Pass On The Love Of Hunting To Your Children…

After spending five years in Wisconsin we returned to our home state of Michigan in 2002, and settled in Hillsdale County. One thing that was particularly exciting to me at that time was that my older children were nearing the age where they were soon going to be old enough to hunt. They’d been tagging along with me for years and were looking forward to the day when they could begin hunting.

At that time Michigan’s minimum hunting age was 12 for small game and archery deer and 14 for firearm deer. Consequently, we decided to capitalize on our geographical proximity to Ohio, as there is no minimum hunting age requirement there. In 2003 my oldest son, then age 10, did some firearm deer hunting in Ohio as well as Indiana (also no minimum age). We had a great time together his first season. We even saw some deer on a few of our hunts which kept his interest level high. However, the overall experience reinforced my belief that firearm deer hunting in highly pressured areas didn’t offer much of an opportunity to teach my son, in regards to him learning about things such as normal deer movement patterns. In addition, I was also reminded that it’s often a challenge to keep a young hunter warm during cold late fall hunts.

My preference would have been for him to begin deer hunting during archery rather than firearm season, but it was a moot point, because at that age he lacked the physical capacity to pull a bow that would be sufficient for hunting. After speaking with a number of hunter safety instructors I’ve learned that this is typical, in that these instructors estimated that roughly 75% of 10 and 11 year old hunter safety graduates lack the physical maturity to hunt with a vertical bow.

In 2005 we became aware that crossbow use was permitted during archery season in Ohio, so in December of that year we purchased a basic crossbow and a few arrows. During the summer of 2006 our second oldest son, then 9 years old, practiced with the crossbow to the point where he became proficient out to twenty yards, and on opening day of the 2006 Ohio archery season he killed his first buck. Since that time I’ve had the pleasure of being by his side as he’s used a crossbow to take three other deer in Ohio. Our 12 year old daughter has gotten into the act and bagged her first two deer in Ohio with a crossbow, and our third oldest son who is 9 will be making his debut this fall.

To the Michigan DNR’s credit, several years ago they worked with the legislature to reduce the minimum hunting age to 10 for small game and archery deer, and to 12 for firearm deer on private land. Unfortunately, the reduction in minimum hunting ages hasn’t had as great of an impact as hoped for.

One reason for that is due to the decline in participation of small game hunting. At one time small game hunting was the typical entry point for a young hunter. For better or worse, the starting point and strongest area of interest for the majority of young hunters today is deer hunting.

The reduction in minimum age for archery deer hunting also had little effect because the physical limitations of most 10 and 11 year olds prohibit them from being able to hunt with a vertical bow. Thankfully, with the recent NRC decision to permit all hunters beginning at age 10 to hunt with a crossbow during all archery seasons in the lower peninsula, and during early archery season in the upper peninsula, a door has now been opened that will permit many more children to begin hunting at age 10.

Hooked on Hunting

Imagine that your soon to be 10 year old child or grandchild expressed a strong interest in learning to play the piano or joining a soccer team. Would you expect their interest to be maintained if you put them off by making them wait until age 12 or older to begin taking lessons or join a team? Is it reasonable to assume that their interest would be satisfied by having them watch you play for the next several years instead of being able to try it for themselves?

Or consider fishing. Would it make good sense to require a child to wait until they’re almost a teenager before they’re permitted to make their first cast or reel in their first fish?

To their credit, many hunters begin to engage their children in hunting at young ages, by taking them afield scouting or having them tag along on hunts. Early involvement plays an important part role in developing a child’s interest. But once they’re old enough, recognize that having them observe you doesn’t compare to the experience of them actually being able to hunt. It’s important to understand that there’s a crystal clear correlation between the age where a child begins hunting and their resulting interest level and long term commitment to the sport.

Our experience has been that crossbows permit the typical youngster to begin archery hunting a full one to three years before they develop the physical capacity or coordination to hunt with a vertical bow. Crossbows offer them an opportunity to participate and fall in love with the sport prior to becoming so engaged in other organized recreational activities that they don’t have time to consider taking up hunting.

What are the keys to crossbow hunting with children?

Age Appropriate Equipment

• Many crossbows are somewhat heavy on the front end and will weigh in excess of eight pounds. For a young hunter you may want to consider a more basic model that runs in the 6-7 lb range.

• Avoid getting drawn into the obsession with arrow speed. Our crossbow shoots arrows at a speed of around 260 fps, and it’s more than sufficient. Much more important than arrow speed are considerations such as weight, fit, crispness of the trigger pull, and manufacturer warranty.

• By far the best way to make a decision on what crossbow to purchase is to go to a local archery shop. Shoot a variety of models that they offer and have your child shoot them as well. Experience firsthand which bow will best suit your needs.

• If you’re new to crossbows you may be surprised to find out how loud they are. While some models are quieter than others, all crossbows are loud in comparison to vertical bows. Some hunters fret about this, but if you limit your shots to appropriate distances noise won’t be a factor.

• Our philosophy is to keep everything as simple as possible. We attempt to minimize the number of variables that come into play and that the new hunter has to be attentive to, so that on the select occasions each season when a shot might present itself, there’s the greatest possible likelihood of the youngster being able to capitalize on the opportunity.

• In respect to simplicity, deciding on the appropriate scope is important. Many crossbow scopes have three aim points and some have as many as five or six. When a deer’s out in front of a new hunter and she’s preparing to take the shot, requiring her to also have to remember which reticle or dot to use has the potential of creating confusion. For simplicity, consider a scope that has a single reticle or single red dot.

Range Time

• With younger hunters it’s critical that they have a solid rest to practice and hunt from. Our picnic table in the back yard serves as our practice session rest.

• One major safety factor to continually reinforce with a young hunter is to keep their hand well below the point where the string moves along the rail. If one of their fingers were to get in the way of the string it would be extremely painful, and my understanding is that it could even cause the finger to be severed. For that reason I continually remind them of where there hand should be, and in every situation it’s something I watch and pay close attention to.

• Standard archery targets often don’t stand up well to crossbow bolts, as the arrows will penetrate so deep that removal can be a challenge. Look into targets that are specifically designed for crossbows.

• I’m not a fan of long range shots at game with any archery equipment, including crossbows. From my perspective there’s a significant difference between effective distance on the range under largely artificial conditions as compared to hunting conditions where weather, hunter excitement and anticipation, potential movement of a live animal, etc. all come into play. These variables are even more distinct when it’s a young inexperienced hunter taking the shot. We adhere to a maximum shot distance when hunting of 20 yards.

Stand Considerations

• Two good alternatives exist for crossbow hunting with children

• One is to hunt out of a ground blind. Pop up blinds work well because they’ll disguise most movement and activity. Choose a blind which is large enough to accommodate two hunters and the bulkiness of a crossbow. Also make certain that you have some type of rest for the child to use.

• Our personal preference is to hunt out of two person ladder stands. There’s something about being up in the air that’s particularly attractive to most young hunters. We hang the stands either on wide trees or within clumps of multiple trees.

• We put skirting around two person stands in order to better camouflage them and to hide movement. Utilize skirting material that is quiet. Typically we use camouflage burlap that we attach to the shooting rail using plastic cable ties.

• Another key if you put skirting around the stand is how the front shooting rail is angled. Some manufacturers design the front rail so that it angles aggressively upward. With a young hunter in the stand this means that they won’t be able to see well because the angle of the rail and skirting will cut off their view to the immediate front. Even with a shooting rail that is relatively flat you may need to have something for him to sit on to provide some extra elevation so that he can see well in all directions.

• In respect to the stand itself, for safety purposes make certain that the foot platform extends out as far as the shooting rail. From a comfort standpoint look for a stand that offers a minimum height of 18 inches between the seat and platform and that has adequate seat depth. Consider the comfort of the back rest as well.

• It’s important that the child get some pre-season practice shooting out of the stand. In addition, each time we settle into a stand for a hunt I have the young hunter show me how they’re going to get their weapon in position for each possible shot direction. We rehearse what they’ll need to do to get in position to take a shot behind them, to their right, etc. This involves consideration of how they might need to shift their body, when they might need to stand, how to work around me so that I’m not in their way, etc. Assuming that the child is right handed I’ve found that it works best if they sit on the left with me on the right.

Hunt Preparation and Coaching

• A key pre-season preparatory exercise we go through is to review shot angles. I place a deer decoy in different positions and then we’ll discuss whether or not the positioning offers an ethical shot angle, and if so where the aim point would be. We also keep a tiny toy deer in the truck, and before we get out of the vehicle I have them show me on the toy deer where they would aim based on whether the deer is broadside, quartering away, etc.

• Taking children hunting requires additional planning and organization. A habit that has served us well is to go through and get everything (clothing, boots, equipment, etc) ready and in order the night before a morning hunt.

• When a deer is first sighted it’s helpful to encourage the child to stay relaxed and to breathe normally. Oftentimes they will become so excited when they spot a deer that they’ll begin to hold their breath or breathe irregularly, which can then make it quite challenging to keep a steady aim. As the deer works its way into range I sometimes whisper a simple reminder to them, such as “relax and take your time” or “don’t look at his antlers but just concentrate on where you’re going to aim.”

• Involve them in decisions and preparation. Discuss ahead of time what the wind direction is and which stand options would be desirable, and let them choose the stand. Engage them in the process of hanging and preparing stand sites. Teach them what to look for and how to assess the pros and cons of various trees or locations, and as each year goes by let them make more of the stand location decisions.

I encourage you to consider each hunt as part of a long process of honing their skills and developing their understanding so that they will eventually become independent. Once they reach age seventeen, which is when Michigan law no longer requires adult supervision, our goal is that they’ll be fully prepared to hunt safely and skillfully on their own.

Whether or not your child or grandchild grows up to be a hunter and loves the sport in the way that you do is directly linked to how soon you get and keep them involved. Beginning at age 10 they deserve to have regular opportunities to go hunting, with you right by their side coaching and encouraging them all along the way. Take advantage of the newly expanded crossbow opportunities to help pass on the love of hunting to your children or grandchildren.