For Thanksgiving this year I closed a chapter in my life as a father, helping my youngest son take his first whitetail buck in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, something I’d done two seasons before with his older brother.
We’re blessed living in Idaho with numerous hunting opportunities, most of which I enjoy, but there is nothing I like more than whitetail hunting on national forest land in late November during the rut.
Over the past two decades, we have made a tradition out of Thanksgiving deer camp, starting out when I was but a 20-something kid myself, with various friends and family joining us over the years for a week of camaraderie, hunting and Thanksgiving free of the distractions of civilization. Not that it’s always easy or the most pleasant of weather, being late November in the mountains of Idaho. We’ve had years with mud to our knees, subzero temperatures that question your sanity or windstorms that makes you wonder if your camp will survive the night.
While I used to look forward to chasing the “big one” each fall, starting four years ago, it became about guiding my sons and passing on what I have learned over my years of hunting.
Now when it comes to hunting whitetail bucks, there is plenty of expert opinion and information out there for anyone who wishes to read through it. Most of it is from hunters better than I, and most all of it is true. But most all of it is wrong for Idaho. A lot of what you read in magazines about whitetail hunting private ground in the Midwest doesn’t apply to the rugged mountains and thick forests of Idaho. Mountain whitetail bucks are a very elusive creature, mostly nocturnal and hard to hunt.
During the rut, however, when they focus on passing on their DNA to the next generation, the bucks lose some of their elusiveness and can be more easily taken. But that’s also always dependent upon the weather, moon phase, hunting pressure, predators in the area, food sources, snow depths and countless other factors that are always changing and causing you frustration when you think you have finally figured it all out, only to be reminded you haven’t. And there lies the addicting factor of deer hunting for those who enjoy a challenge.
Now I’m not going to offer tips on deer hunting in this column. That’s been done a hundred times over. And there’s no way I’m telling you where my favorite hunting spots are. Go find your own. But over the past four years as my boys became hunters, it has come to light just how much they learn from deer hunting and our week in the woods. It’s not just about hunting. It includes life skills, things that are better learned by doing and not just by reading about it in a book or online.
So for those other parents needing to win the argument of why their kid needs to skip a day of school to go hunting, or maybe just to help those of you who don’t hunt understand some of the positive aspects of hunting, here is a list of educational observations I have made note of while taking my own kids into the field.
First and foremost, responsibility. There’s nothing more serious than the business of safely handling a firearm. There is no room for mistakes or errors. It is something that has to be done right 100 percent of the time. It is a growing experience for your child to do something in life where there is no goofing around, where they have to be focused and responsible. You will start to catch glimpses of the adult they will become when teaching and entrusting them with this kind of responsibility. Start them young with a BB gun and build from there, so by the time they are of hunting age, gun safety is second nature.
Meteorology and astronomy. A hunter is always concerned about the weather. Will it snow? Will it rain? When will the next storm arrive? When will it clear? The weather, along with the brightness of the moon, can play into how the hunting will be—something my kids quickly learned by listening to me rant about the weather all the time during deer season.
Biology. The deer hunter is a student of biology, the breeding cycles of deer, their habitat and basic daily life cycles. Most children get to dissect the random frog or fish in school, but a young hunter gets a firsthand field study of the anatomy of a deer. This starts with knowing where to shoot—the location of the heart and vital organs—then with the gutting of the internal organs and the cutting and care of the meat that fills the freezer with healthy meals for the year.
Physics. The accurate use of a firearm or even a bow is a field study in physics. Shot placement is key for a quick, clean kill, so a hunter must have a good understanding of their projectile velocity, drop at various ranges because of gravity, kinetic energy upon impact and other environmental factors.
Engineering and construction. From setting up tents to hanging meat poles, a young hunter will always be busy tying knots, using axes, saws and shovels as they learn through trial and error how to survive in the woods and shape the environment around them.
Patience. One of the keys in leading a happy and successful life is patience, and nothing can test your patience more than deer hunting. The ability to sit still and quietly for extended periods of time is not something easy for an energetic youngster to do, but it is a great life skill for them to master. This quiet time also allows a child to be lost in their thoughts, a healthy and often lacking thing for young minds these days, with the constant stream of digital information being thrown their way.
Preparedness. Starting at a young age I had my boys packing their own clothes and gear for our adventures in the outdoors. I, of course, usually double-check that they have the necessities, but it’s amazing how quickly they learn to bring what they will need when you let them suffer a little with wet socks because they only brought one pair, for example. This may seem a little hard, but the wilds of Idaho can be hard, and it also can kill you in its extremes if you are unprepared. Preparedness is a good lesson to learn while dad is still there with a hidden pair of dry socks, rather than when you are 20 and out on your own in subzero mountains with no dad to bail you out.
Teamwork and people skills. Nothing builds bonds like overcoming adversity with others. Learning to work with others, to rely on them and, more importantly, have people be able to rely upon you. All of this comes into play while hunting with friends and family. There is nothing easy about packing out a deer from miles back in the timber, but it definitely can be made easier when you have the right group of people there to help you.
I’m sure I could come up with countless other things learned as a young hunter, and I’m sure there are plenty I’ve overlooked. But in summary, taking a kid deer hunting isn’t just about killing a deer, it’s about teaching them numerous hands-on life lessons and skills, along with the workings of the world they and the deer both inhabit.