Hunter recruitment and retention is crucial for the perpetuation of the sport. As hunter numbers decline, so too does the funding and interest in wildlife conservation, habitat restoration, and the hunters’ way of life in general. Between 2011 and 2016 alone, we lost approximately 2.2 million hunters, according to the National Survey of Hunting, Fishing, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation, a report issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The only way to combat this ebb is to introduce hunting to new audiences, and specifically the next generation. Bowhunting not only teaches children the obvious lessons about the natural world, the wildlife that inhabits it, and food awareness, but also responsibility, patience, respect, ethics, confidence, and self-reliance. For bowhunting traditions to continue, we need more young hunters going afield.
BUILDING AWARENESS & FAMILIARITY
To light the spark initially, it is necessary to cultivate a healthy interest in wildlife and nature, with a serious emphasis on having fun. This can include simple activities such as hiking. But don’t hike like a hiker. Instead, take this opportunity to hike like a hunter. Watch for animal activity, and get excited about spotting wildlife. Make it a game to see who can spot the most. Look for opportunities to forage. This will help to draw the connection between food and nature, teach self-reliance, and provide a chance to learn the difference between what is food, and what is not. In the late winter and spring, take them with you scouting or shed hunting. Explain to them why deer rub trees and shed their antlers. Take every opportunity to teach and have fun.
Another idea is to sit in a blind with them, where they can hopefully observe wildlife at close range without spooking the animals by fidgeting or moving around a bit. This also provides the chance to explain which animals we try to harvest. Seeing deer and turkeys up close is exciting! Let your excitement show!
The most important aspect of any activity at this point is to keep it fun. Anything forced or rigid may cause a child to lose interest. Don’t assume that they will be entertained all day or be willing to endure strenuous hikes or long sits. If they get tired or bored, understand that their attention spans are shorter, and be willing to leave early.
This is an ideal time to introduce wild game at the dinner table. When expanding their palettes, keep the menu full of their favorite meals (such as tacos, poppers, burgers, etc.). Familiarity will help keep their interest. Ask them what they would like to try, and mold the meal to fit their choice. Let them have age-appropriate involvement with the meal preparation (stirring a pot, rolling meatballs, etc.).
TIME FOR A BOW
Once their interest has been piqued, it’s time for a bow. Getting properly fitted at an archery shop is very important and can be an exciting experience for a child with the right guidance and qualification (they need to be strong enough to pull back a bow).
You want to avoid selecting a bow that is too large for them, but you don’t want to buy a new set-up every couple of years as they grow. An archery shop can match a bow to a child’s frame. A good fitting with also help determine the best draw weight. If the child is pulling too much weight, it will be difficult to pull back the bow. The challenge here is to find a balance between a bow that is very easy to draw, which may cap growth and potential and may not be the best choice for the ethical harvest of an animal, and a bow that is too stiff, which can be dangerous, and likely very discouraging to a child just starting out. Consider a bow with a highly adjustable draw weight and draw length so the child can use the bow for years to come.
One good option to consider is the ATOMIC™ by Diamond Archery. This bow is easily adjustable and kid-friendly. In addition, the website features a zone specifically for kids, and one for parents, full of informative videos and interactive learning modules. Another great place to check out is PSE Archery featuring the MINI BURNER™. With a wide adjustment range, this is a bow that is built to grow with a child’s physical size and strength, as well as skill level. These are just examples; lots of bow companies carry youth bows, so the options are many and diverse. Choose the one that works best for your beginner.
Once you have selected the perfect bow, it’s time to get it equipped. Be sure to explain what each item is used for, and why it’s important. Every moment is an opportunity for education and enjoyment.
You'll want to choose accessories that are simple to use, durable, and light. Many dealers will be able to bundle items and put it all together when purchased with the bow. For a beginning archer, the STORM™ G2 3-pin is the perfect bow sight. The STORM embodies simplicity while providing a wide adjustment range, a lightweight and compact design, and a strong hold. For an arrow rest, the EZ•REST™ is as simple as they come. The full-containment, capture-style rest has a replaceable brush design, can stand up to all weather conditions, and is simple to install. And of course, they'll need a quiver. The TUFF•LOC™ is lightweight, rugged, and easy to install; perfect for beginners. The STORM, TUFF•LOC, and EZ•REST is the entry-priced TRUGLO package bundle.
Once they have a good set-up that fits them, it’s time to start practicing. The best tack, as mentioned above, is to keep it fun. Encourage them to practice on their own instead of making it a regimented exercise. Set up a range with large bag targets in the back yard so that it is always accessible. They should be using only field points here, for safety and practicality. (If and when broadheads are used, it should only be done with complete adult supervision; remember, these are razor blades). Or, if that is not practical or possible, take family trips to the archery range. Always show your excitement about getting the opportunity to shoot your bow. It becomes contagious! Make it a game or a contest between family members, where the winner gets to choose a fun activity or meal for the family.
Time to head out! Let them tag along on a few short hunts with you first. You don’t want their first active hunt to be the first time they see a dead animal. Getting them used to the idea, the sights, the smells, and the sounds of harvesting an animal is best done early. This can be uncomfortable, even sad for them at first. Don’t ignore or dismiss the child’s feelings. Give them a chance to work through their feelings, and explain how hunting contributes to conservation and provides healthy food for the dinner table.
Children can tag along on hunts at any age, but to actively participate they might need to pass a bowhunter education program and reach a minimum hunting age. Such requirements vary by state, so check your state wildlife agency’s website for regulations and requirements. In addition, before allowing a child to hunt, be sure that their shots are accurate and strong enough to make an ethical shot. Wounding an animal with a weak and poorly placed shot is not the way to be introduced to the sport.
Now comes the real fun! When it’s time for their hunt, let the child be as involved with the planning as possible. Let them pack their own backpack and prepare snacks. Involvement cultivates excitement. In addition, the planning process should include practice shots using broadheads (ALWAYS with adult supervision!).
For first bow hunts, especially with younger children, bowfishing and small-game hunts provide fast action and plenty of opportunities. These are exciting, low-stakes activities that don’t require a huge amount of discipline and patience. Keep hunts short and active. Understand that children can be restless and inquisitive, so be ready to move around and answer questions. The thing to remember, as with every other step in this process, is that the goal of the hunt is fun. Don’t pressure the child into making a shot before he or she is ready. This can leave a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, and turn a child off to wanting to hunt again. Emphasize learning and appreciation for the experience rather than making it all about the kill.
Always be ready to leave early if the child loses interest or if the weather becomes inclement. While patience and adversity can be considered part of the adventure, the moment the child stops having fun is the time to return home. Be sure to talk afterward about what the child enjoyed and didn’t enjoy, what they learned, and what they’d like to try next time. The more informed you are, the better equipped you will be to make the next hunt even more successful for everyone.
WHEN IT COMES DOWN TO IT...
There are few things more fulfilling than handing down our traditions and teaching one’s child to be a self-reliant, responsible hunter. And there is nothing more successful at recruiting youth to become lifelong hunters than hunting with family. With dedicated mentorship, encouragement, and a little bit of luck, we can instill within our children a passion for bowhunting and sense of purpose in the outdoors that can be passed along for generations to come.