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Veteran instructor keeps live-fire in hunter education

Jack Dolan, 72, is a veteran hunter education instructor who’s proud to be old-fashioned.

“You must get behind the wheel and prove you can drive a vehicle in traffic before you get a driver’s license,” he said. “The same should go for proving you can safely handle a firearm in the field and shoot accurately before you get a hunting license.”

Washington Fish and Wildlife Department liability concerns in recent years have de-emphasized the importance of live firing for hunter education certification, he said.

Passing a course is a prerequisite for buying a hunting license in most states, but in Washington a hunter can be certified without firing a gun.

“That doesn’t make sense,” said Dolan, who considers live-firing so important he built his own shooting range for his students.

Last month, Dolan took his sentiments a step beyond most hunter ed classes – as he has for years – by organizing a field day. Students experienced a real hunt, supervised one-on-one by 17 volunteer instructors, as they took their shot at flushing and bagging pen-raised chukars.

“There’s a lot to think about,” said Caroline Mager of Cheney after a Spokane Bird Dog Association volunteer flushed a chukar that flew in her direction – and got away unscathed.

“Missing is as much a part of the education as getting the bird,” Dolan said later, noting that several students shot their first birds on the fly during that session.

Dolan knows a few things about commitment and following procedures after serving 24 years in the Marine Corps, 10 years in the Air Force followed by 20 years with the Medical Lake Police Department.

Instead of hanging up his hunter education instructor cap in protest over the limited shooting policy introduced two years ago – as some long-time instructors did last year, Dolan found a legal way around the system.

“We have two venues,” he said, “like two courses side by side. There’s no other hunter ed course like it in the Northwest. This is hands-on learning.”

He was determined to continue giving his students the chance to experience shooting shotguns, rifles and even handguns and archery gear as they have in the courses he’s taught for 26 years.

“My summer course is special because shooting is a requirement not an option,” he said, distinguishing it from the five other hunter ed courses he helps teach each year through small-town schools.

“I open registration in January and the quota of 40 students fills in a few weeks even though the course doesn’t start until summer.

“I’ve had people sign up from out of state and even from the East Coast, all from word of mouth.”

Participants register for the hunter education course as well as for Dolan’s Game Gun Fair. The courses run concurrently but the firearms handling and shooting portions are limited to the Game Gun Fair sessions.

“The state covers the liability for the hunter education course. We pick up the insurance for Game Gun Fair,” he said, refusing to disclose how much he pays out of his own pocket. “To me, it’s worth it.”

Other instructors contribute their time and the bird dog association covers the liability for the field hunting session and donates $500 worth of pen-raised birds. Club members also bring their valuable trained pointing dogs to find the birds for the novice hunters.

“You must have a lot of faith in the program to run your best hunting partner – a dog worth thousands of dollars – out in front of a kid who’s never hunted birds before,” Dolan said.

The field session is the “graduation,” capping 20 hours of instruction over five days.

Along with the standard hunter education on topics such as gun handling, knowing your target, wildlife conservation, hunting rules and landowner relations, Dolan’s students fire hundreds of rounds at the range on his Medical Lake property.

“They’ll shoot 100 rounds at clay targets,” he said. “They’ll learn how to shoot a .22 rifle in various positions, plus a handgun and archery.”

Students bring their own firearms and Dolan arranges for a gunsmith to check each gun before a student pulls the trigger.

“We also have the Spokane Muzzleloaders come out so each student can learn to safely load and fire a muzzleloader.”

Classroom sessions are held in Dolan’s barn, which was built in 1905. “I get a lot of photos of students with their first deer,” he said. “I hang the pictures in the barn. I call it the meat pole.

“I was going to tear the barn down, but students wouldn’t let me. I have former students who are bringing their kids and even their grandkids to this class. They tell me the barn is part of the institution.”

Dolan’s epiphany occurred years ago when one of his instructors, Cheney-area dog-trainer Dan Hoke, suggested getting the students out to learn shooting skills and then show them what it’s like to hunt birds with dogs.

Said Dolan, “A few of us were sitting around after teaching and Dan said, ‘I like doing this course, but it sure gets boring for me, so it’s got to be boring for the kids, especially for those who’ve already been sitting in school all day.’

“He suggested we move the course outdoors as much as possible. We tried it the next time and it was a hit. That’s when I decided to bring in bulldozers, pile up berms, put in shotgun lines and build a range.”

As an extra incentive, he holds a shoot-off at the end of the summer course for a coveted prize.

“We take the top scorers on the hunter ed test and enter them in a shooting match under Game Gun Fair,” he said. “The top male and top female get a free guided deer hunt offered by a landowner.

“I know from my own experience that I can learn so much by having you tell me something, but I can learn a lot more if you show me how and let me try. That’s what we do here.

“In the Game Gun Fair the students get a session on reloading, where they learn all sorts of things about ammo and what to look for when they buy it from a store.”

Each student gets to load a cartridge under supervision. “We don’t let them shoot it, but they get to understand how it all works.”

“Why do I do it?” he said, repeating the question.

“I like young people and I like to see them get a foot in the door.”

Girls and women sometime comprise more than 50 percent of his class, a development that makes him proud.

“I’ve always welcomed girls, but the trend really boomed in the past 15 years,” he said.

“It really helped when I talked a few of my female graduates into becoming instructors.

“Two of them – Emmy Wood and Patty Willoughby – have been with me for close to 20 years.

“Women were short-changed on the outdoors for a long time,” he said. “When I was a kid, I remember my sister wanted to go hunting and my dad said, ‘No; girls stay home with their moms.’

“I looked at my dad and said that wasn’t right. But it wasn’t until I was grown up that I had a chance to do what was right.”

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