Dan Ibrahim recalled all he had learned about deer hunting as he stared at the antlered buck standing in clear view nearly 50 yards away.
Big deer. Uphill line of fire. Road in the background.
Shoot, or don't shoot?
The deer remained motionless as the teenager from Republic considered his options. After several nervous seconds of thought, Ibrahim made up his mind. He scrawled "don't shoot" on the test sheet attached to the clipboard he held.
In the past week, Ibrahim had learned it's not safe to shoot toward a road. The deer in this setting was fake, but the hunting scenario it depicted involved a real choice Ibrahim might face on a future deer hunt. With a visual image to go along with a safety tip, he was more likely to do the right thing when he spotted a real deer while holding a firearm instead of a pencil.
This deer hunting exercise, part of the "hunter responsibility trail," was one of many activities Ibrahim and 10 other youths participated in during the week-long, Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) camp at the Missouri Department of Conservation's Andy Dalton Shooting Range and Training Center near Bois D'Arc.
Sponsored by the National Rifle Association, this nationwide program isn't like most hunter education classes. YHEC, which holds events in the United States and Canada, defines itself as an advanced program in outdoor skills and hunter safety training for individuals age 18 and under. YHEC events are open only to individuals who have completed hunter safety training at the state or provincial level.
Since the program began in 1985, more than 1 million people have participated in YHEC events. Many of the lessons YHEC participants receive is in the form of hands-on education. It's learning by doing. Or, as in the case of the hunter responsibility trail, it's actually seeing the do's and don'ts of hunting instead of learning them from a book. It's virtual reality hunter ed!
"The hunter education program is the first phase of becoming a hunter," said Rick Flint, Dalton Training Center supervisor and one of the organizers of the local event. "It does not make a complete hunter, but prepares the student for the experience phase of becoming a hunter. YHEC provides an opportunity for hunter education graduates to gain experience by applying what they learned in the classroom to actual field experience."
YHEC uses a varied curriculum of hunting-related topics. Archery, blackpowder shooting, shotgun and .22-caliber shooting events, map and compass training, wildlife identification, hunter and firearm ethics and hunter education knowledge are all typically covered at a YHEC camp.
Realism is one of the fundamental educational principles of all YHEC events. The program is conducted under simulated hunting conditions to provide the best practical environment for reinforcing and testing a young hunter's skills. The hunter responsibility trail at the Dalton Range event was an example. Students first learned about the safe and ethical decisions hunters have to make, and then they applied them to actual hunting situations."The YHEC program gives kids an opportunity to fine-tune the skills they learned in hunter education classes," said Jan Taylor, the assistant manager of the National Rifle Association's Hunter Services Department in Fairfax, VA. This branch of the NRA oversees the YHEC program.
"In order to be a well-rounded hunter, it takes more than just firearms handling skills," Taylor added. "This program takes them one step further. It adds to their knowledge, which makes them more comfortable in a variety of hunting situations. All these things come together to give them that edge when they go out into the field."
In addition to being an educational tool, YHEC has become a competition for some individuals. Some YHEC camps are competitive scoring events that serve as qualifiers for the annual NRA International Youth Hunter Education Challenge. You don't have to win a scoring event to earn a spot at the international contest, but you do have to participate in one. State and provincial-level YHEC camps draw nearly 15,000 youths each year.
The YHEC event at the Dalton Range was a demonstration, or non-scoring, event. None of the participants were trying to earn spots in international competition. They were merely youths who liked the outdoors and were looking for knowledge that went beyond what they had learned in hunter education.
"You can be the best shot in the world and be able to hit the bullseye at 500 yards, but you still might not be able to find any game," Ibrahim said. "You have to know where to look, when to look and what to look for."
Those topics were covered in the wildlife identification part of the Dalton Range event. In true YHEC fashion, the wildlife ID went beyond classroom lectures and pictures in textbooks. Students had to identify ducks by actual wing samples, mammals by fur samples and skulls, turkey gender and ages by legs, tails and feathers; and deer ages by jawbones. They also had to identify various animals by the tracks they made, and by their scat, another telling characteristic animals leave behind.
The wildlife identification drills impressed Chad Strain, a YHEC student from Springfield.
"I didn't know there were so many different kinds of ducks in Missouri," he said.
The other activities of the camp covered their respective topics just as thoroughly. Students tested their shotgun skills at the Dalton Range trap and skeet area. They also displayed their .22-caliber and blackpowder target shooting skills at the firearms range. Map and compass reading skills were tested in the open areas surrounding the Training Center building. Conservation agent John Thomas tested each student on the hunter responsibility trail, then took the individual back through the route and discussed the rights and wrongs of each station. In each instance, it was learning by doing.
"YHEC provides the first step of becoming experienced at the various skills taught in hunter education," Rick Flint said. "The hands-on experience reinforces the concept of hunter education, thus interfacing the two together to develop a safe, responsible hunter."
David Brooks, one of the instructors at the Dalton Range event, said the lessons taught to young hunters at YHEC could benefit hunters of all ages.
"You might see a monster buck, but if you don't have a good shot and it's not going to be a good, clean kill, let it go," said Brooks, a Missouri Highway Patrol officer. "There's going to be another day. Those are the kinds of things we stress here."
In addition to stressing safety and ethics, YHEC gives participants a more thorough knowledge of Missouri's hunting regulations.
"This helps people who don't hunt as often," said YHEC participant Cari Trantham. "For example, they may think it's all right to go off the road and start shooting at turkeys and not know that they should only shoot the male turkey in the spring, or they might not know that they shouldn't shoot a gobbler if it's in a flock with other birds."
Besides hosting YHEC events, the Dalton Training Center, located on the 2,892-acre Bois D'Arc Conservation Area in Greene County, provides a safe facility to develop shooting skills and provide classroom activities.
"YHEC is one of those programs that benefits greatly from our multi-use facility," Flint said.
One of the purposes of the event at the Bois D'Arc Area was to spread word about the YHEC program. YHEC also publicizes its events through Missouri Department of Conservation hunter education classes. Jan Morris, the NRA's volunteer coordinator for Missouri, said this type of exposure will help YHEC grow on the state and national levels.
"One of the factors that's going to help YHEC grow is that there are a lot of kids who have an interest in hunting, but don't have a place to hunt," Morris said. "Here's a program that lets them use the same skills that are used in hunting, but they don't actually hunt. YHEC gives these individuals a chance to keep up on their skills until they have an opportunity to hunt."
YHEC events do more than give you knowledge you can use on your next hunting outing, though. In some cases, it prepares individuals for life-long careers.
"A lot of people who have gone through the YHEC program have gone on to work in careers in the wildlife field," Taylor said. "It gives participants some viable career options."
In the long run, it is helping to forge Missouri's safest, best-trained generation of hunters and firearms owners. That's a tremendous benefit not only to both hunters and non-hunters, but also to the wildlife resources they hold so dear.
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