Program mentors aspiring hunters

Mark Davis, Powell Tribune photo Brice Peters checks out the first rooster pheasant he ever harvested while on a Saturday mentored hunt program sponsored by the First Hunt Foundation. The hunt was the pilot bird hunt for what is now called the "Outdoor University," a mentoring program using volunteers to teach people a variety of outdoor skills.

POWELL — It’s doubtful that Brice Peters will ever forget harvesting his first pheasant. The 11-year-old’s joyful hoots in the field broke Saturday morning’s relative silence, after connecting with a perfect shot on a spunky rooster. It was an instant reminder to all of the jubilance of success. 

Peters wasn’t finished, either.

Soon after a chukar launched, nosed into action by a German shorthaired pointer. Peters quickly took aim, dropping the bird in a short second. It was apparent his initial shot wasn’t beginner’s luck: Peters is a natural.

His eyes lit up and a broad smile crept across his face as he was handed his plump prize. “Awesome,” he simply exclaimed while examining the beautiful bird.

His hunting partner, Kristin Tilley, quickly had her gun up and ready when she saw the gray speedster hit the air. But she was no match for Peters and had yet to take aim before the pre-teen squeezed the trigger. Tilley, the mother of three adult-aged children, was also on her first upland game hunt, yet tempered with a mom’s instincts.

Unaccustomed to the constantly changing aspects of a bird hunt, her first thought wasn’t taking aim, but rather safety. As each opportunity sprung from the cover, Tilley tried to quickly take into account the positions of the hunting party, including the dogs.

“It was the first thing I thought of every time a bird got up,” she said.

While new to bird hunting, this wasn’t Tilley’s first hunt. Seeking a new challenge while moving toward being an empty-nester, the 52-year-old Powell resident applied to a new program which provides mentoring to those that otherwise may never be exposed to hunting. In the past year she’s learned how to handle firearms, harvest deer and antelope and butcher her game. In the process, she’s filled her freezer.

Prior to signing up for the First Hunt Foundation’s program, Tilley had never held a gun. Working with volunteer mentors, she has had a great first year harvesting deer and pronghorn.

“I was surprised by the satisfaction of having meat in my freezer that I provided,” she said after the hunt. “It floors me that I can now do this.”

The event was the pilot bird hunt for what has developed into the Outdoor University. Officially kicking off in May, the mentoring program uses volunteers — often from area groups like Pheasants Forever and Trout Unlimited — to teach Big Horn Basin residents a variety of outdoor skills. The training starts with the essentials of fly fishing, then  builds through a mastery of hunting basics.

Saturday’s training culminated with the pheasant hunt alongside the participants’ mentors and experienced dog handlers. For the shotgun segment of the training opportunity, this was the field test.

Outdoor University, which falls under the umbrella of the First Hunt Foundation, is supported by a long list of entities — including the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, East Yellowstone Chapter of Trout Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and the Cody Shooting Complex. It is also financially sponsored by Wyoming Outdoorsmen, the Wyoming Wildlife Foundation, the Wyoming Women’s Foundation and Federal Ammunition.

In the past, the emphasis of similar programs was often on young hunters. But the First Hunt Foundation goes beyond that, looking for students of all ages and backgrounds who want to learn to hunt. Mentor-based hunting experiences develop lifelong skills and a passion for the outdoors. Then, this support will be passed to future generations of new hunters.

“They’re targeting under-represented segments of the population,” Tilley said.

The First Hunt Foundation is looking to establish chapters across the United States, with some already operating in 29 states. The foundation just celebrated the approval of its 500th mentor: Cody’s Kathy Crofts.

The First Hunt group is dedicated to keeping hunting heritage alive, said Melissa Cassutt, spokesperson for the program. “That’s not just through youth hunting, that’s through teaching adults as well.”

Cassutt went through her own educational journey after picking up hunting as an adult.

“I was just a single woman wanting to learn,” Cassutt said.

She has watched Tilley excel on what was a steep learning curve.

“This really sparked something in her,” Cassutt said. “She went from not having handled a weapon and not having hunted at all to now where she’s harvested several different species of animals and is empowered to go out on her own.”

Cassutt followed Tilley on her hunts through sister programs including the Game and Fish #WYHUNTFISH and Wood River Deer Hunts, witnessing her joy in success and the empowerment of learning to go out on her own, then sharing the experience with family and friends. 

The hunts were hosted by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, working closely with the First Hunt Foundation and Wyoming Outdoorsmen. It’s a unique collaboration, said Tara Hodges, the Game and Fish’s Cody regional information and education specialist. The organizations and private landowners are partnering for a third year to offer first-time hunters mentored opportunities and feeds into the new Outdoors University.

“No previous hunting experience or equipment is necessary. The program is designed for first-time hunters and those that don’t have the opportunity to learn from a friend or family member,” Hodges said.

The pilot program has been a success, Cassutt said. “It’s a great experience to be able to give someone that kind of confidence and that kind of independence. That’s what we’re looking for in the organization.”

The ultimate goal is developing a love for hunting by properly training people desiring to participate, Hodges said, and mentoring programs are critical to reaching the goal.

“If we have responsible and ethical sportspersons, I think we’ll have greater success in being able to carry on our hunting heritage,” she said.

Peters and Tilley will leave the program capable of sharing their training and love for the outdoors. Tilley, who did get off a shot during Saturday’s hunt but failed to bring down a bird, plans to hunt her own property and hopes to take her son Mark and teach him what she’s learned in the past year. “We have pheasant on our land and I’m looking forward to trying again next fall.”

After such a successful first hunt, Peters said he can hardly wait for the next season, prompting smiles from the host of volunteers at the rain-soaked event.

“That’s what it’s all about,” said former Wyoming Game and Fish Commission President David Rael, who donated the facilities and birds on his private hunting area near Cowley. He’s been actively working to promote hunting for many years, including working with area businesses while on the commission to award many area youth free lifetime small game and fishing licenses. 

“This is important to Wyoming’s future,” he said while releasing fresh birds prior to the hunt.

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