Growing up, it seemed like very few of my friends participated in hunting.
Sure, a few of my friends would put on their blaze orange each November for the 9-day gun deer season but that seemed to be the extent of my cohort’s participation in the sport.
I felt like I was one of the few people my age who spent time in marshes chasing ducks or in fields hoping for a flock of geese to try and settle down in my spread. At this point in my life, hunting seemed exclusively like a family-based activity.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it sometimes made me feel as though few of my friends truly understood an important part of me.
When I entered college, however, that began to change.
I came home one weekend in early September of 2010, hoping to sneak in a goose hunt.
Though I can’t recall exactly what sparked the thought, I decided to invite my friend Brandon along. He took me up on my offer and purchased the necessary licenses and stamps.
That Saturday morning, Brandon and I headed to a local parcel of public land in Ozaukee County. We were equipped with little more than our 12-gauges, a handful of shells, a single-reed goose call, and three floating decoys.
We set up on a pond which was situated at the crest of a hilltop. We hid in the cattails, hoping to coerce some of the nearby geese into our meager spread.
Looking back, we were woefully under-equipped and put zero time into scouting. I simply chose this spot because it was a place I had spent time hunting ducks and geese during the youth season a handful of years prior. We weren’t exactly set up for success, but fate smiled upon us.
Brandon shot the first goose of his life that morning.
This hunt eventually changed everything for me and my group of friends. Now, Brandon hunts more than I do.
Since that day, not a single waterfowl season has gone by that I haven’t joined Brandon on hunt. In fact, we regularly hunt together over a dozen times per year.
But this was only the beginning of the ripple effect that one hunt caused.
The following year, more of our friends, new and old, started joining us in the field. When we were back home, Brandon and I would hunt together with some of our buddies from high school who had never experienced duck or goose hunting.
During my weeks at school in Stevens Point, some of my afternoons started being filled by impromptu goose hunting trips with my high school friend Marc and our roommates Nick, Lee, and Scott.
The excitement these trips provided was contagious, as proven by the growing number of hunting partners we now had.
Between 2011 and 2013, I was lucky enough to personally witness five of my friends harvest their first duck and/or goose.
Before long, I was hunting every single weekend, with no two groups of companions being exactly the same. In 2013, I hunted 30 of the 90 days of goose season, often squeaking in trips on weekday mornings and catching a quick nap before I was due at the newspaper office in Manitowoc for my second-shift job as a sportswriter. I was often joined by Travis and Spencer, who were also living the second-shift life. Though I went to high school with them, I had never joined them on a hunt or thought about inviting them previously.
Hunting became a frequent topic of conversation amongst my friends. We even created a private Facebook group that allowed us to share hunting reports, ask questions, and engage in banter.
As spots began to open up on my dad’s yearly duck hunting trip to the Mississippi River, I found myself feeling terrible that I couldn’t extend an invitation to everyone who would want one. I never could have imagined myself being in this situation just a few years prior.
Eventually, a group of my hunting companions organized a trip to Castle Rock Lake for a duck hunting excursion. This has since become an annual affair that is one of the highlights of our year.
In recent years, we have even started giving back. Brandon and I now sit on the committee for our local Ducks Unlimited chapter and several of our friends have become DU members.
This past season, I was reminded of how much my life has changed and how far my group of friends has come on their journeys as outdoorsmen.
Brandon and I had just finished up a successful mallard hunt in a corn field in Sheboygan County. We were done loading up decoys when I hopped into the shotgun seat of his red F-150 and Brandon’s phone rang.
Two of our buddies, Adam and Ben, were on the horn wanting to debrief from their own duck hunt in the Madison area.
Brandon put them on speakerphone. For the next 10 minutes, we swapped stories and compared notes.
I was instantly transported to the dawn of my own hunting career when I was in the peanut gallery for many phone conversations just like this. My dad and his buddy Denny would be on the phone with someone else who was out that particular morning discussing all things ducks.
As a kid, I thought it was so cool that my dad and Denny had people in their lives to have these talks with.
Now here I was, having my own hunting chats with members of my generation. It was a surreal moment.
That’s when I realized, hunting has become part of who my friends and I are. It has transitioned from a shared activity to a passion that is an integral part of our identities.
I can’t recall a time in the past seven years or so when I have reconnected with this group of friends and the subject of hunting hasn’t come up, even in the heat of summer.
Ben, who had never been hunting until well into his adult years, now owns his own duck boat. Hell, I don’t even own a duck boat and I’ve been hunting my entire life.
I’ve watched our crew become proficient in bird identification and improve their duck calling skills (though a few of them still suck at it). All while becoming more connected with natural world around them.
Not only has my pool of hunting partners grown, so has my group of friends. Hunting has transformed strangers into friends and acquaintances into lifelong companions.
These bonds have been forged through a shared source of both relaxation and adrenaline.
Many words come to mind when I reflect upon how fortunate I have been on this journey. But the one I will choose is: blessed.
This rings especially true when I consider the trajectory of hunter numbers over the past few decades.
Finding reliable data on hunter numbers can be tricky. But most sources seem to suggest that numbers are steadily declining. It is simply a matter of how quickly.
In 2021, it was estimated that 11.5 million Americans actively participated in hunting, that is less than four percent of our country’s population and a sizable distance from the 1982 total when hunting participation peaked at 17 million.
Wisconsin ranks eighth in the nation in the number of registered hunters. Around 11.7 percent of our residents hunt.
But even our numbers aren’t what they once were. And that’s a shame.
Hunting has improved the quality of my life as well as the lives of my friends and family who participate in the sport. It provides us with perspective, enjoyment, and food from the most natural of sources.
But this way of life is being threatened by a host of factors that come with its declining prevalence among the general population.
Many of the reasons behind the decline in hunter numbers are well known. Cost, lack of time, and access to quality hunting land are almost always at the top of the list.
These three issues form the primary basis for the Rubik’s Cube of challenges that come with recruiting, retaining, and reactivating hunters. But remedies to these issues are largely tied to hunter participation, creating a vicious cycle.
A smaller pool of hunters means less money for habitat maintenance, wildlife management, and land accessibility. After all, these initiatives are primarily funded through revenue that comes from the sales of hunting licenses.
This leads to fewer hunting opportunities, which can add to the time investment needed to hunt.
Theoretically, this also means that active hunters are charged with covering a larger portion of the bill, through added license costs and excise taxes on firearms and ammunition which increase the cost of participation.
There may not be a silver bullet (pardon the pun) for tackling these obstacles. But actively sharing the hunting tradition with our friends and family is about as close to one as I am aware of.
Looking back, I cannot believe how a single hunt with a friend started a chain of events that culminated in more than a half-dozen of my friends turning to hunting as a lifetime activity, but I am sure glad it did.
So if you have the chance to expose someone new to the world of hunting this year, I implore you to do so.
Take a kid hunting. Invite a friend along on your next trip, even if they are just observing. Do what you can to share your love for the tradition with those around you.
Can I guarantee that these actions will immediately lead to an increase in the number of hunters in our state and nation? Of course not.
But you may be surprised what one little hunt can do.