school is out. Beyond that, the states can pick their own dates. Youth-only waterfowl dates can be 14 days before or after the regular season or during a split between the regular state seasons.
State-specific regulations apply, but the federal framework for youth hunts accommodates hunters age 16 and younger. A federal duck stamp isn’t needed for kids, and in many states a hunting license isn’t required.
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