Aiming for Youth
Even before I reach the clubhouse at Marsh WMA, located at the end of a long, sandy road off Highway 9 near Gresham, S.C. the steady pop of shotguns firing at the skeet & trap range located on the property tells me it’s going to be a great day for capturing some action photos. I had rolled down the car windows as soon as I entered the Marsh property, soaking up the sights, sounds and smells of this fantastic place. On either side of the shady, one-track dirt lanes that wind through Marsh, located alongside the Great Pee Dee River in Marion County, you’re apt to see bottomland hardwoods, wetland areas and creeks or open fields and stands of thinned planted pines. I had visited the property just a few months back, tracing the route down to the confluence where Catfish Creek joins with the river, and I knew that in the deep and shady spots, I was likely to hear (or maybe even see) a whole lot of migratory songbirds.
One thing I didn't expect, as it was well after sunrise, was seeing beautiful large doe deer standing in the middle of the road just around the bend from the information kiosk and designate campsite, but nonetheless, there it was, still chewing some browse from the edge of the swamp and looking expectantly up the road in my direction. I put on the brakes and made a move for the small camera that always rides on the cluttered dashboard of my car, but no dice. Just that quick, she took off across the road, making tracks towards the property’s northwest end. An abundance of game species large and small make Marsh a terrific place for hunters, and the upper end of this property is reserved for youth hunts only, which makes the Youth Area at Marsh an important component of the DNR’s Take One Make One (TOMO) program.
The wingshooting clinic I was there to attend was not limited to TOMO participants—anyone age 10-17 could sign up for one of the clinic’s twenty-five slots— all of which were filled, DNR Lt. Kim Leverich told me in between talks she was giving to small groups of excited kids as they cycled from station to station at the Marsh clubhouse. Clinics like this one are a great way to expose people—especially young people—to TOMO and the opportunities that this incredible mentoring program provides for young people interested in hunting who don’t have an adult family member to teach them. All the clinic participants and their families left Marsh with TOMO applications in-hand. For those already involved in hunting, “please share it with a friend at school who wants to learn,” Leverich tells the assembled kids and parents.
In addition to Leverich, the kids at this clinic also heard presentations from Marion County DNR Officer Cody Britt, DNR biologist Jake Oates, DNR litter prevention program coordinator Valerie Shannon and Mr. Simon Spain with event sponsor Bass Pro Shops. Outside the Marsh clubhouse, DNR Hunter Education Coordinator Capt. Billy Downer and DNR Officer Mark Ferrell man a grill and cleaning table for a session on how to properly dress and clean birds for the table. Every participants who wants to is able to sample some delicious grilled quail.
“It’s important for young hunters to understand the importance of the ethic that you eat what you harvest,” says Ferrell.
A short distance away, at Marsh’s shotgun range, DNR Officer Scott Stephens and volunteers Bill Aston and Keith Black assist groups of young shooters. After a a talk emphasizing the basics of firearms safety and the operation of various types of actions, the group breakes up into beginning shooters and those who already have some experience. When working with younger and beginning shotgunners, says Stephens, it’s important to drill into them the fundamentals of good stance and balance. “Form comes first,” he adds. “That’s really the key.”
“Stay in your stances!” Stephen counsels a group of shooters he’s taking through their paces, Then, one at a time, each one approaches the line and points while a clay pigeon is fired by TOMO program graduate and volunteer Keith Black. Black smiles while he works, probably remembering back to when he was at the beginner level and just starting out with TOMO. Black’s in college now, and an accomplished trap and skeet shooter and avid hunter. He’s a great example of the next generation of sportsman-conservationist the program is trying to reach.
Next, Stephens gets the kids to follow the clay pigeon loosed by Black with a pointed finger to mimic the way the shotgun barrel will travel when it’s for real and say “bang,” when they reach the point where they think they should shoot.
“Follow it to the ground,” says Stephens. “Where was it when you ‘shot’ it? What color did you see?” (The black underside of the pigeons contrasts with their bright orange exterior at the apex of their flight).
Eventually, everyone in the younger group seems to have a hang of the basics and it’s time to move on the real thing. Stephens works with each participant individually, first showing them the proper way to hold and mount the gun to their shoulder while maintaining proper balance and form—each lesson building on the last—and offering encouragement and advice after every shot while Coach Alston works with the older shooters on the finer points of their form.
“Right there!” shouts Stephens, pumping his fist, when one beginner nails the clay pigeon. “Great job!” It’s evident how much he enjoys what he’s doing.
That’s exactly the type of encouragement these kids need, and the hope is that—just like building on the fundamentals for good wingshooting—these experiences will help mold these young people into adults who value the outdoors and wildlife conservation. It’s an important task, and one that Leverich, Farrell, Stephens, Downer and all the other dedicated men and women involved in the DNR’s youth education and mentoring programs take very seriously. They should. In a very real way, the future of wildlife conservation in our state depends on their efforts.