McKean Minute: Out of the Fold, Out of the Field

It’s graduation season for families across America, mine included. It’s a time to celebrate accomplishments accrued during the first mandatory stages of school, to recognize the milestone that separates children from adults, and to prepare for what comes next, whether that’s college or a full-time job.

But there’s another passage that’s worth recognizing this season: the departure of young hunters and anglers from the field sports that may have defined their early years.

It’s a trend that demographers have noted for at least two generations: that participation in hunting and angling declines or even stops during the college years. There are lots of reasons for the drop-out: involvement with school and collegiate priorities, residence away from home (sometimes out of state) and traditional access to the outdoors, difficulty possessing guns and sporting goods on campus, and involvement with peers who may not have a similar background in the field sports.

I’ve been reporting on these trends for years, but now that my twin boys have graduated high school and are looking forward to starting college in the fall, the departure from the field traditions that defined much of our time together is suddenly personal. And it grieves me, almost like losing a member of the family.

The bruise started a couple months ago, as the deadline to apply for special moose, sheep, and mountain goat licenses loomed here in Montana. What if one of my boys drew one of these coveted tags, but wasn’t able to go hunting because of collegiate responsibilities? Instead of risking it, I’m purchasing preference points this year, in the hopes that they’ll take up hunting where they left off once they earn college degrees.

Then I consulted Merlin’s schedule at the University of Michigan, where he’ll enter as a freshman in the fall. He gets only 4 days for Thanksgiving break. That’s not enough time to travel home to Montana, hunt deer during our traditional holiday hunt, and get back to school. So I’m looking at the first season in a decade without my buddy to plan, hike, and make meat with.

His brother, Ellis, will be a little closer to home. He’s attending the University of Montana. But he’s on the Grizzly cross country and track teams, which means he won’t have a ton of time to return home for hunting openers.

Will my boys slide into that morass of used-to-be hunters? Will hunting become a cherished memory of their youth? Or will they take a pause from the field sports for a year or two, only to return to them with renewed intensity, as I did after I graduated college? I don’t know. But I know that I’ll be looking for places for Merlin to hunt around Ann Arbor, and encouraging Ellis to meet fellow hunters on his track team. I’ll keep their guns oiled and their knives sharp. I’ll keep buying them hunting and fishing licenses, and looking down the road for their approach, steady young men who are good shots, keen woodsmen, and who may be eager for fresh venison to balance their cafeteria diet.

McKean Minute: Measuring Mentees

Another title for this piece might be “Assessing Apprentices,” but either way, the idea is that every good mentor has more business than he or she can handle. If you are serious about and good at mentoring (whether it’s hunting or weaving or photography), then you will have more apprentices than you can adequately teach.

We’ve previously described mentoring as a handmade relationship, and the more people you cram into the experience, the more diluted and unsustainable the outcome.

Continue reading McKean Minute: Measuring Mentees

McKean Minute: The Compleat Nimrod

Our snipe has returned.

I measure the arrival of spring by a couple of metrics: the first purple crocuses that pop overnight out of south-facing slopes around my prairie home, wheeling waves of northbound sandhill cranes, the rising trend of wild-turkey kill photos on my Instagram feed. And the arrival of my neighborhood snipe.

If you’re not familiar with this small bird, it’s a worm-grubbing, marsh-loving shorebird that is an overlooked wingshooting trophy. It’s migratory, leaving northern wetlands as they ice up and wintering in coastal wetlands.

But snipe return to northern wetlands every spring to breed and brood, and I know spring has arrived when I hear the first whistles of a male snipe outside my bedroom window, which looks out on a cattail slough. The male birds perform a relentless courtship ritual, flying high in the sky and then plummeting downward, the air rushing across their feathers creating a high-pitched rhythm that sounds like the distant pulsing of a two-cycle engine. The sound is called “winnowing,” and the snipe in my neighborhood—I’d like to think it’s the same male who returns year after year, but it’s entirely possible that it’s a different bird—is nothing if not dedicated to finding a mate. He will winnow for hours a day, weeks on end.

To me, that’s the sound of spring.

I mention this because each of us has some barometer of the season. Maybe it’s the honk of mating geese, or a particular flower that blooms early and proud. Maybe it’s the arrival of a red-winged blackbird or the shedding of your dog’s coat.

These are cycles that transcend our own short lives, and I mention them now because as we think about our obligation to mentor our neighbors in the arts and sciences of hunting, we need to enlarge the scope of our work to include all the other signs of the outdoors. Our ancestors understood this, and in generations long before hunting licenses or centerfire rifles, they defined a hunter as someone who learned all they could about the wider wild world, well beyond the animals they could hunt and eat.

The Bible names an early version of this outdoorsman: Nimrod. He is variously described as being “mighty to the Lord and mighty to the earth.” I bet he’d enjoy hearing snipe as much as I do.

Copyright © 2013 Jason Jagger

I want to tie this to another historical reference: one of the earliest books that tried to describe this well-rounded earth steward: Izaak Walton’s “The Compleat Angler,” one of the first fishing books that described the natural cycle of insects that trout eat, and which savvy fishers might imitate to catch more fish. We honor Walton’s stewardship with an ecologically minded organization called the Izaak Walton League.

But you don’t need to join any group to appreciate these natural rhythms. Just get outdoors, open your ears and your eyes. And take someone along to share all the signs of the season.

McKean Minute: Put the Education back in Hunter Education

A good friend of mine in New York City – I’ll omit his name but he’s as much a Brooklyn hipster as you picture – just finished taking Hunter Education, and he’s frankly disappointed.

“I’m one of those adult-onset hunters you are writing about all the time,” he told me. “I didn’t grow up hunting, but it’s something that’s been pulling at me, mainly because I really want to take more control of the food my family eats. But I’m interested because I know more and more hunters, and I really want to develop the skills and comfort in the outdoors that they have.”

Fair enough. Those are entirely valid – and increasingly common – motivations to join the ranks of safe and certified American hunters.

But the mandatory Hunter Education course that my friend took left him wanting. A lot.

“I get the idea that the instructors are volunteers,” he said. “I think that’s great. It really shows that they have the commitment to give back and help bring up another generation of hunters. Except that didn’t really happen in my class. The instructors really weren’t very good teachers. They lectured more than they showed. I didn’t learn much about how to be a safe and effective hunter. Instead, I learned about how messed up New York’s gun laws are – according to these volunteers. I learned that it’s really tough to find places to hunt around here, but I didn’t get any advice on finding places. And I learned that if I make even a tiny mistake while hunting then I could get a ticket. Honestly, that was my take-away from the class. I left more discouraged than encouraged.

“I still don’t really feel comfortable with guns, and I didn’t get the confidence that I could go out in the woods and be effective, let alone safe.”

I’m willing to bet that my friend’s experience is aberrant, that most Hunter Education courses in America are living up to their names, and to students’ expectations that the 12 or 20 hours they spend in the classroom and in field days will prepare them to take the first tiny (and safe) steps into the woods and fields in pursuit of game.

But achieving that expectation is really up to the rest of us. If you’re a volunteer Hunter Education instructor, thank you. But be sure that you’re teaching effectively, and not using the class as a platform for your personal views. If you’re not an instructor, but want to pass on our tradition of citizen-driven wildlife management in American (plus, you love to hunt and love teaching), then consider joining the ranks of us Hunter Educators. And state agencies – please assess the ranks of volunteer instructors, offer frequent in-service training to these amateur educators, but also respond to concerns about instructors who aren’t delivering the best education they can to ensure we have a precious renewable resource in knowledgeable, effective, and safe hunters.