It was cold and overcast at the Dug Hill Rod and Gun Club when Sam Lee, 14, Kaleb Reid, 12, and Grant Boerner, 11, spotted the turkey, their firearms held upright, each waiting for Hunter Safety Instructor Andrew Gray to say something.
"Where's the best place to shoot a turkey? You don't want an animal you shoot to be in pain, so you want a clean kill. Do you have a shot?" Gray asked the boys, and then gestured at a bit of orange plastic netting behind the large bird. "What about that orange back there? It could be a leaf, but it could be another hunter."
This was the "shoot, don't shoot" portion of the Maryland hunter safety course, a four-day program that is mandatory for individuals seeking a hunting license, according to Ed Stevens, the chief hunting safety instructor at the club.
"They came to classes Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 6 a.m. [until] a little after 9 a.m., and then they come out here Sunday at 8 a.m., sit down and take their written test," Stevens said. "The rest of the day is a field day. They do tree stand safety, track a blood trail and do a woods walk or hunter safety trail, crossing a fence, stepping over a log."
The three boys passed their field test and a live fire exercise, firing live ammunition from 12 gauge shotguns and .22 caliber rifles. It was the best part of the course for Sam Lee, from New Windsor.
"The shotgun was a little bit less than I expected," he said. "I thought it would be a huge kick. It was a lot less. I was [very] relieved."
The live fire test is not a test of marksmanship, but rather a test to prove aspiring hunters can safely handle a loaded firearm, according to Gray.
"I told them, 'this class isn't about accuracy, it's about doing it in the safe way,'" Gray said. "I don't want to scare them, but your hunting license is as import as your diver's license. It's the same responsibility ... Handling it safely is a privilege."
According to Sgt. Robert Ford of the Maryland Natural Resources Police, who manages the hunter safety programs in the state, many aspiring hunters will do well in the hunter safety classroom, but fail the field test because they improperly handle their firearms - if they point it at any person, they get a warning and a after a second violation they typically fail the course.
There is no minimum age requirement to obtain a hunter's license in Maryland, according to Ford, only the requirement that the aspiring hunter take and pass the hunter safety course, and once licensed, a person of any age is allowed to hunt entirely on their own.
The strict rules of the field day test are designed to ensure that no one who is not ready receives a hunting license, and Ford said parents should keep in mind that some children may not be ready, even if they appear to have a handle on all the knowledge required on the written test.
"We have had children pass this course as young as 6, but they are rare. You have to look at the maturity of that child," Ford said. "When I hand that 6-year-old that card, he can come home from school without any supervision, grab his gun, grab his ammunition and go out back and hunt all by himself."
Kaleb Reid, from Manchester, said hunting is a big family affair and he had been looking forward to getting his license so he could join his uncle and grandfather in hunting deer this fall, rather than hunting solo. At the same time, he said he learned a lot from the classroom time and the field test.
"I liked everything," he said. "The easiest thing for me was tracking the blood because that's like the number one thing I know how to do."
Hunter safety education became a requirement for obtaining a Maryland hunter's license in 1977 in response to a large number of annual hunting-related firearm fatalities.
"Prior to 1977, we would have as many as six deaths per year," Ford said. "I'm happy to report that since 1977, we've never had more than three deaths. We have reduced fatalities by 50 percent."
Today, the vast majority of hunting accidents have to do with hunters falling out of tree stands, Ford said, rather than being accidentally shot.
The fact that falling from trees is a greater hazard than being shot might be surprising to some people, according to Stevens, and spreading the word about the realities of hunting safety is part of an active effort to change the public perception of hunting and to engage more young people in the sport. It seems to be working.
"We have a lot of parents bring their kids and a lot of moms that bring their kids. We have a lot of moms that are taking the classes," Stevens said. "It used to be it was always men, fathers and sons or grandfathers and grandsons, things of that nature. Now we see almost more girls than boys."
The next hunter safety courses at the Dug Hill Rod and Gun Club will be held in August and more information can be found on its website at http://www.dughill.org/Dug_Hill_Info_Links.html.
Classes held elsewhere are listed at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources website at http://www.dnr.state.md.us/nrp_classes.asp.
Classes at The Dug Hill Rod and Gun Club are limited to 40 persons, according to Stevens, and the fee varies between $1 and $2, depending on the need for supplies.
Hunter safety classes statewide tend to fill up quickly, according to Ford, who said that anyone who is thinking about hunting for the first time this year should plan on getting their required course taken care of long before the fall hunting season.
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"When do most people decide they need a class? November, during deer season, and I can't provide it. All my instructors are hunters, and they want to be out hunting," he said. "Please plan early to take your hunter education; you may be disappointed."