November 10, 2011
The rain started shortly after the activities began, but didn't seem to dampen the enthusiasm of the dogs. Or their handlers. Or the 11 10- to 14-year-old boys who were participating in the morning session of the all-day youth hunt sponsored by the Ingham and Clinton County chapters of Pheasants Forever.
That the rain eased up just about the time the new hunters were scheduled to hit the fields at Woodland Acres Shooting Preserve, just outside of St. Johns, was serendipitous but not necessary; the youngsters would have readily charged into a deluge.
The youth hunt, held the Saturday before Halloween, is one of two fall events the Pheasants Forever folks hold each fall and one each spring to initiate youngsters into the upland hunting fraternity.
"We're very fortunate to have a large membership in Ingham County - the largest in the country," explained Bill Kordenbrock, an Okemos lawyer and the youth chairman of the Ingham County PF chapter. "We invest a lot in education."
Indeed, the hunt begins with an almost classroom-like setting, albeit outside a barn on a southern Michigan farm. The PF instructors, including Kordenbrock's 14-year-old son Will, walk the youngsters through a mock hunt, with wooden replica shotguns to illustrate safe gun handling techniques. Then there's a quick session with clay pigeons to get the kids used to firing live ammo.
And then they hunt.
"Most of our youngsters are not sons of members," said Kordenbrock, as he busily prepared to register another dozen young sportsmen for the afternoon session. "A lot of the kids are from families that don't have a hunting heritage.
"We have in almost every class some kids from single parent families. A lot of these single parents don't have any hunting experience, so they go through it with the kids."
It's required that a parent accompanies every child in the field.
Although the hunt is the prize in most youngsters' eyes, it's only part of the program, Kordenbrock emphasized.
"We really don't focus entirely on the hunting," he said. "The whole idea is to get the kids out to enjoy the environment. We want to get the kids away from the TV and the game cube - get them out in the fresh air."
Steve Maudrie, president of the Ingham County PF chapter, said that the club has held youth hunts since 2004, putting 50 to 75 kids through the program every year.
"For at least half of them this will be their first hunt," Maudrie said. "We really like to get first-time hunters. We don't want to recycle the same kids through over and over. But if we had a kid who didn't get a bird the first hunt, maybe we'll bring them back if there's an opening."
Jim Graham, a farmer who owns Woodland Acres, put out four birds, two pheasants and two chukar partridge, for each. The birds were planted in sorghum that Graham grows to provide cover for the birds throughout the season.
Youth hunts such as this one are an important part of the mentoring process for bringing new members into the hunting fraternity, said Dennis Fox, the recruitment and retention coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources.
"It's an important part of the process," said Fox. "It gets the kids engaged and it's held in a controlled environment. They know they're going to see birds and they should get some shooting, so it's good from that perspective, too.
"But it's also good for the adults because it keeps them engaged and involved. It's a good tool for the club, it helps the clubs broaden their perspective, and the DNR can't do it all. We rely on our partners to help lay the groundwork. It's critically important."
Pheasants Forever is best known as a habitat-focused organization and is an important partner to the DNR as the agency embarks on a long-term initiative to restore pheasant populations, and pheasant hunting, in southern Michigan.
To that end, the Ingham County chapter of PF was one of the first clubs to pledge money toward the Pheasant Restoration Initiative. Maudrie said youth hunts allow the club to show the youngsters the importance of habitat to wildlife and how hunters are important to conservation.
"The idea that we're looking at small game is a great idea," he said. "There are a lot of kids that just can't sit still in a deer blind. This is a great way to get them involved in hunting."
No fooling; when asked what they thought about the event, the first word out of virtually every youngster's mouth was "fun."
Eleven-year-old Brian Hufnagle of St. Johns, who'd been out waterfowl hunting with his dad, said upland hunting was "very different" and "fun."
So did 10-year-old Kyle Bentley of Grand Ledge, who shot two pheasants. Bentley said he "missed quite a bit" and was "surprised I got two."
DNR conservation officer Rich Nichols was on hand for the event to talk about his job and answer questions. Nichols said he enjoys working with youngsters.
"I got some good questions out of the participants and a lot of them seemed happy to see me out there," Nichols said. "We try to get to the hunter safety classes just to let them know that we're out there and we will respond to their concerns.
"We want them to see that we're not just bad guys out there looking to take people to jail ? regardless of what stories they might have heard," he continued. "I want their first experience with meeting a game warden to be a positive one."
He must have been successful; it's hard to imagine that anyone - parent, youngster, volunteer dog handler or Pheasants Forever member would tell you it was anything but a positive experience.
Learn more about youth hunting at www.michigan.gov/hunting and the effort to restore Michigan's pheasant population and hunting tradition at www.michigan.gov/pheasant .