We have a problem. While statistics show we are actually doing a good job of introducing youngsters to hunting, we are unfortunately experiencing a poor rate of retention. With special youth seasons and many programs dedicated to first-time hunters, we are getting new folks out in the field for their first hunt, but once they’re on their own, participation wanes, or ends all together.

New hunters face many challenges, none more so than access to places to hunt. Often, participants in organized first-timer hunts are invited to a special piece of property. Someone who has years and years of hunting experience may even guide them. In such situations, the new hunters likely see a lot of game and probably have a chance to fill their tag.

Then turned lose on their on and reality sets in. Even if they are fortunate to have a piece of quality hunting land, they likely won’t experience the level of satisfaction found during their introductory hunt. After a few unsuccessful experiences, they are likely to just hang it up.

I’m guilty. A couple of years back, a colleague approached me about taking him hunting. I was surprised by the ask, because frankly, this fella doesn’t fit the mold of someone you would think was interested in becoming a hunter. But he said he has become very interested in where his food comes from, and would like to go hunting. I was excited, and immediately invited him to come on a turkey hunt with me.

The hunt was great. We didn’t kill anything, but we heard plenty of birds, had a few unique encounters with wildlife and shared a nice morning in the woods. When it was over, I made a few suggestions on equipment he should buy, gave him the name of a couple of public land conservation areas he should check out and wished him luck. I realize now how insignificant my introduction to hunting really was, which has been confirmed by the fact this guy has never gone hunting again.

I’m not going to make the same mistake with Chris Brown. If you recall a column from a couple of years ago, or the cover of Conservation Federation magazine from March of 2017, Chris was my partner for the 2016 Governor’s Youth Turkey Hunt and he successfully killed a turkey. And he did so in grand fashion.

After dinner in the Governor’s Mansion, I took Chris to an exceptional piece of private property, most hunters could only dream of experiencing. The turkey rich woods produced on the first day of Chris’ first hunt. Sounds great, right? In some way, yes, but in others it was a recipe for a quick exit from hunting. How could his second hunt compare?

It took me four years to kill my first doe. I blew so many hunts and missed a number of shots before I finally took a yearling doe at 14-years old. My motivation grew from a lack of success. My deep connection to hunting was forged by the struggle. When I found success, it was the culmination of a quest and a reward for intense dedication at a young age. Without the struggle, these first time hunters are not developing the roots necessary to keep the passion alive.

Chris is a Clark Middle School star on the gridiron and hardwood from Fayette, Missouri. Like most kids his age today, he’s a busy guy. Academics and athletics require near constant attention. But the hunting bug is alive in him. And I’m so pleased he has continued to ask me to take him hunting. Of course, he wanted to go back to the 600-acre private farm with the log mansion where he killed his turkey, but this season, I have brought him down a peg or two.

Chris killed a doe on our fourth hunt this year. He had many opportunities to take small bucks and other does, but we worked on patience. We also worked on woodsmanship. I am proud of this young man for being able to sit perfectly still on the ground next to a tree on the edge of an open agriculture field without spooking deer feeding only 20 yards away.

After his successful hunt, Chris gutted his doe. I don’t think expected to tackle this chore. This was his second deer and he didn’t gut the first one. I said to him that hunting isn’t all about magazine covers, now put those gloves on and get over here. He did, and I explained every step of the way. When it was over I asked him if he could do it on his own, and he said yes, and that, I am proud of.

Please don’t get me wrong. Taking a hunter out for their first hunt is great, and I sincerely commend anyone who does so. However, setting up false expectations and then sending someone out on their own too soon is a recipe for an early exit from participation. I hunted five times with Chris this year, and with each hunt I can see his skills developing. When he gets his drivers license in a couple of years, I have know doubt he will have both the experience and determination to strike out on his own, and hopefully remain a hunter for life.

See you down the trail…