Illinois Department of Natural Resources
August 2020
August 3, 2020
Photo courtesy of Valerie Blaine.

Wingshooting and Mentoring

By Valerie Blaine

The work is fun, my co-worker is fabulous, and the pay is great.

What kind of dream job is this? Volunteer instructor for youth wingshooting clinics and pheasant hunts in Illinois. My partner in this venture is a nine-year-old Vizsla named Sally. We don’t expect pay for our efforts, but we are richly rewarded.

Two youth and one adult hunters in blaze orange ball caps and vests stand in a grassy field with two brown and white hunting dogs. Trees in a fence row are in the background.
Bailey (middle young hunter) and partner. Photo by Bailey’s Grandfather.

The Illinois Department of Nature Resources’ (IDNR) combination wingshooting clinics and youth pheasant hunts afford youth ages 10 to 17 the opportunity to give upland game hunting a try. For youth who have never hunted before, the program provides a safe, supervised experience. For youth who have hunted before, the program is great for honing their skills. 

In the 1970s, wildlife managers became aware of the declining number of hunters in Illinois. The IDNR designated special days during the Controlled Pheasant Hunt season just for youth. The hopes were that these specially designated youth hunts would recruit new hunters. Terry Musser, IDNR’s now retired Program Manager of Controlled Pheasant Hunting, explained that something more was needed. Youngsters who aren’t from a hunting family don’t have shotguns, shells or equipment to even get started. Those who do come from a hunting family may have Grandpa’s old 12-gauge with kick that will knock a youngster off his feet. Young hunters with mismatched equipment, Musser said, was a key problem that needed to be addressed. Thus, the IDNR developed the Youth/Ladies Wingshooting Clinics to meet this need. The clinics provide properly fitted equipment along with instruction for safety and skill development. The next step was combining a morning youth wingshooting clinic with an afternoon pheasant hunt.

An adult in a wide brimmed hat and red shirt guides a youth hunter in a purple shirt and navy ball cap in shooting practice. Tall green pine trees are in the background.
A volunteer instructor guides a youth hunter through shooting practice. Photo courtesy of Valerie Blaine.

Co-sponsors and volunteers are key to making the program successful. Local co-sponsors, such as Pheasants and Quail Forever chapters and the Quail and Upland Game Alliance, provide lunch and refreshments, bird planters, dog handlers, and logistical support. The IDNR’s trained, volunteer wingshooting instructors provide one-on-one mentoring and guidance throughout the day.

All participants are required to have taken the state Hunter Safety course, but shooting students come to the clinic with varying experience. Some participants have shot before, some have not. After a refresher safety talk, everyone is given the opportunity to practice and hone their skills. Different target presentations allow shooting students to practice scenarios they will experience during the hunt. Incoming and going-away targets come first, followed by the ever-challenging “crossers.” As an instructor, I enjoy watching their confidence grow with each clay target they shatter.

A brown hunting dog retrieves a pheasant amongst tall grasses.
Sally retrieves a pheasant. Photo courtesy of Valerie Blaine.

While the morning instruction takes place, Sally waits patiently (or not) in the truck. After lunch, she is raring to go. The young hunters are eager, too, although there are always pre-hunt jitters. My fellow instructor and I give a good pep talk, more safety reminders, and off we go.

We head into the field with two young hunters at a time. The hunters learn to “read the dog” as she follows scent. Then comes the point. Sally is frozen in place, with only her nose twitching. There’s the bird. We ensure that the hunters are in safe positions, and then comes the flush. It’s a thrill—even for seasoned hunters—when a pheasant propels from the grass with a flurry of wings and feathers. How much more fun to share the excitement with first-time hunters.

After a miss, or two or three, each young hunter eventually makes contact with a bird, beaming with pride every time. Sally retrieves, and the young shooter gets to put their first bird in their vest. There are fist bumps and congratulations all around. These moments give me hope that a new generation of hunters is in the making.

A successful youth hunter in a blaze orange stocking cap and vest holds up a harvested pheasant in her left hand and holds the collar of her hunting dog in her right.
Molly with a pheasant. Photo courtesy of Molly’s Dad.

One of the perks of volunteering with Sally is working with youngsters outdoors all day. Cell phones are off, and all five senses are on. Without electronic distractions, I have the chance to get to know the young hunters a bit. The hunters adore Sally, and the feeling is mutual.

Building a new generation of hunters is a lofty goal. I’m happy just to know that I helped the young hunters have a really fun, positive experience in the field. I have a hunch that for many of them, this experience will stick.

Remuneration for mentoring comes in many forms. And at the end of the day, the biggest reward is the abundance of smiles as we say goodbye, and one tired, happy dog.

Valerie Blaine has worked as a naturalist for more than 40 years, from the prairies and woodlands of Illinois to the shores of the San Francisco Bay. She earned a master’s degree in forestry and a bachelor’s degree in botany from the University of Illinois. Blaine retired as the Nature Programs Manager for the Forest Preserve District of Kane County.