Contributed by Ryan Gilbertson
Growing up, I can remember my father taking my brothers and me to the North Woods of Wisconsin to hunt whitetail deer with my uncles. I can still recall the stories, laughter, and the inherent danger of climbing up a rickety tree stand made out of 2x4’s and a piece of plywood. The thrill of being a young boy, finally getting to dress in blaze orange and getting to walk through the thick cedar swamps as we conducted our drives. Those trips up north worked to fuel the passion for the outdoors that I now care about so deeply. Now, as a father of two young boys, I am often thinking of how I can keep my children actively involved in the outdoors and interested in that type of great lifestyle. With an influx of technology these days like phones, pads and video games, it’s hard enough to get our kids to go outside and skin a knee or get dirty. For some of us here at Outfitter Advisors, we see this as a problem, not just in the future, but right now.
A quick google search will reveal that the numbers of hunters is decreasing. Total hunting licenses in Wisconsin was down 2% from 2016 to 2017. When you include licenses, tags, permits, and stamps; the drop is 3.5% from 2016 to 2017. The decrease in sales results in a loss of just over one million dollars in outdoor revenue. These stats, from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, show cause for concern. The baby boomers are reaching retirement and people in hunting circles around the world are concerned about how we can keep people involved. So, what can we do and where do we start?
There are challenges that first must be met before one can actually partake in a hunt or enjoy some of the great outdoors. Fishing is a great place to start in the outdoors as it simply requires a license (plus a stamp for some species) and the equipment necessary to land the fish. This is where I began with my children as it is the simplest way to get them involved in the outdoors. A small fishing pole with a bobber, hook, and worm. Hunting poses a slightly more challenging route to introduction. Hunter safety is required and can actually be completed mostly online (technology). A field day is required for good reason, as for some this may be the first time they actually handle a firearm.
Once the safety course is complete, the real challenge begins. Land. Public. Private. What access do you have available to you? This will dictate what species of animals you can pursue. Ultimately, this will determine what equipment you will need to purchase to harvest the animal, along with what tags/stamps you may need.
If we can understand that we have a recruitment issue and the challenges that the new hunter/fisher is presented with, we can then work together to help those interested in the sport, overcome the hurdles in front of them. I will present some ideas that I personally use to try recruit some youngsters to the sport along with my wife, family and friends.
First, this is not “the” way, but “a” way and I simply want to offer ideas about what I do with my family to keep my boys active in the outdoors. Anytime I talk about being in the outdoors or hunting in general, the first aspect I emphasize is safety. Whether we are fishing, hunting, walking in the woods, or shooting our weapons, my first concern is always safety. I always explain the safety rules of shooting a firearm or bow while we are shooting. I explain that we have to have a safe area to shoot and know what is beyond our target. The boys have their own bow. So, when dad goes out to practice the boys can go out as well. If my youngest son is shooting, my oldest son is standing behind us by at least ten feet. Children are fidgety and curious, and sometimes I have to use discipline, but I always explain to them why we must exercise safety. I have a full 3-d buck target to practice on, so the boys know where the proper shot placement is. When I show them on their body, we call it the “tickle spot” as it is located near their armpit area. Anytime we watch a hunting show, I ask where the arrow goes in and the boys always say the “tickle spot.”
Second, I like to include them with everything I do related to hunting. Anytime I go check cameras, I try to take the boys with me. If it takes an extra hour because the boys found a water hole and “accidentally” took their shoes off to play in it, so be it. Don’t tell their mother. These are experiences they can tie into their grandfather’s farm while we were messing around checking trail cameras. The boys each have their own trail camera and they determine where we hang it. I may try to persuade them in a certain location but they pick the tree. The ownership factor brings giant smiles when we pull cards and the deer pictures flood in. Not only do we check cameras, we also go on drives before dark to go look for deer. We generally swing into the local drive-in for ice cream and make a family event out of the night. The boys each have a pair of binoculars to look for deer. Therefore, when dad says there is a nice buck in the field, the boys can each look for the deer as well.
When it comes to hunting, I try to take them out as much as possible. Turkey season makes for a great time to take a child out. Turkeys react to calling which keeps kids interested, plus you can set up in a blind to hide their movement. When it comes to kids, one can never have enough snacks and I find that their school backpack doubles as a snack carrier. I also know that each rifle season in WI, my youngest is my hunting buddy while my oldest goes with his grandfather. I know that my youngest requires an extra number of snacks and the necessary napping equipment during the hunt. Without snacks I will not be able to stay for long amounts of time as his interest tends to sway with his hunger level.
This past season, I was able to pack a sleeping bag, snacks, his Gameboy, and his ear protection for a short rifle hunt. I set up a small stake blind and laid out his sleeping bag at my feet. He ate all of his snacks in a matter of minutes and then began to drift to sleep, while snoring like a bear. I had all but accepted that we would not see a deer, due to his snoring, when three does showed up in the field. I woke him up slowly and pointed at the does. I asked him if he wanted me to shoot one. He smiled and said yes. I was able to get his ear protection on and drop the doe in the field in front of us. I let him trail the doe and he was nothing but smiles the whole way. He even told me that he was a real hunter now. That was the type of experience I was hoping for, just like when my dad took me to the north woods at his age.
Don’t forget about the non-hunting families. My niece does not have the same opportunities that my boys have as far as parents willing to take her hunting. This is where I step in. I offered to take her several times last summer and made sure she had ample time to practice on a crossbow. When it came time to hunt, I called her up with about an hour of sunlight left and asked if she wanted to hunt. She strolled out to the stand with a paper plate full of pizza and we just talked, until a little seven-point buck waltzed into view. She was able to make the shot and harvest her first buck, a memory I will not soon forget, and I bet she calls me this year.
Whether it is your son, daughter, niece, nephew, or neighborhood kid, be vocal and open to teaching them the ways of the outdoors. It all starts with creating safe opportunities to share together with young people. Go for a nature walk and talk about the wildlife tracks you see. Become a mentor for young hunters and share your knowledge with those so eager to learn new things. Not everyone has the opportunities we have, but everyone should have to the opportunity to experience it. If we don’t do this, you can bet those statistics will continue to drop. Remember, hunting is conservation, but it’s only a small part of the outdoors life style. Encourage kids to get outdoors and experience something new. Go with them, their youthful curiosity will bring back memories from your childhood. Share your experiences and tips for getting our youth into the outdoors.