Hunting in the United States has for the most part been a treasured pastime among family and friends, with one generation passing the tradition on to the next. This was true of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Officer Mike McMenamin, who accompanied his father on hunts as early as he can remember and joined him in hunting himself at the age of the twelve. But what do you do if you’re interested in learning to hunt but don’t have any family or friends that can guide you through the process? If you live in central and northern New Jersey, one of your options is to join one of the many mentored hunts offered by the Service, in partnership with the National Wild Turkey Federation, at the Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex.
Interested would-be hunters have had the opportunity for the last decade to ease themselves into the hunting experience by learning from our staff and partners, including the New Jersey Chapter of the National Wild Turkey Federation and the New Jersey Chapter of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, about a variety of hunting topics, from ethics to shooting proficiency to wildlife ecology, and taking part in a hunt with a qualified mentor. Hunting can require a wide variety of specific clothing and gear, in addition to the specific rules and regulations that must be followed. Even finding a location to go hunting for the first time can be a confusing task, which is why Officer McMenamin enjoys teaching mentored hunt participants “about the excellent access opportunities on public lands and…it’s a great introduction to the rules and regulations that govern access, which can be a little overwhelming to new hunters.”
Mentored hunt program partner Cristina McGannon Jones, now president of the New Jersey Women in the Outdoors Chapter of NWTF, is a prime example of someone who learned to hunt later in life. Never having grown up going hunting, her interest was sparked after trying a venison (meat that comes from a hooved game animal) taco one Christmas night. Later picking up the sport of archery and then passing her hunter education class in the spring of 2011, she harvested her first deer that fall. Cristina has been interested in assisting new hunters ever since, as she says, “most of today’s new hunters do not have a family member who hunts, and it's an uphill climb to learn on your own, as I did.” Partnering with the Service staff at the refuge complex on mentored hunt activities, which first started in 2014, was a natural fit for her organization. Hosting mentored hunts on refuge system lands is “giving them (hunters) one more tool in their hunting toolbox by helping them to understand access, rules, regulations and setting up on public land,” according to McGannon Jones.
The opportunity to have such qualified mentors such as Officer McMenamin and Cristina McGannon Jones meant that the Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex mentored hunt program was able to expand to more hunts than ever during the 2021-2022 season, with a mentored deer and turkey hunt at the Wallkill River National Wildlife Refuge in Sussex County, New Jersey, and for the first time ever, a mentored turkey hunt at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in Basking Ridge, New Jersey. All three hunts were a success, with multiple participants able to harvest a deer and/or turkey for the first time and all members of the group being able to enjoy the experience.
One such participant was Jeff Patten, who has always had a love for the outdoors, but “was not brought up in a family that hunted, which has proved to make everything much more difficult for me.”
Jeff learned the in’s and outs of deer hunting while taking part in the mentored hunt experience. While he was not able to harvest a deer of his own, he did get the opportunity to take home some venison during the deer meat processing session with members of the Future Farmers of America program at Newton High School in Sussex County, New Jersey that is a part of the mentored hunt experience each year. Having enjoyed his mentored deer hunt experience in the fall, Jeff signed up for the mentored turkey hunt experience the following spring. After joining the other participants to learn about turkey ecology from former New Jersey Division of Fish and Wildlife turkey biologist Bob Eriksen, Jeff set out for several mornings of turkey hunting at the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge with Officer McMenamin. Undeterred by an unsuccessful first morning, Jeff was able to harvest his first ever turkey on his second morning out. Of the mentored experience, he says the “camaraderie shown by those involved with organizing and running a mentored hunt, like the two I have been on, is remarkable…if it were not for the mentored hunting program, I may still be wishing about having success in the woods.” Jeff now plans to have his son take part in the upcoming mentored hunts.
The staff of the Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex and its partners plan to host a variety of mentored hunts this coming fall and spring, so be sure to keep an eye out for announcements. Whether someone is looking to start a new family tradition, is interested in harvesting their own food in a sustainable manner, or just looking to enjoy the outdoors in a new manner, the mentored hunt experiences at the Complex are a safe, inclusive, and fun way to enjoy their public lands.
Story by Anna Harris and Jared Green. For more information on participating in a mentored hunt at the Lenape National Wildlife Refuge Complex, please email Jared_Green@fws.gov.