One of the reasons the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Shooting Complex exists in Jacksonville is to spark an interest in hunting and the safe use of firearms for future generations.
With that in mind, the facility, opened last spring, is already a success. The range was built for both recreational and competitive shooters, and the numbers tell the tale.
Arkansas Game and Fish president Chuck Dicus said that by now just about every young shooter who competes in the Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program (AYSSP) has tried his skills at the AGFF complex.
“We have had in the neighborhood of four or five youth tournaments since we opened,” Dicus said. “And I am told there have probably been, that it could be at some point, all 7,000 of those young people have been through there and shot competitively.
“I think it has brought around 20- to 25,000 spectators to those events. So obviously the city of Jacksonville has really benefited and will continue to benefit. It is a state-of-the-art facility and clearly the best in the state of Arkansas at this point and could be for many, many years to come.”
The facility is the largest in the state, and features 14 ATA trap fields, three skeet overlays, three lighted fields for late evening shootings and a 3D archery range.
Also included is an education room for hunter and firearm safety classes, a community lake, walking trails and covered pavilions.
“That facility came about as a sort of a three-way partnership between the Game and Fish Foundation, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and the city of Jacksonville, which has been just an amazing group to work with,’’ Dicus said. “They have been so open and so giving and so accepting of this project and the mayor, Gary Fletcher, and the citizens of Jacksonville should really be proud of this facility because it is a real asset to that community.”
Herschel Friday, an incoming eighth-grader at Episcopal Collegiate School in Little Rock, helped form a team that competes in the Junior Division of the AYSSP.
He and Episcopal classmates and shooting teammates Brooks Miller, Thomas Allen, Scott Tabor and Hudgens Jeter competed in their first regional last year. Friday’s father, Griff, serves as coach.
“The first time we were in a competition it was there,” Herschel Friday said of the AGFF range. “I have been out there a lot since. It is a really, really nice facility.”
It is estimated that each year thousands of Arkansas youth participate in shooting sports. Although not sponsored by the Arkansas Activities Association, the shooting range hosts the Arkansas high school state championships and other youth tournaments.
Dicus said the 7,000 or so that participate in youth shooting in Arkansas make the AYSSP one of the largest, if not the largest, such organization in the nation.
“These youth teams we have had out at the complex are sponsored by a variety of groups,” he said. “Some schools are raising money for sponsorships but then you have civic organizations, church groups, all kinds of organizations that sponsor.”
Herschel Friday read about the program and thought it would be fun. The group went to Griff Friday for guidance and practiced on a homemade target area on the Friday farm.
“I was certified as a coach. [There are] Game and Fish has requirements and certification you have to go through to be a coach,” Griff Friday said. “We just had the five kids the first year, kind of as a test. I would love to see it grow enough to have two or three squads.”
“I think we are all going to stay together this year and I believe we will have enough to start a second team,” Herschel Friday said. “I thought it went really well the first year.”
In 2013, a capital campaign was launched to raise $2 million to aid in building the Jacksonville facility. Less than a year later, in February, the group was past the halfway point.
In August, the organization hosted its inaugural trap shooting tournament and drew a capacity field of 100 teams. The tournament was used to showcase the facility and make sportsmen more aware of the nonprofit AGFF and the work it does supporting youth and outdoor education programs around the state. Proceeds from the first tournament were earmarked for conservation and youth programs.
The range works hand in hand with the AYSSP to increase participation among young Arkansans. The Foundation also operates conservation education centers at Cook’s Lake, near McGehee, and Crooked Creek, near Yellville.
“It was a good fit,’’ said Arkansas Youth Shooting Coordinator and AGFC employee Chuck Woodson, who started the program in 2006. “I was looking for a change and it has all worked well.
The genesis of the program was in 2006, when the AGFC leadership realized Arkansas was falling behind in youth shooting participation and approached Woodson.
“We went to the schools, 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, to see what they had going on,” he said. “We went to other states over the southeast. We talked to just about anyone we could. And we just brought together a big collage of all those programs.
“We feel like we have one of the best programs in this part of the county.”
Moving quickly, the AGFC held its first state tournament in May 2007.
“I was told we would be happy if we had 20 coaches and 200 competitors,’’ Woodson said. “The first year we had 125 coaches and more than 900 participants. And it has grown from there. We had 2,000 the next year and about 4,000 the next two years. This past year we had right at 6,000 and we expect more this year.
“One thing we do is everyone gets to participate. We start with the sixth grade and we have junior and senior champions. We help those who move on to the national events. It is all good and positive.
“I like to say it is a natural fit for the natural state.”
The latest piece that fits is the range at Jacksonville.
“We had our first six tournaments at Remington,’’ Woodson said. “And we just outgrew their facility. And what we have at Jacksonville is as good as there is in the nation. I know they have great shooting ranges in Missouri and Texas but we are there with them. This is state of the art. You have to give a lot of credit to the commission, the foundation and the city of Jacksonville.”
The AYSSP is designed to teach gun safety, a love of the outdoors and possibly lay a foundation for eventual national shooting champions or Olympians.
The junior division is for grades 6-8 while the senior division is open to grades 9-12. The programs are open to all school-aged students in the state. Home-schooled students 15 and older are placed in the senior division. There are four regions, North, South, East and West. Shooters compete in regional competition before moving on to the state.
“We have four champions from each regional and the top 16 advance to the state,” Woodson said. “And we are one of the few states that have a tournament format like we do. We have a bracket and we pair them up and it is a lot like the NCAA tournament. People come out and tailgate. It is a fun event.”
Trap shooting is a sanctioned sport by the AYSSP and the season runs Feb. 1-July 31. Any type of shotgun action is allowed, but the bore must be a 12- or 20-gauge. Release triggers are not allowed and all shooters and coaches my wear approved ear and eye protection. Each shooter must be part of a team, and most teams commonly represent schools, 4-H Clubs, Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts, churches and other organization. All teams must have a coach.
“Most of us learned to love the outdoors from our fathers,” Dicus said. “There is a large group of young people today who may not have a father and these programs are an avenue into that sport. It is their vehicle. This plays a major role in trying to broaden the knowledge or our young people today. The thing I always like to talk about this program, teaches young people to respect firearms teaches how to operate them safely. Teaches them when they are actually hunting the safety measures. It is a valuable tool for young people to have.”