Missouri Offers Online Hunter Ed in July
For 50 years, hunter education has meant attending 10 hours of classroom training. Come July, Missourians will have a second option - online training plus a field day to give their knowledge a practical test. One family that has tried it is sold on the concept.
Kenny Dearing took his parents by surprise last fall when he told them he wanted to go deer hunting.
"I had taken him out to the range and let him shoot the gun and tried to entice him somewhat," said Kenny's father, Ken. "With him growing up and playing sports and all that, he had never showed that much interest and I didn’t really want to push him. And then he just comes up one day and says 'I really would love to do this. What have we got to do?'"
According to Kenny, peer pressure stimulated his interest in hunting.
"All my friends go hunting," said Kenny. "They always bring pictures to school and gloat about it. I wanted to get my own and gloat about it."
Ken, who has been a deer hunter for 35 years, was delighted. He went to the Missouri Department of Conservation’s web page to see what legal requirements his 12-year-old son had to meet to take part in the two-day youth deer hunting season. He knew that Kenny would need to be hunter-education certified. If Kenny did not have a hunter-education certificate, Ken would need one to accompany his son on the youth hunt.
"I decided I might as well take hunter education with him," said Ken. "You can always learn something new."
While Ken was pleased with his son's newfound interest in hunting, it created a bit of a time crunch. Like most families, the Dearings were busy, and only one hunter education class was available in their home town.
"Hunter education was going to take up an entire weekend," said Ken, "and with my schedule as busy as it is and his football schedule, we were trying to find a way to do this that was a little easier for him and me. Then we stumbled across the internet-based training."
The Dearings became part of a trial run of the Conservation Department's new web-based hunter education. The agency tested the program in a few areas in 2006 to see how it worked and what hunters and instructors thought of it. Students worked their way through the training materials and then had to pass an online test in time to qualify for a six-hour field day that completed the training. It took some work, but the Dearings finished the online course in time.
"It was a great way to go," said Kenny's mother, Janet. "They did it in the evenings and had a lot of fun together."
Kenny said the online portion of the course worked well for him, because he could work at his own pace.
"The only hard part was all the reading," he said. "I'm not really much about reading. The field day was just like redoing everything we had already learned. It was actually kind of fun."
Ken said the practical exercises in safe firearms handling, crossing fences and establishing safe fields of fire were priceless.
"Walking around with a stick instead of a gun helped him learn those lessons," said Ken. "The instructors were just excellent, the way they made sure every kid understood exactly what to do. I was really impressed. I even learned some things I didn’t know."
With both portions of the online/field day training successfully completed, Ken and Kenny were set. The used their camper at Mark Twain Lake as their deer camp, hunting on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
They hunted from dawn to dusk both days of the Youth Portion of Firearms Deer Season, using a ground blind. They saw only one deer and were not able to get a shot. But Ken said the weekend was wonderful. He got to sit quietly with his son for two days, teaching him how to pick a deer out among the fall foliage, what signs to look for on the ground, where to sit and other deer hunting lore.
Walking through the woods, Kenny surprised his dad by pointing out dangerous situations, such as a thick patch of trees where it would be difficult to keep the muzzle of his rifle pointed in a safe direction, or a spot where he might fall, losing control of his firearm.
"He learned all that stuff in the field day," said Ken. "It really stuck with him."
As the November Portion of Firearms Deer Season approached, father and son continued their preparations. They spent time at the shooting range, going through six or seven boxes of ammunition until Kenny was completely comfortable with his lever-action .30-30. Ken bought a "buddy stand," a tree stand with room for two hunters. They put it up together - more quality time alone with his son. The stand allowed them to sit together in an elevated platform. On opening day, they saw three deer.
"We saw a nice buck," said Ken. "I could have shot it, but it wasn't about me. It was about what Kenny could do. I was proud of what he had learned in hunter education. He couldn't get the deer in the scope quick enough and he said, 'Dad I can't get a good shot,' and he just lowered his gun. That's the way it should be. I had told him, if you can't get a good shot for a clean kill, just let him walk away. There will be another one another day. He did a real good job."
On the second morning of the regular deer season a big deer came along. Kenny was catnapping when his dad nudged him awake so he could hear the sound of the deer walking through the leaves behind them.
"I told him, 'Kenny, there is a deer coming. Just wait; she'll stop. If she's looking at you just wait. Eventually she'll drop her head or she'll turn. If you have a clean shot, take it.' At that point he said, 'I can get her,' and he pulled the trigger."
Kenny's target practice and hunting ethics training came together at that moment. The deer, a 160-pound doe, fell where she stood, stopped cold by one lethal shot.
"I'm very excited," said Ken. "This is an interest we can both share together. There's no TV, there's no cell phone, there's no video machine. It's just quiet time that we can bond as father and son. My daughter is actually interested in getting involved as well."
Kenny got a first-deer certificate from the Conservation Department. He spends much of his spare time now reading books, watching outdoor shows and cruising the Internet to learn all he can about turkey hunting. He and his dad plan to hunt the spring turkey season.
Conservation Department Hunter Education Coordinator Tony Legg said online hunter education is designed to make formal training in hunting safety and ethics more readily available. He said the online option is designed to augment traditional classes, not replace them.
"Online training is a great thing for families with busy schedules," said Legg. "It also is going to be a big help to people who live a long way from where hunter education classes are offered."
He said the Conservation Department was very conscious of the need to maintain the quality of hunter education training as it designed the online course. He said the field day ensures that students get interactive time with instructors. "Nothing can take the place of a real, live teacher for certain things," he said, "and the practical exercises add an extremely important element to the training."
Legg said the new approach also makes hunter education more appealing to young people, who are learning to do everything online. "Serving people means making services available where they live," he said. 'For a lot of young people, that means the Internet."
Legg said the online course covers the same material as traditional hunter-education classes. After completing the course, students can take as many practice tests as they need to prepare for the final exam. The exam itself is different for every student. Difficulty is tailored to the student's age, and questions are selected from a pool of several hundred, yielding a virtually endless number of variations.
"The chances of getting more than one or two of the same questions on two tests are limited," said Legg. "You have to know the material pretty well to pass, just like in a regular hunter education class."
Passing this exam is a requirement for attending a field day and obtaining hunter-education certification. At the field day students must pass another written test. This ensures that their online test was not done by others.
"When we announced plans to offer an online version of hunter education, lots of people were understandably concerned about whether it would lower the standards," said Legg. "We have built in safeguards to make sure that doesn't happen. With the added hands-on training, I think online hunter education actually is stronger in some ways than classroom training alone."
The Conservation Department plans to launch the online hunter-education course in July. Information will be available at www.mdc.mo.gov in June.