Passing it on: Youth and Beginner Hunts
Southeastern Washington is a mule deer and whitetail deer "factory" - with its rolling hills of grain and grasses, brushy draws, and steep river canyons. For youth and those who draw antlerless controlled hunt permits it is a target rich environment. Such hunts are excellent opportunities for young people and newcomers to taste success in hunting. My daughter Candace (now 13) and I have gone on several such hunts. She has tasted success in hunting, we have had some great father-daughter time, and we have meat in the freezer. Candace’s job has been to have the tag; my job has been to mentor, help identify targets, provide food and encouragement, and feed her ammo.
Below are some points gleaned from our youth and antlerless controlled hunts that may be of help introducing other youth and newcomers to the sport of big game hunting.
Picking a Beginner. Whether friend, relative, or offspring, pick someone who wants to hunt. Don’t drag someone out there just to fill a tag. Some people won’t want to hunt as much as you do, even your children. I have five children and some don’t want to hunt, while others want to hunt but are not ready. I will only take a child once they demonstrate the ability to go through the necessary steps and they want to hunt. For a child, the necessary steps to hunting will likely include a hunter ed course, and perhaps some hikes into the outdoors. For older beginners, it may involve the willingness to get and sight in a rifle, purchase licenses, and tags.
Climbing in mule deer terrain.
Firearm Selection. Remember to select a firearm that your shooter is comfortable using. The shooter must be able to get the target in scope and rifle butt in shoulder at the same time. The gun must also have a comfortable kick. If the kick is too great, your newcomer will hesitate, or maybe not want to shoot at all. Get a rifle and cartridge that your child is comfortable with target practicing and hunting with – one he or she can blaze away all afternoon with, if necessary. Together my daughter and I purchased the Ruger M77 Compact, 260 caliber, in stainless steel. The gun fits, and the kick is comfortable, and the bullet lethal for deer. In fact, I even use it when she doesn’t. She started with a bigger gun – but got hit with the scope just once in the forehead and then shied away from it.
Picking a Hunt. Many states have hunts or programs to encourage youth involvement in hunting. We hunt in both Washington and Idaho of which both states have youth hunts that allow hunters below a certain age to take antlerless animals in otherwise antlered only areas, or have special hunting dates, or both. The antlerless option generally opens up the opportunity for a lot more targets. For older beginners, consider antlerless controlled hunts or other hunts that will give opportunity for early success. Also note that while non-resident hunting licenses and tags may be brutally costly for adults, they may be extraordinarily affordable for children.
Hunting Property. We hunt both private and public land and by far the deer are most abundant on the private agricultural lands. In southeastern Washington a lot of the good hunting is fee hunting. But while landowners may require large fees to hunt the big muley or wily whitetail buck, they may welcome, even beg, you to come and thin the herd of the numerous does without a charge. In addition, state game departments are increasingly working to connect private landowners with hunters, especially where landowners are having problems with local game. It is worth a call to your local game department as to where to get started in your area.
Hunting Time and Place. Remember, if you are starting someone else in the sport, he or she may not be as avid as you are. While I may be willing to do almost anything, in any weather, and in any place, to get a deer, my newcomer may feel otherwise. Be smart. Don’t drag or over-exert your newcomer into an experience that will sour him or her. Be willing to come back another day if the one you pick doesn’t work out.
Food and Equipment. My daughter and I talk about how much we enjoy the HeaterMeals nearly as much as we enjoyed filling her tag. HeaterMeals are like Meals-Ready-To-Eat (MRE) except that they come with the means to also heat the meal – wonderful for colder weather. Take candy bars, extra gloves, etc. – stuff you might not take otherwise. Take cameras (still and video). Enjoy and record the memorable moment, for these other things become particularly important if you don’t get an animal.
Teaching the New Hunter. Before the hunt discuss the area and governing regulations. Regulations will include which species and sex are legal and which are not, along with discussing other restrictions such as antler point requirements. In our favorite hunting area she can take an antlerless deer, mule deer or whitetail, or a whitetail buck with at least three points on at least one side. Mule deer bucks of any size are not legal during this hunt. We discuss how to identify each species, as both are abundant where we hunt. For instance, whitetail deer actually have a brown tail when the tail is down and only the top is visible, and mule deer have a while tail with small black tip and big white rump patch. But when the white tail goes up on a whitetail deer – then it is very much a "white tail".
Buck watching us on an antlerless controlled hunt.
Once we get into the field, we also discuss tactics. I teach her where the deer may be expected and how we can expect them to move. I discuss how deer respond to seeing, hearing, and smelling human beings. Being spotted on the opposite side of a canyon 1000 yards away may be no big deal to a deer, but if we get seen on the same patch of hillside 100 yards away the reaction of the deer is different. When spooked, mule deer generally run down or go out across the terrain; whereas the whitetail often run uphill, change course just out of sight, or a big whitetail buck may hold tight. We may or may not get away with being seen, or heard, but we will never get away with being smelled, so we pick our hunting movements up or cross wind.
Selecting Game. The nice thing about a target rich environment is that you can take your time with your shooter and they can really learn about hunting and shooting. I only encourage my daughter to take shots she is comfortable with. If she wants a good rest – I throw down my day pack, full of granola bars, MREs, clothes, water bottles, whatever else is needed for a great hunt – for a rest. Take the time to be sure the target is legal. Be patient, your shooter may pass on, or miss, or be too slow, on targets you would take regularly, but that’s okay. Don’t rush. Hopefully you have planned it so the season is more than just one day long. If the other aspects of the hunt are good, coming back without a harvest will be tolerable. While your shooter acquires the target and prepares for the shot, see if you can photograph or videotape the moment.
Offering a Reward. Sometimes I announce a reward for a successful hunt. But don’t use a reward as a bribe to get your newcomer to do something he or she is not comfortable with. I use a reward to simply add to the enjoyment of the experience. Last year it was lunch at our favorite Chinese restaurant, if she scored. Thankfully she did, so the meal on the way home was on me – camos, bloodstains, and all.
Candace with her first deer.
Bringing a newcomer or youth on to the big game hunting scene is different than doing it alone or with your fellow long time hunting partners. Instead of just getting an animal or trophy being the goal, you are passing on important skills and a heritage. Whether your newcomer is young or old, you are also developing a relationship. Our many game departments consider it important to encourage youth hunting, and so offer incentives; but we the hunters are the ones who need to bring the newcomers into the field and do it. Our children and their friends need to see that guns and other weapons are not inherently evil, and that killing is not necessarily murderous. We have something valuable to pass on and you can build some fabulous memories doing it.