His eyes are bright and expressive. Wavy hair, dark brown, peeks out from under a ball cap. Average height, he’s athletic, built slim and fit. He wears a hooded sweatshirt, jeans, and canvas sneakers, no laces. Quick to smile, he’s a fast talker, ever polite. Very bright, he’s eager for adventure. And he just turned sixteen.
Meet R.J. He represents the new generation, the youth hunters who are beginning to take their place in the hunting world.
R.J. Irving is the fourth child in a family of active outdoorspeople. Three older sisters jump horses, while his mother prefers dressage. R.J.’s grandfather, uncle, and father are all hunters. His father is busy running several businesses in Canada and the U.S. The Irvings live in Moncton, centrally located in the Canadian Maritime Province of New Brunswick. The city of 126,000 is situated east of Presque Isle in northern Maine. With a home in the city, the Irvings also have farm acreage with a riding arena. Private land nearby offers opportunities for upland bird shoots, especially pheasant and woodcock.
As a student and hockey player at Rothesay Netherwood School, R.J. spends most of his time skating indoors. The team practices after school every weekday and on weekends it travels to tournaments in Gatineau, Chicago, Boston, and Quebec City. So, for most of the fall and winter months, R.J. doesn’t have a lot of free time, but he’s had a passion to pursue outdoors sports.
During this winter’s school vacation, R.J. wanted to hunt, seriously hunt.
He had grown up with Wildrose labs in the family. Wildrose is the oldest and most selective trainers and breeders of imported British and Irish Labradors in North America. R.J.’s uncle owns Haver, a black finished male, and his father owns Emma, a two-year-old started dog, both British labs. R.J. had been along on some family hunts and he was ready for a lot of action, including working a dog. British labs
So, the Irvings turned to Mike and Cathy Stewart, owners of Wildrose Kennels in Oxford, MS, to arrange R.J.’s itinerary, which included a couple of days of training sessions at Wildrose and several days of hunting a variety of game in two venerable Mississippi hunting venues, the Delta and the Black Prairie.
R.J. arrived in Oxford late last December, along with twenty-one-year-old Justin Allaby, a family friend as escort. Under the tutelage of Mike Stewart and Wildrose Trainer Patrick Allen, R.J. began his activities by working his family dog, Emma. For the better part of a day the dog handlers schooled R.J. on obedience and field handling to prepare him and Emma for the hunts. After the training activities—using the whistle and hand signals and sending Emma on various retrieves—R.J. reported that Emma became more alert to his commands and listened better.
Then, it was time for gun handling, first shooting clays and then live pigeons. Patrick let R.J. use his shotgun, a Benelli twelve-gauge, automatic. Even though he was a novice, R.J. quickly proved to be a good marksman, thanks to eye-hand coordination developed in video game playing. And Emma enjoyed picking the downed birds.
At the end of his first day in Oxford, R.J. and Justin feasted at Nagoya, which serves popular Japanese cuisine and fresh sushi, and features an entertaining Hibachi bar, where a chef in a tall white hat juggles knives and chops vegetables while heating the grill. As he shoots flames to the ceiling and builds onion-ring volcanoes, the chef grills seafood, meat, rice, and vegetables to flavorful perfection. R.J. named Nagoya his favorite Oxford eatery.
For R.J.’s first hunting experience Mike sent him on a guided duck hunt in the Delta with a veteran outfitter, Mike “Catfish” Flautt. Catfish operates Tallahatchie Hunts, in Swan Lake, in heart of the storied Southern Mississippi Flyway. The Tallahatchie, Coldwater, and Yocona Rivers all come together in Tallahatchie County and drain the northwest Mississippi reservoirs of Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla. Catfish and his crew hunt on acreage adjoining these rivers, where backwaters flood fields and woodlands.
Early on a Friday morning R.J., Justin, and Emma had a wonderful first experience shooting ducks and working the retrieves. Hunting from flooded timbers, they limited out before mid-morning. Here’s where the skill workshops at Wildrose paid off, both in shooting accuracy and in handling the retriever.
After returning to camp and enjoying a late breakfast, the crew took R.J. on a rabbit hunt that lasted past mid-afternoon. Running Catfish’s musically baying beagles, they chased four rabbits, bagging them all. In addition, one of the dog handlers dispatched a bobcat that was unlucky enough to run across their path.
However, that wasn’t the end of R.J.’s first hunting day. After all with his vacation days limited he would have to get in as many activities as he could. So, he climbed into a deer stand that first evening beginning at three o’clock. At dark a buck showed up traveling a route to nearby feeding grounds. R.J. was so pumped up at the sight of his first deer that he missed the shot at the big game, something common to many of us the first time we shoot a deer rifle. Undaunted, he was excited by the experience and was determined to go back for the big game another day.
The evening meal at Catfish’s camp brought the Canadian boys some new dining experiences. They ate frog legs for the first time. R.J. said that he liked them well enough, but just didn’t like idea of eating frogs. The other game dishes, duck and venison, he also enjoyed, along with some other spicy Southern dishes. R.J. found the crew of Southerners entertaining, very polite, and willing to speak their minds on any topic.
Saturday sunrise found R.J. and Justin in another area of flooded timber, shooting ducks and sending Emma to bring them in. With ducks arriving in large numbers, R.J. enjoyed the fast pace of the action. And before long, they had limited out early once again with a fine bunch of birds.
By midday R.J. was ready to take up watch in the deer stand. It turned out to be a long wait. Hour after hour R.J. stayed at his post, not even taking a brief break for fear of missing sight of a deer. Dark was advancing and R.J. had not seen any game. Then, late in the twilight he saw a movement several hundred yards off. He texted Justin, who was in a nearby stand, that he had seen a coyote. Shortly, though, the animal moved in closer and it appeared to be a doe. As R.J. watched it move within fifty yards, he saw antlers. Excited as he was, R.J. raised his gun and made a kill shot, dropping the seven-point buck a few steps away. The long wait had paid off. He quickly texted his folks the good news. R.J. reported that this deer hunt was the high point of his trip, for certain. The smile on his face broadcast his thrill at this achievement.
Still, another day of fun in the field awaited R.J., an authentic, Southern quail hunting experience at Prairie Wildlife, Mr. Jimmy Bryan’s conservation and sporting estate outside West Point, Mississippi. Geologically unique, the Black Prairie is formed by outcroppings of Selma Chalk, the same age and type of calcium carbonate deposits as the famed White Cliffs of Dover on England’s southeastern coast. The Black Prairie’s alkaline soil produces a healthy grassland habitat for bobwhite quail.
R.J. and Justin made a short morning drive from Oxford south to West Point with Mike and the retinue of dogs—Emma, Indian, and Deke, the Ducks Unlimited mascot. These British dogs were trained to work with pointers hunting quail.
R.J. and Justin were ready to walk the grasslands. Because R.J. had hunted woodcock at home, he was familiar with the procedures of this wing shooting adventure. In fact, the wild woodcock flies from a covey rise faster and more unpredictably than plantation-released quail.
Outside Bryan Lodge the hunting party boarded a mule-drawn wagon with a passel of English pointers and rode into the grasslands of the black prairie. Prairie Wildlife’s veteran dog handler, Paul Lavender, worked Mr. Bryan’s pointers, Imus and Samantha. Paul and Mike guided the boys through the hunt. Emma struck up and retrieved quarry, with Deke and Indian reliably backing her up.
R.J. and Justin had a morning and an afternoon session walking the well-mown lanes of the plantation, with lemon-headed Imus and Samantha flushing coveys of birds. Sometimes the birds launched in spurts in all directions. The boys dropped birds here and there. Emma proved her mettle as a retriever, with R.J. handling her well. Imus also proved to be a solid retriever and brought in birds. Whenever called upon, Indian and Deke delivered the rest.
The boys had a very active day of wing shooting and getting to know some veteran hunters and dog handlers. They bagged twenty-two birds over the day. Here again R.J.’s work at Wildrose counted when he selected a bird from a covey rise to shoot, as well a handling his dog in a field with other working dogs.
At lunch the hunting party retired to Bryan Lodge and enjoyed Chef Harry Pasisis’ preparation of the freshly-harvested gamebirds, fried and smothered in a rich gravy. The table conversation was lively with Mr. Jimmy Bryan hosting the guests and the discussion ranging widely over a number of topics from hunting to the cold winter weather in Canada and the U.S. this year.
Back at Wildrose the following day R.J. and Justin prepared to leave for the flight back home. R.J. had gotten more than he had expected and was very well satisfied with his hunting experiences. Who wouldn’t be? R.J. had participated in more hunting action in four days than some hunters do in a full season—including harvesting a seven-point buck. Also, R.J. discovered how much he enjoyed working a gundog. In the future he wanted to be able to do more dog handling and he wanted to start working with a dog of his own. Throughout his Mississippi hunting visit, R.J. showed himself to be polite, intelligent, high energy, attentive, and appreciative. Everyone associated with him on this trip, reported that this representative of the new generation of hunters had acquitted himself capably.
As R.J. was leaving Wildrose, he assured Mike that he would return to Wildrose with his dog next December for another hunting adventure in Mississippi. He thinks his dad will find this hunting vacation a great experience, too.