Youngsters Track Down Hunting Traditions

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The tail stub on the Brittany spaniel's rump went into high gear as the little dog zeroed in on the intoxicating smell of a nearby pheasant. "You're up first, Daniel," said the mentor. "Get ready. The dog's gettin birdy. That's what we call it when you see the dog getting extra excited."

"There," the mentor said. "That dogs on point. He's locked up tighter than a rusty bolt. That's how he shows you where the bird is. Now remember what we taught you in practice. Safety on until just before you mount your shotgun. Identify the target. Let's go!"

The pair of hunters, the experienced one not carrying a gun and the beginner about to fire his first-ever shot at a pheasant, walked ahead of the staunch Brittany. In a few seconds the episode was over, but the experience is one that should live in the mind of the young hunter for the rest of his life. It could become the beginning of a life-long passion.

Surveys of devoted hunters show most are introduced to the sport at an early age by a family member, usually a grandparent, father, older brother or uncle. These surveys also confirm few youngsters living in a family of non-hunters grows into hunting.

At the same time, urbanization and social trends are pushing the number of hunters in Indiana downward. Fewer hunters teaching hunting skills to fewer kids can lead to less wildland, less wildlife and eventually, fewer people who care about both.

The decrease worries the Department of Natural Resources because hunting and trapping are major tools used to stabilize many wildlife populations. Money and support from hunters also buys and manages a lot of wild habitat.

The reduction also worries people in the business of supplying hunters with gear, goods and services. And the drop worries hunters and sporting groups who don't want to see the traditions of hunting and the hunting lifestyle dwindle away.

In response to these problems, a bunch of sporting groups and the DNR launched hunter heritage youth hunts across Indiana this fall. More than 80 recent graduates of Indiana's hunter education class with limited hunting opportunities learned hands-on wildlife management, safe shooting, game cleaning and hunting skills from mentors during four introductory hunts.

Members of the Central Indiana Chapter of Pheasants Forever and the Dirty Dozen Hunting and Fishing Club in Indianapolis took 15 inner-city kids on a day-long November youth pheasant hunt at Royal Flush Shooting Preserve in Parke County.

Gander Mountain, Dick's Sporting Goods, Kroger and Royal Flush helped sponsor the class.

Winamac Fish and Wildlife Area in north central Indiana also held a class for 22 young hopeful hunters on Nov. 28. Local chapters of 4-H Shooting Sports, National Wild Turkey Federation, Quail Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Ducks Unlimited pitched into help.

And as part of a nation-wide National Shooting Sports Foundation education campaign, Glendale Fish and Wildlife Area in southern Indiana and Willow Slough FWA in northwest Indiana, held hunts on Nov. 27.

The NSSF recently budgeted a half million dollars for grants to state wildlife agencies to plan events aimed at introducing new people to hunting and shooting sports.

Grant money enabled the DNR to prepare and mail a survey to recent hunter education class graduates. The survey contained a variety of questions, but for this project, the most important questions were those that singled out individuals with no immediate family support for hunting and who were unlikely to get to go hunting this year.

Out of the thousands of youngsters who responded to the questionnaire, 30 were chosen to participate. Willow Slough FWA hosted 15 from the northern part of the state and 15 from the southern part of Indiana were invited to Glendale FWA.

At both programs, a participant was paired with a volunteer hunter education instructor or a DNR employee as a mentor. The mentors would offer one-on-one advice, safety tips and instruction throughout the day.

The morning session was a series of mini-seminars by Ducks Unlimited, Indiana Deer Hunters Association, Indiana Bow Hunters Association, and the National Muzzleloading Rifle Association.

Each group highlighted their own type of hunting. The goal was to show participants (and the parent or grandparent who brought them) the variety of hunting opportunities available in Indiana. Decoys were floated, bird dogs displayed and hunter ethics and safety rules were a part of each lesson.

After lunch the group moved to a shooting range. Most students didn't own shotguns and many had never fired a gun. Each mentor helped their student select a suitable loaner shotgun and coached novice shooters through hitting clay targets.

Lessons and shooting games are fine, but it's not hunting. Sections of each property were reserved for the afternoon, game farm pheasants were released to ensure opportunities and each hunter/mentor team went on a hunt.

Comments from youngsters experiencing hunting for the first time provided hope. At the Winamac hunt, Ashley Widner from Winamac says she wants to hunt again, and her favorite part of the day was watching how the dogs and hunters worked together.

Corey Constantine, a 14-year-old kid from Indianapolis attending the Winamac class, says his most memorable moment was getting to shoot a pheasant, which he "...plans on using in a delicious pheasant noodle soup."

For the DNR and hunters, success will be measured another way. If participants mature, adopt hunting and end up mentoring their own kids, younger brothers or nieces and nephews, the programs will have been worthwhile.

Follow-up surveys will tell the tale. The DNR and D.J. Case and Associates, a natural resource consulting firm, have developed methods for measuring how graduates fare down the road. Meanwhile the DNR and sporting groups are gearing up for more hunts next year.