A young hunter and his dad, both wearing blaze orange, pose with a nice whitetail buck.
The author poses with his son, Anse, who took this dandy whitetail buck last fall. Will Brantley

You could call me the archetypal proud dad. When I share a picture on social media, it’s often of my 9-year-old son, Anse, with some critter that he’s shot or fish that he’s caught. Last month, the kid bagged his first Eastern longbeard after an epic fly-down hunt in the timber. Last winter, he shot at decoying ducks for the first time and afterward declared that he wanted to be a waterfowl biologist and work at Ducks Unlimited. Back in November, he went still-hunting with me in the rain, and made a perfect shot on a big Tennessee 8-pointer.

None of those experiences guarantee that he will go on to be a lifelong hunter, of course. He enjoys baseball, guitar, and playing video games with his buddies, too. But even if Anse doesn’t want to hunt when he’s older, I can rest easy knowing that I’ve done everything I could to properly introduce him to it now. He’s been tagging along with me since he could walk. I let him start practicing with a 22 rifle when he was 4, and he killed his first squirrel when he was 6. Later that same fall, he got his first two deer, and the next spring, he bagged his first turkey.

No Kids Allowed

But in a number of states, Anse’s introduction to hunting would’ve been illegal. In New York, kids can’t even hunt small game until they’re 12, and they can’t hunt deer with a firearm until they’re 14. Kids under 12 are also prohibited from hunting in Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, while 10 is the minimum age in Minnesota and New Jersey. Many western states, including Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, prohibit kids from hunting big game until age 12. In North Dakota, there is no minimum age for hunting small game, but kids can’t hunt deer until age 11—and even then, they can only get a doe tag until they’re 14.

Why do any of these regulations still exist? And why is the hunting community not raising hell about it? We are still wringing our collective hands over declining license sales, and still pouring money into R3 programs that focus on recruiting new adult hunters. In the short term, I understand that—adult hunting licenses cost much more than youth licenses, and so state agencies get more bang for the buck by recruiting new adults. The hunting industry benefits more, too, since young kids are likely to use borrowed or hand-me-down gear, while adults are more apt to buy new stuff.

But what about the long game of turning the kids of today into the hunters of tomorrow? There’s an assumption that most of the youth hunters out there come from families who already hunt. Basically, we’ve got them anyway, so why spend the extra money and effort?

That’s just a terrible way to look at things. It’s not a given that a kid is going to enjoy hunting just because Mom and Dad do. Kids become interested in hunting by having lots of opportunity and success early, and it’s obvious that a minimum-hunting age—especially one as old as 12—does nothing except create a barrier to all of that. You don’t even have to be a parent to realize that with all the distractions available today, getting a kid interested in going hunting is easier when he’s 6 and still thinks his parents are heroes than when he’s 12 and beginning to think they might be nerds (and, yes, the word “nerd” is coming back, same as mullets). Virtually every passionate teenage and young adult hunter I know started hunting when they were 6 or 7 years old, and sometimes even younger.

youth hunter shoots his first wild turkey
The author’s son, Anse, with his first turkey. Will Brantley

Non-Hunters Aren’t the Only Problem

So what’s behind the minimum-age laws? A lot of it seems to be nothing more than the usual hysterics from people who know nothing about hunting in general or about hunting with kids in partiuclar. In other words, people who think: We can’t turn little kids loose in the woods with guns! I’d tell those people to relax because nobody’s asking for that. Universally, young kids who haven’t passed their Hunter Education course have to be within immediate supervision of a licensed adult hunter who can take control of the firearm. Even after that, in most states, it’s not legal for a youngster to hunt alone with a firearm until age 15 or 16. Nothing wrong with that necessarily (even though I was hunting by myself at a much younger age and somehow survived).

But a surprising number of objections to young kids going hunting come from within the hunting community. There’s always the hypothetical concern about the guy who would put a rifle in a Bog Pod, line it up on a big buck, and then have his 3-year-old daughter squeeze the trigger on opening morning of youth season. Are there some sh*theads out there who actually do that? Maybe, but if you’ve done much actual hunting with a little kid, and seen the patience it requires, then you understand why it’s not many.

Most of the time, the above hypothetical is introduced by someone who opposes the very idea of a youth-only hunting season because it takes opportunity away from adults. If you don’t like the idea of a kid going hunting because you’re afraid he or she will kill your target buck before you do, then you just might be the sh*thead yourself.

There’s also my favorite: Young children can’t possibly understand the gravity of life and death at that age! OK, so where should they learn that from instead? Netflix? Fortnite? I’ll decide when my kid’s ready for that lesson without the state’s help, thank you. The world would be a better place if more kids were exposed to firearms in a safe, controlled way, and maybe also taught that every chicken nugget once had a little blood on it.

Is every kid ready to go hunting at 6 years old? Of course not. But mine was, and the best moments I’ve ever had in the woods—and in life—have been in the past few years, right by his side, teaching him the ropes. I can’t imagine some arbitrary law having interrupted that.

The post Why Minimum Hunting-Age Limits Need to Go appeared first on Field & Stream.

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