My 5-year-old son just received — from his grandpa, my dad — my Daisy Red Ryder BB gun that I first got when I was about his age. And, he got a hand-me-down little compound bow and arrows from my teenage nephew at the same time. Of course, this made me super excited and had me dreaming about taking him to the deer stand with his BB gun to chase away squirrels.
Him, though? Well, Bobby wasn’t nearly as excited as me. We’ve gone out with the BB gun and the bow and shot at targets a few times, but it’s always at my prompting. And, when I asked him if he wanted to go sit in the deer stand with me … he very politely declined. The call of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Star Wars Rebels is just too strong in this one.
But, that’s OK. He asks me to go outside and play football or baseball, or to walk around our property and feed the catfish in the pond — when he’s ready to do that. And, I’m confident that he’ll get into hunting on his own time-frame. Or, maybe he won’t, and my disappointment at that would be really insignificant compared to the mental damage I would be doing if I forced him to participate in something that he just doesn’t like.
Don’t write me off as being weak just yet — we have our fights when I make him eat his vegetables. I’m not going to let him decide he doesn’t like something without trying it first. But, I’m going to take the approach to some things that I really care about — like hunting — that doctor’s take in the Hippocratic Oath: “First, do no wrong.” After that, the real question will be: When he’s ready, how will I make sure he likes it?
BB Guns, .22s, and Soft Recoil Pads
Listen, there is no room for macho with kids who are new to hunting. The fastest way to make any experience unenjoyable is to make it physically painful. So, start kids off shooting with a BB or pellet gun. Let them get deadly accurate. Then, move them up to a .22 rimfire rifle — and put hearing protection on them. Let them get deadly accurate. Then move them up to a small center-fire rifle.
A .223 will kill a deer dead-right-there. A .243 might give a little more margin for error. Shot placement is critical, and the more your child flinches at recoil, the less likely he or she is to aim small and miss small. We even made an infographic about caliber selection where we grouped some light-kicking rounds.
Even rifles and shotguns with light recoil can be too much for a lightweight kid to handle comfortably. In those circumstances, there are plenty of soft recoil pads that can be swapped onto a stock to further reduce the kick. Pain serves no purpose, so for a child, try to eliminate it altogether.
Interactive Target Practice
You know why video games are awesome? They move and blow up and — well, they’re exciting. You know why generations of kids shot glass bottles and left messes all over back-40s and public land around the country? Yeah, because they “blow up.”
You have to start kids with target practice because you need them to be confident that they will be successful. But, you can’t just make them shoot paper, because that’s not very exciting. Thankfully, there are tons of options outside of glass bottles — spinning targets, bouncing targets, “bleeding” targets, shoot and see targets, and of course, clay targets.
There is a reason why most hunters traditionally have started hunting small game — plentiful shooting opportunities. I didn’t start my son off fishing for bass. I started him with a worm and bobber for panfish, so he could be successful and experience the fun of the sport. And, I won’t start him hunting in the deer blind. He’ll sit next to me in the woods for squirrels, and we’ll have a 20-gauge and target loads with a nice soft recoil pad for doves. Why not a .410 for even easier shooting? Remember, success is the key, and I want him throwing several hundred 7 ½ pellets out there at those doves for a better chance at connecting.
Actually, as soon as he masters his Red Ryder, I’ll move him up to a pellet gun and he can keep the starlings, grackles, and squirrels out of our garden. I already know that if he considers something “hard to do,” he’s unlikely to keep at it right now. Hunting isn’t known for being easy, but increasing the chances of success early on can be done.
A Hunter’s Education and Educating a Hunter
Of course, I’ll want him to pass his Hunter Ed course sometime early on. That’s something we’ll do together, and I’ll be talking about it as a rite of passage — not like it’s schoolwork or a grind. We already spend a lot of time reading tracks when we’re out in the woods — he’s a dinosaur nut, so we always have our heads down looking for fossils, anyway. I think that’s a key to getting kids interested in hunting, too — make it relatable to another hobby or interest of theirs.
Don’t be afraid to get the young ones into the nitty-gritty of hunting, either. Bobby likes to watch me skin squirrels and breast out doves — he thinks it is “gross,” but he kind of likes gross. He likes seeing the heart and other organs, because it was all theoretical to him before he saw it in person. And, he’s an avowed carnivore, so he knows we’re eating the deer or squirrel or doves that daddy killed. He knows exactly how they get from field to plate, and if he’s not squeamish now, he probably never will be.
The bottom line is — I love hunting and I love my son. I want my son to love hunting. But, no matter what happens, I’ll always love my son. More — I’ll always love my son, more. As long as he never becomes a <shudder> … vegetarian.