Duck hunting is largely a pastime handed down and taught from generation to generation, and that has included the teaching of firearm safety.
There are no minor leagues and there isn’t a network of major colleges providing a pipeline of talent.
However, through its wildly successful Arkansas Youth Shooting Sports Program (AYSSP), the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is helping to groom shooters both accurate and responsible, with many of them taking their sharpened skills back into the fields, woods and wetlands.
“It teaches the kids gun safety and that there’s more to it than what you just see on TV,” said AYSSP Director Jimmy Self. “From the [Arkansas] Game and Fish standpoint, they’re looking at it for the future of Game and Fish as far as getting kids outdoors and teaching them gun safety, and hopefully they will hunt and fish.”
The AYSSP is broken into a junior division for grades 6-8 while the senior division is for grades 9-12. Home-schooled students compete in their corresponding, public school age group and must be 15 or older to join the senior division.
The AYSSP’s sanctioned sport is trap shooting, and the season runs from Feb. 1-July 31.
“It’s huge to the hunting industry,” Self said of the need for sound, safe shooting skills. “Because without it we wouldn’t [be hunting]. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, we thrive off of nature and the natural resources of Arkansas. This goes into any bird hunting, actually any type of hunting, but trap is more quail and dove hunting and duck hunting. Waterfowl.”
Self, who has been program director since October, 2017, said the AYSSP has just under 6,000 young shooters, mentored by around 900 background-checked and certified coaches, practicing with shooting teams at ranges around the state, including the Arkansas Game and Fish Foundation Range in Jacksonville.
The teams can be public- or private-school affiliated, they can be church sponsored or a 4H group, Self said.
“We’ll start a team with anybody,” he said. “All they have to have is have a coach that can pass the background check.”
As long as the bore is 12- or 20-gauge, any kind of shotgun action is allowed while release triggers are not. Competition uses trap machines that throw targets at unknown angles and appropriate eye and ear protection is required of all shooters and coaches.
There are four regional tournaments and one state tournament in June. The top 16 teams from each region qualify for state — 64 juniors and 64 seniors. The program’s top three senior teams earn AGFC college scholarships of $7,500, $5,000 and $2,500, plus prizes.
Beyond the state tournament there are The Grand American World Trapshooting Championships in Sparta, Illinois, and the AIM (Academics, Integrity, Marksmanship) Trapshooting Championships, also in Sparta.
Additionally, AYSSP shooters have gone to the Junior Olympics and to the Olympic Training Center.
Self said that all shooters are different — left-handed vs. right-handed, male vs. female, dominant left eye or dominant right eye — so it’s important to teach fundamentals but not tinker with a shooter’s style.
It’s also important not to turn kids away if they are lacking in financial means. Self said, to encourage participation and enhance opportunities to teach firearm safety, the program has about 60 loaner guns for prospective shooters and 15 loaner trap machines for coaches.
“Just because you don’t have the stuff it doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” Self said.
Not every AYSSP shooter is an outdoorsman, Self said. Some are just in it for the competition. But for those who do enjoy the outdoors, it’s another way for the AGFC to encourage participation and interest.
And whether it’s about hunting or competitive shooting, the end result is that participants learn how to properly handle a firearm.
“I stress safety,” Self said. “Keep the gun pointed in a safe direction and always know what’s going on around you, that is probably the most important thing. To me that’s more important than being the best or breaking the targets.”