Oklahoma Stories

The Future of Hunting

By Hayley Leatherwood March 2021

Oklahoma Youth Hunting Program utilizes educated, ethical volunteers to restore youth’s connection to the land and to the sport.

Preston Keller, Oklahoma Youth Hunting Program alumnus, continues to hold a deep appreciation for the outdoors. | Photos by Ryan West

Ticie Dumas was surprised she slept the night before her first hunt. With adrenaline pumping through her veins, it was impossible to separate the nerves from the excitement. The 16-year-old relied on her lessons and training—she knew she had readied her tools safely, prepared her backpack and opened the supply sacks she would need so as not to make a sound.

Her mom quietly handed her a cup of coffee and they made their way through the veiled fog to the deer blind with their hunting guide. Dumas focused on the melodic sounds of birds chirping and a few squirrels tussling in the dried leaves as she watched the pale pink sunrise peek over the trees.

Although she would not see what she was looking for on that first attempt, the next day she had an opportunity and made the choice to harvest her first deer to feed her family.

This experience, that instilled in her a deep love and respect for nature, would not have been possible without the Oklahoma Youth Hunting Program. Since 2008, the not-for-profit organization has mentored more than 500 young adults like Dumas from the ages of 12-17—who would otherwise not have a responsible adult with the tools, land and knowledge to teach them—to enjoy the outdoors through the sport of hunting.

Stewards of the Sport

Darrell Noblitt, current president of the OYHP board and member for a decade, noticed Oklahoma youth’s connection to the land fading with each passing year. As family farms and ranches sell, kids have fewer opportunities to return to family land to spend a day playing in the creek, let alone learning to hunt.

According to the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation, Oklahoma has limited options for public land hunting as 97% of the state’s hunting land is privately owned. Hunters do have options through Wildlife Department Wildlife Management Areas and other public lands, but this can create another barrier of entry for youth without resources.

In 2008, OYHP founders saw statistics showing the vast majority of hunting licenses were going to 50- and 60-year-olds. They created the program and since then many experienced hunters like Noblitt have joined the effort.

“When the founders shared this with me, I was just envisioning piles of kids missing out on a rich life of being committed to God’s great outdoors,” Noblitt says. “I knew I wanted to give what I could and help be a part of the solution.”

The program focuses on hunting white-tailed deer as that is a population needing management and is difficult to hunt as it requires land and a long-range rifle.

The annual hunt is a three-day experience that occurs every fall in multiple locations across the state, but the work begins far earlier. The kids receive safety courses and survival instruction, in addition to the weekend hunt. They also learn how to harvest, butcher, process and prepare an animal to feed their fellow hunters and family members.

Youth participants are accompanied by their chosen guardian and an experienced volunteer guide at all times.

“Our guides are incredibly good at teaching the kids shooting is not why we’re here,” Noblitt says. “That’s actually the last and smallest piece of the experience.”

The value of the experience is estimated at $5,000 per participant and is given to the participants at no cost to them or their guardian. Noblitt says the return on investment the volunteers receive, however, is immeasurable.

“These kids learn that hunters love all animals and nature more than anyone, and this program is all about managing our wildlife population wisely,” Noblitt says. “If you have a passion and you have a servant’s heart, we can find a way for you to be a big part of this program.”

Stewards of the Land

George Edwards, a Choctaw Electric Cooperative member, has long viewed himself as a steward of the land his family has owned since 1892. He was raised hunting on his family property and fishing in the Deep Fork River. He has since raised his son and now his grandson, Maddox, to appreciate the same.

George Edwards (left) passes along his love for the land to grandson Maddox (right). | Photo by Ryan West

“I have always been of the opinion you need to give back from whence you take,” Edwards says. “Seeing the next generation’s connection to the land fracture made me want to do my part to help restore it.”

Edwards has filled many roles throughout his 10 years with the program, from offering his land in Oklahoma City and Antlers, Oklahoma, for hunting, to teaching hunter education courses and compass education courses.

One of his favorite parts about the weekend experience is when groups conclude the last night of the trip with a bonfire. Each child, parent, guardian, guide and volunteer lines their chair around the flame and has an opportunity to share their experience and what they have learned. Many times the parents end the night in tears and the kids don’t want to leave.

“A mind is like a parachute—it has to be opened in order for it to work,” Edwards says. “I’ve seen it time and time again. After three days, these kids’ minds are opened and their lives are changed forever.”

Will Reagan, a Cimarron Electric Cooperative member and OYHP volunteer, describes the entire process as a “win-win.” Reagan has a master’s degree in wildlife science and brings an academic background to help the youth understand wildlife population dynamics.

White-tailed deer have a tendency to overpopulate fairly quickly. The program only allows participants to hunt doe in order to help balance the buck-to-doe ratio which is a benefit to Oklahoma wildlife. The Oklahoma doe harvest made up for 37% of the 2019-2020 season total, which is still slightly below the target range of 40-45%.

“These kids develop an understanding that every time they choose to harvest an animal, they are making a management decision that has an impact on that population,” Reagan says.

Reagan donates his land for use for the annual hunt and both he and his wife are actively involved in the weekend. His wife enjoys cooking for the kids and he will fill in as a guide if needed.

“The most rewarding thing is to see the kids bond and grow and mature in a short period of time,” Reagan says. “I am a mere steward of this land, and I want to pass it on in better shape than I received it.”

Now a college student, Ticie Dumas has returned to the program to volunteer and hopes to one day buy her own land to donate back to the program so other kids like her can have the same shared experience.

“It is almost like I have gained another family,” Dumas says.

Electrical Safety Tips for Hunters

Hunters of all ages should be aware of electrical equipment and take necessary precautions while hunting. Keep these safety tips in mind as you enjoy the great outdoors.

  • Take notice of posted warning signs and keep clear of electrical equipment
  • Do not shoot at or near power lines or insulators.
  • Know where power lines and equipment are located on the land where you hunt.
  • Be especially careful in wooded areas where power lines may not be as visible.
  • Do not place deer stands on utility poles or climb poles. Energized lines and equipment can conduct electricity to anyone who comes in contact with them, causing shock or electrocution.
  • Do not place decoys on power lines or other utility equipment. Any non-electrical equipment attached to a pole can pose an obstruction and serious hazards to line crews.

How to Register

The annual Oklahoma Youth Hunting Program hunt is a three-day, two-night weekend of an engaging, outdoor experience in multiple locations across the state. To be considered for the program, youth participants should have desire to enjoy the outdoors through the sport of hunting but not have anyone in their immediate circle of responsible adults who can teach them about the sport.

Youth Participants should:

  • Complete the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Hunters Education course
  • Obtain a certification card
  • Have a Youth Deer Gun License (antlerless). Hunters aged 16-17 will also need an Oklahoma Hunting License
  • Choose a parent or guardian to accompany them

To sign up as a participant, visit OYHP website. To sign up as a volunteer, whether as a guide, cook or to share a talent or skill, call Darrell Noblitt, OYHP board president, at (405) 833-2112.

Category: Oklahoma Stories

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