By Andi Cooper

There are few experiences more rewarding than providing young people with the opportunity to hunt waterfowl for the first time while learning more about conserving the birds and their habitats. This is the goal of a number of youth hunting and conservation camps held around the country each year. A good example is the Mississippi Youth Waterfowl Hunting and Education Camp, which takes place in early February during the state's youth waterfowl weekend. This intensive program provides boys and girls ages 13 to 16 with the chance to hunt waterfowl and other game birds under adult supervision. The campers also receive expert instruction on waterfowl biology and identification, wetland management and ecology, nature photography, duck calling, shooting, retriever training, boating safety, and hunting ethics.

"We share knowledge and techniques to make the students better hunters, teach them about habitat to make them better stewards of the land, promote hunting ethics to make them better sportsmen and women, and get them out in nature to show them how interconnected we are to the world around us," explains wildlife biologist and camp counselor Justin Thayer. "We head into the field at 6 a.m. and keep them going all day. If the students absorb a tenth of what they're taught here, they'll be great role models for waterfowl hunting and conservation."

The Mississippi camp is the brainchild of DU Advisory Senior Vice President of Youth and Education Dr. Ronal Roberson. It's modeled after a camp that has been held for more than two decades by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Ducks Unlimited. The first of its kind in the country, the Arkansas camp offers teenagers the chance to delve deeply into the world of waterfowl and wetlands management. The camp is generously hosted by DU Chairman of the Board George Dunklin Jr. at Five Oaks Duck Lodge near Stuttgart during the state's youth waterfowl weekend.

The Arkansas students are nominated by DU volunteers across the state. Mississippi campers are selected through an application process on the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (MDWFP) website. Both camps are offered at no cost to participants, and all the campers are given Ducks Unlimited memberships. The Mississippi camp was originally hosted at private hunting clubs in the state's historic Delta region, including its inaugural year at Roberson's own Tippo Lodge and several years at Gumbo Flats Lodge. In 2015, the camp moved to public facilities at Leroy Percy State Park and Muscadine Farms Wildlife Management Area to give the participants more hunting experience on public lands.

As part of their instruction, the students learn firsthand about the conservation value of a well-trained retriever. Wildrose Kennels, which is located in Oxford, Mississippi, and has been a supporter of the state's camp for years, sends trainers and several of their best dogs to accompany campers on their hunts and demonstrate retriever training techniques. Trainer Larry McMurray offers the same services at the Arkansas camp. "The retriever demonstrations are often the most popular part of the camp for the kids and the counselors," says MDWFP Waterfowl Program Coordinator and camp organizer Houston Havens.

Shooting lessons are provided by experienced hunter education instructors. "The first thing we do is identify each shooter's dominant eye," says Alan Mumbower, a regional hunter education coordinator with the MDWFP. "I recommend that kids try to shoot on the same side as their dominant eye, which can be difficult for those who are 'cross-dominant.' It's really hard to shoot left-handed when you're right-handed, especially if you already know how to shoot. I know; I had to do it. But it absolutely improves your shooting. If kids who are cross-dominant don't want to shoot off-handed, we do what we can to work around it, but it's a good opportunity for them to try."

The key to the success of youth waterfowl hunting and conservation camps is the involvement of many dedicated adult volunteers, who generously give their time over a weekend to help introduce young people to the wonders of waterfowling and the importance of conservation. Despite the considerable time commitment, many camp counselors return year after year. "You'll never receive more sincere thanks than from a kid who has been shown something amazing, something that will stay with them for a lifetime, and something you hope they will share with others. By the end of the camp, these teenagers are genuinely grateful for the experience. That, and our desire to share our own passion for conservation, brings us back every year," Thayer says.

Andi Cooper is a communications specialist in DU's Southern Region.