Many of us will have the privilege of passing on the hunting tradition by guiding a youth hunter. During these formative years the experiences they have afield can either mean they’re hooked for life or they never want to hunt again.
In order to give them the best experience possible, I’ve outlined five tips for you to keep in mind while guiding youth.
1. Know their shooting ability
When guiding a youth hunter (or any hunter for that matter) a critical first step is understanding how to set them up for a clean, ethical kill and positive experience. Some simple questions can help you understand where they’re at with weapon proficiency and what kind of shot situation will be within their wheelhouse.
Ask what their ideal range is as well as their max range. You should also ask what their setup has been while sighting in and practicing. Most hunters neglect situational training where they shoot in various positions and instead practice on a bench, often with the aid of a sled or other stabilizer. While this is great way to get comfortable with the rifle it removes nearly all of the variables that will be present while taking a shot in the field. If your hunter has only practiced on the bench, be sure to review the various shooting positions with them and see what they are most comfortable with.
For newbies, I prefer a seated position with knees up. It’s easy to get situated quickly and very stable. A trick my sister taught me is to insert your arm into the sling from the outside in, so it’s is wrapped around your arm and grip the stock. In a seated or standing position the sling provides added stability. It also works great when shooting off sticks as you can grip the stock and top of the sticks simultaneously for a rock-solid hold. On hunts where shooting from a seated position is impossible due to high vegetation or terrain, or you have a very young hunter, a field pod like this one from Cabela’s gives the stability of a shooting bench but is transportable and fairly light-weight.
2. Know your prey
Although most youth hunters won’t be after a trophy, it’s still important to talk through what’s a shooter and what isn’t. Both to make sure you’re on the same page and meet any legal requirements. You may need to consider the animal’s sex or even the size of the antlers or horns so it’s imperative you review the traits you are looking for before the hunt begins.
Talk to your hunter right away to gauge their level of comfort with identifying animals. Telling a buck and a doe antelope apart might seem easy for the seasoned sportsman or woman but a youth hunter likely has much less experience identifying game, especially under pressure. If you can, watch the game you are after before the hunter has a shot opportunity take a few minutes to review identification. If possible, I’d recommend bringing an extra pair of binos for your hunter so they can participate in glassing, spotting and identifying.
Remember that shooting situations are stressful for anyone, let alone kids that are being forcefully told what to do by one or more adults. Make sure they know their prey and understand they are ultimately responsible for what happens when they pull the trigger. The bottom line is if they don’t feel comfortable in identifying their target they do NOT have to shoot.
3. Give them ownership
Give your ego a rest and, when possible, let your youth hunter in on the decision making. I’m not saying throw your knowledge of the animals and hunt area out the window, but there are often overlooked opportunities to engage your hunter in the process. I believe hunting is more about the process and resulting personal development than the moment you kill. If all you’re doing is giving directives, you’re robbing your hunter of the full experience. Allowing them to take part in even small decisions can really get their wheels turning. If there’s a choice to hunt spot A or B with fair chances of finding an animal at either, discuss the options and let them choose.
4. Honor the harvest
What happens after an animal is down is nearly as important as the hunt itself. Teaching the next generation to honor the animal is paramount in my mind. The animal should be handled in a respectful way and the meat should be properly cared for to ensure you can use as much of the animal as possible.
In addition, how your young hunters represent their hunt with stories and imagery is increasingly important in today’s emotion-driven world of social media. Perception is reality and images with excessive blood, tongues hanging out, unsafe muzzle control, or hunters sitting on top of the animal do not portray hunters in a good light. When possible, I prefer to position my animals in an upright position on the side with the least amount of blood. I tuck in the legs and tongue and sit behind the animal with my weapon pointed in a safe direction. Beyond the traditional grip and grin photos that show the hunter admiring their harvest are among my favorites.
5. Make it fun
Many kids today are growing up in a world of both gamification and immediate gratification. If they aren’t excelling at one activity or game or get bored, they simply move on to something else. As adults with a passion for the outdoors and all that comes with it, we can easily forget that hunting is hard. It can be physically uncomfortable, mentally challenging and often requires superhuman levels of grit and persistence.
For the new hunter one of the best things you can do to help them stick with it is to make it fun. Youth hunters are often accompanied by a guardian. This might be mom and dad, grandpa and aunt or uncle or family friend. Chances are this person is going to be very excited for the possibility of a harvest and might even be a little overzealous. If that’s the case your role is to be knowledgeable, calm and encouraging.
After coaching competitive youth soccer for 12 years I can tell you that parents yelling at the players to shoot when they’re right in front of a wide-open goal does not help. Trust me, in the heat of the moment your hunter would rather hear an urgent but calm voice saying “Take the shot,” instead of someone whisper-yelling at them and sending them into a buck fever frenzy. And, if they don’t take a shot, you can use that missed opportunity as a teaching moment, rather than getting angry.
Lastly, pay attention to what they show interest in during your time outdoors and encourage them to find out more. If they like reading sign, then show them some tracks and scat. If they are interested in anatomy, then spend some extra time looking at muscle bundles and organs when you dress the animal. Whatever you do, remember their experience includes so much more than just notching a tag. Regardless of your hunting know-how, do your best to focus on them.