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How should parents introduce new activities to kids who might be hesitant to try such activities? What do child psychologists, teachers and other child behavior professionals say in terms of how children both learn and then permanently adopt new hobbies? What are some of the obstacles and pitfalls that parents often make when trying to get their children to “love” the same kinds of hobbies and pastimes that they themselves are passionate about?

Youth boy with buck.
Youth boy with buck.

If you are a parent, you might be thinking to yourself, “Whew boy, those are deep questions!” And if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking about a particular instance whereby you tried to teach your child an activity you love, but something “back-fired.” Well, not to worry, it’s probably happened to every parent at least once. Whether it’s adopting an outdoor sport like golf, or a more cerebral activity such as chess, parents who have a passion for an activity often make the mistake of assuming that just because you love some particular hobby, then your child is going to “automatically” love it too.  Often this “osmosis” still works out in a positive way, but sometimes it doesn’t and the first experience in trying something new was such a negative “back fire” that it results in the child never wanting to try the activity again.  

When it comes to hunting, and specifically deer hunting, the overwhelming majority of today’s adult deer hunters were introduced to the sport by a parent or close relative. While there are exceptions, the vast majority of tomorrow’s deer hunters will also be introduced to the sport by a parent.  For these reasons, the Wildlife Department wanted to develop a simple guide of tips and suggestions on how parents can and should introduce kids to deer hunting. 

Compiled from input from several lifelong deer hunters, including Oklahoma Game Wardens, Wildlife Biologists and Technicians, School Teachers and Others. The following is a list of proven “Best Practices” for passing on the passion of deer hunting to young hunters.

Youth boy with buck.

I. Equipment: Guns & Ammo & Clothing

Choosing the correct gun and ammo for young hunters –Ideal “youth” sized deer rifles with moderate to light recoil: Generally speaking several of our Oklahoma Game Wardens recommend the ideal youth model deer rifle falls within these parameters:

  • .22 caliber “centerfire” (NOTE: this does not include the .22 rimfire which is not legal for taking deer).
  • bullet size will be between the 55 grain minimum size that is legal for deer – up to approximately 120 grains
  • Stick with bolt-action rifles – semi-automatic rifles are often difficult for youth hunters to operate, and have inherent safety issues that make them more appropriate for experienced adult hunters. 
  • Some popular choices of rifles that meet the above criteria are:   
  • .243
  • .22-250
  • .223
  • .257 Roberts
  • or .222

A different option is to try “reduced recoil” ammo for these calibers:   

  • .270
  • 30.06
  • 7mm

If the gun stock is too long, you can contact the gun manufacturer to see if a youth model butt-stock is available for that particular gun, or if not, then you might be able to purchase an extra stock and have it shortened. 

Get whatever target items are necessary to properly sight in rifle, and also purchase supplies for a few “novelty” targets (addressed later). 

Prepare for weather extremes with good quality, warm clothes (dress in layers with warm fabrics e.g. wool, fleece and good rain gear, and warm boots) and make sure items are the correct size (hand-me-downs are only good if they are the correct size and are of good quality). 

Make sure to get good/warm head, hand and feet coverings where kids will loose heat rapidly on cold days. Hand warmers and a thermos of hot chocolate are also excellent ways to combat the cold.

II. At the Gun Range

Wearing proper eye and ear protection is the first step at the gun range. Make sure glasses and hearing protection are properly sized for youth. 

Before doing any target shooting with the deer rifle, do some “plinking” with a BB gun, then a very small caliber “rim fire” such as a .22. This gets young shooters accustomed to the noise and slight recoil from a rifle before moving onto to the louder and more powerful recoil of deer-sized calibers.  Shoot from different positions (bench rest, prone, standing, kneeling with shooting sticks, etc.). Practice squeezing the trigger, breath control and shooting form with the .22 as if it was the deer caliber rifle. Keep criticism “positive” to encourage safe handling techniques.

Once the young shooter has fired several rounds “plinking” move onto the actual deer rifle. Reinforce the handling and form techniques learned with the BB gun and .22 rimfire. If the recoil is bothering the shooter, get a recoil pad for the gun, or, a wearable shoulder protector pad.

Make slight incremental adjustments to rifle scopes, and once rifle is sighted in off a bench rest on paper targets, then shoot the “novelty” targets, i.e. milk jugs with food coloring, shaving cream cans, etc. Have shooter practice shots from different positions, kneeling, with shooting sticks, etc.

After shooting, show gun cleaning and proper storage for vehicle (placing in gun case or locker).

Youth boy with buck.

III. Visiting your Hunt Area Prior to the Hunt (Often called Scouting) getting to know the “lay of the land”, inspecting deer “sign”, etc.

  • Looking at maps 
  • Heading out to field
  • Interpreting deer "sign"-rubs/scrapes, trails, etc. 
  • Crossing a fence (show safe techniques)
  • Selecting a specific hunting & shooting position (also called a “stand”)  –elevated stands certainly have advantages (puts hunters above deer’s line of sight) but they also have disadvantages - hard to put up safely without a minimum of two adults (3 is really preferred), and they don’t offer much protection from the elements. If the weather is cool, windy and/or wet, young hunters will probably get cold and uncomfortable much more rapidly in an elevated stand than being on the ground regardless how many layers of quality clothing worn.
  • A different choice worth strong consideration is a pop-up ground blind. – Pop-Ups have become extremely popular and offer many weather advantages, and a young hunter is more concealed inside the blind and doesn’t have to remain as still and quiet as they would hunting from an elevated stand, or just sitting exposed on the ground next to a tree. In a Pop-up blind you can whisper quietly back and forth and even quietly play cards, checkers, etc. while waiting on a deer.

IV. During your initial hunts

  • Reinforce the idea of the reason for being out there is to “have fun”
  • Introduce the sport to young hunters “incrementally.” For example: Plan your initial hunts for brief time periods (the first or last hour of legal shooting hours is a good timeframe to start). Bring snacks, drinks, hand warmers and extra clothes to ensure the young hunter is as warm, dry and comfortable as possible. Conversely a kid that is cold, wet, tired or hungry is very likely not having a good experience outdoors. You can not easily fix tired, but you might be able to fix the cold, wet or hungry problems. Parents should regularly ask the hunter if he/she wants to call it quits for the time being and go back to the camp or truck. 
  • As the mentor takes the young hunter afield more and more, the duration of the hunts can likely be extended, but be careful not to overdue it too much and/or too soon. Ask the young hunter if he/she is comfortable, and whether they want to go back to the camp or vehicle, and don’t place “pressure” onto them to stay for hours and hours. 
  • Avoid pressure to take a certain kind of deer. For the beginning deer hunter, perhaps the most logical and recommended advice is for the young hunter to take the first legal deer (regardless whether it is a buck or doe) that comes within comfortable range of the shooters’ skill level. Placing and/or measuring pre-arranged yardage markers downrange can assist the shooter in determining if the shot is within their range, or too far. 

V. After the Harvest (field dressing the deer)

  • Another piece of advice to Mentors is to give the young hunter a lesson in mammalian anatomy while field dressing the deer. I.e. “Here is the deer’s heart, this is what pumps the blood to the rest of the deer’s body” “This is the stomach which digests the leaves, acorns and other “browse” that the deer has eaten.” Here are the tenderloins, which are muscles that run along the sides of the spinal column, and by the way they’re one of the tastiest and best parts of the deer to eat.
  • Placing meat in secure place (ice chests, etc). 

VI. Enjoying the Bounty

  • Kids love jerky, so why not take a significant amount of the venison from the youngster’s first deer and turn it into venison jerky? Jerky is very “portable” and the young hunter can share it with friends at school or with his/her ball team, etc.  
  • Another excellent choice is ground venison. Venison “burger” is incredibly versatile and can be used for burgers, chili, spaghetti sauce, sloppy joes, tacos and pot pies just to name a few. Because the venison is ground, it can be spiced with a huge variety of seasonings, which masks the intensity of wild game flavors. 

VII. Assimilating The Deer Hunting “Culture”

  • Continue with hunting experiences, “incrementally”- take it slow in terms of extending the time spent in the blind or stand, going more often, using a larger caliber rifle, allowing more independent decisions/responsibilities (determining where to place blind or stand, letting the young hunter apply his/her field dressing skills, allowing more space between you (The Mentor) and your apprentice (The Young Hunter). Remember hunting is not a competitive sport, it’s designed to be fun; and especially not an endurance test.  
  • Reinforce the “Social” aspect of Deer Hunting. One very, very effective strategy to keep your young hunter’s interest level high is to invite one or more of his/her friends (and their parent or mentor) to also hunt with you. By inviting your young hunter’s friend to also deer hunt, you give them the social interaction away from school, church, sports or other “regimented” activities that are so prevalent in today’s American kids. Establishing a Deer Camp can also reinforce the social aspect of the hunt, much more than making “Day-Trips” from home. 
  • Expanding deer hunting days and opportunity by including archery and muzzleloading equipment, setting up and managing trail cameras, establishing/maintaining food plots for deer, learning how to age deer from jawbones, and developing new ways to cook and eat venison are additional ways of keeping kids connected to the deer hunting culture.
  • A final thought involves social media. The hunting “culture” is very, very active on Facebook and many specific social media sites that cover hunting-related topics. Of course, parents should always monitor their child’s activity on any social media sights, including those with hunting themes. With parental supervision however many youth deer hunters in Oklahoma and elsewhere are sharing their hunting photos and stories among their known friends and family in a positive way. This exchange of information only reinforces the hunting culture.
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