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Crossing the Goal Line with Online Hunter Education

With hunter education behind him, Sawyer Haag is all smiles after a successful dove hunt. He graduated from the online hunter education course in recent weeks.
With hunter education behind him, Sawyer Haag is all smiles after a successful dove hunt. He graduated from the online hunter education course in weeks leading up to the season. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

Anyone who has kids knows things can get a little hectic in the fall.

My son Sawyer was eligible for hunter education last year, but the limited offerings in the Chadron area didn’t fit into his schedule. Right or wrong, his obligation to his youth football team took precedence to devoting two Saturdays to hunter education – yes, at least in our Nebraska family, the football schedule is on a short list of things that can trump hunting and fishing.

Panhandle Passages, By Justin HaagThat’s why I was overjoyed with the Game and Parks Commission’s revisions to its curriculum this year, offering certification with an online course followed up by a two-hour hunt-safe session. Online hunter education is not all that new to the state, but the two-hour hunt-safe session is. In the past, online students were still required to attend the longer field day.

In late August, with dove season just around the corner, I looked at the Commission’s offerings on huntsafenebraska.org and found one of the two-hour sessions would be in Hemingford the following week. We signed up immediately.

For people who believe online instruction is less thorough than spending 10 hours with a live hunter education instructor, I encourage them to log on and see for themselves. It seemed the course covered all the bases in a professional manner, complete with images and videos to drive home important messages. Quizzes after each section ensured my son was retaining the information.

Smart phone with hunter education material
The online hunter education material is presented in a mobile-friendly format. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

Sawyer began by studying on the computer, but soon discovered he could access the curriculum from his smart phone – it was really mobile-friendly. From that point, it was just a matter of spending time with the device that’s usually in his hands anyway. It took some dedication in the evenings, but he worked through the material and finished the last of the course’s sections with a cram session Friday night.

With a printed voucher in hand, we headed to Hemingford the following evening. With no other hunt-safe sessions scheduled in the Panhandle in the coming days and weeks, I was surprised only two signed up – Sawyer and a student from Gering. I’m sure the method will gain popularity as time goes on.

Jeff Rawlinson, the Commission’s assistant division administrator who leads hunter education, said the system works well.

“We looked at data from other states before going with this option to make sure they were getting good results,” he said. “We learned that kids were retaining what they needed to know, and, most importantly, they were experiencing no increases in hunting accidents. It’s a changing world and if we’re going to get the next generation of hunters into the field we need to find ways to compete with other activities on their schedules.”

Hunter education certification
Sawyer shows off his hunter education card and certificate, which was printed at home following his completion of the course. (NEBRASKAland/Justin Haag)

Whereas attending the 10-hour live session would have been free, the online course does have a fee. Upon successful completion of all the quizzes I paid $24.50 for Sawyer to get the required voucher, with the fee being collected by the company that develops and hosts the material. A deterrent? Compared to the price of other lessons and entertainment for kids, I say it is well worth the money.

And I’ll admit I was a little worried the hunter education experience wouldn’t be as rich for my son as it was for me. I have fond memories of gathering with my best buddies in the VFW hall at Lebanon to receive instruction from a couple of good guys, one of whom happened to be my grandfather. Pretty tough for my son’s time at the smart phone to compete with that.

The most important thing, however, is that kids gain knowledge they’ll need in the field with a keen respect for safety and conservation. I believe that goal has been met.

On Labor Day weekend, with no football practices or games to compete with our time, we slipped out to a nearby pasture in pursuit of doves. After firing more shells than we care to admit, we came home with enough birds for a meal – many of which were harvested by the kid possessing a new hunter education card, a big smile and an aspiration to go back for more. Yes, hunter education can be fun, but, similar to football, the best hunting memories are made in the field.

About Justin Haag

Justin Haag has served the Commission as a public information officer in the Panhandle since 2013. His duties include serving as regional editor for NEBRASKAland Magazine. Haag was raised in southwestern Nebraska, where he developed a love for fishing, hunting and other outdoor pursuits. After earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Chadron State College in 1996, he worked four years as an editor and reporter at newspapers in Chadron and McCook. Prior to joining the Commission in 2013, he worked 12 years as a communicator at Chadron State, serving as the institution’s media and public relations coordinator the last five. He and his wife, Cricket, live in Chadron, and have two children.

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