MILWAUKEE -- The path to becoming a hunter has always been as unique and varied as the person.
But as hunting in America became more recreation than necessity through the 20th century, a common route emerged: Parents, mostly fathers, taught their children, mostly boys.
The traditional way is reflected in contemporary license sales data. Although the population is split about evenly along gender lines, about 90 percent of hunting licenses in America are sold to males.
As hunting license sales peaked and began to decline in recent decades, hunting advocates began examining recruitment issues.
The work notes the continuing value of the "old-school" ways. But also that it's crucial to look for as many additional avenues as possible to attract new hunters.
"We know there is no silver bullet," said Christine Thomas, dean of the College of Natural Resources at Wisconsin-Stevens Point and founder of the Becoming An Outdoors-Woman program, at a presentation to the Sporting Heritage Council last year. "And we also know you can never stop working at it."
Hunting is practiced by a minority of Americans. Even in Wisconsin, a relatively hunting-friendly state, only about 12 percent of the population buys a hunting license.
But since hunting provides funding for a wide range of game and nongame wildlife programs, as well as a natural and increasingly rare human connection to the land and food, it can be argued its importance is much larger than its participation rates.
Hunting in America is evolving, just like other parts of our culture, ecology and economy.
While it faces challenges, including from those who would wish it were outlawed, there are bright spots on the hunting landscape.
The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service data show a slight increase in the number of hunters. The number of female hunters, too, is on the upswing.
The last few weeks in Wisconsin highlighted three positive, nontraditional hunting recruitment stories. At the core of each is opportunity and generosity.
Sharing the wealth: Brad Hascheider owns some fine hunting land in the hills and valleys of Sauk County.
Part of the acreage is planted in row crops or used to pasture livestock; the rest is managed for wildlife.
Hascheider and his sons, Cody and Tyler, are avid deer hunters. They have a history of taking a trophy buck or three off the property each year.
Hascheider knows his boys, now adults, followed the traditional path and will be hunters the rest of their lives.
Now he's looking beyond his family, even his community, to give hunting a boost.
When Hascheider learned the Hunting for Sustainability class at Madison College was looking for a site to hold a deer hunt, he volunteered to host the hunters on his land.
The course teaches hunting principles in a classroom and then offers students the chance to go hunting. The students are mostly urban adults interested in hunting as a means to acquire food.
Hascheider hosted the students and their mentors on a hunt in late September. Four of the students killed deer; for each it was the first.
Since nine other students didn't get a deer, he invited the class back in December. On Dec. 13 and 14, 10 students and about 20 mentors and helpers participated in a second hunt.
Many of the participants spent the night in Tyler Hascheider's house. It was their first experience of a "deer camp." The next day, two deer were tagged by the students, also firsts.
Do such programs work? Ninety percent of the students who have enrolled in the class the last three years have purchased a hunting license, said Keith Warnke, DNR hunting and shooting sports coordinator.
Recruiting adults is a relatively new but effective strategy. As opposed to youth, adults have authority, money and transportation, Warnke said.
Two keys to this particular story: A landowner provided access. And the mentored hunting law allowed the hunters to "test drive" hunting with the help of an experienced hunter.
If all landowners in deer-rich areas were as generous and far-sighted as Brad Hascheider and his family, deer management and hunting recruitment in Wisconsin would be far more successful.
Passing it back: Michael King of Mequon is another example of an adult-onset hunter. It wasn't that he didn't have interest earlier -- he grew up in London, England.
"We didn't live in the country, and we didn't have the right bloodline," said King, 50. Hunting in Europe is far less accessible than in America. But after King moved to the United States to attend college and then stayed to play professional soccer, he was able to pursue outdoor interests such as hunting.
His big break came when he was traded to the Milwaukee Wave in 1993. Not only did he solidify his all-star status and help the club win multiple championships, he met members of the Hartford Conservation and Gun Club.
The members, including Russ Guerndt of Hartford, took King under their wings and helped show him the ropes of hunting in America
King developed a special love of bowhunting. He hunted locally for white-tailed deer and turkeys and out West with Guerndt and others for mule deer and pronghorn antelope.
In the last two decades, King has become as skilled at hunting as he is at placing the ball in the back of the net. He serves as a hunting mentor in several programs and is raising his daughter, Sophie, to hunt.
Sophie, 10, often accompanies her father on hunts. On Jan. 1, the two climbed up a ladder stand and spent the last hours of shooting light on a property in Mequon. A big nine-point buck came past a little after 4 p.m. and Michael's shot was true.
During the same period, Guerndt was pursuing a big nontypical buck in Newburg. He had seen the deer in person and on trail cameras for the last two years. But the buck had yet to give him a shot.
Since King had filled his archery buck tag, he accompanied Guerndt on Jan. 3 to the property in Newburg. Guerndt, 66, has a badly injured shoulder and appreciates the help climbing into his stand.
With about a half-hour of legal shooting light remaining, King spotted the big buck moving through the trees. He nudged Guerndt and motioned to the area where he'd seen the deer.
Guerndt looked out, saw the deer and leveled his crossbow on a shooting lane. Seconds later the bolt was on its way. And not long after that he had his tag on a 23-point buck that grossed 193 inches. "I don't think I would have had the shot if it weren't for Michael," Guerndt said.
Guerndt said he might be done hunting. He'll likely never get a bigger buck. And he's seen his mentoring come full circle.
Young but already rich tradition: In recent years Wisconsin has offered a gun deer hunting season that lasts from Christmas to just after New Year's Day. It was coined the "holiday hunt."
Though it is not traditional and quite new, it has become the favorite among many hunters I know.
"If you tossed out all of the other seasons and left this one, I'd be perfectly happy," said Jim Smukowski, 44, of Oconomowoc.
Smukowski and I were guests for the second consecutive year at The Roost, a Richland County deer camp run by Lloyd Purnell Jr. of Pewaukee and his brother Mike Purnell of Oconomowoc.
The Purnells are high on the holiday hunt, too. The reasons are many: Youth are on break from school. Many adults are off work. The deer have resumed a pattern of natural movement. There is less hunting pressure. With snow on the landscape, it's easier to see how many deer are present and make better decisions about deer management.
The camp this year included two father-daughter pairs, one father-son and five assorted adult hunters. After four days of hunting, one hunter killed his first deer ever (an adult doe), one shot his first buck (eight-pointer), one took his biggest buck ever (11-pointer), one killed her first buck while hunting alone and Bruce Ammel and his son Matthew of Menomonee Falls were able to take two does in the same instant.
Like any good deer camp, the hunters left fortified by camaraderie and rich outdoor experiences. We also knew we helped balance the deer population with the local habitat. And the venison will be cherished over the coming months.
The only difference was it took place after Christmas, not around Thanksgiving. When viewed from The Roost, there's no doubt the holiday hunt is a valuable addition to the Wisconsin hunting landscape.
It's another example of a recent, positive evolution to hunting in Wisconsin. By carefully increasing opportunity and reaching out to adults, "foodies," females and other non-traditional groups, hunting can only get stronger
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