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FWP offers tips to improve Apprentice Hunter experience

Hunting - Region 7

Tue Nov 07 08:23:00 MST 2017

Apprentice Hunter Erin Backes with her 2017 Deer.

Apprentice Hunter Erin Backes with 2017 Deer


Todd Anderson & Travis Muscha with their 2017 apprentice pheasant hunters Weston Anderson & Tyler Muscha.

2017 Apprentice pheasant hunters


Since Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks debuted the Apprentice Hunter program in 2015, more than 11,000 resident and nonresident youths have applied to hunt as apprentices. Kids used to have to wait until they were 12 and then complete a hunter education program before hunting in Montana. Now people ages 10 and older can apply for apprenticeship and hunt with a mentor for two seasons without completing hunter education.

At first, the program was met by skepticism – even from within the agency - over whether 10-year-olds are mature enough to hunt.

“My initial thoughts when this legislation passed, I was a bit reserved, thinking about all these youngsters out in the field with rifles,” said FWP Region 7 Supervisor Brad Schmitz. “It made me a bit nervous!”

But what he has witnessed in the field since then has shifted his thinking.

“The reality has been that I’ve seen parents and children together, outside, participating in hunting,” Schmitz said. “No iPads, no game stations, just time together solidifying the heritage of hunting in families. The Montana way. The way it should be. It’s one of the more positive programs I’ve seen in my career.”

But close supervision is a critical component behind its success, in Schmitz’s view. “I’m glad the moms and dads that are taking them hunting are there to provide the one-on-one supervision to help keep it safe and fun.”

Apprentices must be accompanied by a mentor who is 21 or older, and who is a relative or guardian or someone designated by a guardian.

It is up to the parents to decide whether their child is ready to hunt, but FWP offers some tips that may help them to make that decision, and to make the experience safe and positive.

Physical and emotional maturity: Is your child ready?

According to FWP Outdoor Skills and Safety Supervisor Wayde Cooperider, would-be apprentices need two things: physical and emotional maturity.

“What I mean by that is, is that youngster emotionally ready for the experience of taking an animal’s life, and dealing with that whole experience - the blood, the field dressing, and that process - and how are they going to take that in?” Cooperider asked. “And I think a big factor in how that plays out is how the parents handle it before, during and after.”

Children take a lot of cues from their parents’ behavior, he noted.

“There’s a compassion component that I think the parents need to exhibit with their kids, and patience,” Cooperider said. “Let kids know that it’s okay to not squeeze that trigger if they’re not ready. Because you don’t want to ruin them the first time out.”

If they do pull the trigger and down an animal, he advises paying close attention to the reaction.

“Be real conscious of how that youngster is dealing with the aftermath, and don’t force them into doing something they’re not comfortable with,” he said.

Field dressing an animal and eating a chunk of raw liver may be a cool tradition for some adults, but it could turn a child off to hunting in a hurry.

“There’s another component, too, and that’s being physically able to handle the firearm,” Cooperider said. “And it being sized for the kid, and having practiced with it and knowing how it functions.”

“And if they don’t practice with it, they’re not comfortable and confident in what they’re doing, and that’s a huge thing right there - that self-confidence, knowing the gun and knowing they can hit their target,” he added.

Give the child plenty of time to practice at the range or where you plan to hunt to instill that confidence.

“Try some shooting positions that they would actually use out in the field, and shoot at their target,” Cooperider advised. “That way, they’re going to know what their personal effective range is.”

Also consider that a child’s stamina is not equal to an adult’s, and plan the walking distance and activity according to his or her abilities.

Apprenticeship doesn’t require hunter education, but Cooperider will always be a proponent of kids taking the course first. They can also enroll in a course at age 10 and apprentice in the same season.

“I encourage parents, at any age, before they take their kid out hunting or the child buys their first hunting license, that they do everything they can to get that child into a hunter education class first. It just gives them a good basis to start with,” he said.

Dad overcomes doubts, lets daughter try hunting

For several years, FWP Region 7 Fisheries Manager Mike Backes taught hunter education to youths 12 and older. So when the apprentice program invited kids as young as 10 to hunt without taking a course, he was skeptical.

“I didn’t think kids were ready at that age,” Backes recalls thinking.

But his daughter, Erin, who hadn’t previously expressed much interest in hunting, suddenly had questions.

“The peer pressure in the classroom - and pictures of kids harvesting things on their Smartphones in the classroom - started the conversation,” Backes recalls.

Unlike some of her classmates, Erin wasn’t old enough to apprentice by the fall of 2015, so her dad was able to put her off until spring turkey season in 2016. He suspected that by then her interest might drop off.

“But come spring, there were some more turkey pictures that popped up,” Backes said. “She came back home again and asked to go spring turkey hunting.”

He was willing to let her try, and despite some challenges along the way, it ended up being a very positive experience for both of them and changed his perception of the program.

“Don’t let your apprehensions and fears necessarily drive the end result,” he advised. “If your child has an interest, you have to entertain it at some level, within the constraints of your fears.”

First outing a little bumpy

Backes was well aware of obstacles his daughter may face, so he tried to prepare her as best he could.

“She hadn’t done much shooting, and with spring turkey season being limited to shotgun or archery, I knew she had another hurdle of a shotgun,” he said. “We got certified and got her license, then we proceeded to go out to the range and had a big wreck with the shotgun.”

Erin had to stand and hold a 20-gauge shotgun using 7.5-shot loads, while most of her experience shooting had been with a .22 or .223 rifle on a bench or with a bipod. She had a lot of anxiety, and unfortunately her first time out cemented that. She quickly learned that shotguns can “kick” painfully, and on one round she accidentally bit her tongue a half-inch deep and was spitting blood. That ended the lesson, and her spring turkey season.

Stay with what’s comfortable

Erin didn’t give up on turkeys, but she decided she would rather pursue one with a rifle in the fall.

“Last fall, on her first night out, she shot a nice big tom with a .22,” Backes said.

They had found a roost tree, set up before dark and put up a blind. They also discussed taking a head or neck shot so she would either kill it or miss it, instead of wounding it.

“It was a very controlled environment, sitting on a chair, using a tripod with a gun mount and all,” he said. “It takes out a lot of those variables.”

That formula seemed to work well, so for the fall deer season they went to the same location and set up a blind. But deer were sparse that day, Erin was having some difficulty finding them in her scope, and it was getting late.

“So we folded up the blind, and then I see two bucks at about 200 yards,” Backes said.

He asked if she wanted to try a shot, and she did. They got the rifle and tripod set up and loaded one bullet. Unfortunately, his binoculars were no longer handy.

“I wasn’t even looking, and the gun went off, the deer raced out of sight, and I never heard the report of the gun hitting,” he said.

They came across the injured buck lying down, and it raced off into some Russian olives. Backes was feeling less than confident as they went back and got their flashlights, but he had Erin look for a blood trail. She got onto it and found the deer about 60 yards away. Upon spotting it, she jumped up and down with excitement and pride.

“I have no regrets,” Backes said, “and it turned out to be a very positive experience for her. All she sees is the end result.”

It must have made an impression on Erin, because she just bagged this year’s buck with her dad.

Preparation, planning are key

Having a first-time hunter makes it all the more important to prepare ahead of time, according to Backes.

“Definitely go out and practice with the weapon,” he said.

Knowing or scouting places where you can find animals also creates better opportunity for novice hunters. Erin had accompanied Backes into the field many times, so she was familiar with both the routine and the area they would hunt. He planned the hunt for later in the day and during warmer weather to make it more appealing to her. He also brought along shot placement cards that are used in hunter education courses.

Backes’ best advice is to take just one child hunting at a time.

“It’s not the same experience with a parent and one child as it is if another kid is there,” he said. “If they truly have an interest and you truly want the best experience, it just needs to be the two of you. Especially if you are a little bit on the fence with your kid’s maturity level or experience, or your experience. You have so much more ability to focus on them.”

Mentors are also allowed to hunt while with apprentices, but Backes thinks it should be all about the apprentice.

“It’s their chance, their opportunity, and it’s so easy as a parent to steal that opportunity from them,” he said.

In spite of all your planning, things may still go wrong, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a rewarding experience.

“You have to kind of go with the flow on a lot of things, and that’s what we did,” Backes said. “Not everything comes automatic – you have to put more effort into it.”

A successful hunt all comes down to one thing, in Backes’ mind: “The relationship between understanding your kid, and setting expectations both ways - learning what their expectations are, and sharing with them what your expectations are.”

Mentor’s role goes beyond the hunt

FWP Region 7 Hunting Access Coordinator Travis Muscha also had his doubts when the Apprentice Program debuted.

“I don’t think it will work for everybody – I just don’t,” he said.

In fact, he has friends and relatives who, after working with their kids, decided that they weren’t quite ready for the experience. Which, in Muscha’s mind, is perfectly okay.

“Don’t push them,” he advised.

But when his son turned 10 this year, Muscha was confident that Tyler had both the maturity and skills needed to apprentice.

“It’s a big step,” he said, “and if I didn’t think Tyler was ready, I wouldn’t do it.”

Hunting isn’t completely new to Tyler, who has accompanied his father several times and enjoys being in the field. They have spent a lot of time shooting and going over safety to get him comfortable with guns, and Muscha advises that other apprentices do the same.

“The importance of gun safety is number one, and everything that goes with that,” he said.

In Muscha’s view, the mentor’s responsibilities go far beyond just tagging along on one hunt.

“The apprentice mentor should have the knowledge and experience to teach the kids the safety, the ethics, the history of why people hunt,” he said. “I think it would be helpful if the kids have a background, that they’ve been out before and see what goes on, how hunting is in the field.”

“And they should be the ones who want to do it, not the parent,” Muscha stressed.

Muscha took his son grouse hunting early in the season, then Tyler was one of four youths who participated in the 2017 Pheasants Forever Youth Hunt in Miles City. They also took advantage of the youth-only deer hunt Oct. 19 and 20.

“He had some opportunities but never pulled the trigger,” Muscha said of the deer hunt. “It turns out he was scared of the ‘boom,’ so now we are packing earmuffs with us.”

As far as Muscha is concerned, Tyler has plenty of time and will harvest an animal when he’s ready. Meanwhile, they are just enjoying time spent together in the field.

“I think it’s a good program for the kids who want to do it and are ready to do it,” Muscha said of apprenticeship. “They can go out early and start getting that experience and start making those memories. That’s really what it comes down to.”