Passing the passion: Mentors open the world of hunting

For people who aren’t raised in a hunting family, learning to hunt and gaining confidence to go out alone can be daunting and fraught with obstacles. A new hunter may have a few questions about how to even get started. What time of year and day to hunt? Where? What gear is needed to ensure a safe and enjoyable experience?

First Shot is a mentored hunt program, in partnership with Maryland Department of Natural Resources, National Wild Turkey Federation, and Union Sportmen’s Alliance, designed to introduce people to hunting, foster a continued interest and provide a support network.

Mentees in the First Shot program

On a fall day in October 2018, twenty-three new hunters shared this adventure with their experienced mentors during a deer hunt at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge.

Teams of two — a new hunter paired with a mentor — hunted for sika and white-tailed deer. Despite being novices, 17 of the new hunters were successful in harvesting a deer. These life-changing experiences were only possible thanks to the mentors willing to donate their time during peak hunting season.

Taking aim with a crossbow

“My driving intent in wanting to hunt is passing along a lifelong outdoor skill to my kids, and to be able to enjoy the most local organic food I harvested myself …. With all these natural resources around us, I’ve realized that hunting and conservation go together…,” said Nasr Majid, a novice hunter who harvested a hind, or female sika deer.

First Shot participants came from a variety of backgrounds. A young grad student whose father hunted but passed away before he could pass along the tradition. Several in the conservation field who envied others pursuing the sport. A father who took his son to a youth event and became interested in learning himself.

The mentors help each hunter overcome their fears or challenges, and teach practical skills like how to sight in a rifle to how to drag out your own deer no matter your size.

“After nearly 30 years of hunting and fishing, it’s gratifying to see the outdoors anew through the mentees’ eyes. I’m grateful to be involved with such an inspiring and rewarding experience — and truly believe the sky’s the limit with this sort of approach to building a hunting community,” said mentor Rachel Dawson.

Mentor Maribeth Kulynycz expressed it well after her mentee Nettiel Stewart harvested her first deer. “This has been one of the most rewarding and amazing experiences of my life. I can not wait to see what the future holds for her and all the others that participated, it was amazing to see so many people all from different places and backgrounds come together as one…hunting tends to do that.”

Maribeth Kulynycz and Nettiel Stewart

Hunting drives wildlife conservation across the country. By buying hunting licenses and paying taxes on gear, over $25.6 billion was generated for conservation efforts in 2016 alone. These funds are distributed back to states through grants administered by the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program, and are key to funding conservation.

But over the last 50 years, participation in hunting has declined by 50-percent nationwide. Today hunters only make up about five-percent of the U.S. population.

In the past, we’ve focused on recruiting young people into the sport of hunting. We’ve found that these programs did not stem the decline in hunters. Offering opportunities to adults, however, is proving more successful.

A few of the mentors and mentees from the First Shot program

Many people in their twenties and thirties have the time, the resources, and the desire to hunt, but often lack the network and social support. By finding these enthusiastic individuals and pairing them with knowledgeable and generous mentors, relationships are forged that help sustain the hunting tradition. Once mentees gain knowledge, experience, and a newfound community, they begin their hunting adventure and also serve as ambassadors that bring friends, families, and children to the sport and sustain the hunting tradition.

Marcia Pradines is the refuge manager at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge