I recently took on a new hunting partner—my son Christo—and I think he'll be a good one. His changes through the years have been dramatic, growing from a chunky toddler crawling around on the floor into a handsome and athletic stretch of a young man sporting reddish hair and freckles.
At the age of 12, Christo became eligible to hunt in our home state of Montana, provided he passed a hunter safety course. Prior to his birthday, Christo, his two sisters and I took the 6-day course together. The hunter safety program has evolved substantially since I took one in 1963, when it consisted of only 4 hours of classroom instruction.
One of the biggest benefits of attending the course was family participation. My youngest daughter Sarah (who's not at all interested in hunting or firearms) and I benefited most from the program. She familiarized herself with firearms safety and now knows what to do should she encounter a situation involving firearms. For me, the course resulted in 6 days of one-on-one time with my children and a long overdue refresher course in hunting safety, ethics and proper firearms handling.
The day Christo turned 12 was just 2 days before Montana's Central Flyway waterfowl season would close. Because Christo is a good student, we let him miss a couple school days and headed to a wonderful late-season mallard haunt known as The Secret Spot with my hunting buddy Scott Wuebber. An Arctic cold front had descended upon Montana, lowering the temperature to minus 19 degrees as we left our home at 7 a.m. It was a balmy minus 1 degree when we arrived at The Secret Spot around 1 p.m.
A Proud Papa
As we emerged from the willows surrounding the spring hole, 200 mallards flushed. "Hurry up. Let's get the decoys out before they come back!" I commanded. "It's going to be hot and heavy in 20 minutes." While setting the decoys, Scott and I noticed several plastic shot wads frozen in ice on the edge of the spring hole and found shotshell hulls in the snow along the shore—so much for our secret spot. As I feared, the recent hunting pressure caused only a few ducks to come back, and most of them were very wary.
Christo missed his first shot at a drake mallard, then let two hens come right into the decoys and chose not to shoot, even though I said he could. In the past, he'd watched me and my hunting partners practice voluntary restraint by shooting "drakes only." At our cabin (known as Camp Swampy), shooting a hen mallard is a $30 infraction, and the funds are put into a kitty and donated to a conservation organization of our choosing at season's end. Christo's actions brought to mind a TV commercial featuring a 4- or 5-year-old boy mimicking his father's every move. The last scene showed the father smoking while the son puts a cigarette butt to his lips as if he were smoking, too. Christo's choice not to shoot hens filled me with pride.
Due in all probability to the recent hunting pressure on The Secret Spot, Christo killed only one drake each day we hunted. But looking back on the trip, I know it was a good thing. Had we shot our limits of mallards, the individual ducks would've been blurred and less significant in Christo's memory and, like all things that come too easily, the birds' perceived value would've been diminished. The first two drakes that fell to Christo's gun are vividly burned into his memory—and mine.
From Birds To Bucks
Later that year in October, Christo and I spent 3 days hunting pronghorns and upland birds. After setting up our camper, our first order of business was to shoot some birds for dinner and scout for pronghorns. We never found a pheasant, and Hungarian partridge were skittish and flushing wildly. Our best efforts scratched out three partridge. Darkness had fallen by the time we returned to the camper, and together we cleaned the birds under headlamp lights. Within minutes a big pot of pasta along with the freshly killed partridge were cooking on the stove. While I cooked, Christo fixed our salads and we talked about a myriad of things, from shot placement to soccer. The birds couldn't have tasted any better, and since then Christo often asks to have them cooked, "The way we did that night in the camper!"
As we cleaned up after supper, Christo and I discussed the good pronghorn buck we'd spotted during the day's bird hunt. Our scouting had paid off, and Christo was excited to graduate from birds to bucks. Before heading to bed, I was re-checking my gear for the next day when a quick glance at my pronghorn tag revealed it was for my second-choice region, not the one we were planning to hunt! It couldn't be! I asked Christo for his tag, which was also for the other region, and handed it back to him without saying a word.
Our hunt had been planned for months, and this was the only weekend of pronghorn season we both had available. Christo had saved his money and bought a 7mm-08 Rem. bolt-action rifle, and I'd given him a scope. We'd sighted in our rifles and shot them several times in preparation for this trip. To make matters worse, the zone we could legally hunt was a 5-hour drive away, and we didn't have a place to hunt, never mind the rigors of breaking camp and moving it.
I was confronted with an important—and tough—decision. Thoughts raced through my head. It was the week after opening day, and the game check station was closed. We were hunting a large private ranch where the chance of encountering a game warden was very remote. I was tempted—very tempted—but to pursue pronghorns here would put us in an unethical and unlawful situation. What message would be received by Christo if or when he found out? Hunting pronghorns would be breaking the law, plain and simple. And I couldn't plead ignorance of that fact because the truth was with me.
Not really knowing how to the handle the situation at that very moment, I asked Christo if he wanted to go after pheasants in the morning. "I'm really looking forward to getting my first pronghorn, Dad," he said.
So after taking a big breath, I told him the truth. I also told him I was really sorry and that it was a dumb mistake on my part. "Can you forgive me?" I asked.
He looked me in the eye and nodded, "It's all right, Dad." Then he gave me a big hug and said, "What about those pheasants?"