The Gift of Mentoring: Early Education Keeps Hunting Flame Burning

By Tom Fegely

 The word “mentor” has found a growing use in hunting circles in recent years as a reference to hunters who give of their time, knowledge and dedication in introducing kids to hunting. Mentoring is nothing new, although it was once more a familiar practice than it is today.
“My Pop and Uncle Russell were my mentors I suppose,” a friend said when we discussed the practice one night in deer camp. “I learned a lot about work from them – the kind of work that comes from owning a milk business. “My education included hunting,” he added. “But you don’t see that as much today because there don’t seem to be as many kids who have someone to show them what hunting’s all about.”

It’s certainly true that today there are fewer youth whose boots are muddied by farmland soil. What was once country is today suburbia, with patches of hillside woods and farm fields yielding to costly houses. The influence of peers and the daily distractions of sports, school activities, computers, computer games and just “hanging out” now cost kids big chunks of time, energy and money.

Hence, the stage is set as the number of youngsters who hunt continues its rapid decline. Only 4.23 percent of Americans ages 6-15 old hunted in the year 2000. As for newcomers to hunting, studies show that the older a person is when he or she begins to hunt, the less likely such a person will stick with it. Conversely, when it comes to youth, the younger a person is when properly introduced to hunting, the more likely he or she will stay with it. The average hunter’s age is 47. That’s much of the reason the hunting industry has adopted mentoring via youth hunting programs as one of its bigger campaigns. But that’s another story. In an upcoming issue of Whitetail News we’ll focus on some new and promising programs such as recently passed legislation in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate titled Families Afield. It appears to be a commendable effort to recruit new youth hunters and to retain or encourage the return of kids and adults who may have given up hunting for one reason or another. Mentors will play the key role in this exciting program, which will stretch nationwide via the efforts of state game agencies, the U.S. Sportsmen’s Alliance, National Wild Turkey Federation and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.


The key to bolstering hunter numbers – especially youth hunters – is for adult sportsmen to become aware of the influence they can have as an “each one, teach one” candidate. Understanding the role of mentors is the initial order of business whether as part of an informal program or one organized by a sportsmen’s club or special interest group. Serious mentoring is more than taking a couple hours to show a kid how to shoot a deer gun or volunteering time to help teach a hunter safety course. The way to keep a flame burning in a young hunter’s heart is to get him or her into the sport early and often. One type of mentoring is provided by experienced and concerned adult hunters whose students may be young family members, neighbors and others whose moms, dads and uncles are members of hunting camps or have private lands on which to hunt. The purpose of their volunteer participation is to delve a bit deeper into the preparation that makes for safe and successful hunts. Hunting is more than dressing in camo or orange and following someone into the woods.


Late last summer as my wife and I began tending to our 35-acre Pennsylvania woods in preparation for the upcoming bow season, we issued an invitation for four of our eight grandkids to help out in readying the land for the fall hunts. Ranging in ages from 7 to 11, the four tykes (three boys and a girl) had all expressed interest in hunting, but they knew they would have to wait for their twelfth birthdays. As a reward for their help and not wanting them to become discouraged by waiting too long a time, we (my wife, two sons and me) offered to allow them to accompany us on a hunt, but not until they completed a job or two to benefit the deer woods and the hunters using it. Step one was for mentor and student to visit the 10 treestands and two blinds scattered across the property. The first order of business was to check the stability of each stand and make safety strap adjustments. A determination was then made as to which blinds would best benefit from planting a fast-growing annual to serve as a deer attractant. That was followed by reading the directions on the bag and preparing the soil and sowing seed accordingly. of the work was done by the youngster in charge of a particular treestand. It didn’t take long before the kids were raking, clearing weeds, seeding, liming, fertilizing and dirtying their hands in exchange for joining their mentor on a hunt later in the year. As none of the youngsters were yet eligible for a license (age 12 and older), they did not carry a deer rifle or bow afield. Only the mentor carried a bow or firearm. The youngsters were given unloaded BB guns to simulate the need for firearms safety and learn how guns and bows are taken into and out of treestands via a long rope. The favorite site was a large treestand we named the “Double-wide,” which stands at the far western corner of the property. As the kids hunted on different days, they all had use of the Double-wide. This avoided elbow room problems as the entire blind, covered in a camo pattern, allowed for a bit more fidgeting and leg movement than would be enjoyed in an open stand.


One of the reasons for making the kids earn the privilege of hunting is to create an understanding of the varied efforts that go into preparing for productive time afield, from habitat work to treestand repairs. One of the mentor’s jobs was to supply the youngster with rapidly-germinating seeds such as Secret Spot, my personal favorite for embellishing mini-plots scraped out in the middle of the woods. No tillage is necessary and weeds can be removed with a garden rake. Even a 7-year-old like my granddaughter made a substantial effort in clearing the small plot, broadcasting seed and learning about this new aspect of deer hunting. Such “personal miniplot” patches are best placed 10-15 yards from a treestand or ground blind, which will be visited several times before the season and, perhaps, a time or two during the season with one of the family mentors. Last year I noticed the kids taking pride at finding deer droppings, tracks, rubs, scrapes and any other sign that the plot had visitors. Additional pleasure was also derived as seeds began to sprout and the tiny plots began to “green up.” For the kids, the term “food plot” began to show up in their conversations. “Getting kids involved early on is what is going to make them stick with hunting,” said Bill Wary, a retired school psychologist and lifelong hunter. “There’s always plenty of competition for their time, and the better their background and understanding of hunting, the better the chance they will stay with it.” If you’re one of those hunters who want to give something back, consider adopting a youngster as a hunting partner. It may demand a bit of sacrifice on your part, but being a mentor will not be without its rewards, whether it’s helping build or position a treestand or sowing and tending your own food plot. Mentoring is something each of us can do. That is, to take it upon ourselves to introduce at least one potential young hunter to the outdoors and hunting this year and every year. It doesn’t necessarily demand going afield with a gun or bow, although it may, depending on the youngster’s age and maturity level. Simply exposing a kid to the outdoors by taking him or her along on a pheasant or squirrel hunt or walking in a woodlot and looking for signs of wildlife is often the way to open the door ... and open a kid’s eyes and mind to hunting and the great outdoors.