Passing on a waterfowl hunting tradition
DWR's Northern Region supervisor shares stories of hunting with his kids.
Justin Dolling is the regional supervisor for DWR's Northern Region. During his career, he’s had the opportunity to be involved with the management of wetlands, upland game, waterfowl, river otter, big game, bear, cougar and furbearers.
I GREW UP HUNTING and fishing with my father and his friends. One of my most memorable experiences as a kid is riding in an airboat to our secret waterfowl hunting blind. I still remember the feeling of the crisp October wind in my face as our airboat captain navigated through the marsh.
I started going out with my dad when I was five years old, but didn’t get a chance to shoulder my first shotgun until I turned 12. And even then, I had to compete with the other more experienced hunters.
Now, the rules have all changed. There is no longer a minimum age to hunt, as long as the certified hunter education class is completed successfully. Also, Utah now has a youth waterfowl day dedicated to hunters 15 years or younger. This special day allows adults to mentor young hunters, one on one.
As a dad with young kids, I took advantage of this opportunity every year. I introduced my daughter and son to their first waterfowl hunt during Utah’s special youth waterfowl day.
Before I took my kids to the field as licensed hunters, we talked about gun safety and practiced with clay targets. I wanted to make sure they were comfortable handling a shotgun. The next step was to work on obtaining the proper equipment beyond a shotgun. I was fortunate enough to have some leftover gear that survived my early days of hunting. Over time, we purchased other small items, like warm hats, gloves, coats and waders.
The last step was to do a little scouting and select a place to hunt. Really, that was the easy part. There are many opportunities on our state waterfowl management areas, federal refuges and unmanaged public marshes.
I remember one youth hunt vividly. My daughter and son were both eligible to participate. There was a drizzling rain that early September morning when dad (grandpa), daughter, son and I headed out to the marsh.
We loaded the boat with decoys, hunting gear and the dog. After finding the perfect spot, we checked the wind direction and then set the decoys up in a way that would bring ducks close to the blind: a horseshoe pattern. The landing zone—or open cup of the horseshoe—was located directly in front of the blind. Once we settled into the blind, ducks from all directions zipped in and out of our decoy spread.
In spite of the cold weather, I could sense the enthusiasm from my son, daughter and our dog Inca. It was quite a show. We didn’t have to wait long before the hunt officially opened, but we were constantly checking our watches because clouds covered the sun.
My daughter took the first shot—a clean miss. My son joined in and blew three holes into the sky. Wrapped up in all the excitement, I could tell they had forgotten some of the lessons taught during clay target shooting. Shoulder the gun, keep your cheek to the stalk and always keep swinging.
After a few minutes reviewing shotgunning principles, they started taking turns, focusing on one bird at a time, and swinging through after the shot. It was amazing. They both started hitting birds and making some impressive shots.
I don’t recall if they got their limits that day. That wasn’t important to me. What mattered was seeing their excitement.
My daughter is now a sophomore in college and my son is a senior in high school. He’s still dad’s hunting buddy, but other activities like sports and friends tend to complicate matters.
Last December, my daughter called me from school and asked if I would take her and a friend (as an observer) duck hunting over Christmas break. I said yes without hesitation. She hasn’t hunted much since 16, but she still remembers the fun of those special youth hunts. For her, it’s the memories that stir the passion. If it wasn’t for her early exposure to duck hunting, I doubt she would have any interest at all today. I’m looking forward to that trip, and many more.