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The sound of the young beagle was getting closer with every yelp.
I knew the cottontail would be way ahead of the determined canine and would make his appearance only briefly. I opened the breach of my 12-gauge shotgun, unloaded it, and leaned it safely against the nearest tree. I then took out my pipe, packed it and lit it.
The smoke rose around me as I listened intently for the blast of my young son's shotgun that I hoped would sound very soon.
My son was pre-positioned along the edge of a logging road and would have a direct, safe line of fire as the cottontail crossed in front of him. The yelping intensified and suddenly I heard the single blast of the young boy's shotgun, then a holler of excited pleasure as the rabbit died quickly and cleanly in the middle of the logging road.
Soon excited yelping chimed in as the beagle joined his young master, my son lifting the long awaited prize for his four-legged hunting partner to smell.
I picked up my shotgun and excitedly walked the hundred-or-so yards separating father and son. Congratulations and pictures were the order of the day, but for our beagle, Daisy, that was only the first of several more cottontails she wanted to chase into range, and off she went to pursue yet another.
"Dad," my son exclaimed, "before Daisy gets herself into another heated chase, can we head home? My hands are a little cold. Daisy's paws seem a little sore. One rabbit will be enough for supper, and I'm happy with our morning so far."
Wow! Can a father and son outing get any better than that? He has learned well, not only to shoot and handle a firearm safely, but to think of his hunting partner and conservation in general.
Sometimes the ABC's of hunting can be as simple as Adolescents, Beagles and Cottontails. Teaching a youngster the ethics, safety, excitement, and enjoyment of the hunt can be very rewarding for both veteran hunter and novice alike.
Take a course together
First and foremost, we stressed attending a hunter safety course, and not just dropping my youngster off and picking him up after the class. We did it together. Even seasoned hunters can learn something new, and the camaraderie and time spent with your youngster in the classroom will pay big dividends later on in the field.
Most states set a minimum age limit for hunters to make sure the child can accomplish the required reading and writing in the coursework. Wisconsin law requires that all hunters under age 16 who are hunting or using a firearm for any purpose be accompanied by a parent or guardian. However, young people who complete a hunter education course and pass their exam will receive a certificate that makes them eligible to hunt and use firearms without supervision at age 14. Children can actually take a hunter education course as young as age 11, if they will turn 12 within six months of the course's completion. Further, anyone born on or after January 1, 1973 has to graduate from a hunter education course to purchase any hunting license in Wisconsin.
Requirements aside, attending classes with your child will also help you judge if he or she is mature enough to take responsibility for handling firearms safely. Each child is different, and even if your child can pass the tests, you need to decide if the child took the course material seriously and is ready to make safe field judgments.
Size your gear, practice, and train your pup
Once your child is mentally ready, he or she needs to be in good shape and properly equipped with gear that fits. That goes for the firearm, too. The shotgun should be suited to the hunt and your child should have lots of practice time to get used to handling it and shooting well. You want a gun that he or she is comfortable handling, carrying and operating. I found that a .410-guage Mossberg pump shotgun worked well for my son. We cut the stock down to accommodate his shoulder and arm length, and the recoil was slight and acceptable.
To further enjoy the hunting experience, we also worked on fostering a close bond between my son and our family dog. Caring for family pets has always been a fine way to teach children about responsibility. It adds another dimension to the relationship when you work with dogs to appreciate both their innate hunting abilities and their capacity to learn how to be a good hunting partner. There is little doubt that a dog will hunt and work harder when coupled with the youngster that he depends on for food, warmth, love and affection.
Therefore, the working relationship between the child and the dog can be greatly enhanced by delegating responsibility to care for the four-legged hunter. The closeness between child and dog is anchored by feeding chores and kennel care. A beagle lives to hunt and is more receptive to loading and unloading from the safety of the dog box and obeying the commands of a child who has become a working partner before and after the hunt.
There was a time when my son wanted to "chase" our beagle, who of course in turn was chasing the rabbit, but that was just not working out. Our dog sometimes seemed so perplexed when she finally chased the beagle back to the starting point but there was not a hunter in sight to help her out. Soon my son learned that the beagle merely follows the scent and tracks of the rabbit and it's the rabbit that mainly determines the running in what hopefully is going to be a circular pattern that will put the rabbit smack in front of a hunter who has learned to get ready for the shot.
The beagle seems to know that if he chases the rabbit close enough, the hunter becomes his greatest ally in the pursuit. If you really watch and listen to a beagle hot on a rabbit trail, you can see and hear the dog really does not expect to catch the rabbit. I don't know if the dog knows he's guiding the rabbit to the hunter or if it is content to just telegraph its approximate whereabouts so the hunter will prepare for a shot. It's something to think about, and even though I've had the experience time after time, I'm not sure I've come up with a fair answer.
Children need to learn early on that a successful hunt is not measured by the amount of game taken but rather by the good fortune of quick clean kills, the acceptance of harmless near-misses, the excitement if the much awaited game finally appears, appreciating the satisfaction that the beagle gets from guiding the rabbit to the hunter, and the sheer enjoyment of spending time afield with hunting partners; two-legged and four-legged.
Someday, with any luck, that same child will be sharing similar hunting experiences with a child of his or her own, gleaning satisfaction by setting aside one's shotgun and listening in the distance for that sweet sound of canine yelping, the sudden shotgun blast, and the adolescent holler of success.
William Lefebvre, Sr. writes about hunting from Plattsburgh, New York.