"That's a big buck," Kevin Kelkye whispered tensely as he squinted through the scope of his 20-gauge shotgun. "It's the big eight they're talking about. He's walking towards us!"

Out there, in the cold, pre-dawn grayness, a white-tailed deer had trotted out of the woods into a field of corn stubble, grazing a bit, taking a few steps and then carefully surveying his surroundings. He was the buck the two hunters sitting inside the camouflaged stand had heard about -- an eight-pointer seen roaming a farm near Frederick -- and on Maryland's Junior Deer Hunt yesterday, Kevin, 14, was eager to make his mark.

"Be patient," his father whispered back.

Ben Kelkye put his hand on Kevin's shoulder. "Calm down. Calm down. Take a big, big, deep breath," he said. "Don't take a shot unless he's close."

The buck, lingering out of range, scampered back into the woods.

"He's gone," Kevin said, disappointed.

"He'll be back. He'll be back," his father assured.

A father teaching his son to hunt is an experience as old as humanity, yet one that many modern animal rights advocates find disturbing. Kevin, and young hunters like him, are in the middle of a struggle between those who would like to continue the tradition and those who would rather see it vanish.

Despite a growing public squeamishness, hunting has widespread approval in most states; Maryland has more than 100,000 licensed hunters. Yet the number of hunters nationwide is dropping steadily -- by 23 percent in the past quarter-century, according to a report published by the National Wild Turkey Federation, the U.S. Sportsmen's Alliance and the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

The only way to reverse that decline, hunters and their opponents agree, is to pass on the tradition to children, to teach them the rituals of the wilderness: how to use one's eyes, ears and nose in the woods, spot and stalk game, and safely kill an animal with a bow or a gun. Hunting opponents would like to see the process slowed or stopped.

In Maryland, the subject of young hunters flared up last month. State hunting officials credited Sierra Stiles, an 8-year-old girl from western Maryland, with shooting the first bear of the season. The Stiles family received a tremendous amount of attention -- not all of it friendly -- and has declined many requests for interviews.

Among those who were upset were wildlife advocates at the Humane Society of the United States, who say it is unsafe for children to shoot guns. They hope state lawmakers will introduce legislation next year setting a minimum hunting age in Maryland.

Heidi Prescott, the society's senior vice president for campaigns, said in an interview that she didn't know what age they would press for, but compared the lack of a minimum age for using a gun with the law setting an age at which a person may drive a car. Twenty states have an age requirement for hunting.

"Young adolescents lack the experience, judgment and emotional maturity to handle weapons safely," she said. "Hunters have to make split-second decisions as to whether to shoot or hold their fire under intense emotional stress."

"This is an issue that does not need fixing, if you look at the facts," said Paul A. Peditto, the director of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Wildlife and Heritage Service. Maryland has no minimum age but does require all hunters to take a safety test to receive a certificate, said Peditto, whose agency has granted 10,000 junior hunting licenses. Twelve other states use a similar standard, and Pennsylvania is considering a change from an age restriction to an education requirement. Virginia requires adult supervision for hunters younger than 12 and a certificate for those older.

Peditto said data show that supervised young hunters are less dangerous than adults.

"All that's left is the perception that something is broken," he said. "And it's inappropriate for us to legislate perception." He suggested the Humane Society's proposal was "part of their hidden mission to eliminate hunting."

Prescott acknowledged that she would like to see hunting go the way of the dodo. She argued that the state shouldn't intervene to stop its decline. "State authorities should focus on the protection of wildlife and wildlife habitat, not recruiting hunters," she said.

Kevin Kelkye was taught by his father, who came to hunting after immigrating to the United States from Iran. Ben Kelkye had taken his son out into the woods when he was 7, and Kevin had shot his first deer at 8. Now Kevin is considered one of the country's best junior hunters, and Maryland's youngest hunting instructor -- a role model, he understands, for the future of hunting.

"I think it's better to get the kids younger," Kevin said. "By the time we're 16, we've got cars and are not as into it."

His father, also a hunting instructor, said he opposed a minimum age but would support a law requiring hunters younger than 16 to have adult supervision. "He's never been more than 20 yards away from me," Ben Kelkye said of his son.

They were within a foot of each other yesterday, huddled inside the stand, when a year-old spiked buck strolled out of the woods. Unlike the older, wiser eight-pointer, the yearling paced around nonchalantly, oblivious to the gun trained on him from 120 yards away.

"Hold on," Ben Kelkye said as his son cocked the shotgun. "Make sure you're tight."

The deer stopped and looked away from the tent -- a perfect opportunity. A deafening gunshot blast pierced the air. The deer crumpled in its tracks. The son's face glowed with satisfaction, the father's with pride.

Kevin learns from his father, Ben, who took up hunting after moving to the United States from Iran. Ben thinks kids should be allowed to hunt with supervision. Ben Kelkye and his son Kevin, 14, hunt for deer on Junior Deer Hunt day in Frederick. Twenty states have age restrictions for hunters.