After competing in and subsequently winning the 2016 Wyoming Youth Hunter Education Challenge, Eli Jones, 13, was awarded a guided elk hunt in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming in conjunction with the Skyler Gabel Group.

“Eli has been practicing basically since he was a fourth-grader,” the young man’s mentor Rick Rothleutn told the Billings Gazette. “The past year he really put in a lot of time. By the time the state (competition) came around he’d been shooting every day and studying the books.”

The challenge, administered by the Wyoming Fish and Game Department, puts Wyoming youngsters under the ages of 18 to the test with a variety of hunting-related challenges.  The program kicked off in 2008 and operates in two age classes, ages 15-18 and 14 and under, challenging participants across eight events including sporting clays, .22 shooting, muzzleloader use, archery, wildlife identification, orienteering, and hunter safety.

“The challenge is designed to be a fun event for all participants – not just the winners,” said
Rothleutner. “Every year there’s more young Wyoming hunters participating.”

As part of Skyler Gabel’s Forever Wild Award program, Jones was awarded the guided hunt and immediately got to work.  Jones prepared, as many do, for the rigorous hunt, both mentally and physically and headed into the mountains with both his mentor Rick Rothleutn and Randy Smith of Wapiti Ridge Outfitters.

“It was super cold — at least 15- to 20-below zero and the fog was bad with very limited visibility, but Jones was more than ready for the situation,” Smith said.

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Jones with representatives from Skyler Gabel.

The moment of truth arrived via a 258 shot that had to be placed perfectly by the youngster, one that the challenge certainly prepared him for.  With a squeeze of the trigger on the 6.5-284 rifle he was loaned, Jones shot his first elk, and was a moment that would undoubtedly be permanently etched in the young man’s mind.

“The tradition of hunting and the great outdoors is something that will be carried on through family for generations to come,” according to a press release from the Skyler Gabel Group. “Many would say it’s important to preserve the sport of hunting. The Skyler Gabel Group, who awards the hunt to the Junior Champion at the YHEC each year, exists to do just that. Providing the hunt to a young shooter is one way the group works to preserve Wyoming outdoor traditions.”