It is an image that could well have been one of those Norman Rockwell covers from the "Saturday Evening Post" in the mid-1960s.
Burrowing their way through a briar patch, bodies hidden – save for tails extending toward the sky like submarine periscopes – and voices bellowing, the two beagles were hot on the trail of a rabbit. Trailing behind were four hunters, including two youngsters, who for the first time were being serenaded to a vocal duet by the little hounds.
Wanting to rush forward, the two youngsters were instructed to hold their ground and watch the snow-covered ground that paralleled the thicket. And, sure enough, a rabbit – attempting to circle back and escape the beagles – emerged, only to be stopped in its track by the roar from one of the youngster's 20-gauge Youth Model Remington 870.
Even more than hunting deer, hunting small game has served as an introduction to more youngsters over the years than any other type of hunting. And there is no better opportunity to expose a youngster – and perhaps break-in that shotgun from under the Christmas tree – to hunting small game than during the holidays and beyond.
This year, rabbits and squirrels are in season through Saturday, Feb. 6. Both cock and hen pheasants are also in season during the same time in 15 Wildlife Management Units, which are listed in Page 21 of the 2009-10 Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations, and grouse hunting is open through Saturday, Jan. 23.
Youngsters who have yet to reach their 12th birthday may accompany rabbit hunters as observers. They may hone their shooting skills hunting squirrels through the Mentored Youth Hunting Program.
Creating the MYHP is perhaps the single-best enhancement to promote the future of hunting in the past five years by the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Under the program, any youngster less than 12 years of age, accompanied by a licensed hunter, 21 or older, is permitted to hunt coyote, groundhogs, squirrels, antlered deer in any season – including the current flintlock and late archery seasons, which are open statewide through Saturday, Jan. 9 – and spring gobbler.
PGC regulations require that the mentor-to-mentored youth ratio be one-to-one, and that just one sporting arm be possessed when hunting and be carried by the mentor when moving. When they arrive at their stationary hunting location, the youth may take possession of the sporting arm, but the mentor must keep the youth within an arm's length at all times.
While mentored youth who have not reached their 12th birthday are not required to buy a hunting license, they must abide by bag limits and restrictions as they pertain to Junior License holders. That includes antler restrictions, which require at least one antler with a minimum length of three inches or one antler with a minimum of two points.
New this year, is that participants in the Mentored Youth Hunting Program who are successful in taking an antlerled deer with a flintlock or bow must use the tag supplied by the PGC before removing it from the field. Also, this is the first year that MYHP report cards have been issued, and successful hunters are required to submit a report to the PGC within five days.
"Hopefully, there are adults who have the time to expose youngsters to hunting for deer with muzzleloaders and bows," PGC board of commissioners president Greg Isabella said. "Realisticly, getting a buck in the flintlock season is a long shot, but there is no shortage of action for those hunting small game.
"This year, more than 100 of our wildlife conservation officers reported that rabbit hunting in the districts were good to excellent. As for squirrels, they have to be the most under-hunted species in the state, and they provide a youngster the opportunity to learn how to handle a shotgun or small-caliber rifle."
For those looking for big satisfaction during the holidays and beyond, taking a young hunter out for small game will end the search.
For more information on the Mentored Youth Hunting Program, visit the Pennsylvania Game Commission Web site at www.pgc.state.pa.us.