By Shawn Perich
Outdoor News editor Rob Drieslein says he has trouble getting photographs of gun-toting deer hunters to use in the publication. Most photographs submitted by writers and photographers depict hunters using archery gear or muzzleloaders. He has trouble finding pics showing hunters with centerfire rifles or shotguns.
Minnesota’s bow and muzzle-loading deer seasons are popular, but when it comes to overall participation, they pale in comparison to the general firearm deer season. So how come outdoor writers don’t have more pictures of hunters carrying rifles and shotguns? Perhaps the simplest answer is bowhunters are especially dedicated to deer hunting and are most likely to write about it. Also, archery and muzzle-loading seasons may be longer than the gun hunt and/or attract fewer hunters, making them more appealing to Midwestern outdoor writers. These writers don’t have gun-hunting pictures, because they aren’t hunting during the firearm season.
Outdoor writers who specialize in big game hunting seem to spend most of their time in western states, often as the guests of hunting outfitters. Stories from the Minnesota firearm deer season have far less appeal to most national outdoor publications. And then there is the deer hunting industry, which is largely geared toward selling gear, gadgets and guided hunts. Rarely are the hunters depicted in industry marketing photos rank-and-file gun hunters.
Then again, the marketing of hunting gear is often based on fantasy. In that fantasy, the hunter is a seasoned expert with exclusive access to a whitetail paradise where trophy-sized bucks are common. You just won’t see a 13-year-old who killed a doe depicted in hunting product advertising. Nor will you see a pot-bellied middle-aged guy posing with a basket-racked buck. But you know what? In the Minnesota deer woods, teenagers and middle-aged hunters who are satisfied to shoot a legal deer—be it a doe or basket-racked buck—are the norm. Trophy deer hunters are rarer than trophy bucks.
In fact, the appeal of the trophy deer fantasy may be starting to lose its luster, especially among the growing ranks of new hunters. A recent, national study by the Responsive Management research group in Harrisburg, Virginia, revealed 35 percent of deer hunters said their primary motivation was “for the meat.” This represents a turnaround from recent decades, when most hunters said they were motivated by “sport and recreation” and “spending time with friends and family.”
The renewed interest in hunting for venison appears to result from a couple of recent trends: women who are taking up deer hunting and new hunters of both genders who seek venison as a source of meat free of growth hormones and antibiotics. Hunting for food is an outgrowth of the “locavore” food movement, where people seek out organic, locally grown products. With whitetails at record abundance across the much of the United States, many locavores have discovered they can hunt for venison close to home. Participation in hunting has begun to increase after a couple of decades of decline.
This news is welcomed by wildlife managers and many hunters who worried hunting was slowly fading away. But this new group of hunters may present significant challenges to the hunting industry’s marketeers. These new hunters are frequently coming from urban or suburban backgrounds with no hunting tradition. For many, just considering taking up hunting is a big step. Some I’ve met say they used to be disdainful of hunting. Even though they now want to kill a deer for food, they remain turned off by Ted-Nugent-style machismo or hunters who focus on killing trophy bucks.
So far, it doesn’t appear the hunting industry, hunting organizations or wildlife agencies are doing much to welcome these new hunters into the fold and provide them with the information they need to be safe and successful. If anything, the past decade has been marked by a de-emphasis on safety and education as wildlife agencies have relaxed firearm safety and hunter education requirements in an effort to attract more 10-year-olds and complete novices into hunting. Aside from Saturday seminars by fellow locavore hunters at local food co-ops, there has been little effort by the hunting community to educate new adult hunters.
Perhaps the Responsive Management study, which has been widely publicized, will serve as a catalyst for the hunting industry and wildlife agencies to find ways to reach out to locavore hunters. But don’t hold your breath. Many of these new hunters will approach hunting the same way your grandfather, which means they’ll be satisfied to own a “meat gun,” quite possibly used, and limit their purchases of hunting gear to the bare essentials. Since they are after venison–rather than a trophy–they are unlikely to travel for outfitted hunts, purchase the latest camouflage fashions or treat deer hunting as a fanatical obsession. Aside from hunting license and ammunition sales, they may not add much to hunting’s bottom line.
Instead, what seems to be happening is these new hunters are developing their own traditions. They are even giving rise to a new breed of hunting celebrities—witness the growing popularity of hunter-chefs such as Hank Shaw and Georgia Pellegrini. In some areas, locavore hunters with a few years of hunting experience are serving as mentors for like-minded newcomers. Within a decade, it is likely locavores will firmly ensconced among the rank-and-file deer hunters who enjoy the general firearm deer season.
Not long ago, I spent a couple of days with Tovar Cerrulli, a former vegetarian who has written a book, The Mindful Carnivore, about his transformation into a hunter. One evening, we swapped deer hunting stories. Although he’s only been hunting for a few short years, Tovar had some tales to tell. And they were no different than the hunting stories you’ll hear from lifelong veterans.
If there is a difference between the locavore newbies and traditional hunters, it is mostly a matter of degree. The locavores I’ve met approach hunting with a strong set of ethics based upon a reverence for life. As a result, they take their responsibilities as hunters very seriously. That’s exactly the kind of new blood hunting needs.