The proper training of kids to be safe and responsible hunters and gun handlers can be as challenging as it can be rewarding.
I well remember that early morning 33 years ago when I eased into my then 7-year-old son’s bedroom to wake him for one of his first turkey-hunting experiences. It was probably about 4 a.m. when I shook him awake, but he sprang right up and eagerly started pulling on his camouflage outfit that we had laid out before bedtime.
He was about to become an apprentice turkey hunting observer. My plans were to carry him with me a few times unarmed strictly to learn before I would even think about allowing him to carry a shotgun or shoot.
There would be two main lines of instruction. First and foremost would be safe and responsible gun handling, and secondarily he would learn how to hunt a turkey.
My normal turkey season routine was to quickly turn off the alarm and creep quietly out of the bedroom, lest I wake the sleeping grizzly lying next to me. I would then dress and rustle up a little something to eat in the truck as I drove to my hunting spot.
This morning was different, though. I had stood almost slack-jawed the previous evening when the wife instructed me to be sure and wake her when we got up so that she could fix us some breakfast and pack us a lunch.
My, my, what a difference there is when taking your young son or daughter along on an early morning hunt. My thought was, “I could easily get used to riding my son’s coattail like this!”
All stoked with breakfast groceries and excitedly discussing the prospects for our hunt, we drove through the predawn darkness toward what we hoped would be a furiously gobbling old tom on the roost.
You see, we had an ace up our sleeve: I had roosted a flock of turkeys the previous evening, and the accompanying gobbler had blared out a good-night gobble as he settled down on his perch for the night.
If he stayed put, I knew precisely where he was, or at least where he was at “lights out.”
After about a 45-minute drive, we pulled in at a wire gate at the head of a primitive woods road. With my son close behind me, we hurried toward the roost site, owl hooting periodically to see if our gobbler was awake.
Right on cue, the old tom began to gobble just often enough for us to keep him triangulated as we slowly crept in to within about 80 or so yards of his tree.
After daylight his hen flock began to fly down, and within just a few minutes the whole group was on the ground. There were no trees with large-enough diameters for us both to sit against and not stand out, so we quickly pulled down our camo head nets and got into the prone position facing down a woods road spur that the turkey flock seemed to be headed toward.
My young apprentice was positioned just behind me and to my right, with his head about even with my ankles. We would be in plain sight if the birds moved into the lane, but as long as we stayed completely still, we would likely get the drop on the ole boy.
As the minutes ticked by, we could track their location by the purrs and soft yelps of the hens, and the double gobbles and drumming of their bearded and feathered suitor.
We were close!
I could not have laid any flatter, as I stared down the rib of my gun barrel, thumb poised on the safety catch, unless my jacket buttons were removed.
As the dark, bobbing shapes of the flock became visible behind screening brush at the woods roads edge, I stole one last, quick glance back at my son and was satisfied that he was in proper position, flat as a flitter with his chin resting on his gloved hands.
The hens began to filter into the lane about 25 yards from the end of my gun barrel, with the dark crescent of the gobbler’s fan just visible at the edge of the lane. He was mere seconds from strutting into full view.
My thumb pushed the safety to the firing position with a soft click, as my gloved index finger slowly moved in front of the trigger. I was absolutely locked in like a statue, lying as flat as road kill.
This gobbler was MINE!
The hens that were visible in the lane all suddenly looked up in unison, focusing on our position as they began to drift back into the screening brush.
The gobbler, of course, reversed direction, following closely on their heels.
What had just happened? I had done everything right by the book.
I slowly eased my head around to look at my son, and to my amazement, there he lay with his hands clamped over his ears in preparation for the shot.
What the heck? Well, it became quickly obvious to me that when he heard the safety click off, he had moved his hands and covered up his ears.
As a father and hunting mentor, I was presented with a choice. Lose control and berate him for messing me up and causing me to lose a “gimme putt” gobbler or use this as a teaching moment.
I fortunately chose the high road, and we sat for a few minutes and discussed what had happened and why it happened.
All I can say is that he learned from it and NEVER made that mistake again. We actually were laughing about our “oh so close” encounter as we walked back to the truck.
You know though, in retrospect, the very fact that we shared this experience has made it all the more memorable. I can look back and honestly say I am glad we didn’t take the gobbler; I have taken numerous gobblers over the years and had we been successful on that long ago morning it would have just been another notch on my gun stock, rather than a sweet memory of a moment in time between a father and a son.
Anytime you take a youngster hunting, stuff just happens. Go ahead and be prepared for it.
As a parent or as a mentor, you have to put yourself in second place when teaching kids and focus on what’s really important, which is to train youngsters to be safe and responsible hunters and gun handlers.
It is so gratifying now for me to watch the young boy in the story, now a 40-year-old father, patiently teaching the same lessons to his son and daughter.