Summer Hot Shots

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Dressed in camouflage clothing and holding a shotgun, the guy in the woods looked suspicious as Anthony Donahoo approached. 'Had he seen the big buck a ways back?,' asked the stranger. Donahoo, dressed in shotgun season blaze orange, declined the invitation to help him track the deer. The two parted ways in the woods.

Good choice. But as an experienced contestant in the statewide Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC), Donahoo expected the situation. It had been one of a dozen or so decisions he had to make on the Safety Trail segment of YHEC. He had already decided to 'shoot' a doe instead of the partially obscured buck that was quartered away from him. He had received permission from the 'landowner', and estimated the distance to a couple targets. As he went through a field check with a game warden, he detailed the run-in with the poacher. However, he forgot to mention the 'meth lab' he had noticed just a few steps away. No points for that omission.

The mock up meth lab was a new twist this year on the Safety Trail. Officers who set up the course try to keep it up to date. Unfortunately, that means hunters and others in the woods need to identify-and keep hands off-makeshift, often abandoned, meth labs tucked into out of the way places. "We try to make the course a challenge for the kids," explains Department of Natural Resources conservation officer Gary Purtilo. "They come here to learn, to be tested on what they already know. We make it more challenging each year. It (tests) what they learned in hunter safety classes. It's throwing them a curve, but that's good."

Safety Trail…Archery…Muzzleloader…Orienteering. The teams of teenage boys and girls heading through YHEC see that and more. The competition is divided into 'junior' and 'senior' divisions. On the shotgun range, clay targets simulate teal winging low over the marsh. Suddenly, a 'hunter' steps into range. Many of the young shooters are oblivious to the plywood figure. Until the instructor points it out to them. Those who do see it and pull back their firearms are given quiet praise. Too loud, and it will tip off the rest of the kids, waiting just out of sight.

"The intent of this scenario is not to be sneaky. It's to make you understand that you have a lot of things going through your mind, sitting out there in the duck boat," underscores DNR safety officer Marty Eby. "When we look at our hunting incidents from last year, this was exactly what happened three or four times. You have to be aware of what is beyond your target, even at first light in the duck marsh."

Being safe helps rack up YHEC points, but so does having good aim. Tim Smith, of Cedar Rapids, knocked down all four clay birds at the 'pheasant' station, to help lock in a second place overall finish. "Gun positioning is the big thing; to make sure you have the gun mounted to your shoulder or right below it, so you can position it quickly on the bird," offered Smith. "The shotgun station is always a challenge. They throw in different things. You might have to pick out the orange target (okay to shoot) and the yellow one (off limits) and decide which one to aim at. It simulates a rooster and a hen pheasant in the field. It really represents what you see out in the wild."

That-literally--is the aim of YHEC. These kids got their first taste in hunter education class. Each year, 10,000 more Iowans learn safety and ethics, wildlife identification, first aid and how to handle firearms in the hometown courses. Some of the better ones team up, practice a little ahead of time, and move on to YHEC. "Once a weekend, each month, we work on a different skill," says Smith. His sponsor, the North Linn (County) Fish and Game Club is a staple here. This year, North Linn went 1-2-3 in the senior division. "We also have Wednesday night trap shoots all summer long and on Sundays. All this practice leads up to a good time this week."

"We see quite a few of the same kids coming back each year," notices Jim Smith of rural Iowa City. He is the chief hunter education instructor in Johnson County, which each year certifies about 250 in hunter ed classes. "The older kids get better each year. The newer ones learn. We even have coaches now, who went through as kids."

And a little extra work now, pays off in the decades ahead. "We have had kids here in the past that, as officers, we know we will deal with them in the future," offers Purtilo. "They are going to learn the hard way-through the pocket book-down the road. But the majority? They do a good job. The vast majority are very good kids."