Justin Cronin harvested this turkey on a mentored hunt with Rich Reatherford earlier this year as part of the Washington Fish and Wildlife Department’s hunter education program. (Photo courtesy of JUSTIN CRONIN).

YAKIMA, Wash. -- Turkey hunting requires a combination of patience, skill and technique not easily taught in a classroom or on a website.

That’s why the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife chose to create a mentored hunt program to attract new turkey hunters like Benjamin Scholtysik, who moved from Germany to Seattle two and half years ago. This fall, in his first hunt of any kind, he traveled to northeast Washington and harvested two turkeys in the Spokane area with the guidance of Chris Flesher, and the new friends plan to hunt more in the future.

“I think it’s very important, especially for people who don’t have a hunting tradition in their family,” Scholtysik said of the mentoring program. “It’s really a great way to get started.”

Mentored hunts are one of the newest initiatives in the wildlife department’s hunter education program, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in October. Aaron Garcia became the first Region 3 Hunter Education and Volunteer Coordinator in January 2015, overseeing Yakima, Kittitas, Benton and Franklin counties.

Prior to 2010, the state employed only two coordinators, one for each side of the Cascades. Then, 2012 brought the addition of a third in Spokane before expanding to one in all six regions.

“The wildlife division really saw the need and the benefit of having a coordinator in every region,” Garcia said. “It’s a pretty significant difference as far as number of courses and number of instructors.”

He certified 31 new instructors in 2015, 16 in 2016 and 11 more this year to bring the region total to 117, compared to 59 before he arrived on the job. This year he saw 668 students sign up for 35 traditional field skill classes, compared to 616 students for 31 classes a year ago.

Online numbers continue to increase as well, with 591 students signing up for 52 classes compared to 478 students for 46 classes in 2016. After spending four to six hours on Garcia’s standard online hunter education course for four to six hours, online students go to field skills evaluations such as those held monthly at Red’s Fly Shop and Sun Valley Shooting Park.

Firearm safety remains the primary focus, just as it was when Washington governor Albert Rosellini signed mandatory hunter education legislation in February 1957 and the wildlife department — then known as the Game Commission — adopted the measure on Oct. 7 of that year. But today’s classes take on a much wider scope, encompassing such topics as survival skills, wildlife conservation, sportsmanship and ethics, and the state’s sometimes complex hunting regulations.

Garcia also works with nonprofit groups to give inexperienced hunters of all ages valuable experience under the guidance of qualified instructors. Pheasants Forever will join the wildlife department to host a pheasant clinic for up to 30 hunters on Dec. 27 at the Sunnyside Wildlife Area and Garcia hopes to soon add waterfowl clinics and mentored hunts as well as deer and elk clinics.

All of these opportunities remain free thanks in part to the Pittman Robertson Act, an excise tax institued in 1937 on products associated with hunting and shooting. Outside groups like Pheasants Forever, the Mule Deer Foundation and the National Wild Turkey Federation often provide additional resources.

Turkey clinics and mentored hunts will continue next spring, with Garcia organizing hunts for all of eastern Washington. He prefers to send new hunters, especially kids, to private lands for a more controlled environment, but Scholtysik and Doug Reimer of Richland said they hunted on both public and private lands.

Reimer, a big game hunter since 2001, lives in Richland and traveled north of Spokane to meet with mentor Brent Adkisson of Curlew last fall after attending the required clinic. The two quickly became friends and Reimer said they definitely plan to try again next year after coming up empty on two trips that taught him how challenging it could be to shoot his first turkey in a way no class ever could.

“The first flock of turkeys we saw, as soon as I got out of the car they were in the brush,” Reimer said. “They’re pretty good at hiding.”

I’m Luke Thompson, a reporter in my seventh year at the YH-R following stints at seven publications in the preceding seven years. My primary focus is covering the many great prep sports stories in the Yakima Valley, as well as the sports at Yakima Valley College and Central Washington University.Ialso cover Pippins baseball and Outdoors features. After spending my childhood in Kansas followed by college at the University of Missouri and jobs at various papers in the South/Midwest, I’ve tried to make up for all those years without mountains by spending a lot of time in the Cascades skiing, hiking, camping, or just exploring on my own or with my wife and our dog. 

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