CASSCOE – Six youths from towns throughout the state were able to enjoy a weekend of squirrel and coon hunting, trap shooting and more thanks to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program.


The six participants, who ranged in range from 12-14 years old and who were selected in December by AYSSP Coordinator Jimmy Self were guests for an annual squirrel and raccoon hunt at the AGFC’s Lake Potlatch Conservation Education Center at Cook’s Lake, near the Dale Bumpers White River National Wildlife Refuge, beginning Friday, Jan. 3, and concluding Sunday, Jan. 5.


“We coon hunted Friday night, got up Saturday and ate breakfast and squirrel hunted all day Saturday,” Self said. The hunting took place around Cook’s Lake and in the national wildlife refuge. Four of the youths had never hunted and two others had only limited hunting experience, which was the criteria, along with being part of an organized AYSSP program, Self said.


“We hunted in different groups on different parts of the property,” he said. “We had some dogs and split them up into two groups.”


The AYSSP hunting getaway has been held for eight years, Self said. He sends out applications throughout the AYSSP network of programs in late October and has the group chosen by mid-December.


Jim Rowe, a Dewitt native who has been coonhunting for more than 60 years, provided the coonhounds to pass on the passion of that timeless sport. On Saturday, four U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers brought dogs for the squirrel hunt. Each youth was accompanied in their hunts by an adult volunteer mentor. Nine other volunteers helped out, Self said.


After arriving Friday, the youths took in some five-stand sport shooting, were given gun safety instruction and then everyone enjoyed dinner before the evening coon hunt. After breakfast on Saturday, the youths were back in the woods for squirrels at 8, though slowed a little by high winds. They took a noontime lunch break, then returned to hunt squirrels until dark, Self said. Sunday morning included breakfast and more five-stand shooting until departure.


Wil Hafner, the education program specialist at the Cook’s Lake center, said, “This hunt provides the next step of getting into the woods while being able to build on their skill of shooting and gun safety. The youth and their chaperone arrived at the center on Friday afternoon with plenty of time to meet and greet the staff and other participants as well as spend some time on the range honing their skills for the next day’s hunt.”


In all, the youths harvested 38 squirrels and four coons, Self said. After Saturday’s hunt, the youths were instructed in how to clean, quarter and, if necessary, freeze the harvested squirrel. The staff provided some squirrel recipes, too. Saturday’s dinner included squirrel, and the youths could take home whatever of the harvest they wanted, Self said. Any leftovers are used at other events, he said.


“We want to thank the White River refuge as some of their employees helped us with this event,” Self said. The Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation and the group Friends of the White River National Wildlife Refuge provided hunting donations, he said.


AYSSP has begun its 2020 signup period. The deadline for participants to sign up is Feb. 1 for shooting supplies. March 1 is the deadline for participants to compete in one of the four regional shooting tournaments and state tournament, which begin in late April at the Jacksonville Shooting Complex. Each program that plans to participate in regionals must have five certified practices with a coach. Programs must compete on the regional level to make the AYSSP State Championship. For more information on the program, visit https://www.agfc.com/en/education/first-steps-outdoors/ayssp.