It’s no secret hunter numbers are declining nationwide. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports showed that just four percent of the total population hunted in 2016. That’s roughly 11 million out of 327 million.
Why should those numbers alarm us? Shrinking hunter numbers means a decline in the revenue of state agencies tasked with taking care of the wildlife we love. Some of those agencies receive as much as 60 percent of their operating budgets from the sale of licenses and excise taxes on guns, ammo, and outdoor gear. Add to that a decreased political voice to stand against those forces who would like to see all hunting stopped completely and the future looks dire.
Along with declining hunting numbers, the average age of active hunters continues to go up. We aren’t recruiting enough young hunters to replace old ones. Despite mentoring programs or legislation in at least 35 states and partnerships between the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and Sportsmen’s Alliance to reduce some of the barriers to hunting, young people aren’t entering the sport in the strength needed to maintain hunter numbers.
Why is this happening? A number of reasons, including demographics changing to a more urban population, increased afterschool activities, and fewer parents who hunt to pass down the tradition to future generations.
How can we stop the decline? The answer lies in exposing more kids to the outdoors, but are we exposing them in a way that will keep them involved for life? Perhaps it’s time to look at how new hunters are introduced to the sport today versus how they started out 50, 30, or even 20 years ago.
With deer, turkey, and other large game populations at an all-time high, the majority of young hunters today start their hunting careers in either a deer stand or ground blind, waiting for their quarry to walk by.
I have no problem with that style of hunting—all three of my kids love to hunt this way—but there’s no denying that it doesn’t get kids intimately involved with the outdoor world around them. Also, it can get boring if game movement is slow. Kids today don’t do boring. Their constantly stimulated, electronic-screen-tuned minds won’t allow it.
The answer? Squirrel hunting.
Late August in the river bottoms and hardwoods of my youth meant one thing: Squirrel season was back. After a long summer of no hunting, it was a welcome start to a fall and winter of chasing everything from squirrels and rabbits to whitetails.
Those early days spent roaming the squirrel woods taught my brother and me many of the hunting lessons we continue to use today. Lessons like locating current food sources and finding more of the same in other areas, how to sneak quietly through the woods, and when to move or be still. Tight shots at a squirrel’s head peering down at us from the fork of a tall hickory honed our marksmanship with a rifle. Fleeting glimpses of a leaping squirrel bounding from one leafy branch to another taught us how to lead a moving target with our shotguns.
Squirrel hunting offers nearly constant movement, keeping young hunters interested in the chase and the woods around them. Want even more action? Find someone with a good squirrel dog and watch as the kids interact with the dog while searching the woods together for game. Also, liberal limits keep young hunters in the field longer.
With large-game season lengths often measured in days or weeks, it can be hard to fit a hunt into the busy schedule of today’s teens and preteens. That isn’t a problem with squirrels. Here in Kentucky, we can legally chase squirrels eight months of the year. Even the most restrictive states still see season lengths measuring four months or longer, allowing plenty of time to work in hunts when weather and free time cooperate.
Yet another impediment often cited by new hunters is the lack of available hunting land. While tales of shoulder-to-shoulder hunters on public land for deer, turkey, and waterfowl are common, early and late squirrel seasons on those same parcels can be nearly vacant of other hunters. I’ve gone days on public WMAs in February without seeing another hunter. Permission to hunt private land for squirrels is often much easier to procure.
Experienced hunters know that the true payoff from all that time afield is the many great wild game meals it provides. Squirrels are one of the most versatile animals we hunt when it comes to the dinner table. Old standby recipes like skillet-fried squirrel or squirrel and dumplings are favorites for a reason, but squirrel meat can be anything you want it to be. From grilled and barbecued to marinated in a sweet and spicy Caribbean jerk seasoning, there aren’t many recipes that can’t be adapted for squirrel. One of our favorites is this succulent, fall-off-the-bone tender squirrel confit in duck fat.