LAPWAI — Ean Ulrich is on his third time through the Youth Hunter Education Challenge, an advanced form of hunter education.

His aim in repeating the intensive class is simply to improve his aim, along with other hunting skills.

“I get better and better each time,” said the 13-year-old from Clarkston.

Ulrich and four other students practiced their black powder rifle skills at the Lewis-Clark Wildlife Club Shooting Range Saturday. They are all participating in the National Rifle Association program administered locally by the Jack O’Connor Hunting Heritage and Education Center at Lewiston.

Program co-sponsor Dave Pakula of Clarkston said the course that runs from January to June and includes more than a dozen each of classroom and field sessions is sort of a basic hunter education program on steroids. To be eligible, students must have first completed a beginner hunter safety class where they learn the basics of gun safety, hunting ethics and wildlife management.

The Youth Hunter Education Program takes a much deeper dive into those and other hunting related subjects. Pakula said it focuses on things like ethics, orienteering, survival skills, first aid and lots of time shooting .22 rifles, shotguns, black powder rifles and archery bows.

“We want a successful, ethical hunter,” he said.

Long time hunter education instructor Ron Landrus of Clarkston said the class gives instructors much more time to work with students to hone their skills than the basic hunter safety classes.

“I refer to it as the Eagle Scout of hunter education,” he said.

The students appear to appreciate the attention and the opportunity to learn. Like Ulrich, David Ambroson, 16, of Asotin and Nathan De Avila, 14, of Clarkston, are also repeating the class. Ambrose said he signed up for a second go-around to better his shotgun shooting. De Avila said time in the classroom and at the rifle and archery ranges has made him a better hunter.

“I’ve had a lot of work done on me from the instructors, and they have really improved my shooting ability and everything to do with hunting,” he said.

On Saturday, the students practiced the tricky art of black powder shooting. The discipline centers around throw-back rifles that must be loaded from the muzzle. The front-stuffers, as they are sometimes called, have a much shorter range than modern rifles and for all but the most practiced shooters, accurate shooting is much more difficult.

But people who choose to hunt in muzzleloader-only seasons are often rewarded by the opportunity to hunt at times of the year, such as late fall and early winter, when big game animals like deer and elk are concentrated at lower elevations and perhaps more vulnerable.

At the range, instructor Dallas Hohnsbehn, of Clarkston, walked the students through the loading process while also reminding them to keep the rifles safely pointed down range.

The students started by pouring a measured amount of powder down the barrel of their rifles. Next, they placed a cloth patch and .50-caliber round ball in the barrel and started it down the bore with a special tool called a ball starter. A ramrod is used to shove the patch and ball all the way to the bottom of the barrel, where it sits on top of the powder.

With the rifles loaded, Hohnsbehn told his students to place a percussion cap on a nipple at the end of a channel into the breach of the gun. With the firearms charged, they were ready to take aim at the paper targets 25 yards away.

Upon pulling the trigger, the hammer falls on the cap, igniting it and sending a spark to the powder to produce a contained explosion that propels the ball toward it’s intended target. Each shot produces a loud crack followed in quick, almost instantaneous succession by a rolling plume of smoke and thud of the lead ball impacting the target.

After the shot, the students used a wire brush and ramrod to clean powder residue from the barrel and began the loading process again.

There is a pleasing rhythm to the exercise: Load the gun with powder. Seat the patch and ball. Cap the nipple. Aim and fire. Boom, smoke, thud. Clean and repeat.

At 25 yards, the students were mostly hitting a pie-sized bullseye. When they moved targets out to 50 yards, their accuracy diminished.

The instructors told them to take note of where their shots were hitting and to make adjustments on their follow-up attempts.

“This is top notch,” said Craig Ulrich, the father of Ean Ulrich. “It’s the best you could get with the hands on (training.) You have more instructors than kids.”

Blake Bolm, 15, of Lewiston, said the opportunity to sharpen skills is what attracted him to the program.

“It sounded like it was going to be a lot of fun and a lot of the hands-on experience that I needed,” he said. “The teachers are great. They are funny and do a good job teaching us. We learn something almost everyday.”

Instructor and range officer Mike Butler of Clarkston said the program is helping to attract and train a new generation of safe and ethical hunters and keep the tradition of pursuing game alive.

“We need hunter recruitment,” he said. “If they aren’t doing it now, they are probably not going to do it as adults.”

Barker may be contacted at ebarker@lmtribune.com or at (208) 848-2273. Follow him on Twitter @ezebarker.

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