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Hunter Numbers Boom, But Can We Hold onto Them?

More hunters mean more license sales and a brighter future for waterfowlers, but only if they stick with it.

Hunter Numbers Boom, But Can We Hold onto Them?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a surge of new entrants into the sport of waterfowl hunting, each with their own motivation. (Nathan Ratchford photo)

Since reaching an all-time high of 2.03 million in 1970, the number of waterfowl hunters nationwide was on a downward trend. Not good. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2020 Migratory Bird Hunting Activity and Harvest Report, the number of active waterfowl hunters dipped below the 1-million mark for only the third time in 81 years after counts were tallied following the 2019-2020 hunting season. More concerning is the rate of that decline. Between the 2018-2019 and 2019-2020 seasons, the dip was estimated at 1.09-million waterfowlers lost over the course of just one year.  

Many ask, “Why is this a problem?” This question is especially true of those that chase their waterfowling dreams on public dirt. Fewer hunters mean less competition for prime waterfowl spots. The big answer: A loss of conservation funding. State game and fish agencies need money from license sales to protect habitat, partner with landowners to develop walk-in access spots and keep public lands in prime shape. Federal Duck Stamp sales alone have created $1.1 billion in revenue that has been used to preserve 6-million acres of waterfowl habitat. Fewer dollars mean less conservation. Period.




A big concern of hunting officials across the nation is the fact that the 45-64 age bracket made up 46 percent (the largest demographic) of the hunting population in 2016. In 1991, the largest percentage of U.S. hunters fell in the 25-34 age bracket. Today, that age group, along with the 18-24 age group, make up the smallest portion of the hunt/fish community. This data, however, may be changing for the better.


“Based on reports last summer of increased fishing license sales as the pandemic took hold, we came into this hunting season expecting a bit of an uptick,” said Ducks Unlimited (DU) waterfowl scientist Dr. Mike Brasher. “While final numbers for the entire country won’t be available until later this year, initial results from selected states are encouraging. For example, in the Mississippi Flyway, preliminary data shows a 16 percent increase in Michigan and a 13 percent increase in Mississippi. Waterfowl stamp sales were also up in Arkansas, but only by a small percentage. Hopefully, we’ll be able to keep these hunters engaged in future years.”

duck hunter holding duck
Despite a downward decline of hunter numbers overall, the coronavirus pandemic brought many new people to hunt ducks and geese last season. (Photo courtesy of Mossy Oak)

DU Great Lakes Migration Editor, Jay Anglin, has been a hunting and fishing guide for 25 years, and noted that he’d never seen anything quite like the current jump in hunters in this waterfowl-rich region. “It was pretty epic,” Anglin said. “One day I was out finishing up my steelhead season and all of sudden, people were everywhere. Guys in new $20K boats I’d never seen before. It carried right over into waterfowl season. People were out in full force. I was shocked by the number of different license plates—from different counties and states—jammed in small public pockets mostly known to locals.

“It’s a good thing for numbers, but many of these people are going to have a bad experience,” he continued. “When some of the final reports come out in this region, I’m expecting to see record usage in many public access areas. This puts a lot of pressure on the birds and a lot of people aren’t going to have success. This can lead to hunter burnout pretty quick, so we need to keep that in mind. I’m stoked though. I mean, I’m going snow goose hunting during the conservation season with a young guy in Illinois that’s been buying piles of decoys and knocking on doors. He’s new to waterfowling, and I love the energy.”


When it comes to hunters following the migration, Michael Szymanski of the North Dakota Game and Fish Department noted that non-resident waterfowl licenses sales were up 16 percent from last year. “We know at one point in October, our non-resident waterfowl license sales were up 37 percent when compared to the same timeframe as last year, but then we came to a screeching halt around Halloween.”

Other data to consider is the fact that Nevada saw a 30 percent increase in license sales and the number of Washington residents that penned the dotted line and took a Hunter Education course doubled. Idaho had 28 percent hike in first-time hunting/fishing license buyers and Michigan wildlife officials reported a 67 percent increase in licensed hunters. The first big question is: Why the massive increase? The list is long, but all are contributing factors to this new hunter boom.

Entertainment

COVID-19 restrictions shut down movie theatres, restaurants, theme parks and most all venues that promise instant-entertainment. Sure, the gamers continued to bang away on their keyboards and controllers, but even the most hardened of them lost interest. The escape from this boredom and a relief from cabin fever came by way of getting into the outdoors. Many new license buyers credit YouTube, Instagram and other social platforms for their new-found interest. “I needed something to do,” said high-school student Malaki Rael. “I wanted to be outside, and there was a lot of information out there in the form of social posts, videos and internet blogs that made hunting, especially waterfowl hunting, look cool. I knew my friend’s dad was a big hunter, and I had my Hunter Education card, so I just started going duck hunting with them. It’s way better than video games.”

Sustenance

People need to eat, and with meat shortages common across the country, individuals felt the need to secure their own. Sticker shock was another reason. Beef is expensive, and in a time of economic uncertainty, many viewed it as an unnecessary expense. The fastest way to secure protein and save money, for many, was buying a hunting license and taking to the woods. “I used to hear a lot of stories about how newlywed couples and college students lived on wild game,” said Western Colorado University senior Lane Farris. I used to my roll my eyes at it. Not anymore. Myself, along with lots of my college friends were truly out hunting for subsistence. We had online classes, which gave us more time to get out in the woods and find game.”


duck hunter holding duck
Many people took advantage of extra spare time to hunt and procure locally-sourced wild game. (Nathan Ratchford photo)

Self-Sufficiency

Scary times create moments of sheer panic for many. When toilet paper doesn’t line the shelves and meat and other food items aren’t stacked in every aisle, a person’s brain gets to thinking. There has been a serious self-sufficiency push in recent years—more people raising chickens, growing gardens and the list goes on—and the pandemic only fueled the fire. Those wanting to fill the freezer with healthy, lean, protein-rich meat took to the hunting woods, and not just in search of big game. Because small-game licenses and duck stamps cost significantly less money, and due to the fact that most can hunt waterfowl near their home, many looked to the water and skies to secure meat.

Tradition

Hunting has a strong heritage, and though many may have laid down their shotguns and rifles for a grip of time, it was easy for this crowd to pick them back up. A trip to the store for a license, ammo and a few other supplies allowed hunters of the past to get back in the woods and have some fun. “We saw this in our neck of the woods,” said Mojo Outdoors’ Terry Denmon. “The area was alive with fishermen and hunters. Many were first timers, but many were guys and gals that hadn’t hunted in years. We definitely saw an influx of fisherman and waterfowl hunters this past season.”

Those are some reasons for the influx. Now for the second question: How do we keep these new legions of hunters in the woods? According to a number of national surveys, the chances of a person holding onto a new hobby are minimal if they don’t receive additional support. Our job is to make sure we don’t have throngs of hunter dropouts and return to a state where we are trying to push off declining hunter numbers.

Education

“It all boils down to education,” said Montana native and lifetime hunter Yahsti Perkinskiller. “Hunting is hard, and the excitement of just getting out on the river and tossing out a few decoys will fade if new hunters aren’t having success. We need to be there to support this new group of hunters. There are lots of ways to do this, but the biggest way, in my opinion, is through social platforms and the internet. Most every new hunter has access to both, and when they can watch videos and read articles, provided by seasoned hunters, they will get better at their craft. Content is king, and we need a lot of it.”

A Minnesota native and one of the best woodsmen I know, Tony Peterson is held in high regard in both big game and bird hunting arenas. Peterson was quick to point out that podcasts are another great support system for hunters and noted that those who host quality podcasts can’t be afraid to tackle tough issues. “More hunters mean more guys and gals in the duck woods,” Peterson said. “If these guys and gals are doing it right, it will help everyone. We will have to accept the fact that our secret duck hole may not be so secret anymore, but through education, there are things we can do. Teaching public land ethics—not crowding other hunters, not tossing a spread of decoys out on a crew that arrived before they did—will be more important than ever.”

Positivity 

As hunters, we can be our own worst enemies. For some reason, many feel the need to vent and trash talk on social media. It’s not a good image to promote, and it’s especially bad for hunter retention. Think about it. If you were looking to get into trail running and every comment in most every forum focused on how bad new trail runners were and noted the “stupid” questions they asked, would you want to be a part of that community?

I recommend taking a page out of Bobby Guy’s playbook. Guy is a stone-cold waterfowl killer and a promoter of public-land waterfowl hunting. Currently, his YouTube channel, BobbyGuyFilms has 224K followers, and many of those followers are newbie waterfowlers. “It’s our job to protect our heritage,” Guy said. “It should also be our mission to show new hunters the ins and outs of this pastime we hold so dear. We need to be relatable to people so they can reap all the same benefits we have been so lucky to receive from our waterfowl pursuits.”

The waterfowl rivers, creeks, ponds and fields may be a bit more crowded this coming season. However, the lasting benefits of keeping this new legion of hunters involved is well worth it.

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