The moment 12-year-old Ryan Licht gripped, aimed and fired a 20-gauge shotgun for the first time meant a lot more to him than those assisting him that frigid February day likely noticed.
Ryan’s late father, Matthew, a farmer and a gun owner, died shortly after his son's second birthday in 2007. Heart problems prevented them from developing a strong father-son bond, and up until this year, Ryan lacked a male mentor who could show him the ropes outdoors.
“What scared me is him not realizing the effects of a gun,” said Deborah Licht, Ryan’s mother, who lives with her two children in the unincorporated Scott County town of Park View. “I didn’t want him thinking they were a toy; I wanted him to learn how to properly handle guns and the reasons why we use them.”
So, when they heard about a series of hands-on training sessions leading up to next month's Youth Hunter Education Challenge, or YHEC, in Iowa, they signed up for it. The National Rifle Association, NRA, launched YHEC — its 'graduate studies' program in outdoor skills and safety training for young hunters — in 1985.
During the three-hour sessions at Wapsi Valley Ikes in DeWitt, volunteer coaches cover a range of outdoors activities, including target shooting with four different weapons (bow, muzzleloader, shotgun and small-bore rifle), wildlife identification and orienteering. YHEC participants will test their knowledge and skills in each of those categories and complete a 50-question hunter responsibility exam as well as a hunter safety trail course.
For the first time in the event’s quarter-century history in Iowa, YHEC will be held June 9 in the eastern part of the state. Organizers expect about 60 competitors age 12-18 at Rock Creek Marina & Campground in Camanche, about 30 miles upriver from the metro Quad-Cities. About half of the field lives in Clinton, Jackson and Scott counties, said coordinator Loren Zaruba, who lives in Clinton County. The shooting challenges will be held at the nearby Klaes-Tralau Memorial Range.
Feeling a mix of emotions about the opportunity, Licht accompanied her son to the first two practices at Wapsi Valley Ikes.
Intimidated by the other father-son duos in attendance, Ryan battled nerves when it was his turn to shoot airborne clay targets. He told instructors it was his first time ever touching a firearm, not to mention pulling the trigger of a pump-action shotgun.
Zaruba and the other coaches embraced the teaching moment.
“They went through everything with me step by step,” Ryan said. “They seemed excited to help me.”
And Licht’s concerns quickly disappeared.
“Now I drop him off, and I feel very confident he’s in good hands,” she said.
Zaruba and his wife, Ellen, who also coaches, have led six practices so far this year. They will meet once more on June 3 before the main event.
Safety is critical in their book.
“If they’re not showing proper respect and safe gun handling technique, we’ll ask them to leave,” Zaruba said. “We’ll not tolerate unsafe actions.”
Those who attend the training sessions must pay $30 to compete in the final day of challenges.
Participants may score up to 300 points in each of the eight categories, and they are given a limited number of attempts at each of the four shooting stations.
The full experience, Zaruba said, builds young hunters’ confidence and prepares them for a lifetime of adventurous outings in the wilderness. Plus, from his perspective, “When you get kids excited about running a compass versus sitting at home playing with a cellphone, that’s a good day.”
Ryan has yet to lay eyes on his father’s firearms, but he wants to take possession of them someday.
His mother, who never has shot a gun, could not be more pleased with his son's interest and involvement in Zaruba's group.
“It really has filled a void for him," Licht said. "It's something I'm not able to teach him, and since he doesn’t really have a male figure in his life, I couldn’t ask for something better.”
Ryan, who enrolled in a separate hunter education class earlier this month, wants to pay it forward next year by introducing his younger sister, Addison, to YHEC.
“If my dad was here, he’d definitely be proud of me for doing this,” he said.