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Giving Young Hunters a Shot 

When these young hunters completed their Illinois hunter safety education course, their instructors gave them more than a diploma. 
By: Joe McFarland 
 Seasoned hunters everywhere know it’s their responsibility to pass down the hunting tradition to a new generation. Yet no hunter anywhere takes it more seriously than Dwight Hoffard, a master Illinois hunter safety education instructor who not only teaches young hunters in the classroom, he actually takes them hunting. For young hunters without a mentor, or those beginners without access to a place to hunt, it’s the perfect graduation present.          

“For a lot of kids, this is their first hunt ever,” explained hunter safety instructor Tim Gibson, one of the volunteers at the 8th annual Youth Outdoor Education Dove Hunt held last September in Jackson County. He’s watching over the grills where wild game is being prepared under a tent. At this free event, more than a dozen graduates of hunter education courses in the region are getting access to the best hunter education of all: hunting experience.          

Plus, they’re getting a taste of what it means to be a successful hunter. Organized by Hoffard nearly a decade ago, the foundation cooks up everything from wild turkey to venison to grilled dove breasts for a post-hunt feast. But the hunting party doesn’t end here. Many of these young hunters will be waterfowl hunting in a few weeks, having also won free guided hunts at their hunter education classes. The point of it all is to provide new hunters excellent hunting opportunities and get them started off right.          

“This is a quality hunt,” Gibson added. “These sunflower fields were planted by (farmer and landowner) Russell Smith at his own expense specifically for this hunt. And you couldn’t ask for better dove hunting anywhere.”          

It’s easy to see how the volunteer spirit and advocacy of the Youth Outdoor Education Foundation has spread. And it’s easy to see why its co-founder—Dwight Hoffard—was a 2009 inductee into the Illinois Outdoor Hall of Fame. This amiable and gregarious supporter of all things outdoors—he’s been a key organizer of Illinois Hunting and Fishing Days at John A. Logan College for decades—established the non-profit foundation to give opportunities to young sportsmen.          

“Not every young hunter has access to a place where they can go hunting,” Hoffard said. “Or they don’t have anyone in their family who can take them out on that first hunt.”          

After realizing many of the students they teach could use a little help after class, Hoffard and fellow hunting safety instructor Greg Legan founded the nonprofit group to connect new hunters with a positive hunting experience. It’s grown to include a network of Illinois hunter safety instructors who volunteer their time beyond class to host a number of free hunting events for young hunters. Nobody gets paid. Everybody volunteers simply because it’s the right thing to do.          

This youth dove hunt now under way at Smith’s farm began long before the young hunters arrived for the afternoon hunt. Instructors began marinating dove breasts and wild turkey long ago. Dutch ovens were filled with campfire-ready fare. Blind sites were selected and prepared at Smith’s farm. Transportation to and from the field was arranged.

And then it was time for the hunters to go for it.

“Listen up,” Hoffard calls out to the students and their adult guardians now piled onto a hay wagon. He’s holding an air horn. “The No. 1 priority today is safety…” He recites the rules for the day, the air horn signals, and then the wagon begins to roll away toward the sunflower field where doves are already flitting about the sky.

“They’ll get plenty of shooting in,” Gibson grins. “They’ll hunt for about 2 ½ hours, maybe 3, and then come back here for a wild game feast. Everything here today was prepared by volunteers for the foundation.”

And so the hunt begins. Anyone who’s ever participated in a dove hunt knows these “prairie pintails” are a challenging target for any wing shooter. For new hunters, the hard-to-predict, zig-zag dives and aerial maneuvers of active doves in flight are great practice and training. Shotguns begin firing in spats from across the field. Doves are being retrieved by dogs.

Back at the barbecue grills, the instructors-turned chefs are now offering samples.

“Dove breasts stuffed with jalapeno and onion, and wrapped in bacon,” Gibson announces as he slides a juicy morsel from a skewer. “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

Indeed. For young hunters who’ve just completed their required Illinois hunter safety education course, today’s offerings equips them with the one credential a classroom cannot provide.

They are now experienced hunters.