When Tim Young watched his son bag his first deer, he knew he was witnessing a monumental moment in the child's life. It took three shots for the young hunter to finally hit his mark, and in those seconds Young watched as the boy's expression ranged from nervous anticipation to devastation to elation. Laughter, tears, shouts of joy--the human experience bottled into a few short minutes.
"The emotion that a kid shows is just incredible and so fun to watch," said Young, who works as a hunting and fishing guide along the Texas coast. "Kids are the only ones who can do that. You're never going to see that kind of emotion just hunting with your buddies or other adults."
Young is part of a hunting movement to impart passion for the sport to the next generation. It's a task he and others say goes beyond hunting for the fun of it, and may decide the sport's very survival.
According to Families Afield, an education and outreach program lobbying states to remove barriers to youth hunting, only 25 percent of youth from hunting households are active in the sport. Further, during the past quarter-century, the number of hunters has dropped 23 percent.
Many within the industry blame the decline on age restrictions, mandatory prerequisite coursework and certification processes they say keeps parents from being able to share hunting with their kids.
"Youth getting involved in hunting is absolutely critical to the future of the sport," said Tom Hughes, Families Afield coordinator on behalf of the National Wild Turkey Federation. "There is research to support that the younger a child starts, the more likely they are to become a hunter and the more likely they are to continue as an adult.
"If you want a lifelong participant, you have to start early, before other things claim that child's attention."
To that end, Families Afield works with politicians, agency officials, hunters and the general public, trying to change laws they deem restrictive. The cornerstone of the group's philosophy is that parents, not government, should decide when kids are ready to hunt.
"No one is in nearly as secure a position to say when his or her child is mature enough to hunt with a firearm than the parent," Hughes said. "It's an individual decision, and we're confident from what we've seen that parents will make the right choice."
In terms of overall safety, hunting-related shooting incidents have declined by 31 percent over the past 10 years, and research has shown most youth hunter incidents occurred in the absence of an adult.
When compared to other sports popular with adolescents, hunting also stacks up favorably. In a study conducted by American Sports Data, Inc., hunting ranked well behind sports such as basketball, soccer and tackle football in terms of percentage of injuries suffered.
But beyond safety issues, many youth hunting advocates say the greatest reason for getting children involved is simply to get them outside.