Originally published January 24, 2016 at 11:20 a.m., updated January 26, 2016 at 11:20 a.m.
Grand Junction Kayla Coleman calmly traced the bird with her 20-gauge shotgun and gave the trigger a gentle squeeze.
Her shoulder absorbed the jolt, and she heard a cheer go up from the onlookers as feathers flew and the pheasant dropped to the ground. Kayla didn’t celebrate. She turned, eyes wide and her jaw slightly unhinged. A look of disbelief.
Then she smiled. Her first bird — ever.
A chocolate Labrador retriever named Sam bounded through the snow to retrieve the bird, and then Kayla was handed the pheasant. Her expression was equal parts excitement and torment. But she was soon smiling as she posed for a photo, the pheasant in her right hand.
She had mixed feelings about getting her first bird.
“Well, it’s kind of sad, because, you know, I killed something,” she said. “But it’s nice to know that I’m providing food for my family.”
Even after a morning in the classroom and practicing on the shooting range, she was not expecting to shoot a bird.
But she did.
“I was really excited to get my first bird,” she said. “My heart was really pounding.”
Kayla and 18 other youngsters took part in the Colorado Parks and Wildlife youth pheasant hunt Jan. 3 at the High Lonesome Ranch about 10 miles northwest of De Beque.
It was a full day for the youngsters, filled with education, practice and the thrill of shooting at live birds. Some had squeezed the trigger of a shotgun before and drilled a bird in flight. But for others, like Kayla, this was their first time feeling the thrill of bagging a bird.
The hunt was a highly controlled setting with a premium on safety.
A volunteer mentor stood at each youngsters’ shoulder, offering them individual instruction.
Andylan Burchett, 12, had hunted birds before, but this was a new experience.
“I thought it was really fun and interesting, and I learned a lot,” she said. “Before, my stance was wrong. I would get really sore (in the shoulder), and I couldn’t really aim very well, and I couldn’t really shoot the birds.”
She enjoyed being outside and hunting birds.
“I like seeing the birds, and of course, shooting the birds is exciting, but for me it’s all about the adrenaline,” she said.
Christopher Balding, 14, was another participant with hunting experience.
“Every time I go out, I learn something new,” he said. “I just like the action. You’re not expecting a bird to pop up, and when it does you have to react, really fast.”
The next generation of hunters
The Parks and Wildlife program is part of the Hunter Outreach Program that includes events in big-game, turkey and pheasant hunting.
Kathleen Tadvick, Hunter Outreach coordinator, said the youth pheasant hunt was all about providing opportunities for the youngsters.
“With this, we’re hoping to get that next generation of hunters out there,” she said. “It’s always awesome to see them put it all together. It’s one thing to teach the fundamentals, but it’s another thing to watch it all come together.”
She said it’s important to get that next generation interested in hunting.
“Our sportsmen is how we get our money with license sales. If we can get (these kids) on board buying licenses, that next generation can come on board, because right now our average license holder is a 65-year-old man and getting older every year,” she said.
For this event, Parks and Wildlife and High Lonesome Ranch split the cost of the pheasants.
With Dick Severin, assistant Hunter Outreach coordinator, leading one group in the field, this educational foray into pheasant hunting was about fun, but it was mostly about teaching the youngsters about safe and ethical hunting.
“Safeties are on!” Severin shouted. With everyone wearing ear plugs or covers, he needed to be loud. “Load ‘em up, close your actions!”
Each volunteer mentor handed the shooter a 20-gauge shell and watched, ready to instruct if necessary.
“Mount your guns! Safeties off!”
Severin then hit the button to release the electronically controlled trap, the bird took flight, and the young hunter took his or her shot.
“Actions open, safeties on! Dog in the field!” Severin shouted as the dog plunged through snow to retrieve a pheasant.
It was an orchestrated mingling of fun and safety every time a bird was released.
“There’s so many indoor activities anymore, and youth aren’t outdoors like they used to be,” Severin said. “So, it’s great to see these kids to be out in the field. These are the next generations of hunters.”
A learning experience
Jake Duncan, 11, enjoys hunting with his dog Remi (short for Remington) and his dad.
“I’m just out here to have fun. I like that me and my dad can go hunting with my dog,” he said.
Christopher Balding was joined by his brothers Jonathan Balding, 11, and 12-year-old Jacob Harmon.
“It’s fun just experiencing handling guns and shooting,” Jonathan said.
Jacob agreed: “It’s been really fun, and I learned a lot of new stuff. You get to be outdoors and you get to shoot stuff.”
At least one parent or guardian was required to be in attendance, and every youngster had to purchase a small-game license, which is only $1.75.
Dakota Day, 13, was another girl who found success at the event.
“I kind of surprised myself when I shot my first one,” she said after posing with a huge smile with her bird. “I learned quite a few new things today, but I think I did pretty good.”
Even with her success, Kayla learned that hunting is challenging.
“It’s not easy as it looks to shoot a bird. I thought it would be easy at first, but it’s not,” she said with a smile.