NRA wrapped up its 27th annual International Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC) last month in northern Pennsylvania.
Founded in 1985 as an advanced hunter education program, no program (outside of conventional hunter safety classes) has reached more young hunters (more than a million) than YHEC has over the past 27 years.
A complete YHEC tests a young hunter’s marksmanship skills, safety awareness, and ethics. But what is a YHEC, really? Below is an event-by-event, nuts-and-bolts breakdown of the YHEC program—with a bit of perspective from the people who have helped make the program so successful. As you’ll see, YHEC is not your average hunter ed program.
When you ask folks what makes NRA’s YHEC program so special, the answer is always the same: the people. And one man in particular, Pennsylvania’s Charlie Fox, represents all that is good about YHEC.
Charlie is one of two people (fellow Keystone Stater Bill Bower is the other) who have attended every single International YHEC event since the program’s inception in 1985. “I’ve hung around this long because the kids are an absolute pleasure to be with,” Charlie said.
Charlie is the event director for the Muzzleloader Challenge at the International YHEC, an event that tests the kids’ knowledge of and proficiency with blackpowder firearms. Using any flintlock, percussion cap or 209 primer-type muzzleloading rifle (.54 caliber or smaller), participants fire a total of 15 shots at metal knock-down targets. Five shots are fired at each of three distances: short, medium and long range.
“Because we try to simulate hunting conditions, we don’t tell them the exact distance,” said Charlie, who noted that each shot is worth 10 points for a total possible score of 150. The balance of the scoring for the event is determined by a 150-point examination consisting of 30 true/false questions relating to the safe use and maintenance of muzzleloading firearms.
Every member of Charlie’s volunteer crew—who call themselves the “Blackpowder Gang”—has a minimum of 10 years of experience at YHEC. Many of those volunteers have been associated with the program for 20 years or more. Charlie says he and his fellow volunteers are so committed to the program because of the quality of the kids they are able to mentor.
“When the day is finished, more than 300 competitors will have fired more than 22,000 shots,” he said. “I have not heard one bad word. I have not heard anyone be disrespectful. These are the finest, best trained young people in the country when it comes to the shooting sports. I don’t know how you can say it any better than that.”
Hunter Safety Trail
Studying hunter safety in a classroom is one thing. Applying it in the field is a different animal altogether.
On the Hunter Safety Trail, participants navigate a 300-point course filed with real-life safety scenarios commonly encountered by hunters in the field. Do I unload my rifle and hand it to a hunting buddy before crossing that fence? Do I shoot that buck if he’s at the crest of a hill with no backstop? Is it legal (and ethical) to shoot a sow black bear with cubs? These questions and others like them are encountered along the trail.
“The Hunter Safety Trail is meant to evaluate the skills learned in hunter safety classes,” said Jennifer Morgan, Hunter Safety Trail event director at the International YHEC. “We focus on firearm safety, ethics and responsibility. We evaluate them as if they were out hunting in the real world.”
Morgan, who is the hunter education program coordinator for the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, took over as Hunter Safety Trail event director in 2009. Her affiliation with the YHEC program goes back much longer, however, due to her passion for hunting and commitment to passing on her knowledge to new hunters.
“Hunting is a privilege and we need to preserve that privilege—not just for this generation but for many generations to come,” said Morgan, who is also active with the New Mexico state YHEC event. “If we don’t get these kids hunting and shooting, then hunting has no future.
“It takes a lot of time to train these kids, but it’s worth the investment.”
Being a crack shot with a rifle is perhaps the quintessential characteristic of a good hunter. Legend has it that frontiersman Davy Crockett was given only one bullet a day by his father to go hunting. If his aim was true, he and his family ate that day. If he missed, they went hungry.
While hunters today are unlikely to go to bed hungry if they miss, marksmanship ability remains one of the most enduring marks of a good hunter. The YHEC rifle event puts youngsters’ rifle skills to the ultimate test on a 30-shot, six-station course designed to simulate hunting-type shots. The shots are fired at spinner targets at ranges varying from 10 to 75 yards. Participants use .22s with either open sights or scopes, but they are not given the range to their target, and they are told what type of shooting position is permissible for each station.
It is quite an accomplishment when a youngster is able to run the table and card a perfect 300 score. International YHEC event director Lenny Rees, a retired hunter education administrator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, says the time kids put in practicing and becoming better shooters teaches them lessons that not only prepare them for the field, but everyday life.
“YHEC really teaches kids life skills,” said Rees, who has run the rifle event at the International YHEC for the past 17 years. “First of all, to be able to handle winning, but, more importantly, how to handle times when things might not go as well as you had hoped. It also teaches young people how to concentrate and focus on what they’re doing, especially here on the .22 range. These are things that stick with a kid for a lifetime.”
Those life lessons learned through shooting are one of the major reasons why YHEC produces kids who are first-rate shots—and even better people.
Most young hunters today have no clue what a compass is, yet alone how to use one. Not so with YHEC kids.
The old-time skills of reading a map and compass are being kept alive through YHEC’s orienteering challenge, which requires youngsters to navigate a pre-determined field course using only compass bearings and distances (and not a GPS). There’s also a written portion to the challenge that involves map reading and identifying map symbols and vocabulary, such as contour lines, scale and declination.
“Over the years I’ve seen the scores climb,” said Bill Bower, who has overseen the orienteering event at the International YHEC for most of its 27 years. “It’s a lot like schoolwork, and the kids are putting in the time to learn it. Usually, the overall winners of the Youth Hunter Education Challenge are the ones who excel in the responsibility exams, such as orienteering.”
Bower has attended all 27 International YHECs that have been held since the program was started by NRA in 1985. He is also a retired wildlife conservation officer from the Pennsylvania Game Commission with 35 years of service. It’s a common theme for YHEC volunteers to stick with the program for so long because they see how valuable it is to recruiting and retaining the next generation of hunters. Volunteers are the lifeblood of the program, Bower says.
“The value of YHEC is that it produces card-carrying hunters,” said Bower. “Ninety percent of kids who attend youth field days held by other organizations probably won’t become hunters and shooters. The YHEC program, I believe, is really making hunters and shooters.
“Hunter numbers are dropping. This is the type of program all states and all hunters should be involved in to recruit new hunters.”
Identifying a gray squirrel, raccoon or Canada goose sounds pretty easy, right? Most hunters—and even non-hunters—know what these animals look like. But what if you were given 30 specimens and asked to identify them all by just their skulls, pelts, wings or tracks? Sounds a bit more difficult, doesn’t it?
That’s exactly what the participants are asked to do in the Wildlife Identification event.
“The point of the Wildlife Identification challenge is to get the kids excited about wildlife, learning more about wildlife, and build their appreciation for it,” said Travis Casper, Wildlife Identification event director at the International YHEC and hunter education coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. “There is reference material for them to study, and it can be anything from there. We’ll show them tracks, pelts, skulls, head mounts, full-body mounts—anything that could be used to identify the species.”
And this is no multiple-choice test. Participants must come up with the name of each species on their own. That’s why the Wildlife Identification event, perhaps more than any other event in the competition, requires participants to do their homework ahead of time.
Having been involved with the YHEC program for 10 years, both nationally and in North Carolina, Casper has seen firsthand how the time spent getting ready for YHEC is helping kids to become better, safer, more dedicated hunters.
“YHEC—in North Carolina we call our state event the North Carolina Youth Hunter Education Skills Tournament—gives kids a structured event for them to learn how to hunt and shoot the right way,” he said. “It’s so important to get kids involved in hunting early on because they’re going to be tomorrow’s stewards. This program is setting kids on the path to continue the hunting heritage.”
Harry Street has been involved with the YHEC program for 27 years—almost all of them as the Archery event director at the annual International YHEC.
A retired game warden for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Street says he’s stuck with the program for so long because he’s enjoyed sharing his hunting knowledge with the competitors and watching them mature through the years.
“I love working with the kids,” he said. “You’re seeing the kids grow up and get involved in an activity that is beneficial to them. It’s rewarding to see kids come through as junior competitors, move up to the senior ranks, and then come back to the YHEC program as coaches.”
Through it all he’s overseen the Archery course, which is always one of the participants’ favorite events.
“The kids really seem to enjoy the archery course because it is so fun to go through,” said Street. “It gives them a lot of perspective. The course consists of 3-D wildlife targets set up in lifelike situations in the woods. The kids move through the course, get to see a lot of different animals, try to judge the yardage to the target, and then make the shot. The kids are great competitors, and they’re always trying for the 10-ring to get the most points.”
Shots on the archery course cover varying distances from 5 to 40 yards, and the shots are designed to simulate common bowhunting situations. Scoring rings are located directly over the animal’s vitals, with any shot placed inside the vital area counting as a hit. The 10-ring is set up as if it were a heart shot, the 8-ring counts as a lung shot, and the 5-ring is just off of the lungs, Street said. The kids have to work hard and practice continually to post high scores, which instills a work ethic that translates not just to hunting, but life in general.
“They have to participate in their local or state YHEC events in order to come to the national event, so they’re working almost all year long to develop their skills for the YHEC tournament,” Street said. “Once the kids get involved with YHEC they just keep going and building their skills. If you get the kids into hunting when they’re young, you can get them into it for life.”
Most of the core volunteers who help Bob Davis and his staff in NRA’s Hunter Services Department run the International YHEC have been involved with the program for decades. Without these individuals and their years-long commitments, the YHEC program would not be what it is today.
But as some longtime volunteers have begun to retire from active YHEC involvement, new ones have been counted on to take their places. One of those (relatively) new faces is Barry Estep from Troy, Pa., who took over as the Shotgun event director at the International YHEC this year. An eight-year YHEC volunteer, Estep took charge of the event because, as he puts it, “my passion is shotgun shooting.”
He’s also passionate about passing on his love for hunting and shooting to a new generation. “I love to see the kids’ faces when they break a bird,” said Estep. “We have some young kids out here that are in the 11- to 12-year-old range and when they break their birds, they’re just grinning from ear to ear. That just makes you feel good.”
Fired on a six-station “hunter’s clays” course rather than a traditional trap or skeet range, the Shotgun event is designed to simulate running animals or birds in flight. On each station the targets come from different directions and vary in size. Some shots mimic a running rabbit. Others are like a duck coming in overhead. And still others are low, outgoing targets that simulate a flushing quail.
“It’s all hunting-type targets being thrown,” Estep said.
Outside of conventional hunter education courses, no program is doing more than YHEC to prepare young hunters for the field. The program is geared 100 percent to mentoring young hunters and fostering their growth in the sport. For any hunter interested in giving of his or her time to make a difference, there’s no better place to start than becoming a YHEC volunteer.
“The YHEC program is so important because these kids are the future of hunting and the shooting sports—and the NRA. I look at this as a training tool and an information tool for tomorrow’s hunters and shooters,” said Estep, who is also involved with the Pennsylvania state YHEC program.
“A friend of mine who had never been to YHEC stopped by today, and even though I had talked to him about YHEC in the past, he was amazed by the quality of the events and the way the kids handled themselves. He said he’s going to consider coming back and volunteering when YHEC comes back to Pennsylvania in two years.”
NRA’s YHEC program is made possible by generous contributions from companies like MidwayUSA. To learn more about the YHEC program or to get involved, visit www.nrayhec.org.