By Tina Dokken
To be honest, I never intended to hunt with my chocolate Lab even though I knew both of her parents had been hunters. This knowledge led to just enough guilt to prompt me to start messing around with my retriever by keeping a full-sized duck in my freezer, which was supplied by my brother-in-law, to provide her with a weekly “hunt” in the field next to my townhouse. This was a far cry from an actual hunt, but my dog loved it.
I also started taking her to some hunt classes, where they would let our dogs retrieve a bird from the pond while several dog owners huddle around with their leashed dogs. When it was my Lab’s turn at one of these events, she managed to retrieve the bird and continue to swim around the pond, not wanting to come out for fear of other dogs getting her prize. This showed me just how deep her passion for bird hunting really went, which was eye-opening. A similar moment occurred during one of those sessions when my retriever brought back a live bird. I was happy with her that she hadn’t killed it, but as soon as I handed it off to the trainer she snapped its neck. I pretended it didn’t bother me, but it did.
While that was a weird situation for me personally, it was clear that my dog was in her element with these close-to-hunting-but-not-quite-there experiences. Looking back now, I realize I was being pulled in the direction of hunting with her, but wasn’t there yet.
I kept looking for more ways to expose my dog to hunting situations, which led me to the Game Fair in the Twin Cities where I attended all six days of the event. That’s where I met my future husband, and while my Lab and I were leaning into the world of actual duck hunting, we got more than a nudge in the right direction when our relationship started taking off. Even in those early days, I was a long way from becoming the kind of woman who would be comfortable loading up her dog and some decoys and heading to a nearby pond for some whistling-wing action.
I needed a gun intro first.
The First Major Hurdle
There are a lot of things that keep women from hunting but without doubt, one of the biggest is familiarity with firearms. We aren’t very far removed from a time when it was absolutely common for young boys to unwrap BB guns and .22s as presents while their sisters opened up boxes containing dolls and make-up kits.
It has simply been more acceptable for boys to be introduced to guns and taught how to handle and use them, which means a lot of the potential adult-onset duck hunters out there without a Y chromosome are left unsure of this process. This is why I’m forever grateful that my husband led me on a well-planned path to firearms comfort and familiarity.
Initially he took the reins and introduced me to gun safety and how to hit a clay pigeon on a stick. After that he hired a shooting coach to get me to the next level. This meant that even though I was somewhat familiar with how to handle and shoot a gun, I’d get instruction from a coach on the kind of shooting that would be necessary in the duck blind.
This all started with two boxes of shells and no instruction. I was told to keep shooting and after I was finished with two boxes of shells, my instructor told me that he’d wanted me to realize the 20-gauge wasn’t going to kick, which was my biggest fear in the beginning. This was an excellent way to take the edge off the lesson and allow me to start to feel comfortable with shooting. This eventually evolved to proper stance, form and the process of finding something with my eye, pointing, pulling the trigger and following through.
To anyone reading this with enough years of shooting under his belt, that probably sounds elementary—and it is. That’s the point. A woman who wants to try to bag her first wood duck or mallard but isn’t comfortable with a shotgun, will need some help getting to a point where her confidence allows for comfort in the field.
…And The Second
Just like my husband would tell you with a young duck dog, you should carefully expose your retrievers to hunting situations long before actually hunting. This is done, of course, through training. While it might not be advisable to say you’re going to work some training drills to whip your wife into hunting shape, it is important to go beyond the shotgun comfort realm into an understanding of what the hunt involves.
This can be simple explanations of all of the different parts of the duck-hunting process, from calling to decoys to big-water retrieves to you-name-it. All of that is good and encouraged, especially when it involves asking and answering lots of questions about the situation at hand, but an even better way than that to understand a hunt is to go along on one without a gun.
Being a camo-clad observer in a duck blind will open up a new world to a woman who has never seen it before, just as it would for a man or a youngster. Without the pressure to have to think about handling a gun and shooting it as ducks approach, a ‘hunt’ takes on a different kind of feel. It allows you to experience hunting without the pressure of being a hunter, which might sound strange but is a huge benefit.
This, once again, might seem like overkill to readers with 40 duck seasons under their belt, but to a newcomer, waterfowl hunting can seem overwhelming. The early hours and the environments in which good hunts often occur can seem like a lot. Add in the chaos of approaching ducks and the calling, shooting and retrieving, and it’s a pretty dynamic situation to watch—let alone participate in.
This is why I recommend to any women who approach me about becoming a duck hunter that they should find someone who is willing to take them and be patient with them throughout a couple of trial runs. The fewer the people the better in these cases, and they set the stage for the first actual hunt.
Solo & Close To Solo
I’ve been duck hunting long enough to know that some of my favorite hunts are those that I spend out there by myself and with my dog. In fact, there are an awful lot of mornings before I go teach school that I’ll load up my Lab and head to a pond for a short hunt. These hunts might produce a limit of wood ducks, or I might never fire a shot.
But, they are all productive.
Not only is spending time in the blind always worth it, but going solo allows you to operate at your own pace without having to worry about anyone else’s safety. This also provides the added benefit of keeping my dog as relaxed as possible—and easily in my control because she doesn’t have a pile of distractions around her.
Now, I realize that newcomers to waterfowling aren’t likely to start out going on solo hunts. But, they should hunt with as few people as possible. Ideally, they’ll be the only shooter and someone more experienced in duck hunting will provide the setup and the calling. This is a perfect way for a new hunter to develop her comfort level in the blind while truly starting to understand how hunts can unfold and what she can expect.
Any fellas reading this who want to introduce their wives, girlfriends or daughters to duck hunting should really consider what I just wrote. Even though it stinks to think about giving up your own shooting opportunities for someone else, it really will help you teach them how to become duck hunters themselves and will change the entire dynamics of the situation. That’s not nothing, and it’s really a great route to developing a new duck hunting partner who will be in it for the long haul.
Eventually, if she (like me) decides to try hunting on her own, encourage that. Hunting can be a wonderful experience from a social perspective, but it’s a different endeavor than a solo adventure with a dog. Both are worthwhile experiences, but low-pressure hunts should always be the first priority with newcomers.
In the world of waterfowling, the notion that all good duck hunts will involve barely staving off hypothermia is the norm. Ducks fly in crappy weather, no doubt. But that doesn’t mean every hunt has to be a mettle-testing suffer-fest.
Sweater-weather wood duck hunts in October can be just as much fun as blizzardy late-season mallard forays. More fun, in fact, for a new hunter who is unsure of the whole process and just getting her feet wet in duck hunting.
This means it’s worth paying attention to the weather and understanding that the ideal first hunt might occur during beach weather rather than true duck weather. If the duck hunting bug bites, she’ll want to go when it’s crappier out, which means those warmer hunts will be a precursor to the later, less-comfortable hunts. That means it’s time to get the right clothing, from base layers to wind-blocking, waterproof outer layers, and for me—electric socks.
If my feet get too cold, my hunt flies away like a flaring pintail. The same goes for my hands, which is why I also like using a hand muff with a rechargeable handwarmer in it. Anyone with a few duck seasons under his or her belt understands how quickly you can go from feeling pretty good, to being downright miserable, which can drain the fun right out of a hunt. The right gear helps the “pretty good” feeling stick around a lot longer.
While it’s a slow migration, it’s happening—more and more women are becoming waterfowlers. There is a lot they can do for themselves to smooth out the transition, just as any guy can who would like to see the woman in his life develop a love for waterfowling that is equal to his, can take plenty of steps to ensure it all goes according to a good, long-term plan.