Out There: Family fun when winter comes

Editor's note: Watch for Keith "Catfish" Sutton appearing on "The Casting Couch," a one-minute commentary on the wild world of fishing that airs on Saturdays during "BassCenter" on ESPN2.

Spring, summer and fall are seasons of outdoor fun

Fishing, swimming, camping, hiking, boating — it's easy to think of exciting ways to enjoy a day outdoors.

In winter, however, many families tend to vegetate in front of the TV.

A snowfall coaxes some outdoors long enough to build a snowman or go sledding. But many think of excuses to ignore the wonders of winter:

"It's too cold out."

"There's nothing to do."

"The kids will catch cold."

It shouldn't be that way.

Dec. 13 (barely). At 1:00 a.m., I awaken the boys. They rub sleepy eyes as I help them with warm coats.

The air outside is crisp, but not cold. The sky is clear. The stars are bright. We lay in the grass on the hillside and snuggle to watch the southern sky.

"What will they look like, Dad?"

Before I answer, it begins. The first meteor strikes the atmosphere and streaks across the black sky like a bottle rocket fired from the moon.

"Wow! Did you see that?"

Another appears, this one shorter, like an ember from a popping campfire.

"Did you see it? Did you see it!"

They look at me, wide-eyed, then back at the sky. I sense a growing excitement. No more sleepyheads.

The shooting stars strike up a rhythm. Each minute one blazes a path across the heavens. Each minute I hear a rush of exclamations. It's like Fourth of July fireworks — an explosion of light, the crowd goes "Oooooo!"; another explosion, the crowd goes "Ahhhh!"

Every night you can see a few sporadic shooting stars. But on some nights, you see many more.

Meteor showers occur on certain dates when Earth crosses fields of debris left by comets or asteroids.

During early to mid-December, for instance, Earth crosses the orbit of Asteroid 3200 Phaethon. Then you can see 50 to 80 meteors per hour, an event called the Geminid Meteor Shower, because most meteors seem to radiate from the constellation Gemini.

Other winter meteor showers include the Ursid, a few days prior to Christmas, and the Quadrantid during the first week of January.

If the nights are clear, watch the sky with your kids.

Boooroooo! Boooroooo! The chase is on. Beagles race on the cottontail's hot track. Eleven-year-old Josh waits to intercept.

"The rabbit is running out in front of the dogs," I tell him. "He'll cross this opening any time now. You have to be ready."

"I am ready," he says.

The cottontail breaks from the fencerow like demons are on its tail. Josh cocks the hammer on the .410, aims and fires. The rabbit rolls. Josh seems astonished. I am.

"Beautiful shot, son," I say, patting him on the back.

Josh grins. It's his first rabbit and the beginning of a lifelong passion for hunting.

Hunting small game with dogs is a good way to introduce youngsters to the joys of hunting. While dogs work, kids can talk, ask questions, and share their excitement, without fear of spooking game.

Between chases, you can discuss hunting techniques, gun safety and ethics. Most of all, small-game hunting allows plenty of shooting.

A youngster learning to hunt wants to shoot more than anything. If that doesn't happen, interest wanes, and you could lose your future hunter.

Small game, hunting dogs and kids — there's no better combo for wintertime fun.

The pine seedlings on the hillside need thinning. I need help cutting and piling. Five of my sons are snug in the house playing Nintendo and watching TV. Can I coax them into the cold without a lot of grumbling?

"Hey, guys, I've got an idea. Let's build a wickiup."

"A wicki-what?" Jared asks.

"A wickiup," I reply. "It's a shelter like Indians built. We'll cut some trees, and I'll show you how to make one. You can camp in it."

An hour later, 100 pine saplings are piled on the hillside. I never heard a grumble.

We lash a sapling between two trees. Then we create a lean-to of more sturdy saplings run from the crosspole to the ground. The framework is covered with bushy pine tops.

"If you ever get lost and have to spend a night in the woods, a lean-to like this will keep you warm and dry," I tell the boys. "To turn it into a wickiup, finish covering it, and leave just a small entrance."

Building the wickiup was a small lesson in wilderness survival. It was fun, too. The boys camped in the wickiup almost every winter weekend, even in the snow. It kept them warm and dry … and away from the Nintendo.

"Three kinglets, two titmice and a flicker." I call names and numbers to Matthew. He's recording the birds we see during the White River Christmas Bird Count.

"I think I see a bluebird," Shaun says excitedly.

I train my binoculars on the bird. It's an eastern bluebird, a brightly colored male.

"You're right, Shaun. And that's the first bluebird today. How many species have we seen, Matthew?"

"Fifty. And it's not even lunchtime."

Winter is great for birding. Wetlands teem with ducks. Hawks search roadsides for rodents. Eagles soar over rivers and lakes. Croplands host huge flocks of geese. Birds like purple martins and whip-poor-wills have migrated south, but others like snow geese and purple finches move in to take their place.

Our favorite winter birding trip is the White River Christmas Bird Count, one of 1,650 Christmas bird counts held nationwide each year. Each of my sons has attended since age 6. It is, for all of us, the year's most anticipated event.

How many species can we find this year? Can we exceed the 98 seen on our best day? Will there be any rarities? Will our count be better than others in the state? We compete against ourselves for the most part, enjoying thrills of the mad, marvelous bird chase.

"This one looks different, Dad," Jared says.

The black-masked bird looks like a bandit. It's a common yellowthroat!

"That's 51 species," Matthew reports. "We need 48 more to break our record. And it's six hours till dark. We haven't even seen a robin or a cowbird or a snipe or … ."

From midnight to 7:00 p.m. we count, enjoying to the fullest this wonderful winter day.

What will you and your kids do this winter?

To contact Keith Sutton, email him at catfishdude@sbcglobal.net. His new book, "Out There Fishing" (Stoeger Publishing; $19.95), is available at www.catfishsutton.com.