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New rules give more youths a shot at hunting

Alex Spencer may get the chance to shoot at a whitetail buck sometime during Minnesota's firearms deer season, which opens Saturday. Alex is 10 years old.

Alex Spencer may get the chance to shoot at a whitetail buck sometime during Minnesota's firearms deer season, which opens Saturday. Alex is 10 years old.

Under a change made by the Minnesota Legislature this past spring, hunters ages 10 and 11 are permitted to hunt big game this fall before taking firearms safety classes, although they must be under direct supervision and within immediate reach of a parent or guardian.

Alex, who lives in Rice Lake Township, already has hunted deer once. During this fall's early antlerless firearms season Oct. 11 and 12 in areas north of Duluth, he sat beside his dad, Darrell Spencer, in a double tree-stand or in a ground blind. Alex had a chance to shoot at a doe but passed it up because he didn't have a clear enough shot, Darrell said.

Darrell believes Alex, a fifth-grader, is ready for deer hunting.

"I don't think age means a lot," Darrell said. "My son has been shooting a gun since he was 4 or 5 years old. I teach gun safety, and there are a lot of 12-year-olds who aren't ready. It depends on the kid and how they're raised."

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Alex was raised to handle and respect firearms, his dad said.

"When he was 6 or 7, we'd go grouse hunting," Darrell said. "I'd carry a .410 break-action [shotgun] in the back of my vest. If I saw a bird on the trail, I'd let him load the gun and shoot it [the bird] on the trail.

"The next year, I'd let him carry the gun empty and load it if we saw a bird on the trail. At age 8, I let him carry a loaded gun on an open trail, not in the woods. When he was 9, I let him carry a loaded gun. I didn't care about hunting. I was just watching him."

In addition, Alex has shot trap with a 20-gauge shotgun since he was 7, his dad said. Alex has accompanied his dad on pheasant hunting trips to South Dakota, without shooting, the past four years. This year, under a new South Dakota law similar to Minnesota's, Alex will carry a gun.

"This year, I took him sharptail hunting with another friend," Darrell said. "It was like having another adult along."

Whether or not Alex gets to hunt during the upcoming firearms season depends on what his dad does while bowhunting between now and then. If Darrell doesn't shoot a buck with his bow, he plans to let Alex shoot one with a rifle.

Darrell has both a bow and firearms deer license but may take only one buck per year. And under state regulations, any buck taken by a 10- or 11-year-old must be tagged by the parent or guardian hunting with the youth.

Alex's chances are looking good. His dad, bowhunting on Oct. 25, passed up a mature 10-point buck.

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Like Spencer, Duluth's Phil Mannon is looking forward to hunting with his young son soon. Mannon's 9-year-old son, Caleb, has accompanied him on many hunts without shooting and has been target-shooting with a bow since he was 8. Mannon hopes his son will want to hunt deer next fall, either with a bow or with shotgun and slug.

Mannon likes the regulation change allowing younger hunters to take big game.

"I think it's a great deal," Mannon said. "We have to keep the youth interested in the outdoors. This just gives us a reason to get them out sooner, before we lose them to video games."

Some people have concerns about hunters hunting big game at age 10 or 11, although hunters that age and younger have been able to hunt small game in Minnesota without taking firearms safety classes for years.

"Some kids are more advanced than others," said Scott VanValkenburg of Fisherman's Corner in Duluth. "To me, jeez, they really need to go through gun safety. It makes me a little nervous. Gun safety is a great program. It really drills it through the kids' heads what's right and what's wrong."

Dr. Steve Bauer, M.D., is a child and adolescent psychologist at the Human Development Center in Duluth. He, too, said that the maturity level of 10- and 11-year-olds varies widely.

"Sure, there are some 10- and 11-year-olds who, with good supervision, are going to be decent," Bauer said. "But it calls on them, if they haven't had a lot of experience, to learn things pretty rapidly. Gun safety gives you the needed tools to give you that background."

The new law requires that the young hunter be "under direct supervision of a parent or guardian where the parent or guardian is within immediate reach, and licensed to take the big game," according to Minnesota hunting regulations.

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Darrell Spencer is more concerned about 12-year-olds who are permitted to hunt deer alone without parental supervision or a parent within reach, although they must be "accompanied" by a parent or guardian.

"What scares me is some of these 12-year-olds getting stuck in a deer stand by themselves," he said. "If they can be mentored for two or three years before hunting on their own, I think that's great."

Related Topics: HUNTING
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