"I just enjoy watching the kids. Their smiles are the payback.''
Such were the words the other day of Fred Froehlich, describing why for some 40 years he has enjoyed mentoring young hunters — a critical role for established hunters if the pastime is to continue at present participation levels, more or less.
"To continue the legacy of hunting, we have to get some of these kids away from their smartphones and into the outdoors,'' Froehlich said.
Froehlich, of Nicollet, a small town (population 1,250) on the south end of Swan Lake in southern Minnesota, is a longtime sportsman- and citizen-activist.
In the latter role he is mayor of Nicollet, now in his fourth term.
As a conservationist, he has served even longer. Among his many contributions to wildlife and wildlife habitat, he is a past president of the Nicollet Conservation Club, perhaps the most active and dedicated such organization in Minnesota and maybe the nation.
It was in his role as a club leader that a recent mentoring opportunity arose.
"One of my assignments was answering e-mails we received,'' Froehlich said. "One was from a mother from north-central Minnesota whose son wanted to go to a college near where he could hunt ducks, which was his passion.''
Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter was one possibility, and the young man ultimately made that college his choice. Nearby Swan Lake would provide some duck-hunting opportunities, Froehlich suggested, and there would be others not far from St. Peter.
But questions arose that weren't answered during the student's orientation week at Gustavus. Such as: Where could he keep his shotgun? His waders? His canoe?
"We worked it out so the boy could keep his gun and waders at my house, in a locker in my garage,'' Froehlich said. "I gave him the combination for the garage lock, so he could get his gear early in the morning and go hunting, when he had time. We also arranged for him to keep his canoe where he could easily access it for hunting.''
That student has since graduated and doubtless will be forever grateful for the hunting opportunities a guy from Nicollet, Minn., helped provide.
Now Froehlich is introducing another youngster to experiences that will shape his life as a hunter. A companion goal is to nurture in the boy a strong conservation ethic, so someday he will be among Minnesotans who care enough about the state's woods, waters and fields to protect them.
"He's my cousin's son, and though he's just 13, he's a trooper,'' Froehlich said.
By "trooper'' Froehlich means a boy who, at age 11, was eager to arise long before sunup to join Froehlich in a turkey-hunting blind. Their first season yielded no toms. Nor did their efforts this past spring.
Still, Connor Bode, an eighth-grader at Mt. Olive Lutheran School in Mankato, remains enthusiastic.
"I love hunting,'' he said the other day. "Fred got me into it. I just love getting outdoors. It really clears my mind.''
This is Youth Waterfowl Weekend in Minnesota, and Fred and Connor are guests at Brian Hoffman's hunting shack on Swan Lake, as they were a year ago on the same weekend.
"Brian hosts kids every Youth Opener at his cabin,'' Froehlich said.
Like Froehlich, Hoffman is a director of the Nicollet Conservation Club, which has been stellar in its support of prep trap shooting. The club's eager squad has had as many as 96 schoolkid members, and this year fielded a team almost that large. Free of charge, each young shooter is given a snazzy jersey to wear at competitions, and the club bought a well-equipped trailer with an awning that provides a sheltered headquarters at the shoots for coaches, kids and parents.
Connor, a team member, credits his coaches and practice time on the club's trap range for improving his scattergun marksmanship. At Hoffman's cabin last year, he used a shotgun Froehlich loaned him. This year Connor is shouldering a 12 gauge his grandfather gave him.
"Last year I shot one mallard and four teal,'' Connor said. "They came into the decoys pretty good. Fred and I took all the feathers off the birds and cleaned them. Then I took them home and my family and I had them for dinner.''
As a mentor, Froehlich is successful because he knows the joy, friendship and camaraderie that attend the hunting life, and he enthusiastically wants others to share in the fun.
He's also successful because he has a support network consisting of friends and fellow Nicollet Conservation Club members.
But not every mentor or would-be mentor has a similar network to lean on for assistance. To help fill this and similar voids, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) again this fall is sponsoring free webinars that provide expert instruction in everything from waterfowl hunting to bird hunting with pointing dogs.
Each offers an excellent opportunity for mentors and their novice hunting partners to watch, listen and learn together — before or after going afield.
Want to be a mentor but don't have a son, daughter, nephew or niece to introduce to hunting?
Ask the kid down the street, or around the block. Or volunteer as a mentor with Pheasants Forever, Ducks Unlimited or another conservation group or sportsmen's club.
As Froehlich says, expect your efforts to be repaid in smiles.
Below is a list of upcoming DNR hunting webinars. Each is free, but registration is required. Go tohttps://tinyurl.com/5pbeswjt.
•Sept. 15 – Transporting firearm or archery equipment for hunting.
• Sept. 22 – Waterfowl hunting basics.
• Oct. 6 – Bird hunting with a pointing dog.
• Oct. 13 – Pheasant hunting strategies and techniques.
• Oct. 27 – Chronic wasting disease (CWD) in Minnesota.
• Nov. 3 – Preparing for firearms deer season, including tips, reminders and strategies.
• Nov. 10 – Muzzleloader hunting.
• Nov. 17 – Creating habitat for wildlife.