I’ve always had mixed emotions about the mentored youth hunts ever since the Pennsylvania Game Commission began implementing them in 2006.
Today, youth under the age of 12 and who are accompanied by a licensed, adult mentor, can hunt for deer (buck and doe), fall turkey, spring gobbler, woodchucks, squirrels and coyotes.
Even junior hunters — those between the ages of 12 and 16, enjoy their own early seasons for squirrels, rabbit, pheasant, spring gobbler and antlerless deer.
While the mentored program and junior seasons were touted as extra opportunities to get kids into the woods with a long term goal of getting them hooked on hunting, I believed the programs sent a bad message — one that implies killing is paramount to the act of hunting itself.
Before the mentored program and junior seasons, there was nothing stopping a parent from letting their child tag along while they hunted. I did it with my dad many times — sitting in treestands and walking the fall woods in archery season.
But I didn’t carry a gun or bow, nor would I be allowed to take a shot if a deer presented itself.
I could only watch.
Being allowed to accompany my dad on hunts taught me a great deal about safety and ethics. It also built up my anticipation for the day I turned 12 and could pin a junior license on the back of my hunting coat.
I didn’t need to kill anything to gain that desire to become a hunter. Just seeing what it was all about — firsthand — was more than enough motivation.
So does today’s mentor program take things a step too far by allowing youth under the age of 12 to be the ones to squeeze the trigger? Are we basically saying that yes, hunting is fun, but you need to harvest something to really enjoy the sport?
That was my concern, but lately I see another side.
This year, I’ve encountered more parents, and kids, who were legitimately excited to participate in the mentored youth program. Same thing with the early junior seasons.
The youth pheasant hunts held around the state are extremely popular, and the ones held in our region have been hugely successful. And the early antlerless deer season, which just concluded Saturday, generated quite a buzz as anxious parents and their excited kids looked forward to sharing a treestand with the hope of taking that first doe.
And perhaps things are different today than when I tagged along with my dad as a kid years ago. There are more demands on a child’s time — sports mainly — that can lead to tough decisions. Football practice or a pheasant hunt?
It can be a tough choice for a kid, especially if they never experienced the joys of hunting before.
That extra opportunity for a day afield can lead to a memory that lasts a lifetime.
With that in mind, the mentored program and junior seasons do have value.
But they need some tweaks.
With the mentored program, there should be a minimum age and a hunter education course — to some degree — needs to be required. A couple of years ago, I asked a Game Commission official why kids in the mentored youth program aren’t required to take the hunter education course. He said they can’t comprehend it. The course was designed for kids 12 and older.
There should be an education course for any child participating in the mentored program. When it comes to safety and ethics, nothing should be left to chance.
Safety is also an issue for the junior seasons as well, particularly rabbit, which runs from Oct. 12-19. It’s early and the vegetation is still thick, which could make it challenging for a novice hunter to differentiate between a rabbit or a beagle bounding through the lush undergrowth.
With a few changes, the mentored youth program and junior seasons could be even more successful. The increased opportunity for kids to get outdoors is a good thing, as long as they do it safely and are taught that a enjoyable hunt doesn’t always have to culminate with a kill.