I like the concept behind the Pennsylvania Game Commission's mentored youth hunting program, but it needs a change.
The PGC board recently discussed the possibility of placing a minimum age for those children participating in the program. Currently, any child under the age of 12 can go hunting with an adult mentor. They can hunt for squirrels, woodchucks, antlered and antlerless deer, fall turkey, spring gobbler and coyotes.
The purpose of the program is to give children an opportunity to experience hunting and hopefully keep them involved in the sport as they grow older.
I see no problem with a child as young as 9 or 10 heading into the woods with an adult to hunt squirrels with a .22 rifle. Even woodchucks, for that matter.
But when it comes to the other species on the list (deer and turkey), a high-powered rifle or a shotgun – preferably a 12-gauge, but at the very least a 20-gauge with magnum shells – is needed.
And for that reason, so is a minimum age.
During the board's work session meeting last month, commissioner Ronald Weaner voiced his support for a minimum age. Weaner said he is skeptical that the program is being followed as it should after seeing photos of children as young as five posing with deer they allegedly shot during a mentored youth hunt.
In my opinion, one of two things is happening here: either the adult mentor shot the deer and used the child's mentored youth permit tag, or a 5-year-old actually had a high-powered rifle in his or her hands and shot a deer.
The former is illegal and the latter is simply scary.
Commissioner Ralph Martone cautioned against setting a minimum age until it's determined just how many 4, 5, 6 and 7-year-olds are actually hunting under the program. The numbers may be very small, he said, and don't need to be regulated.
Martone has a point.
According to PGC figures, of the 33,864 mentored youth permits sold, only 4,940 were for children less than 1-year-old to age seven. Yes, permits have been bought for babies and 1-year-olds. PGC spokesman Jerry Feaser said this is more of a novelty than anything – a chance for someone to say they've had a hunting license since they were born.
After the age of 7, the permits sales really begin to spike. More than 4,400 permits were bought for 8-year-olds, increasing each year to age 11 with 9,153 permits.
Since so few sales are generated by children younger than 8, placing a minimum age of, say, 9, wouldn't hurt.
But the program should still be accessible for younger kids as well. Allow them to participate by joining mom or dad afield, just don't let them carry a gun. As they get older, perhaps by age 9 and 10, allow the mentored youth to hunt squirrels with a .22. When they reach age 11, then it may be a good time to allow them to hunt deer with a rifle, or turkeys with a shotgun.
After that, if they like it, they can become license buyers at age 12.
Small steps need to be taken when introducing a child to the sport of hunting. Squirrels at 9 and 10, deer and turkeys at 10 and 11. For those younger, take away the option of shooting at game but don't take away the chance to hunt.
Bring them into the deer woods with you in December and let them experience the thrill of seeing a trophy buck. Allow them to sit beside you and listen to an approaching gobbler sound off in the springtime woods.
Just don't allow them to shoot a gun right away.
Let them get a little older first.