HARRISBURG – Over the last decade, expanding hunting opportunities for youth has been a constant for the Pennsylvania Game Commission board of game commissioners.

During that time, special seasons for Junior License holders between the ages of 12-16 have been initiated so youngsters need not compete with adults during the regular seasons. This was done with the hope of recruiting and retaining youngsters, and now with computerized licenses sales in full effect, statistics show the PGC is being successful in that regard.

Today's annual Youth Waterfowl Hunt is the first of the special youth hunts to be held during the 2010-11 license year, although participants need only to have completed the hunter-trapper education course, but not purchase a license. Those same regulations are also in effect for the Youth Pheasant Hunt, Saturday, Oct. 9, which is the opening day of the Youth Hunting Season.

Locally, openings remain for the Junior Pheasant Hunt being held by the Gordon Game and Fish Protective Association at "The Barn," but participants must pre-register by calling John Towey at 570-875-4672 or 570-205-2682. In addition, volunteers with dogs are needed to serve as guides for the hunters.

This year, the Youth Hunting Season continues through Saturday, Oct. 16, and this year – for the first time – rabbits are part of the hunt. Participants in the Youth Hunting Season are required to follow the same regulations for daily and season bag limits as the regular season, and they must also obey regulations governing the wearing of florescent orange and comply with restrictions for hunting male and female pheasants.

"Our commissioners felt that because pheasants and rabbits inhabit similar habitat and can both be pursued using pointing and flushing bird dogs or rabbit-hunting dogs, running these two seasons together broadens the opportunity and excitement for younger hunters," PGC executive director Carl Roe said. "Experienced hunters with dogs are encouraged to pass along our state's hunting heritage by serving as mentors for junior hunters.

"I want to emphasize, however, these hunts are not to be confused with the Mentored Youth Hunting Program, which is for youngsters too young to take the hunter-trapper education course and who must hunt from a stationary position. Regulations and restrictions for these hunts are outlined fully in the "2010-11 Digest of Hunting and Trapping Regulations" that is available at all license-issuing agents."

Species that may be hunted by both mentored youth hunters and junior-license age hunters are squirrels, groundhogs and coyotes. Mentored youth may also hunt antlered deer and spring gobbler, and the regulations are on Page 15 of the 2010-11 Digest.

"Since the Mentored Youth Hunting Program began in 2006, it is encouraging that so many experienced, adult Pennsylvania hunters have willing taken advantage of the remarkable opportunity to introduce those under the age of 12 to hunting by participating in the program," Roe said. "Hunting is deeply woven into the cultural fabric that is Pennsylvania, and it is important that we recruit new hunters to carry on this tradition.

"This program paves the way for youngsters to nurture their interest in hunting early and allows them to take a more active role in actual hunting while afield with mentoring adults. The program accommodates hands-on use of sporting arms and can promote a better understanding and interest in hunting and wildlife conservation that will help to assure hunting's future, as well as reinforce the principles of hunting safely through the close supervision provided by dedicated mentors."

Under the program, a mentor is defined as a properly licensed individual at least 21 years of age, who serves as a guide to a youth while engaged in hunting or related activities, such as scouting, learning firearms or hunter safety and wildlife identification. Regulations require that the mentor-to-mentored youth ratio be one-to-one, and that the pair possesses only one sporting arm when hunting.

While moving, the sporting arm must be carried by the mentor until the pair reaches a stationary hunting location. Only then may the mentor turn over possession of the sporting arm to the youth, who must be kept within arm's length at all times.

All youth participating in the MYHP must obtain a permit through the PGC Pennsylvania Automated License System at a cost of $2.70. Of that fee, one dollar goes to the agency, one dollar goes to the issuing agent who processes the permit application and 70 cents goes to the company managing PALS.

"When we first started the MYHP, we didn't require a permit because there was no method available to issue a permit without creating an enormous obstacle for participants," Roe said. "PALS provides an easy method for parents to obtain a MYHP permit without too many difficulties and enables the agency to gather data about the level of participation in this program.

"This information can be used to assist in better planning and scheduling our basic hunter-trapper education courses. This database of MYHP participants will let us know when young hunters are 11 years of age, and where they live, so that we can make sure the number of courses we are offering will meet the expected demand."