Hugh with his Grandpa Bob after Hugh shot his spring turkey this year.

Bob Walker has been taking his eight-year-old grandson Hugh with him on hunting adventures since the lad could keep up.

“He’s hunted with us since he’s been tiny,” says Walker, a Kingston resident, Thumb Electric Co-op member, and life-long sportsman.

Walker said he could hardly wait until the boy was 10 and old enough to carry a firearm and fully participate in the hunt with him. Then, all of a sudden, he didn’t have to wait any longer. A change in Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR) policy did away with minimum age requirements for first-time hunters and replaced it with a “Mentored Youth Hunter Program,” which allows youngsters to hunt under the tutelage of an experienced, licensed, adult sportsman.

The state’s Natural Resources Commission approved the policy change in February, and after school on opening day of the spring season, young Hugh became a successful turkey hunter, bagging a young gobbler from a blind in the Thumb area while sitting beside his grandpa.

The elder Walker said he was “ecstatic” about Hugh’s bird, much more excited than he was when he killed the best gobbler of his life a few days later.

Needless to say, Walker’s sold on the program.

“The way I look at it, kids are going to get involved in something and the sooner we can get them involved in the outdoors the better,” he said. “This gave him two more early years.”

Though somewhat controversial when first proposed, this mentored hunting program recognizes that parents—and in this case, grandparents—know more about the abilities and maturity of youngsters than some subjective judgment based on age alone. Walker agrees.

“I’ve heard all the arguments against it, but it has little to do with age,” he explains. “It’s about how you’re brought up and trained. Hugh was ready.”

This new program is the third step the DNR has taken in recent years to eliminate barriers to recruiting new hunters, as the number of hunters has fallen precipitously in the last decade. First, the DNR lowered the minimum hunting age—from 12 for small game and 14 for deer—to 10 and 12 respectively. Then, it began offering apprentice licenses, which allows newcomers 10 years old or older to take advantage of a hunting opportunity even if they hadn’t completed hunter safety training.

And while both moves provided opportunity to add more hunters to the fraternity, the mentored program opened the floodgates. The DNR has received dozens of testimonials from proud parents, uncles and other adults, about successful adventures with young, first-time hunters.

The program is simple. Youths must be accompanied by an adult, 21 years or older, with hunting experience and a valid and appropriate Michigan hunting license. The mentor is limited to two hunting devices—firearm, crossbow or bow—while in the field and must keep the youngster within arm’s length whenever the youth is handling the hunting device. Mentors are responsible for making sure the device is appropriate, properly fitted, and for the youth’s behavior afield.

The DNR sells mentored youth licenses for $7.50, which allows them to hunt small game, turkey and deer, fish for all species, and trap furbearers. Mentors are also required to buy a $1 DNR Sportcard for the youngsters, which gives each an identification number that allows them to buy a license. (Adults use their driver’s licenses to buy hunting and fishing licenses.) And unlike adults, who must apply for specific hunt periods in specific turkey management areas, mentored youths were allowed to hunt in any area during any time period when turkey hunting was open.

When deer season arrives, the regulations will be a bit more restrictive. Youngsters under 10 years old will be restricted to private land only if they hunt with a firearm, but will be allowed to hunt public land with archery gear or a crossbow.

The DNR is happy with how the program is working.

“Philosophically, the department decided it was better for parents to make the judgment on when a youngster was ready to hunt than for us to make it,” explains Dennis Fox, who heads the hunter retention and recruitment efforts. “They’re the ones who raised them. They’re the ones who know them.”

Whether the program will be the key to reversing declining hunter numbers remains to be seen. But in the meantime, there are plenty of youngsters—and adults—who are grateful for the change.