She sits on a plastic bucket in a field with her toy wooden gun, admiring the caterpillars and butterflies, while her father waits alongside and hopes for doves to fly into shotgun range.
They are creating a memory and nurturing a seed planted a couple of years ago. She was 3 then and her dad had taken a deer during the modern gun season. Seeing the harvested animal up close intrigued her.
The daughter may decide when she is older that it would be more fun to participate than watch. If that’s the case, and her parents agree she’s ready, little stands in her way.
Each fall, Kentucky offers youth hunters special opportunities to take deer, doves, elk, furbearers, waterfowl and, now, bears. A hunter is considered a youth if they are age 15 or under at the time of the hunt.
“I encourage everyone to take a kid out hunting this fall,” said Steve Beam, Wildlife Division director for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “We have some amazing opportunities for our kids out there.”
Among the most popular is the statewide youth-only firearms deer season that runs for two consecutive days starting the second Saturday in October. This year, the dates are Oct. 10 and 11. The appropriate hunting license and deer permits are required, and all other zone restrictions and hunter requirements apply. Most of the state’s Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) are open for this special deer hunting opportunity for youth hunters, including some of the most sought-after locations, Beam said.
“Adults spend years building preference points to draw the quota hunts on places like Big Rivers and Ballard,” he said, “but if you have a child who wants to deer hunt there, just load them in the car and head that way for the October youth deer weekend.”
A new youth-only bear season coincides with the free youth weekend for deer, which this year is scheduled for Dec. 26 and 27. The youth-only bear season harvest quota is five bears of either sex. A hunting license and bear permit is required. The seven-day free youth hunting and trapping week also starts the Saturday after Christmas. It represents a great opportunity to mentor young hunters and trappers. Furbearers may be hunted or trapped and small game hunters may pursue rabbits, quail, grouse and squirrels.
“Small game hunting in general is a good place to start with youth hunters,” Beam said. “You don’t have to go on an all-day hunt in winter weather. Get out and have a good time, bring home a few squirrels and make some dumplings.”
Children under the age of 16 are not required to have licenses, permits or hunter education certification during the Free Youth Weekend for deer and the Free Youth Hunting and Trapping Week.
Outside of these special opportunities, any hunter born on or after Jan. 1, 1975 must carry a valid hunter education card or hunter education exemption permit while hunting. Pre-registration must be done on the department’s website (fw.ky.gov) in order to receive the orange hunter education card.
“Right now is the peak time to try to get into a Hunter Education class,” said Jamie Cook, Hunter’s Legacy program coordinator for Kentucky Fish and Wildlife. “It allows plenty of time for the card to be processed and the students to have their card in hand before they go into the field. It takes at least three weeks for their cards to be delivered.”
Children must be at least 9 years old to take the hunter education exam, but aren’t required to take the course until they are 12 years old.
Small game and furbearer hunters under 12 who do not have a hunter education card must hunt with an adult regardless of the hunting method. Youth hunters age 15 and under also must hunt alongside an adult if using a firearm to hunt deer, bear, turkey and elk (if drawn). In both cases, the adult must be in a position to take immediate control of the youth’s firearm or bow.
Taking a child along during a regular, non-youth specific season can be a special experience, too. Often, being there can be just as much fun as letting them be the hunter. It’s also an opportunity to stress hunter safety and ethics.
“It is so important that we pass on our heritage and legacy,” Beam said. “On a more fundamental level, it is my personal philosophy that people need to know where our food comes from. We are more likely to value soil health, clean water and healthy wild habitat if we make that direct link to our kitchen table. Whether we are growing tomatoes in the back yard or harvesting a deer and making a burger, we are actively participating in that link to the earth, and our children make that connection.”
Before taking a youth hunter afield this fall, consult the department’s website and the Kentucky Hunting and Trapping Guide, available online and wherever licenses are sold. These resources detail special youth hunting opportunities, general hunting seasons, public lands information and more.
Author Kevin Kelly is a staff writer for Kentucky Afield magazine, the official publication of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. Get the latest from Kevin and the entire Kentucky Afield staff by following them on Twitter: @kyafield.