The true key to getting a kid interested in the outdoors, and keeping him or her involved for the rest of their life, is making it fun. Period.
Hunting must be an experience they want to go back and do again and again. Many kids will tag along once or twice to appease their parents, but the key is to get them hooked so they’re begging you to go. This doesn’t happen overnight, and takes it patience and persistence from the parents/mentors.
Recently I had the privilege of taking two young boys, Judd and Noah, out on a doe hunt in South Dakota. It was January, after most hunting seasons had already come to an end for me. We all had a blast, and it’s nice to see states such as South Dakota making it easy for kids to get involved by allowing mentored hunts to take place.
Judd shot his very first deer, and Noah was lucky enough to take his second. As you can see in the video below, we adults let the boys play beforehand, have a few snowball fights, and let them just be boys.
Although we hit the beginning of a big snow storm, the boys were fully outfitted in Field & Stream gear from head to toe, so they were nice and warm. We made the hunt fun, and allowed them to practice with the rifle before taking a shot on a real animal.
The best part is now they’ve both provided a variety food for their family; we had a local processing facility make deer sticks, summer sausage, hamburger and other delicious cuts to fill the freezer. We even had a couple of taxidermy hooves made into coat hangers for the boys to hang in their room and always remember this experience.
Unfortunately, not all kids will have a positive experience on their first hunt, and although none of us can control the weather or animal movement, there are a lot of factors in our control. Here are 10 things to remember when getting kids involved in hunting.
- Animal size isn’t important. This is an area I see parents/mentors get hung up on, making kids pass one deer after another looking for a trophy. Here’s the thing: To a kid, harvesting a deer is a deer. The most important aspect is making sure they can make a good, clean and ethical kill. As they get older and more experienced, they can work on targeting mature deer, but in the meantime let them fill their tag and your freezer.
- Kids are going to be kids. They like to giggle, talk and aren’t always going to have a long attention span. That’s okay; remember that this experience is for them, not you. Try to keep the hunts short, and go at the peak times. Also, let them play around during downtime and keep them involved. Boredom gets the best of all of us, so if you can always be explaining things or answering their questions, they’ll stay focused a little longer.
- Plan for the weather. None of us can control the weather, but this is something important to look into before planning your trip out with the little ones. If possible, pick comfortable days. And it’s important that they wear decent clothing and gear needed to stay warm and dry. Note: Decent doesn’t have to mean expensive.
- Use a gun or bow that fits properly. Too many times I’ve seen adults give a child a 300 Win. Mag. or a 12 gauge filled with 3.5-inch turkey loads for their first attempt at shooting a gun. I can’t stress enough that this is a terrible idea. Even if you have a young boy who thinks he’s pretty tough, start him out with a recoil-friendly firearm. Recoil and noise are the two scariest things for new shooters, so start with something that has little to no kick. And use a suppressor if possible. I know several kids who were “scoped” their first time, and getting them over that fear can be quite a challenge. It’s just as important to avoid giving a child a bow that doesn’t fit them properly. Many children are concerned they won’t be strong enough to draw a bow, so when it does come time for them to get their first shooting session in, ensure its something they can handle. A light-drawing vertical bow will give them confidence. Also, if the bow fits properly, then they won’t pick up bad shooting habits; in the long run, they’ll become a much better shot, and that makes it more fun, too. Finally, if your state allows anyone to use a crossbow, consider starting a child on a horizontal bow. Crossbows are great because the recoil is zero, and most models come with a mechanical cocking device.
- Pack lots of snacks. Having your Engel cooler packed full of great snacks and drinks is a necessity when you’re hunting with kids. During our recent South Dakota deer hunt, we weren’t out 15 minutes in the field and the boys already said they were hungry. Snacks break up the day and add to the fun experience, so pack accordingly. Prediction: You might even start packing that same snack bucket for yourself in the future!
- Take numerous photos. Photos are a great way to relive memories for years down the road, but so often people forget about the importance of taking those candid shots in the field. Sure, it’s nice to have photos with the harvested animals, but seeing the kids having fun and in their element is something you’ll cherish forever.
- Don’t tease young deer hunters about eating the heart. This is something I’ve been adamant about for years, and although people have differing opinions on this, I truly believe it’s something to avoid. Trust me: joking about making a kid take a bite of the heart can truly be a traumatic thing. When I was a little girl, if my parents had told me I needed to eat the heart of my first deer, I may have skipped the entire hunting aspect all together. Don’t underestimate how little things can make a huge impact on kids. You may never know your child decided they didn’t want to hunt because of hearing a story like this, but just what if they missed out on a lifetime of fun over taking a bite out of a deer heart? It’s simply not worth the risk. Of course, every child is different, but I hate to see even one scared away from our great sport because of something so trivial.
- Have them join you as toddlers. In central Minnesota, my mom and dad brought my brother and me in the field way before we were ever old enough to hunt. They ensured we were a part of the experience, and allowed us to help with the butchering of the animals and explained the entire process. Of course, I wasn’t deboning meat with a sharp knife at 5 years old, but I was in the house labeling the meat packages with a Sharpie on the freezer paper. Mom would write the words “venison backstrap” or whatever on a cheat sheet for me, then I copied her notes on each package. The day I finally turned 12 was one of the best birthdays ever because I was old enough to hunt in Minnesota. Had my parents not taken me in the field so much before that age, I may not have had that same excitement and desire.
- Misses happen. One element you’ll inevitably run into is dealing with a miss. The important thing is to show kids that you’re not upset or disappointed in them. And explain that it happens to everyone. I like to include misses in my TV shows because I want the entire world to know it happens. We all do our best to practice and be good shots, but if you hunt enough, your day will come.
- Focus on family time. Ultimately this is one of my favorite reasons to get people involved in hunting. In today’s world, electronics are a huge part of many households, and parents find it difficult to connect with their kids at times. Through hunting you get that pure and genuine bonding time that should be cherished. One question I’m often asked, however, is what to do about electronics and kids while hunting? I usually let them take their electronics because as adults we play on our phones when it gets boring. Most families punish kids by taking away their electronics, so make sure hunting never seems like a punishment. My goal is to always keep them so involved and make it fun that they won’t be grabbing for the iPad or phone; instead they’ll be busy watching the animals, investigating tracks, etc.
Images and video by Melissa Bachman