This article was originally published in the 2020 winter edition of Michigan Out-of-Doors — Michigan’s premium outdoor journal.
By: Shaun McKeon
The path to becoming a hunter is a different road for each individual. Some people are seemingly born into the heritage and traditions of deer camp, while others discover their passion for the outdoors later in life.
For Jason Smith, a marketing professional from Chicago, his first foray into the outdoor world was work-related. As a marketing professional, Jason and his team were looking to work with the clothing and gear company North Face. As the team prepared for meetings with their client, Jason began thinking about what it would be like to spend more time outside and less time in the city. However, living in Chicago and not associating with many people who spent much time in the outdoors beyond the city, let alone knowing many hunters, Jason was a bit stuck on getting the support a new person needs to become a hunter.
Fast forward to 2019 when Jason and a friend decided to leap into the hunting community. That spring, they both signed up to join the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), which was hosting a Learn to Hunt turkey event in the southwest corner of Michigan. A Learn to Hunt turkey weekend consists of three days of learning the ins and outs of turkey hunting and is geared towards beginning hunters and those looking to learn how to hunt a new species.
Although Jason wasn’t able to harvest a turkey over the Learn to Hunt weekend, he decided hunting was something he would continue to pursue. He was drawn to the idea of being able to hunt for turkeys solo and not needing a large amount of gear to get started. He also decided it would be important to stay in touch with this community and take advantage of other opportunities as they arose.
In November of 2019, the Michigan Pheasant Hunting Initiative held a learn to hunt pheasant event at the Allegan State Game Area, and once again, Jason jumped at the opportunity to take advantage of the program. I had the pleasure of being assigned as the group mentor for Jason and was able to spend the day with him teaching about pheasant biology, practicing on the trap range and hunting behind editor Nick Green’s small Munsterlander, Calvin. Throughout the day, Jason asked a ton of questions, and his excitement to learn was palpable. He wanted to know what type of hunting I did and why I was passionate about it. When I told him I am primarily a waterfowl hunter, I could see a gleam in his eye that he knew that was something else he wanted to try. Learn to Hunt does not currently have a learn to waterfowl program, but I told Jason if the cards lined up in 2020, I would be happy to show him the ropes. The pheasant event wrapped up with Jason harvesting his first pheasant, and after a few goodbyes, I wondered if our paths would cross again in 2020.
Mentoring a total stranger from another state and inviting him to stay at my house for a weekend seemed a bit crazy in the back of my head. I had only known Jason for a total of five hours before I had committed to mentoring him. It was a big leap on his end as well. He didn’t know who I was or what it would be like hunting with me, and while Jason lives in the big city, I live in rural Shiawassee County. We look like we come from very different worlds on the surface, but my passion for ducks and Jason’s passion for learning seemed to make this gap smaller.
The first thing I wanted Jason to get started with was gear. While I had decoys and an assortment of required waterfowl-specific gear, one thing I don’t have for a new person to borrow is waders. In the past, I have heard too many horror stories of people borrowing the back-up pair of waders from a friend and having a miserable time with cold, wet feet. I sent him links to the brand of waders I use, as well as those that friends use and tried to steer him in a warm/comfortable direction.
About three days later, my phone rang and it was Jason. He was calling me from Cabela’s while looking for waders. We talked about several pairs while he tried them on and eventually settled on a pair that seemed to work for him. While I was on the phone, we talked about basic duck calls so he could get started practicing his calling; I also had him pick up some other creature comforts in gear like a hand muff and a shell belt that would be helpful for his time in the marsh. When I hung up the phone, we talked or texted for almost two hours before Jason was headed to the register. With the swipe of that card, I knew he was committed, and I would try my best to show him the excitement and adventure that is waterfowling.
Finally, Friday, Oct. 30, 2020 arrived, and Jason showed up at my house around 8:30 p.m. I wanted to get to have a get-to-know-you session and review the plan and gear for the upcoming hunts. Jason was on time, and with his easygoing personality, we became fast friends. What I had anticipated being a short one-hour review before we headed off to bed early rapidly turned into a two-plus hour session of getting to know Jason on a deeper level.
4 a.m. on Saturday rolled around, and we were on our way. The spot we had decided on had produced birds throughout the early part of the season. It was a riverbank with some log jams where wood ducks had been feeding and loafing.
It was an easier walk-in spot, and I was hoping we would see birds. As fate would have it, the week leading up to the hunt had been rainy and the river had risen approximately 2 feet. Anticipating the high water, Jason and I dragged a kayak through the woods so we could place decoys and hopefully retrieve birds. After placing the decoys and settling in, I explained all of the ins and outs of why we had done the different things that go into preparing for a hunt as well as what to expect for the morning sit. Three hours later and only a few wood ducks buzzing high above the treetops left us with an empty game bag.
We pulled out of that spot empty-handed but optimistic for the afternoon. Even though we didn’t have any ducks in the bag, I had a bird-processing session planned for after lunch. Taking the time to show people what to do after the harvest is just as important as the harvest in my book. I had a mallard from an earlier hunt and showed Jason the anatomy and how to break it down for a few different cooking techniques.
After a quick check of the MSU-UM football score, we headed out to a second public land spot nearby.
This hunt was a marsh hunt where Jason would be able to see across the marsh and hopefully have better opportunities to see birds than sitting along the river corridor. The weather and ducks were again not on our side, and we spent a lovely 55-degree windless afternoon hiding in some bushes wishing for some cloud cover or wind or ducks to show up. Once again skunked, the main takeaway from the afternoon hunt was walking through shin-deep muck in waders for the first time is a unique experience. The saying slow and steady wins the race was repeated several times, and although a few close calls occurred, no undergarments were soaked during our afternoon excursion.
With one more opportunity Sunday morning, I was feeling the pressure to at least get Jason to have the chance to pull the trigger. For dinner Saturday night, I cooked goose, mallard and wood duck, so Jason could see a few different techniques and experience the different flavors each bird brings to the dinner plate. After tasting duck for the first time, it increased his desire for success.
Sunday morning dawned with 30 mph winds and rain. Today would be the day I thought. I had recruited another friend to join us on Sunday as we headed to a third different spot. On Sunday, we hunted the peninsula of a lake and were settled into the cattails. Luck was on our side with the weather, and the birds came. As a pair of wood ducks buzzed passed before shooting light, we took that as a good sign. As the sun rose, a trio of mallards swung low and banked for the decoys. Two peeled off early, but the third had swung within range — as the wings cupped and the bird hovered, I told Jason to take the shot
He rose and pulled the trigger. Miss, then again — bang — and this time, the mallard tumbled from the sky. I turned to look at him and knew that smile would be there for the rest of the day. As our friend retrieved the downed drake, our excitement level soared. We finished the day with three birds downed, including two nice drake mallards for Jason. He would be heading home a successful duck hunter
On top of the desire to pursue adventure and healthy meat, hunting for Jason runs deeper. To him, hunting and engaging in the outdoors is a way to be more connected to different communities. It is a gateway to becoming a better father, bridging the gaps between diverse communities and helping to lay the foundation for improved accessibility, health, and wellness for a more inclusive conservation community
For me, the weekend was about more than shooting ducks. The time I spent with Jason turned out to be better than I could have hoped for as a mentor and I appreciate the friendship we began to build. It was a pleasure to welcome another member into the waterfowl community, and I look forward to hearing stories as Jason continues to grow as a hunter and spend more time with him in the blind.
This story also reminds me that recruiting one new hunter is cumbersome. The time, effort and knowledge are things that can not simply be learned in a one-hour class. It took a weekend, resources and can-do attitude to create a new duck hunter. Can you offer a weekend to someone to help save our pursuits?