Cache River National Wildlife Refuge is a waterfowler’s paradise, and hunters come from near and far for a chance to hunt there.

Every year, thanks to the efforts and generosity of many, dozens of youth get a chance to hunt without paying a dime.

Jonathan Windley, deputy project leader, Central Arkansas Refuges Complex, explained the two programs that introduce youth age 15 and under to the world of duck hunting in northeast Arkansas.

One of the programs involves youth applying for a weekend permit. The permits are free and allow the youth and a youth friend to hunt. A parent/guardian may accompany each youth. The parent/guardian may call and otherwise aid the hunter but cannot hunt. Retrieving dogs are allowed.

The winners are randomly drawn, and if there are more hunting slots than names, the names go back into the drawings, allowing some youth to hunt multiple days.

Each weekend of the 60-day duck season and for several days during the winter holiday season, the Refuge, which sits on more than 67,000 acres and is located near Dixie, has set aside six blinds for youth who apply for a free permit. Each blind can serve the two hunters and their friend and parent/guardian.

Mentors are also available in cases of a youth interested in hunting who doesn’t have an adult who can help him/her learn about the sport. The program has been going on for six years.

“The blinds are really nice,” Windley said. “They are covered, so the youth can hunt in any type of weather. They show up with their boots and their gun. We provide the decoys.”

And it’s not like these are scrub blinds.

“These are in an area that typically holds a lot of birds,” Windley said. “We are able to pump into these areas, and we plant milo or millet or other crops. These are areas that hold good birds, and we decided we need to have these areas for kids to develop their interest in waterfowl hunting.

“They are mostly in fields. We have one blind on an oxbow lake off the Cache River. The rest are in open areas, agricultural areas that have been put into the wetland reserve program. They are small impoundments. The water is typically two to three feet deep. They are easy to get to, and they can use ATVs to access the blinds.”

The number of applicants varies from year to year, but Windley said 60-70 youngsters normally apply for the permits.

To apply for the weekend hunts, contact Windley at (870) 347-2614.

The other program involves a weekend mentoring camp. Youth in the counties surrounding the refuge — Monroe, Jackson, Woodruff and Prairie counties — submit an essay on conservation and why they should be part of the program. Officials select 10 winners. The weekend is usually around the Christmas holiday, and will be shortly after Christmas this year, Windley said.

The winners arrive on Friday evening. On Saturday, they go through a shooting education program, including trap shooting practice. They study waterfowl biology, duck calling, dog retriever work and safety. On Sunday, they hunt. Then they clean their ducks and finish with a hearty meal.

“By the time Sunday rolls around, we generally have to kick them out of the cabin,” Windley said.

But the weekend involves much more than hunting, he added.

“On Saturday, we take them on a tour of the sanctuary and really teach them about the biology of the ducks,” he said. “What we are looking for in that program is a lot of kids who have never had the opportunity to hunt waterfowl before.”

The program is the brainchild of Windley and Jim Ronquest, who works in video production for duck call maker Rich-N-Tone. Windley said he and Ronquest are hunting buddies, and they devised the idea to give young people who might otherwise not get a chance to hunt ducks a good start down that path.

“It took us a while to reach the kids we were looking for,” Windley said. “But now, most of them may have hunted but haven’t had the chance to do much of it at all. Some of them have never been. … You know, waterfowl hunting can be pretty frustrating if you don’t have folks to take you or you don’t have someone who can get out there and help you with it, especially in this part of the world. It can be pretty competitive.”

The program involves volunteers from many fields and interests and sponsors that include Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, Rich-N-Tone, Greenhead Gear, Mack’s Prairie Wings, Winchester and Hays Supermarkets. The sponsors provide a waterfowl hunter’s starter kit to each participant.

“When they leave on Sunday, they leave with chest waders, a waterfowl coat, gloves, a hat, a new duck call. They have everything they need to waterfowl hunt, except their gun,” Windley said.

Windley said the program is its own reward.

“You really have to be dedicated to it, but every year when we see those kids leave on Sunday, we know it’s worth it,” he said. “Here on the refuge, Cache River is just world-renowned for waterfowl hunting. For folks like me, this is a way to give back.

“To see these kids who don’t get that opportunity to be able to go, that’s great. What we’ve seen is that a lot of these kids continue to hunt, They continue to blow the duck call, and some of them have gone on to competitive calling. They just become sportsmen, and that’s what we like to see out of it,”

Windley noted that there is no strict minimum age, but said the youngest hunters have been in the 7- to 8-year-old range.

Though the blinds are not handicapped accessible, those involved in the program make every effort to accommodate any youth interested in participating.

“We had a kid last year who had a broken leg. We did everything we could to get him to the blind,” Windley said. “We have folks on standby who can help. If we can get a kid out there, regardless of what type of mobility they may have, we are going to get them out there. We will try everything we can to get them out there.”