By Howard Meyerson
MUSKEGON, MI — At a time of day when most youngsters are comfortably home in bed, Evan Rogalla sat calmly in a moonlit field, waiting. Dawn was approaching. It wouldn’t be long. The 13-year-old hunter sat still in his blind with his father and grandfather.
Across the field, a group of wild turkeys soon started gobbling. They flew down from their roosts 500 yards away and began to squabble. It would be a while before they rushed the blind, drawn by the hunter’s enticing calls.
When they did, they came with seven hens calling and three jakes gobbling.
Evan dropped the biggest male bird with one shot from a 20-guage shotgun, a 20-pound wild turkey with a six-inch beard. He would be one of four successful hunters that weekend in a special youth hunt at the Muskegon County Wastewater Facility, organized by the Muskegon River Bottom chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation.
“Evan has enough hunting experience that he is comfortable with it and a good shot,” said Aubrey Gale, Evan’s grandfather and hunting mentor. “I watched his hand when he put the gun out the window (of the portable blind). When he decided which one he wanted, I saw him slip his finger onto the trigger and let it go.”
It is that kind of scrutiny that makes “mentoring” a meaningful term, a guided and well-counseled experience where constructive feedback comes quickly, and undesirable behavior can be extinguished just as fast.
The gobbler was Evan’s fourth since starting to hunt. He’d shot the others also under his grandfather’s tutelage and that of his father, Alex Rogalla.
Three other Muskegon area youngsters also did well that weekend. Austin Fowler, Corey Vanderputte and Cameron Edgerton all are 9-year-olds that went home with a bird. Each was hunting with a Michigan mentored youth hunting license.
The license allows children 9 and younger to hunt small game, wild turkey and deer. It allows them to fish and trap, too. Hunter Safety classes are not required to hunt, but the youngsters are required to go with a mentor, someone 21 years or older who has prior hunting experience and a valid hunting license.
I can say honestly that I have had some questions about the wisdom of letting such young children handle a gun, but what became clear this weekend is the mentored youth program can and does work when parents or legal guardians approach it seriously.
“That’s one of the nice things about the program,” said John German, Cameron Edgerton’s uncle and mentor. “It’s all about the kids. If they want to do it, great. If they don’t, that’s OK.”
German had hunted with his 8-year-old daughter, Samarra, the first day of the weekend
hunt. She got a shot at a turkey using a crossbow and missed. He spent the second day supervising his nephew, Cameron.
“When the bird came off the roost, Cameron’s eyes got really big,” German said. “They came in from behind, and Cameron said, ‘I can see them. I can see them.’ I said, ‘Keep yourself calm.’ They came in gobbling real hard, and Cameron said he had a beard on its head.”
Cameron’s first shot was low. It knocked the big bird down, but it would take three shots to finish it off. In the end, the young hunter came away with a lesson learned. His uncle, and their two Muskegon-area guides, Bruce Waterman and Dennis Neibarger, were on hand to help.
Neibarger, a member of the Muskegon NWTF chapter, said the mentorship program works well, provided the young hunters are with an adult who is focused on them — rather than using the hunt “as an excuse for dad to go out with a gun by taking their kid with them.”
The adults on the hunt were there only to be in service to the children, whether to help with calling or to supervise the young hunters closely.
“Cameron did really well,” Neibarger said. “He listened real well, and we had him take a couple of snoozes. We had his gun on a shooting stick inside the blind so the turkey wouldn’t see his barrel moving around. He was so excited to see the turkey fan and hear it gobble that he was really shaking bad.”
The Muskegon hunt was one of four special youth turkey hunts around the state that weekend, including one in the Battle Creek area, Belding area and the Upper Peninsula. Each had been organized by a local turkey hunting group and was designed to introduce mentored hunters to the sport of turkey hunting.
“We had one kid shoot a 22-pound bird with a nine-and-half-inch beard from a wheelchair using a sip-and-puff mechanism in the U.P. hunt for kids with disabilities,” said Al Stewart, the upland game bird specialist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “And at the hunt held by the Ionia NWTF folks, we had a kid who got so excited he couldn’t pull the trigger, and a 7-year-old who shot one with a crossbow and had a great day of hunting.”
Only 2,256 mentored youth licenses were sold in 2012. That’s a far cry from the number that mentored youth hunting proponents hope will be sold over time as means to stem the decline in hunting license sales. But it is a start, and a good one. And conservation groups like the NWTF are to be commended for their efforts.
“Cameron is already asking when deer season starts,” German said.
He is 9 years old and already he has the right idea.
This column appears on: MLive Outdoors