Can hunting survive another 20 or 30 years in the face of antagonism against guns and hunting? It all depends on hunter recruitment, but in an increasingly urban society, with smaller families and lots of competition for a kid’s attention, recruitment the way it happened 20 or 30 years ago can’t keep happening. It’s time to do some things differently or we’ll still have a heritage to point back to, but we won’t have a future. What do we do?
First, Bind our Diverse Family Together
The world of hunting is a surprisingly diverse family, and we hunters need to think about our family dynamics. As much as families tend to bicker with each other, when their backs are to the wall they support each other with all their might. Demographics and a negative social attitude toward guns and hunting tell us hunters’ backs are to the wall now, but we lack unity.
We can look at social media to witness how divided we are. Social media can be good in many ways, but it can also hurt people we don’t intend to hurt. Do we realize that polarization within the ranks of hunters puts pressure on vulnerable kids? When one of us criticizes another hunter’s choice in taking a legal deer, or we unnecessarily accuse someone of being unethical because we disapprove of the equipment they use, young people subject to peer pressure will see these arguments, and will fear similar criticism. We must realize that new hunters one step into hunting are also one step from quitting hunting.
So will we unite? Will we look past our petty differences? Or will we do our enemies’ dirty work for them? We need to choose.
Second, Understand What Mentoring Is
No one would deny that when a parent mentors a kid in hunting, he’s not just creating a hunter. He’s building character and positive values into the kid. Success at mentoring should not be measured by whether or not we tie a tag onto a deer’s ear because if we focus too much on the tag, we will focus too little on the time. The tag will be gone. The memories and the lessons will last forever. Make mentoring about time, and we will change hearts. We will build people.
We also need to look at mentoring as a year-round process, not just an October lead-up to deer season. We can pass along a good magazine article, prepare and eat venison, tell meaningful stories, and show old photos all year long. Hunting season comes and goes, but mentoring season is 365 days a year. Mentoring is a relationship for which no substitute exists. The fact that kids today have few deep adult relationships gives us an opportunity to show through a relationship that hunting is worthwhile. When most of us learned to hunt we had serious, solid relationships with the ones who taught us.
The difference between parenting and mentoring is something many people don’t get. Parenting has mentoring built in. Mentoring without being a parent is a big, voluntary, valuable commitment.
Third, See the Kid as the Trophy
We need to stop selling the deer and start selling the experience. Even without killing, kids need to learn hunting is important. We need to care as much about the experience of the mentored as we do our own experience. A mentor needs to get excited about any deer a kid kills, as excited as he gets about any deer he kills himself, because the kid is more important than any deer.
Whoever you mentor does not need to know that you’re the best hunter on the planet. They need to know you care about them. We set antler standards, but we have to set standards about keeping commitments, punctuality, ethics, and all the other everyday values we hold up as right and good. And we need to communicate that hunting is a normal, natural part of life. The deer is not the trophy. The kid transformed into a responsible hunter is the trophy of a lifetime.
If we really care about our heritage, this is how we give our heritage a future.