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McKean Minute: Hunter Education 2.0

It’s full-on hunting season here in eastern Montana, but I haven’t been out much for myself. Instead, I’ve spent the last couple weeks guiding brand-new hunters to their first deer.

It’s been alternately rewarding, frustrating, euphoric, and deeply memorable. But here’s my biggest take-away in these first days of real-world mentoring: this is really a working version of hunter education.

You’re probably familiar with our nation’s hunter education program. Each state delivers its program in its own way, but most utilize volunteer instructors to teach beginning hunters in a classroom setting. Here in Montana, where I’m a state-certified Hunter Ed instructor (Bowhunter Ed, too, if you’re counting), we require students to spend 12 hours with textbook, classroom, and hands-on instruction—plus passing a written test—in order to be qualified to buy a hunting license. That’s pretty common.

Our classroom instruction is pretty good. We have a well-rounded and dedicated cadre of instructors, and we cover everything from how to ask for hunting permission to how to survive a cold night outdoors to how to hunt from treestands to how to tell the difference between a whitetail and a mule deer. It’s a great course.

But it’s not nearly enough. And that’s my biggest discovery of this season of mentoring. There is simply no replacement for time in the field, figuring out how close you can get to wild animals, how and why the wind can bust a hunt, how to deploy a rifle bipod, how to gut an animal when your hands are frozen, and how to trim out bloodshot meat. These are all the practical first steps that every hunter needs to experience. And there’s no way to teach those things in a classroom.

Many beginning hunters get this hands-on, real-world experience. They have built-in mentors, whether fathers or uncles or sisters or best friends. Only many beginning hunters don’t have those field guides, and that’s where you and I come in. You know a person in your life who has an interest in hunting but no support system. You know someone who would go with you, if only you asked them.

So, ask them. And then be prepared to pour your knowledge into them.

That’s the second take-away from this season. The things you think are so basic that you don’t even consider them—taking into account the wind, and what it will and won’t let you do; how to choose the right bullet for big game; where to place a shot on a deer; how to tell the difference between gut wall and abdominal wall when you field dress an animal—are brand-new to beginners. Spend your knowledge. Become a hunter education instructor, not in a classroom, but in the field, with an eager new student ready to learn. From you.

McKean Minute: Butchering Woes in the Age of CWD

When it comes to how I sleep (on my left side), how I drink my coffee (black and strong as crankcase oil), and how I carry a pocketknife (left front pocket), I’m a creature of habit. Same with how I butcher my family’s meat. The species may vary by the season or the mix of tags in my household, but it’s invariably wild—antelope, elk, goose, walleye, swan.

What doesn’t change is my process, honed over years of habit-forming butchery. Continue reading McKean Minute: Butchering Woes in the Age of CWD

McKean Minute: Feeding ‘Demetri’

My family and I have a hunting-season tradition. After we’ve butchered an animal—whitetail, mule deer, antelope, or even elk—we drive the meatless carcass out in a pasture on our place where there’s a giant willow tree along a creek bank.

We unload the carcass—the rattling white cages of ribs with ledges where backstraps once rippled, the unjointed hips and naked femurs, the pelvic bones with rump roasts carefully carved off their convex curvature—and we toss them down the creek bank underneath the spreading branches of the willow. Continue reading McKean Minute: Feeding ‘Demetri’

McKean Minute: A long view on the value of mentoring

My dad was as stoic as a cornerpost. He could certainly be animated, but when it came to hunting and guns, he was serious, severe, and solitudinous.

Because he was my mentor, the person who introduced and personified hunting to me, I grew up thinking that’s what hunting was: lonely, serious, and grim. When it came time to introduce hunting to my own kids, I approached it in much the same way, scolding my twin boys to quiet their loud footfalls and to quit having so much giggly fun. Continue reading McKean Minute: A long view on the value of mentoring

Mentoring: On Sharing Gear

I own a staggering amount of gear that I don’t use. I have lost count of the number of hiking boots and backpacks in my possession, and while I love to collect knives, the number of unused blades in my collection argues against ever acquiring another.

My wife would define me as a hoarder, but it’s more—and less—than that. I have too much gear because one of the traits that defines me as a hunter is the “you-never-know” syndrome. I got a new rain jacket because you never know when I might need a packable set. I got a Gore-Tex jacket because you never know when I’ll need my outerwear to breathe.

Then there’s the sheer variety of gear that an all-season hunter requires. I need one pair of boots for early season archery and another for cold-weather bird hunting. I try not to abuse this line to my wife, but I can justify almost all the gear in my closet by passing it through the you-never-know filter. Continue reading Mentoring: On Sharing Gear

McKean Minute: Mentoring 101 – Simple answers to complicated questions

Mentoring is the hardest thing you’ll ever do, like raising a foster child. And it’s the easiest thing you’ve ever done, like joking with your buddy.

I’ve heard both those analogies used to describe mentoring, but both seem to add an unrealistic weight of expectation to the experience.

As I’ve written in this space in the past, mentoring is a handmade thing, crafted between the participants. In that way, no two relationships are the same. But they do have some commonalities, and the relationship between a mentor and a mentee (note – the entire community of folks committed to this effort is struggling with how to describe the apprentice hunter. Is “mentee” really the best word? If you have a better alternative, would you let me know?) generally starts with some questions. Continue reading McKean Minute: Mentoring 101 – Simple answers to complicated questions

Take Him

If you give a boy a NERF gun, he will want to shoot it.
You’ll buy him the coolest NERF gun you can find, and then he will probably want some extra bullets and another gun, too.
Then, he will probably start asking you to set up his toy animals to shoot, or to play war with he and his friends. And even though you want to sit on the couch and watch the Cubs, he will insist, and his insistence will win.

McKean Minute: Make a Difference – Show Up

I coach middle school cross country. Most weekdays from late August through mid-October, I drop whatever it is I’m doing, lace up my running shoes, put a whistle around my neck, and encourage three dozen awkward, gangly kids who are not my own to run (and, some days, to simply walk) with purpose.

Most autumn weekends, I get on a yellow school bus and accompany the team to a race somewhere in my windy corner of northeastern Montana. Continue reading McKean Minute: Make a Difference – Show Up

McKean Minute: This dove season, take a newbie

The single most popular day for American hunters is Sept. 1, the dove opener in most states. In Texas alone, over 400,000 hunters are likely to be in the field, and you can almost hear the drawl-cussing from here as most of those hunters whiff their first dozen shots.

Missing is half the fun, because with early season dove, there’s almost always another opportunity. The other half of the fun is the company. Dove hunting is one of the most social activities you can have while wearing camouflage. Maybe you have a special memory of a dove opener with family or a group of close friends. There was probably as much laughing as there was cussing. As many excuses for poor shooting as there are congrats for making nice shots. And as much cursing of dogs as praising them. Continue reading McKean Minute: This dove season, take a newbie

McKean Minute: Make the Most of This Cruelest Month

Where I live in eastern Montana, February is a brutal month. Hunting seasons are over, the ice fishing can be slow, and we annually have a bout of soul-searching cold in February when the mercury dips to -30. And stays there for a week or two.

But I’ll trade a year of Februarys for a single August. For me, August is the cruelest month because it’s hot, dry, buggy, and I’m daily reminded that I need to be prepping for the fall, but I can’t seem to find the time to adequately do it. Continue reading McKean Minute: Make the Most of This Cruelest Month