"I don't know exactly how to say it but this weekend changed me. I feel like I can do bigger things. I feel like I can do hard things. The time in the deer stand talking, having someone listen to me. It was amazing." The words of a young lady on the drive home from her first deer hunt. I was not surprised how much it impacted her, I had seen it many times before. I live for those moments and it always draws me in to a place of gratitude and joy. A life changed, a kid empowered.
In many areas the tradition of hunting, the traditions of the woods, the deer camp are struggling to stay alive. The average age of the hunter in America is now 35 plus with most over the age of 45. The numbers of hunters has been declining heavily since its peak in 1985 according to a study by the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) and the U.S. Sportsmen s Alliance (USSA).
There are some solid trends that should concern anyone who enjoys hunting. Did you know there are state and local laws that restrict the age for youth big game hunting? Yes, laws that restrict when you think your kid is ready to hunt or not. Statistically the hunter that begins between the ages of 7 - 15 is more likely to continue the tradition into their adult life.
But it is not just the hunting. Kids today are not going outside. The average kid today spends 40 minutes a week outside. They spend an unbelievable 70 hours a week looking at a screen (electronics). Sure we can yell at our kids to turn the TV off. We can refuse to give them a phone or take it away. We can refuse to allow video games in the home but that rarely solves the problem.
For most of the kids today electronics, not bicycles, are cultural. Their parents are both working and they don't look to the woods for an escape or adventure, it's all online. They are given computers at school, not books, they watch 100 plus television channels, Youtube and a dozen programs are in the palm of their hand and full of content that draws them in. Solutions are instantaneous, problems are solved in 30 minutes or less. Of course their attention span is short, their ability to sit, be still and quiet is all but gone.
Every hunter should be concerned. Every outdoors man or woman should be. If we as a group, a population, a family, do not each make an effort to help turn the tide we will be pushed out by the anti-hunting organizations that march forward with passion and money.
Training outdoor mentors is the key here. One time hunts can have a big impact on a new hunter but ultimately the excitement fades and old habits return without regular exposure. Your state wildlife department, the big manufacturers, the outdoor conservation groups do not have the resources nor the ability to assign their employees or volunteers mentoring responsibilities. A mentor has to come forward because they have a heart for the mission. They have to buy in and commit.
The new hunter, the youth hunter needs to experience the adventure in a safe and enjoyable way. If not done correctly it can turn them away from the sport for a lifetime. Here are some of the top lessons to use should you choose to step up and mentor a kid into the outdoors.
1) We never hunt Bambi. Bambi is a cartoon character. We hunt doe, bucks, spikes or whatever the deer is you are targeting. We don’t joke about it, we don’t feed into it and as a matter of fact we correct them and even ask them to refrain from those type comments.
2) We assure all new hunters that we eat what we kill and if they are not going to eat the harvest, then they should just stick with target shooting. We have heard it many times that deer meat or wild game does not taste good. I don’t know if they are just repeating the comments they heard from an adult or if they actually had some poorly prepared game, but regardless, no eat, no hunt. It is a rare day they don’t like a good deer spaghetti, smoked sausage or hamburger I cook them when they are hungry.
3) Never, ever put a large caliber rifle up to a kids arm as their first experience with a firearm. It’s not funny nor manly and can scare a kid from pulling the trigger for years. I know, I did it. Scope a .22 or .17 caliber rifle and give them a big ole box of shells. Let them learn to use the scope and action of the gun. Let them shoot to their heart's desire. Find a rifle that fits the kid.
I would also, in most cases, not take them to an indoor range. The reverberation can be brutal from a large caliber rifle or pistol in the stall next to you. Eye and really good ear protection is also very important.
4) The right caliber matters. Few deer won’t go down with a .223 or .243. I would go as high as a .270 in some cases but smaller is better.
5) They understand how a scope works and have had a blast shooting the smaller caliber and now, when the deer walks out, slide the .223 or .243 into place. They may ask if it will kick and you will answer no not really or truthfully, no not really. Once they are on target with their first deer the adrenaline is pumping. For the most part fear or discomfort that may come from pulling the trigger is not present.
6) The deer is down. Be ready to back them up if needed. You can have a rifle at the ready or be ready to have them take another shot. It is really important that the first kill is done well, or the perception is that all is going well. If required you may need to go in advance of their looking for the deer in case it has not fully expired. Don’t blow it apart or slash its neck. Clean, calm, intentional. Complete the harvest with a small caliber pistol if needed. Then go back to the stand and invite the kid to come looking. Have them follow the blood trail. It’s a learning process so use it as a time of teaching.
7) Have a talk over the harvested animal once it has been found. Relive the hunt, the moments. Assure them they did well for the first hunt, even if a bit of a struggle. Good affirmations of their skills, whether it was sitting still, shooting strait or tracking. Point out the good then work together, maybe even have them drag the deer. They need to understand the whole process and that after the shot is where the work begins. This helps them make the decision in the future if they want to pull the trigger and then do all the work required after. Good stuff.
8) Pictures. Take them in the field if at all possible. Clean, blood free images are best. They can use them on social media, show them to friends, etc. The picture you take that goes to who knows where can be a reflection on all hunters. Take your time, keep it clean and make sure they are smiling! No pictures of gutting or processing first kill. Again, it is about an image a lot of people may see. Caution.
9) Have them participate in the gutting, skinning or preparing for the meat market. Don’t send them off to play or do something else. No matter the ewes or yuks, have them stay, give them a knife and have them help with certain parts. This, again, is crucial learning element.
10) Relive the experience with them as many times as they like. Curve the memory to include the best things the kid did and how proud and happy you are they did it. If there were some missteps, talk around them if possible. This is a huge deal for kids of every age.
No video or cell phone. You or them. This is a time for them to hear, see, smell and be with creation. Break off and resist the desire to watch YouTube videos while sitting and waiting. It may be really hard but it is really powerful.
The last things I would mention are follow all game laws. Know the season and what is legal and not legal. Tolerate nothing less. Take a bunch of snacks for you to enjoy together. Take waters or juice to make sure they don’t get thirsty. The littler ones may get a bit bored waiting. If they are not comfortable with the shot, don’t want to take the shot, then okay pass. Give them the chance to make the right choice and if they just can’t do it then they just don’t do it.
It is said the kids today will never hear the words, "go outside and come back when the street lights come on." They will never run in the woods behind their house with a .22 and a box of shells for the day. They will never go duck hunting or deer hunting before school then rush to school with feathers flying everywhere or blood dripping from the tail gate. They won't hang their deer rifle or shot gun in the rack behind the driver's seat in the back window of their old pickup waiting for school to get out so they can return to the field.
Your time mentoring in the outdoors may be one of the most important opportunities you will have in your lifetime. Make it count, today for tomorrow.