The air was frigid in the hour before sunrise, but the kids weren’t complaining. Ranging in age from nine to 16 years old, they gathered—each joined by their father—in a parking lot on the edge of Jarrettsville, Maryland. After suiting up in thick layers of camouflage, they convoyed in family vehicles to a nearby farm field, where the still-frozen soil crunched underneath their feet.
The group was up early for Junior Waterfowl Hunting Day, one of several such days set aside in Maryland for hunters who are 16 years old and younger, accompanied by a mentor. The program also covers deer and turkey seasons, providing a focus on youth as they potentially become lifelong hunters.
Those new hunters buck the trend of a national decline in hunting. Because hunting license fees and taxes on hunting equipment fund some conservation programs at the state and federal level, those efforts may have to depend on different funding sources in the future if the number of hunters continues to decline.
Leading the hunt was Sean Fritzges, who has guided youth hunters since his son began hunting at age seven. Now 21 and 18, respectively, Fritzges’ son and daughter are both avid hunters.
In the middle of the field, Fritzges and the group surrounded a pit blind—a ditch covered with brushy tree limbs where the hunters can sit and remain out of sight—with Canada goose decoys, their stiff necks bobbing up and down on their stands near the top of the blind.
“Try not to shoot the decoys, because that’s always an issue,” Fritzges said.
Christopher Winterstein, 11, sipped black coffee that his father Ryan offered him while they waited. “Have you ever shot the decoys?” Christopher asked his father.
As Christopher and the other children took their positions, holding their guns and standing ready to rise up and shoot, Ryan gave last-minute tips to his son.
“My legs are shaking,” Christopher said.
The first goose harvested that morning was at the hands of nine-year-old Camille Schwarb. Though she had been deer hunting before, it was her first goose ever—and she shot it mid-flight, to boot. Holding her quarry for a photo, she and her father Roger beamed with pride.
What appeared to be another goose fell several hundred yards away, on the far side of the field. But it was too far away to be sure.
Possibly still feeling the caffeine, Christopher sprinted to confirm.
“It’s a goose!” he yelled.
He left the bird in place, to give Louie, Fritzges’ eight-year-old Chesapeake Bay Retriever, a chance to practice his core skill.
By mid-morning, as the temperature climbed above freezing, the sun hung high and the flocks of geese passing over the farm dwindled. Father and child pairs packed up, most carrying birds back with them. The hunt was over.