Ella McInerny's hands shook the first time she saw a deer walk into the range of her scoped, muzzleloader shotgun.

Still, the 13-year-old student from Rockford Middle School squeezed the trigger and didn't miss. In fact, she's already tallied four kills on successive hunts with her mom and dad. She was all smiles Friday afternoon on the eve of her fourth season of deer hunting — this time on a special mentored outing at Afton State Park. She's trying for her first buck.

"I like how energetic it is,'' Ella said as she and her dad prepared their gear. "Even when I saw a little buck around our house the other day I got excited. You feel that adrenaline.''

Zeb and Jessica McInerny, Ella's parents, played a game of rock-paper-scissors for the privilege of accompanying Ella on this year's hunt. She was one of 30 youth hunters 12 to 15 years old whose names were drawn to hunt in the steeply bluffed state park along the St. Croix River. Each hunter is allowed just one mentor.

"When we won the park's lottery I could hear my wife screaming on her way back from the mailbox,'' Zeb said. "This is such a good opportunity.''

Hooked on whitetails

Forty-six Minnesota state parks were closed this weekend to hold deer hunts of one sort or another. Afton's hunt is one of 15 set aside for youths. State wildlife managers issued 60 tags for the Afton hunters this year to help save the park from excessive browsing by a highly dense local herd. Park Manager Nick Bartels said the youths have historically filled at least half the tags that the park issues.

Zeb said he was thrilled to out-chance his wife in the rock-paper-scissors challenge. He and Jessica are equally avid deer hunters with many years of experience. They've shared many moments of success on family-owned land in western Wisconsin and now have Ella — their middle child — hooked on joining them.

Besides Ella, the McInernys have a younger daughter who can't wait to start hunting and an older daughter who's heading into law school. She's less interested in deer than her sisters.

"My wife has been a great example,'' Zeb said. "Our kids know it's not just men who hunt deer.''

Youth movement

This year, Ella will be one of an estimated 60,000 children between the ages of 10 and 17 who hunt deer in Minnesota. Heading into Saturday's firearms season opener, youth licenses were up slightly from a year ago. The kids represent about 13% of deer hunters in the state.

They also represent the future of deer hunting, Zeb said. He's in agreement with the entire fish and wildlife department at the Department of Natural Resources. Without an uptick in youth participation, fishing and hunting will lose critical funding and risk losing the political support necessary to keep investing in public lands.

"Hunting is in big trouble if we don't get the younger kids involved,'' Zeb said.

At Afton State Park, the McInernys and other lottery winners had a week to select a hunting location and set up a stand or blind. The equipment gets packed out of the park when the hunt is over.

Zeb and Ella chose a wooded spot close to one of Afton's five camper cabins, where they stayed inside the park on Friday night. The site was surrounded by signs of buck traffic. There were large ground scrapes and a fresh rub on a mature tree.

Ella said she was certain she and her dad would see whitetails from their camouflage ground blind on Saturday. But with two days to settle in, she planned to be choosy about her target. A big buck would be nice. But if time starts to slip away, she said, she might lower her standards.

"It's OK anyway because I like hanging out with my dad,'' Ella said.

Said Zeb: "We just have to sit and be patient.''

No matter the outcome, he said, the weekend at Afton promises to be the highlight of his deer season. Ella is busy all year with school, volleyball and softball. Sitting, watching and listening to nature with her inside a barricaded state park is a true gift.

"I just love the fact that I can take my daughter hunting,'' Zeb said. "I've shot enough deer in my life. I get more excited when it's one of my kids.''