Outdoors / Sports

Finding success on the recruiting trail

Dan Margita and his son, Daniel, are part of a Missouri success story.

The Show-Me State leads the nation in hunter recruitment and retention. At a time when many states are steadily losing hunters, Missouri is still gaining. For every hunter lost, Missouri recruits 1.63 hunters to replace them, statistics from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show.

The Margitas, who live in Peculiar, Mo., are two of the faces behind that trend.

Their story started about seven years ago when they were watching hunting shows on television, and Daniel, then 9, expressed interest.

"I'd like to try that," Daniel said.

"I'd love to take you, but I don't know how," Dad answered. "I've never really hunted myself."

Rather than drop it, Dan checked with the Missouri Department of Conservation. Daniel was too young to take hunter-education courses. But officials put Margita in touch with the Missouri Hunter Heritage Federation, a group of volunteer hunter-education instructors that helps recruit and educate potential hunters and then gets them supervised experience in the field.

The Margitas attended classes, Daniel passed his test with flying colors, and before you know it, Daniel was on a hunt, alongside his dad and a mentor. Following a bird dog through the brush at Hedge Hollow Ranch near Adrian, Mo., they watched dogs go on point and they thrilled to the sight of birds flushing in front of them. Daniel fired a few shots and took a couple of birds.

And a hunter was born. Make that two hunters.

The Margitas began hunting on their own, chasing everything from turkeys to deer. Daniel took his first buck, an eight-pointer, and Dad joined him as an avid hunter.

Dan was so impressed with the process that he became a hunter-education instructor and a board member for the Missouri Hunter Heritage Foundation. He coordinates some of the group's youth hunts and helps youngsters get involved in hunting, the same way as others once did with his son, now 16.

"I grew up fishing with my dad every weekend," he said. "But we never hunted.

"I didn't have anybody to take me. It's the same way with a lot of these kids. They would like to try hunting, but they don't have anyone to take them out.

"We try to help fill that void."

Missouri, as a whole, apparently is quite adept at that task. It is a national leader in bringing hunters young and older into the fold. Look at the statistics:

--Missouri's hunter numbers have gone up dramatically in the last decade, from 542,486 in 2003 to 606,418 in 2012.

--Missouri has more hunters than any of its neighboring states, according to surveys by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Illinois ranks the closest, with 512,000 hunters. Kansas has 283,000.

--The number of Missouri's hunter-education graduates also is on the rise. That total stood at 31,661 in 2012, up more than 7,000 from two years earlier.

--The number of hunters under the age of 16 who bought deer and turkey permits is growing, too. There were 81,174 youngsters who brought licenses in 2012. Compare that with the total of 51,089 in 2003.

The state Department of Conservation leads in that role. It has a coordinator for hunter recruitment and retention, and it has numerous programs designed to introduce youngsters to hunting and bring older hunters who have lapsed in their involvement back into the fold.

Hunter-education classes, youth hunts, family workshops, programs that focus on specific types of hunting, mentorship programs -- they're all designed to build hunter numbers.

But the Department of Conservation gets plenty of help. The Missouri Hunting Heritage Federation and the local chapters of many national conservation groups have active youth programs, designed to introduce youngsters to hunting in a safe and supervised way.

"We've seen the average age of hunters go up," said Kyle Lairmore, hunting education and shooting range coordinator for the Department of Conservation. "With the aging of the baby boomers, we have a lot of hunters to replace.

"That's one of the reasons we have to get more youth involved. Statistics have shown that if you don't get a child involved in hunting by the age of 15, you lose him or her. But if you get them exposed early, there's a good chance they'll stay with it."

The Missouri Hunting Heritage Federation has been a major player in hunter recruitment and retention. Since it was formed by a group of volunteer hunter-education instructors in 2007, the organization has been host to 252 families.

"Back in 2005 and 2006, we were seeing a trend," said Lee Vogel, co-founder and president of the organization. "We were getting kids hunter-ed certified, but a lot of times it wasn't going much past that. Kids weren't getting the opportunity to get out and hunt.

"We formed this organization to help with that. We would give the kids a test, and if they passed that, they would qualify to go on a supervised hunt. One child, one mentor, one firearm. The emphasis was on safety.

"So far, it's worked out great. We've already introduced a lot of kids and their families to hunting."


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