With permission from the folks at Outdoor Empire, we have posted an article by Erik Jutila addressing when and how to get kids started hunting. Thank you to Outdoor Empire for allowing us to share this resource!
Passing the Torch
There are a lot of reasons to introduce kids to hunting. It is a wholesome hobby that teaches valuable life lessons, encourages exercise and promotes spending time outdoors. In addition to the reasons that hunting is a good activity for the individual, getting the next generation involved is good for the overall sport.
– As the world becomes increasingly modern and technology-flooded, and gun and hunting rights continue to be challenged, hunting is in danger of becoming a thing of the past.
– Today’s youth will be responsible for keeping the sport alive by advocating for gun and hunting rights in the future. Hunters are also some of the primary activists that support habitat restoration and wildlife management.
– Hunting encourages quality time with family or mentors. Instead of playing games indoors on an iPad, it gets kids outside, spending valuable time interacting with people and nature. Many types of hunting are a good source of exercise and teach healthy lessons about the processes through which food makes it to your table.
Plenty of moms and dads look forward to a time when they have kids old enough to take along hunting. This article will explore how to know when the time is right for those first experiences, and how to make those experiences positive memories for your new hunter.
When to Get Them Started
Photo: Chris Waters
Like is true when it comes to many youth activities, if you get a child started too young, you run the risk of them burning out at an early age.
It does not matter if it is soccer or piano, kids get are often driven away from activities by overbearing parents that force them into hobbies. Some kids burn out early; others make it into their teenage or young adult years before they reach the point of pulling away from the activity.
It is best to let the child dictate their readiness and interest in hunting. Keep in mind that as soon as a kid is old enough to talk they are likely to start asking about going along on hunting trips. So, a little scrutiny will be required to determine when the time is right.
Every child is different, so there is not one set standard that can be applied to all children. When you are considering bringing them along on a hunt (as opposed to allowing them to actively hunt) some factors to consider are:
- Interest in hunting– Even if kids are not very interested in hunting from the onset, there is a chance they will come to like it if taken along. However, kids who are interested in going on their own may be ready to go at a younger age. If kids are a little hesitant, you will have better luck having a reasonable conversation with them about giving it a try when they are a little older.
- Attention span- Lots of hunting is not necessarily action-packed, this article will identify the types of hunts that are best for getting a child hooked, but kids with very short attention spans might need to grow up a little before they are ready to come along on a hunt.
- Willingness to follow instructions- Disobedient children are not ideal for a lot of activities, but when you add in guns, knives and outdoor elements, a kid not following directions can become a safety issue. If a kid wants to go, a hunting trip could be used as a reward for following directions well.
- Sensitivity levels- If you have a child that you think would be very upset with the death of an animal, allow some time to pass before they witness it on a hunt. Let them tag along on a scouting day where you are spotting animals but not shooting them. Eventually, they may start to show more interest in your success stories and ask to be there for the hunt itself.
- Stamina- Outside of mental stamina (see patience), physical stamina may play a role in them being ready to come along on a hunt. For the most part, kids probably have more energy than adults, but they may also wear themselves out quickly. If they tire easily and are likely to get discouraged by the work, wait till their legs are a little longer.
Once you have determined that your child is ready to get involved with hunting, it is time to consider what their first outing should be.
If everything goes well, your youth hunter will grow up to enter the woods before sunrise and come out after sunset. They will be willing to endure foul weather and cover many rugged miles in a day to pursue game. However, long and intense hunts with low chances of success are not the best options for early experiences.
Before a kid is ready to carry their own weapon and harvest their own animals, let them target practice with air rifles or bring them to tag along on a hunt . Here is some framework for what would make a good first hunt:
- A hunt that is about them: Even though the child will not be actively hunting, make sure it is a trip catered to them. Do not bring them on a hunt where you are focused on harvesting game. Their experience is the priority, and it is likely to play a big role in their interest in hunting moving forward.
- Go on a good weather day: Just like adults, kids are likely to find more enjoyment and be more patient on a day where the weather is good. A day where it is not bitter cold or pouring down rain would be the best start.
- Outfit them with good gear: Most grownups survive days in the woods by wearing hundreds of dollars in high-quality gear. Spending a bunch of money for a kid’s test-run might not be the best plan, but make sure they have good boots or shoes and enough clothes to stay warm and dry.
- Bring snacks: A snack break is a good way to add some entertainment while sitting in the blind or provide an intermission from walking through the woods or fields. Not to mention, a hungry kid is likely to lose interest much quicker than a well-fed one. Pack their favorite snacks and bring along a thermos of hot chocolate on those cooler mornings.
- Pick a hunt with some action: In a dream world, every hunt would involve encounters and successes, but much of hunting is not like that at all. Waterfowl, game birds, squirrels or other small game are good choices because you are likely to see some game and have some success. A big game hunt where you are likely to see lots of animals is not a bad bet either. Even a buck hunt where you see lots of does will probably keep a kid fairly entertained.
- Call it a day when they are ready: With any luck, patience will be something that your child learns organically through their experiences. It is not a lesson best forced upon them. If they ask to go home, you might encourage them to stay a little longer, but for the most part, heading home or back to camp when they are ready is best. If all the trips are very short, maybe postpone them going along for a couple. If they ask to go again, you can preface the trip by saying “you can go along, but we will be staying in the woods a little longer this time.”
- Let them choose their level of involvement: Kill shots, gutting and butchering animals are all a part of the sport- but just because a kid is ready to go for a hike in the woods, does not mean they are ready for the other parts of the hunt. You can establish that they will have to be willing to do those aspects before they can actually hunt, but do not force them to participate and observe if they do not want to. Likewise, if the kid wants to ease their way into it, find a safe way to get them involved like pulling on a leg while you do the cutting.
Shifting to Full Involvement
Those days when your youth hunter is just tagging along offer a great opportunity to further instill the responsibilities and skills involved in hunting. Make sure to maintain a focus on being a safe and ethical hunter, which will serve them well as an individual but also a steward of the sport and resource.
Once you are looking at making the jump to them actually hunting, consideration must be given in areas outside of the intrinsic factors discussed for early involvement.
For instance, beyond the kid’s maturity level and interest, legal limitations must be considered.
States do not have restrictions for just bringing kids along on hunts, but the same cannot be said for them becoming actual hunters.
Many states do not have a minimum age requirement for hunting. The youth hunter needs only be able to complete the hunter education course and pass a test to be issued a license. Some states have limited deferral or mentor programs, where a young hunter can participate without having passed a hunter safety course.
In these scenarios, the state allows them to go out under the tutelage of a hunter who has been licensed for at least a certain number of years.
If your kid shows all the signs of being ready to hunt but lacks the reading and writing skills to pass the hunter safety course, they might be a good candidate for the deferral or mentor program. If they have the reading and writing skills, the course is a practical and useful step in earning the privilege to hunt.
In most states, those programs afford them one year before they have to pass the course, so it only makes sense in a few cases.
The age at which they are able to complete a hunter safety course and test usually corresponds well with the other indicators they are ready to hunt. The attention, understanding of rules and interest level required for the course are probably roughly equivalent to what they would need to actively hunt.
In addition to meeting the legal requirements, here are some other attributes to look for:
- Willingness to fully participate in the process: While forcing a kid to gut an animal their first time going along on a hunt is not recommended, they should understand it is a part of being a hunter. Before they harvest an animal of their own they should be ready to do be involved from the first shot, to the last shot, and on through the field dressing and butchering process.
- Skills with the required weapon: Certain hunting methods have greater barriers to youth involvement. Archery can be difficult for the youngest of hunters because of the strength required to draw a bow although there are many youth bows and crossbows on the market, big game hunting with a rifle requires the shooter to deal with the recoil and weight of bigger caliber firearms. Pick a weapon that is geared towards youth hunter strength and stature, and make sure they are competent and safe with it.
- Ethics and decision- making: It can probably be assumed that an adult will be by the side of the young hunter as they make their early hunting choices. However, the old adage about not being able to un-pull the trigger is as true for kids as it is adults. Making sure that your child is old enough to understand the rationale behind decisions made in the field is crucial.
The First Real Hunt
Most states offer opportunities that are unique to youth hunters. Often these are hunts where success is likely. These hunts can be for the female big game, offer a few days head start on game birds or waterfowl, or focus on areas where access to the territory is easy. These youth-catered hunts are excellent opportunities for first outings.
A hunt where the young hunter is the only tag-holder comes with the advantage of the adult mentor not being concerned with their own harvest. Most parents or mentors would take as much or more joy out of a young hunter harvesting their first animal, but some might still let their focus wander to their own successes.
Whether it is a youth hunt or a general opportunity, pick a hunt that coincides with the considerations we have already discussed. Early season hunts are likely to have better weather.
Game birds, waterfowl, varmints and deer can all be reasonably hunted with youth firearms and calibers. They also all typically provide a fair amount of encounters and a decent chance at success.
Keep in mind the outline of the first hunt as discussed above. You can gradually remove the “training wheels” by making the hunts a little longer, and encouraging your child to be more involved with the whole process. It is still best to start with a hunt that offers the following:
- Good weather
- High success rates
- Reasonable duration
- Adequate gear
- Youth-appropriate weapon
Talk (quietly) them through the stages of the hunt. As an experienced hunter, you have probably forgotten that you once had to learn many of the things you now know. As an example, to a young hunter, a finishing shot to the head of an animal may seem brutal. Offering a little explanation can help them understand that it a kill shot is the humane thing to do, and respectful to the animal.
Ultimately, hitting the timing just right and then planning and executing a perfect first experience should produce positive results. However, be prepared that even if everything goes well, hunting is not for everyone.
For some, it might be an acquired taste, and they may come around to liking it on their own at an older age. Similarly, know that everything is likely not to go quite as planned, and the kid will probably have a great time, anyway.
If you are successful in introducing them to hunting, be ready to experience great joy as you share in their successes. You will also feel good about introducing them to a healthy and wholesome activity that comes with a bonus of quality table fare.
And finally, by passing along the hunting tradition to the next generation, you will have done your part to keep the sport alive.