Small game hunting
The perfect choice to initiate a youngster
In our educational system and in many sports, there are steps to climb depending on your age and your goals. Hunting is no exception to this rule. That's why youngsters and newcomers often go through the small game stage when learning to hunt.
In Québec, the tracking of a stealthy grouse or a fleeing hare is still described as "small game hunting." Knowing the reality once in the forest, I believe that there’s nothing "small" about this great adventure.
What to do and what to teach before taking to the woods
You aren’t born a hunter, but step by step you’ll become a seasoned veteran. Small game hunting presents some great challenges from the word go. The first objective is to master the safety rules. For example, you must learn how to load and carry a small firearm before you even go out into the wild. It should never be pointed at anyone. Once a person has mastered the skill of handling a gun, consideration can be given to a day of small game hunting, followed by a big game hunting trip with a larger weapon.
When my son, who is now 14, was about 4 years old, he received a small carved wooden gun as a gift. Needless to say, this unique artistic creation quickly became his favourite "toy" in the house and in the surrounding woods. However, even though it was a harmless toy weapon, I would take it out of his hands as soon as he pointed it at me. I realized that a child learns faster when education is provided by a prized plaything.
So I suggest that parents invite their offspring for a familial hunting trip when they’re still wet behind the ears. They can carry a bow of appropriate size or a small pellet rifle. In my opinion, the younger you learn the principles of safety, the faster you’ll acquire good reflexes while learning about wildlife and hunting. When I was six years old, I was already carrying the partridges my father hunted, and my son was doing the same with mine at the same age.
To make a first small-game hunting experience enjoyable, you may choose to bring more than one weapon into the woods: a pellet rifle with a fixed rear sight, a .22 caliber rifle with a scope, a 20- or 410-caliber rifle with less recoil, or the like. In this way, the youth becomes familiar with several weapons and gradually learns the difference between the sighting systems.
I also like to train a new hunter by using a target representing a small game, for example, a picture of a groundhog or a hare. I prefer to have the apprentice learn directly where to aim at the game rather than just practice with a red circle or can. When a partridge tries to take flight, there’s no red circle telling us where to shoot.
Then, before heading out on the trails, your trainee should try out various shooting positions and learn some ballistics. It’s essential to understand the range of your weapon if you’re going to aim at a partridge far in front of you. Readers may say that all of this is taught in the mandatory government training program, but more and more young people are starting to hunt with an initiation licence that requires a certain apprenticeship “in the field.”
The rest of the equipment, such as clothing, boots, and backpack, should also be prepared prior to departure: the choices should be adapted to the place visited. In addition, I’ve noticed that most young people like to use digital tools such as a GPS and the Avenza Maps application. Downloaded on their phones, these tools help them to get their bearings and track their progress on the map. This is a great responsibility to teach them because you can't track deer or moose if you don't know your way around the forest.
Have an eye for propitious habitats
I often meet small game hunters who tell me they’re disappointed to leave with only one grouse after six hours of hunting while driving around in their cars. However, when I return to the registration centre at the same location, I chat with active hunters who have almost reached their bag limit after 11 km of walking and 21 km of mountain biking, with their GPS at the ready.
I’ve been hunting small game with a certain quiet intensity for 39 years now and I can attest that the organization of the day and the choice of the habitats visited will usually make the difference between a successful and a disappointing hunt. Driving 120 km by car is not very efficient if the roads and tracks are not where the grouse live, and if these routes are crawling with traffic.
What experts say about good small game habitat deserves our attention. To survive winged predators such as hawks and falcons, grouse need sufficient cover - vertical visual barriers that allow them to go unnoticed when the enemy hovers silently overhead.
The same principle applies to ground cover: it must provide a minimum number of hiding places, i.e. horizontal visual obstacles. Why? Well, like us, many canines and mustelids love grouse meat. So, grouse and hares avoid open areas with sparse vegetation.
Natural environments that offer a variety of deciduous and coniferous trees are ideal, as they create a "wildlife umbrella" effect for grouse. And for grouse to feed well and find good camouflage, there should be foliage on the ground and a few upturned or uprooted trees. All trails and old logging roads in this type of habitat should be considered for a strategic trip with a novice.
However, hunting on foot is not the same as hiking, the pace being totally different. One thing is for sure, when hunting, you have to keep your eyes peeled at all times!
Observation at its best
When it comes to small game hunting, there are several approaches to take. For example, I love to go hunting aboard my mountain bike. The new fatbikes with their oversized tires seem to have been invented for hunting. Strategic walking on narrower trails also yields its share of prey for me. If I find a good hunting spot, I mark it on my GPS to help me plan my routes in subsequent years, especially handy when I go hunting with youngsters.
In fact, once or twice a season, my son brings a new kid and I can see that junior enjoys sharing his passion with others. Since a day of hunting is filled with explanations, stories, and discoveries, young people often find the experience stimulating. And they frequently talk about coming back.
Our true subject matter here is the art of keen observation, because a stationary partridge is not like a road sign. In the forest, you have to know how to direct your gaze from left to right and from bottom to top. The upward visual inspection is essential, especially at the end of the day. In fact, grouse spend the night in the trees and as soon as the day ends, they perch there to feed on leaves and buds.
When the leaves have fallen and snow covers the ground, they hang out even more in the tops of hardwood trees, feeding on birch and cherry buds. Grouse may also roost when trying to escape a predator, making it worthwhile to look both on the ground and in the trees for a grouse that has just flown past.
In this regard, it’s rather rare for a grouse to travel very far in this type of situation. If you take a moment to get your bearings, you can usually spot your bird. Another thing to remember? The first grouse often hides another and another and another... and you’ll sometimes stumble upon half a dozen of them. That’s when the action really begins!
All in all, small game hunting is a healthy fall activity, full of adventure and surprises. The good news is that if you don't bag your grouse, well, there’ll certainly be others. That's not always the case with a deer or a moose.
In this great quest that is small game hunting, each step, each shot, each moment of astonishment represents so many significant steps towards autonomy for the first-time hunter. This experience will prove invaluable in meeting the challenges of all future hunting expeditions.
Happy hunting to one and all!