The call to action was in the numbers. In 1983, about 17 million people purchased hunting licenses in the United States. Four years later, a million of those people had dropped out. By 2016, the number of hunters had decreased to 11.5 million. Despite efforts by state conservation agencies and nonprofit organizations to develop programs to attract new hunters, particularly women and youth, the decline has continued - even after tapping into the hunting world’s brightest leaders and spending thousands of professional and volunteer hours on the effort.
Why? Simply put, we’ve been preaching to the proverbial choir.
Learn-to-hunt events for youth are a prime example. Over the years, most of the youth who’ve participated in such programs have been from hunting families. Which means we’ve simply engaged youth who were likely to start hunting anyway. Matt Dunfee, director of special programs for the Wildlife Management Institute, who is at the forefront of the national effort to recruit, retain, and reactivate hunters (known as R3), agrees. “The data shows that our approach, tactically, makes people who look like hunters into hunters, rather than recruiting hunters from non-hunting populations.”
To move the needle on hunter recruitment, we need to expand the pool from which we’re recruiting.
Wes Sheets is a retired fisheries biologist, an avid bow hunter, and a long-time Ike from Lincoln, Nebraska. He has taught hunter education and successfully mentored young hunters for many years. As Americans have become more urbanized and people spend not only less time hunting but less time outdoors in general, Sheets has shifted his mentoring approach.
“With hunting, you’re often out before the sun comes up and back after dark. The rewarding part is the outdoor experience, the adventure.” And that’s how Sheets approaches mentoring youth who aren’t related to him. Through that adventure, Sheets incorporates self-discipline and problem solving to help keep kids interested. “I don’t tell them how to keep their feet dry or how to stay warm,” he says. “They need to figure that out. The self-reliance they learn makes them better citizens in general. That’s what motivates me.”
Sheets is involved with a youth archery program on a 2,000-acre city-owned piece of undeveloped land. The tract has a deer herd with high road-kill rates. The program targets 12-year-olds (the youngest age allowed to hunt in Nebraska) and teens and is used as a management tool for the deer herd. Each volunteer - mainly hunter education instructors who donate their time - is allowed to mentor a maximum of two kids at a time. The program has grown from 7 mentors to 25 as the number of youth participants has increased.
Does increased youth participation equate to more life-long hunters? Sheets shared the story of a 13-year-old girl named Katie who told him she didn’t have anyone to take her hunting. The connection she made through Sheets and the mentoring program inspired Katie to pursue a college degree in fisheries and wildlife management. She now works for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and remains an avid hunter.
“About one kid every year [of the 50 who participate] becomes a lifelong hunter,” say Sheets. “When I find an interested kid like Katie, I’ll take her hunting five times in a season. Most kids don’t partake that much, but some are intrigued and call up, like Katie. They can’t get enough.”
This success rate (1 in 50) points to a big uphill recruitment challenge.
Impact of Social Groups
“First, you need to recognize that to get youth to adopt something as a lifelong activity is hard,” says Dunfee. “It’s the highest hanging fruit. It’s a long-term commitment. You’re going to become their surrogate family until their identity has solidified, between ages 20 and 25, when they know who they are and what they want to do.”
Before a person reaches their early 20s, their brain and body are still changing. They try a new activity and toss it aside depending on whether it was fun or not. This is in contrast to adult hunters, who consider hunting a value-based activity related to being outside, enjoying nature, and eating healthfully.
“The key is for the kids to gain confidence from hunting, enforced by peers,” says Dunfee. “If they get only a mediocre response from their social groups, they will pick something else.”
When a kid today tries something new, such as hunting, they take a photo and post it on social media, then wait for a response before they contemplate doing it again. If you’re mentoring that kid and you’re social media savvy, you’re nodding your head yes. If you’re rolling your eyes and thinking “how silly,” you’ve likely lost that kid to another activity.
“Most kids are not the innovator in a social group,” says Dunfee. “They won’t take that risk. There needs to be a reward for trying something new. You can’t just focus on the kid. You have to include the social group.”
Sheets chuckles at the fact that he’s now an expert thumb-texter thanks to one of the boys he mentored. “Three years ago, I met a Boy Scout, but he had never seen a wild turkey or camped outside,” recalls Sheets. “He was well-connected by his phone though. He asked question after question by phone. By high school he was intrigued enough to attend ‘zoo school,’ where he learned wildlife sampling techniques. He’ll probably study wildlife in college now.”
Dunfee also advises mentors to consider including a friend or role model, someone he calls a “social influencer.” He’s not suggesting that you invite Kim Kardashian to stalk deer with you and your mentee. Pick someone local and authentic. By definition, a social influencer can persuade others to do something because they are influential and credible among a certain population. Adding an influencer into the mentoring mix may double the effort for mentors, but if you’re successful, you may recruit two kids instead of one.
“You need five to seven years with an influencer, too,” says Dunfee. “It takes that long for it to stick. You’re making a social group that hunts, buys the same kinds of clothes, and talks gear together over time.”
The influencer might be a kid’s friend, an older teen, another adult - or you! Ikes are perfect for this influencer role. The League is socially oriented. Our chapters are learning centers. We care, and we can make the long-term investment with multiple touches.
But the whole plan is moot if a kid’s parents aren’t on board.
In a perfect world, we would turn parents into hunters before they have children, making it part of who they are and thus who their kids are. Even if the parents aren’t hunters, they still need to be involved in their child’s pursuit of game - maybe not in the field but in other ways.
“I visit parents to get as much as I can out front before we go, so the expectations are in the open,” explains Sheets. “Some parents trust their kid’s decision to go. Others are nervous. When the family is engaged, success is quicker and better, plus mom and dad need to get up at 4:00 a.m. to get their kid to me.”
“Parents need to offer a verbal reward to their kid no matter how it turns out,” adds Dunfee. “They need to say, ‘I’m so proud of you’, not ‘I can’t believe you did this.’ It’s going to be a challenge to turn a kid into a hunter if his/her parents don’t hunt or own a firearm, but it’s possible, especially if [the lack of participation is] due to a parent lacking time rather than being anti-hunting.”
To get parents on board, Dunfee suggests these four steps:
- Tell them what you are planning. Parent outreach needs to be part of any youth hunter mentoring program. They need to be comfortable with all aspects of the program.
- Emphasize the shared experiences. Build time into your youth hunts to cook around a campfire and other social time. A parent might not relate to hunting, but they may understand quality time spent with friends outdoors.
- Keep communicating. Post photos during the outing on social media and stay in touch by phone, text, or email to keep them informed and to reinforce the positive aspects of their kid’s experience.
- Provide more opportunities. Teaching a kid to hunt and then keeping that passion alive doesn’t happen after one time afield. You need to provide multiple opportunities over many years because non-hunting parents won’t. Likewise, they need to trust and appreciate your interest in mentoring their child. Become part of their tribe.
Dunfee believes we should ideally recruit parents to hunt if we want kids to hunt. It makes sense, because without mom or dad on board, the odds of a young person becoming a lifelong hunter are low.
“Our problem is that we want to recruit exclusively kids,” says Dunfee. “We should focus on kids. But with hunting, it’s a smaller part of the solution. We care about kids because they’re the next generation. Why do I feel better when a kid, age 11, shoots his first squirrel versus a nose-pierced, tattooed chef? We’re wired to take care of kids. That’s great. But today’s hunter demographic is only a fraction of the population who could be hunting.” Dunfee recommends emphasizing hunting’s role in conservation when trying to recruit both kids and adults.
He also warns against labeling teens and twenty-somethings as “hunters.”
“I prefer the term ‘outdoor sapiens,’ which means you hunt, fish, camp… and you eat hotdogs, pizza, and venison,” he says. “We want to have robust outdoor users. If you are a baby boomer or Gen Xer, you like being part of a group. You say ‘I’m a hunter’ or more specifically ‘I’m a muzzleloader.’ But millennials and Gen Zers don’t like to be labeled.”
Gateways to Hunting
Of the various outdoor activities that Dunfee suggests, he places particular emphasis on fishing, which has long been considered a path to hunting. The theory makes sense. It’s quick and easy to go fishing in most areas, which means people can go more frequently. There’s often a high success rate. The gear is simple and inexpensive for beginners, and it’s an outdoor activity that involves eating what you harvest. If a kid is excited about eating a fish he/she caught, then it stands to reason that a pheasant or a duck would be fun to harvest and eat, too.
“Gen Zers are conscious about the world around them,” Dunfee says. “They have opinions, but friends are still influential, so they won’t act on something if it looks weird. That said, if they come from a family or peer group that values being outside, sustainability, adventure, or health, that’s good raw material to work with.”
For kids that are oriented this way, it’s important to teach them new skills in a context with those existing values, like learning to fire a rifle while camping. “The kid thinks, ‘I can feed my family and share this food with friends’,” says Dunfee. “They learn that the behavior of hunting allows them to express their values in a meaningful way.”
Big Game vs. Birds for First-timers
Given a choice between introducing a new hunter to birds or big game, birds of any kind (upland birds, waterfowl, turkeys) usually make a better introduction, especially if that first-timer is not part of a hunting family. New hunters may be uncomfortable with shooting a large mammal, like a deer or elk, but birds may feel more acceptable because they are smaller and dead birds are common in our grocery stores. That new hunter may have had chicken for dinner last night or a turkey sandwich for lunch.
Other types of small game and “varmints” - such as squirrels, rabbits, and ground hogs - are also good targets for first-timers, especially young hunters who might not have the coordination to handle a shotgun well. Small animals can be hunted with a .22 caliber rifle, which is light to carry and rewards a steady aim rather than a smooth swing of the gun.
Gear and Clothing
One of the realities of teaching kids who aren’t your own to hunt is their need for proper gear and clothing, expenses typically borne by their families. Hunting is gear intensive. It involves not just a firearm but also a knife, pack, footwear, outerwear, gloves, possibly a bone saw.… The meat you pack out needs to be processed. You also need a freezer in which to store the meat. And, perhaps most critically, youth can’t legally own a firearm.
“Outfitting a kid is all predicated on the ability and willingness of a family to do it,” says Dunfee. “If you, as mentor, are just providing an experience, it can all be borrowed, but the kid can’t borrow gear and clothing forever, and they grow out of stuff.”
Which brings up an important point that is often overlooked: the cost of hunting. “The uncomfortable truth is a kids’ family must be able to afford it, willingly,” says Dunfee. “Hunting is not a pay-for-play activity. It’s a lifestyle investment.”
From Field to Family Table
Hunting is also an activity that teaches. When a mentor takes a kid afield, it’s similar to a coach-athlete relationship. To keep that kid engaged, it’s critical that the kid not simply tag along, pulling the trigger when you say so. They need guidance, but they also need to make their own decisions as the outing unfolds. One of the biggest mistakes that mentors make is telling kids, especially a first timer, what to do every step of the way.
“We need to avoid the temptation to preach,” says Sheets. “Let kids make guided decisions when you take them hunting. I salt the path but let them figure out when to shoot, when to get out of the tree, and when it’s a lost cause.”
Sheets and Dunfee both remind us that the hunting experience is not primarily about the kill - it’s the entire progression, from going afield through eating the harvest, that’s important. This is especially true today, when the locavore movement - which values field-to-fork and hormone-free, natural meat - is one of the more viable pools of potential hunters. Of course, Sheets and Dunfee both congratulate a young hunter on a good shot, but that’s just one step in the process of taking an animal from the field and putting it in the freezer.
“I don’t think many kids get a real sense of satisfaction when they kill an animal,” says Sheets. “The celebration is individual, but I always ask, ‘What are you going to do with that deer in the back of the pick-up?’ I help put it in the skillet. I offer my garage if a kid’s parents won’t let them cut up the meat at their place. I show the kid how to grind burger and cut steaks. It’s time consuming, but most kids get a kick out of it. Mom and dad sometimes come to watch. The best success is when it’s a family project.”
However, success at recruiting a new young hunter, let alone his or her entire family, is not guaranteed, even if you dedicate an enormous amount of time and effort to mentoring. Remember what Sheets said about the odds: only 1 in 50 may become a lifelong hunter. A gambler would walk away. But youth hunter recruitment is not a betting game - it’s a conservation imperative.
We know the standard big-picture answers on why we need to recruit more hunters: The economic boost for local communities to which hunters travel. Funding for wildlife management. For each hunter that we lose, we also lose some ability to manage wildlife. Teaching the next generation to hunt is also a way for them to provide locally harvested, healthy food for their families and to be active, challenged, and outdoors.
“There’s a great amount of responsibility taking someone else’s kid hunting,” says Sheets. “It’s natural to be concerned that things won’t go well, but we’re responsible for managing our natural resources for future generations and passing along our outdoor heritage. That outweighs any concerns in my mind.”
There are no magic answers when it comes to turning kids into lifelong hunters, but we are making progress. We’re getting better at identifying why past programs haven’t worked, and we’ve had some recruitment success lately. One thing seems clear: if you’re going to take a kid hunting who is not your own, plan to do it not once, but a half-dozen times per season for the next few years to make it stick.
8 Steps to Turn a Kid into a Lifelong Hunter
It’s a multi-step process to make a lifelong hunter of a 14-year-old who has had no exposure to hunting and whose family doesn’t hunt.
- Get buy-in from their parents. You need parental permission because youth hunters are minors. And without parental support, the odds of a teen embracing hunting - even if he or she enjoys the first time out - are low. (Note: Non-hunting parents are often more comfortable with hunting birds and small game than big-game hunting.)
- Introduce them to common game at home. Let them touch feathers, fur, antlers, and other commonly displayed parts while talking about the critter and the idea of hunting in general. Understand how the kid feels about it.
- Let them taste something wild. Cook some delicious wild meat or poultry that doesn’t taste “gamey.” Talk about what it means to provide your own food, the idea of field-to-table, and the health benefits (exercise, eating “clean” protein) of hunting.
- Teach them to shoot. Take them to a range to learn to safely shoot a gun or bow. For shotgun sports, skeet is preferable over sporting clays and trap because it more closely mimics the flight patterns of various game birds. If they enjoy shooting targets, it’s often a natural progression to try hunting, and they’ll have more confidence taking a shot when an opportunity to harvest game arises.
- Invite them to hunt. Consider carefully what you hunt for. A new hunter may be more receptive to geese (which are considered destructive pests in some places) or turkeys (which are considered “ugly” and most people already eat domestic turkey meat). If the kid is a dog lover, upland bird hunting is a great first outing because you can play up the dog work.
- Go hunting again. Plan on taking the kid hunting a half-dozen times during the season. Forming a lifelong habit takes repetition, which requires an involved mentor - you!
- Wrap it up. Clean and wrap the bird(s) or butcher the meat with the kid and deliver it to his/her family’s freezer with a few favorite recipes.
- Stay in touch. Keep in touch during the off-season. Talk or text about gear, birds, shooting techniques… so the enthusiasm continues.