As I tried to sit still in a freezing rain that threatened to chill me to the bone, one thought kept invading my mind: This was a lot easier for my nephew a month ago.
Under sunny skies and 50-degree temperatures, my 14-year-old nephew and his grandfather had sat in this very same two-man ladder stand in northern Michigan. My nephew’s fidgeting didn’t prevent an 8-pointer from walking within 30 yards of their location, and a serious case of buck fever didn’t stop him from making a killing shot.
Two hours of hunting, one dead buck on the ground. Pretty good day.
A month later, the hunting and weather conditions had drastically changed. Deer that were still standing had faced an onslaught of firepower from hunters, so they carefully tiptoed to and fro on high alert. And I already told you what the weather was like.
I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a little envious of my nephew. In Michigan, disabled veterans and youth hunters get first crack at deer during a special two-day season a week or two before the beginning of archery deer season. Many other states hold similar youth deer hunts. They give kids a chance to get out and discover what deer hunting is all about. Or do they?
“Because the deer haven’t been hunted and the weather is usually nice, it (youth deer hunting season) gives young hunters a false impression of what deer hunting is all about,” said Michigan hunter Rob Jansen.
States hold an annual youth deer hunt to boost hunter recruitment and retention. The hope is that, once youngsters experience the joy of deer hunting, they’ll be hooked and become deer hunters for life. But do special youth deer hunting seasons, which typically occur before archery and regular firearm deer seasons, result in more individuals becoming lifelong deer hunters? Let’s see if we can answer this question.
But first, let’s take a brief look at the pros and cons of giving young hunters a crack at deer first. Deer hunters are divided on whether youth hunting seasons are good or bad for deer hunters and deer hunting.
Youth Deer Hunts: The Good
A decade or two ago, state wildlife agencies recognized they had a problem on their hands. In just about all states, the number of deer hunters was dropping. As baby boomers got older, fewer and fewer new deer hunters were coming into the fold. To try to stave off the bleeding, states established special youth deer hunts, giving 10- to 17-year-olds (depending on the state) an opportunity to hunt, for a specified period of time, before everyone else could. These hunts were intended not only to get more kids deer hunting (boost hunter recruitment), but to make them dyed-in-the-wool deer hunters for life (increase hunter retention).
But there are a lot of other good reasons for holding an annual youth deer hunt.
“It gives our youth a chance to get out there, gain experience and just enjoy a lot of what deer hunting is all about,” said Michigan deer hunter Yvette Tingey. “And because there are fewer hunters participating, it’s a safer hunt than during the regular deer seasons.”
Without getting too technical, studies consistently show learning a challenging activity helps kids gain confidence and self-esteem. Youth deer hunts fill the bill nicely. They also help parents get their kids off the couch and out into the woods, helping both of them get a little (sometimes a lot of!) exercise and enjoy nature’s splendor.
“Five or six years ago, it was the second day of the youth hunt, and my son and I were sitting in a pop-up deer blind,” recalled Maine hunter Carson Philbrick. “All of a sudden the wind picked up and golf-ball-sized hail starting falling. Our blind caved in, and we both got soaked trying to put it back up. We didn’t see any deer, but to this day we laugh when we talk about that hunt.”
Hunters tell me time and time again that the best part of deer hunting is spending time with family. A youth hunting season provides another opportunity to enjoy our family and learn more about each other. You may think you know your son or daughter, but I doubt you know everything about them.
“After hunting all day, my 14-year-old son and I were headed home in my truck,” an Indiana hunter recounted. “He told me that he didn’t want to go to school the next day. When I asked him why, he told me he was being harassed by some older kid at school. We talked about it, and I was able to help him end the bullying. More and more you read about kids taking their own life or taking a gun to school because they’re being bullied, so I was happy he shared his concerns with me.”
While some argue that all these things can be accomplished without holding a youth deer hunting season, having a separate season demonstrates how important deer hunting, and our youth, really are.
“It’s a fabulous time to get out with kids and treat them with a special hunt,” said renowned deer biologist and hunter Dr. Grant Woods. “I suspect that many kids might not get to go hunting it if wasn’t for youth season, or at a minimum they wouldn’t get the special attention because their mentor would be too busy hunting and might not want to spend their time totally focused on taking them hunting.”
Finally, youth deer hunts give adults a chance to teach kids about wildlife management, ethical hunting practices and why it’s important to eat what you harvest. Today many kids have little to no idea where food comes from. Youth hunts give adults an avenue to educate young people that deer hunting isn’t just an activity we enjoy, but it puts food on the table.
Youth Deer Hunts: The Bad
Not so fast, say those who are against special youth deer hunting seasons. Hunting idle deer in good weather can make deer hunting look like a walk in the park. This can lead some youth to adopt unrealistic expectations of what to expect when hunting.
“On her first time out, my granddaughter bagged a 12-pointer,” said Earl Hathaway of La Crosse, Wisconsin. “But then we didn’t see any bucks during the regular season, and she got really frustrated. Now she doesn’t want to go hunting, because she says she’ll never get a bigger buck than the one she already got.”
Others believe that the early youth deer season is actually the worst time to hunt.
“Usually it’s still pretty warm and there’s not much hunting pressure on deer, so they don’t move very much,” explained Michigan hunter and dad Phil Jenson. “I have taken both my kids out for several years, and we just don’t ever see a lot of deer, and my kids get really bored.”
Many hunters question who is really the one pulling the trigger and harvesting the deer.
“The biggest criticism I hear of the youth hunt is that it’s an excuse for Dad to shoot the deer,” said Jason Sumners, a resource scientist with the Missouri Department of Conservation. “But if Dad is going to teach his kids to break the law, he’s going to do it regardless of whether there’s a youth hunting season or not. You’re either an ethical hunter or you’re not.”
Finally, some adults feel that the youth hunt gives youngsters an unfair advantage they didn’t have when they began deer hunting.
“There wasn’t a youth deer hunt when I was young, so why should kids today have one now?” asked one Indiana hunter.
Hunter Recruitment And Retention
Now to the nitty-gritty — does holding an annual youth deer hunt increase the number of youth deer hunters annually, and the number who continue to deer hunt as adults? In other words, do youth deer hunts increase the number of youth deer hunters over time, and do such hunts increase the number of adult hunters who still deer hunt years later?
To answer these questions, I contacted 30 state wildlife agencies from the most popular whitetail hunting states and asked representatives if they’ve studied the effects of their youth deer hunting season on deer hunter recruitment and retention.
In terms of recruiting youth deer hunters, while few states have conducted any research studies, all believe that, when it comes to increasing the number of annual young hunters, youth hunting seasons can’t hurt.
“Trying to draw a straight correlation between the youth deer hunting season and greater youth hunter participation is difficult, because there are just so many factors that influence youth recruitment, with the most important being their parent,” said Jay Johnson, hunter recruitment and retention coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “My professional opinion is there is a benefit to providing additional opportunities for parents to take youth afield where the entire focus is on mentoring the beginning hunter.”
I could only find one study conducted on the effects of youth deer hunting season on deer hunter retention. In 2001, Missouri began better tracking the age distribution of deer hunters. Unfortunately, the Show Me State hasn’t seen more youth hunters turn into lifelong hunters.
“In the 16-30 age group, we just haven’t seen more hunters continue to deer hunt,” Sumners explained. “From 2001 to 2013, we went from roughly 40,000 hunters under age 16 to 72,000 hunters.”
In the final analysis, while we just don’t know if youth deer hunts result in more lifetime hunters, my personal opinion is that states shouldn’t abandon youth deer seasons. Instead, state wildlife departments should investigate whether things like youth deer hunting seasons, reduced license fees and deer hunter mentoring programs are leading to more deer hunters today and tomorrow. Hunter recruitment and retention programs are time-consuming and expensive, so states need to know if they’re getting the most bang for their buck — and if their efforts are yielding more hunters pursuing bucks.