Here are 21 specific strategies you can use to give a young or new hunter a great experience and whet their hunting appetite for more.
1. Schedule the Hunt Early
With kids’ intense schedules these days, it’s important to look at the family’s autumn calendar as early as possible and block off the necessary days or weekends for deer hunting. Late summer is a great time to do this. As the school year approaches, schedules crystallize, and hunting season dates are published. One trick is to block off more days than you need and back off later. Don’t end up shortchanged.
2. Generate Excitement
It’s important to talk about the hunt before it happens. Half of the adventure is the anticipation, especially for young and new hunters. You don’t want to whip them into such a froth that they can’t sleep at night, but do let them know how important the hunting experience is to you, and could be to them. Then they will want to be involved in the planning and preparation.
3. Involve the Young Hunter in Planning and Preparation
It’s human nature to try and “do it all” for the young hunter, and just let them experience the fun of the hunt itself. But it’s important to involve them in the hunt’s preparations — making lists, going on shopping trips, helping make catalog orders, packing, scouting, opening camp and other activities that are part of the adventure.
4. Look for Special Youth Opportunities
Some of the best hunts for kids are the special youth hunt opportunities that so many game departments offer these days. These include regional or statewide seasons for youth only, as well as special park or refuge hunts. Low hunting pressure often makes for a high-quality experience and a good chance to get a deer. Scenarios like these are perfect for a first hunt.
5. Make the Hunt About Them
One reason special youth hunts are good is that they force you, the mentor, to concentrate on the kid. This is the best way to make a beginner hunt work. Young hunters need attention, and lots of it — tutoring, ideas and instruction on everything from firearm, bow and tree stand safety to how to wait silently, minimize movement, prepare for a shot and identify other wildlife and birds you see. You’ve shot deer, and will shoot plenty more; make this time about them.
6. Offer Plenty of Shooting Practice
Shooting well is critical to any hunter, especially the young one. The best way to ensure success is to get them out on the rifle or archery range a lot before the season. Of course, you can sling more arrows than bullets. But every young firearm hunter should have at least one good shooting session, and preferably two to three, under their belt. Be positive, and get them confident that they can place an arrow or bullet where it needs to go. That confidence will work wonders.
7. Outfit Them Properly
It’s easy to start young hunters out with hand-me-down hunting clothes. That’s usually not a problem with jackets, but make sure they can get around in their pants. More importantly, pay attention to the comfort in their extremities. This means boots that fit (for easy walking) and are warm for those toes. It means quality gloves, mitts or other hand-wear that will keep their fingers nimble. Invest in good chemical hand warmers too. Get a hat that fits and fights the expected weather. A warm head, toes and fingers go a long way toward a happy hunt.
8. Provide Creature Comforts
All kids are different, but most of them (at least my boys) are quite concerned with their stomachs. When you’re up early, it’s important to feed them at home, in camp or on the drive. I can’t eat that early, but kids sure can. Bring plenty of food for the hunt too. If you’re in a blind, that’s easy. It’s harder to eat in a tree. Take decent food, not candy but sandwiches (peanut butter and jelly anyone?), crispy bars, granola bars or wholesome cookies.
Admission time: I don’t worry about fruit or veggies on hunts: The young hunter needs carbs now! Something to drink is important too. Water is best (remember that cold dehydrates bodies).
9. Recognize When to Take a Break
It’s important to realize that kids’ attention spans are short. Their interest wanes, and they sometimes aren’t as intent as we are on killing a deer. It takes knowing your kid. Keep a barometer on their mood, attitude and interest level. If those factors drop too low, it’s time to take a break. This is easier to do on a morning hunt, where prime time happens soon after you arrive. But it’s challenging in the afternoon, when the hunting gets better as dusk nears. Set an expectation upon arrival; kids also sit better when they have an end time identified.
10. Allow Distractions
It’s critical not to push young hunters to focus too much. Allow them to bring distractions such as handheld gaming devices, books or puzzles. Just because your youngster isn’t staring a hole into the woods every second of the hunt, doesn’t mean they are not enjoying the experience.
11. Know When to Quit for the Day
With young hunters, stay fluid with your plans. If you sense they’re done, don’t push it. Call it a day. Just think back to something you got tired of doing when you were a child, and put yourself back in those shoes. Pushing a hunt too far could leave the sour taste of drudgery with the young hunter. Let them know you’re not upset and it’s fine to go, then make good.
12. Avoid Bad Weather Days
Related to the “fluid plans” department: Don’t push the limits when weather goes bad. Wet or deeply cold conditions dictate that another day might be better. Of course, if you have just a day or two locked in to hunt, you don’t have much choice. The solutions then are to shorten individual hunt sessions, take plenty of breaks (to warm up or dry off), stay stoked with good food and laugh it all off.
13. Don’t Baby Them
Don’t be afraid to rouse kids out of bed at oh-dark-thirty. Come at it with a fun, positive and upbeat attitude. Teach them that getting up early to go hunting is exciting, and a privilege. They can catch up on sleep when it’s not hunting season, I always say. Don’t be afraid to have them walk a reasonable distance, wait a good amount of time, follow all safety rules and do some work around the hunt. You’re teaching them to grow up a little bit and learn some responsibility.
14. Celebrate More than Killing a Deer
Take time to marvel at all the stars, out here where they’re not dimmed by town’s lights. Listen to the chickadees, nuthatches, goldfinches, cardinals and other birds that call. Identify other wildlife, and count those sightings as part of the reason for being here in the first place. Celebrate the outdoors together, and find meaning in all aspects of the hunt. A cafe lunch in town can create memories as good as those generated out on the deer stand. Focus on time together and the whole experience.
15. Make Them Part of “The Crew”
In some cases; part of the attraction of hunting for youngsters is a sense of belonging to a fraternity of other hunters. Hunting can be a right of passage. Embrace this if you are part of a hunting camp. Go out of your way to make the young hunter feel included. Don’t make your youngster feel like a guest. Make them part of the crew. Give them camp chores. At the same time, be wary of demeaning practical jokes, or placing the youngster in a situation they do not feel comfortable with.
16. Coach the Shot
Shooting at a deer for the first time is tough. Whisper a young hunter through his or her shot opportunity. Stay positive, take away the worry, play it low key. This is big stuff, and young hunters both want and need coaching. Don’t expect them to know when the best shot opportunity is or even how to get their bow or gun up without being noticed. When things do look good, say something like, “Go ahead, whenever you’re ready …” and let them take it from there. You should have already coached them on where to aim on the deer. I’m always amazed at what good shots most young hunters are: careful, deliberate and determined.
17. Manage any Moments of Truth
Dealing with a first success isn’t always easy. It can be hard for a youngster to walk up on a majestic animal they just killed. When firearm hunting, I’m never in much of a rush to get to a downed deer: We’ll sit and watch it awhile if it has dropped in sight, gun at the ready, and let it kick its last. What you don’t want is an ugly close-up scene delivering a finisher shot.
18. Give Them a Pass on Field Dressing
Give your young hunting partner a kitchen pass on field dressing their first deer (or two). That’s a lot to ask of a new, young hunter with a lot of emotions running through them. Besides, it’s a tough thing to do without having observed the process, and helped out, a few times. Explain what’s going on as you do it, and point out some of the organs. Make field dressing a fun, natural and joyous part of the hunt: You’ve had success! Have the young hunter assist by holding a leg, helping tug here or there and turning the animal over to drain blood. If a kid doesn’t want to watch, respect that feeling.
19. Ask How They Want to Eat It
I always put each kid’s name on the venison packages from the deer they shot. They love to know which animal we’re eating at dinner time. It makes them proud, spurs conversation and interests them in the cooking process. That’s a part of the hunt that almost all youngsters like to participate in. Involve them in the recipe selection, food preparation and cooking process.
20. Work to Meet their Hunting Desires
To the point that it’s feasible or affordable, cater to meet your young sportsman or woman’s evolving hunting desires. Maybe they want to hold out for a buck next or graduate to a different type of firearm. Last winter, I sent my middle boy out with a shotgun and slugs in a massive South Dakota pasture; he wanted the challenge versus carrying a center-fire rifle. An hour later, he returned dragging a big old whitetail doe, grinning from ear to ear. My youngest boy is graduating to the challenge of the bow this fall.
21. Let Them Tell the Story
Finally, when the hunt is over and it’s time to remember and reflect, don’t guide this process. Simply facilitate it. Let your young hunter recount the tale from their own viewpoint and form their own conclusions about the experience. You’ll probably learn something in the process.
When it comes to hitting the woods with a young hunter, don’t kid around. Your job is to concentrate on them and manage the experience, so that they have fun and want to come back for more. Deer hunting’s future depends on it … and you.
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