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Handing Over the Reins…or Check Cords

Tom’s daughter Morgan with her setter Albert.

Time marches on, we all know that.  A new generation grabbing the reins is exciting and terrifying, all at the same time.  There is a bittersweet part of handing over the reins, the transmitters, and the check cords.  The bitter part is that it means that we’re getting older.  The sweet part is that we get to see our children carrying the torch of what we love to do.

My 16-year old daughter Morgan has really taken to bird hunting, and her favorite part is running our setters.  It’s mine, too, and while there are a lot of things that we don’t have in common (mine is not a digital world, hers is), hunting and our dogs give us a tremendous amount of common ground.  Morgan has been a student of dog handling for just about half of her life, and she’s mastered enough of the basics to start running the show.  I’ve learned a lot from my own trial and error, and here are a few things that I’ve done to help create a successful environment for us all.

Success begets success.  When kids start running dogs on their own, put them in the best possible position for success.  We hunt a lot of grouse and woodcock, so let’s take them as an example.  While the grouse is perhaps the more coveted bird, they’re also wily.  Woodcock hold tighter, run less, and they are a favorite among pointing dog handlers.  If Morgan is running the show we’ll work the woodcock coverts.  The dogs stay close, they hold point, and it’s a great way for her to build her confidence and experience.  In a few years she’ll be ready for the grouse coverts, but getting a solid foundation based on success is really important.

Focus on prime time.  The early season’s heat and full foliage makes it more difficult for Morgan to keep track of the dogs.  We’re hunting resident birds, so contacts are lower than they are during peak migration.  She’ll get opportunities in the early season as warm ups, but where I really focus her attention is during the third and fourth week in October.  The leaves are falling and after the first killing frost the understory is down.  Woodcock flights are on and there are the most birds of the season.  Morgan has an easier time seeing and therefore handling the dog, and with lots of action her attention is held for a long time.  Those successes will carry her through as the season winds down and form a good foundation.

Correct mistakes carefully.  Kids will make mistakes, and what I’ve learned is not to be mad when something goes wrong (which it will).  In most instances I’ll ignore the mistake and focus on the correction.  Instead of telling Morgan what she did wrong I tell her what she should do the next time.  Patience is a virtue, and I’ve learned to be a lot clearer in setting my expectations.  The result is that she’s clearer in her understanding, and her dog handling has dramatically improved.

Lots of repetitions over short periods of time.  If concentration is the king then repetition is the queen.  Rather than run a big covert I’ll select several smaller coverts.  Kids have an easier time concentrating in smaller doses, so frequent hunts of shorter duration helps me to get them focused.  The increased reps reinforcing new skills and cementing old ones.

In the end, we only go around once in life.  But if we do it right then once is enough.  I don’t like getting older any more than you do.  That said, it’s easier to deal with if I have confidence in the next generation.

Tom Keer is an award-winning writer, columnist and blogger who lives on Cape Cod, Massachusetts.  He is a columnist for Covey Rise magazine, the Upland Almanac, and a Contributing Editor for both Fly Rod and Reel and Fly Fish America.  He’s also a national spokesman for the Recreational Boating and Fishing Foundation’s Take Me Fishing program, and writes regularly for over a dozen outdoor magazines.  When they are not fishing, Keer and his family hunt upland birds over their three English setters.  His first book, a Fly Fishers Guide to the New England Coast was released in January 2011.  Visit him at www.tomkeer.com or at www.thekeergroup.com.

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