"When can I go hunting with you, Dad? I passed the hunter safety course and I think I am old enough to hunt this year." Those words are spoken by thousands of youngsters each fall. How we answer them and how we prepare young hunters for their first hunts will make a tremendous difference in the development of individual hunters and their long term enjoyment of hunting.
When is a youngster ready to hunt? How can I tell when my son, daughter or the neighbor kid is really mature enough to be a full fledged hunter?
When a youngster starts to develop self control, physical coordination and repeatedly demonstrates that he or she can follow detailed instructions, they may be ready to hunt. If they are showing a genuine and strong interest, they may be ready before you think. For most youngsters, these criteria will appear between ages 10 and 13, but there is much variation. It is much better to bring them along slowly than to start them too early.
A season or two before you expect they will be old enough to hunt, take them into the field as observers on short, real hunts in good weather. Doves, squirrels or jump shooting ducks are excellent for these first trips. Explain carefully what you are doing, stress safety and let them be a part of planning of the hunt. Pick those days that you expect will be short, successful trips in reasonable weather. Protect them from the cold or heat, and don't walk more than a mile or so. Remember that a nine year old will cool down and tire out much faster than an adult. Be sure that their boots and clothing are proper for the planned hunt.
Before their small fingers ever grip a loaded firearm, young hunters will have started to develop their hunting ethics and attitudes towards wildlife and the outdoors. They are like sponges and will learn from you and your friends. Formal hunter education courses for novice hunters are now required in many states and Canadian provinces. This is formal instruction and will give them a large body of useful information. The youngster who has been exposed to firearms and tagged along on a hunt or two will learn much more from a hunter education course.
Hunter education courses are an important part of the development of safe and responsible young hunters. These courses emphasize firearms safety, hunter ethics, and responsibility; however, in ten hours, they cannot impart all of the values, knowledge and skills required to be a safe, ethical and effective hunter. After the hunter education course, the responsibility for the development and education of the young hunter returns to the parents or other adults. Novice hunters need to know that good hunters continue to learn and improve their skills all of their lives.
What about firearms handling skills? To operate a firearm safely, a youngster must have coordination, hand strength,knowledge of firearms, good judgement and common sense. The first two of these, coordination and hand strength, can be developed by guided practice and repetition. We can test these by using a youth model firearm and dummy shells. Have the youngster load and unload the gun and work the safety until it is easy for them to do. If possible, use the firearm that they will use on their first hunt for these training sessions. Muzzle control is very important. Watch where the muzzle is pointed when they are focused on working the action. A novice will almost always become so involved with loading or unloading the firearm that they will forget about control of the muzzle. Be supportive and critical at the same time. When they do something well, praise them; when they point the muzzle in your face or at their own foot or take off the safety too soon, let them know about the error, but never make fun of their efforts.
Have them walk through the woods or a field keeping their unloaded firearm pointed in a safe direction. Teach them the proper ways to carry firearms in the field. As you walk, talk them through simulated hunting situations such as a dog on point and the subsequent covey rise or a squirrel running up a tree. This is a good time to teach effective ranges of the various guns that may be used. Knowing what is in range is a lesson that some adult hunters still need to learn. These practice sessions will remove some of the pressure from that first hunt as well as tell you if the youngster is really ready. How firearms work is a part of the hunter education program, but it is important to review this often with young hunters. Each time a new firearm is to be used, it's time to go back to the basics with novice hunters.
Good judgement, common sense and self control as they apply to the hunter are more difficult things to teach. Judgement is best taught in the field before the actual hunt. It should be a part of your simulated hunting situations on your outdoor walks. Zones of fire and when not to shoot are two of the most important lessons in the judgement and common sense areas. In upland hunting, the safe zone of fire is a dynamic thing and often changes with each step of the hunters. This is why hunters have to be alert at all times. Stress the idea of not shooting if you are not absolutely sure of the target and what is beyond it.
It is important to set up some situations on your training walks when it would not be safe to shoot. Hunters cannot let the excitement of the moment, or pressure to be successful, cloud their judgement. Nothing that you can bring back from the field is worth damage to a landowner's property or an injury to someone. It is not easy to determine the level of self control development in a would be hunter.
To be able to hunt safely and responsibly, requires a level of intellectual maturity. Hunting requires detailed preparation, rapid decision making and alertness. When a kid can understand the complexity of playing second base, and they know what to do in most situations, then they probably have the intellectual maturity to start hunting with close supervision.
Nothing will wilt the enthusiasm for hunting in a novice than a series of missed shots on their first hunts. For that reason, shooting practice should start well before a kid will go on a first hunt. Frequent, short shooting practice sessions are very important to a young hunter's success. Don't forget to go over the mechanics of shooting such as foot placement, mounting the gun and swinging on moving targets. On an actual hunting trip, there is never enough shooting to develop good form and shooting skills. An exception to this may be dove hunting in areas with an abundance of birds. Shooting practice is best done at a trap or skeet range, but it is possible in an old field with a hand thrower. Most clay bird shooters are willing to help teach a young hunter how to shoot. If a competitive clay bird shooter is helping teach, be sure to shoot some targets without mounting the gun first and then calling for the target.
A serious and thoughtful effort to prepare the novice for that first hunt will greatly increase the chances of their enjoyment and success. This preparation will reduce the pressure on them and remove some of the unknown elements from the hunt. When the day arrives for their first hunt, forget about shooting for yourself and direct your attention to the novice. When that first game animal falls before them, stop the hunt, put down your gun and celebrate their success. Make a fuss over them; take pictures because there will never be another first like it again. Remember that the proper introduction of a youngster to the outdoors is one of the most important things that you can do to insure the future of our hunting tradition.
1. Keep the hunting party small. In a large hunting party, it is hard to
maintain a controlled teaching situation for your novice hunter.
2. Involve the novice hunter in all aspects of the hunt from planning
the hunt and packing the equipment to cleaning the game after the hunt.
3. Prepare for the hunt with outdoor walks and detailed discussions of
what to expect on the hunt.
4. Plan to hunt only part of the day. Young hunters are not ready for
dawn to dusk efforts.
5. Be sure the young hunter is properly dressed for the day. Remember
the young hunter cannot take the cold weather of late season as well as
6. Take time to enjoy the outdoors, and be sure to teach your
young hunter that there is more to hunting than a filled game bag.
Sunsets, tracks in the snow and the sounds of a distant flock of geese
are worth a pause to enjoy them.
7. Match the young hunter to the firearm and the game pursued. Do not expect a youngster to shoot heavy loads in your 30-inch barrel full-choke 12-ga. or expect them to take ducks with a .410. An open choked 20-gauge with one shell is a good starting point for most novice hunters.
8. Until the novice has some hunting experience, avoid quail, pheasant
and rabbit hunting as these animals have been known to unnerve even
9. Shoot from a fixed position where the target is seen as it approaches
you. Dove, ducks over decoys, squirrel and prairie chicken give the
novice a better chance of success.
10. Carry a camera to document the success of the novice hunter.
Your complete source for more Cabela's News, and updated hunting and fishing articles.