Why I’m teaching my daughters how to hunt

A father passes a three-generation family tradition down to his children.

 

Brian Sexton is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He lives in Oregon and is a volunteer for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.


When I talk to people about how I’ve been slowly introducing my daughters, now 3 and 5, to hunting, a common reaction is that I must really long to have a boy. Why else would I subject my girls to “manly” pursuits like killing big game?

I was introduced to hunting early, and vividly recall hanging around my dad, older brother and uncles as they cleaned ducks in the garage. I remember the thwap sound that a goose heart would make hitting the garage floor when it was thrown to my brother’s tomcat. I can smell the gunpowder after I shot my first pheasant in a grain field at the age of 9.

A girl learns to hunt waterfowl during a youth program in Minnesota.

We didn’t rely on the meat for food like some of my friends’ families, but I recall feeling some kind of primal longing to place myself in uncomfortable situations in search of game. By the age of 8, I had my own BB gun and would ride my bike to the nearby alfalfa fields to shoot dirt clods and the occasional unwary ground squirrel. The sense of independence and responsibility this developed in me was invaluable as I grew up, and I want the girls to build that kind of strength as well.

I’ve begun laying the groundwork for them to grow into responsible gun users and gun owners. We often talk about gun safety and what they should do in the event they come across a gun. We also talk about the outdoors and why anyone chooses to hunt.

From the time they could ride along in a pack on my back, they’ve accompanied me on short outings. My oldest, Brooks, loved to come along into the forests of spruce that surrounded our home back in Wasilla, Alaska, to search for grouse. I’d put aviator earmuffs on her to keep her warm and protect her hearing just in case we had the opportunity for a shot. I packed the ancient Stevens .22/.410 that once belonged to my grandfather. Its wood stock gleams golden from the oil used by the hands of three generations of Sexton boys. In the not-too-distant future, perhaps, a female fourth generation will continue that tradition.

Children pose after a youth waterfowl hunt in South Dakota.

A couple of seasons ago, my wife and I harvested a cow elk. Brooks stayed by my side all day, watching intently as I butchered the meat into steaks, stew meat and burger. She was fascinated by the impromptu lesson in anatomy mixed with culinary arts. This year she will turn 6, and I’ll buy her a BB gun so we can plink cans in the backyard. As I teach and encourage her, I am fairly certain that my youngest will also be by my side, soaking up the lessons like a sponge.

Meanwhile, hunters are an endangered species, so the way I figure it, raising my girls to be hunters is my civic duty. The Pittman-Robertson Act, which levies an 11 percent tax on guns and hunting equipment, ensures that hundreds of millions of dollars flow to conservation causes every year. On the state level, proceeds from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses and tags provide the main source of funding for state wildlife agencies.

But these days, only around 5 percent of Americans participate in hunting, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — half of what it was in 1950. It is true that becoming a hunter requires a hefty price tag, and it comes with a low probability of success and a steep learning curve that turns away many prospective hunters at the gate. So the least that hunters can do is pass on the tradition to our kids. For me, this has nothing to do with feminism or competing with men or making a statement; it’s about practicing a Western tradition that’s fading out.

Pound for pound, I’ll also take my free-range, organic, grass-fed, non-GMO venison over the finest wagyu beef from the butcher shop. My wife and I made sure our girls ate wild game as their first introduction to meat.

Over the next decade or so, the girls will choose whether hunting is for them. It could be that my daughters will be mocked for doing something that traditionally only boys and men do. I can only hope that if they’ve learned to like to hunt, they will rejoice in learning skills they’ll use in some of the West’s most beautiful places. At the very least, I hope that the girls will be comfortable enough with hunting to help their old man pack out elk quarters when his beard is gray, his back is hunched and his knees are blown out.

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