Respect an important skill to teach hunters

COMMENTARY

I have never been a hunter or fisherman who headed into the field with obtaining food as the main goal. While I enjoy and am thankful for the many meals I have secured during these outings, I have always seen collecting the sustenance as a nice bonus that came after a successful adventure.

Don’t get me wrong — any animal that I harvest is enjoyed by family or friends. I am not a hunter who hunts to kill and allows the animal to go to waste. I am thankful to these animals and make sure they are used respectfully.

I was never raised to view hunting or fishing as a substitute for going to the grocery store. My guess is that between my grandparents owning a farm and my dad being a catch-and-release fisherman and someone who would only shoot one deer a year, which had to be a buck, a desire to put as much meat as possible in the freezer was not developed.

Smoked goose breasts, marinated back-strap and popcorn pheasant are some of my favorite meals. They can be enjoyed after what is traditionally called a successful hunt. But if I only called a hunt where I killed something a success, I would be missing out on relishing some great experiences in the field with friends and family enjoying Mother Nature’s amazing creatures and landscapes.

I like figuring out where to place decoys on a duck hunt, watching for a rising trout with a fly rod in my hand and watching an approaching doe hoping a buck is close behind. I believe the trip is more fun than the destination.

I have been lucky enough to have farm-fresh beef, pork and chicken at my disposal, which never required me to look for other options. I was also raised to only shoot one deer each season to help ensure the herd is in descent numbers for future seasons.

I’m not here to preach or tell you my way is the right way. I simply developed that opinion based on my upbringing. It is no different than someone who tries to fill every deer tag they can obtain and takes home five trout each time the stock truck dumps them in the creek because they saw their father do the same thing.

There has always been the nature versus nurture argument: Do a child’s surroundings determine his personality or was it born that way? I’m a firm believer in a family developing how children turn out. Obviously, there are some traits that are passed down genetically, but this is not that kind of column.

I’m actually here to discuss my son’s interest in supplying wild game to my family’s table.

River was introduced to the outdoors at a very early age. He was reeling in bass, floating in a kayak and heading to camp with me while most parents are still treating their child as a newborn.

I tried to always teach him to respect the land and animals we tried to harvest or catch. I wrote a column in The Sentinel this winter about teaching him not to over-trap an area to ensure he could continue to trap there in the future. He knows adults on our family property may not shoot a doe so that he and others may have a better chance to see some for years to come.

But when I started to take him hunting, he was very curious about what happens after something is harvested. I found that interesting since I do not remember being intrigued by field dressing a deer or filleting a fish as a child.

His first experience on this subject was sitting with me during a dove hunt. I typically clean the birds in the field, so I showed him how it can easily be done. Later that night, I made him some fresh dove on the grill which he absolutely enjoyed.

From that point on, he looked forward to trying different game after hunts. He shot his first pheasant on a game farm when he was 6-years-old using a borrowed .410 shotgun. Even before the hunt, he told me he was hoping to get one so he could eat it for dinner. That night, we made some bacon-wrapped pheasant breasts that were quite delicious.

In October, the second grader harvested his first deer after a few weeks of hard hunting. You guessed it — he was super excited to try his own venison. My kids enjoy dried beef and jerky from my deer and he proudly wanted to offer his own to the Knepp household.

Another outdoor activity he loves to do is crabbing. Now this is a sport with a purpose, obviously to catch some delicious seafood. During our last trip to the Outer Banks, River looked forward to pulling full traps of blue crabs, even if most were females or immature males which needed to be released. Each time checking our line, we did bring home enough big males for us to enjoy my favorite kind of sea food.

As much as I look forward to crabs, shrimp and lobster, fish is never something I will call one of my favorite foods. During specific trips I would bring home some of the better tasting fish such as flounder, walleye, haddock and cod. Locally, I never kept fish growing up and I continue that to this day. In fact, I have never killed a trout intentionally, and according to my journal, I have landed more than 1,000 throwing dry flies alone. As a kid I obviously hooked some deep that did not make it. Some the kids caught also were unintentionally killed. Those fish all went home with others along the streams who enjoyed a Pennsylvania version of seafood.

A few days before the opening of this year’s trout season River told me he wanted to try to try one. I’d guess he’s caught more than 100 trout in his life and not once did he ask to keep one to bring home. With his growing interest in harvesting his own food, it was only natural for him to want to extend this to fish.

On opening morning he landed his first fish, which was a 12-inch rainbow, rather quickly. After we took a photo, we placed the fish back into the creek like every trout he has caught in his young, but impressive, trout fishing career which includes a monster in Montana bigger than any I’ve ever landed.

His next fish was a small, yet legal brookie that also got the photo and release treatment. At that point he asked how long his first two fish measured.

“I could have kept one,” he said when he realized they were both over the minimum size for a legal trout.

I told him he was allowed to keep one fish a few days earlier. Honestly, I hoped he would have forgotten about it. But it was obvious he wanted to take one home. My plan was to keep putting them back and if one was hooked deep, that would be the one to take a ride back to Middleburg.

Fishing was slow and we changed from our standard method of bouncing salmon eggs down the bottom of the stream to tossing a worm in some deep, slow water. It worked as he soon landed his third fish of a morning, a decent-sized rainbow. This fish was indeed hooked deep and I felt it was a 50/50 chance it would die if released. I informed him this was his keeper.

His fourth trout was a good hook-up, which was released. Our goal for the day was to catch five fish before having to leave for his travel baseball practice. We stuck at it and eventually he did get his fifth fish to the bank. This small brookie was also hooked deep, so I made the decision to take a second trout home. If we are being honest, one trout really isn’t enough for even one person to have, so maybe it was a fortunate accident.

Once we were home, I showed him how to clean a trout and placed the fillets in water in the fridge to fry that evening once we returned. I planned to make the trout on the grill with some lemon pepper. However, while I was mowing my wife battered it and made it on the stove, which turned out very well. River was proud and enjoyed his self-provided meal.

I am pleased that my son is responsible with his game and purely does not think of hunting as killing. He not only loves the many outdoor activities we enjoy together, but he understands that it is important to not waste the resources that we are fortune enough to enjoy.

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Zach Knepp writes about the outdoors for The Sentinel.

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