By David Hart
It’s a great time to be a kid. Not only are gun and equipment manufacturers making gear designed especially for children, but virtually every state fish and wildlife agency also has seasons and programs aimed specifically at getting kids outdoors. The only problem is that some parents aren’t taking advantage of those opportunities.
The reasons vary, but there is no excuse for leaving children at home during hunting season. Here’s a look at how any parent can turn a boy or girl into a hunter and lifelong friend — and it’s really pretty simple:
1. Take Them
The most obvious way to turn a child into a hunter is to take him every chance you can. For some parents, that can mean making some tremendous sacrifices. Free time is a scarce commodity these days, and for many parents, time in the woods is an escape from the rigors of everyday life. But if you don’t take your children at every opportunity, who will? You might have to put off your quest for a wallhanger for a few years; and at times, taking a child hunting can be downright frustrating. But in the end, you’ll be glad you did.
2. Start Them Young
According to at least one study, a child who hasn’t been introduced to hunting by the age of 12 is far less likely to take an interest in it. That’s not to say a teenager can’t be coaxed into the woods and turned into a passionate outdoorsman, but why take the chance?
My boys accompanied me into the autumn woods before they could walk. Kyle was just 9 months old when I took him on his first squirrel hunt. I toted a .22 as he rode in a backpack. I stopped frequently to give him a bottle or to change a diaper right there in the woods. When Matt came along two years later, Kyle walked along by my side as his brother got a free ride on my back. No, we didn’t bring home much game back then, but I wasn’t out there to feed my family.
Instead, I took my boys on warm autumn days to spend time together and to plant that initial seed that ultimately grew into a shared passion. Kyle is now 14 and Matt 12, and both are as dedicated to hunting as I am, maybe even more so. It’s never too early to introduce children to hunting, as long as you can keep them comfortable and don’t neglect their basic needs.
3. Spoil Them
Call it a subtle incentive or old-fashioned bribery, but loading up a fanny pack with candy bars, chips and a couple of cans of soda can coax just about any kid into the woods for a few hours. It might seem like a cheap way to introduce a youngster to hunting, but the idea is to make the entire experience positive and burn an indelible impression into their minds. Getting them out there is perhaps the biggest hurdle to introducing a boy or girl to the outdoors.
When I first took my boys hunting, our outings always included a trip to the local country store for a sandwich or an ice cream or just about anything else they wanted. On the way home, we stopped for lunch or dinner. Sure, it put a dent in my wallet, but it was money well spent. Now that my boys are dedicated hunters, it’s no longer necessary to fuel them with junk food, but I do it anyway. Why not?
4. Make It Fun
Some of my fondest memories of hunts with my sons have nothing to do with deer or squirrels or doves. Sure, we were out there for the purpose of hunting some sort of game animal, but truth is, how successful can you be with a 6- and 4-year-old shuffling through the leaves behind you?
Instead of stalking squirrels or waiting for deer, the three of us spent much of our time climbing trees, throwing rocks into a creek or lobbing acorns at each other as we ran through the woods and ducked behind trees. I let them set the pace and dictate what we did and where we went. Sometimes we got serious about our ultimate goal, sometimes we didn’t. What mattered is that Kyle and Matt had a strong, positive image of those hunting trips, and they wanted to go back every chance they could.
5. Keep It Short
Because children have relatively short attention spans, try to limit each outing to just a couple of hours. Go during the peak times of deer activity and make sure the weather will be relatively mild. Avoid hunting burnout that comes from forcing a boy or girl to sit still for hours on end as you wait for the buck of a lifetime to come strolling by. In time, your child’s attention span will grow, and so will his desire to sit still for an extra hour.
If you are committed to a full day, break it up. Get up and go for a walk, head back to the truck and go buy lunch, or find a sunny spot in the woods and take a nap. Pay attention to your child’s mood. If she seems bored and disinterested, do something else.
6. Teach Them
If you go for a walk, make it a learning experience. Show the youngster rubs, turkey scratchings and squirrel cuttings. But teach them more than basic hunting-related lessons. Knowledge that extends beyond scrapes, rubs and deer trails will not only make a child a better hunter, it will make him a better person.
My uncle was my hunting mentor, and he taught me how to identify trees, birds and wildflowers; I learned more about the natural world from him than I could have in years of science classes. I am eternally grateful for the knowledge he instilled in me, and I share that knowledge frequently with my children.
7. Involve Them
Part of a child’s hunting education should involve making decisions about the day’s events. When my boys were 5 or 6, I would ask them to choose the spot for the afternoon sit. Sometimes it was a good decision and sometimes it wasn’t. If I thought their choice would hamper our success, I offered my thoughts on why their spot might not work out so well. At least they felt like they were participants.
Allowing your children to participate in the decision-making process gives them a sense of accomplishment, which can boost their confidence and ultimately increase their desire to continue hunting.
8. Outfit Them Right
Most hunters over the age of 40 probably started with a hand-me-down shotgun or rifle. The gun was too big, too heavy, and it kicked like a hornet-stung mule. It’s a wonder any kid wanted to shoot that gun a second time, let alone carry it in the deer woods.
There’s no excuse for that any more. These days, virtually every gunmaker offers some sort of shotgun or rifle made specifically for younger or smaller-framed shooters. They have smaller stocks, better recoil reduction systems and shorter barrels to make shooting comfortable and fun.
I bought my oldest son a Remington 700 youth model rifle chambered in .270. It’s topped with a reasonably-priced Cabela’s scope. As he grows, Kyle can swap out the shorter stock for a standard one, and he can carry that rifle for the rest of his life, or he can pass it down to his own children.
Even better, Remington offers managed-recoil loads in nine calibers, including a 115-grain .270. Because they have a lighter bullet and a little less powder, the loads kick less, which prevents flinching. But they pack enough punch to drop a deer out to 200 yards. Remington also offers a Model 700 SPS Buckmasters Young Bucks rifle chambered in .243.
There are boots, clothes and various accessories made just for kids. Outfit your children with gear made for them and they will feel like they belong in the woods.
9. Let Them Succeed
Once you get your kids in the woods with a gun or bow in their hands, let them pull the trigger. In other words, just because you want them to hold out for a big 8-pointer doesn’t mean they should pass up the first legal deer they see. The more success they have during those first years, the more likely they will want to continue hunting.
My friend makes sure he saves his best spots for the days when his boys are with him. That way, the kids have a high chance of success. As children mature, their desire to hold out for a bigger buck will grow.
10. Set an Example
I credit my uncle for nurturing my love of all things outdoors. My father gave me the freedom to roam the woods around my boyhood home, but he wasn’t much of a hunter. Still, he saw my desire to learn about hunting, so he shipped me off to my uncle’s home during Christmas and summer breaks.
For all that my uncle did for me, I have to fault him for one thing: He willingly broke the law at times — laws that he saw as a minor inconvenience to a punched tag or a freezer full of game. I was with him for many of those infractions. We trespassed, filled out each other’s bag limits and shot ducks a few minutes past the end of legal shooting time. He changed, perhaps because he knew his own son and I were learning from his examples; and in the years before his death a decade ago, he not only straightened out his path, but he turned into an honorable teacher and a respected leader.
Today, I teach my children to not only obey the letter of the law, but to have the utmost respect for the animals they intend to shoot. I challenge their ethics, and I assure them that doing the right thing will always outweigh the false reward of a big buck or a full game bag. I preach safety and do my absolute best to set a positive example.
Most of all, I take them. I take my boys every chance I get, and I willingly sacrifice my own opportunities so Kyle and Matt can enjoy their time in the woods. When it comes down to it, watching them grow, not only as young men, but as hunters, is as thrilling as seeing a big buck through the crosshairs of my scope.
This article was published in the September, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.