There are many good reasons to pass on the tradition of hunting, and it doesn't have to come at the cost of your patience or a bored child. We have some tips to keep a day in the woods or on the water fun for you and especially for the youth you're mentoring.
Many states and public land areas offer youth-only hunts and/or youth-only hunting areas. Find those, and take advantage of them! They give youth an opportunity to have a positive experience hunting where they are not competing with more seasoned adult hunters.
Educate. Educate. Educate.
This goes for all aspects of the hunt, everything from ethics and safety, to the game, to the habitat around you. Allow them to be curious, after all kids naturally are. Answer their questions about the game they, or you, are going to hunt. Help them research kid friendly facts to get them anticipating actually seeing this “cool stuff” in person. This will help keep their interest, and it also helps them respect natural resources.
It goes without saying, but safety should be number one in any hunting trip. This only increases when you are taking youth. Doesn't matter if they are actually hunting or just "helping" you, these first experiences will lay the ground work for safe actions later in life.
Along with teaching general safety rules, it’s a good idea to not take on more than YOU can handle. Depending on the type of hunting, the number of youth you can take hunting will be different. While duck hunting or dove hunting may allow you to take two kids, it probably won’t be a good idea for you to take a gun and hunt yourself on this trip. The focus needs to be on the two kids and their guns. On the other hand, a sport that requires the hunters to be still and quiet or where you might only see one of the game species, taking just one child at a time might be more appropriate. Examples of this would be turkey or deer hunting. This can also depend on the child’s personality and prior experience. Some children will just naturally need more instruction than others. When you have more than one child wanting to go, a good way to divide up hunting time is by their natural clock. If your oldest child is not a morning person, take the younger one in the morning and save the afternoon for your eldest.
Too much of a good thing can be bad
Just like too much candy can cause a belly ache, too much hunting can burn a kid out. This means number of times hunting, as well as the duration of the hunt. Try to find that perfect amount of time where it’s worth the effort but they aren’t too bored, tired, or cold/hot and they still want more. This may very well change depending on weather and their mood for the day.
The Right Stuff
They don’t have to be spoiled with too much brand name hunting attire, but they need enough clothing to stay warm and dry. Just like with adults, it’s hard to keep motivated when your hands and feet hurt from the cold. Children will feel the same, but be more vocal about it and naturally they will begin to wiggle around more to generate body heat. Same idea when hunting while it's warm and the bugs are out. Kids don't like mosquito bites anymore than adults.
Get them Involved
Even if they aren’t carrying a weapon and are just tagging along with you, there are ways to get them involved. Let them help put out and pick up decoys, scent wafers, pack equipment in the truck, or even let them have a say in where you hunt. The more they feel they are a part of the hunt the more into it they will be.
Most hunters don’t go in the field without snacks, but this is even more important to think about with little hunters. First, think about what kinds of snacks to take. For example, if they eat a pouch full of Fun Size candy bars, they are going to be on a sugar high and have an even harder time sitting still before crashing and becoming grumpy. Instead opt for smarter snacks like peanut butter and crackers, pretzels, carrot sticks, string cheese, or dried fruit. Second, think about the packaging. Little Fingers + Loud Plastic Packaging = A Not-so-quiet Hunting Snack. Some of the snacks might need to be put in sandwich bags, or even plastic wrap with a bread tie at the top can be quieter than other packaging. The reusable storage bags are usually made of silicone, a very quiet choice.
Ready. Aim. Fire!
There is no magical age for when a youth should take their first harvest. Experience, training, and target practice are all very important aspects of a first harvest; however, it’s not the whole of it. They must be mentally ready for it as well, and if they are pushed before they are really ready it can ruin the experience. For example, if the child is forced to shoot, and because they weren’t mentally or physically ready the game is wounded and the harvest become a longer process. An event like that can completely diminish all passion for hunting.
There’s no crying in hunting!
Actually, it’s perfectly normal for small children to feel sad and even cry after a harvest. Doesn't matter if it's their own or your harvest. Use this opportunity to talk about putting food on the table, or if their old enough, explain the importance of keeping populations in check and keeping the heard healthy. Always aim for a positive outlook on the situation and never shame them for compassion.
Give 'em a pass
It's ok to give them a pass on field dressing their first deer. As stated above, it's normal for them to feel sad after a harvest. Couple that with the pressure of being expected to dress their harvest, and it could be too much. If they are willing to help, take time to explain what you're doing, why, and even point out organs to make it educational for them. They can always help in baby steps. Start by having them hold a leg or helping to turn the animal. They may also not want to watch certain parts of this process, such as when the fur is being cut, but are ok with looking at organs, or they might not want to watch at all. The choice to close their eyes should be respected. You might be surprised how quickly curiosity takes over and how, "Oh, that's sooooo gross! Can I touch it?" end up being said in the same breath.
Patience is a Virtue
It’s hard to tolerate a wiggly child when you are waiting for “the big one” to walk by, but have realistic expectations. Conduct your serious hunts solo and keep their experience positive. Bring wildlife id books or download an app, to see how much they can identify. Learn nature sounds together before the trip and see if they can pick them out while in the field. A small digital camera or the use of a phone to take pictures can usually entertain a child for long periods of time as well. And in this day and age, the phone is a handy pocket-sized library of games that can be used to entertain them, even if you put a time limit on it or only use it as a last resort.
Let them Tell it
When it comes time to talk about the hunt, harvest or no harvest, let them tell the story how they remember it. It's often more entertaining that way. It can likewise be helpful for you, because their version of what happened can teach you what they remember and enjoy the most about the time you spent together.
Have fun and set your expectations accordingly. Youth will feed off of your mood and your actions, so it is important to stay calm and just have fun. Making memories and having good experiences together is the main goal of these trips. They will toughen up with age and experience in the field, and the trophy harvest will come in time.