The popularity of rabbit hunting has grown with the sport’s introduction to younger generations of Michigan outdoorsmen.  The Belding Sportmen’s Club has been instrumental in acting as a liaison between experienced rabbit hunters and interested youths.

What started out as an experiment has turned into a tradition. The youth rabbit hunt at the Belding Sportsmen’s Club, near the Flat River State Game Area – now in its third year – attracted 45 youngsters last Saturday for a morning of stomping brush piles, following beagles and tromping through the snow.

“We’re getting great participation from everyone,” said club president John Burns, “club members, parents and youngsters.”

The idea for the youth hunt sprung from John Niewoonder, the Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist at Flat River, who had been on a campaign to improve the small game habitat by building brush piles for “rabbitat” at the area.

“When John brought it to us, we said yes,” Burns said. “This is a good thing, getting the kids out in the elements instead of staying on the computer all day. It’s all about getting the kids – our future – into the outdoors.”

Hosting the event “is not a problem,” Burns said. The club donated breakfast, and members began showing up at 5 a.m. to cook eggs, sausage, hash browns and toast for the crowd’s 7:30 arrival. It cost the club about $200 for the victuals, he said.

“This is what we do – conservation,” he said. “We’re sportsmen. We need to do this to promote hunting and getting the kids out.”

Besides feeding the crowd, providing a meeting place and lining up sportsmen to help guide the young hunters, the sponsors made sure all the youngsters at the event went home with a door prize.

Door prizes were collected by the Mid-Michigan United Sportsmen’s Alliance (MMUSA), a consortium of sportsmen’s clubs, conservation groups (Ducks Unlimited, Michigan Trappers Association and Quality Deer Management), as well a couple of soil conservation district offices. Mike Winegard, a retiree who spearheaded the MMUSA effort, said it wasn’t that hard. His partners collected multi-tools, shirts, hats, game calls, knives, fishing rods, pocket binoculars, candy bars — even a high-tech slingshot. There were three “grand” door prizes – a shotgun, a .22 rifle, and a trapper’s kit with the stuff a youngster needs to get started trapping.

Bill Bird and Wally Ingvartsen, Ionia-area rabbit hunters, showed up to take a party – two boys and a pair of parents – to their stomping grounds behind Bird’s home. They ran a handful of rabbits, and Kam Snyder, a ninth grader from Schoolcraft, harvested his first-ever rabbit.

“He was on the edge of the brush, and it dropped right in its tracks,” Snyder said. “It was cool.”

Giving up their own Saturday hunt to take a couple of youngsters hunting was a positive experience, Bird said. As far as he and Wally were concerned, they got out and ran their dogs and didn’t have to bother with carrying a firearm.

“Both of those boys we took had killed deer, but neither had taken a rabbit before,” Bird said. “Kids aren’t coming up the same way we did – I started hunting rabbits when I was around 10 with my father – and I think that’s a great way to start.

“I wish we’d have got more rabbits running than we did, but they both got shots.”

That wasn’t unusual, said Niewoonder.

“When I asked how we did, a lot of guys said, ‘We didn’t get any, but we had some shooting.’” Niewoonder said. “But a lot of these kids are young and they’re still figuring it out. They’re going to get some shots and some of them are going to miss.

“Shooting and missing is good fun, too.”

Niewoonder said the event has really been an eye-opener to him.

“I am impressed with how much the main sponsors – the Belding Sportsmen’s Club, MMUSA and the Mecosta Quality Deer Management Association guys — really seem to like it. They’re all standing in line to help, smiling the whole time. They’re not a bunch of young people, but when they get a chance to hang out with these young kids, I think it really warms their hearts.”

The hunt wasn’t all rabbits this year. A couple of guys, who are members of the Michigan Squirrel Dog Association, brought squirrel dogs to take the kids out with. Kirk Evans, an aircraft mechanic from Ionia, brought a black-mouthed cur and a feist (a hunting dog that has been cross-bred, originally by mixing Native American dogs with terriers, but is now recognized as a breed by the United Kennel Club). Randy Lubbers of Hamilton brought three feists.

The squirrel hunters managed to tree four squirrels, but only one hit the ground, taken by third-grader Nick Collins of East Grand Rapids, who said: “It was cool.”

And it wasn’t just youngsters who were successful hunters. Steve Newland, a Belding insurance adjuster, brought his two young sons – only one of whom carried a firearm – but he got all the shooting in his party.

“We got three of them,” 7-year-old Owen Newland said proudly. “I didn’t get any shooting, but I stepped on one.”

Both Niewoonder and Burns agree that the event has turned into a tradition.

“I hope this keeps up,” Burns said. “This is a good thing. It’s good to get people out here on the state land – the DNR wants people to out here using this land – and it promotes bringing some city kids out here in the country to try something new.

“Basically, it’s all about the kids.”

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