Roger slowly navigated the duck boat up the river, careful to avoid patches of ice as his son Wyatt looked out over the starboard side. It was a cold, brisk day, but excitement was in the air—Wyatt was on his first hunt.
To Roger, there’s nothing quite like duck hunting. It seems it’s all he ever thinks about and all he looks forward to. He finds the thought of living life without it to be unimaginable, and he wanted terribly for his son to experience that same joy. Perhaps that’s why he put so much pressure on himself to ensure Wyatt had a good first hunt. But by 9 a.m. it was clear Roger’s careful scouting was not going to pay off. Nobody had fired a shot and Wyatt, who’d had a genuinely fun adventure despite not firing a shell, was starting to get cold. But Roger insisted they stay. He just knew that sooner or later Wyatt would have the opportunity to bag his first duck—then he’d be hooked.
Unfortunately, the day wore longer, Wyatt grew colder and Roger remained insistent they stay. By the time they left, Wyatt was miserable. He never hunted again.
Most of us recognize the importance of introducing children and spouses to hunting. Sure, we hope to increase our ranks so that we might better secure the future of our sport. But mostly I think the average hunter just wants to help others experience something that’s afforded him so much pleasure.
However, there is a right way to go about it and, unfortunately for Roger, there’s a wrong way as well. Here are a few popular hunts for introducing children to hunting, plus tips to ensure they have a positive first experience.
Bushytails and .22’s
If you want to introduce someone to the sporting life, there’s arguably nothing better than a squirrel hunt. Such hunts offer a fair assurance of action and a high hunter-success rate. However, in my opinion the need for a novice hunter to experience “success”—in other words, to kill something—is overrated. I suspect most of us returned from our first hunts empty-handed, yet we were eager to go again. Perhaps it takes an adult to convince a child that an empty game vest should result in disappointment.
If you disagree, then rest assured that a high percentage of squirrel hunts include a shot opportunity or two. But perhaps more importantly, such hunts are active and fun. You may be content to sit in a deer stand until dark, but I’ll bet Junior has a little less patience. He may better enjoy a quiet stroll through the woods looking for squirrels on the limb. Plus, once the hunting bug has bitten him, he’ll be better prepared to move on to big game. After all, a youth squirrel hunter will already have learned to spot game in a riflescope (remember how difficult that was the first time) and developed such woodsmanship skills as still-hunting and stalking.
As with squirrel hunting, a hunt for rabbits, pheasants or other upland game involves a fun, upbeat pace. There’s no sitting around waiting; there’s usually something cool to look at along the way, whether it’s a game bird, deer or a hawk sailing overhead; and, even during lulls in the action, you have the family dog to admire as it quests for game.
However, for some reason certain adults get lazy when it comes to upland safety. Why is it there exists a perception that such hunts are somehow safer than whitetail hunting, when just the opposite can be true? Without proper instruction, an upland hunting rookie can quickly lose track of dogs and other people in the field as he excitedly swings on a cackling pheasant. Therefore, if you take a youngster bird hunting for the first time, consider leaving your shotgun at home. That way you’ll be more capable of focusing your efforts on helping the child to enjoy a safe hunt. Walk behind him or her, handing over shells (perhaps just one shell at first). Ensure the safety remains on and that the muzzle is pointed in a safe direction. You’ll also have an easier time keeping an eye on your dog.
Another important consideration is in the selection of an appropriate gauge. More than a few folks seem to believe that the .410 shotgun is a common sense choice due to its low recoil, but I beg to differ. Are you able to hit anything consistently with a .410? I know I’m not, so why would we expect a beginner to enjoy success with it?
Consider that a .410 load of ¾-ounces of No. 6 shot contains only about 169 pellets. By comparison, a 1-ounce 20-gauge load of 6’s contains about 225 pellets. The .410 contains fewer pellets, so its pattern isn’t as dense, and it tends to contain big gaps inside which a bird can fit. And for a variety of reasons the .410 is also more prone to a stringing shot column; not only does it send fewer pellets downrange, but their arrival on the target is inconsistent. For these reasons, I believe a 20-gauge shotgun paired with low-recoil target loads is a far better youth setup.
If you haven’t noticed, we live in Whitetail Nation. There are those who argue small game makes a better first hunt; however, nothing signifies a youngster coming of age like the first invitation to deer camp. Regardless whether it’s the youngster’s first hunt, it’s a momentous occasion worthy of a few considerations.
A popularly argued topic involves the best youth caliber. And why not? Caliber debates are fun. If I were to throw my two cents in, I’d argue that the 7 mm-08 is an accurate, low-recoil, highly underrated round. However, just use a little common sense in your selection. Choose a round of reasonable recoil that your child can shoot well, and pay a little extra for premium bullets. That way the rifle won’t beat your kid up and, as long as he or she puts the round in the deer’s wheelhouse, it’ll go down.
More importantly, remember that this hunt is all about your kid. It doesn’t matter if it’s the rut. It doesn’t matter if deer are moving. If your young hunter gets bored, hungry or cold, it’s time to go back to camp and recharge. The ability to withstand an entire day on stand comes with maturity, and pushing young hunters too hard can burn them out. Would you rather they hunted an hour and went back to camp, or stayed home entirely and played video games?
Your young hunter may also prefer still-hunting to sitting in a blind. Let’s face it, a stand can be pretty dull if nothing’s moving, but in a still-hunt you never know what you may find over the next hill. Your youngster will also have an easier time staying warm if he’s on the move. And, if he’s hunted squirrels, the necessary skills are old hat by the time deer season opens.
If you prefer to stand hunt, you might consider this as a compromise: After an hour or two, if your young hunter grows bored, offer him or her the option of still-hunting for a while. A little walk—especially if you encounter a deer or two—may be all your child needs to break up the doldrums and sit another hour or two.
Regardless of how you introduce a youngster to hunting, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. This stuff is supposed to be fun, remember? There’s no use trying to force that. Just let the child hunt at his or her own pace, ensure they’re attentive to safety and let the outdoors do the rest.