For various reasons, I wanted to be in the woods at sunrise and had arranged to pick up my hunting partner at 5 a.m.
“I’ll be ready,” said Stephen, then 12. Somewhat to my surprise, he was.
It was opening morning of Kentucky’s youth-only firearm deer weekend, which generally is slated for the second weekend in October (Oct. 8-9 this year). While the state’s archery deer season opens in early September and the first half of crossbow season begins Oct. 1, the October youth-only gun hunt literally affords youngsters 15 and younger the first shot at a deer.
We’d been granted access to a friend’s farm for the deer hunt, which was Stephen’s first. I unlatched the gate, drove through, and parked.
“We’ll walk in from here,” I said. “You close the gate.”
He gave that preteen, I-know-everything, puzzled look.
“Mr. Albert [not his real name] is nice enough to let us hunt on his farm,” I said. “You always leave things as you found them. The gate was closed when we got here, so we need to close it behind us.”
We gathered our gear and tracked along the edge of the woods by flashlight to a ground blind I’d set up the day before. It had rained during the night and was still cloudy. The rain had left the woods dripping but failed to dampen Stephen’s enthusiasm.
“You think I’ll get a deer?”
“I think you might get a chance.”
We took our time setting up: a couple of folding stools, cross sticks for a rifle rest, and all the other paraphernalia hunters pack. By the time our blind camp was made, the morning silhouette had emerged: cut-over field flanking a small creek, which was muddied from the overnight rain. I dug a Thermos from my pack.
“I got a Coke.”
The October youth-only firearm weekend has been in place for several years. It’s unknown how many kids participate in the hunt (they must be accompanied by an adult), but state wildlife officials estimate 5,000 to 6,000.
Based on the number of licenses sold, hunter numbers nationwide have been decreasing for more than a decade. Theories abound and reasons vary: The general population is shifting from rural to urban (true). Youngsters are faced with more demands and distraction for their time and attention (maybe). There are fewer adults willing to take a youngster hunting (unknown). There are fewer places to hunt (true).
Kentucky is a bit of an exception to this general downward slide in hunter numbers. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, hunting license sales in Kentucky dropped from 666,695 in 2005 to 594,389 in 2015, although during the last three years (2013-15), the numbers have jumped slightly.
Deer hunting in the state, however, has never been more popular. In 2015, Kentucky hunters checked 155,730 deer. The hunter success rate hovers around 35 percent.
Kentucky game officials make no secret that they hope the youth-only October firearm weekend hunt will bring new hunters into the fold. But that’s not the only reason kids get the first shot at a Kentucky whitetail. It’s not even the main reason, according to Gabe Jenkins, the state deer program coordinator.
“It’s just a good time to be in the woods,” said Jenkins. “The weather’s usually nice. It’s still warm but not too hot. We just want to give youngsters a chance to get out and enjoy themselves.”
A few minutes after 7, three does appeared. Two walked to the creek, but the third stayed near the trees—55, maybe 60 yards from our blind. It wasn’t until she stepped from the shadows that I realized what I thought was a doe was a spike buck.
“Can I shoot?”
“Do you have a clear shot?”
“I think so.”
“Then don’t shoot. You can’t think so. You have to know. You have to be sure. Pulling a trigger is serious business.”
One of the two does at the edge of the creek danced away, then stopped. It had begun to drizzle. The spike buck took a step toward the creek.
“Can I shoot?”
“Do you have a clear shot?”
“OK. Relax. Take your time. Make a good shot. Go ahead, if you’re ready.”
The rifle roared, but aside from the ringing in my ears, the silence instantly returned. I shook the young hunter’s hand.
“Unload your rifle, but bring it with you. Shells, too.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re going to get your deer.”
Kentucky’s archery deer season is open through Jan. 16. The first split of crossbow season is open Oct. 1-16. The early muzzleloader hunt is Oct. 15-16. For more information, check the 2016-17 Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide or go to fw.ky.gov.
Readers may contact Gary Garth at firstname.lastname@example.org