My friends, many times we have talked about the decrease in hunter numbers and what can be done about it. The "Three R's" (Recruit, Retain, Reactivate) campaign is a notable endeavor to boost participation, and it has done a lot of good. Many agencies and organizations around the country are working to get and keep hunters in the woods and continue our heritage.
Hopefully these programs are moving the needle upward, but as I have said many times, getting new hunters into the fold requires one main component: Someone has to be the one to take a new hunter to the woods, show them the ropes and be there as a mentor.
In my home state, the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources has been doing just that for a decade by annually sponsoring a youth hunt. This year's hunt was based in Monroe County at the Willow Bend Agricultural Innovation Center, and using it as a base and hunting on surrounding farms was a home run. A group of 17 new hunters got to deer hunt in a great place with knowledgeable mentors (DNR officers, wildlife biologists and local volunteers) and have a great day in the field.
"This is the greatest day of year!" said Adam Hill, vice president of the Willow Bend Agricultural Innovation Center.
Many states now have a special season for antlerless deer hunting, allowing youth hunters their own time in the woods before all the other hunters get started. This season is a win-win situation in that it gives young hunters, many of them hunting for the first time, a great chance to experience deer hunting and the outdoors. This season also speaks to the need of hunters taking some of the excess doe population in certain areas if wildlife biologists feel this is necessary.
Many times we have talked in these pages about the need of introducing young hunters to the sport, and we can talk about how things are just not the same as they used to be on the hunting scene. The fact is that it is not, and not all young people automatically start hunting at a young age because of friends and family. Potential new hunters, those who would love to try it, need help. They need a place to go hunting, and they need someone to take them, someone to show them the way.
They need a mentor.
The 17 young hunters spent the morning on the shooting range sighting in and becoming familiar with shooting a rifle under the watchful eyes of Officer Josh Toner and others. This was followed by some very informative talk on hunter safety concerns. Then it was off to what many consider the best part of any family event: food! There were delicious hot dogs, hamburgers and pizza with all the fixings, after which I needed a nap!
"We want you to have a good hunt and have fun here," Capt. Chris Lester told the eager crowd of new hunters. "This is something you will remember for the rest of your life. We also want you to have a good and productive life, and this is done by making good choices now, at this time in your life, so you will not have to deal with the consequences of making bad choices. You will hear a lot today about ethics and making ethical choices while hunting. It's the same in life: Making good and ethical choices will result in you having a good life."
I'd say that is a pretty good message for any occasion!
Courtney Hudnall, a physical education teacher, dedicated a Saturday to three of her students, allowing them the opportunity to experience a hunt. Here's what she had to say about it:
"My husband was asked about volunteering, and upon getting more information, he asked me if it would be something I'd like to help with considering I teach and I hunt. I am glad I did. It was an amazing day! I can't believe this is the 10th year and that this is my first year hearing about it and now volunteering with the WV Youth Hunt. I will definitely continue to volunteer each year and offer the experience to more students that have never been hunting or that does not or would not have the opportunity to hunt.
"I'd like to thank Andy Lyons and everyone that volunteered, sponsored and donated time and funds to make this possible. Today, my students learned so much more than just shooting a deer. Within hunting, there is life lessons and fellowship that you cannot learn without the experience. They learned how to fire two different rifles, names and parts of the guns, anatomy of a deer and patience. The deer they harvest will also be processed and given to their families with thanks to two sponsors.
"This day was just as special to me. I grew up hunting with my father who passed three years ago, and those lessons and memories that come with hunting are forever with me. Today, the WV Youth Hunt and everyone involved implanted a hunting memory that will last a lifetime for these students. For one student, today was a first time for everything. First time shooting, first time riding a side-by-side (all-terrain vehicle) and first time in a blind. For another student, it was a second hunt and a first kill, and for the last student it was an opportunity to hunt with a DNR officer. I consider myself blessed to have witnessed their excitement, to have been part of their day and now be a memory they will have forever."
This endeavor takes a lot of planning and was greatly aided by the group West Virginia Youth Hunt, led by Larry Burwell, the president of the organization, and James Bradley Jr., the treasurer, both from Monroe County. These two men worked very diligently to provide resources and talk to sponsors, whether individuals or businesses in the area, and were able to take care of all the supplies and funds needed to make the event a success. These resources are crucial to the event and include meals, snacks, hunting gear and firearms for the young hunters to use.
Young people being introduced to hunting in a safe and friendly environment, rubbing shoulders with DNR officers and biologists, having a great experience with hunting for the first time, and hopefully starting them out with what will become a lifelong pursuit. What's not to like?
A very welcome addition to the event this year was including Longspur Tracking and Outfitting services with a tracking dog for locating deer the hunter cannot find. Even though the hunter may make a good shot, an animal may run out of sight into the brush or woods and can sometimes be hard to find. A good tracking dog is immensely valuable in such cases and will often find a deer that may have been lost without the dog's help. Chad and Susan McCoy brought tracking dog Gunner, and they were able to assist Lilly Lambert, one of the young hunters.
Here's what Chad had to say about the experience:
"Gunner and I were put to work tracking a nice doe for a young lady named Lilly. We made quick work of it through thick brush, recovering the deer in about 150 yards of the site of impact. Lilly tagged along during the track, and I explained to her how Gunner finds the animal by following the interdigital scent of the wounded or expired animal. Gunner is a 3-year-old German wirehaired pointer and is trained specifically to track wounded or harvested game. Hunters are interviewed prior to the tracking process in order to determine shot placement, angles and probability of expiration. Once the interview has been reviewed and a pursuit is determined, Gunner goes to work!"
Chad also noted that in addition to instruction on safe hunting, the participants were educated on "zoonotic diseases, properly harvesting animals and tracking wounded game," and that each of them received a backpack filled with hunting supplies and more information in the form of brochures.
Thanks to Chad, Susan, Gunner, and Longspur Tracking; we hope you come back next year!
Also present this year was Sheldon Owen, a wildlife biologist and West Virginia University professor who demonstrated to the young hunters the taking of nasal swabs from the deer to facilitate a study on whitetail deer and how they can contract COVID-19.
As for the final count, 17 eager young hunters took 13 deer at this one-day event that, as Capt. Lester said, they will no doubt remember the rest of their lives. The Willow Bend Agriculture Innovation Center was the perfect host site for these young people to learn about the world of hunting, wildlife, game care, hunter safety and much more.
Oh, almost forgot — there was more food. Capt. Lester and his helpers made a mean pot of chili with grilled cheese sandwiches to feed everyone at the end of the day!
"Guns & Cornbread" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at [email protected].