I can still remember the feeling like it was yesterday. The feeling I got when I finally turned 12 years old and could purchase my first big game hunting tags. I remember my hand shaking as I signed my name to my conservation license. In my mind, I was officially grown up. But, I also remember the anguish of having to wait until I was 12 years old to be able to hunt ANYTHING. From around the age of 10 until I turned 12 felt like a decade of waiting. Flash forward to today, and young Montana hunters can now sample what is expected from them in the field, thanks to the Hunter Apprentice Program.
I have always been a hands-on learner. So is my son. I have found that my retention of knowledge is far better if you just show me how to do it, and step aside. Reading what to do in a textbook never seemed to stick in my brain any longer than it took to regurgitate it all back onto a test or quiz. With hands-on learning, I can find myself doing something once or twice, and retaining that knowledge for quite a while. That is much of the reason behind Montana’s Hunter Apprentice Program.
What is the Hunter Apprentice Program?
According to the Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks website
The Apprentice Hunter program allows anyone 10 or older to hunt for up to two years without completing a hunter education course. Certain restrictions apply, and anyone certified as an Apprentice must be accompanied by a certified Mentor. The program was enacted by the 2015 state Legislature, and it originally created the opportunity for youth 10-17 years of age to hunt without completing hunter education.
This allows young hunters to learn from their mentors first, before having to step into the hunter’s education classroom. Mentors can teach young hunters more with the hands-on approach than they can learn from reading a textbook. It also gives them an opportunity to harvest certain animals, in order to achieve the full field-to-table process of hunting.
When my son turned 10 this past fall, we raced to the FWP office on his birthday. He was allowed to purchase a migratory waterfowl license, a turkey license, and a deer license. Just enough to cover a good part of the wide spectrum that is hunting opportunities here in Montana. He couldn’t have been more excited to get started. We spent hours at the range talking about gun safety and improving accuracy. We spent time cleaning and maintaining firearms. We spent time looking at maps and planning hunts–all leading up to the first day of waterfowl season. I got to say, I have never seen a kid jump out of bed and get dressed as fast as I did at 5 am that morning. We made it to the duck blind just before shooting light. When it was legal to shoot, my son got his first opportunity to harvest dinner. With a steady aim, he dropped a mallard from the sky…only to scream with excitement “DAD! I got one!!!!”
After a successful fall deer hunt in 2022. We are now in our 2nd year as an apprentice. Meaning my son got to experience his first spring turkey hunt. This past weekend marked the opening day of the season. Which involved getting a 10-year-old out of bed at 4:30 am, and persuading him to go freeze in a ground blind waiting for sun up. Watching nature wake up, we witnessed a handful of close encounters, as we had hens and young male birds walk into our decoy spread. But nothing big enough to pull the trigger.
We put in a full day waiting for an opportunity to harvest an adult turkey. As well as teaching the young hunter the importance of respect for landowners. Helping our host fix fence as a sign of appreciation for allowing us to hunt. But, at the end of the day, the overpowering feeling to take a nap engulfed both of us. It was time to hang it up and try another day.
Our persistence paid off on day 2 of Motana’s spring turkey season. After much-needed recharge, we opted to sleep in and wait to ambush birds on their way back to their roost in the evening. This plan paid off, plus dividends. As my apprentice bagged his first adult tom turkey. We couldn’t have been more excited. But, then the unthinkable happened. Another adult tom turkey showed up shortly after the shot was fired, and allowed “Dad” to fill his turkey tag as well.
It’s memories like these that will last forever in an outdoorsman’s heart.
Thank you Montana legislators and the FWP for creating this program. It is such a great way to get kids involved and learn about all that is hunting in this great state.
To learn more about the Hunter Apprentice Program, click here.