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Woster: Finding way back to Lacreek

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It’s habit forming. Once you go, you’ll have to go back.

That’s just the way it is with hunting at Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge.

When Assistant Manager Todd Schmidt talks to hunters at the 16,410-acre federal refuge southeast of Martin, they usually have a story about previous times they’ve been there — traveling from across South Dakota and other states.

Especially western states.

“Utah, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, I think they come east to pheasant hunt,” Schmidt says. “And to me it’s the first best spot when they come east to hunt pheasants.”

That’s why I go to Lacreek, usually six to 10 times during the pheasant season. Although closed entirely to waterfowl hunting, part of the refuge is open to upland bird hunting. And the western edge of the refuge borders a complex of state Game, Fish & Parks Department hunting ground offering additional pheasant hunting.

But Schmidt and I weren’t talking about pheasants the last time I was at the refuge headquarters. We were talking about young hunters and a December deer-hunting opportunity for kids on the refuge that’s pretty tough to beat.

Refuge officials don’t just welcome young hunters. They recruit them. You’ll see signs of that, literally, all around the refuge: “Wanted: Youth Hunters.”

But there’s more to the signs in smaller type: “Youth deer and pheasant hunters are welcome to hunt Lacreek National Wildlife Refuge!”

Note the exclamation point. They mean it.

The early youth pheasant season is long past for this year. But there’s still more than half a month left in the special antlerless-deer hunt for young hunters at the refuge. And it’s worth the trip, both for the hunting and for the seeing.

Lacreek is an inspiring mix of upland grasses and dense cattail marsh on the edge of the Nebraska Sandhills, with a series of ponds or lakes created by small dams on spring-fed Lake Creek. The creek flows all year, so the refuge is an important wintering area of swans and other waterfowl.

The aesthetics are hard to beat. You might be hunting pheasants while a dozen trumpeter swans are lumbering past 30 yards above your head. Or a hundred Canada geese. Or 200 mallard ducks.

You’ll see raptors, songbirds and a coyote or two. And deer. Plenty of deer, including some hefty bucks. Those are off limits, however, to youth hunters during the special season.

The antlerless youth season is open through the end of December and is the only time center-fire rifles are allowed on the refuge, which also has archery and muzzleloader seasons. So the kids have an advantage other refuge hunters don’t have, which is as it should be.

The refuge youth season is open to hunters age 12 through 17, resident and nonresident, as long as they have the appropriate state “apprentice hunter” license. The season is also open to mentored hunters under age 12 — residents only, however.

And the refuge allows resident adult “apprentice” hunters over 18 during the youth season if it’s their first license or if they haven’t had a license in the previous 10 years.

Along with their state license, apprentice and mentored hunters need a free refuge license, available at the headquarters. It’s essentially a refuge brochure with map and regulations, which hunters must sign.

After that, their chances of success on the refuge are good.

“It’s a great place for a youth to come and shoot a doe,” Schmidt said. “This time of year they’re easily patterned. You can see their tracks in the snow. And kids can line up and make a good ambush. It’s a great opportunity and we just don’t see enough kids. I wish we’d see more.”

It’s up to young hunters and supportive adults to make his wish come true.

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