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Start Them Young

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Casey and Jesse Campbell, with Harris on her back, watch for incoming ducks while hunting from a blind in the Rainwater Basin. Eric Fowler, Nebraskaland.

By Eric Fowler

When you take children hunting, you better have a checklist.
Warm clothes? Check.
Warm boots? Check.
Snacks? Check.
Diaper bag? Excuse me?
Baby food? Beg your pardon?
Pacifier? Are you nuts?

Jesse and Casey Campbell of Grand Island aren’t nuts, but that’s what their packing list has included since they took their son, Harris, hunting for the first time — when he was 2 months old.

By the time Harris went on that goose hunt in February 2020, Harris already had been ice fishing. And a few weeks later, he went on his first rabbit hunt. Not quite 2 years old now, the toddler has added fishing, camping, and turkey, sharp-tailed grouse, prairie chicken, pheasant, quail and squirrel hunting to his list of escapades. He’s even been to a sandhill crane viewing blind and noodling for catfish in his parents’ home state of Illinois.
His outdoor-loving parents have taken “start them young” to an entirely new level.

Jesse takes a break to give Harris his bottle. Eric Fowler, Nebraskaland.

The Campbells met at the University of Illinois while Casey was finishing graduate school and Jesse a bachelor’s degree. Casey took a job as a civil engineer with Ducks Unlimited and moved to Nebraska in 2014. The following year, Jesse made the move and is now the director of communications for a law firm.

Casey grew up hunting and fishing in southern Illinois and continued both of those pursuits in Nebraska. Jesse fished and camped while growing up on a small farm near St. Louis. She had wanted to try hunting, but never had the opportunity. Once in Nebraska, she began tagging along on hunts with Casey nearly every weekend, bringing her camera for the first year. “He didn’t burn me out, but he tried hard,” Jesse said.

In spring 2016, she put down the camera and picked up a shotgun. “Once we had some success turkey hunting, I think she was pretty well hooked,” Casey said.

Each season opener that followed, the two headed to the field together. They married in 2018 and, a year later, their first child was on the way. That joy was accompanied by a fear for Jesse, who describes herself as an adult-onset hunter. One thing she likes most about hunting is spending time with Casey.

Harris gets a kiss from the Campbell’s black Labrador retriever, Luna, while sitting in Casey’s waders. Eric Fowler, Nebraskaland.

“When I was pregnant, I was very concerned about how our hunting lifestyle would change,” she said. “I didn’t necessarily want to be restricted to being home with Harris all of the time and feeling left out because I wasn’t hunting if Casey was hunting. I couldn’t necessarily imagine going by myself, either.”

As the due date approached, hunting seasons opened, and Jesse and Casey kept going. She was dove hunting at 27 weeks pregnant, pulling on waders and slogging through a Rainwater Basin marsh for early teal season at 29 and 30 weeks, tagging two turkeys at 31 weeks, and heading back to the marsh at 33 weeks for the regular duck opener.

By then, her body was starting to tell her to take it easy, but her mind didn’t want to listen, so they found a way for Jesse to keep duck hunting. “I have the greatest husband in the world: He pulled me around in a layout boat so I could shoot ducks,” she said, noting slight modifications were made to the boat to accommodate her baby bump.

They took several more trips to the marsh early that duck season, with the last coming at 36 weeks. “My waders wouldn’t fit anymore,” Jesse said with a laugh. A short walk on the opening day of pheasant season that same late October week was her last hunt before Harris arrived Nov. 27, 2019, a week late. At 9 pounds, 6 ounces and 22.5 inches, he was a Boone & Crockett baby, Casey said. He joined their 6-month-old Labrador retriever, Luna,
at home.

Harris inspects a grasshopper Jesse caught for him after a squirrel hunt in August. Eric Fowler, Nebraskaland.

Two weeks later, with grandparents in town to watch Harris, the two were back in the field, joining friends in their goose pit. If Harris’ grandparents weren’t all in Illinois, they would be happy to watch him so the couple could hunt. But
they are.

So, their solution was simple: Take him along.

“I think it’s becoming more of a cultural norm, where my generation is, ‘Well, this is what I want to do, so my kid’s just coming with me,’” Jesse said. Because this was their passion, they wanted to find a way to do it.

Harris runs back to the parking lot alongside Casey and Jesse at the end of a squirrel hunt in August. Eric Fowler, Nebraskaland.

They talked logistics, locations, types of hunts and safety — with each other and with one of Casey’s coworkers, who has taken her two young boys hunting and fishing since they were babies. That first trip to the goose pit was a last-minute decision that required a quick trip to the local sporting goods store to find baby-sized earmuffs for hearing protection. Harris slept in his car seat in the blind that day, right through the shooting.

Before that first rabbit hunt a few weeks later, they found a used backpack child carrier online for $20. Casey threw the pack and Harris on his back, and they were off.

As soon as they got started that year, most hunting seasons ended. But turkey season was just around the corner, giving Casey time to customize those bright-blue earmuffs and a new, better but still-blue backpack with a camo paint job. Casey also fashioned a bug net to cover Harris in the carrier.

Jesse duck hunting at 33 weeks.

At this point, Harris was still in the “potted plant stage,” not wanting to move around and sleeping more often than not, and things were fairly easy. But when he woke up, it was feed-me-now screaming.

“Of course he likes to wake up when birds are like 60 yards away and working in,” Jesse said.

That was the case on his first trip to the turkey woods, when he woke crying when a gobbler was nearly within bow range for Casey. Jesse harvested a jake on opening day of shotgun season, but Harris woke up and spoiled dad’s chance at a tom 10 minutes later. On their next hunt, Harris woke with one gobbler at 30 yards and another at 60. “And this turkey, no joke, could not help himself and kept shock gobbling and would not take a breath,” Jesse said. “They didn’t run away probably because they’ve never heard that sound before. It was hilarious.”

First goose hunt, age 2 months.

The laughter, while internal, may have caused Jesse to miss the closer bird, but Casey tracked them down and harvested both. Jesse connected soon after when another tom came in while Harris was sleeping.

Plenty of fishing, camping and hiking trips followed. Harris began his first full hunting season with the Aug. 1 squirrel opener, riding on mom’s back.
They learned quickly that Harris prefers upland hunting to sitting in the duck blind. He likes being on the move, watching the world go by and watching Luna work. “As soon as you stop moving, he’s upset about it and wants you to keep going,” Jesse said.

First rabbit hunt, age 3 months.

They take turns carrying him, sometimes deferring to whoever’s back hurts less, on upland hunts, hikes, mushroom hunts or fishing trips. Last fall he weighed 21 pounds, making grouse hunting in the Sandhills a challenge. So was keeping balance when Harris started swaying back and forth while singing the E-I-E-I-O part of “Old MacDonald,” as Casey found out while slogging through a muddy field on a mushroom hunt this past spring. By last summer, Harris was 25 pounds.

They didn’t take him deer hunting in 2020, not wanting to chance Harris’ crying preventing a harvest. Instead, they took turns hunting solo or with other friends. Jesse found she enjoyed it as she became more comfortable.

a successful turkey hunt, age 4 months.

They also didn’t take him out in the bitter cold, despite having enough wool base layers, mid layers and warm puffy suits to make Harris look like “a marshmallow.” The exception was when they went to their friends’ goose pit, where heaters softened the cold. Harris was a hit with the other hunters. “All of them interacting with Harris while he’s hunting has been pretty funny,” Jesse said. “They all like to brag that he’s the youngest hunter they’ve ever been with.”

He didn’t go turkey hunting during the spring 2021 season either. He had been walking since just before his first birthday and sitting still in a blind is not something he wants to do. The same was true for fishing this spring and summer. Keeping him contained is somewhat easier now that they own a fishing boat, but Harris would rather be in the water. He did catch his first fish at Keller Park State Recreation Area in June, hooking a small largemouth bass while reeling in a Hula Popper his mom had cast for him.

It has been an adventure.

Camping, age 6 months.

“We’ve just taken him along and seen how it’s gone,” Jesse said. “Each season has been totally different, because developmentally, he’s totally different.”

“As he matures and we come across different challenges as far as taking him to do stuff, then we’re having to come up with solutions on the fly,” Casey added.

Still, it hasn’t been easy, but Harris appears to have made things easier than other babies might have. Take a look at Jesse’s Instagram page,
@jessehcampbell, and the website she created, parenthoodoutdoors.com, and you’ll see a happy baby.

A spring hike, age 6 months.

But Harris sets the schedule. “There have been hunts that ended early because he’s not happy, but you just know it’s going to be whatever it’s going to be that day, and however long you get to hunt is however long you get to hunt,” Jesse said. “We’re just happy to be out doing it.”

“That’s just kind of part of it,” Casey added. “First and foremost is just making sure he’s enjoying himself. Jesse and I can go out and shoot ducks another day if he’s not. We make the experience as good as we can for him. He’s priority one when we’re afield.”

Things will be way different this year with a walking and talking toddler. Trips to their duck blind in the Rainwater Basin, which stands in water with no floor, are likely out unless they can find a Pack ’n’ Play that floats, they joke. With Harris’ love for water, however, Jesse thinks it will be hard for him to understand why Mom and Dad are standing in it and he can’t play in it.

First grouse hunt, age 10 months.

Making sure Harris keeps his earmuffs on also will be a challenge. He’s done well on that front so far. “If he forgets he has them on, it’s fine,” Jesse said. “So getting them on and then distracting him as soon as you put them on so he doesn’t rip them off is the key.”

Harris loves to point out birds, and Jesse says they are excited about having another spotter in the blind. The identification skills will need to be developed, however, as every bird he sees, no matter whether it is a duck, cardinal or sparrow, is a “duck.” And while he might not practice it, he is already learning that you must be quiet when hunting. While on vacation in Florida this summer, he was trying to catch baby geckos. “He was whispering to me, ‘Shhhhh,’ and pointing to where they were,” Jesse said. “It was super adorable.”

First fish (below) age 17 months.

The Campbells did more upland hunting than ever last year, and even though Harris would rather be on his own than in the carrier, there likely will be more of that this year, Casey said. It won’t be long, however, until Harris is too big to carry and too young to walk along. They hope by that point he will be content sitting in a waterfowl or turkey blind. They are taking it one season at a time.

“I definitely wouldn’t trade it for the world, and it’s going to be interesting to see how this goes,” Jesse said.

No matter what happens, they are laying the groundwork for creating another hunter. “But at the same time, if he isn’t as passionate about it as we are, that’s kind of how it’s going to be,” Casey said. “We’ll figure out what he’s passionate about and pursue that.”

So do people tell them they are nuts?

“All the time,” Casey said.  ■

About eric fowler

Nebraskaland Regional Editor Eric Fowler was born in Hastings, graduated from Ogallala High School in 1988 and completed his Bachelor’s at Chadron State College in 1993. After six years as a writer and photographer with newspapers in Chadron and Scottsbluff, he joined the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission in 1998 as Publications Editor and has been a member of the NEBRASKAland staff since 2001. Fowler spends as much time as he can in Outdoor Nebraska. When he’s not photographing wildlife, landscapes or people enjoying the state’s outdoor resources for the magazine, he’s enjoying them himself while hunting, fishing, boating, kayaking, hiking or camping with family, including his wife and son, and friends.