December 28, 2016
Years ago, if you were a hunter you probably started young and kept at it as long as you were able. Hunting was simply a way of life for many people, keeping food on the table and providing enjoyment with family and friends.
While it's still that way for many of us, most now have other means of acquiring meat and other ways of entertaining themselves. Although hunting would be a great way for them to spend some of their leisure time, it now must compete with many other options. And that's as true of older persons as it is of younger ones.
"I'm concerned about participation in hunting generally, as I think recreating outdoors in today's world doesn't hold the same level of priority it once did," says Jay McAninch, CEO and president of the Archery Trade Association. "Technology has given us great advantages at our fingertips, but I also think it has caused many to view outdoor activities in a different light.
"We've seen a natural progression of change in the activities people enjoy in their spare time, in the continuing urbanization of our landscapes and lives, in people's affinity for the outdoors and people's tolerance of the kinds of natural conditions encountered while hunting," he adds.
"Second, I think we arrived here as a direct result of our collective lack of commitment to hunter recruitment, retention and reactivation (an initiated known as 'R3,' for short) over the past 30-plus years."
Skip Peterson, Director of Operations at Gearhead Archery, just turned 50. A longtime hunter of whitetails and other species, he has his own thoughts on why people drop out of hunting.
"These days, we live in a 'right now' society," he says. "Information is available instantly on our smartphones, and success in hunting is expected right away, as well. You must keep a positive attitude; deer are somewhere all of the time. This also applies to turkeys, elk, antelope and whatever else you're hunting. It only takes 5 — 10 seconds to turn your day around; stay positive.
"Hunting is more about the process than the killing anyway," Skip adds. "Oh, the planning, the preparation, the equipment and the dreaming! Some of your best days in the woods don't even involve a kill. They could be the time spent with the ones you care about most."
Minnesota's Department of Nature Resources offers some great information on this topic through its website (dnr.state.mn.us). In a section titled "Recruiting and Retaining Minnesota Hunters and Anglers," the agency narrows the limitations of outdoors participation into five categories:
1. Behavioral: for example, believing hunting or fishing is not safe or is cruel to animals or simply not having an interest in hunting and fishing because of other higher personal priorities.
2. Institutional/structural: for example, never receiving the kind of information that sparks an awareness or interest in trying hunting or fishing.
3. Economic: for example, not having the means to buy equipment and pay costs associated with these activities.
4. Physical: for example, not participating because hunting/angling is too physically demanding or no handicapped-accessible opportunities are available.
5. Access: for example, not participating because of lack of place to hunt/fish.
I think we can assume someone who's ever been an active hunter has no issue with the first two points on this list. But an older hunter — particularly one on reduced income — could well be affected by one or more of the last three. And that could lead to dropping out.
Where I live in southern Illinois, one of the biggest problems for many longtime hunters is finding a place to hunt. At one time, some private landowners allowed hunting. However, now most of this land has been sold to new owners who aren't from the area. These acres no longer are accessible, leaving people who once had plenty of hunting ground with no private place to go.
We do have quite a bit of public hunting land nearby, so there are still options for the veteran hunter. I hope those who have lost their access will utilize such lands and continue to hunt. But finding accessible land is a problem for many hunters across North America.
The Minnesota DNR website also offers recommendations beneficial not only to that state but elsewhere, as well. These include "creating and supporting a reverse mentoring campaign in which younger hunters would be encouraged to take an older adult hunting and fishing, so as to retain their interest and participation in the activity. This would be targeted at maintaining the participation of adults age 45 and older."
STAYING IN GEAR
Just as wildlife agencies can help retain current hunters and reactivate former ones, so can companies making hunting equipment. Two product categories of special benefit to older hunters are the crossbow and the enclosed blind.
Crossbows have made big gains in acceptance over the past decade, with more wildlife agencies allowing their use for deer hunting — either in regular bow season or during gun season. Even agencies that don't view the crossbow as just another archery tool at least allow its use by hunters with medical problems precluding use of a vertical bow.
Crossbows give a firearms hunter a chance to try archery without having to give up all of the familiarity of a gun. In other cases, if a hunter has grown bored with hunting (whether with a gun or vertical bow), the crossbow can be a tool for reactivation.
"As an owner in a (vertical) bow company, and working my fair share of consumer hunting shows, I can tell you most older hunters have shoulder problems," Skip says. "I encourage everyone to shoot our bow, but many can't, because of health-related problems. None of us wants to be forced to stop hunting because we can't draw a bow. Crossbows have helped extend the opportunities to hunters who are in their later season of life. All we really want is one more sunrise. . . ."
As noted earlier in this series, an enclosed blind is a great tool for helping fidgety young hunters stay comfortable and undetected by deer. But it can also be especially helpful for older and/or disabled sportsmen stay on the ground instead of trying to climb into a treestand.
While there are great safety harnesses on the market (and anyone hunting from an elevated stand should wear one, regardless of age), sometimes it just isn't feasible for a hunter to climb a tree.
"A properly brushed-in blind allows him or her to stay concealed and out of the game's sight while free to move around and readjust on the inside," Skip says. "I use a ground blind for turkey hunting every spring but have also shot several deer from one."
If older hunters stop teaching younger generations, there will be fewer hunters to carry on the tradition. Someone has to pass on the passion of the outdoors and the knowledge of nature that hunting provides. As I've heard time after time, "It takes a hunter to make a hunter."
When hunters share their knowledge, it can create success in the field for others. That will create a drive to keep going and to continue being successful. This will make that hunter want to share the positive experience, and the cycle will start again.
"Experienced hunters are good stewards of the land," Skip notes. "It's a passion that resides deep in their soul. Experienced hunters love to pass on their knowledge and passion for the outdoors to others. Reliving old memories through new eyes and bringing an appreciation for the outdoors to a newbie is what mentoring is all about."
After researching hunter recruitment, retention and reactivation for this series and hearing what key industry figures have to say, I feel I have a better idea what it will take to build our numbers. And I hope I've provided some information that will help your own efforts to support hunting's future. It's a way of life for me, and I don't want the next generation to miss out on the opportunity I've had.
STILL A ROLE MODEL
No matter how long they've been at it or how much success they've had, most hunters eventually quit going. But as some continue to prove, the fact you've been at it for decades doesn't necessarily mean your best days are all behind you.
Gary VanSickle, a retired teacher from Middleville, Michigan, proved that last fall. On opening morning of muzzleloader season, the 76-year-old sportsman downed the biggest buck of his hunting career. Gary was hunting on land owned by his son, Steve, when he got the 8-pointer.
That trophy success warmed the heart of local hunter Dave Curtis, who considers Gary one of his mentors.
"I've been hunting with Gary for 36 years and can't get enough of his stories from the late '50s and early '60s, when you were excited about just seeing a whitetail in Lower Michigan," Dave says.
Typical of his generation of teachers in rural areas of North America, Gary spent a lot of time during his career encouraging others to enjoy the outdoors as much as he did. And a big part of that was getting them into hunting.
"He helped numerous kids and adults get started over the years, before it became politically incorrect to talk about hunting with your students," Dave notes.
While administrators keep making it harder to talk openly with kids about hunting and shooting, many current hunters owe their foundation to the Gary VanSickles of the world. Their effort helped pave the way to the overall support hunting still enjoys with the general public — and hopefully always will.
— Gordon Whittington