FAIRFAX, Va. – It neither looked nor felt like hunting season in Pennsylvania's sunny northern mountains, but that didn't matter to the 330 young hunters from 16 states who readied themselves for the fall season at NRA's 23rd annual International Youth Hunter Education Challenge (YHEC).

Held July 28 – August 1 at Mill Cove Environmental Area and Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pa., the event marked the culmination of the only youth hunting skills competition of its kind in the country, having reached more than 1.2 million youngsters since 1985.

"YHEC just keeps getting bigger and better every year," said Bill Poole, Director of NRA's Education and Training Division.  "Just look at the smiles on these kids' faces.  If that doesn't tell you that they are going to keep on hunting, I don't know what will.  That's the true goal of the YHEC program-to get kids involved in hunting for a lifetime."

Aaron Carr of Greers Ferry, Ark., who finished second overall in the senior individual standings at last year's YHEC, is one of those lifetime hunters.  The 19 year old may have been too old to compete in this year's YHEC, but that didn't stop him from traveling nearly 1,200 miles to help coach his former team, the Cleburne County Sharpshooters.

"I had a lot of coaches help me throughout my time competing in YHEC, so I wanted to come back to help the kids," said Carr.  "YHEC gets a bunch of kids into hunting and it teaches them to respect wildlife and be safe.  They're a pretty good group of kids.  Since I'm more their age, they can compete with me, and they can see that what I'm telling them actually works."

Through the YHEC program, young hunters have the opportunity to test what they've learned from their parents and coaches in eight events that simulate actual hunting conditions as closely as possible.  There are four shooting events-archery, muzzleloader, rifle and shotgun-as well as four responsibility challenges-orienteering, wildlife identification, a written hunter safety exam, and Hunter Safety Trail.  All events build on what youngsters learn in conventional hunter education courses. 

"It's just a blast," said 17-year-old Nathan Leavitt of YHEC's appeal.  "I heard about YHEC from a friend, and I thought it was really cool.  It's just so much fun."

While making friends and having fun is the real value of the YHEC program, scores are kept and champions crowned, with both individual and team winners honored.  Participants are broken into two age classifications-senior (15-18) and junior (14 and under). 

Leavitt's Oregon Senior Team claimed its second consecutive overall title at this year's YHEC, recording a score of 8,317 out of a possible 12,000 points to best the Pennsylvania Senior Blue Team.  And for the fourth year in a row, the North Carolina Forbush Elementary Claybusters won top honors in the junior team category with a score of 7,193. 

On the individual side, Hunter Fulton, 17, of Grand Cane, La., won his first senior individual title, racking up 1,795 points out of a possible 2,400.  With yet another repeat, Nick Kiter, 14, of Yadkinville, N.C., won first place in the junior individual category with a score of 1,688.  Kiter also was a member of the junior team champion North Carolina Forbush Elementary Claybusters.

Next year the International YHEC is scheduled to return to the NRA Whittington Center in Raton, N.M., July 27-31.  The Whittington Center last hosted the event in 2007.

Currently, YHEC programs exist in 33 states and Canadian provinces.  Each year, 50,000 young people take part in state and local YHEC events across the nation.  For more information about starting or finding a YHEC program in your area, call 703-267-1503 or visit www.nrahq.org/hunting/youthed.asp.

A great deal of YHEC's success is due to the generous, longstanding support from the program's sponsors.  Most recently, Cabela's became a new sponsor by joining NRA's Add-A-Buck program, which gives Cabela's customers the opportunity to add a dollar, or multiples of whole dollars, to their purchases, with those funds earmarked to benefit YHEC.  Visit http://www.nrahq.org/hunting/youthed.asp to see the full list of program sponsors.

2008 YHEC Overall Winners

Junior Individual Overall Winners
1-Nick Kiter, 14,Yadkinville, NC; score: 1688
2-Drew Queen, 14, East Bend, NC; score: 1596
3-Anthony McLelland, 14, East Bend, NC; score: 1550
Senior Individual Overall Winners
Hunter Fulton, 17, Grand Cane, LA; score: 1795
2-Jason LeVan, 16, Troy, PA; score: 1774
3-Travis Tourjee, 18, Columbus Grove, OH; score: 1764
Junior Team Overall Winners

1-NC Forbush Elementary Claybusters; score: 7193
Coach:  Mike Kiter; Austin Connick, Jordan Doub, Nick Kiter, Todd Patterson, Drew Queen.

2-NC Fall Creek Gray Eagles; score: 6809
Coach:  Carson Hobson; Andrew Byrd, Nick McDonald, Anthony McLelland, Robbie Potts, Jr., Chandler Wooten

3-PA Junior Blue Team; score: 6658
Coach:  Beth Bason; Bryce Bason, Cody Halchak, Ethan Matthews, Justin Porch, Evan Rathbun

Senior Team Overall Winners

1-Oregon Senior Team; score: 8317
Coach:  Kevin Carlson; Casey Carlson, Jesse Carlson, Alayna Fong, Nathan Leavitt, Brandon Shaver

2-PA Senior Blue Team; score: 8109
Coach:  Monty Miller; Ian Copenhaver, Travis Forrest, Corey Hay, Jason LeVan, Zane Miller

3-PA Senior Gold Team; score: 8057
Coach:  Jeff Castle; Rebecca Barnes, Levi Castle, Ethan Moss, Garrett Rathbun, Cody Wolfe