Relatively Random Thoughts – Youth Hunts In Trophy Areas

October 9, 2012

Browsing around on Facebook this morning, I saw a link to this post on the Outdoor Life Big Buck Zone blog.  Apparently this 13 year-old kid, hunting during a special youth hunt in Kansas, shot a 22 point buck. 

It’s a trophy of a lifetime, at least for free-range deer hunters, and something the boy will probably remember for the rest of his life.  I expect his dad is as proud as the boy… if not moreso.  The celebrity will follow him around for at least a few months, with occasional resurgences as he makes appearances with a replica mount at various sportsman’s shows. 

But this thing also gives me pause, and makes me wonder a little about youth hunts. 

I understand the idea, and generally agree with it.  Let’s let the kids get out there early, before the grown-ups start shooting and game gets scarce.  Let them have a good chance for a taste of success under the controlled environment of a youth-only season.   Not only are they not competing with adult hunters, but there are less people in the field so that safety topics can be addressed and reinforced.  It’s a great way to get a positive start in the sport.  It all makes sense.

At the same time, I also feel like too much success isn’t a good thing.  It builds a false expectation, and maybe it even emphasizes the wrong aspects of the hunt.  We’re not just going out there to kill animals.  There’s a lot to be learned from coming home empty-handed.  While I realize the youth hunts aren’t all guaranteed success, in many cases the odds are stacked in the favor of the youngsters. 

Along those same lines, youth hunts in special hunting zones with high trophy potential seem to be doubly troublesome.  I don’t necessarily have a problem with these neophytes killing great animals, especially under normal conditions.  For example, as best I can tell, the Kansas buck in the OL story was killed under free-range conditions.  Sure, it was scouted pre-season and followed with game cameras until the season began, but that’s how it would have been for any adult hunter in that family as well.  Just turns out that the kid got first shot at it, and made good. 

But in other cases, it’s not always so clear-cut.  California, for example, has several youth hunts that allow the kids to capitalize on post-migration herds of big mule deer in zones that most adult hunters would never be able to draw in the regular lottery.  A kid can kill the biggest buck of his entire life during the first hunt of his life, effectively setting the bar at a level he’ll never be able to reach again.  I’m just not sure that’s a good thing for the long run. 

First of all, there’s the apparent emphasis on antlers over the hunt itself.  Several of my friends guide these hunts, and the stories I hear about overbearing dads (always the father, never the mom) with trophy envy are downright disgusting.  Then the kids, who should be having one of the prime hunting experiences of their lives, end up driven to distraction with parental pressure to find that 30″ monster instead of just having fun on a great hunt and taking a good shot on a good buck. 

One story in particular has always bugged me, and sort of epitomizes my whole attitude.  There was a kid on the hunt in a zone where the big bucks from Yosemite migrate in winter.  There are some true giants there, but it’s all about timing.  The regular season for this zone falls at the cusp, and if there’s no serious snow in the high country, the hunt can be a total bust.  But the youth season falls well after the snow has fallen, and the valley is full of big bucks. 

This one father-son pair signed up with an acquaintance of mine to hit the field on this hunt.  The kid was stoked, and having the time of his life.  Things were looking good, and they were soon into the deer.  They glassed several decent bucks, but the kid was fine with holding out a bit, looking for something a little better.  Soon, they started to find better, including some really respectable 26″ to 28″ 4x4s.  It was a couple of days into the hunt.  It was cold, and it appeared that the kid’s attention was starting to wane.  He was ready to shoot, but his father refused to allow it.  At one point, they had a nice 4×4 broadside at less than 100 yards and the kid was set.  The guide told him it was a nice deer, but the father vehemently refused to let him shoot.  It wasn’t “big enough.” 

This happened several more times, and the guide could see the kid was visibly upset.  But each time the kid lined up the crosshairs, the father decided they had to wait for a bigger trophy.  Finally, as the week was winding down, they came up on a really good 4×5 buck.  It was easily over 28″ wide, and according to my source, one of the nicest bucks he’d seen for conformation and size… even in this zone.  The catch was, it was close to 250 yards out in a canyon, with no good opportunity to close the gap.   The kid wasn’t sure he could handle the shot, but his dad was over his shoulder… not so much in a supportive way as chiding.  By the time the deer stopped with its head down, the perfect opportunity, the boy was so shaken he sent three shots off into the landscape.  Crying and shaken, he took the rifle back to the truck and insisting that he just wanted to go home. 

I’m sure that’s an exceptional story, and I know for a fact that many father-son (or daughter, or mother) stories end on much happier notes than this one.  But it illustrates something that has always bugged me about the whole youth hunt idea.  How many times does it become an opportunity for the father (or mentor) to capitalize on the hunt for his own goals, and forget the real purpose of the experience?  How often is the kid simply relegated to the role of shooter, even when it comes to picking out the target itself?  In that case, what are they really learning?

Of course, I’m just postulating here. 

As I said, I do think there’s a lot of good that can come from these youth hunts.  But I think it’s important to remember why they exist in the first place.  For those parents or mentors who plan to take a child on a special hunt, you really need to keep in mind that this experience is really for the kid… not for you.  While it’s great to shape their thinking about the hunt, and instill your values… even your trophy values… into their minds, let’s not forget that the intent is to help them develop a love of the hunt and to gain experience that will serve them later.  When it all comes down to it, the only person who will really be able to define the success of such a hunt is the youngster… whether he kills a 22 point whitetail, a button buck, a doe, or nothing at all. 




One Response to “Relatively Random Thoughts – Youth Hunts In Trophy Areas”

  1. David on October 9th, 2012 16:02

    Excellent thoughts Phillip.

    I find that these types of encounters don’t exist just in hunting but you see it in other ventures like youth sports.

    Anytime I have coached or been involved in coaching, I have found it best to set the parents’ expectations that the coaching staff will address right and wrong. We will deal with coaching. We will decide if little Johnny should be taking shots on goal or swinging for the fence. We are pretty good judges of their ability. What parents need to do is simply encourage their child and not continue to coach after they go home.

    As my daughters have come up hunting, I have emphasized safety, fun and respect for our bounty. We hunt for food not trophies so I have helped the kids take advantage of the many California either sex junior hunts. The idea being that if we luck into a legal buck we will take it but we mainly target does. This does a couple of things. First, it conforms with our goal for harvesting meat and not trophy antlers. Second it allows us to focus on fundamentals of hunting safely. What I mean is, we are likely to see a lot of does during a hunt and it gives us the opportunity to put on a stalk and get to the most ideal shooting situation possible (safe back drop, shot distance within comfort zone, etc). It also allows us to learn about other fundamentals like wind direction and the effect it has on actually harvesting an animal. There have been times where we could have shot but did not due to safety reasons or other reasons like effective range. My older daughter is a great shot out to 100 to 150 yards. My younger one, not so much so we have to get her within 80 yards or so. All of this contributes to our hunting decisions. My younger daughter took a smaller deer last year when we were able to get her to within 30 or 40 yards instead of holding out for a bigger one where we might not get the same opportunity.

    I have also taken my daughters on guided hunts. I treat those hunts just like sports. I look at the guide as the coach and I am the parent. I am there to offer encouragement and a hug or two if a shot is missed but that is really it. I prefer to let the guide feel out the situation and to help the youngster get on an animal and make the shot. I let the guide do the coaching and to offer direction. If the guide feels the animal is respectable and the shot situation is right, then I let them be the judge.

    I tend to agree with you that trophy opportunities for kids can be a good thing given the right situation but your observations are spot on. Many parents use them as an opportunity to fill their own dreams. There really should be a mandatory orientation in which this is emphasized to the adults. It also wouldn’t be a bad thing if the guides had this type of talk with the parent before going out in the field.

    PS – one more thing….someone gave me some advice when my daughters started hunting. He said, “Don’t hunt for them. Teach them, lead them by example but don’t hunt for them.”