Illinois outfitter gives up time and profit to host youth hunters.
Ted Sprague, owner of Eagle Lakes Outfitters, has always felt strongly about promoting youth hunting. His father and mother both took him hunting when he was a little guy, and now with two children of his own, he does his best to keep them involved in the outdoors and help teach others about the tradition of hunting.
That’s why Ted created the annual Eagle Lakes Youth Hunt. Their youth hunters come from all over (New Jersey, Illinois and Texas this year), and there’s now a waiting list because so many people look forward to the special weekend.
While many outfitters charge for their youth hunts, Eagle Lakes doesn’t. They ask for a $25 donation to help pay for the food, and that’s it.
One of Eagle Lakes’ youngsters from the 2002-03 hunt loved the atmosphere so much that he now guides. All of the guides donate their time for this special weekend. Another bonus for the young hunters is there are no antler restrictions. Eagle Lakes waves their normal 130-inch minimum for the youth hunt and allows the kids to harvest a deer of any size.
A weekend like this is too big to pull off for the Sprague family by themselves, so parents come in before the season to help get the camp and grounds ready. They perform critical chores like keeping the camp and lodge clean, laundry, washing dishes, cooking, and helping to track and field-dress deer.
The state of Illinois extended the youth hunt age to 18 last year, but Eagle Lakes Outfitters decided to keep their age limit at 16.
“We did this to allow other children the opportunity to hunt with us,” said Eagle Lakes marketing manager Dusty Sprague. “We have some kids that have been with us for five, six or even eight years, and we want to give other kids the same memories and opportunity. That being said, the hunters have grown up with us through the years often ask if they can come back to help the new crop of youngsters. Every time that happens it makes me realize we’re doing the right thing and we’re onto something special.”
The hunt also ties in with breast cancer awareness month. That started a few years back and has become an important part of the hunt. Some kids bring pink to wear while hunting.
“We’ve seen bandanas and socks, and a few of our boys bought pink boxers to show their support,” Dusty said. “The main thing we do in camp revolves around bright pink lipstick. If a youth hunter kills a deer, whether it’s a buck or a doe, that youth hunter gets to put bright pink lipstick on their guide and their parents. It’s become a special part of the weekend.”
Many of the kids make lasting friendships. They might not live close to each other, but they stay in contact throughout the year, counting the days until the hunt.
“This weekend means everything to these kids,” Dusty said. “Take Kassidy for example. She started hunting with us when she was nine. This past hunt, she was 16, so it was going to be her last at the Eagle Lakes youth weekend. Then, in the middle of the night on Friday before the first day of hunting, she got very ill.”
Dusty said Kassidy was so sick that she and her parents felt they had no choice but to return home.
“On Sunday afternoon, I received a call from Kassidy’s parents. She was doing better and hoping she could join us for Monday, the last day of the youth season. She got into her blind around 7:30 on Monday morning, and by 8:30 she had taken a buck of a lifetime. She made her last youth hunt with us a lifetime memory with 164-inch wall-hanger!”
Kassidy was the hit back at camp and was greeted by every parent, guide and youth hunter. She was given hugs and high-fives from everybody and was smiling from ear to ear.
“That’s a smile we will never forget,” Dusty said. “Kassidy stays in touch with us and her fellow hunters, and she’s just one example of the many stories and memories created by this special hunt.”
This year’s Eagle Lakes youth hunt will take place Oct. 6-8.
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