By Bill Gray, Supervising Wildlife Biologist

For some time now, state wildlife agencies and private conservation groups have focused much attention on the recruiting and retention of hunters. Naturally, this effort has been focused on youngsters who, according to demographic data, still provide a window of opportunity for introduction and initiation into the hunting fraternity (or sorority if you prefer). Events such as the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division’s youth dove hunts have been successful in providing opportunity for many first time hunters for many years. Collectively, state agencies and their private conservation allies have done an admirable job of exposing first time hunters to the societal, personal, and resource associated benefits of hunting. Individually, many hunters, the author included, have not done such a good job of mentoring and meeting the rudimentary needs of first time hunters. In my estimation, the real culprits in this failure are the lack of time and deer hunting.

We live in a busy world. For as much as we all lament the lack of adequate time, we somehow manage to find the time to participate in the things that are important to us. Where we have erred most egregiously is in our failure to truly recognize the vital importance of bringing new hunters into the fold. It is not enough to give an afternoon here and there to some organized hunting or shooting event. While we may feel good about the “sacrifice” we’ve made, the few and far between hunting excursion is hardly sufficient to ignite the kind of fire that burns in all who consider themselves hunters.

It is foolish to believe that our own children, those born into hunting families and immersed in hunting cultures, can sufficiently replace ourselves as the next generation of hunters. While the overwhelming majority of these children may indeed be hunters – there are thousands of other youths who, without deliberate effort on our part, will never be counted among those who consider themselves hunters. Though our time is jealously guarded, we must resolve to find at least one boy or girl and give them a fair chance at discovering a world and a way of life that is sadly, and at great societal cost, disappearing before our very eyes. As a hunter, it is our obligation to make the time necessary to shepherd at least one youngster (not our own) through the long journey required to stir and transform the soul into that of one who, as Leopold stated, “cannot live without wild things and wild places.”

The making of a hunter is a progression of steps and experiences fostered under the watchful eye of a mentor. In my own experience, such a mentor is credited with taking an inexperienced boy and patiently suffering through my lack of knowledge, clumsiness, and general wide-eyed obliviousness. I progressed from vine shaker to shotgun caddy and finally, to squirrel hunter, in the course of one hunting season. This took place over the course of dozens of hunting trips, not a single cookie-cutter “event”. From the onset, I was part of a band or one might even say a tribe. It was acceptance into and initiation through the strata of this tribe that stirred in me, the soul of a hunter. Within this framework I assumed the lowliest of roles as a vine shaker and finally earned the right to sit alone with my shotgun, assuming the role as an equal in the tribe as a squirrel hunter. I learned how to clean and cook squirrels as well as other game. I learned how to always be safe with a gun in my hands. I learned how to properly clean a gun. I learned that I was a hunter and I could not foresee a time when my desire to hunt would ever wane.

I would imagine that most hunters aged 35 and older became hunters in much the same way. While their mentor may have been a father or an uncle, their journey as a fledgling hunter likely traversed the same stretch of territory. As I view the landscape before us today, the impediments to cultivating young hunters are far more numerous and challenging. In addition to the lack of time, an unfortunately disconnected and urbanized culture is producing youngsters that have neither appreciation for a land ethic nor any real sense of what they stand to lose should they live out their lives as one that doesn’t hunt.

For many of us today, our hunting is focused on white-tail deer. The simple pleasures once afforded by a 40-acre woodlot have yielded to pursuit of the wariest of game animals. I have made my living providing advice on how to grow big healthy deer with big antlers. For that I am not ashamed. I am ashamed that I have let my zeal for this apex quarry seduce me to the point of neglecting my duty to mentor a new hunter. To eventually gravitate toward the pursuit of deer is probably natural in the progression of a hunter. The means and methods required to effectively hunt white-tails is anything but natural to a youngster. There is no need to examine this incongruity in detail. Anyone who has taken an eight-year old deer hunting is painfully aware that sitting perfectly still, not talking, and not shooting is absolutely not fun to the typical boy or girl.

While there are exceptions, the general rule remains that we will never make hunters from the young by taking them deer hunting. Deer hunting should be part of the evolution and not the genesis of hunting for our youth. First, there must be the vine shaking and the wonderful smell of gun oil. They must have someone to teach them, someone to take them and some place to go. They must be given the opportunity to belong to a tribe. As a mentor, we must be willing to forego our precious time in pursuit of antlers so that some boy or girl can know the pride of sitting alone with a shotgun, searching the canopy in hopes of that first squirrel.

More about youth hunting opportunities