BENTONVILLE – If hunter education has a “decathlon,” it’s the Youth Hunter Education Challenge, a National Rifle Association-sponsored competition involving clubs and individuals from coast to coast in outdoors-related disciplines. When the NRA decided this year to trade its national final for East and West regional championships to increase attendance, it was a boon for Arkansas.
The NRA looked to Gary Jobe, a former Arkansan and longtime volunteer for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, to put on the West Regional in Bentonville in late July.
“It was very successful,” Jobe said. “The best I can relate this to is, in a baseball game we hit a home run and the bases were loaded. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
It wasn’t home cooking, but an Arkansas 16-year-old led the way when 160 youths from around the western two-thirds of the U.S. converged on The Natural State for three days of competition and a day of awards, July 24-27, at the Benton County Quail facility 5 miles west of downtown. Louisiana’s teams and individuals may have dominated much of the regional, but Nick Meyer of Cleburne County was the top finishing individual in the senior division (ages 15-18).
YHEC features eight events: Four shooting competitions, including three set up with simulated hunting situations and animal silhouette targets (.22, muzzleloader and archery) along with shotgun and sporting clays; orienting with map and compass; a hunter safety trail where competitors demonstrate safe hunting practices; wildlife identification through tracks, hides, feathers and signs of North American wildlife; and, finally, a written test examining knowledge of hunter safety, ethics, responsibility and law. The AGFC provided the guide books for study in the test portion, plus other material support. Also, regional educators helped on the state and regional level.
Arkansas held its state competition at the C.H. Vines 4-H Center in Little Rock June 6-8. Anyone with hopes of advancing to the West Regional had to participate on the state level. Jobe said the three days of state and regional competitions are intense. “You think of golf, tennis, basketball and sports like that. It takes a lot of time to get good at one sport. These kids are competing at four shooting disciplines, so you can imagine the time that goes into that to be that good,” he said.
Also, everyone who competes in YHEC must possess hunter education certification. Arkansas’s hunter education program is coordinated by AGFC’s Joe Huggins.
“Joe and (the Arkansas) Game and Fish (Commission) have been big supporters of YHEC,” Jobe said.
The NRA began the YHEC program nationally in 1985. Jobe discovered it in 1990 reading a full-page newspaper advertisement while he was living in Marshall, Texas, at the time his son expressed an interest in hunting and shooting sports. Jobe got involved and never stopped. When he moved to Arkansas, the YHEC program here was inactive, so he reached out to the then-director to restart it. Jobe recalled 12 youths showing up for the first state competition at the AGFC’s Rick Evans Grandview Prairie WMA in 1996. Five of those youths, including Jobe’s son, went on the NRA’s national event. The next year, Jobe volunteered to help with the state program and basically was handed the keys, as the director was moving out of state. Jobe called the NRA coordinator, who told him he was perfect for the role. “That’s how the hook got in my jaw,” he said.
“In Arkansas there are probably 300 to 400 kids doing this. It’s a viable, popular program,” he said, adding that about 30 counties have some type of outdoors, 4-H or shooting sports program that is involved with YHEC. “We just ended a month ago. When school starts, they start their programs right back again. It’s basically a year-round course.”
Any age youth up to 18 can participate, but Jobe says the typical starting age is rarely younger than 11. The junior division of competition is for children 14 years and younger.
“It’s one of the neatest programs that ever was for kids that like to hunt and shoot or have never been exposed to hunting and shooting,” Jobe said. Also, he notes, these youths are soon to be the next generation of adult consumers of the state’s natural resources and buyers of hunting and fishing licenses.
“I came up in a time when I had my dad and other mentors. From the first time I can remember I was in the woods hunting and fishing and out in the outdoors,” he said. “Kids don’t have the opportunity as readily as I did … It’s just another chance to get more kids involved in shooting sports and hunting. My motto is, get one more kid involved in shooting sports, and that’s how I kind of do things.”
The AGFC’s Huggins said of YHEC, “Everything they do in their competition is based on hunter education, from skills to ethics and responsibilities. So, it’s like taking a hunter education course and blowing it up. They just enhance what has already been taught in a course and let them experience that though the events they have at the competition.”
The dividing line for East and West regionals ran east of Michigan down through Tennessee and along the Alabama-Georgia state line. Bentonville appealed to the NRA as the first host of a West Regional for being more centrally located for most of the western states involved, though Washington state also sent representatives. And, Jobe said, he had more than 75 volunteers, some from as far away as Washington and Michigan. Jobe says Bentonville proved to be a hit with the national organizers, and locally he had much support and sponsorships. “People love Bentonville and Northwest Arkansas, he said. “There was a ton of things for people to do on their downtime, so it made sense to take the regional to that area.”
Some Arkansas YHEC alumni have gone on to outdoor occupations, Jobe said. “I’ve got two or three young men or women who went to work for the AGFC. I can think of another who went into the Army Corps of Engineers for several years. I can think of two Olympic shooters that were in our state YHEC program. Another is a professional representative for Bass Pro Shops. We’ve had some that went on to become big-game guides and moved to Utah or Wyoming. I can take my son as a good example: He owns a very successful gun store in Houston. Guns and shooting were important to him early on and he made a career of it.”
Many alumni come back, Jobe added, to volunteer at the state competitions, run YHEC programs or offer coaching.
Any individuals or schools interested in being a part of a YHEC program can email Jobe at firstname.lastname@example.org.