"Larry, I want to shoot with you."
I was more than a little surprised to look down at the young man who spoke those words. Standing with the rest of the folks at a National Wild Turkey Federation JAKES Day, I was there to take pictures and soak up as much knowledge about the event as I could.
The firing line at this station was staffed by uniformed West Virginia DNR Officers, and they certainly needed no help from me. But I took his hand, and we approached the firing line where several young people where shooting .22 rifles and shotguns.
Just in case you've been living under the proverbial rock or caught in a time warp, let me bring you up to date on something: things ain't like they used to be. The number of hunters and fishermen in the US of A are not what they once were. Depending on what study you choose, our figures may be up a little, but only after many years of a downward trend.
While that is good news, the days when you could show your high school football coach your new shotgun while standing in the school parking lot are long gone. What a shame.
The whys and wherefores of decreasing hunter numbers have been a topic of much discussion in recent years: folks today are involved in too many other activities; we don't have access to hunting ground as we did in the past; kids today are more interested in computer games than being outside; there are fewer dads at home to teach such things.
The list goes on, but one thing is certain. If our hunting heritage and culture is to continue, there is a great need for something to introduce our young people to outdoors activities. The NWTF sensed this decades ago.
One of the premier conservation-based groups in the United States, the NWTF is dedicated to the conservation of the wild turkey and the preservation of our hunting heritage. Since 1973, the NWTF has worked tirelessly toward these goals and, along with state and federal wildlife agencies, can take much of the credit for the dramatic comeback of the American wild turkey.
In 1981, NWTF saw a need to get youth outdoors and began the JAKES (Juniors Acquiring Knowledge, Ethics and Sportsmanship) program. Later, Xtreme JAKES was added to provide teens with more advanced outdoors opportunities. JAKES Take Aim gives youth 17 and younger the chance to try target shooting, clay target shooting and shotgunning in a safe, fun environment.
Xtreme JAKES offers youth ages 13 to 17 opportunities and challenges more in line with their abilities and experiences. Xtreme JAKES participants learn to be responsible outdoors through fishing, camping and other activities. They learn to identify plants and animals, as well as how to effectively call in those elusive toms through hunting seminars taught by experts in the field.
NWTF state chapters in the lower 48 states have a fully equipped air gun trailer to use during JAKES events. The trailer contains everything needed to set up an air gun range indoors or outdoors. In partnership with local shooting ranges and gun clubs, NWTF chapters also can host sporting clay events. JAKES Take Aim provides clay targets and ammunition for registered and approved events.
So I was present at a JAKES Day event in beautiful Monroe County, W.Va.
The setting - Moncove Lake State Park - and the JAKES Day activities made it a great way to spend a beautiful September day. More than fifty boys and girls were there to experience rifle, shotgun and air rifle shooting, archery, muzzleloading, fly fishing instruction, plus demonstrations on trapping, hunter safety, emergency care and other outdoors skills.
I was able to spend a few minutes with Monroe County native Cully McCurdy, a regional biologist for the NWTF who was hip deep in youngsters waiting their turn at the air rifle station.
"It could be that a lot of people don't know this," McCurdy said, "but the NWTF JAKES program is second in the nation for exposing young people to shooting sports and outdoor education, second only to the Boy Scouts of America. That is quite a feat."
"In our national outreach program, the NWTF is big on the three R's," McCurdy told me.
Those are Recruitment - finding and bringing new hunters and shooters into the fold; Retention - helping hunters stay interested; Reactivation - helping those who may have gotten away from hunting and the outdoors see what they have been missing and return to their old love.
If you are a turkey hunter but not a member of the NWTF, you need to join. If you are thinking of trying turkey hunting or are just someone who professes to enjoy wildlife, you need to join the NWTF. Find a JAKES Day event near you and haul your kids over to it. If you don't have any kids of your own, go borrow a couple and take them to a JAKES Day.
The kids - and you - are going to love it.
I hope my little buddy, Judd Clarkson, will remember when he shot targets at a JAKES Day and in turn will one day take his sons or daughters to such an event.
We have to just keep on keeping on.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at email@example.com.