While rifle hunting season is still a week away, around 7,000 young Vermonters will be getting the chance to hunt for deer this weekend.
Each year, kids under 15 get the first chance at shooting a deer during Youth Hunting weekend. The Department of Fish and Wildlife says the event gives kids a chance at a successful hunt and also helps them collect information on the health of the deer herd.
Many kids start preparing weeks in advance. On a recent weekend, 13-year-old Matthew Fitzsimmons walked around an apple orchard in Cornwall, looking for signs of deer, and stopped when he saw a track.
“That’s a big deer,” he said. “He went that way. I told you they’re in here,” he said to his grandfather, James Fitzsimmons.
On Saturday morning, this is where Matthew will be for the start of youth hunting weekend:
“My plan for Saturday is to go sit in a place that we have down here, sit by it and just wait. If I can see a doe I’ll shoot her. If I see a buck, I’ll shoot him, but I can only shoot one of the two,” he said.
Fitzsimmons has been hunting for five years. He’s seen deer, but has not yet been successful.
“It’s the hesitation. You see an animal running away and you don’t want to take its life. At the same time, the meat’s really good,” he said.
Matthew needs an unarmed, licensed hunter to accompany him, so he’ll be with his grandfather, James Fitzsimmons.
“I enjoy the time with him,” he said.
Youth hunting weekend started out as a single day in 1997, and became a full weekend five years later.
The number of kids participating over the past 10 years has stayed mostly level, says Nick Fortin, the state’s deer project leader.
“If there’s any trend, it seems to follow our deer population estimates," Fortin said. "When we are predicting that there are more deer out there, there seems to be a few more tags sold."
Youth can harvest any deer without restrictions. Fortin says youth season accounts for only 10 percent of the harvest, and has no impact on the state's overall management strategies. It helps ensure a successful hunt for kids, and also gives biologists a chance to collect data on the health of the whole deer population.
“[During] the rest of our seasons, spikehorn bucks are off limits to hunters, but we’re able to sample those during the youth season. And at the same time, we can sample some does and fawns, which also gives us some important data on the health of the deer herd,” he said.
Biologists will be at 24 of the state’s reporting stations this weekend, weighing deer and collecting their teeth to determine age.
One of those stations is at Vermont Field Sports in Middlebury, where hunters are busy preparing for the coming hunting seasons. Paul Long says the shop is always busy in the fall, but they do see more kids before youth weekend.
“There’s some kids here in the store, they get dialed in for youth weekend. Usually they’re here with their father,” Long said.
Isaac Preston has been hunting with his father since he was 4. Eric Preston decided that at 8 years old, Isaac was ready to take the required hunter safety course, get a hunting license and a youth weekend permit.
“When he showed enough maturity from hunting with me for three to four years before that, we talked to a couple instructors, me and my wife, and we thought it was time,” Preston said.
Now that he’s 10, Isaac Preston has been successful twice.
“A four-pointer and an eight-pointer,” he said proudly.
The state estimates this year’s deer population at 145,000, which is slightly above normal, so there are plenty of chances for kids to get their first deer.