LEWISVILLE, Texas - Since 2012 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Fort Worth District staff at Lewisville Lake have conducted special hunts on the federally-managed land around the lake. What started as a hunt for injured servicemembers has evolved into what is now known as “Wheelin’ Jake’s You Hunt” for disabled children.
USACE, in cooperation with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD), have been hosting disabled youth at Lewisville Lake for this hunt every December since 2017.
The objective of the hunt is to expose more youth to the great outdoors and provide a unique opportunity that would not normally be an option. This hunt is special because of all the partners coming together from a wide range of undertakings for a common goal.
This year, four children, three of whom had never harvested a deer, were invited out to the lake for an experience like none other. One youth hunter, Preston, is incapable of firing a weapon by himself. His father described what this opportunity means to their family.
“It’s emotional; it means a lot to me,” said Kyle Seay of Conroe, TX. “We are a hunting family. Preston has always wanted to shoot, but because of his twisting spine scoliosis, he has never been able to. The doctors told me if he holds a gun and shoots it, it could break his back.”
This hunt caters to everyone, regardless of their disability. Hunt for the Cure provides a trigger system, tripod and tablet that allowed those who cannot hold the weapon to still experience firing it. The hunter sights in the deer with the scope connected wirelessly to a tablet, then using a battery-powered, two-trigger system, the hunter’s guide presses one button, then the hunter presses another that remotely pulls the trigger.
“Thank you all very much for helping my son overcome his fear of shooting. Because of the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Wild Turkey federation and the special equipment provided to us so my son can hunt, now every one of us in the family has gotten a deer. Now he has something to talk to his brother about when they talk about their bucks. I cannot thank you all enough for allowing my son to have this experience”
During its origins, Lewisville Lake Manager Rob Jordan and then, Lead Ranger, Justin Berndt were the driving force that got the ball rolling to make this event a reality. Jordan had previously volunteered for several years with an organization in Iowa called Special Youth Challenge Ministries that provided opportunities to disabled youth to overcome the physical challenges they face by providing them with special hunting opportunities.
“We saw a unique opportunity with the thriving deer population and the ease of access the area below the Lewisville Dam provided for potentially wheelchair-bound hunters,” Jordan said. “Many volunteers were also helpful in getting the event underway. A local Eagle Scout named Adrien Lewis conducted his Eagle Scout project the summer before the first hunt by coordinating a project in which his scout group built three wheelchair accessible hunting blinds.”
In 2017, when the hunt transitioned to a Wheelin’ Jakes Youth Hunt, three local chapters of NWTF spearheaded the volunteer coordination and selection of the hunters. TPWD Biologist Jennifer Barrow aided with deer population study protocols as well as helping USACE obtain Managed Land Deer Program (MLDP) tags. Park Ranger Josh Houghtaling has been the primary point of contact for the Lewisville Lake hunting program since 2017. He, along with numerous lake staff have been involved throughout the years to make the event a success.
“As a natural resource specialist, we are all delegated specific programs to aid in accomplishing multiple missions for USACE, in which one of those missions is environmental stewardship,” Houghtaling said. “Under the umbrella of the environmental stewardship mission is natural resource management. Here at Lewisville Lake, it is broken down even further to an established hunting program. I am fortunate to be the POC for the hunting program at Lewisville Lake. This hunt to me means a lot to me. The opportunity to provide these amazing kids with a chance of a lifetime to enjoying the camaraderie back at camp, and doing it all in safe environment, will fill any heart with joy. From tears shed by the parents just knowing we have given their child a chance, to the joys of the hunt, it is forever etched into our minds.”
Chris Womack serves on the Texas State Board for NWTF, an organization whose mission is preservation of wild turkey and hunting heritage. The habitat work that they do benefits not only the wild turkey, but deer, quail, and so forth. They aim to keep this hunting and outdoor lifestyle alive.
“This hunt is important to me because it serves as a way to introduce hunting to kids who wouldn’t normally have the chance to go hunting,” Womack said. “It’s one thing to work with children and introduce them to the outdoors and hunting; it’s another thing to bring out disabled children to hunt that don’t have the same opportunities as a child that is not disabled. It’s a wonderful learning experience for the families, for us and everybody involved.”
Womack said it has been a wonderful partnership with USACE and TPWD.
“It has been an amazing friendship of the years doing this hunt with them and working together,” Womack said. “The joy in the faces of the kids who shot their first deer pulls at your heart strings and is amazing for us. It is a great time for all of us; we all leave here with spirits lifted.”
Houghtaling said the hunt has been a huge success in not only getting youth more interested in the outdoors and hunting, but their parents find a newfound love for the outdoors and the opportunities it could present for the whole family.
“Every year has been memorable to some extent, but the relationships between the guides and the hunters fills my heart with joy,” Houghtaling said. “As a guide I can get to know the hunter, and his parents a little more, plus I usually get to share in special moments with the family in which their child harvests their first animal. This year was a very memorable hunt due to one individual named Preston. Preston initially was very shy, to the point he didn’t want to be around anyone during the orientation or while conducting the weapons firearm familiarization. Once he became more familiar to shooting a gun around a smaller crowd, he proceeded to his blind with USACE guides by his side. He was able to harvest an eight-point buck on the first night. As he pulled into camp, he was so excited that he rolled his window down and screamed ‘I shot a buck!’ He repeated the saying multiple times. The smile on his face didn’t disappear all weekend and was contagious to all those around him.”
Before the first hunt special hunt at Lewisville Lake was authorized in 2012, lake staff, along with TPWD, conducted multiple years of wildlife population surveys to determine estimated deer numbers to set management goals. These efforts ensured that the deer population could sustain a hunt being conducted in the area. Wildlife camera surveys are conducted annually, annual incidental daylight counts, and blind counts are all a part of the MLDP process to get an estimated White-tailed Deer population. With the collection of all this data TPWD can assign a specific amount of buck and doe tags for White-tailed Deer based on the estimated population data.
“The process for these MLDP tags is extensive,” Houghtaling said. “TPWD Terrestrial Biologist, Jennifer Barrow, assists greatly in helping us with our MLDP tags. The program allows us to harvest older deer, such as an old buck that might not meet the antler restrictions of 13 inches. With the separate MLDP tag, the hunter does not have to use a tag from their state issued hunting license.”
Together USACE and NWTF share a passion for the outdoors and want to carry on the tradition of hunting from generation to generation. This hunt is just one of the many ways NWTF and USACE can work together to accomplish this shared goal.
“From the beginning we have put a lot of effort in preparation for the hunt, and continued teamwork and coordination efforts throughout the year are necessary to carry out this youth hunt,” Houghtaling said. “Over time USACE and NWTF volunteers and staff have become close friends, and now it is almost like having an annual family reunion. The partnership with NWTF has been a success story for our lake and we hope to continue building on that relationship each year.”
Visit the Fort Worth District Web site at: www.swf.usace.army.mil and social media at: https://about.me/usacefortworth