The instructor pointed toward a deer target in the woods and asked if I would take the shot.
I said I would, but I should’ve said no.
Behind the target was a fluorescent orange ribbon tied to a tree. I was 12, and figured the ribbon shouldn’t preclude me from taking a shot at a deer.
But the instructor taught me a lesson that has stuck with me ever since.
“If you see orange in the woods while hunting, always assume it’s another hunter,” he said, motioning to the deer target. “This is a shot you should pass up.”
The lesson was learned while I attended a Hunter-Trapper Education course before I got my first hunting license years ago. Back then, the course I attended lasted for three days. We slept in cabins and spent hours in the field, learning how to shoot, set traps, identify tracks and, most importantly, how to hunt safely.
Everything was hands-on, pretty intense and lasting. The lessons I learned during that three-day course have stuck with me today, especially those dealing with safety.
Today’s hunter safety education courses don’t run for three days. They last for six hours.
The shorter class is more convenient for kids and their parents, and volunteer instructors can make the time to help out a little more easily than they could if the course lasted for days, or even 12 hours as it was not too long ago.
Convenience is fine, but is six hours long enough to leave a lasting impression?
Are kids just fast-tracked through a program that is supposed to instill ethics and safety?
Other reasons for the shorter class is demand. The classes fill up quickly, yet the number of volunteer instructors has declined. By offering a shorter course, the Pennsylvania Game Commission can offer more classes to ensure that everyone has a seat.
But a shorter class means less hands-on experience. That has been replaced by an online course that kids are required to take before they start the classroom training.
There are no more simulated hunts that teach valuable lessons such as identifying your target and, as I learned, when to pass up a shot. And trips to the range to learn how to safely use a rifle and bow are no longer required.
There just isn’t enough time to do all those things in a six hour course.
The importance of the hunter safety course can be seen in the sharp decline in hunting accidents. Since the onset of the safety course in 1959, hunting-related shooting incidents have dropped nearly 80 percent.
Part of that figure can be attributed to the mandatory use of fluorescent orange clothing for deer hunter, but the course has clearly been a success when it comes to teaching safety.
Hunting accident figures show that incidents among junior hunters, those ages 12 to 15, haven’t increased since the course was shortened. In 2011, there were 36 accidents, and four were the result of a junior hunter.
Last year, the number of accidents dropped slightly to 33, while five were attributable to a junior hunter.
In fact, the last time more than 10 accidents were the result of a junior hunter’s actions was in 1998 with 12, including two fatalities.
In my opinion, even one accident is too many, and if going back to a 12-hour or even three-day course prevents it, then I’m all for such a change.
But it’s a difficult situation for the PGC. On one hand, they want to make hunter safety course more accessible and make sure that all children — i.e future hunters — who want to take the course can.
But on the other side, that course needs to be extensive enough so that potentially life-saving, accident-preventing lessons are not only taught, but last a lifetime as well.