LAUREL — Another Montana hunting season has arrived, and for many, opening weekend is on par with the Super Bowl. That includes young hunters headed out into the woods for the first time, carrying on family traditions.
For the Lester of Laurel family, hunting is life.
“I’m a big outdoors person, so it has a special place in my heart,” said Clara Lester on Tuesday.
Fifteen-year-old Clara shot her first deer when she was just 12. Her 12-year-old brother John started hunting when he was 10.
“This is my first deer, this means a lot to me,” John said.
Up until just a few years ago, this was an experience that wasn’t possible for most kids their age.
Montana’s Apprentice Hunter program began in 2015 following a sharp decline in resident hunting sales. In 2006, 145,000 licenses were sold, and that number dropped by nearly 30 percent to 104,000 in 2011.
“It gives people ages 10 and up the opportunity to go hunting without taking hunter’s education,” said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Acting Regional Communications Education Manager Chrissy Webb.
There’s no age cap on the program, so adults looking to start hunting for the first time can also partake, but like kids, they must be supervised by a mentor.
Robert Lester, Clara, and John’s dad, was their mentor when they went through the program.
“It’s special because you’re able to get them out in the field at a younger age to actually get them to experience in more 'cuz they’re gone in a blink of an eye,” Robert said.
Those outdoor adventures have become an annual tradition for the Lester family. Clara and John both tagged bucks during the two-day youth hunt last week.
“It was pretty exciting 'cuz I’m the first Lester to ever get a buck with velvet,” said Clara.
And they both said there’s no feeling quite like it.
“It’s amazing. It’s crazy. You’re shaking the whole time you’re holding your gun,” John said.
Both kids have since completed the hunter education course but said they wouldn’t be the experienced hunters they are without their father and the help of the apprentice program.
“I’m very lucky to be living in this state. It’s not every single state you get to find such beautiful nature like this,” Clara said.
They both look forward to what comes with the rest of the hunting season.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime to go every year, and go try to get a deer,” said John.