By Nick Simonson
All hunters reach a point, whether through the growth of their families or just a sort of natural progression, where they want to see a young person succeed in the outdoors. Their focus becomes less about their full game bag or taking the biggest buck, to watching a kid take their first rooster or mallard or harvesting their first deer in the field. However it happens, there’s never been a better time than now – with multiple seasons designed specifically for youth hunting, groups putting on mentored hunts, and growing shooting sports programs to help sharpen their skills – for the older generation to foster a love of hunting in the next one.
In reaction to declining sales of hunting licenses and an urbanization of the American population in general, a shift away from outdoor traditions has been combated by many management agencies through the creation of special youth seasons, to make it easier to introduce young hunters to the outdoor pastimes that previous generations had access to due simply to the makeup of the country at the time. From waterfowl, to upland game, to deer many states throughout the upper Midwest have dedicated days, early starts, and weekend-long seasons designed to give kids their own special hunt.
Typically a week or even a month ahead of traditional openers, these seasons give new hunters an opportunity that is truly their own, and most states forbid adult companions from carrying firearms during the special season. As a result, young people don’t have to check with uncle Joe, they don’t have to wait to see if another hunter is going to shoot; they know the hunt is theirs and will be what they make of it. While this may not be the setting in which their adult companions came up into hunting, it is absolutely necessary in light of the changing lifestyle lived by what will hopefully be the generation that carries the torch for hunting, outdoorsmanship and conservation into the future.
To further stoke that flame, many agencies and conservation groups have created mentored hunts for young people. From designated youth hunts in restricted areas like state parks or other areas of high deer density, to mentored hunts put on by members of local Pheasants Forever and Ruffed Grouse Society chapters and local sportsmen’s clubs, state officials and non-government volunteers are working hand-in-hand to give new hunters a leg up on these autumn traditions. Through these well-run events which tap the generosity of private landowners and offer exposure to vast tracts of public land available to young people these days, the events showcase not only the hunt and the conservation practices behind it, but also the importance of reaching across fencelines and protecting public access.
As these early seasons and hosted events look to build exposure to the outdoors and the excitement of hunting each fall, developing shooting sports programs help build competence – and ultimately confidence – in young people’s skills with a shotgun, rifle or bow, which transfer over to the field. Rapidly expanding programs like 4-H Shooting Sports, State High School Clay Target Leagues, and the National Archery in Schools Program offer alternative extracurricular activities that connect high schoolers with target shooting that will make them better hunters in the field. With the ranks of these leagues and programs growing by the thousands each year, the future of shooting sports is bright, and through their sponsorship of these leagues, local and national hunting and conservation organizations are finding a ready and willing population of new hunters to fill the ranks of the departing generations.
There’s never been a better time to be young in the outdoors, with dedicated seasons, willing mentors and a variety of shooting sports programs available to introduce them to hunting and help them improve. However, it’s up to the current generation of hunters tap into their innate need to see a young person succeed, pass on the tradition of hunting in the upper Midwest and share the skills that success requires through practice and learning. This autumn presents not only a bevy of opportunities for young people, but also for adults to answer that call and ensure a bright future…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Youth seasons, mentored hunts and shooting sports programs are expanding the opportunities for young hunters in the outdoors, and providing more chances for adults to introduce someone new to the traditions. Simonson Photo.