Keeping the tradition alive

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Program teaches safety, gets youth into the hunt

By Mike Forster

  The number of deer keeps rising.

The number of hunters keeps falling.

Efforts to fortify the ranks of the hunting public were on display last Saturday in grand style.  Ten young hunters were provided first-class instruction and real-life guidance in the field.

It all took place near the New London Business and Technology Center, off Route 460.  That's where those youngsters were taught by instructors from the Virginia Hunters Education Association, under guidance of the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF).

This is the fifth year for the Youth Days, all of which have been held with the strong assistance of the Hunters Education Association of Bedford County.

This past Saturday's event was for rifle hunters.  An additional Youth Day will be held for muzzle loaders.  That will take place on December 22.

"The benefit is getting younger hunters in the field," said Dewayne Sprinkle, a ten-year veteran of the DGIF.  "We started finding a lot of youth's that were in violation (of hunting regulations).  We wanted to develop a program to assist these kids in doing things the right way – the safe way."

The day is a mix of classroom instruction and field time on the hunt.  Between the morning and afternoon session, a hearty lunch was dished up for all participants.  (This reporter would be amiss if he didn't note that the venison stew was the best he's ever had.)

The participants were sent out to the field with a certified instructor.  Each participant had a parent or guardian in tow, as well. 

Each three-person team was assigned to a blind.  The dozen, or so, blinds had been set up by event personnel the week before.  Each blind also had clearly marked shooting lanes.    So, as long as a participant stayed in his (or her) shooting lanes, nobody was in the potential line of fire.

One of the primary duties of the instructors was to ensure that shooting lane integrity was maintained.  Even if the most gorgeous, 12-point buck sauntered by, he was off-limits if he was outside of a hunter's lanes.

Additionally, if a hunter made a kill, he could not leave his blind to check on it until clearance was granted from the central controller.  This provided an additional layer of safety for the participants.

While safety was paramount, there certainly was more to it than that.  After all, this was a hunt, and it was being held in a parcel of land that one participant called a "honey pot," when it comes to deer.

Indeed, once the morning session was done, the group tallied a total of five deer taken.  Participants were able to put into action the field dressing skills they'd learned earlier in the day.

"This is exciting," said Nathan Ramsdell, who bagged two deer in the morning hunt.  "This program is great, because they take care of everything."

Ralph Graybill was the instructor who accompanied Ramsdell when he got his deer.  "He was very excited," recalled Graybill.  "But I got just as excited.  I'm still on Cloud Nine.  His daddy was excited and proud, too." 

The instructors certainly seem to take their duties to heart.  Dennis Austin was assigned to hunter Alex Bradford in the morning session.  Alas, they saw nothing from their blind and Bradford passed the morning without taking a shot.  "I was disappointed," said Austin.  "I feel responsible."

Of course, an instructor can do just so much.  Getting deer to saunter across a hunter's shooting lane likely falls outside of his roles and responsibilities.

Bradford had high hopes for success in the afternoon session.  As he headed out to his blind, along with his grandfather John Pritt and instructor Art Buikema, he observed, "I think this is a great program."

In addition to the instructional value, Bradford cited the fact that "you get to know the game warden less as an enemy and more as an ally."

Hunting is, of course, a sport that grows in relation to the excitement that its participants derive from it.  

It seems that participation in this program fits that same model.  To wit:  Three years ago, Austin participated as a parent, taking his son Cody to it.  The pair was teamed up with Graybill.

On that hunt, Cody nailed an eight-point buck.  "Cody and Ralph were dancing with joy," remembered Austin.  

He was hooked on the idea of helping youth learn proper hunting procedures.  He subsequently became a certified instructor and now helps with the Youth Hunts.

Their enthusiasm is infectious.  "I talk more about the deer gotten in this program than I do about my own (kills)," said Graybill.

As event co-coordinator Vernie Kennedy added, "It's all about getting youth started in hunting and getting them started in the right way."