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Youth hunts hands down an age old tradition

Danielle Reali of New Richmond, takes a shot during her pheasant hunt at Saturday's Youth Hunt sponsored by the Amery Chapter of Pheasants Forever with help from Star Prairie Fish and Game, St. Croix County Sportsman Alliance, Wisconsin DNR and Forest Ridge Hunt Club.

For 60 young hunters, Saturday must have felt like Christmas in October. No one was late arriving for this event because the parents were almost as excited as their kids to get the day started.

Everywhere you looked there was the unmistakable blaze orange of hunting vests and knit caps mixed in with a good dose of camouflage. In the background, retrievers were barking, as anxious as the young hunters to get into the field.

Dan Cain, president of Pheasants Forever Indianhead Chapter, got the sixth annual Youth Day Outing and Hunt started by welcoming fathers, sons and daughters and thanking all the sponsors and volunteers for making the event possible.

This year's lineup included Pheasants Forever, Star Prairie Fish & Game, the St. Croix County Sportsman Alliance, staff from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and The Forest Ridge Hunt Club on whose property the hunt would take place. Mike Dziki, youth director for the Amery Chapter of Pheasants Forever and event organizer, addressing the sea of orange about the day's agenda and making sure everyone understood how the various stations would work.

DNR Warden Paul Sickman was next to speak addressing firearm safety and specifically talking about pheasant hunting and laws.

"This event is targeted at youth 12-15 years old, someone who doesn't have a driver's license," Sickman explained. "They have to get mom or dad to drive them here so we can get them involved as well, making it more of a family type event."

Dziki fired off a few more questions to see who had been listening inside. Lucky listeners were rewarded with an assortment of door prizes provided by the sponsors.

"The event is free to the kids," Dziki said. "The chapter pays for the birds. Star Prairie pays for the food and the door prizes are donated by other organizations."

Of the 60 young hunters, 49 were eligible to hunt having previously completed the mandatory hunter safety class and 11 were girls. "This is the largest group of girls we've had in the six years," Dziki said.

Once the group reassembled, a hunting guide and his dog, a German wirehaired pointer began a tracking and flushing demonstration. Two pheasants planted previously by Warden Sickman initially proved elusive to the team but, after some initial nerves, the team settled down flushing one of the birds and yielding a shot to the guide.

After questions were asked and answered, the group broke up into pre-assigned smaller groups and dispersed amongst the various stations, which included trap shooting, a 3-D archery outdoor range, fishing and pheasant hunting on four different fields.

It was Danielle Reali's first time attending the event. After some last-minute advice from her dad, Jeff, she headed out accompanied by her guide and his dog.

"A lot of times the girls are better shooters than the boys because they don't have bad habits, so they can learn the correct way (to shoot) the first time," Sickman said. "It's neat to see them, because they are better shooters, it builds a lot of confidence and it's something they can really excel at."

The guide accompanied Reali every step of the way helping her understand how the dog is working, watching for behavior that indicates he's onto a bird. Once the dog sets, she patiently approaches, alert for a shoot opportunity while staying aware of where the dog and fellow hunters are to ensure a safe shot.

Guides recruited from the sponsoring organizations played important roles at every station sharing advice and ensuring the proper handling of firearms but particularly so during the pheasant hunts working with the dogs. Two birds were planted for every youth ensuring everyone got a shot at taking a pheasant home. Young hunters fortunate enough to shoot a pheasant were able to keep it and take it home to complete the experience at the dinner table.

"Since hunter safety became mandatory in 1972," Sickman said, "we've seen the accident statistics from that age group go down. It's had a huge impact. Big kudos go to the volunteer hunter safety instructors."

The goal of Saturday's event was to teach young hunters not only how to hunt safely but to begin to understand and appreciate the bigger picture of habitat conservation.

"It's about appreciating the outdoors and it doesn't have to be limited to a consumptive use or hunting type situation," Sickman said. "This type of event helps the kids understand how everything is connected. If you don't have the habitat, you won't have the animals and the birds."