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Raising a Waterfowler

Passing On The Love for Hunting to our Kids is a Vital Role of Being a Parent

Raising a Waterfowler
(Dr. Chris Nicolai with his daughter, Grace, who has become an extremely talented waterfowl hunter.)

In late January, 15-year-old Grace traveled with her dad, Chris Nicolai, to St. Paul Island in remote Alaska. They were hunting king eiders with a mutual friend, Jeff Wasley, of Four Flyways Outfitters. Far offshore, they were about to pick up a nice king that another hunter in the boat had shot.

“The ocean was rough, and temperatures were well below freezing, and everyone in the boat had set down their guns trying to focus on retrieving the drake eider that was bobbing in the waves,” recalls Chris, a Delta Waterfowl biologist. “Then Wasley shouted, ‘king, someone shoot it!’ Grace didn’t hesitate to grab her gun and kill it. It was so cool to see this little girl in rough seas with a boatload of grown men nailing the shot!"

Sweet to see, but not surprising if you know Grace’s background. She killed the prized sea duck with her 20-gauge, a gun she had just recently started shooting. During the previous 12 years, Grace hunted with a .410.

“When she was five, Grace went with me to Cold Bay, Alaska,” Chris recalls. “Winds were blowing 70 mph, and she had to crawl on her hands and knees to keep from being blown over, but she helped set out 30 silhouette and 9 floater brant decoys and picked up every bird I shot that day. She wasn’t old enough to hunt but didn’t complain one time.”

1_graceemp1
(Grace Nicolai and her emperor goose she called in and shot with a .410.)

Grace returned to Cold Bay with her dad in 2018, when, at age 11, she drew a prized emperor goose tag. They set up decoys on the black rock beach at low tide, and Grace called her emperor goose in and shot it with a .410 side-by-side. “She shot it using #9 HEVI-Shot handloads. She’s been loading shells with me since she was tiny,” Chris shared. “And we made our own decoys for that hunt, floaters, and silhouettes, something Grace enjoys doing.”

We could delve into the specific handloads and extensive pattern testing Grace and Chris have done with a .410 over the years, but Chris sums it up best:

“Long ago, I met some guys who told me small gauges and small pellets had merit, but I didn’t believe it until they forced me to shoot some 28 gauge loads. The next day I shot a limit of ducks as easily as I would’ve with my 12 gauge and with far less recoil and noise and much less destruction to the birds. Then I shot a .410 at clays and loved it. I patterned it on paper and then into a gel, using steel, HEVI-Shot, and TSS. The bottom line is that the penetration and shot densities with the smaller pellets are incredible with the right chokes and loads. When I measured the penetration of HEVI-Shot TSS #10 shot fired from a .410 into a gel block placed 100 yards away, it blew me away. We were loading 330 of the #10 TSS pellets into a three-inch .410 shell, versus 220 pellets of #8 steel that Grace hunted with in her early years. Those little TSS pellets went 2 1/4” into the gel, much deeper than steel, and they were more efficient than standard 12 gauge steel loads.”

A young hunter bringing back a dead goose.
(Teaching our kids to hunt is of vital importance to the sport, and it provides them with a lifetime of enjoyment to come.)

Grace shot her first duck at the age of seven, a hen green-winged teal that came into the decoys. The following year she shot her first limit of ducks with the same .410, all goldeneyes. Over the years she’s traveled to many states with her dad, hunting on their own and with friends. Grace took all seven goose species in North America with her little .410, shooting handloads every time. She also shot a swan and her last big bird with the .410 was a sandhill crane, both taken with 
TSS handloads.

Raising Them Right

You must understand that this isn’t a case of a father forcing his daughter afield to rack up multiple species of duck kills. This is a story of building a hunter. From the time she was little, Grace had an interest in helping her dad make decoys and going on hunts, even though she was too young to pull the trigger. The floating and silhouette decoys they make are a big part of virtually every hunt they go on. No matter if they’re driving or flying to their next hunt, the decoys they make are with them. Some decoys, like the ones they handcrafted for the emperor goose hunt, have only been used once.

When asked what she enjoys most about waterfowl hunting, Grace smiled and said, “I love looking at the pretty birds and the different landscapes. There’s also a huge sense of accomplishment when you have a successful outing because so much goes into it.” 

Grace has a big appreciation for all she’s learned from the people she’s met, something that hunting offers those who are willing to travel.

Grace Nicolai holding her first duck.
(Grace and Chris, while Grace proudly holds her first duck!)

And for those who think, as Robert Ruark claimed, that a .410 is a bore you shoot for bragging rights, think again. With Grace, at age seven, in order to hunt with her dad, she had to find a gun she could swing and shoot that had minimal recoil and noise and maximum accuracy. Grace and her dad built every .410 load she shot in order to achieve the pattern and killing power needed to ethically and consistently knock down birds. Grace punched primers and weighed each powder charge and pellet load. Ultimately, birds were allowed to work the decoys and get in tight. If the ducks and geese weren’t locking up, Grace wouldn’t shoot. I had the pleasure of brant hunting with Chris in Mexico last season. His enthusiasm for Grace’s achievements was clear, something I could relate to, having raised two sons. But what stood out most was that Chris is a proud dad. Looking through hundreds of photos from the time Grace was old enough to head to the blind, many stories unfolded before my eyes. Like the time they were duck hunting a lake, and Grace wanted to set her own spread, so she waded 100 yards away from her dad to set up. Or the time they hunted a field for late-season geese, and Grace was up before all the men in the tent, cooking breakfast on a wood stove with several inches of snow outside. Or the many pictures of Grace with their yellow Labs, just another important part of the story that makes waterfowl hunting so special. And don’t overlook the numerous pencil drawings Grace has been creating since she started hunting, complete with blinds, decoy spreads, notes, and detailed topography; they’re every bit as cool as the photos.

Recommended


A sketch showing hunters in a boat, hunting ducks.
(A sketch by Grace, showing how much she loves being in the marsh.)

Mind you, this is a little girl who has hunted her whole life around grown men shooting 12-gauges. Everywhere Grace goes, not only does she learn from fellow hunters, but she motivates them and their kids and grandkids to take a closer look at what waterfowl hunting is really about.

Imagine if we all had to load our own shells, something many of you who are my age can relate to. Think of what waterfowl hunting would be like if there were no plastic decoys to buy and we had to make our own. What if there were no 3 1/2” super magnum shells, so every bird we shot at had to be decoyed inside 30 yards? Then, there’s the memorable retrieve that each successful shot culminates in, one where a dog you raised and trained, one that sleeps in your bedroom every night, achieves.

Invest in waterfowl hunting with youth beyond the surface, and everyone involved will discover how special and rewarding the passion we care so deeply about truly is. 




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