Nothing could dampen the spirits of 10-year-old Riley Lepak last Saturday morning. Despite a steady downfall of rain, he was up before sunrise to participate in the Youth Deer Hunt that has been a Department of Natural Resource (DNR) program since 2009. “I couldn’t wait for the day to get here,” said Riley, who is a fifth grader at Northwoods Community Elementary School. “I’ve been looking forward to this day for years.”
Riley’s dad and mentor, Randy, can testify to that fact. “I’ve been taking him with me since he’s been four years old,” he said. “He was ready to see some action himself.”
Before dawn, the pair set out for a tree stand located on property where Riley’s Uncle Larry lives. By the time dawn broke, rain was coming down at a steady pace, but that didn’t matter to Riley. “I was just so excited to be out there,” he said. “It just felt good to really be hunting.”
While 2013 statistics for the youth hunt have not yet been tabulated, Riley and Randy are part of a growing trend as far as youngsters and their mentors getting into the woods to hunt for deer. Since its inception in 2009, the youth hunt program has seen a steady increase in participants, if not actual harvest numbers. According to DNR statistics, in 2009, 9,907 licenses were sold to youth hunters across the state. In 2010, 11,331 were sold; in 2011, 12,226 were sold and in 2012, 13,468 licenses were purchased. In 2009, 6,974 deer were actually harvested during the youth hunt; 2010 and 2011 saw a dip in those numbers at 4,109 and 4,943, respectively. Last year, 8,515 deer were harvested during the youth hunt.
The program allows youngsters from ages 10 to 15 to hunt on the first weekend in October as long as they have an adult guardian right next to them in the field. “We were seeing a decrease in hunting over the years as baby boomers age,” said Jim Jung, a conservation warden with the DNR. “We wanted to find ways to get kids involved in the sport at a fairly young age and to hopefully carry on Wisconsin’s deer hunting tradition for years to come.”
The program was also intended to entice youth to get into the outdoors and the first weekend in October was chosen for several reasons. “The weather is usually pretty good at this time in the fall,” said Jung. “Also, we wanted kids to be able to hunt without the pressure of other hunters in the woods.”
And that was certainly the case for Riley and Randy. No one but very dedicated sportsmen would have been out in the wilderness last Saturday unless they were as determined as Riley. In fact, the pair sat in their small tree stand almost all day in the rain, waiting for just the right opportunity to come along. “There were lots of does moving around,” said Riley, “and we saw some spike bucks but I really wanted to see a deer with some points.”
Just before it was time to climb down from their perch, the pair got an opportunity. A group of does placidly moseyed near and then suddenly their heads went up and they ran away. “I knew a buck was coming in, but it was getting close to the time when you couldn’t shoot,” said Randy. “I was afraid it would be too late before the buck came in.”
But then an eight-pointer trotted into a clearing. “Oh boy, that’s when I got real nervous,” said Riley. “My hands were sort of shaking.” The father-son team were so well hidden that the buck started walking straight toward them.
“Riley asked me, ‘Dad, can you make him turn sideways so I have a better shot?'” said Randy with a laugh. “I told him that’s not the way it works and told him the spot to aim for and he hit it dead on. That deer didn’t know what hit him.”
Hunting has always been a tradition for Randy and his wife, Jennifer. Now there are four kids in the family, including not only Riley but Austin, Ethan and Mckenzie as well. Filling their freezer with game makes a big difference to this family of six and Riley is proud that he can help put food on the table, just like his parents.
“We’re going to keep the antlers and put them on a plaque,” Riley said. “But the meat will go into the freezer. I’m glad I can help out my family that way. It will be delicious!”