November 2017
From Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries

Searching for new members to the club!

Mentored hunting programs aren’t just for kids anymore.

 

Chuck Sykes, Syd, Keith Gauldin (chief of WFF’s wildlife section), Andrew Bell and John Dawson Bell after a successful dove hunt.

Alabama is not unlike the rest of nation when it comes to a dwindling number of hunters. The average age of hunters nationwide is growing older with very little recruitment. Unfortunately, many in today’s society don’t place as much importance on hunting as we do. Therefore, we must attempt to educate the public on why we do what we do and what benefit they too can receive by joining the club of hunters.

State agencies, nongovernmental organizations and many private citizens participate in programs designed to cultivate a new generation of hunters. Millions of dollars and countless hours are spent on this quest. Most of the programs, including Hunter Education, National Wild Turkey Federation’s JAKES, Ducks Unlimited’s Green Wings and countless others, focus on teaching kids the positive benefits of wildlife management with hunting activities at their core.

Many of these programs carry it to the next level by taking these youngsters on hunts. Classroom preparation is great, but nothing compares to time in the field. Despite the incredible investment in these programs, many of the kids are never recruited into the hunting fold. Constant demands on their time with soccer, dance class, school events, etc., take them away from time in the outdoors. More importantly, if their parent/parents don’t have the time, desire or finances to help them continue to grow as outdoorsmen and -women, it’s simply not going to happen.

I’m certainly not trying to pour water on the fire of introducing kids to the outdoors; these programs have had some success. However, through survey work on the various youth-focused hunts we have conducted, we have learned that most participants have parents who are hunters. Basically, we are preaching to the choir. While we plan to continue these programs because they are providing valuable opportunities for youths and their parents to spend quality time in the outdoors, we also plan on taking a slightly different approach this upcoming hunting season with our new mentored hunting program.

The concept is to focus on young adults ages 18-40; and, yes, I consider 40 still to be young! This concept is based on real-world experiences my staff and I have had throughout our careers. I can give one specific example of why I believe this model will be successful. Our division pilot, William Johnston, is in his mid-40s, married with two children, originally from Brazil, military background, owned a shotgun for home protection and had never hunted or purchased a hunting license.

Chuck Sykes, Syd, William Johnston and his son, Will, with the doves they harvested on Will’s first dove hunt.

 

During his tenure with Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, he has flown countless law enforcement missions searching for night hunters, poachers, baited fields, etc. He also assists our biologists conducting aerial waterfowl surveys, eagle surveys, bat surveys and many other biologically driven missions. He and I had spent quite a bit of time discussing hunting over the first two years of my employment, but it never occurred to me that he didn’t hunt. I falsely assumed that someone who worked for WFF either hunted or fished.

Over time, I could see through our conversations that he had the desire to hunt, but the idea of starting out hunting at his age seemed a bit overwhelming, and frankly embarrassing, for him. I had never really looked at it from his point of view. So, I had to do a little soul searching as to how to address the situation. I had to convey my knowledge of hunting to someone my own age in an encouraging and constructive way. I’ve done this for years with young novice hunters, but this one was different. The first challenge was to convince him that there are no stupid questions if you truly want to learn.

On numerous occasions over the next year, we discussed many different aspects of hunting, from firearm and treestand safety to habitat management to hunting techniques. He was like a sponge and, in September 2016, I carried him on his first dove hunt.

We took stands next to each other so I could coach a bit during the hunt. I think he ran through six to eight boxes of shells and harvested two birds. Several factors led to his poor performance. The main one was that his shotgun was basically a youth model for home defense and, also, he didn’t quite understand distance and leads. Luckily, the birds were flying well. As soon as I filled my limit, I went to his stand, let him use my gun and coached him on his shooting.

He was able to harvest an additional eight birds with the next six boxes. Though not yet proficient, he now understood how to judge the speed and distance of the birds and calculate his lead. I could see the sense of accomplishment in his eyes when we left the field that afternoon. I gave him a recipe and he was able to clean, prepare and feed his family what he had harvested. The photos posted on Facebook that evening of him preparing the meal and his family enjoying the cage-free and 100-percent organic food he provided were inspiring and rewarding. The comments received from his nonhunting friends and from coworkers were priceless.

In December, I carried him deer hunting and he was able to harvest his first deer. Just as with the doves, he cleaned, prepared and cooked fresh venison for his family. His journey to becoming a hunter was well on its way. He had been successful in the field and had purchased a hunting license, bought a new shotgun, rifle and scope and, most importantly, he carried his 21-year-old son, Will, on his first hunt during the 2017 dove season.

We at WFF are searching for people like William to register for our mentored hunting program that will take place on the Cedar Creek SOA this year. We will offer several opportunities for these newcomers to participate in one of the deer, turkey, rabbit or squirrel hunts that will be offered. These weekendlong programs will be a crash course in Hunting 101. Our staff will take each participant through a plethora of activities, including firearm safety, habitat analysis, treestand safety, game-processing and, finally, meal preparation.

We are going to attempt to create a quality hunting club environment like we experienced in our younger days. It is our hope this program will have the same impact on the participants as it did on William. The application process is available at www.outdooralabama.com under mentored hunts.

 

 

 

Chuck Sykes is director of the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.