From 9-year-old girls to middle-aged men, 25 people spent three evenings in Modesto last week working toward joining the oldest breed of American outdoorsmen.
For thousands of years, hunters have been the consummate sportsmen. In modern history, the majority of conservation dollars are generated from hunting-related sales, according to the state Department of Fish and Game.
But to hunt anywhere in these great United States -- California to Connecticut, Montana to Maine -- hunters need to pass a hunter education test, as the tools of the trade (the shotgun, rifle, bow and muzzleloader) can be dangerous.
The wallet-sized certificate that comes with 10 hours of class time and successful completion of a 100-question test grants the purchase of a hunting license across the country.
And what if an experienced California hunter of 40 years can't find his 1960s-issued education certificate? He must take the class again to get an out-of-state license as Fish and Game records don't go back that far.
The class casts a wide net, covering safety, basic skills, ethics and conservation with specifics on shotguns, rifles, handguns, archery equipment and muzzleloaders.
Tristan Pekron, 12, of Waterford isn't much for baseball or basketball, but discovered archery while participating in 4H. His mom, Bonnie Johansson, thought the hunting safety class would be good for the whole family. So Tristan, his older sister, Hali, 16, and mom spent three nights at a folding table where duck decoys are normally stacked in the back of Auto Life sporting goods, the unique auto parts/hunting/fishing store in Modesto.
"I've handled guns before but, really, they make me nervous. It couldn't hurt, learning how to handle them good and proper," Johansson said.
Bob Hansen, an avid duck hunter from Denair, has taught hunter education for 11 years. He has a wildlife management degree from Humboldt State University and agreed to teach the class just in time for the Oct. 20 start to duck season.
"In firearms, in hunting, you only get one chance," he told the class shortly after everyone got seated. "You pull the trigger and that bullet is gone. There's no timeouts. There's no do-overs."
By state law, hunting ed instructors cannot be paid. It's an entirely volunteer service and volunteers are desperately needed in Stanislaus County, said Lt. Shawn Olague with the Department of Fish and Game, who oversees hunter education in the Central Valley.
"Hunting is a dying sport right now," Hansen told his class. "As baby boomers like me start dying off, there aren't enough young people like you coming up behind us."
Of the 25 students, 15 weren't old enough to drive. There was a councilman from Ceres (Chris Vierra), farmhands and elementary, middle and high school students galore.
Jasmine Davis, 9, of Modesto went on a hunting trip with her family in the Stanislaus National Forest this deer season and fell in love with it, said her dad, Kevin Davis. A fork horn deer was bagged and Jasmine watched as the deer was cleaned, skinned, processed and smoked.
"She just flipped," said her dad as he paced back and forth while his daughter took the 100-question test. "I'm nervous right now. I really am."
Michael Casias, 37, of Merced said he wanted a hunting license to join friends and family on regular trips to the mountains. He was a little surprised by his classmates.
"I told my wife after the first night, 'They're all little kids!' " he said.
The test material ranged from common sense to outright esoteric. A shotgun's gauge, for example a 12-gauge, is the size of the diameter of 12 balls made from 1 pound of lead. A 20-gauge barrel is the diameter of 20 lead balls made from a pound of lead. But a .410, the smallest common shotgun size, is 410 one-thousandths of an inch in diameter, which is something like a 67.5 gauge. Still, it's commonly called a .410, whereas the rest are sized by gauge.
"That's the American way of measuring," Hansen said.
When all the answer boxes were checked and tests turned in, not everyone in the room had passed.
"It's real hard for anyone under 12," Hansen said. "Age and language is the barrier."
Tristan, his mom and sister Hali all walked out eligible for a hunting license.
"Now we can all feel a little more comfortable," said the smiling mom.
Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2391.