This is a difficult post to write in that it requires that I draw on boyhood memories I spend most of my time trying not to recall. What prompted me to write this post is learning that Adam the 16 year old son of two friends of mine, Paul and William, made his first kill with the air rifle his grandparents gave him for Christmas. His dads posted on Facebook that Adam had shot a sparrow with his air rifle. I have been grooming Adam, teaching him hunting skills, hunting ethics and conservation preparing him to join us in the field this coming season. Adam is just starting out as a hunter and like every other hunter before him, I expect he will experience the five stages of a hunter.
Upon learning he had made his first kill, I spoke to his dads about this and was asked to speak to him about this myself. I sent him a detailed message via email in which I recalled how as a boy I had slaughtered scores of songbirds: sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, chickadees, goldfinches, swallows, starlings, grackles, woodpeckers and how this is a stain on my conscience. For me, this was, regrettably, the opening stage in my development as a hunter. Just getting out and shooting at something was important to me. However, it was not hunting; it was just killing for the sake of killing. I cannot bring these birds back and I cringe when I think about what I did. I stressed the importance of making the distinction between hunting and killing for the sake of killing. I carry profound regret in the present as I know this was wrong and in an effort to atone for my mistakes, I do my best to teach young hunters not to make the same mistake. In addition, I have become actively involved in the conservation of wildlife and its habitat and encourage new hunters, like Adam, not to make the mistake I did.
The first true step in my development as a hunter, having left those incidences of boyhood cruelty behind, was when I got my first hunting license in 1976 when I was fifteen years old. I completed the Hunter Safety Course mandated by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and passed the written and practical test administered by a Conservation Officer. I remember my first opening day of duck season. Despite having read many books on hunting and every article I could find in the stack of old hunting magazines my father had compiled, my father and I did not realize we could be at the edge of the beaver pond in the Marlborough Forest waiting for shooting time. We sat in the Ford Pinto waiting for shooting time, not wanting to break the law. Shooting started around us shortly before the half hour before sunrise and we decided it was ok to head to our spot. I had dreams of ducks pouring into our decoy spread, which consisted of six mallard decoys from Sears. As it happened, one stray mallard flew in right away and was dumped by my dad as it flushed. The ducks did not come pouring in as I had hoped and I did not fire a shot that day. Still, I had a great time.
In the following seasons I continued to learn more about hunting and the game I pursued. I took up duck calling, as best I could from reading magazine articles on the technique. The first call I mastered was the “fly away as fast as you can, there’s a man with a shotgun down here!” I still dreamed of duck hunts where the ducks came pouring in and I could fill a limit quickly, taking a limit of ruffed grouse and turning up woodcock. I got my first woodcock at 16 and though I flushed several over the next several years, did not shoot my second until fifteen years later. I learned more about hunting through a great deal of trial and error. I recall getting lost in the Marlborough Forest a number of times before cluing in that having a compass and taking a bearing indicating which direction was the way out was generally a good idea. I got my first Canada goose, my first trophy, on a beaver pond in the Marlborough Forest when I was 18. This was a big thrill for me. I never limited out on birds in those years, but had a great deal of fun.
I was busy with post secondary studies through much of my twenties and did not have as much time for hunting as I would have liked, but continued to gun for waterfowl and upland game as the opportunity arose. I decided I would like to raise and train a hunting dog of my own in my late twenties. I was thinking maybe a Cocker spaniel when a veterinarian who treated my mother’s cats told me about the Brittany breed of hunting dog. He referred me to a local breeder and fancier of the breed who put me on track, recommending a breeder from whom I bought my first Brittany, Christie, in 1994. I found training a hunting dog for the first time a challenge. Christie was a keen little huntress who loved to range. I had to get a beeper collar to keep track of her. Though I never took a limit of ruffed grouse or woodcock over her, it certainly made a great difference from those years I hunted without a dog. Christie and I had several seasons together before she fell terminally ill at ten years of age and was granted an easy death while I held her.
At the time of her death, I had my second Brittany, Maggie, whom I acquired when she was a puppy in 2002. Maggie really should have been born a Beagle. How she loved chasing rabbits! While I had a couple of good seasons with Maggie, she was a very timid dog and gradually stopped hunting. I acquired my third Brittany, Juno, in 2008. Juno, whom you see with me in the header photo at the top of the page, was a very pretty and demure little dog. She lived for the hunt, but would walk beside me until we entered patches of cover. Maggie fell ill in 2010 with Cushing’s disease. There was nothing that could be done and once again, as with Christie before her, I held her as she was euthanized. Juno and I carried on, as hard as it was for me, until in the summer of 2012 Juno was diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her mouth. The veterinarian who treated her, my friend and hunting buddy, Douglas Hopwood, advised me she had weeks left to live. I made the decision to have her euthanized and damn near took leave of my sanity. I considered not having another dog for a time, but found I could not live without a dog by my side. I acquired my fourth Brittany, Hera (who is in the second photo posted above) at Christmas in 2012.
Hera had a fantastic first season; before she was a year old she was pointing woodcock and grouse for me. She is a very confident and assertive little huntress. She hunts actively and does not range as far as Christie. She is still young and learning, she was not always staunch on point in her first season, but this is to be expected in a young dog. She is the culmination of my experience in training hunting dogs. It is a pretty steep learning curve with its joys and sorrows. I hope this time she lives a normal lifespan, that nothing bad happens as with her predecessors. Now that I have reached the fifth sportsman stage in my development as a hunter; I take to the field with Hera and my hunting buddies for the pure enjoyment of the experience. I no longer concern myself with filling limits or bagging a trophy game bird or animal. I look forward to introducing Adam to the pleasures of gunning for upland game birds over a Brittany this coming season. I will draw on my experience of the five stages of a hunter as he begins the process for himself in guiding him in his development as a safe and ethical hunter.