Youth Upland Bird Hunt

Youth Upland Bird Hunt is today, from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; $10; The game will feature pheasants and chukar partridges. For more information call 541-480-7323.

Bill Littlefield and his school-age daughters were spending quality time in a small sagebrush clearing to squeeze in some quick clay-pigeon shooting between a church service and some afternoon storm clouds, which loomed heavily above nearby Cabin Butte.

“All right, girls, go ahead and grab your guns,” he said.

Each girl shot 25 cartridges from their youth-sized double-barreled shotguns. The shotgun shells covered a 50-yard range, yet Littlefield reminded his girls to remain alert of several shooters farther in the periphery.

Kenna, 14, and Bryn, 12, are two of about 21,000 juvenile license holders in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. There are nearly 8,500 licensed hunters in Deschutes County. The Littlefield girls wanted to practice their shooting before Saturday’s Youth Upland Bird Hunt, which is one of several youth-themed events organized by the Oregon Hunters Association. Their father, who is president of its Bend chapter, which has 420 members, critiqued them on their shotgunning technique when he wasn’t working the spring-loaded thrower that lofted the clay pigeons — or coaster-sized discs — high into the air.

In an era when Americans are increasingly polarized by Second Amendment rights as it pertains to gun violence, thousands of Oregon youths received juvenile hunting licenses in 2015. Parents, many of them hunters themselves, say shooting and hunting has a way of drawing their children out of a digital existence and into the natural world.

Chris Willard, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s recruitment and retention coordinator, agrees.

“Kids’ worlds are becoming increasingly small. By looking at video screens all day, their senses aren’t fully activated. Things like hunting are a way to enhance their senses … when they get these implements in their hands, their world slows down and their focus intensifies,” Willard said, adding that kids’ self-confidence grows when they’re entrusted with a large responsibility. “There is an intuitive appreciation for the task at hand, but it doesn’t interfere with their ability to enjoy it.”

Sweep the barrel

The Littlefields wore shooting-specific hearing-protective muffs — Kenna’s are pink — and clear eye-wear. Bryn wore a deer-hunting-themed hoodie with pink highlights.

After Bill, 56, readied the thrower, Kenna tucked the butt of her .20 gauge shotgun against her shoulder and pressed her cheek against its wooden stock. She told her father to “pull” the thrower’s switch and she traced the disc’s trajectory with her muzzle, intent on pulling the trigger while sweeping the barrel. It’s a technique her father encourages because it administers an even spray of pellets, which are packed into each shell.

By the third attempt, Kenna’s shot decimated the clay pigeon. With a satisfied smile, Kenna cracked open her break-action shot gun, plucked two smoking shells and deposited them in the shell bag she wore on her waist.

Littlefield said his motives for sharing shooting and hunting with his daughters are threefold.

“One: I love it. Two: I love spending time with them. Three: When (I’m) spending time with them, hunting and fishing, (we’re) usually not doing the things that distract us … it’s really quality time,” he said.

Time spent together on the hunt informs how they gather at the dinner table, where most any meat the Littlefields eat is procured from hunting.

“My favorite meat is antelope,” Kenna said with a wide grin. Bryn, wearing her hair in two braids, agreed. While venison, bear, moose, duck and turkey also visit their plates, Bill’s favorite meat is elk, which is low-fat and its savory flavor calls for little seasoning.

No NRA stickers on notebooks

Littlefield said he has directed his daughters to keep mum at school about their shooting and hunting pastimes. Instead, they talk about other more widely-accepted things they enjoy, like gymnastics, soccer and swimming. They also refrain from placing any hunting- or gun-themed decals on school supplies.

Kenna said her close friends know about her hunting and think “it’s pretty cool,” but others at school might think it’s weird. It’s a conversation best avoided.

Matt Smith, a local father of several youth hunters, declined to divulge details about his children, concerned they might receive ridicule similar to that experienced by a 12-year-old American girl who killed a giraffe on an African safari hunt. When a photo of her cradling its head went viral, she received death threats.

“Little kids killing stuff is not stuff that a lot of people think is appropriate,” Smith said, adding that flak is also reserved for young hunters who kill comparably young — yet legal — deer bucks.

While his family relegates its hunting pride to private trophy walls, Smith said his children have benefited from the outreach of other hunters by way of the Mentored Youth Hunter Program, which the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife initiated in 2007 to restock a dwindling hunting population.

The Mentored Youth Hunter Program allows any hunter 21-and-older who has the proper accreditation to mentor any youth between the ages 9 and 13. The mentorship takes the place of the otherwise requisite hunter safety course, and the youth hunter is allowed to fill the adult’s hunting tag. Smith said two of his younger children — ages 9 and 11 — have shot deer, elk and antelope through the program this year. He calls the program phenomenal.

“Hunting has always been regarded as a big tough guy sport. This is one of the ways it breaks that stigma and becomes a little realer,” said Smith, the vice president at William Smith Properties in Bend. “It’s still difficult to find opportunities for kids to learn from a young age. (Otherwise) it’s not something (they’ll) pursue long term.”

Smith, 44, said he didn’t pressure his kids to try out hunting. His daughter expressed zero interest until last year when she spontaneously said she wanted to shoot a deer.

“I said, ‘Fantastic. Let’s go do it.’ It’s great for any gender and it builds confident, capable kids,” he said. “It absolutely blows their confidence out of the water. Her mom and I are stunned beyond measure.”

A respect for nature

When his three oldest children each turned 8, Matthew McFarland took them to Florida where, from the safety of an airboat, they shot their first alligator with a crossbow. McFarland said he gave up hunting when he became a parent. When his oldest son, Chisel, said he wanted to get into it, he told him he would have to wait until he was 8 — when he would be physically capable of handling a crossbow. In Florida, McFarland’s friends, serving as hunting guides, lead his children on nocturnal alligator hunts, which are aided by their crossbows’ holographic sights.

“It’s a great family thing to do. It’s a very easy hunt for a kid,” said McFarland, the general manager at the Hoodoo Ski Area.

After they kill the alligator (McFarland said they blast its brain with a shotgun-like bang stick and tie its jaws shut for good measure) they take the carcass to a USDA-certified processor, which returns it to them in vacuum-sealed bags. They receive the skin and skulls, too, the latter which McFarland has donated to various schools for educational purposes. Each of his kids has a skull in their room, he said.

Alligator is only one of the kinds of meat his family enjoys; McFarland said their freezer presently holds 600 pounds of bear, elk, deer and wild boar meat. One of the things McFarland wants his kids to gain from hunting is a respect for animals and nature.

“People tell me all the time, ‘Look at this picture of a deer I took; that’s how I hunt.’ I could snap a picture of a deer out of my window, too, but I wouldn’t learn anything about deer,” McFarland said, mentioning how deer hunting requires a much more intimate knowledge of the animal. The last time they field-dressed a couple deer, his children went through the “gut pile” and, in a clinical manner, discussed the various organs and their functions. Bill Littlefield said his daughters are the same way.

“That’s kind of gruesome for some people, but without people doing that and gaining that knowledge, we wouldn’t be where we are today in the medical field,” McFarland said. “How much the better is society when everyone learns as much as they can at every point?”

Like father, like daughter

Littlefield recently took Kenna on a nine-day antelope hunting trip in Wyoming. On the two-day drive, Kenna did homework, practiced her flute and read aloud from a science fiction novel. Once there, Kenna carried her rifle on daily 10-mile hikes. On the last day of the trip, Kenna and her father came across an antelope in a clearing about 160 yards away. Kenna sighted its heart through the scope and pulled the trigger. The antelope didn’t move, so she shot again and it toppled. When they examined its chest they noticed the bullet holes were only two inches apart.

The Littlefields beamed during the story’s retelling.

“It was a pretty good shot,” Kenna said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7816,