Remember the first time you shot a squirrel, tagged a tom, or bagged a buck?
For many Michigan hunters, some of their fondest, most exciting childhood memories were made outdoors, pursuing game – often in the company of family.
In order to keep Michigan’s rich hunting tradition alive – and help it thrive – it’s critical that today’s young people have the same opportunities to create these lasting memories.
To that end, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and its conservation-minded partners continue to develop programs aimed at giving youngsters the chance to try hunting and ensuring there is ample opportunity for hunting success, so they’ll stick with it beyond their initial experience.
Recent initiatives range from local habitat-improvement projects and a collaborative effort to restore pheasant hunting, to youth deer and waterfowl hunting weekends, to programs like mentored youth and apprentice hunting that allow youth to get their feet wet under the guidance of more experienced hunters.
The DNR is also teaming up with sportsmen’s groups to encourage kids to give small game hunting – a once-popular pastime among young hunters – a try.
In December, for instance, DNR wildlife biologist Pete Kailing out of Big Rapids partnered with the Mecosta Road and Gun Club to put on a Saturday event dubbed “Kids and Dogs Small Game Hunt.”
Working with retired DNR biologist Jeff Greene at the Mecosta Club, Kailing was able to get representatives from local chapters of the Michigan Duck Hunters Association, the National Wild Turkey Federation, the Ruffed Grouse Society and Pheasants Forever to come to the event, bring dogs and help mentor the youths. The Michigan Squirrel Dog Association – a group Kailing said he had never even heard of – found out about the event and showed up, too.
Twenty youngsters – 17 years old or younger – participated in the event, hunting small game with mentors on both private and public land.
“For three of the kids – two teenage boys and a girl – it was the first time they ever had a chance to shoot at anything,” Kailing said. “Altogether, the hunters brought back nine rabbits and four squirrels.
“The beauty of this, with small game and dogs, is even if you’re not a participant in the shooting, you can see the action,” he continued. “You can be active when you’re small game hunting. You can talk out loud. It’s not like deer hunting when you have to be quiet and still.”
Kailing said the hunt was a resounding success.
“It all fits with in the goals of our strategic plan – promoting youth in shooting posts, small game hunting, interacting with youth, working with our partners – and the general camaraderie of the hunterhood,” he said. “We’ll do it again, that’s for sure.”
In mid-January, several members of the DNR’s Wildlife Division partnered with sportsmen’s groups for the second year in a row to put on a rabbit hunt headquartered out of the Belding Sportsman’s Club near the Flat River State Game Area. The event drew 52 youngsters, almost twice as many as the inaugural event.
Despite less than optimal conditions – it was warm with no snow remaining on the ground – the hunters were quite successful. In all, 15 rabbits were brought to the headquarters with at least a half dozen youngsters taking the first rabbits of their hunting careers.
Brothers Cache and Sage Blunt, 10 and 16, respectively, each took their first rabbit with .410 shotguns. The brothers had hunted rabbits before with their father, but this is the first time the stars aligned.
“We got them into a good area – there were a lot of rabbits,” said the boys’ father Dan Blunt. “The percentages were in our favor.”
Mitchell Neeb, a 13-year-old from Clarksville, killed his first rabbit at the hunt. Already a successful deer hunter, Neeb said rabbit hunting was “exciting” and “more fun than I thought it would be.”
John Niewoonder, the DNR wildlife biologist at Flat River, said he was pleased by the way everything came together.
“We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the volunteers who were instrumental in helping set this hunt up and getting the work done,” he said. ”And we really appreciate the many sporting good shops that donated prizes.
“The partner groups are very fired up about it and now that the wheels are greased, we’d like to do it again next year.”
The volunteers agreed.
Bill Bird, an Ionia County berry farmer who usually runs his beagle two or three days a week, said he was more than glad to bring his dog Sadie to chase rabbits for the youngsters.
“I literally couldn’t sleep last night because I was thinking about this hunt and how the weather was uncooperative with no snow,” he said. “I’m glad we were able to get them some shooting.”
Bird said he’d do it again. The DNR and the partner groups are with him on that.
“We want to have more events like this with the kids because this is what we need,” said John Byrne, president of the Belding Sportsman’s Club. “We need to get them out, get them hunting.”
“There is still plenty of time to get outdoors and do some hunting yet this winter,” said the DNR’s Niewoonder. “If you can, get a young person to tag along – I’m willing to bet they’ll love it, and we’ll add another member to the ranks of Michigan hunters.”
Squirrel hunting season runs through March 1, with rabbit and crow hunting seasons continuing through March 31.
To learn more about opportunities to get young people involved in hunting, visit www.michigan.gov/mentoredhunting.
Image courtesy Michigan DNR