Keys to Getting Youth Hooked
By Bobby Cole
During the past decade I have witnessed something occur that has amazed me. I have watched my 15 year old daughter grow up and continue to enjoy hunting. That's a big deal to me. Her introduction to the sport was carefully orchestrated and planned. She thoroughly enjoys it now and considers herself a full fledged member of the fraternity or maybe sorority. In fact, it has worked so well I am compelled to tell the story in hopes that I might be able to help someone else successfully introduce their child to the outdoors. It’s no easy task with all of today’s distractions and I think it takes a special modified effort with a little girl. Right now its working and I pray I don’t mess it up for her. It has no doubt formed a bond a bond between us that will always be there. I believe that hunting and the love of the outdoors is that powerful.
I often think that little boys just have a gene that makes them want to participate in every aspect of the hunt and the outdoors….its like a badge of honor…or more accurately a rite of passage that they begin claiming one hunt at a time. Girls are a little different.
My daughter has grown up around camo clothes, muddy boots, daddy being gone and dead critters in the back of my truck. Somewhere about age four or five I started asking her to go with me on days when I knew the weather wasn’t going to be brutal. I would always carry a blanket, coloring books, games, snacks, hot chocolate and we have sat in a shooting house eating and enjoying our adventure.
Sometimes we saw deer, sometimes we left early….on those days I let her set the itinerary. When it quit being fun, we left. Sometimes that was exasperating. As she has gotten older we still maintain the same deal….it has to be fun. The snacks and drinks were a constant, but books began to replace the games. This was perfect. I love to read and I taught her my technique of reading a page and look up and scan the woods. I think shooting houses are perfect for this. We actually built two together and I allowed her to paint them anyway she wanted and they sort of became hers. She played in them during the summer until I’d take them and set them up.
Each shooting house we hunted had a chair for me and a barstool for her so she never has to stretch to see out. She has her own bag filled with her gloves, head-net, mini-light and other accessories. She loves having her own gear.
Countless hunts she sat in my lap and we talked about everything from why third grade teachers are so mean, to why I enjoy hunting so much. It’s a great venue to converse. No pressures. The whole hunt turned into an experience. We have a ritual she can buy anything she wants to eat or drink on the way to the property. It’s usually Dr. Peppers and Doritos and that starts the fun experience. Then it’s the four-wheeler ride and she gets to steer. If the walk was far and muddy I carried her….I never wanted her to dread anything. Once we were in the shooting house we would spread a blanket on the floor and unload our cache of drinks, eats and books. And the hunt was on.
In those early days I measured success by sightings and close encounters. I wanted her to love the outdoors, love the sunsets, the migrating blackbirds, the whistling wood ducks and especially the whitetail deer sneaking into the field at dark. We would try and age the deer we saw…putting it on her level…and she seemed to understand it better. Huddled over the tiny space-heater we stayed warm, and together we harvested numerous does and a one beautiful wide eight point that is a story in and of itself. We had fun….and more importantly she had fun.
So the summer prior to her seventh birthday I bought her a Ruger .17 bolt action with a Nikon scope. I had already taught her to shoot a BB gun with iron sights. I wanted her to learn to shoot a bolt gun and the Ruger made lots of sense. We could affordably and accurately shoot the .17 all summer and she could transition into a bigger Ruger .243 bolt action down the road. Now remember the .17 was not to deer hunt with…but it would teach her the mechanics of a bolt gun, help her understand eye relief on the scope and develop a rhythm for breathing and squeezing the trigger. This was perfect and let me tell you little girls love to shoot just as much as little boys. Especially things that blow up like a Dr. Pepper can that we shook up. She learned to shoot, be careful and shoot well. She would really concentrate and make every shot count. I will say that was almost ten years ago now and if I had to do it all over I think I would now buy her Thompson Center Contender .22 single shot rifle that would allow me to then purchase a .243 barrel for it. One gun, multiple barrels. I think for kids and young hunters the single shot is a very safe way to go, and with a TC the accuracy is not compromised at all. Not selling just telling you my opinion. Also scope it well. The Nikon has worked well for us. The eye relief is an important feature for kids trying to line up shots quickly and that’s a strong feature for Nikon.
At the young age of seven it’s important that you load and unload the rifle and only allow them to handle the gun with your direct supervision. We shot only off a bench with sand bags. She had a ball. This closely resembled the ledge of the shooting house and helped support the weight of the rifle.
That fall she successfully harvested two does with two perfectly placed shots. She was really proud of her shot placement. You never know what they pick up on but she quickly understood the value of shot placement. I have a heavy barreled .243 that proved to be a little to much gun for her to handle but we somehow managed. The stock was simply too long and the eye relief on the scope I had was difficult at best. But once she put the cross hairs on something….she knew what to do. At this stage, I purposely insulated her from the blood and guts of skinning the deer. She examined entrance wounds and asked a lot of questions but after we got home I’d sneak off and clean the deer. She was still a little girl, and I was trying to make this fun. Maybe I was wrong to do this. Maybe if you’re old enough to shoot a deer you should be old enough to help clean it. I can’t solve that issue and I don’t want to debate it. But her first year of truly hunting that’s what I did and it worked. I’ll explain more on this later.
The fall of ’03 she was 8 years old and this is where I could tell she was really enjoying all this time we spent together and the hunting. At the time my BioLogic responsibilities carried me to our research facility Portland Landing in Alabama on a regular basis and she started going with me as we prepared our fall food plots. She fell in love with the place. The spirit of the camp, the bunk beds, and the critters all worked some magic on her. She felt so important being there….walking through the research fields, riding four-wheelers and being the only female around a bunch of guys, she was treated like a princess. You could see her growing in confidence …and a big part of it was the way all the guys interacted with her. I am very fortunate our group of guys at Mossy Oak and Biologic love to be around kids. I have watched our group positively affect lots of young people and I can’t stress the importance of this enough.
She is now daddy’s little hunting buddy and she would pack her camo bag and load up with me every time if I could take her. Opening weekend in Alabama found us at Portland. I had customers there but everyone welcomed her tagging along. Until this point all of our hunts had been afternoon adventures and I don’t think she had ever risen before daylight in her life. Before bed I asked if she wanted to get up early, I gave her the option of sleeping in and waiting for the pm hunt, again trying to make it as fun as possible. Early the next morning, I got up, got dressed and quietly left her sleeping. We were sitting in the lodge drinking coffee when she walked out dressed and ready to go. There was no sleeping in for her at this point….she wanted to go. I didn’t let her have any coffee for fear of stunting her growth
I have mentioned modifying your efforts for little hunters earlier and this morning was a prime example. I have made some mistakes. Because I enjoy sitting on the big huge fields of BioLogic and watching big numbers of deer feed I had taken her the afternoon before to a big 15 acre field. That was a problem. As it got late the field filled up with does and none approached more than 150 yards. This was a stretch for her. In fact she got a little too excited and realized herself that she was shaking to bad to make a shot. I hugged her and told her to breathe and relax and we went through our first case of buck fever together. She was embarrassed. She was so shook up I just stopped everything and said it’s ok….I would be worried about you if you didn’t. It’s all part of it. I told stories of my buck fever and that afternoon showed me that you really need to concentrate on smaller plots for the kids. I think the distance played a role in her buck fever. I won’t do that again until she has more confidence.
That next morning we sat in a field called the Pink House plot. She loved the name. It’s a small plot less than an acre tucked neatly in the woods with the longest shot being 65 yards. The area has a lot of deer traveling through it and I hoped for one to slow down and feed a bit as they headed back to their bedding area. It didn’t take long and two small bucks appeared. One fat 3 point just absolutely sacrificed itself and posed broadside long enough for her to gain composure, take a deep breath and perfectly place a 100 grain bullet in his shoulder. No help from Dad. This will go down as one of my best memories ever with her; she was so excited and jabbered nonstop. Every detail was burned into her mind. Everything for once worked just like I said it would. We had a small battle with buck fever but we overcame it in grand fashion.
It wasn’t a mature buck and by some peoples standards you wouldn’t want it shot. But my opinion with kids is let them shoot…let them have fun and grow them into the sport. It’s hard for an 8 year old to be a trophy hunter and I don’t think they should be expected to be. I don’t advocate letting them shoot up your club…but let them put some on the ground and be successful. She couldn’t wait to go back to school and rub it some boys’ faces that she had taken a buck.
That weekend at Portland saw us put about 25 deer in the skinning shed and I used Portland and all the research we are doing on food plots and deer to introduce her to the gut pile. I watched her closely as we weighed deer, pulled jawbones and pretty much turned the skinning shed into a “horror movie.” You know what I mean. BUT, as we began I explained how we weigh each one, we age each deer and we collect data. I explained that it was a giant science project and this really made sense to her and she wanted to be a part of it. She had seen all the forage research and now the harvest data really completed the picture. I am not going to say she enjoyed the gut piles, she still thinks it gross. But she understood why and she wanted to be there until the last one was finished.
That afternoon she harvested a toothless old gray doe that was at least 8.5 years old. She was long in the face, swayback and visually older than the rest of the deer we saw. Jessi knew why I asked her to shoot that deer…she was great data. She was helping with the research project. Another successful hunt.
The rest of the season found us chasing an ancient crippled buck that we saw several times but never could get a clean shot. She made up her mind she wanted him and I dedicated myself to helping her hunt him. We never got him but we sure had some great afternoons.
I almost forgot…since it was just she, and I, when she harvested her first deer which was a mature doe…I explained the bloody face ritual to her. I explained she was safe since it only occurred when you shot your first buck. My plan was for this to happen at Portland when there would be the crowd around to make it more fun. She constantly asked questions about how much and why and I answered her questions and let it die down. Fast forward one whole year and there we are in the skinning shed and KC Nelson and I are scheming to get her. I called her over to the open cavity to see the bullet damage and she stuck her face right in. KC blocked her escape path and I got her good. Everyone enjoyed it. She grinned from ear to ear after the shock wore off. Later on the ride home she commented to me that she enjoyed that as much as anything…and she was glad we did it….she was thrilled to experience it. She meant it. First bucks are a serious event.
I don’t have all the answers, I have done some things right and I have gotten her interested in being a hunter. Maybe it’s the camp setting as much as anything, but that’s part of it. I do know that taking her and other kids may be the most enjoyable part of hunting that I have experienced.
Jessi is now almost 16 years old and has killed 20 deer. I can remember them all. I will say the early morning hunts aren’t enjoyed as much as the afternoon hunts at this age. She’s learned a lot and I don’t expect nor desire for her to be the next female hunting hero. But it’s given her confidence and both of us some incredible memories. I’d much rather have her kill something than me. Many afternoons find me just scouting for her.
My advice - teach them to shoot with something they can handle and get their confidence up. Pick your spots so they aren’t challenged by long difficult shots. Make it fun and take the pressure off them. Let them shoot some deer and don’t hold them to your standards right off the bat. Don’t expect all the kids to dive right into the gut pile and help. Some need some time and understanding. We take all this for granted and go into auto pilot sometimes gutting and pulling jawbones but it could be an unsettling event to watch at a young age. Take your time and modify your behavior for your child. You may miss a few hunts and a few bucks, but the upside…the upside will be far more rewarding.