By David Link
As deer season is around the corner for most areas, I thought it would be helpful to share some of my experiences hunting as a kid and teenager. I learned a lot from both success and failures, and much of what I know now was first formed out there in the field as a kid. I’ve also noticed that there isn’t much coverage on youth hunting out there on the web, and I believe I have a thing or two to say on the subject, especially since my Dad and I were learning how to make a hunt comfortable and successful for me together. Every generation has their new techniques and hunting gadgets, but knowing what I now know, let me share with you what I learned and what I would do differently.
I was eased into deer hunting when I was younger, and its certainly a process I would recommend for other first time hunters. The first firearm I shot was a single shot .410, and it didn’t kick too much which made it a great place to start. After some target shooting with it, I moved on to hunting rabbits and upland game like pheasants and quail. I had pretty good success with rabbits, but I didn’t have much luck ever coming across a pheasant, and the quail moved so quickly I could rarely ever get a shot off.
After a couple years with the .410, we upgraded to a Mossberg youth model 20 gauge with a sleek (for the time) camo finish on it. This was a big step up for me, and I certainly had more shot to work with than the .410 which increased my chances of hitting game. Why did we go with a youth model? Well I wasn’t the biggest guy, and the shotgun’s weight and length of pull was very friendly for me. (side note: to this day my Dad still takes this gun rabbit hunting because it’s super light and easy to shoulder in a flash, and he is over 6 ft.) I could hike all day with it, and shoulder it quickly without the gun snagging on my hunting clothes. I started duck hunting with this gun too, but to be honest the loads weren’t that great for ducks and they were more like an annoyance a goose than anything else. But I got out there and started to learn how to hunt in the cold.
The final step was turning to deer hunting with the youth model shotgun. To start, I hunted on the ground against a large tree, and ideally we chose a spot with some surrounding brush as to help with my concealment. We had considerable difficulty sighting in the shotgun to perform well with slugs, and we must’ve tried nearly ten different brands and varieties in 20 gauge before we found something that worked. Looking back, I think the short barrel of the youth model shotgun was definitely not helping, and I don’t think I was comfortable shooting from the bench rest the way my Dad was accustomed to shoot. All in all I think my initial failure at the range was due partly to my gun not being especially meant for slugs and my inexperience.
It was at the range that I learned the importance and challenges of sighting in your shotgun for slugs, but there were plenty of other lessons to go along with this one. Sometimes these were minor panic moments when I was by myself hunting, and other lessons were second hand from watching my uncles and Dad. One notable lesson came right there at the rifle range: ammo works differently out of different guns and for different shooters. This one has carried over into any firearm I use, and just because you shoot Remington ammo out of one firearm doesn’t mean that it will work great for others. Of course there are exceptions to this, but don’t be married to one brand if it is not working ideally out of your firearm.
Another notable lesson came when I field dressed my second deer. The first year out I shot a smaller doe, which was a fine start. But on year two, I had a large 8-pointer cross my path early in the season, and my shot placement was so good he only traveled a short distance afterward (you’ve got to put in that time at the range…) The bad part was he settled right into a fairly large creek, and I had to drag him out. Once out of the water, I set to field dressing him along the bank, which was muddy and covered with leaves. So not only was I sinking into the mud as I worked on the deer, at one point I set down my knife to adjust the deer. What happens to a wood-grained game knife when it is set on top of fall leaves? It disappears of course. The lesson here was choose a clear place to dress your deer and keep track of that knife.
I could go on and on, but one other lesson that was simple to learn was to breathe and move slowly both during and after the hunt. No one can really prepare you for the rush when you’re holding your gun waiting for the deer to turn for the right shot, but breathing and moving very slowly will increase your chances to get the best shot. The same goes for after the shot. If you think your shot was effective on the deer, take your time afterward. Tracking the deer works best if you go slow and are very observant, but I’ll admit those first couple times I almost wanted to run after the deer. So lesson learned, take your time and you’ll find that blood trail.
Hindsight is 20/20 of course, but knowing what I know now, here are some things I would do differently, and you can certainly engage in similar updates either for yourself or the youth you bring along on a hunt. Of course, now I work for a gear company, and a few of these items are gear related because it can really improve the quality and success of your hunt. I’m more aware of the gear and upgrades in the hunting market now then I (or my Dad) was back then, and of course it’s important to note that some of these were not popular or available in the 90s. That said, it’s fun to think about how my hunts would have changed with this extra gear.
As I mentioned earlier, I began hunting by taking the break action single shot .410 out rabbit and upland hunting. Looking back, I wish we would’ve done more coyote hunting. We really only hunted game we could eat, and coyote certainly isn’t good for that, but the woods adjacent to my back yard and the other areas we hunted had plenty of coyotes, and I think taking a few would’ve been good practice for me.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that I wasn’t exactly a crack shot with the shotgun bead sights as a kid. I certainly got better with time, but I do wonder how a reflex red dot would’ve impacted my hit success as a kid. Now there’s certainly a delicate balance here, and I wouldn’t want to be completely dependent on the red dot and cast aside the bead sights permanently. But those struggles on the range and those misses in the field may have ended up differently if I had a red dot sight mounted on my shotgun. I would definitely go with a parallax-free sight and a small dot for those longer distance shots. One last detail, I’ve never hunted with a red dot, but I do find myself wondering if it would be detected by a wise old buck.
I was definitely at a disadvantage hunting from the ground against a tree, and I did have a few tense stare downs with deer that were near me. That said, I still managed to harvest a deer every year I hunted as a teen, and the last 10-pointer was one that almost any hunter would be satisfied with as a year’s harvest. I don’t find myself wishing I used a blind because I think it would’ve severely limited my perception of the area. However I was still very exposed against those trees, and the older mimicry camo coveralls I used could certainly give away my position if I was caught moving or adjusting myself against the tree. So looking back, I think hunting exposed against a tree would’ve gone even better if I wore concealment camo like Sitka Gear’s Optifade or Predator Camo. These days it’s easier to size youth into hunting clothes too.
Those days plinking at the range or sighting in the shotgun were great, but they were somewhat rare. I do believe I would have benefited from more time plinking with iron sights and practicing shotgun skills with clays. One other thing, it was always early fall when we went back to check on the sighting of my shotgun, but perhaps it would’ve been wise to do a short session in the spring, perhaps after turkey season. That way I would’ve stayed a bit sharper.
I was pretty cold in the duck blind and deer hunting as a kid, and this is something that is fairly common for a lot of youth. I usually wore common long johns or something similar as my base layer back then, but these days base layers are much more advanced. A nice warm base layer (scent blocking would’ve been even better) would’ve been great as a kid. Merino is what I would put on my “looking back wishlist.”
As I said I was cold hunting as a kid, but it was my feet that always wanted to throw in the towel on the hunt first. The solution at that time was an extra pair of wool socks, but that sometimes made my feet feel like they were stuffed in a boot that was too small, and eventually they’d still get cold anyway. We never really used hand and foot warmer packets (I don’t know why), but one thing I’ve seen lately that I really wish I had back then was heated insoles. The ability to turn them up or down with a wireless remote would’ve been the coolest thing ever for a kid with cold feet. Thermacell has just released a new set of rechargable heated soles that I would’ve loved back then.
There are some thoughts on activities and gear that would’ve improved my hunts back then. Hopefully as a new hunter or a parent, these ideas will help your future hunts.