The key to keeping kids interested in hunting is to make sure they enjoy it.
By Jerry Bush
My son, Gregory, first hunted deer with me at age 9, during Pennsylvania’s 1997 winter doe season. A stiff breeze blew in from the north, and snow began to fall — an inch an hour — adding to the 6-inch blanket already covering the forest floor.
We eventually filled my tag, but by using still-hunting tactics instead of my favored waiting on stand. The movement helped my young son to remain comfortable, which was a far more important goal than putting meat in the freezer. Concern for a child’s ability to withstand inclement weather is among the most important things to consider when you’re hunting with one.
It helps me to remember what was important to me when I hunted as a child. Like many hunters, I owe my love of the outdoors to my father. I accompanied my mentor into the deer woods numerous times, and dad was the best when it came to keeping it fun. He must have done a good job because, 35 years later, I still look back fondly on those experiences.
Kids must be kept warm and dry. Most gloves don’t offer enough cold-weather protection, but a good pair of mittens, lined with Thinsulate, work well. They cost a bit more, but they are worth it. Purchase the mittens with a flap-cover that protects the fingers but can easily be lifted to access a trigger. Carry an extra pair for young hunters, and keep them warm and dry.
Most human heat is lost through the head, so a warm hat shouldn’t be ignored. In my home state of Pennsylvania, fluorescent orange is required. Regardless of where you live, consider wearing fluorescent orange when hunting from the ground. Scent, sound and movement — not color — alert whitetails. There is no excuse for ignoring safety.
Purchase well-insulated bib overalls or coveralls to eliminate cold drafts from the back and kidney areas of young hunters. Keeping these areas warm is crucial. Coveralls usually are the most economical choice for covering the body of a growing hunter. Yes, youngsters will outgrow expensive garments, but allowing a child to endure what he or she perceives as torture could result in the loss of a potential lifelong hunting companion.
Hunting on cold mornings when temperatures are expected to warm in the afternoon presents a special challenge. The solution – and we’ve all heard it before – is to dress the youngster in layers. Be prepared to add or remove garments as required. Carry a dry sweatshirt and an extra pair of socks, among other clothing items.
Be considerate of the child, and limit your expectations. Take along a comfortable seat or chair if planning to stand hunt on the ground. I like those padded seats that hang from tree trunks. Using one of these, the youngster can sit comfortably, but his or her silhouette will blend into the surroundings.
Praise is a very important part of any hunt with a child. Compliment them often, and thank them if you’re successful. A hunt doesn’t need to end for children when the animal is down, either. Take advantage of opportunities to teach proper knife handling. A little biology lesson can be rewarding as well. It has been my experience that most kids, including girls, are curious about seeing a heart, lung, liver, etc. Discern if he or she can stomach this task, and don’t force them to do so.
The best moments of a hunt can occur when a youngster is allowed to drag a deer out of the woods. Greg and I once laughed for an hour as he pulled for all he was worth, trying to move a large doe that remained anchored. Not wanting to dampen his enthusiasm, I attached a second drag rope, but I only pulled enough to make up the bit of strength he required. Letting the child do the bulk of the work permits the feeling that he or she contributed to the successful end of the hunt.
Be smart about choosing a child’s firearm. Young shooters should not have to tolerate heavy recoil. We purchased a soft-kicking rifle for Gregory on his 11th birthday, one year before he would carry the gun to hunt deer. Believing the ability to shoot accurately is more desirable than power, I sought a gun that a young boy could shoot frequently while he grew. Careful consideration narrowed the choices to the .243 Winchester, .257 Roberts, .260 Remington and the 6.5 x 55mm. I fell in love with the merits of this flat-shooting Swedish caliber. Being a handloader provided an opportunity to further tame the already mild recoil. My son fired round after round at the rifle range, and his accuracy benefited accordingly.
I recommend that you hunt with the child’s rifle, while accompanied by your student, a season before he or she will actually use the weapon. While using my son’s firearm, I once dropped a doe in her tracks. I remember the look of satisfaction in the boy’s eyes as the deer fell. My young hunter experienced additional pride and, more importantly, added respect for his personal firearm. Greg was left with a clear concept that his rifle was lethal.
I believe in the merits of preparing kids for deer hunts by first pursuing varmints. The young shooter can use the same rifle he or she will use during deer season. There’s no replacement for familiarity with a firearm. Varmints are plentiful, providing many shots, even in the off-season. They also provide valuable lessons about stalking. You can’t beat the experience gained by invading an animal’s spook zone.
Providing fun for a youngster’s hunt includes being there mentally when failure occurs. By the time my son was permitted, at age 12, to legally hunt with a firearm in Pennsylvania, he’d already accompanied me on dozens of scouting trips and nearly a dozen deer hunts. Greg’s early deer hunting prowess seemed phenomenal. In his first three years, he killed three does with single shots to the vitals. Not bad, I thought. Three years, three shots, three whitetails. Then came the disaster that accompanied an errant shot at a buck.
We saw a small doe, and, since Greg’s doe tag had been filled weeks earlier, I assumed he’d be lowering his raised rifle after scoping the animal. I was shocked when he pulled the trigger. I was about to ask why he was shooting at a doe, but as quickly as doubt entered my mind, the movement of a large buck captured my attention. The monarch was traveling behind the doe I’d spotted and had been the object of Greg’s attention the entire time.
Quickly switching from critic to analyst, I realized we had a problem. That big 8- to 10-point buck was carrying the mail, showing no signs of being hit. He sped up the hill, but finally stopped in relatively open hardwoods about 100 yards in front of us. I concentrated on the animal, waiting for the follow-up shot.
Instead, distinct sounds of frustration pierced my ear. Greg was panicking while attempting to remove the empty case that had jammed in the receiver. The majestic animal bolted at the same instant I reached to remove the spent case. Greg chambered another cartridge and raised his firearm, but there was no shot. Dejected, the teenager stood before me, praying his dad could somehow salvage the moment. He’d never missed a deer before, let alone the buck of his dreams. I remember asking, “Okay, Lord. How am I supposed to turn this into a fun event?”
If nothing else, this was a great opportunity to teach Greg to follow his shots. I quickly spotted a spray of snow and mud on the ground, about 15 yards beyond the tracks implanted by the fleeing animal. Pointing to the evidence, I informed my son that he’d rushed the shot and that I believed his bullet passed under the deer. I encouraged him to follow the tracks with me.
After traveling about 300 yards, it was finally time to face reality. “Hey, kid. Wasn’t that fun? You already had more excitement than most deer hunters will have today, and it’s only 10:30!” I felt it important to put a positive spin on the event. Keep things in the proper perspective, I thought. My boy’s heart was broken for the moment; he said it was the worst day of his life.
Hunting undoubtedly teaches a person to never give up. I chose to still-hunt for several hours after Greg missed that buck. Sometimes kids desperately need the distraction and interest generated by changing scenery. I couldn’t calculate the odds of seeing a second “shooter buck” that morning, but God must have heard my prayers.
We stopped abruptly as I spotted a buck heading up the hill. I alerted Greg, and though he couldn’t see the animal, he trusted me enough to raise his rifle. The 5-pointer stepped from behind some pine trees only 50 yards in front of us. Sensing our presence, the buck stood motionless while looking our way. Again, I waited for the shot, and again I heard a whimper of frustration.
Greg’s scope had fogged from a combination of the boy’s breath and the weather. “Now I can’t see,” was spoken a bit louder than advised. Remarkably, the deer didn’t bolt, and this time I was prepared. As the deer slowly resumed its walk, I traded weapons with my son. He again proved his shooting ability, and the buck leaped straight into the air. At last, my son had bagged his first buck. His worst day ever was instantly transformed into his best.
If my son never shoots another deer, I will feel successful if one day he tells people that Dad was the best at keeping it fun.
This article was published in the July 2004 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.