Since 1982, the number of licensed hunters in the United States has dropped from a peak of nearly 17 million hunters to just over 11 million today. That's four percent of our population. Now, you might look at that and think, “That’s a good thing, it means less competition for me.”
You’d be wrong. A portion of the sales of hunting and fishing licenses fund wildlife management on both a state and national level. It pays for land acquisition, biologists, conservation officers, everything it takes to maintain healthy wildlife populations and provide opportunities for us to hunt them.
On top of that, a dwindling population of hunters means we have a smaller voice in how our wildlife is managed. It’s easier for politicians, from local through national, to dismiss our opinions when they know our numbers, and voting power, are decreasing.
We all know how much fun hunting can be, so why are the numbers going down? A number of reasons. To start with, think about your group of hunting buddies. Chances are good that they are older, male, and white. Every year, fewer and fewer of these older hunters are physically able to get out and pursue the game they love.
Years ago, young hunters learned by watching and tagging along with older family members. They predominantly lived in the rural countryside and spent a lot of time playing and exploring in the outdoors. Today’s youth population is more urban based, and fewer of their family members hunt, leaving them with little or no experience with the outdoors in general.
How can we reverse this troubling trend? Mentor someone. Better yet, set up youth hunts for several kids at once. The best large-scale youth hunts often feature a blend of kids, both male and female, from different backgrounds and racial makeups. Bonds forged on these hunts can turn into lifelong friendships and hunting partnerships.
What does it take to pull off a successful youth hunt? There are several factors to consider. Based on personal experience and interviews with seasoned youth hunt coordinators in my area, here is a basic how-to to get a new hunt off the ground and to make it a positive experience for all attendees.
As mentioned above, fear of litigation and liability is one of the most often listed reasons for landowners to deny permission to hunters on their farms. A liability insurance policy will often relieve any worries they have. Depending on your city or state, you might even be required by law to have a policy in place before taking hunters afield.
Organizations like QDMA and Buckmasters offer hunting-specific policies that may cover your needs. Discuss any insurance concerns with a local agent to make sure you are following the law in your area.
Ed Morris, a veteran of several youth hunts, recommends the following steps to decrease liability and help the hunt go off without a hitch:
Have each parent sign a medical and photo release before the hunt.
Require proof of medical insurance from each participant along with a copy of medical insurance info and a signed release allowing hunt personnel to sign for medical treatment in the event of an emergency.
Require parents to list any food or other allergies the kids might have. Ask if there are any religious requirements the child might have (diet, clothing, etc.).
Social security numbers for each child in case they are needed for tag or license purchases.
It takes a lot of help to put on a hunt. The very purpose of this style hunt is to introduce young hunters to the sport and to teach them how to do it on their own as they get older. To do that, you will need a mentor for every one or two hunters.
Besides hunters in the field, you will need help transporting everyone in and out of camp, cooking meals, general cleanup, tracking, and, depending on temperature, processing deer as soon as they come in. It all adds up to a large crew. Local hunting and fishing organizations, hunt clubs, outfitters, churches, hunting forums, and social media groups are great places to find volunteers.
Depending on the legality in your state, a trained tracking dog can come in handy for those times when shot placement is questionable. It’s important to make every effort to find wounded game, always remember that the hunters are learning future hunting habits by watching what you do.
It is no secret that lack of land availability is one of the leading factors in decreasing hunter numbers. The days of knocking on doors and asking permission to hunt private land are just about over. Development, leasing of hunting land by both private hunters and outfitters, fear of litigation, it all adds up to very little available space for hunters.
Couple this with the lack of large blocks of public land just about anywhere east of the Mississippi River, and finding a place to host a hunt can be one of the toughest parts of the process. Check with sportsman’s clubs, large landowners, and local municipalities or utility companies who might manage large tracts of land. We often find that landowners who decline adult hunters are more open to hosting a youth hunt for a weekend or two.
If you are having trouble locating a suitable location, consider offering an antlerless-only hunt. Many land managers have a hard time convincing hunters to take enough does from a property. Offering to pass on antlered bucks can entice landowners to host a hunt.
Roger Lapointe, executive director of Kentucky Hunter’s for the Hungry, volunteers his time each fall to help with a large QDMA youth hunt near Louisville. He suggests talking with someone in your area from Hunter’s for the Hungry or a similar organization before the hunt about donating any unwanted deer taken. “Letting landowners know that any extra meat will be donated to local foodbanks is often all it takes to get them to allow you to use their land for a hunt,” he said.
Getting the equipment together for a hunt with several participants isn’t always an easy task. Many new hunters have very little experience with firearms of any type. Finding a rifle or shotgun that fits their small frame and has a light recoil is critical to keeping them in the sport for the long haul. Getting your forehead or nose tagged by an ill-fitting, hard-recoiling gun isn’t fun for anyone, and a single bad experience will often turn kids off to shooting for years to come.
Check with your volunteers and with local gun clubs and stores to see if they might have a few firearms they can loan for the hunt. Have a young hunter who is particularly bothered by the noise and recoil of a firearm? Try a crossbow. Yes, the effective range will be reduced, but crossbows are quiet, don’t kick, and are a great way to get a kid in the field.
For older, more experienced hunters, a two-person ladder stand is a workable option. Over the years, we have found that ground blinds, either portable or natural, or permanent shooting houses, are a much more agreeable hunting method. Ground blinds offer the comfort of a chair, help to hide movement, and offer shelter from the wind, rain and cold. A small, portable propane heater will make even the coldest of mornings bearable in a ground blind. If you do offer ladder stands to your hunters, go over all safety precautions and always secure them with a safety harness and lifeline before they climb up or down the ladder.
Check with local sporting goods retailers to see if they might be interested in sponsoring the hunt by donating a bit of camo or a hunter orange hat and vest for each participant.
One of the most important aspects when preparing for the hunt is getting some range time in before the big day. If your hunters have never fired a rifle or shotgun before, start out with something small like an air rifle or a .22. Teach proper trigger control, aiming technique, and breathing for accurate shots. Once they have that mastered, move up to the firearm he or she will be using on the hunt. Familiarize them with how the gun works, how to load and unload it, how to chamber a round, and where the trigger is located. Let them shoot a few times at moderate ranges to build confidence, then ease the targets back to expected hunting ranges. It might take several trips to the range to get everyone accurate enough to hunt ethically.
While everyone is at the range, it’s a perfect time to go over correct shot placement. Use images (like this one) to illustrate proper shot placement and angles. Once we have gone over shot placement, I like to pull up random images of whitetail deer in natural settings on my laptop and let each hunter take a turn at pointing out where he or she would aim. It is also important to let them know that passing on a marginal shot is much better than wounding a deer and not being able to find it.
Sending your hunters home with a cooler full of mouth-watering venison for their family is one of the best ways to make sure they stay involved in hunting for years to come. If weather, facilities and manpower allow, processing can be done on-site. Getting the kids involved, or at least letting them watch the process from start to finish, will help them learn more about the anatomy of a white-tailed deer and give them insight into where their food really comes from.
If weather or lack of help doesn’t allow for on-site processing, make arrangements well before the hunt with a trusted local processor. Let them know how many kids will be on the hunt, when it is, and make sure there will be someone there to receive any deer taken on the hunt. I know of at least one local processor that will work with hunt organizers to offer a group discount on large hunts. It might be worth asking about.
Timing a youth hunt can be tricky. Many states offer early youth-only seasons or weekends that make it easy to choose a time. Scheduling your hunt during a youth-only season frees up many volunteers that might otherwise be out hunting themselves if seasons are open.
If your state doesn’t offer a youth season, try to choose a day or weekend that falls sometime after the opener but before the peak rut for maximum involvement from other hunters. If possible, schedule the hunt during a traditionally warmer time period. Most new hunters from non-hunting backgrounds don’t own adequate cold weather gear to make sitting outside for several hours feasible during severe cold temperatures.