Hundreds of thousands more Americans are taking to the field and the tree stand this fall as hunting license sales have increased by more than 10% across the country. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, that could translate to as many as one million new hunters this year, as COVID-19 restrictions have inspired many to get out of the house and into the great outdoors.
Economic uncertainty and food insecurity may also be driving some of the increase in the number of hunters, though a recent story from the Wall St. Journal puts a more positive spin on the issue by highlighting some new hunters who have embraced their newfound hobby out of curiosity rather than need.
Jonathon Nguyen of Victoria, Texas, grew up a city kid who became interested as an adult in firearms for personal safety. Friends had talked about hunting, so he signed up for a mentored hunt workshop with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The program teaches the basics to adults who didn’t grow up in the sport, and this year brought more than twice as many applicants as there were slots for the workshops, which include a guided hunt.
After a day of safety instruction and equipment-testing at a rifle range, Nguyen and the rest of his group headed out Wednesday morning to a state park outside Austin.
“Whenever the sun comes out and you put your phone down and you look around, you get to see how everything works and how the birds talk to each other,” said Nguyen, a 26-year-old electrician. His awe gave way to adrenaline when a plump doe appeared and Nguyen’s mentor gave the go-ahead.
“I was shaking a little bit, so I calmed down and took the shot,” he said. He dropped the deer with one shot. Nguyen emerged from the morning with 30 pounds of meat that he and his wife plan to grind it into patties and sausage–and a new love of hunting.
Mentor programs like the one mentioned above are absolutely crucial to bringing interested adults into the hunting fold. If you don’t know a hunter, or you didn’t grow up in a hunting family, it can be daunting to begin hunting all by yourself. Sure, there’s always the possibility that you might meet a mentor at your hunter safety course, church, or the local gun shop, but established programs like the one run by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department help to ensure that those who are interested get the help that they need.
Of course, given the fact that the program only had room for about half of those who applied, there’s clearly much more that we can do, and economic damage caused by the COVID-19 shutdowns could make it tough for state wildlife agencies to expand or even maintain their mentoring programs next year.
That economic damage is also showing up in food pantries around the country. Normally, many food banks receive an influx of quality venison this time of year as hunters donate millions of pounds of fresh meat through programs like Farmes and Hunters Feeding the Hungry. This year, however, FHFH executive director Josh Wilson says that donations are down, even as the number of deer harvested is the highest it’s been in years.
“I’ve heard from a few butchers that hunters are keeping a few more deer for themselves,” said Wilson. So far, donations are down by 15 to 20 percent, but he cautioned that could change as the season continues.
“It’s subsistence,” he said. “People know that times are tighter, or they’re concerned times may get tight before it gets better. Over the winter, they want to have more meat for themselves in the freezer. Or it’s for a family member or friend who’s in worse shape than they are, and don’t get it processed through the program.”
While it’s great to see more Americans embracing their hunting heritage, the fact remains that for some of us, it’s about putting food on the table rather than spending time in the great outdoors. You can learn more about Farmers and Hunters Feeding the Hungry here, and you can also check with your state wildlife department to see about any other programs available where you can donate your harvest to those in need.