Teaching Children to Love the Outdoors
Across the nation, there is a concern about declines in the number of hunters. In addition to a significant drop in license and tax revenues, there are worries that the decline could eventually change the relationship between humans and wildlife.
A report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show that the number of hunters 16 and older declined by 10 percent between 1996 and 2006 - from 14 million to about 12.5 million. The losses were most severe in New England, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific states.
Some of the reasons given for declining numbers of youth hunters are competition for recreational time, loss of opportunities and increasing costs.
Certainly hunting today is different than when I fist carried a gun afield nearly 40 years ago. As a youth I could climb the fence in the back of the yard and have hundreds of acres of upland habitat to wander in. Today there are age restrictions and hunter safety requirements that must be met before a young person can even purchase a license.
Like many fathers, after my children were born I wanted to introduce them to the sport that I loved. I wanted them to experience the joy and pleasure I derived from hunting and being in the outdoors.
The three generations participating in this hunt include a youngster with a toy shotgun.
I did not have to teach my oldest son to love hunting. He was born with the gene and by the time he was three, I couldn't leave him home without provoking a serious tantrum. Today he will gladly climb several thousand feet in steep mountain terrain during poor weather for a slight chance of taking a trophy.
My oldest son with a nice high country mule deer buck.
My oldest daughter likes to fish, but has no interest in hunting. She married about five years ago and our family quickly converted her formerly non-hunting husband. He eagerly joins us on upland or big game hunts whenever possible.
My youngest daughter's interest in hunting was sparked by a love of sporting dogs and watching them work on upland game. She passed her hunter safety class at 16. Although she has carried a tag and a rifle on a couple of hunts, she has never killed a big game animal (her choice). Still, she accompanies us on hunting trips when her schedule allows and she enjoys hiking and glassing. Her husband recently expressed interest in taking a hunter safety class and applying for a license.
Except for my first son, a passion for hunting and the outdoors had to be carefully nurtured. Even though my oldest wanted to accompany me as soon as he could walk I had to make certain his experiences were positive. When taking him along, I had to temper my expectations. I vividly remember trying to sneak through oak brush in pursuit of a mule deer buck and wondering how a boy who weighed 45 pounds could make the same volume of noise as a charging rhino.
At an early age he was willing to stay out all day in any kind of weather. I recall a couple of hunts where I virtually had to drag him back to the truck because he was shivering hard and his lips were blue.
Although we invited him to accompany us every time, my younger son showed little interest in hunting until he was 13. He dutifully completed a hunter safety course and said he wanted to hunt big game the next year when he turned 14.
When it came time to apply for permits, I knew that his first hunts needed to be fun with a high chance for success and little pressure. In addition to a general deer tag, we put in an application for an antlerless deer tag and for a two-doe antelope permit in an area close to our home.
My younger son with a doe antelope.
The antlerless deer hunt came first. It was an agricultural area where only shotguns and muzzleloaders were legal. The weather was still mild and the deer would retreat to nearby hills after feeding in alfalfa fields all night. It took a couple of trips and several misses before he bagged a fat doe, his first big game animal. He filled the antelope tags a couple of weeks later. We started hunting late on a Saturday morning after a soccer game. By 3 p.m. we were driving to the processor. He ended his first season with a small buck deer taken on a hillside less than two miles from our home.
My younger son with his very first buck deer.
Four years later, my younger son has killed several antelope, a few deer, and a cow moose. Today he will sometimes wake up long before dawn and join my older son on an above-timberline hunt for big muley bucks. But most of the time he still prefers hunts that don't require camping in the snow or rain or long predawn hikes and I am certainly okay with that.
Both sons work to reposition a cow moose for field dressing.
As a father, it was important for me to recognize the differences in interest levels of my children. If my younger son's first hunt had been a general elk hunt in cold snowy weather where the chance of bagging an animal was slim, I suspect that would also have been his last hunt. Instead, those first hunts were outings where seeing plenty of game was virtually guaranteed and the odds of bagging game were very high.
My son-in-law and younger son with a nice antelope buck.
To offset the declines in recruitment of young hunters, many states are instituting new regulations, special hunts or programs to give youth hunters more opportunities. My home state of Utah recently lowered the age for hunting big game to 12. For many years Utah has allocated 15% of its general season deer tags to youth hunters. For 2009, that was increased to 20%. The state also offers a special youth elk hunt that allows young hunters to hunt bull elk during the rut.
Of course regulations are changing all the time and if you have young people you want to introduce to hunting it is worth the effort to check and see what your state has to offer.
In a recent issue of American Hunter, Darren LaSorte, NRA-ILA's manager of hunting policy, said, "The NRA has been actively pursuing regulatory and statutory changes that will result in enhanced recruitment of new hunters in order to ensure the future of hunting in America; however, the greatest recruitment results are achieved by the hunters in the fields and woods."
According to one sociology professor, historically there were three variables that determined whether or not a child would become a hunter. Those were whether their father hunted, whether they grew up in a rural area, and whether they were male.
Increasingly, those factors are changing. More children are growing up in urban areas and more are being raised by single mothers. No matter what level of interest our children might have, those of us who love and participate in the sport have an opportunity and responsibility to introduce the next generation to this wonderful pastime.
Flint Stephens pays his mortgage by writing about investment markets, but his real passions are fishing and hunting. Stephens grew up pursuing fish and wildlife in Ohio, but while attending college in Utah, he fell in love with the mountains, deserts and a girl from Moab. After several years as a journalist in Illinois, the draw of mountain adventures brought them back to central Utah in 1986. Stephens enjoys horses, freelance writing and photography. He spends his spare time making certain his children and grandchildren are completely addicted to outdoor pursuits.