Junior pheasant hunts bring youngsters together
Things have come full circle for Samantha Pedder.
The Westmoreland County native hunted pheasants for the first time a handful of years ago when she was 16. The experience took place at Mammoth Park, over birds stocked specifically for teens.
These days, Pedder is coordinating those events.
Hunting outreach coordinator for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, she's in charge of the agency's junior pheasant hunt program.
One of its two components is the organized hunts — the kind Pedder took part in — that are a result of cooperation between the commission and sportsmen's groups around the state. The clubs sign up kids looking to hunt pheasants. The commission gives them two birds for each such student.
The kids show up at a club, take part in some kind of safety program, reviewing things like shoot/don't-shoot scenarios, then shoot a few clay birds to get warmed up before going hunting, usually with a veteran bird hunter and his dog.
Sometimes they get to see live birds before going out, and there's often a free meal involved afterward.
The hunts won't occur until Oct. 11 and Oct. 18. But registration already is underway.
If history holds, they will fill up quickly, drawing about 1,000 youngsters all told, each ready to hit the fields just as Pedder did, looking for the chance to bag a cackling pheasant.
“I'd never hunted pheasants before that day, and now I'm still at it,” Pedder said. “It was a great introduction.”
The program has been around since 2002. Junior hunters don't need a hunting license to participate, though they must have passed a hunter-safety course.
Pedder said she's not aware of any accidents at the hunts.
The hunt organized by Apollo-Spring Church Sportsmen's Club in Armstrong County, which has been involved with the program since the beginning, never has had an accident, club member Rocco Ali said.
That's a credit to the volunteer instructors and mentors who walk with the young hunters, he said.
But it's a testament to the youngsters, too, he added.
“What I've noticed over the years is that the kids often act safer than many adults. There are shots that I might have taken that they won't,” Ali said. “And I'm proud of them for that.”
“They're a little more cautious oftentimes than someone older who's maybe willing to push the boundaries,” said Jeff Uschak of Kingston Veterans and Sportsmen's Club in Latrobe, which has been hosting hunts for at least 10 years.
The hunts serve a specific purpose.
Research in Pennsylvania and across the country shows young people most often stop hunting between ages 17 and 24, Pedder said.
“It's not that they lost interest in hunting necessarily. It's just that they have so much going on in their lives, with college and work and what not, that hunting takes a back seat,” Pedder said.
Research also shows youngsters who try small-game hunting before those ages are more likely to return to the fold later than are those who didn't hunt small game, she added.
“These hunts are an attempt to help span that gap,” she said. “And it's a perfect opportunity if you think about it. Sportsmen from the clubs that host hunts are there to be the role models. We're providing birds, so there's opportunity to enjoy success. And the guides with dogs are showing them the right way to go about it.”
Many of the youngsters who show up come from some kind of hunting background, said Dan Saffer, who runs the junior hunt put on by Rostraver Sportsmen's Association. But there are some real newcomers each year, too.
“For some of these kids, this is their first time out hunting ever. It really is,” Saffer said. “And on rare occasions, when they show up at the trap line, that's the first time they've ever fired a gun.”
The program is growing. Initially, clubs were limited to holding one hunt per year and for no more than 50 kids. That has changed, Pedder said. Clubs can host two hunts and take as many kids as they can handle.
The program has grown by about 30 percent over the last two years as a result, she added.
“It's the best deal out there for any hunters that age,” she said.
The adults who put the hunts on get a lot out of it, too, Saffer said. There's a lot of time involved in putting a hunt on, but it's worth it, he added.
“It's a good time,” Saffer said. “To see them out there and to see their excitement when a bird does flush, that's fun.”