By Jeff Noble / Staff Writer
The recent nip in the air isn’t the only sure sign that fall’s on its way.
Last weekend the squirrel hunting season opened up.
And to take advantage of upcoming days spent outdoors in the woods, around 75 people made their way to a free three-day hunter education course at Jesse D. Lay Elementary School in Barbourville.
The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources sponsored the course. Starting this past Monday and ending Wednesday night, those who signed up learned what course organizer and instructor Calvin Johnson called “the right way and the responsible way to hunt.”
For much of those three days, the school’s cafeteria was the classroom. But before starting, Johnson gave the students a bit of friendly advice.
“Please don’t interrupt the instructors until the class is over. You’ll have breaks to get up, stretch, and do what you have to do, before we start the next class. If you have a question, ask them then. And pay attention. If you listen, you’ll pass,” noted Johnson, a Knox Countian who has been teaching hunter education courses since the 1980’s.
Along with the education and hands-on experience, instructor Will Conley told students what’s at stake for them is the ultimate prize — a hunter education safety card, or “The Orange Card.”
“It’s required by law for anyone born after Jan. 1, 1975. Essentially, that card validates your license,” said Mark Marraccini, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Frankfort.
Monday’s class dealt with wildlife management, wildlife identification, trapping, hunter ethics and first aid.
Conley showed students pictures of wildlife, such as squirrels, rabbits, deer, turkey, ducks a bald eagle and a red fox.
When a deer picture came up on the screen, he asked them, “How many of you plan to hunt deer?” Many of the students quickly raised their hands.
“If you’re gonna deer hunt, what color should you not wear?” said Conley, a Letcher County native.
His answer reminded them one of what’s called “The Ten Commandments of Firearm Safety.”
“Brown and white. Don’t wear those colors…You, as the hunter, have the responsibility to make sure what you’re shooting is a deer, and not somebody who is holding a white handkerchief.”
Later, Conley pulled out some traps for hunting, including a foothold trap, a leg hold trap, a snare and a body grip trap. Taking an empty plastic water bottle, he showed how to set the traps, emphasizing the safe way to set them. The water bottle crumpled up as the trap’s jaws instantly crushed the plastic.
Hunting’s a family affair for many, which brought out Samantha Bingham, her husband, her sister, her sister’s boyfriend and her cousin to the course.
“We like to hunt, and we like to do it safely. My cousin’s 14, and he’s excited about the course. I asked him this morning if he wanted to come here, and he said he did. He was excited,” said Bingham, who’s from the Poplar Creek-Siler area of Whitley County.
The next night, gun safety and the types of firearms used were covered at the school. A third of those attending the three-day class were women, while some 30 were children. And with the class going over weapons and safety, they were reminded that some firearms are more suited for their size.
“That’s true. They do make guns and youth rifles with a shorter stock and smaller caliber. The shorter stock is designed so women and youth can reach it better than the full adult size. Those guns are lightweight. And for women, they make some pink guns, like a pink 22 rifle,” said instructor Kevin Rossman, a 25-year veteran of holding safety courses.
On Wednesday, the action shifted first to the West Knox Wild Game Club off KY 6, where a live fire exercise was held. The exercise gave students a chance to show what they’ve learned about hunter safety and take practice rounds at a gun range and clay target range.
It was far from just taking a rifle or shotgun and shooting a target.
“We’re more interested in them handling the gun safely than making a perfect shot,” stated another veteran instructor, Bill Oxendine of Barbourville.
Johnson agreed, “We teach them safety and handling. Then they can go home and practice after that.”
Before they fired, instructors asked students what they’ve learned about handling a gun. And another sound was heard just as often as a gunshot.
“Before you shoot, put your glasses and your hearing aids on,” shouted one instructor at the gun range.
The students followed orders, including 11-year-old Colby Elliott of Barbourville.
Ready to shoot at the clay target range several yards away, he raised up a 20-gauge shotgun, paused for a brief moment, and hollered, “Pull!” The bright red clay target rapidly flew in the air, which Elliott spotted in a split second before he pulled the trigger. In a heartbeat the target exploded in a flash, falling in shreds and pieces to the ground.
Afterwards, Elliott savored the moment with his parents.
“I was excited, because I never shot a single-shot 20-gauge before. It felt good when I shattered it,” he said, smiling.
When it was over, the students and instructors went back to Lay Elementary for the written test.
If the students pass the written test, they get the “The Card.” And, the understanding that enjoying those outdoor moments is a privilege, with respect to your weapon, your wildlife, your fellow hunter, and the outdoors around you.
Hunter education courses are offered in the Tri-County region, and across the state, by the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. To find out when the next course will be, or if you need more information, go to their website at www.kdfwr.state.ky.us.