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Handing down the hunting tradition has come a long way since Robert Ruark wrote his "Old Man and the Boy" columns during the middle of the 20th century.

Today, moms have entered the field of hunting instruction.

For centuries, tradition had it that dads, uncles or grandfathers with some spare time would teach young boys the basics of gun safety and use. Young lads would go off with the older "boys" to learn the lore of the land, its conservation and use.

William Faulkner's "The Bear" told readers everywhere, not just Mississippi swamp hunters, how young boys learned about their wildlife and the characters with whom they shared that bounty. Rarely in the hunting stories of Ruark, Faulkner or Ernest Hemingway do women hold more than companion status in the overall telling of the tale.

Julie Canastraro, a single mother, is one of the many examples of women who have redefined how we hand down the long established traditions of safe shooting and conservation-minded hunting. Julie participated with her son Nicholas, 13, in Pheasants Forever's recent Youth Mentor Day Program at the Fin, Feather and Fur Conservation Club -- better know as the 3F Club -- on Swann Road in Lewiston.

Julie said with pride, "Nick, hit 16 of the 17 clay birds he shot at during practice before going out on the pheasant hunting field."

Nick, who turns 14 Saturday, showed equally impressive numbers while on the hunt.

The Youth Mentor Day, which began last hunting season, provides young, novice hunters with most of the hands-on, first-hand experience needed to experience a safe and rewarding hunt.

"We show them all kinds of things worth knowing," said Walter Greig of Lewiston, one of the many volunteer mentors instructing the new hunters.

"For example, it's legal to shoot hen pheasants while hunting on a preserve such as the 3F Club, but we intentionally set out four cock birds and one hen on each course the 36 kids will hunt. They are instructed to watch as the bird goes up and not to shoot at a hen (conditions similar to public hunting on most parts of New York State)," he said, "along with other sportsman-like practices." One youth began drawing aim at a bird on the ground and was immediately told to first let the bird fly.

Along with making a clean kill, Nick and the other 33 boys and two girls also learned other important lessons. The youths were shown how to carefully carry a loaded weapon in the field. They learned how to approach a game bird once the dog has gone on a fixed point and how to accept with humility the sending of a harmless shot through the tail feathers when they failed to lead (shoot ahead of the bird) and follow through with the shot.

Julie summed up the remarks of most parents and adult observers when she said, "I wish I'd had a program like this when I was an early teen-ager." Between the clay shooting and pheasant hunting, the youths sat in on other presentations, which most adult hunters and outdoors enthusiasts would find interesting: Archery with Randy Gaylen; wild turkey with Bill Tobin and Dave Laubish; and Jerry Farrell's bird banding techniques.

Environmental Conservation Officer Jim Rogers' definition of conservation gave kids a true perspective on hunting. "Conservation is a means of maintaining enough game so we can harvest some at the right time of the season. It's not preserving animals so they won't be killed. In reality, a lack of food, natural predators and cars on the street will account for more animals killed than by hunters. Our job is to see that we only harvest enough game to have more afield next year," Rogers said.

He ended with a comment about knowing the limits of game species, identifying those who take an excess amount (poachers) and taking an active part in protecting game by reporting acts of poaching to the proper authorities.

Julie Canastraro, like many of the young parents participating in the youth mentoring program, has found these involvements expand into other activities. "After the hunting program we went on an overnight camping trip," she said, adding, "Now that Nick has taken pheasants, I have to find some good ways to cook them."

Although no one was keeping score, Nick probably did best among the pheasant shooters. After his 16-for-17 clay bird hits, he missed the first cock bird that went up and then, when on the drop, three straight. Mom, dog handlers and all others watching cheered as he let the birds get out, took a careful and steady swing and hit each pheasant so that the dog made three easy retrieves.

As the program was ending, Julie said, "It would take me months, probably years to find places where Nick could do all the things they presented here in one day." The youth hunt has ended for this year, but Pheasants Forever president Dick McMurray said "We're always looking for single parents who want to introduce their child to outdoor activities such as conservation, habitat, shooting and hunting education."

For more about mentoring opportunities, call McMurray (535-7218) or program coordinator David Whitt (754-2133).

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