By JIM ABRAMS
Any activity’s future depends on the recruitment of new participants to keep it alive — this is especially true with sports. It’s relatively easy to gain a young person’s interest in school- and community-funded soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball and football.
The student’s family likely has a history of competing, and when you toss in peer pressure and the lure of finding their own self-identity, it’s a natural progression. Those sports are a school and community heritage.
As school activities have grown in number and the age of social media has captured everyone’s unrelenting attention, many outdoor pastimes have been left in the dust. Hopefully it’s just a temporary hiccup in time.
It’s no secret to wildlife agencies that hunting participation is down. Anti-hunting groups may claim this to be some kind of enlightenment, but you shouldn’t buy it. Most folks still munch hot dogs on summer holidays along with ham at Easter, and what would Thanksgiving be without turkey? Only the daftest would think these were artificially derived meals.
I believe it comes down to two basic elements: time and availability. Our high-school-aged people are pulled in so many directions and are working so hard to do well academically that time reaches critical mass. Something needs to give. Unfortunately, fishing and hunting participation is often the loser … even if they had previous experience.
They make it through their schooling, land a job and suddenly have a little more time, money of their own and fewer social pulls. They may have rekindled outdoor aspirations, or possibly something sparked a new interest. They may be motivated by acquaintances or family, have a desire for more natural food products, have read something influential, or it may be simple curiosity. They just don’t know how to proceed.
Sportsmen’s clubs have a long history of offering programs to spur the interest of elementary- through high-school-aged kids. The programs are well received by the community and sportsmen, and the youth turnout is usually excellent. Unfortunately, it’s no longer working.
Let’s first look at the positives. It’s relatively easy to get volunteers. The folks that step up are eager to share their knowledge and experience, and they bring a wealth of both to the event. Sponsorships and donations are also a fairly easy fish to net. The age-old rallying cry, “It’s for the children!” always tugs at the heart and the wallet. Outdoor clubs and parks also have easily accessible venues.
But I said they weren’t working … why? Let me clarify before I step on too many toes: Yes, they do work and, yes, they are still worthwhile. The problem is that they’re only successful to a limited extent, and they are no longer enough.
Think about the last event of this type that you participated in. Who was there? I’d bet that many of those young folks were sons, daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of club members or close friends who hunt and fish. In essence, we’ve managed to collect kids that are predisposed to participate and fanned the flames. This is an admirable accomplishment, but were any new fires built?
We have not impacted those young adults that I mentioned previously. Look at the growth of cross-country biking, kayaking and similar hobbies. These people are looking for activities but aren’t likely to attend youth events. That’s certainly not how they perceive themselves, nor should we.
The birth of the R-3 (Recruitment, Retention and Reactivation) programs springing up across the nation are addressing the issue head on, but it’s a rough road. While it’s great to coax participation and to paint the picture of what it’s like to be a hunter or an angler, it’s still not enough. They need guidance from an experienced hand: a friendly willingness to do more than just show them the ropes.
Would you loan someone a shotgun and put them behind your favorite bird dog? Would you teach them to cast a fly into your secret trout stream? Would you get them permission for your favorite deer woods? Would you take them to the range and teach them to shoot, or the table to show them how to prepare, or the kitchen to instruct them how to cook, or your dinner table for a meal you both collected?
That, folks, is a mentor — a friend. Does it work? It does, and I know firsthand. I wanted to learn to hunt and fish, and my dad got me started. Unfortunately we lost him when I was young, and I was left without a guide. Fortunately a couple of men invited me along on some day hunts. I shot my first grouse and first pheasant with them. I saw a bird dog point for the first time and was instructed how to best cast a fly rod.
That was a long time ago, but I think of them often and still remember their lessons. They helped fill a void and influenced my life. They didn’t just show me the sport, they showed me how important it was and I soon grasped those beliefs as my own.
While recently participating at a shooting competition of century-old buffalo rifles pitted against far-set targets, I had the opportunity to see this concept in action. The event, too often thought of as a “man’s event” (not true) and for those with money (also not true), the shooter uses traditional rifles along with large diameter cartridges to take aim at targets set from 200 to 500 yards.
One marksman in particular stood out to me. The camo ball hat pulled low over the eyes, the serious businesslike handling of the 1885 rifle and the very long blond ponytail revealed that this participant was different, but it was the shy smile of a 17-year-old girl that was the real giveaway.
Paige Wolfe traveled with her father, Greg, from middle-Michigan to Friendship, Indiana, nestled in the hills along the Ohio River and home of the National Muzzle Loading Rifle Association. She was there to compete in her third match of the year, which was coincidentally her third match ever.
While she and her father had hunted deer for a number of years, it was a friend that spotted the athletic teen and ventured to introduce her to a new sport that could benefit from new blood. Greg had no real idea what it was about.
With her dad’s OK, Marshall Chase from Elwell, Michigan, took her to the range and taught her the game while supplying all of the equipment and ammunition. It was obvious he had sparked something in Paige, and she is beginning to excel. While this type of mentoring was aimed at the young apprentice, her father has found himself caught in the excitement.
Through Marshall’s willingness to take on the responsibility of a protégé, he has likely created two new shooters for the game. While the father may be proud of the daughter and the teacher proud of his student, I am proud of what Marshall has done for his chosen sport and of the example he sets for us all.
The only thing that actually bothered me a little while I was watching Paige compete … was that she beat me so decisively.
“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.” — William Arthur Ward
• Today to July 31: Applications accepted for controlled deer and waterfowl hunts. Information about dates, locations, opportunities dedicated to youth, women and mobility-impaired hunters can be found at wildohio.gov on the Controlled Hunts page.
• Tomorrow: Trap shoot, 1 p.m., Mount Blanchard Gun Club, 21655 Delaware Township 186.
Abrams is a retired wildlife officer supervisor for the state Division of Wildlife in Findlay. He can be reached at P.O. Box 413, Mount Blanchard 45867-0413 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org