Seventy-nine year-old Paul Wright attended the Hudson Rod, Gun and Archery Club’s very first Youth Day in 1950.
“And he wasn’t even in the young kids group,” Dave Lowe quipped.
Wright and Lowe were two of 30 current club members who volunteered to supervise and instruct around 150 kids between the ages of 7-15 at this year’s 68th annual Youth Day on the club’s 108-acre grounds in North Hudson Saturday, April 28.
Club members introduced the kids to everything from .22 rifle and shotgun shooting to archery and fly fishing. There were muzzleloader and black powder demonstrations, a cowboy exhibition and even a dog trainer.
“He trains hunting dogs and he can have the kids hide ducks and use the calls and the whistles that show them where they’re at.” Youth Day director Bryan Wells said. “And we have a bowfishing group that puts the kids in boats and have them shoot at 3D perch targets.”
Firearms, shells, ammunition, bows, arrows, and all safety and protective equipment were provided by the club at no charge and every kid received a free T-shirt, lunch and prizes supplied by the day’s dozens of sponsors.
The event drew youth from both sides of the St. Croix River, from Woodbury and Cottage Grove and Lino Lakes in Minnesota to all over western Wisconsin. After averaging 60 to 65 kids the last five years, attendance more than doubled to a record 150 this year.
Lowe said it’s a great opportunity for parents who live in a more suburban area to introduce kids to the outdoors.
“With the kids coming in here, you get a lot of parents that don’t have the ability or the places to go to let their kids try to shoot. This is a perfect opportunity,” he noted. “And you see the smile on their face and that just does it right there.”
In addition to attending the first Youth Day, Wright has lost count of how many years he’s volunteered.
“A lot of years, let’s just put it that way,” he said.
Wright spent most of Saturday helping youngsters learn how to shoot trap.
“With the younger kids a lot of them will be real tentative because they’ve all heard how those things kick,” he said. “So we just tell them, look, you hold it nice and tight on your shoulder and you pull it nice and slow; it’s not gonna hurt you. If they feel too uncomfortable we say OK, you don’t have to. But usually they do it. And after that first shot they’re like, that’s not so bad. That was fun!”
Wells said even if the kids don’t want to shoot, they can still get the trap shooting experience.
“If they don’t want to we have them still stand up there, hold (the gun) and watch the bird fly out just to get that overall experience to see what it’s all about,” he said.
Wells said the youngsters are not only the future of the club, but the future of the sport.
“That’s single handedly the foundation of it all,” he said. “We have a BB gun league that starts in January that is the foundation of our youth program. And we have over 130 kids in that program. They transition to the high school teams, they transition to our rifle teams. And it’s growing every year.”
According to the USA High School Clay Target League, nationwide, nearly 22,000 students representing over 800 school-approved teams will participate in the sport in 2018. In Wisconsin alone, 1,941 students from 78 high school teams, including Hudson, New Richmond, River Falls, Baldwin-Woodville, Prescott, Osceola and Amery are participating in the Wisconsin State High School Clay Target League’s 2018 spring trap shooting season. Last year there were 1,449 students from 65 teams.
One of those high school shooters is 16 year-old Hudson sophomore Annie Fenner, who turned out to mentor other youngsters as a volunteer at Saturday’s Youth Day.
“I wish I would have done this when I was a little kid but I had no interest at the time,” she said. “I didn’t start until about two years ago when a friend told me about it and now I just love it so I came out here to help.”
Wells said the most important thing the volunteers stress to the kids is safety.
“We have to demystify this whole thing called firearms, that they don’t grow legs and walk around,” he said. “To get them used to them and see them, it takes that mystery out so if they find one somewhere they don’t just pick it up and think it’s a toy and try to discover it without an adult around.”
He said it also helps to make the day as fun as possible.
“There’s competition for trophies, the food is free, and they get to see all the demos, including someone making a salad with a shotgun,” he noted. “It’s amazing by word of mouth how many people learn about this thing year after year. It’s great. And every kid will leave here with something.”
Wells said he’d love to see the turnout double again next year. When reminded he’d probably need even more volunteers he replied, “I don’t think that would be a problem.”